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Silence Feeds 9/11 Theories

October 28, 2003

Disasters in American history have always spawned conspiracy theories, but thorough investigations can help relegate them to the margins. Only a few conspiracy buffs, for instance, still believe that President Franklin Roosevelt knew ahead of time that Japan would bomb Pearl Harbor and kept silent to push the U.S. into World War II.

Today, a persistent strain of conspiracy theory overseas clouds the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, usually claiming prior U.S. government knowledge of -- even responsibility for -- the attacks. That, and the peace of mind of 9/11 families, are both good reasons for the Bush administration to cooperate more freely with the 9/11 investigating panel headed by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean. Unfortunately, relations have gotten so bad that Kean is threatening to subpoena certain White House records. Kean is reluctant to say what documents he is seeking, but they apparently include the daily presidential briefings compiled by the CIA on foreign affairs and threats.

Whether those documents contain valuable information is unclear, but the commission won't know unless the White House releases them. Though the panel has received several million pages from federal agencies, the documents withheld may contain important data about the quality of intelligence and White House alertness to threats.

Like all administrations, this one wants to protect its internal deliberations from scrutiny and avoid having potentially embarrassing information come out. Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the Defense Department, National Security Agency and White House were delaying providing documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also probing the terror attacks.

The more the administration stalls, the more it feeds conspiracy-mongers. In France and Germany, books claiming outlandishly that Bush not only knew about but helped plan the 9/11 attacks were bestsellers. Such ideas are even more widespread in the Muslim world, where satellite television transmits a lethal mixture of rumor and facts about American actions. Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.) noted on a TV show Sunday that administration documents could help dispel such myths. Even people who aren't conspiracy theorists wonder what security lapses the White House may be trying to veil.

Instead of forcing Kean, a staunch Republican who is hardly a fire-breathing critic of the administration, to go to court, the White House should sit down and make a deal on the most sensitive information. Even if the documents contain some embarrassing details about White House lapses, it is better to know them than to encourage the unthinkable theories of the conspiracy theorists.

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