- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

The commission investigating the September 11 attacks needs more time to complete its work, say several of its members and a group representing relatives of those who were killed.

A deadline for the commission’s report should be pushed back until the end of the year to take it out of the November election battle, members said.

At its most recent business meeting on Jan. 5, the 10-member bipartisan commission discussed the possibility of seeking an extension of its May 27 congressionally mandated reporting deadline, spokesman Al Felzenberg said yesterday.

“There was no meeting of minds on the issue,” he said, “but the commission did authorize the chairman and vice chairman to share the sense of the discussion, the various points of view, with the congressional leadership and the White House.”

Because the May 27 date is set by the statute that established the panel, any change would need to be passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Bush.

Mr. Felzenberg said both the White House and the Republican leadership in the House had indicated that they were opposed to any extension.

“They think we should stick to our current deadline,” he said.

White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said there had been no formal request about the panel’s timetable. “The commission said just last month that it expected to be able to finish on time,” she said.

“We’ve worked very closely with them,” she said, “but their task is an urgent one.

“If there are reforms needed to protect the country from terrorism, we need to know about them sooner rather than later.”

Despite the opposition, advocates of an extension insist they can obtain one.

The question of an extension has arisen because the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as it is formally known, has a daunting task.

Having been granted unprecedented access to millions of pages of government documents and interviews with hundreds of officials, the panel now must sift through, organize and analyze a vast quantity of data.

Its time was shortened both by a delay in getting started — the original chairman and vice chairman refused their appointments after complaints about conflicts of interest — and by fights with government departments and agencies over access to documents.

“Given the sheer volume of material, and the not surprising difficulty we had getting hold of some of it, I believe the members of the commission need more time to produce a thoughtful report,” said former Sen. Slade Gorton, a panel member and Republican from Washington state.

A delay until the symbolically important date of September 11 — which some relatives of victims favor — would bring the publication of the report close to an election campaign in which the administration’s record in the war on terror is likely to be a key issue.

Some say the report may end up being a political football in the pre-election atmosphere.

“My view has always been that it would be best to take it completely out of the election cycle, by postponing the deadline until December,” said Mr. Gorton.

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