In May, however, Democrats got some political cover: The families of those killed in the attacks began a push for an independent commission with a much wider scope than the Senate inquiry. “We thought the investigation into our husbands’ deaths would be a no-brainer,” says Kristen Breitweiser, one of a group of New Jersey widows who banded together to lobby for the commission. “If my husband had been killed in a car accident, there would have been an investigation immediately. This was 3,000 people. We just assumed it would happen.” To press the issue, the families went public with their horror stories. In tearful interviews with politicians and members of the press, they produced pictures of their children and recounted stories of final conversations with their spouses. Breitweiser showed lawmakers her husband’s wedding band, which had been recovered at Ground Zero, still attached to a piece of his finger. Mindy Kleinberg, another New Jersey widow, told of her conversations with her 11-year-old son in the days after the attack, when the boy insisted that he was willing to take his father back blind, or take him back burnt, so long as he returned.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration continued to argue against the commission. “I think it’s the wrong way to go,” Cheney told Fox News on May 19. He claimed that national security concerns trumped the families’ appeals. Behind closed doors, however, many lawmakers in both parties were outraged by the administration’s position. The benefits of a wide-ranging investigation, they said, which would both detail the failures that led to the attacks and make suggestions as to how to address those failures, would surely outweigh the short-term security concerns trumpeted by the administration. Many believed that the real motivation behind the White House’s position was its desire to avoid potentially embarrassing revelations about what it might have done to prevent the tragedy. It was an understandable strategy. In August 2002, details emerged in the press that the Bush administration had ignored a Clinton-era plan to attack al Qaeda in Afghanistan before the terrorist attacks. Despite the emphatic protestations of then-counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, the administration had put fighting terrorism low on its list of priorities–thanks in part to hostility towards Clarke, a holdover from the Clinton administration. It was later reported that despite the fact that Osama bin Laden had been spotted by Predator drones as many as three times in late 2000, the administration took no action against him. Weeks before the September 11 attacks, Bush was warned that bin Laden’s terrorist network might try to hijack American planes, but the administration continued to promote a missile shield, its top military priority, to counteract, as the president put it, “terrorist threats that face us.”
For a president who has staked his popularity on his stance against terrorism, a full airing of these revelations had the potential to be politically devastating. Given the choice between a closed-door joint congressional inquiry over which it could wield influence and an independent commission that would be much harder to control, the White House chose to support the former. In July of this year, when the joint inquiry report was finally released, the cleverness of that strategy became clear. The congressional report had all the hallmarks of a whitewash. Because the investigation had been limited to intelligence failures, most of the blame fell on intelligence agencies, not the White House. Bob Graham and Richard Shelby, who had headed up the inquiry, were aggressive in their investigation, but they were largely kept at bay: When the inquiry petitioned the Bush administration for access to National Security Council documents, for example, they were denied and told that the documents were outside the scope of their investigation. Even then, the administration delayed the release of the report for months, and redacted large portions of it, including a section on terrorist ties to Saudi Arabia’s government. The final product represented the results of engineering by the Bush administration to produce a report that minimized political damage.
We’ve come a long way since the 1990s. Back then, it seemed that almost anything, no matter how frivolous, merited an investigation, from Travelgate to Filegate to Vince Foster. In Bush’s Washington, almost nothing seems to merit an independent investigation, no matter how serious. How did false statements about Iraq’s supposed ongoing nuclear weapons program and connections to al Qaeda wind up in a State of the Union speech by a president arguing for war? Why did top Bush appointees dismiss or ignore warnings by senior military officers that not enough troops were being deployed to safely occupy post-Saddam Iraq? Why was Halliburton, the energy-services firm formerly run by Vice President Cheney, awarded lucrative, no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq? Who are the two “senior administration officials” who blew the cover of a covert CIA operative specializing in weapons of mass destruction by revealing her name to conservative columnist Robert Novak?
In almost any other era, such alarming questions would have led to immediate independent inquiries to find the answers. Today, the answers remain shrouded in secrecy. Each bears directly on vital issues of national security, none more so than how the system failed to foresee or protect against terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001. Fortunately, an independent 9/11 commission is now up and running. Unfortunately, it’s not clear whether the commission will have the time, resources, and cooperation from the Bush administration to do its job. The story of the commission’s creation, in the face of endless obstacles thrown in its way, is an object lesson in how far this administration will go to hide uncomfortable truths, and how, sometimes, ordinary citizens can successfully fight back.
