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9/11 Probe

February 11, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States was created by Congress in November of 2002. Its mission: To determine why the government was so unprepared for the events of Sept. 11, 2001. But since its inception, the 9/11 commission has had several run-ins with the White House, from how long the panel has to complete its work to its ability to get hold of classified presidential briefing papers.

Yesterday, a threatened legal showdown between the commission and the Bush administration was averted when the panel agreed to accept a summary of those documents instead. Here to bring us up to date on the commission’s work are its chairman, Thomas Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey and now president of Drew University; and its vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, former Democratic congressman from Indiana and now director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Welcome, gentlemen.

Governor Kean, the commission threatened this week to subpoena White House records if they couldn’t get full access to them and that was turned around yesterday, there was an agreement reached. What was the agreement and why was it reached?

FORMER GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Well, a subpoena is always an option, we have that tool, but we’d rather not use it unless we have to. The agreement that was reached was first of all a member of the staff and a member of the commission have seen every one of these most sensitive documents. Secondly, they did a summary, that they could take back to the commission as a whole, and we went over that summary in great detail and learned from it the details that we needed to know in order to do the report.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Hamilton, are those details enough to be able to do the work you need to do, to answer the questions you need to answer?

FORMER REP. LEE HAMILTON: Yes, they are, they give us considerable detail about presidential daily briefings, which are among the most highly secret documents the government has. It’s unprecedented that any group outside a very close circle of the president has access to these documents. I think we would obviously prefer if our position would be that all ten commissioners could see all of the PDBs that are relevant to our mandate.

GWEN IFILL: As it is, only four commissioner are seeing them, is that correct?

FORMER REP. LEE HAMILTON: Not four, three commissioners, either have or will see them all — and one member of the staff. And the agreement we worked out with the White House is the governor indicated a moment ago, was about three months ago, was that this review team would look at the presidential daily briefings and then would share the summaries with all of the commissioners and that’s what we did yesterday.

GWEN IFILL: Governor, because — as Congressman Hamilton was pointing out these are such secret documents, obviously you can’t tell us what’s contained in them, but you were quoted yesterday as saying there was no smoking gun. Could you explain what you meant by that?

FORMER GOV. THOMAS KEAN: I will, that phrase may have been unfortunate, because smoking gun conjures up images of Watergate and everything else.

What I meant was that I was asked the question: “Was there anything in this whole detail of information which suddenly jumped out at you and might even change the whole tenor of your investigation because that one item is so different and so important?” The answer is no.

We learned a lot from what we looked at in those particular documents, a number of the items we looked at raised questions, those questions have got to be answered. A number of the witnesses that we have already seen may have to be re-interviewed, because of the information we found in those documents. But was there any one “wow” moment, no.

GWEN IFILL: One of your commission members said he was concerned that these documents needed to answer the question of whether the administration had any pre-warning. From the documents that you’ve been able to review so far, do you know whether it begins to answer that question?

FORMER GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Well, it does answer a lot of questions both for the Bush briefings and the Clinton briefings, but I think it would be wrong and perhaps even illegal to given the nature of those documents to tell you exactly with a was in them.

GWEN IFILL: That’s fair enough. Congressman Hamilton, some of the families feel that the commission in making this agreement has caved in to the White House and isn’t being as aggressive as it could be, what do you say to the families of 9/11 victims?

FORMER REP. LEE HAMILTON: I think we have a mandate to fulfill, and the mandate is to get all the information we can, which will help us do our job, to tell the story of 9/11 and to make recommendations to the American people so that they’re safer.

I think we have adequate information from these presidential briefings, and from thousands, millions of other documents, and 900 interviews conducted thus far, with probably several hundred to go. When you put all of this together, we’re going to be able to fulfill our mandate and tell the story of 9/11. The families have every right to be deeply concerned about it.

GWEN IFILL: How involved are they in this process?

