9/11 Commission Says U.S. Agencies Slow Its Inquiry
By Philip Shenon
The New York Times
WASHINGTON, July 8 The federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 terror attacks said today that its work was being hampered by the failure of executive branch agencies, especially the Pentagon (news - web sites) and the Justice Department (news - web sites), to respond quickly to requests for documents and testimony.
The panel also said the failure of the Bush administration to allow officials to be interviewed without the presence of government colleagues could impede its investigation, with the commission's chairman suggesting today that the situation amounted to "intimidation" of the witnesses.
In what they acknowledged was an effort to bring public pressure on the White House to meet the panel's demands for classified information, the commission's Republican chairman and Democratic vice chairman released a statement, declaring that they had received only a small part of the millions of sensitive government documents they have requested from the executive branch.
While praising President Bush and top aides for their personal commitment to the panel's work, the commission's leaders the chairman, Thomas H. Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, and Lee H. Hamilton, the former Democratic member of the House from Indiana said that federal agencies under Mr. Bush's control were not cooperating quickly or fully.
"The administration underestimated the scale of the commission's work and the full breadth of support required," they said. "The coming weeks will determine whether we will be able to do our job within the time allotted. The task in front of us is monumental."
Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, said today in response to the statement from the panel, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States: "The president is committed to ensuring that the commission has all the information it needs. The president has directed federal agencies to cooperate and to do so quickly."
Under the law creating the bipartisan, 10-member panel last year, the commission, which met for the first time in January, is required to complete its investigation by next May. "While thousands of documents are flowing in some in boxes and some digitized most of the documents we need are still to come," the statement said. "Time is slipping by."
The criticism today from Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton clearly took senior administration officials by surprise and brought a fresh round of attacks on the White House from Congressional Democrats who have said that the administration is trying to stonewall a politically damaging inquiry.
Although the White House had initially opposed the creation of an independent commission to investigate intelligence and law-enforcement failures before the 2001 terrorist strikes, the administration eventually came around to support the move, and it has repeatedly pledged full cooperation.
The White House chose Mr. Kean to lead the investigation after its first choice, Henry A. Kissinger, the former secretary of state, resigned from the post rather than release a list of clients of his consulting firm. Mr. Hamilton was named vice chairman by Congressional Democrats after their first choice, George J. Mitchell, the former Senate Democratic majority leader, resigned when questions were raised about similar conflicts of interest.
In their statement, Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton said that the "problems that have arisen so far with the Department of Defense are becoming particularly serious." They noted that the Pentagon had not responded to a series of requests for evidence from several Defense Department agencies, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which is responsible for guarding American airspace from terrorist attack.
"Delays are lengthening and agency points of contact have so far been unable to resolve them," the statement said. "In the last few days, we have been assured that the department's leaders will address these concerns. We look forward to seeing the results."
Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton suggested that the Justice Department was behind a directive barring intelligence officials from being interviewed by the panel without the presence of agency colleagues.
At a news conference, Mr. Kean described the presence of "minders" at the interviews as a form of intimidation. "I think the commission feels unanimously that it's some intimidation to have somebody sitting behind you all the time who you either work for or works for your agency," he said. "You might get less testimony than you would."
"We would rather interview these people without minders or without agency people there," he said.
In their written statement, the panel's leaders said that the Justice Department had been "unable to resolve important issues related" to the commission's access to evidence and testimony from the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person facing trial in an American court for conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks.
A Defense Department spokeswoman said tonight that the department would have no immediate response to the criticism.
A Justice Department spokesman, Mark Corallo, said that his department remained "committed to assisting the commission's important work on behalf of the United States." Mr. Corallo added, however, that "assembling the enormous amount of information requested takes significant manpower and time to accomplish."
He defended the administration's requirement that witnesses be present when some executive branch officials are interviewed by the panel. "In any investigation in which federal employees are interviewed, it is standard practice to have another agency representative present for the benefit of the witnesses and to help facilitate the investigation," he said.
Although their intent today was clearly to create discomfort at the White House, Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton said repeatedly that they were optimistic that the panel could complete its work on time and that it would offer the most complete account available of the events that led to the terrorist attacks.