Attempts to torpedo the 911 Commission. Although now largely forgotten, the Bush Administration fought the 9/11 Commission every step of the way and it was only pressure from the American public and most especially from the families of the victims of 9/11 that the commission was formed and was able to come up with some kind of a report however flawed and incomplete.
Bush and Cheney resisted calls for such a bipartisan commission for over a year arguing that the matter was best left to Republican controlled intelligence committees in the Congress. It was not until November 27, 2002 that Bush announced the commission’s formation. He did his best to see that it went nowhere. Members were to be chosen by both Congress and the White House raising questions about the commission’s independence. Democratic co-chair George Mitchell on December 11, 2002 and Republican chair Henry Kissinger (whom the White House had insisted on appointing) on December 13, 2007 resigned due to conflicts of interest. Kissinger did not want to make public the financial records (and connections) of his security consulting company Kissinger Associates. Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton were named to replace them. The specter of conflicts of interest remained. Through their careers in government and on corporate boards, essentially all of the commission members had such conflicts. Perhaps the most egregious of these was Philip Zelikow the commission’s executive staff director who had worked closely with Condoleezza Rice on the National Security Council in the first Bush Administration and co-written a book with her.
Bush also tried to limit the commission’s activities by giving it a budget of only $3 million to investigate the biggest terrorist attack in the country’s history. The Challenger investigation cost $50 million by comparison. Later Kean and Hamilton asked for a further $11 million to be included in the $75 billion supplemental slated to fund the invasion of Iraq. The White House initially refused the funds before reversing itself.
The White House also placed many roadblocks in the commission’s path slowing its work. The commission was originally given 18 months or to the end of May 2004 to make its report. When a 60 day extension was requested, this too was initially denied. The commission report was eventually released on July 22, 2004.
The White House sought both to shape and limit testimony. Before former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke testified, then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales contacted two commission members Fred Fielding and James Thompson with information to discredit Clarke which they duly presented.
On Presidential Daily Briefs, after dragging its heels for months, the White House allowed them to be viewed by only 4 of the 10 commissioners who were to report back to the others. However, the White House denied the full commission access to the notes made by the 4 approved commissioners. Moreover, of 360 PDBs requested, only 24 were made available by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. On March 14, 2004, the White House finally responded to the commission by releasing a 17 page summary of PDBs related to al Qaeda from the Bush and Clinton Administrations.
The White House refused requests for National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify. The rationale given was that historically National Security Advisers had not testified before Congress. This was completely untrue, and Rice finally testified on April 8, 2004. Rice’s testimony, however, came with the price that no other White House aides were to be called.
Bush initially placed a one hour limit on his testimony before the commission. This was rejected. But his testimony was highly conditioned. On April 29, 2004, he and Dick Cheney together met with the commission in private with no oath or transcript and only one staffer to take notes which were not to be made public.
In an op-ed in the New York Times on January 2, 2008, chairmen Kean and Hamilton accused the CIA and the Bush Administration of obstruction by withholding information about taped interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri (see item 288).
Finally, it should be remembered the 9/11 Commission was bipartisan. This does not mean the same thing as non-partisan. In order to achieve consensus, there was a deliberate decision not to assign personal blame. This was a critical shortcoming. Because as the Bush Administration’s repeated obstruction of the investigation into its complacency and inaction before 9/11 showed, it had much to hide.