9/11 probe is a new terror
February 28, 2004
WASHINGTON — Who was most scared of the truth?
Was it House Speaker Dennis Hastert? He was the latest Republican standing in the way of the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The commissioners had asked for two extra months to conduct some crucial interviews and track down some late-breaking leads. Until he relented Friday afternoon, Hastert was refusing to bring the short extension up for a vote.
Or is George W. Bush the one with the most to hide?
While voicing support for the 9/11 probe, he and those around him have been working diligently to undermine the commission's work, going all the way back to before the investigation began.
So was Hastert's latest roadblock really just a political favor to his good friend the president, who'd just as soon not have an explosive report dropped into the late-July heat of a re-election campaign? It sure is looking that way.
The mission of The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, despite the highfalutin name, is really quite straightforward: Explain what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 — and why.
Co-chaired by Republican Thomas Kean and Democrat Lee Hamilton, the bipartisan panel has approached its difficult mission with extraordinary balance and seriousness. This is, after all, the most nagging single question of our time. What's the real story behind 9/11?
New York lost nearly 3,000 people that day.
We — and especially their families — have a right to know the truth. The commission has been asking some uncomfortable questions about what Washington knew, including the single most pressing one: Could the attacks somehow have been avoided or stopped?
No one knows exactly why George W. Bush seems so reluctant to let the truth come out. Had someone tried to warn him about an imminent attack? Were there embarrassing predictions in the daily presidential briefing? If Sept. 11 was truly a life-altering experience for the nation, shouldn't all of us know the cold, hard facts?
If you listened only to Bush's rhetoric, you'd think he was a major booster of the inquiry. Indeed, he said he supported the extension.
"We have given extraordinary cooperation," he told Tim Russert a couple of weeks ago. "I want the truth to be known." Bush told Russert on "Meet The Press" that he'd be pleased to testify and was turning over his daily briefing reports.
That's what the president said. Now follow the trail of what he has done.
At first, Bush was opposed to the whole idea of the commission. Under strong pressure from Republicans and Democrats, he ultimately relented. But he never seemed too enthusiastic about the probe.
Commission members wanted the right to subpoena witnesses. The White House opposed that, relenting only when the subpoena rules were tightly limited.
Bush told Russert he'd release those daily-briefing forms. Then, that too was tangled up in restrictions: Only to the chairmen, not to be shared with other members, only summaries. That is still being wrangled out.
Then there was the question of whether Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney would testify. Security adviser Condoleezza Rice agreed to speak only briefly, in private and on a weekend. Bush told Russert he'd love to appear. Then he began dragging his feet.
Only in private, he said.
Only with the chairmen.
Only for an hour.
We'll see if it happens at all.
On Friday, the Senate acted in the morning, approving the extra two months.
By lunchtime, Dennis Hastert was still hanging tough, refusing to budge on the extension. But the pressure was building hard.
Trade center victims' family members were phoning down from New York. Republican legislators were joining Democrats in calling for the extra months. John McCain and Joe Lieberman demanded an answer fast.
The only one not pressuring Hastert, it seemed, was George W. Bush, who in theory supported the extension but sure wasn't making much effort to see it happen.
Finally, Hastert caved.
"I want your commission to do a thorough job," he said, "but I also believe that we must have your recommendations soon in order to give the Congress adequate time to act on them." Come July, it'll be interesting to see what they're all so scared about.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.