In February, with the Bush administration’s blessing, a joint committee of Congress formed to hold limited hearings into intelligence failures, but it was controversial from the start. John McCain and Joseph Lieberman had been calling for an independent commission with a more extensive mandate, one that would study aviation safety, immigration policy, and homeland security, since almost immediately after the September 11 attacks. But the administration argued that a broader inquiry was unnecessary and might jeopardize classified information and hobble the nascent war on terror. McCain and Lieberman, joined by Tim Roemer in the House, persisted, introducing legislation to authorize the commission. But with the president’s poll numbers sky-high, most legislators were loath to support the measure.
The family members of the victims, however, had no such reservations about speaking out. Their campaign officially began with a June 11 rally at the Capitol that attracted victims’ families, supporters, and politicians including Lieberman, Robert Torricelli, and Hillary Clinton. The rally received extensive media coverage and convinced a handful of Republican legislators to back the commission. But midterm elections were just months away, and Democratic pollsters insisted their candidates focus their attention on the economy; the Democrats followed the pollsters’ advice, and the legislation was set aside. But the victims’ families pressed the case for a commission in other ways. McCain, Lieberman, and Roemer’s staffers would call family members when the bill got stuck, and tell them which congressman or issue needed attention. The victims’ families would go to sympathetic members of the press and take the staffers’ complaints public. The frustrated family members also took their emotional appeal directly to lawmakers. A group of New Jersey widows, including Breitweiser and Kleinberg, became fixtures on Capitol Hill. When they could not schedule a meeting with a particular senator or congressman, they showed up at his or her office unannounced, in a group of four. If they were told the legislator wasn’t available, three of them waited in the office while one stood watch in the hallway outside, in case the congressperson tried to sneak out a side door.
“That actually happened a couple times,” says Breitweiser. “We came up with all these strategies. We would stake them out at a lunch-in, or stand in the Senate gallery when they were going to a vote–which I think is illegal. We would just go up to every one of them we could find. These are human beings, people with children and families. It was impossible for them to just ignore us. They have to look you in the eye.”
To facilitate the “widow walkabouts,” as the women called their trips around the halls of Congress, they carried a photo directory of the legislators, which Breitweiser says she asked to look at in one of the offices and “forgot to give back.” In the meetings they did secure, they would tell stories that often left lawmakers emotional. “In the beginning,” says Kleinberg, “I think we cried in every meeting. We talked about the kids, showed their pictures. It was obviously a very personal thing for us.”
Steven Push, whose wife was killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, took a different tack. He rarely shared personal details with legislators. Instead, Push wrote scores of press releases, started a Web site, maintained an email list of 1,500 families, lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and developed relationships with the media. He and others members of his organization, Families of September 11, also contacted newspapers around the country. They would tell their stories to the editors, who often wrote blistering editorials criticizing a local politician who opposed the commission.
“We had access to politicians and editors because we were September 11 families, and we didn’t want to waste that gift,” he says. After he lost his wife, it became impossible for Push to concentrate on his job at a biotech firm, and he decided to work full-time on behalf of the commission. Nonetheless, his subsequent efforts have left him with mixed feelings. “Working on this has been both a duty and a burden,” he says. “It’s been a way to keep my mind off my grief. The only times I’ve really felt good since September 11 are when we had some success with the commission. But it has been difficult. You’re always focused on 9/11 stuff. It’s a constant reminder.”
In July, the family members’ efforts began to pay small dividends. Roemer again introduced legislation in the House, in the form of an amendment, to establish an independent commission. The amendment called only for a watered-down version of the commission he originally envisioned, one that would be limited only to further analysis of intelligence issues. The Bush administration nonetheless worked behind the scenes to kill it. White House operatives made a flurry of calls urging Republican lawmakers to vote against the bill. Administration-friendly legislators got in on the act, too. They warned Rep. Christopher Smith that a vote in favor of the commission might cost him the chairmanship of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (Smith voted in favor of the amendment, and ultimately kept his chairmanship). The amendment passed, though because of its reduced scope and limited mandate, family members still worried that the commission it created would be largely toothless.
