THREATS AND RESPONSES: THE INQUIRY; How a Deal Creating an Independent Commission on Sept. 11 Came Undone

By Carl Hulse
Nov. 2, 2002

An independent commission to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks seemed certain little more than a month ago, when the Bush administration dropped longstanding objections to it.

''We hope that a commission can begin its work quickly and report its findings to the American people as soon as possible,'' said a Sept. 20 letter from the White House to leaders of Congress.

But the proposal is stalled, and Democrats, some Republicans and families of people who died in the attacks accuse the White House of undermining an idea it only reluctantly embraced.

''There is a pattern of this White House announcing its support for a general principle, whether it be prescription drug coverage or No Child Left Behind,'' said Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee helped lead a Congressional inquiry into intelligence failures preceding Sept. 11. ''Then, when it comes down to the actual realization of that goal, they -- to use the president's term -- crawfish.''

White House officials and Congressional Republicans say they are committed to a commission but want one structured to produce a bipartisan result. ''The manner in which the commission is created is vital to its outcome,'' said the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer.

The impasse is a revealing example of how sensitive the issue of intelligence lapses before Sept. 11 remains for the administration. Although the White House denies thwarting approval of a commission, an almost completed Congressional deal was suddenly undone in October after a Republican lawmaker involved in the final negotiations received a call from Vice President Dick Cheney.

The unresolved dispute has left the families of those killed on Sept. 11 frustrated, particularly given the agreement on which lawmakers came excruciatingly close.

''I just don't get it,'' said Kristen Breitweiser of September 11th Advocates, whose husband, Ronald, died at the World Trade Center. ''It is very disheartening that this has gone on for over a year and we still have not had a comprehensive investigation. If there is a car accident, you do an investigation.''

The idea of an independent commission like those that investigated the attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was broached soon after the attacks. The White House initially objected, saying effort devoted to the inquiry could detract from the fight against terror. The administration did ultimately agree to a joint inquiry by the House and Senate intelligence committees, viewing that approach, Congressional Republicans say, as more manageable because much of it would be conducted in secret and Republican lawmakers would share in lead roles.

But the leaders of the joint committee conducted an aggressive inquiry that uncovered previously undisclosed warnings of the attacks, and those results gave momentum to the push for a broader investigation, and to the White House's dropping its objections.

By late September, the Senate had followed the House in voting to approve an independent commission. But their versions differed, and negotiations among the two chambers and the White House became tortured. Many Democrats say it appeared that the White House strategy was to slow the very investigation it had endorsed.

Representative Porter J. Goss, the Florida Republican who heads the House Intelligence Committee, says he and the administration simply want to work through the sticking points. ''The people who are pushing this,'' he said, ''haven't gotten all the interested parties aboard.''

Yet on Oct. 10, as Congress lurched toward a pre-election recess, it appeared for a moment that everyone was aboard.

After days of fruitless talks, senior members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, whose intelligence authorization bills for the 2003 fiscal year included the proposal for a commission, met in a hurried session to try to hash out final details.

The White House had been insisting on presidential appointment of the commission's chairman, arguing that the nine other members were going to be named by Congress. The administration also wanted at least six votes required for a subpoena, saying the need for a majority could keep the 10-member panel from becoming partisan. Critics say the administration was simply trying to ensure control of the commission, whose membership was to be evenly divided: five appointed by the Democrats, five by the Republicans.

Principals at the meeting say they reached a compromise: to have co-chairmen, one each named by the president and Congress, and to require five votes for subpoenas.

''We had agreed among ourselves,'' said Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Negotiators headed for the cameras of the Senate television gallery, where they were joined by other commission backers for a victory news conference. But Mr. Goss went to his office instead, and by the time he got there, his phone was ringing.

Lawmakers then trooped into an early-evening meeting of the conference committee that had been negotiating the intelligence authorization measure, thinking they would quickly vote to approve the commission. But Mr. Goss, serving as conference chairman, told them that people at a higher level continued to have concerns and that he was not ready to hold a vote.

''A lot of us were shocked,'' Senator Shelby said.

Mr. Goss said in an interview that the phone calls he received, one from Mr. Cheney, were not instructions to block the panel. Rather, he said, he was simply encouraged to keep negotiating on behalf of the original White House position.

''I am not going to get into who called me,'' he said, ''but it was very clear there had not been leadership sign-off, and it was very clear there was still angst at the White House.''

He said it was ''flat-out untrue'' that the White House had asked him to derail the deal reached earlier in the day.

''What I agreed to, I agreed to, I don't deny that,'' he said. ''But it was not the whole loaf.''

Similarly, Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Cheney had called only to push to keep the negotiations progressing. But the vice president's intercession, which soon became known, was read by many lawmakers and victims' families as a sign that the White House was backing away from a commission.

Mr. Fleischer says that is not so.

''The administration is foursquare behind the commission,'' he said, ''and we are working very hard to make it happen, and it is important that it happen.''

After the deal came undone, a commission backer, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, made a stab at further negotiations, in his office on Oct. 16. About 10 relatives of victims attended.

But there was little progress, and tensions boiled over as the relatives demanded answers from Nick Calio and Jay Lefkowitz, White House officials who were crowded into a conference room with a handful of lawmakers and several Congressional staff members. As the meeting neared an end, participants say, the families rose almost as one and insisted on knowing what it would take for President Bush to agree to the commission.

''They were about five feet from Calio and Lefkowitz,'' one person in attendance said, ''and asked them: 'Why can't we get this done today? Why can't you just say yes?' ''

The White House officials, who had not expected the families' presence, retreated, promising to report back. But plans for a broad independent investigation into events surrounding Sept. 11 have not moved forward.

In Georgia, the families have turned the faltering of the commission proposal into a campaign issue against Representative Saxby Chambliss, a Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee who is challenging Senator Max Cleland. Newspaper advertisements being run in the state call on Mr. Chambliss and other House Republicans to ''stop putting politics before America's security.''

Senator Graham says he is determined to pass legislation creating the commission before Congress adjourns, and Senator Shelby agrees that it could be approved in the coming post-election session. Congressman Goss said the commission could be ''done in a minute if everybody would stop yelling at each other.''

Last week Congressional backers of the commission wrote the president, asking whether he would veto the intelligence bill if it included the deal worked out on Oct. 10. The White House has not yet responded.