- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

The panel investigating the September 11 terrorist attacks said yesterday it is unhappy with some agencies’ cooperation and concerned about the possibility of “intimidation” of officials they wish to interview.

Although Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a Republican former governor of New Jersey, said the panel was generally pleased with its access to secret government documents, the record of cooperation of some agencies was much worse than that of others.

“We still have a problem with the Department of Defense. They’re slow … And there are a couple of other agencies that aren’t yet cooperating in the way that we want them to,” he told a Washington news conference assembled to hear the panel’s progress report.

The deputy chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, said the problems with the Defense Department had become “particularly serious.”

The Indiana Democrat said the Pentagon had not replied to questions about the role of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the part of the military charged with the protection of the continental United States.

NORAD’s response in the minutes after the multiple hijackings on September 11 was at the center of a dramatic public hearing in May, when senior military officers admitted to the commission they were utterly unprepared for the attacks.

The Department of Defense had no immediate comment yesterday.

Mr. Hamilton added that records requested from the Department of Justice were “overdue,” and the record of the Department of Homeland Security was “mixed.”

Other agencies, including the FBI, State Department and Department of Transportation had generally cooperated, he said.

On the positive side of the ledger, Mr. Kean said that the commission had been given material that a previous congressional inquiry into the attacks had been denied. He said his panel had been able to examine minutes of the National Security Council, the top-secret presidential daily briefings — which summarize intelligence about threats to the country — and transcripts of the interrogations of some al Qaeda suspects.

“To date, no requested access [to documents] has been denied,” he said.

Mr. Kean, suggesting that some departments might have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of requests for documents, said the panel cannot meet its statutory deadline and report by May next year unless the White House stepped in and demanded speedier responses.

Relatives of those killed in the attacks said they were concerned that officials might be trying to hide embarrassment at their failures by running out the clock on the inquiry.

“The joint inquiry [of both houses of Congress] ran out of time,” said September 11 widow Kristen Breitweiser. “We can’t afford to have that happen again.”

She said the families would lobby for more time for the inquiry if it were needed.

“If that brings [the publication of the report] into an election cycle, so be it,” said Mrs. Breitweiser, who lost her husband, Ron, at the World Trade Center.

Mr. Kean also said that he and his colleagues were troubled by the administration’s insistence that “minders” from agencies are present during their interviews with officials.

Officials testifying before congressional inquiries — even behind closed doors — typically are accompanied by staff of the agency for which they work.

“The commission feels unanimously that it’s some intimidation to have somebody sitting behind you the whole time who you work for or who works for your agency,” Mr. Kean said. The panel “might get less testimony.”

“We’d rather interview these people without minders,” he concluded.

However, Mr. Hamilton cautioned that “Thus far, I don’t think the question has arisen.”

“We see it more as a potential problem than an actual problem thus far,” he said.

Nonetheless, he said the commission reserved the option to demand solo interviews in a few cases, and would be “quite firm” about it, despite the fact that the administration had not agreed.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan told UPI later that President Bush was personally committed to ensuring the panel got all the information it needed.

“We’re working with the commission on how the interviews took place,” she said, but declined to say whether there would be any flexibility about minders.

Mr. Kean said that the commission had not yet decided whether to seek interviews with Mr. Bush and former President Bill Clinton.

“We haven’t had that discussion yet,” he said, while adding that both men had assured him personally they would cooperate if asked.

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