In the Senate, the families had even less to be happy about. Lieberman and McCain’s bill had stalled, and the administration didn’t deserve all of the blame. Behind the scenes, prominent Democratic senators on the Intelligence Committee who were involved in the joint congressional inquiry, including Bob Graham and Dianne Feinstein, had opposed the bill, in part because they wanted to stay in the spotlight on the issue.
In the following months, the White House made two crucial mistakes. Graham and Shelby had become increasingly frustrated with the White House’s lack of cooperation with the congressional inquiry. Specifically, they complained privately that the Bush administration had failed to provide essential documents. By September, they’d had enough, and joined the families and their legislative allies in calling for an independent commission. Graham and Shelby knew that a commission might be able to get its hands on the information being withheld from the inquiry.
The White House then made its second mistake. They failed to prevent Lieberman from sneaking into the schedule a limited debate on a roll call vote on the bill. This meant any Republican who wanted to stand with the White House against the commission would have to put his name on his opposition. Few Republicans were willing to take this step, fearing voter backlash.
The roll call vote, together with Graham and Shelby’s support, made the bill’s passage inevitable. The White House decided to reverse its position. White House officials did salvage a small public relations victory: They made the announcement the same day FBI whistleblower Colleen Rowley testified before Congress, which meant that news about the commission was buried in the newspapers the following day.
The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 90-8. But because the House amendment called for a commission with a limited scope, both chambers had to negotiate a compromise. Nonetheless, the family members were overjoyed. Lieberman had quoted Kleinberg in urging his colleagues to vote for the commission, and he echoed other lawmakers in crediting the family members for creating the momentum to pass the bill. Their enthusiasm didn’t last long. The Senate had voted to include the commission as part of its bill to create a Homeland Security Department, but that bill had reached a partisan impasse. Lawmakers then tried to include the provision in the annual bill authorizing intelligence activities, but the demands of the Bush administration–who wanted the investigation to last no more than a year, claimed the president had the right to appoint the commission’s chair, insisted on limited subpoena power, and demanded control over the commission’s final report–meant that the parties could not reach a consensus. The White House was happy to allow the brewing war with Iraq to focus the press’ attention elsewhere. “They were trying to drag the negotiations out in order to kill it,” says one congressional staffer who worked closely with the White House. “It was just an incredibly laborious, drawn out process to try to get a compromise. I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
After family members criticized the White House for its tactics, White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied that the administration was trying to derail the commission. He said that the White House was working with Congress “to get the commission up and running as quickly as possible and to do so in a way that accommodates the concerns we have heard in meetings with families of the victims.”
In fact, the White House played a central role in keeping a negotiated deal from happening. Aides to Porter Goss, the chairman of the House intelligence committee who was working largely on behalf of the administration, met much more opposition in conference from Democrats and some Republicans than they had anticipated. Goss’s aides threatened to move forward unilaterally with plans for a commission that fit the White House’s specifications. Shelby, Graham, and Nancy Pelosi immediately asked for a meeting with Goss, and, in order to prevent such action, agreed to many of the administration’s demands. Lawmakers then held a press conference heralding the deal, with family members looking on from the audience. It was a triumph for the families, but it would be short-lived. Soon after the press conference, Cheney called Goss and instructed him to “keep negotiating”–in other words, renege on the agreement that had been forged. Goss would later tell a conference committee that the instructions to go back on the deal came from “above my pay grade,” though he claimed afterward that he was referring to other House leaders, not the vice president. He later denied he had signed off on the agreement at all.
Condemnation of the White House was swift. “The question we want to pose to the White House today is: ‘Do you really want to allow this commission to be created? And if you don’t, why not?’” asked Lieberman. Pelosi said that after the agreement was reached, “almost immediately the invisible hand came down,” and complained that “the White House is professing openly to support an independent commission–(but) privately they’re moving to thwart the commission.” Roemer said that “the White House is trying to pull the carpet over the independent commission and do the slow roll and kill it.” McClellan noted that the commission could be created “very quickly if certain members will reconsider their opposition to a truly bipartisan commission.”
