Monday, June 06, 2005

Members of Sept. 11 Panel Press for Information on Terror Risk

The New York Times
Members of Sept. 11 Panel Press for Information on Terror Risk

WASHINGTON, June 5 - Members of the Sept. 11 commission, fearing that the Bush administration and Congress will never act on some of their recommendations, are joining together almost a year after completing their final report to press the White House for information showing whether the government has done enough to prevent another catastrophic terrorist attack, commission officials said.

The officials said the 10 commissioners, acting through a private group they founded last summer, will present a letter within days to Andrew H. Card Jr., President Bush's chief of staff, asking the White House to allow the group to gather detailed information from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies about the government's recent performance in dealing with terrorist threats.

Commissioners say they want the information to prepare for a series of public hearings scheduled to begin here on Monday and to draft a privately financed report that will evaluate the government's counterterrorism policies in the wake of the commission's final report last July.

The moves, which may not be welcome at the White House or among Congressional leaders, represent an unusual effort by members of a high-profile federal commission to retain their political viability and to lobby for their recommendations long after their official investigation came to an end.

"We're going to ask a lot of questions," said Thomas H. Kean, who was chairman of the Sept. 11 commission and is now a board member of the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, a private educational and lobbying group. "There are a lot of our recommendations that have not been implemented."

Mr. Kean said that with terrorist groups threatening new attacks on American soil, "we don't have a lot of time left to act."

The 9/11 Public Discourse Project has scheduled eight public hearings on the government's counterterrorism efforts; the hearing on Monday will focus on the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., the targets of the sharpest criticism in the commission's final report last year.

Mr. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said that although witness lists for the other hearings have not been completed, he would not rule out a request for public testimony from senior administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Porter J. Goss, the C.I.A. director.

Told of the private group's plans to approach the White House, a White House spokeswoman, Christie Parell, said Sunday: "We appreciate the work the commission did. We have acted on the vast majority of their recommendations and welcome their continued involvement. We look forward to receiving the letter."

Over its lifespan, the Sept. 11 commission repeatedly clashed with the Bush administration, which had originally opposed its creation, especially over the panel's access to important White House documents and to witnesses. The battles were especially pitched because of their timing, in the middle of Mr. Bush's campaign for a second term.

With their public hearings and their plans for a new report, the Sept. 11 commission is, to a degree, back in business.

The five Democrats and five Republicans who made up the panel are returning together to the public stage - this time, solely as private citizens and without subpoena power - to investigate the government's response to terrorist threats. The 9/11 Public Discourse Project, which has a small staff based in Washington, is underwritten by several prominent private foundations, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

John F. Lehman, a Republican member of the panel and a former secretary of the Navy, said he hoped the White House would cooperate with the former commissioners in their renewed investigation "because we have the same objectives - they should see us as a valuable resource outside of the system."

The former commissioners have the enthusiastic support of groups representing the families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

"I applaud this," said Mary Fetchet of New Canaan, Conn., whose son was killed in the attacks and who is founding director of a family group called Voices of September 11th. "Typically a federal commission writes a report, makes its recommendations and there's no follow-through."

Members of the commission readily acknowledged that they no longer had any authority to force the Bush administration to hand over information or to make witnesses available, and they have no expectation that they will re-create the fireworks of their public hearings last year, when senior administration officials were subjected to hours of often hostile questioning under oath and on live network television. (The hearing on Monday is scheduled to be broadcast live on C-Span 2, the cable network.)

"We don't have that subpoena power anymore," said Jamie S. Gorelick, a Democratic commissioner who was deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration and who will moderate Monday's hearing, which will be held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a scholarly organization partly financed by the federal government. "We are looking in from outside."

But Mr. Kean said he was hopeful that the White House would cooperate and that some senior administration officials might be willing to answer questions in public if only to demonstrate their commitment to preventing new terrorist attacks.

"Some of them may be eager to do that," he said.

The hearings are expected to culminate later this year in a report that the 9/11 Public Discourse Project has described as a "report card" on its "unfinished agenda."

The Sept. 11 commission, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, went out of business last August after releasing a unanimous final report the month before demonstrating that incompetence and turf battles among the nation's intelligence agencies, notably the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., prevented the government from acting before Sept. 11, 2001, on intelligence suggesting an imminent Qaeda attack.

The report, which became a national bestseller, came after a year of public hearings at which Mr. Rumsfeld, Ms. Rice and others were harshly questioned about intelligence failures before Sept. 11. Its conclusions resulted in legislation that enacted the panel's key recommendation: creation of the job of director of national intelligence, an official who would have the authority to force cooperation among long-feuding spy agencies.

But many of the report's other recommendations have not been acted on, including its call for an overhaul of Congressional intelligence oversight, for the establishment of unified radio frequencies allowing emergency workers around the country to communicate; and for the appointment of a federal civil liberties board to prevent constitutional abuses by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

In an interview on Friday in his offices at Drew University in Madison, N.J., where he will step down as president this month, Mr. Kean said that he had been gratified by many of the actions of Mr. Bush and Congress in responding to the commission's recommendations, especially the creation of the intelligence director's job and the appointment of John D. Negroponte, the former American ambassador to the United Nations and to Iraq, to the post.

"He's met with us, and we were very pleased with the questions he asked and with his approach to the job," Mr. Kean said.

Mr. Kean, who was once seen as a candidate for the intelligence job that went to Mr. Negroponte, has rebuffed suggestions that he return to politics. In January, he accepted a new job as chairman of the board of trustees of the multibillion-dollar Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J.

While insisting that he saw "the glass as half full" in the government's response to the Sept. 11 report, Mr. Kean said he was disturbed that so many other recommendations had not been acted on, especially the commission's call for an expanded American effort to secure international stores of nuclear materials, especially in the nations of the former Soviet Union.

"There's no greater danger to this nation than a terrorist group acquiring these materials," Mr. Kean said. He said he was also alarmed that there had been little movement by the government in creating the unified radio frequencies for police and fire departments around the country - "that's almost a scandal."

The civil liberties board was created under the law adopted by Congress last year that also established the job of director of national intelligence, but the White House has offered no hint that it is close to naming members of the board.

"I'm very disappointed that the president has not yet seen fit to appoint the board, which is included in the very legislation he signed into law," said Richard Ben-Veniste, the former Watergate prosecutor and a Democratic member of the Sept. 11 commission.

Mr. Ben-Veniste, who is scheduled to lead one of the public hearings next month, specifically on civil liberties issues, said prisoner abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the American military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, demonstrated the need for the board.