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THE NATION

Conflicting Views Arise on State of 9/11 Inquiry

September 24, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A federal commission investigating government failures surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks offered a generally upbeat progress report Tuesday, with senior officials saying the panel is getting much better cooperation from the Bush administration.

But at least two members of the commission disagreed with the optimistic assessment, saying the investigation is still hampered by heel-dragging by the White House and federal agencies -- with eight months to go before a final report is due.

The conflicting views reflect rising tensions among members of a panel charged with producing a definitive account of the intelligence, immigration and aviation security breakdowns that culminated in the terrorist attacks.

The panel's chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, a Republican, said the commission has been granted access to hundreds of thousands of documents since July. That is when the panel issued a harsh critique of a number of federal agencies, including the CIA and the Pentagon, for moving too slowly to produce records or to make witnesses available.

"Almost every agency has been more responsive," Kean said, adding that the commission's public scolding was followed by a "flood of documents." He said that the panel is still negotiating for access to some materials, but that it is on course to finish its report by its May 27 deadline.

Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who is vice chairman of the commission, concurred, saying that the investigators have received "massive amounts" of information and that the materials still being sought amount to a "handful of documents."

The status report offered little insight into whether the panel had unearthed evidence that might alter the public's understanding of the attacks. Nor did it signal how commissioners are leaning on a number of sensitive policy questions they are expected to address, including whether and how the intelligence community should be reorganized.

Two Democratic members of the bipartisan commission, former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, said they were so disappointed by the report that they voted against approving the document in a poll of members Tuesday morning.

Roemer said the report views administration cooperation "through rose-colored glasses" and fails to hold a number of agencies accountable for missing deadlines for turning over materials. He declined to name specific agencies.

Cleland had similar complaints, saying the commission should have been in a position to release more meaningful information on what its investigation had turned up to date, rather than reciting statistics on how many documents had been collected and how many interviews had been conducted.

Cleland said that despite the document count, the commission is stuck in negotiations over key materials, including intelligence briefs that President Bush received in the months leading up to the attacks. "I think the White House wants to delay and deny access to information as long as they possibly can," said Cleland, who has been critical of the administration's counterterrorism policies and the war in Iraq. "They'd like to run out the clock."

Answering questions from reporters on Tuesday, Kean and Hamilton acknowledged certain snags in the investigation, but generally downplayed their significance. The two had raised pointed complaints in July that some agencies, including the CIA, were allowing their employees to be interviewed by the commission only in the presence of agency "minders."

Kean said that problem had not been resolved. "Still got minders. Still don't like them," he said. A commission official said that in one case, an agency minder had become so intrusive the commission asked the agency involved to replace him. Officials said the agency, which they declined to identify, agreed. A CIA official said it had not been involved in such an incident.

Despite that incident, Kean and Hamilton said they had seen no indication that the presence of minders had inhibited witnesses' candor, and they indicated they were no longer seeking unchaperoned access to witnesses.

The report also cites instances in which "agencies have been unable to locate any responsive documents, or only a few where we would have expected there to have been more." But officials said that they have no evidence any agency is intentionally withholding materials and that they plan to require officials at each agency they are examining to sign "certifications" that they have turned over all relevant documents.

The panel, known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, was formed last year as part of a compromise between Congress and the White House.

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