Victims' relatives press White House for Sept. 11 details
by James Rosen, Times Record News, 29 October 2003
Relatives of Sept. 11 victims accused the Bush administration Wednesday of stonewalling a bipartisan commission Congress set up to investigate the 2001 terrorist attacks by refusing to provide key documents.
Bush aides said the White House is cooperating with the panel and negotiating over the release of especially sensitive materials.
The exchanges came several days after Thomas Kean, the commission's chairman and a former Republican governor of New Jersey, threatened to use its subpoena powers to compel release of documents tied to the tragedy.
Bill Harvey, whose wife died in the attacks, said he is a registered Republican who voted for Bush and cast ballots for his father both times he ran for president. The younger President Bush's response to the special commission, Harvey said, angers him.
"He's obfuscated this investigation from Day One," Harvey said. "I just don't understand why, as commander in chief and the person in charge of the security of this country, he's not interested in investigating how this was able to happen."
Kristen Breitweiser said she and her late husband, who was killed on Sept. 11, also voted for Bush. She, too, expressed disappointment with his handling of the probe.
"Every day that this commission is delayed in its work is another day that this country is at risk," Breitweiser said. "I really hope to God that we don't have another terrorist attack because if we do, the individuals who held back on documents would be liable."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan denied that Bush or other administration officials are obstructing the work of the panel.
"If there are things we can learn from decisions leading up to September 11th that will help us prevent future attacks, we want to know that information," McClellan said.
The administration, he said, has "provided unprecedented cooperation and access to information for the commission," including more than 2 million pages of documents and hundreds of interviews.
Bush expressed confidence Tuesday that a compromise over the remaining materials could be reached with the panel, though he stopped short of saying he would turn over highly classified intelligence reports. Bush said he wanted to reach a "proper accord" that would enable commission members to see at least some of the materials.
Among the most controversial documents sought by the commission, whose members and top aides have obtained the highest security clearances, are daily intelligence briefings for Bush in early August 2001, about five weeks before the attacks.
Of particular interest are transcripts and notes from the Aug. 6 briefing. On that day, according to a congressional intelligence panel's earlier findings, Bush was informed of plans by the al-Qaeda terrorist organization and its leader, Osama bin Laden, to attack the United States, but lawmakers were unable to obtain details of the briefing.
Asked whether the administration will allow commission members - five Republicans and five Democrats - to see the daily briefings from that period, McClellan responded: "We're working with them, and we have been providing information that they need to finish their work. . . . But those are discussions that are being had with the commission, and we'll continue to have those discussions so that we can move quickly."
But relatives of the Sept. 11 victims said the panel has moved anything but quickly since Congress established it 13 months ago. There was an initial delay when Bush's appointment of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as its chairman set off a huge controversy, leading Kissinger to resign and Bush to name Kean in his place.
Since then, there have been spurts of movement and stall, with negotiations over document access among the commission, the White House and various executive agencies. The panel voted unanimously Oct. 15 to subpoena materials from the Federal Aviation Administration after that agency resisted its requests.
A "steering committee" of 12 relatives of Sept. 11 victims issued a statement that criticized "stonewalling by the administration." It called on Congress to demand "immediate, full and unfettered access to all necessary documents requested by this commission in order to ensure our nation's safety."
Lorie Van Auken, whose husband died on Sept. 11, said it is important for the panel to get not only the intelligence documents themselves, but lists of participants in meetings at which they were discussed and copies of notes taken by any of the participants.
"We're taking the administration's word that it was an intelligence failure," Van Auken said. "Well, that's not the only possibility. Maybe it was an analysis failure. Maybe it was failure on the part of the people who read the reports."
Congress gave the panel until May 27, 2004, to complete its work, a deadline that some commission members believe might be difficult to meet. Van Auken said she and other victims' relatives would consider seeking a congressional deadline extension if the haggling over documents goes on much longer.
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