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June 21, 2004
Safire: 9/11 Commission "Manipulated" By Runaway Staff

In his column today, William Safire excoriates the 9/11 Commission (well, who isn't?) for allowing its staff to issue an incendiary interim report without any of the commissioners' signatures or, for that matter, supporting evidence. Safire points out the enthusiasm demonstrated by the broadsheets -- including his own -- in trumpeting the fallacious conclusions reached by staff partisans such as Philip Zelikow:

"Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie" went the Times headline. "Al Qaeda-Hussein Link Is Dismissed" front-paged The Washington Post. The A.P. led with the thrilling words "Bluntly contradicting the Bush Administration, the commission. . . ." This understandably caused my editorial-page colleagues to draw the conclusion that "there was never any evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. . . ."

All wrong. The basis for the hoo-ha was not a judgment of the panel of commissioners appointed to investigate the 9/11 attacks. As reporters noted below the headlines, it was an interim report of the commission's runaway staff, headed by the ex-N.S.C. aide Philip Zelikow. After Vice President Dick Cheney's outraged objection, the staff's sweeping conclusion was soon disavowed by both commission chairman Tom Kean and vice chairman Lee Hamilton.

Safire asks what can be done to rescue the commission's non-partisan standing. In my opinion, nothing. Commissioners spend their time making allegations on national talk shows that demonstrate little difference in tone or accuracy from the Zelikow report. Safire writes as if the staff suddenly went in a completely different direction than their leaders, but that's not the case. The commissioners themselves clearly made this a partisan process, at least during the public hearings, as they took turns outdoing each other in emoting outrage at members of the current administration, and in some cases at the survivors of the 9/11 attacks, in order to garner headlines. At the same time, they received witnesses who served under previous administrations -- when the bulk of the planning and preparation for the attacks took place -- as visiting dignitaries. They publicly chastised Condolleezza Rice for not testifying in front of cameras on subjects of a highly sensitive nature, even though she offered to give as much testimony as needed in camera. Commissioners implied that George Bush wanted to avoid them, forgetting the Constitutional issues implied in Presidential testimony, and then one of the most vocal members couldn't be bothered to stick around for Bush's testimony.

In all, the 9/11 Commission may well wind up as the most partisan, incompetent, and self-aggrandizing special-function panel in DC history, truly a remarkable accomplishment but one which Congress did not foresee. Safire offers these suggestions for its rescue, but I rather doubt that they'll be adopted, and even if they are that they will contain the damage:

1. Require every member to sign off on every word that the commission releases, or write and sign a minority report. No more "staff conclusions" without presenting supporting evidence, pro and con.

2. Set the record straight, in evidentiary detail, on every contact known between Iraq and terrorist groups, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's operations in Iraq. Include the basis for the Clinton-era "cooperating in weapons development" statement.

3. Despite the prejudgment announced yesterday by Kean and Democratic partisan Richard Ben-Veniste dismissing Mohammed Atta's reported meeting in Prague with an Iraqi spymaster, fairly spell out all the evidence that led to George Tenet's "not proven or disproven" testimony. (Start with

4. Show how the failure to retaliate after the attack on the U.S.S. Cole affected 9/11, how removing the director of central intelligence from running the C.I.A. would work, and how Congress's intelligence oversight failed abysmally.

5. Stop wasting time posturing on television and get involved writing a defensible commission report.

Good luck on getting any of these adopted, Bill, especially the last one.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 21, 2004 6:14 AM

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