Top Republican House lawmakers, including Majority Leader Tom DeLay, say the commission investigating the failures leading up to the September 11 attacks has degenerated into partisanship that "not only undermines its credibility, it undermines the war effort and endangers our troops."
Mr. DeLay also questioned the continued membership of Clinton administration Justice Department official Jamie S. Gorelick on the commission, and the group actually calling for her to step down grew to include Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.
"I think she clearly has some history and a particular viewpoint on this, and one I think raises some concern about her perspective," Mr. Cantor said.
The National Commission on nTerrorist Attacks Upon the United States has held a series of public hearings, including two this week with testimony from current and former FBI, intelligence and Justice Department officials. That follows last week's raucous session with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and the earlier explosive hearing with former counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke.
Mr. Cantor said those earlier hearings marked a turning point for the commission, which was chartered by Congress to investigate U.S. government failures that contributed to the terrorists' success in attacking the United States on September 11.
"Before Clarke testified, I think the commission was going down a path akin to that which Congress intended. And after that the circus started," Mr. Cantor said. "The commission has gone so far off course, pursuing a political agenda, that at this point all we're going to get back is a political document."
He and Mr. DeLay have both sent letters to the commission blasting it for turning into a partisan show.
"Partisan mudslinging, circus-atmosphere pyrotechnics and gotcha-style questioning do not get us any closer to the truth," Mr. DeLay, Texas Republican, said in his letter to Chairman Thomas H. Kean. "They serve as dangerous distractions from the global war on terror. They undermine our national unity and insult the troops now in harm's way, to say nothing of those who have already given their lives in this conflict."
Mr. Kean responded with his own letter to Mr. DeLay yesterday, saying the commission is pursuing a robust, open debate.
"Sometimes the public exchanges are pointed, but no more so than in the Congress itself," he wrote. "Out of debate and discussion, we are convinced, better policies emerge."
He also said that is the "tradition of freedom that our troops around the world defend, and we salute them."
If Mr. Clarke's and Miss Rice's testimony started the charges of partisanship, the latest spark this week came when Attorney General John Ashcroft revealed that Mrs. Gorelick, one of the 10 commissioners, was instrumental in setting policy on the relationship between the FBI and intelligence communities when she was deputy attorney general.
Earlier this week Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, called for her to step down, arguing that link between the FBI and the intelligence community is central to the panel's inquiries and her involvement compromises that investigation.
In 1995 she wrote a memo that was seen as enhancing what both law enforcement and intelligence officials called "the wall," which hindered sharing intelligence information between the two communities.
Mrs. Gorelick was deeply involved in the relationship between intelligence and law enforcement, according to testimony she gave before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 1995. Then, she told that committee she had been specifically tasked by Attorney General Janet Reno to work on the relationship between the FBI and intelligence communities.
"When I came over to be her deputy, she asked me to take this on as a special project," Mrs. Gorelick testified at the time.
Though she was on the dais during this week's hearings of intelligence and law enforcement officials, she recused herself from questioning Miss Reno, her former boss, or former FBI Director Louis Freeh. She cited the commission's policy against interviewing people with whom "a commissioner or staff member has a close personal relationship."
But another part of the policy says commissioners "will recuse themselves from investigating work they performed in prior government service" -- something Republicans said essentially excludes Mrs. Gorelick from key parts of the commission's investigation.
Stuart Roy, a spokesman for Mr. DeLay, said he expects the pressure on the commission to increase when Congress returns from its recess next week.
"When members are back here, as opposed to the four corners of the country, there will be a growing chorus of criticism over commission members prepping with powder for partisan potshots rather than taking a serious look at our susceptibility to terrorism," he said.
Mr. Kean this week dismissed calls for Mrs. Gorelick to step down, calling the request "silly."
In his letter to Mr. DeLay yesterday, he said she has "recused herself from the commission's work on any of her decisions or actions as deputy attorney general."
Mrs. Gorelick was named to the September 11 commission by then-House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat.
Mr. Gephardt, who gave up his leadership position and then ran a failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, has not stepped into the fray over his appointee, and his spokeswoman did not return calls Thursday or yesterday.
But current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, believes Mrs. Gorelick should stay, according to a spokesman.
"Mrs. Pelosi agrees with the Republican Chairman Tom Kean, it's silly," said Brendan Daly. "She's recused herself from that part of the investigation, and she's a very qualified member of the commission."
As for Mr. DeLay's charges of partisanship, Mr. Daly said that word better described Mr. DeLay's letter.
"I think his letter -- I think that's what it is," he said.
Congress voted earlier this year to give the commission a 60-day extension to finish its work, pushing the deadline to July 26, though House Republicans had been very wary. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, was particularly opposed.
"He predicted it would become a political football, and guess what? It has," said John Feehery, a spokesman for Mr. Hastert.