On Nov. 5, Republicans triumphed in midterm elections. With a lame-duck Congress in office, the House rejected inclusion of the commission in the Homeland Security legislation, and Republicans blocked a similar action in the Senate. It appeared as though the proposal was finished. On the evening of Nov. 14, however, after furious negotiations, the administration finally agreed to a deal. It was largely tailored to White House specifications–the president would appoint the chair, and six out of 10 of the bipartisan commission’s members would be needed for a subpoena–but congressional supporters of the bill were able to secure some concessions, including the fact that the probe was set to last 18 months, six months more than the administration wanted. The White House had been concerned that a longer probe, such as the two years suggested by the families, might generate embarrassing revelations in the run up to the 2004 elections. The administration felt that the deal was in its best interest, insiders say, because it gave them significant control over the makeup and structure of the commission. This was clearly a concern: The White House felt so strongly about the commission’s makeup that it sent Nicholas Calio, its lead congressional liaison, to negotiate.
The New Jersey widows decided to boycott the bill- signing with the president. “I did not want to stand there for a photo-op with that man,” says Breitweiser. Many family members were present; however, they knew that Bush was planning to announce whom he had chosen to chair of the commission at the signing, and they were eager to discover who it would be. “It was the day before Thanksgiving, and I remember thinking, ‘this is what I have to be thankful for,’” says Beverly Eckert, whose husband was killed in the World Trade Center. “We were just so relieved. And then Bush brings Henry Kissinger into the room. I couldn’t believe it.”
The White House could have selected any number of other candidates who would have been just as sympathetic to White House concerns, but would not have elicited the controversy or media attention that came with the choice of Kissinger. A former secretary of state, Kissinger had orchestrated a covert bombing campaign against Cambodia and a coup against democratically elected Chilean leader Salvadore Allende during the Nixon administration. He had, since 1969, wiretapped journalists and colleagues and encouraged Nixon to prosecute the newspapers that had published the Pentagon Papers. Critics charged that even by the Bush administration’s standards, this was a shocking choice, one perhaps destined to signal that the commission would not be allowed to stray far from the president’s control.
Family members, Democrats, and pundits condemned the choice; Maureen Dowd, echoing the prevailing conventional wisdom, wrote in The New York Times that you appoint Kissinger only “if you want to keep others from getting to the bottom of something.” This bit of hubris from the administration proved too much: Kissinger resigned less than three weeks after he had taken the job, pushed out by mounting public pressure and his unwillingness to release a list of his consulting clients, some of whom may have posed a conflict of interest. Once again, as it had by stiff-arming Sens. Shelby and Graham, the White House had overreached. This time, the Kissinger mistake meant that the White House was forced to select as his replacement the politically moderate Republican Thomas Kean, who was expected to be a far more independent investigator.
But the commission was slow to begin its work. Staffing was an arduous process, and many of the staff members who did get hired had to wait for security clearances before beginning their most essential work. Further, the White House, CIA, Defense Department, and FBI were initially slow to respond to commission requests for millions of government documents, requests that were not made until more than six months after the commission formed. Because the Bush administration dragged its feet on declassifying the joint inquiry report, which the commission was supposed to use as a basis for its investigation, staffers and commissioners had to make a special trip to the Ford House Office Building to view it. According to one commissioner, that inconvenience meant that some commissioners did not read the inquiry report for months. Tim Roemer, who had become a commissioner, was kept from reviewing transcripts of some of the inquiry’s closed-door hearings so that White House lawyers could check if the president wanted to invoke executive privilege to keep the information secret. With a final report due by May 27, 2004, commissioners faced the task of addressing a diverse array of issues, including aviation security, intelligence failures, communications breakdowns, and immigration policies, with little time and even less cooperation. Family members knew that the administration could stonewall the commission into near uselessness.
“This thing has a deadline,” says Push. “If they want to make the commission fail, they’ll do what they did with the joint inquiry–stall in providing information, and make it virtually impossible for them to get their work done in the time given.”
