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Kean to chair Sept. 11 inquiry

by Abbott Koloff, Daily Record


MADISON -- Thomas H. Kean accepted a presidential appointment Monday to head a national commission to investigate why America wasn't better prepared for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, saying he will keep politics out of the job and offer the perspective of an ordinary citizen.

President Bush selected Kean, Drew University's president and New Jersey's former governor, to take over as chairman of the commission after Henry Kissinger resigned the post late last week, citing questions raised about potential conflicts of interest.

Kean, a Republican, said he will remain at Drew but will devote as much time as necessary to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, which he said will have the power to subpoena classified intelligence documents and witnesses.

Kean said he was honored that Bush chose him, but also talked about the heavy responsibility that suddenly was his, using words such as "shock" and "worry" to describe his initial reaction when told of the appointment Sunday evening.

"It felt like a ton of bricks had fallen on me," Kean said during a press conference Monday at Drew University's Simon Forum and Athletic Center.

Asked what he brought to the job, Kean said he has experience working with people of both major political parties.

"I hope the president felt I could conduct this in a non-partisan manner," he said. "I can work with Democrats and Republicans because I've been doing that all my life. This cannot be partisan. This has to be the entire country working together. I believe the people appointed are the kind of people who can put partisanship behind them."

The commission's job is to find out not only what happened leading up to the attacks, he said, but also to make recommendations to ensure nothing like them happen again. He would not talk about what might be investigated, saying that is still to be determined, but added the commission would build on previous investigations, such as a congressional inquiry into intelligence breakdowns.

Kean said he plans to go to Washington "in the next couple of days" and meet with Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the commission and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. The meeting, he said, will focus on selecting a chief of staff and other support personnel for the commission.

Bush praised Kean on Monday as a man known for fairness and good judgment. Unlike Kissinger and most members of the commission, Kean doesn't have strong ties to Washington. He said he comes to the job with "no prior prejudices."

"I come from outside Washington, like any member of the public," Kean said, adding that some commission members' Washington ties would aid the investigation. "We have a number of people (on the committee) who know where the buttons are pushed in Washington, which will be helpful, because I don't."

Dozens of Drew University students attended the press conference, with some praising Kean's accessibility, saying he is often available to talk. Kean, who teaches a class on governing a state, is known for holding once-a-week meetings with students and staff, a line sometimes forming outside his office.

"We were here for a university function last April and he sat down next to me," said Brendan Bliss, a freshman from Connecticut. "My dad leaned over to me and said, `That's the president of the university sitting next to you eating a sandwich.'"

Some relatives of people who died in the terrorist attacks also said on Monday that they approved of the appointment.

"I liked Tom Kean when he was governor," said Kathy Savidge of Rockaway Township, whose sister, Marge Benson, died in the World Trade Center attack. "I'm sure he'll watch out for the people of the state."

Kean said he knew people killed in the attacks. He is on the board of trustees of Fiduciary Trust, which lost more than 80 employees at the World Trade Center, and described giving a speech at a memorial service for that company as an emotional experience.

"I know he experienced a closeness to this that many people don't have," said Jack Gentul of Mountain Lakes, whose wife, Alayne, was a senior vice president of Fiduciary Trust and died in the attacks. "He's an excellent choice for this job because he's a man of integrity. I think he will do well on behalf of those of us who lost people."

Kean said he has not yet spoken directly to the president and that it was Andy Card, Bush's chief of staff, who called Sunday evening to say he had been selected to head the commission, composed of five Democrats and five Republicans. Kean said he did not know until Saturday that he was being considered -- although a Bush spokesman said Monday that Kean had been mentioned as a potential candidate six weeks ago, before Kissinger was selected.

Kean was asked whether he had any conflicts of interest, because Kissinger left the job after being criticized for refusing to make public a list of his consulting firm's clients.

"No, not that I'm aware of," Kean said. "The White House asked me that and I said I'd fax them my tax returns and told them, `You see if you can find anything.' I have no clients except the students."

Kean said one of the first things he did after he was offered the job was to ask for a copy of the commission's congressional mandate, which he said made it clear there would be no constraints on the investigation. Commission members will be given the highest possible security clearance, he said, and be allowed to read top-secret intelligence documents.

"It's an extraordinary mandate," Kean said. "We have the right to ask for help from anyone in the government."

Congress has given the commission 18 months to complete its investigation. Kean said he expects to travel to Washington once a week for meetings. He said he will continue to make himself available to students but added that the commission would be his top priority.

Copyright © 2003 Daily Record
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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