FORMER REP. LEE HAMILTON: They’ve been marvelous, they’ve been helpful to us. Some of these members know an awful lot about the events of 9/11. They’ve submitted to us a long list of questions. We’re doing our very best to answer those questions. But I think their input has been constructive and helpful, and I fully understand why they might be critical of the commission from time to time.

GWEN IFILL: Governor Kean, last week the president agreed to stepped the deadline for you to complete your work by two months, which would have you delivering it some say problematically — some Republicans have said — right in the middle of an election campaign. What is it you need to do that you need that extra time, first of all?

FORMER GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Well, we talk with us staff, we’ve had some delays in getting information, we had a delay in getting started because both Lee Hamilton and I had predecessors appointed before we were appointed, there have been a number of delays for a number of reasons.

Our staff has told us they cannot by May 30 give the kind of report that the American people deserve. Will we give a decent report? Yes. Will it be the best report we can do? No. We then ask the staff, what do you need to do that top notch report. They said we need another 60 days minimum. So we simply have to get that.

GWEN IFILL: Were any of those delays caused by the reluctance or the lack of cooperation by the White House itself?

FORMER GOV. THOMAS KEAN: We have had to get — we now have over a million documents. We’ve had to get them from a whole plethora of agencies of the government and outside the federal government and some of those were delayed, no question about it, and that did delay us. There were other factors as well.

But the important point is we need extra time to do the report that’s requested — that’s required. We have not in spite of a White House agreement gotten agreement in Congress yet to give us the additional time, and we frankly, simply have to have it in order to do our job.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, Congressman Hamilton, the House speaker, Dennis Hastert, has said he opposes giving you that extra time, even though some other members of Congress like John McCain have said give them until next January. What works for you?

FORMER REP. LEE HAMILTON: I don’t know how it plays out in the Congress. We looked at all of the political considerations, some say put it off until December or January, others said stay with the May date, the original date in the statute.

We finally put aside the political considerations and said, as Governor Kean indicated, how much time do we need to do the best job we can do We’ll request that and the Congress and president will have to sort that out. The president has made up his mind — 60 additional days will be sufficient. Congress will have to review it and at the end of the day — we accept the word of the Congress and the president.

GWEN IFILL: Do you worry at all that the political discussions a between Congress and the White House and you as a third partner in this might in any way hobble your investigation?

FORMER REP. LEE HAMILTON: I don’t think it will. I think at the end of the day we’re going to be judged on the merits of our recommendations and the quality of our report. We will need the support of Republicans and Democrats to implement that report.

This commission under Governor Kean’s leadership has been remarkably united and remarkably bipartisan. And we understand that this report of ours is just not going to be accepted unless it has the support broadly across the political spectrum.

GWEN IFILL: Governor Kean the president was interviewed this weekend on Meet the Press and he was asked by Tim Russert whether he would agree to testify before the 9/11 commission, and his answer was “perhaps.” Do you know whether you plan to call the president to testify?

FORMER GOV. THOMAS KEAN: We are going to be asking the president to meet with us and testify. We’re going to also be asking the former president and the former vice president and the present vice president. They all have important pieces to tell us and important questions to answer, so they will all be getting an invitation and we’re in contact already with their staffs in every case.

GWEN IFILL: Is “perhaps” the answer you were looking for?

FORMER GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Is the answer I was looking for?

GWEN IFILL: Is “perhaps” the answer you were looking for?

FORMER REP. LEE HAMILTON: My hope in the end that the president will agree that to meet with us and answer whatever questions we have.

GWEN IFILL: How about you, Congressman Hamilton, were you encouraged by that response or discouraged?

REP. LEE HAMILTON: I’m encouraged where we are now in our contacts with all of the previous leaders and the present leaders. And they’re inconclusive at the moment, they’re still under way. But we’ve initiated the contacts, we’ve had no no’s given to us, we have indications that the contacts will bear fruit.

GWEN IFILL: Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean, thank you both very much for joining us.