In addition, the commission was given just $3 million with which to do its work. “In 1996, we had a commission to study casino gambling in America, and the Congress appropriated $5 million for it,” says New Jersey Sen. Jon Corzine. “If we can spend $5 million on a commission to study casino gambling, I think we ought to be able to put serious resources into finding out why 3,000 Americans lost their lives.” The administration appropriated $50 million to study the space shuttle Columbia disaster, in which seven people were killed. Eventually, after public haggling, McCain convinced Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, to spend $11 million to fund the commission. But even the commission’s increased budget was seen by many experts as insufficient for the work it had to do.
The new funding galvanized the commission. In July, commissioners began a coordinated attack on the White House. First, they orchestrated a campaign of leaks that resulted in news stories criticizing the Bush administration for impeding the investigation. Then, on July 8, Kean and Vice Chair Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, issued an interim report containing complaints that they had received only a tiny portion of the millions of documents they had requested from federal agencies, such as the Pentagon and the Justice Department. (The White House had little wiggle room here, because each member of the panel had signed the interim report.) The panel also lamented the fact that government officials could not be interviewed without the presence of their colleagues, a tactic that Kean said was tantamount to “intimidation.” Privately, the commission also made clear that they did not want to have to issue subpoenas for the documents, which would embarrass the administration even further.
It was a well-timed political move by the commissioners. The press was busy attacking the White House over missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and, for the first time in months, Bush’s administration felt politically vulnerable. The commission was desperate to get its hands on National Security Council documents that had been denied to the congressional inquiry (though some documents were leaked to Bob Woodward, who quoted them extensively in his book Bush At War). Faced with the prospect of subpoenas and more bad press, the administration gave in. Suddenly, says a commissioner, the administration began saying yes to requests it had been denying, and the commission began operating at full capacity. The commission has already gotten some juicy stuff. Particularly telling, one commissioner says, are the NSC documents, “hair-raising stuff” from immigration, and information from the debriefing of detainees from the Afghan war.
Despite the newfound cooperation it is getting from the White House, major challenges await the September 11 commission. With so little time to do its work (the report is due next May), the commission may not be able to hold many important but time-consuming public hearings and instead conduct the bulk of their inquiries behind closed doors. (To understand what a benefit this could be to the Bush administration, imagine how different the Watergate and Iran-Contra hearings would’ve been without public hearings). The commission is still radically underfunded; and while the White House is producing a large volume of documents, it is unclear whether the most potentially damaging ones are among them. One Senate aide says the “litmus test” will be whether the commission gets the August 6 briefing in which Bush was supposedly told that al Qaeda was planning to fly planes into buildings. The White House managed to keep the joint congressional report from going public for seven months, citing national security concerns. If they manage to do the same with the September 11 commission report, it won’t be released until after the upcoming presidential election.
The experience so far of the September 11 commission offers several key lessons about the new rules that exist in Bush’s Washington. The first is that events that in any other era would have led to independent investigations as a matter of course no longer do. Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger disaster, the Iran-Contra scandal: After each of these events, independent investigations were launched to get to the bottom of what had happened. “There is an old tradition in this country of thorough, immediate after-action reports when we’ve sustained losses,” says one September 11 commissioner. “It is unbelievable to me that after one of the greatest defeats in our history, we’re only really starting the inquiry now, 22 months later.”
The second lesson is that congressional investigations are no substitute for an independent inquiry, especially when the party running Congress also controls the White House. Even the Senators who ran the congressional investigation of September 11 came to the conclusion (rightly, it turned out) that only an independent commission with subpoena power would be equipped to get at the truth of what went wrong before September 11. Right now, congressional committees are investigating how false statements about Iraq’s nuclear programs made it into the president’s State of the Union address. But if the joint congressional inquiry into 9/11 is any guide, these latest Hill inquiries are likely to be blocked before they become too embarrassing to the president. The final lesson is a more hopeful one, though only slightly so: Independent inquiries can still take place, but only with sufficient pressure from outside the Beltway to overcome the Bush administration’s ruthlessness and the Democrats’ weakness. The 9/11 commission is up and running for one reason only: The relentless effort of the families of those killed on September 11. An independent investigation into possible manipulation of intelligence data in the run-up to the Iraq war is equally vital to the nation’s security. It probably won’t happen, however, if Bush’s Washington is left to itself.