The Bush administration, already embattled over its use of doubtful intelligence in building its case for the war against Iraq, is gearing up for renewed scrutiny over reports that it has hampered investigations of the September 11 attacks.
A congressional report on the attacks is set to be released in the middle of next week, containing new information about American government mistakes and about Saudi financing of terrorism, according to Capitol Hill sources. The administration has been fighting with Congress for more than six months over the content of the report, which was drafted last December and has been undergoing security vetting since then, prompting accusations of a cover-up.
Separately, the heads of an independent investigating commission appointed by Congress and the White House are warning that their panel must have full cooperation from government agencies in order to complete its work in May 2004 as mandated. The panel’s chairman, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, a Republican, complained publicly last week about “intentional foot-dragging,” particularly by the Defense Department.
Accusations of administration foot-dragging have been lodged by lawmakers of both parties in recent weeks, though Democrats, not surprisingly, have been particularly scathing. “The administration seems to give priority to secrecy rather than to finding the truth of what happened,” Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, told the Forward. “They have been throwing roadblocks and not cooperating with the investigations into 9/11, so it makes you wonder whether they have something to hide.… We have to get to the bottom of it, and this means unfettered access.”
The dispute over the September 11 investigations dovetails with the growing concerns over the administration’s use of intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to justify the war against Iraq. The White House is currently facing an uproar over President Bush’s claim in his State of the Union address last January — despite serious doubts about the supporting intelligence — that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger.
Renewed scrutiny about the September 11 attacks could bring back to the fore allegations made last year about the failure of the government to “connect the dots,” reinforcing the impression of an administration that uses information to suit ideological goals.
The administration had initially opposed the formation of a joint congressional panel on the attacks, though it eventually relented. However, hearings held last September led to a whirlwind of reports over unheeded warnings of an impending terrorist attack and ignited a round of criticism of the administration. The result was the creation of the independent panel, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, popularly known as the 9/11 Commission.
In the commission’s first interim report, released at a press conference July 8, Kean and his deputy chairman, former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana, pressed the administration to prod federal agencies to improve their cooperation. Their main criticisms were directed against the Defense and Justice departments.
A White House representative told the Forward that the administration was committed to providing full cooperation with the 9/11 Commission and had urged government agencies to do so.
But Rep. Jerrold Nadler, another New York Democrat, countered that the administration had in fact been stonewalling the 9/11 Commission both by withholding information and by asking to have “minders” present during interviews of officials.
“The last time I heard about government minders was under Saddam Hussein,” Nadler told the Forward. “There is a clear pattern of cover-up toward this commission… Because of this attitude and because of the way it has dealt with intelligence on Iraq, it will be very difficult to give any credibility to what the administration has to say.”
In the meantime, speculation has mounted about the content of the congressional panel’s 800-page final report. Its classified version was completed on December 10; since then, intelligence and law enforcement officials have been vetting its final, public version.
Senator Bob Graham of Florida, who headed the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time of the inquiry and is now a Democratic presidential contender, has been the most outspoken critic of the administration’s attitude, publicly accusing the administration of using national security as an excuse to block “embarrassments” and speaking openly of a “cover-up.”
Graham has urged the White House to expedite the release of the report and to declassify large parts of it.
Lawmakers familiar with the content refused to speculate on precisely how much would be made public when it is released.
Even the Republican co-chairman of the joint congressional inquiry, Florida Rep. Porter Goss, while not endorsing the cover-up accusations, has complained about the administration’s unwillingness to allow public disclosure of crucial information.
Sheryl Wooley, a Goss spokeswoman, said the congressman would not comment on the report before its release, which she said was expected next week.
The 10 members of the independent commission and its staff have had the congressional report for several months and are using it in their more wide-ranging investigation. One member, former Indiana congressman Tim Roemer, a Democrat, was quoted last week as saying that the findings of the report were “highly explosive” and would refocus the public’s attention on September 11. He was traveling this week and could not be reached for further comment.
“The report is long overdue, and it is a disgrace that it has taken so long,” said Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “Regarding the cover-up allegations, it is really in the eye of the beholder. There is always a subjective element in the declassification process.”
Aftergood said he believed the report would include some elements about the highly sensitive issue of the Saudi government’s role in terrorism. There is speculation that the Bush administration has been trying to avoid declassifying some damning information about Saudi Arabia.
Although he has not said so explicitly, Graham appeared to be alluding to Saudi Arabia when he told CNN on Monday [July 13] that a chapter in the report dealing with foreign government support for Al Qaeda was likely to be kept classified.
Paul Anderson, a Graham spokesman, said the senator was concerned that information about a “third country” that may have played a role in abetting the September 11 terrorists would not be declassified. He refused to confirm whether he meant Saudi Arabia.
A day earlier, two other senators, Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who was the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN that Saudi Arabia’s role in financing terrorism should be highlighted rather than classified in the upcoming report.
“There are a lot of high people in Saudi Arabia over the years that have aided and abetted Osama bin Laden and his group,” Shelby told CNN’s “Late Edition,” adding that he was not prepared yet to name names of Saudi officials.
Neither Levin nor Shelby could be reached for further comment.
The most comprehensive public detailing to date of the allegations against Saudi Arabia appeared in a pair of lawsuits filed on behalf of September 11 victims. The suits cited as defendants an array of Saudi-backed charities and banks, as well as top Saudi ministers.
Saudi officials have consistently denied official involvement in terrorism while acknowledging that some monetary donations from the kingdom might have ended up in the wrong hands.
Another area of focus in the upcoming congressional report will be the handling of prior warnings about an attack by the administration.
During hearings last fall in front of the joint panel, the administration was rattled by reports that FBI agents had sent unheeded warnings about suspected militants taking flight training courses and about intelligence warnings in the summer of 2001 of an impending spectacular attack aimed at inflicting mass American lives by using hijacked airplanes.
One of the most controversial reports to have surfaced last year concerns an intelligence warning allegedly relayed to President Bush on August 6, 2001, in his daily intelligence briefing. It reportedly contended that Al Qaeda was interested in hijacking American airplanes and prompted administration officials to issue a private warning to transportation officials and national security agencies, White House officials said last year.
Anderson, Graham’s aide, said the senator was especially aggrieved by the fact that the White House had refused to release to the congressional investigators the president’s daily intelligence briefings for the weeks preceding the attacks and clarifications about who was privy to them.
While the congressional investigation did not question the most senior administration officials, observers believe the independent commission is likely to seek to do so. One of its Republican members, John Lehman, a former Navy secretary, was quoted last week as saying that both Bush and former president Bill Clinton could be called to testify in front of the 9/11 Commission.