By Chris Strohm
March 22, 2004Public interest groups are demanding the immediate resignation of the director of the federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, just as the commission prepares to hold high-profile hearings this week with senior officials from the Bush and Clinton administrations.
The 9-11 Family Steering Committee and 9-11 Citizens Watch, two separate groups, are demanding the resignation of Philip Zelikow, executive director of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, after information surfaced over the weekend that he participated in Bush administration briefings prior to Sept. 11 on the threat al Qaeda posed to the country.
"We believe that the very integrity of the commission is at stake here, and that he should resign immediately," Kyle Hence, co-founder of Citizens Watch, said Monday.
On Saturday, the Family Steering Committee wrote a letter to the commission arguing that Zelikow has a conflict of interest because he could potentially be held culpable for failing to heed warnings about al Qaeda prior to Sept. 11.
"It is clear that [Zelikow] should never have been permitted to be a member of the commission, since it is the mandate of the commission to identify the source of failures," the committee wrote. "It is now apparent why there has been so little effort to assign individual culpability. We now can see that trail would lead directly to the staff director himself."
Zelikow was a member of the team that helped with the Bush administration transition to office. When he became executive director of the commission, he recused himself from participating in any part of the investigation that dealt with the time he served on the Bush transition team.
Critics have previously called for Zelikow to resign because they believed he had at least an appearance of a conflict of interest. He co-wrote a book in 1995 with Condoleezza Rice, who is now Bush's national security adviser. Additionally, only Zelikow and commission member Jamie Gorelick are permitted to read classified intelligence reports known as the presidential daily briefs in their entirety.
Information that Zelikow participated in intelligence briefings on al Qaeda before Sept. 11 surfaced over the weekend in interviews with the government's former counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke, who resigned last summer after 30 years of public service. Clarke served in four administrations as part of the National Security Council. He was the counterterrorism czar for former President Clinton, served on the transition team when Bush came into office and remained as a senior counterterrorism official under the Bush administration.
On Saturday, Clarke told the New York Times that he gave briefings on the threat posed by al Qaeda to Rice; Stephen Hadley, now Rice's deputy; and Zelikow when he was part of the transition team from December 2000 to January 2001.
Clarke told CBS' "60 Minutes" on Sunday that the Bush administration failed to heed his warnings in the months leading up to Sept. 11, and then eagerly tried to blame Iraq for the attacks in the aftermath when no connection existed.
On Monday, Clarke's new book, Against All Enemies: Inside the White House's War on Terror--What Really Happened, was released. In it he forcefully criticizes the Bush administration's efforts to defend the country from terrorist attacks.
Al Felzenberg, spokesman for the 9-11 commission, said Monday that no new charges have been leveled that would cause the commission to ask Zelikow to resign. Felzenberg reiterated that Zelikow recused himself from parts of the investigation that deal with the time he served on the transition team.
"The commission finds the director's recusal sufficient," Felzenberg said. "I don't see a single charge that has been made that would cause the commission to change its view."
Felzenberg said Zelikow was not responsible for making policy decisions or implementing recommendations during his time on the transition team. He added that the commission has a policy regarding conflicts of interest and a process in which complaints should be vetted.
The commission is planning two days of public hearings starting Tuesday. The hearings will consist of testimony from high-level officials from the Bush and Clinton administrations, with a focus on counterterrorism.
Scheduled to testify on Tuesday are Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as their counterparts in the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright and William Cohen. Scheduled to testify on Wednesday are CIA Director George Tenet; Samuel Berger, former assistant to Clinton for national security affairs; and Clarke. The commission announced Monday that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage also will testify Wednesday to beef up the administration's position on counterterrorism.
The Family Steering Committee and Citizens Watch want Bush and Clinton, Vice President Dick Cheney and former Vice President Al Gore, and Rice to testify publicly under oath. Rice testified in February before a closed session of the commission.
Citizens Watch and family members of Sept. 11 victims held a press conference Monday to demand the commission provide transparency, accountability and sworn public testimony from the highest government officials.
Hence said the commission has so far experienced "a pattern of stonewalling and slow walking" by the White House and federal agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration and North American Aerospace Defense Command.
"To date, no one in government--not a single government official--has been held directly accountable for the apparent and as yet unexplained simultaneous, massive, across-the-board failure of every single defensive and intelligence measure this country had established," Hence said.
Citizens Watch also launched an advertising campaign Monday demanding that Bush, Cheney, Clinton, Gore and Rice testify publicly under oath before the commission. The group is running billboard advertisements in the Washington metro rail system for four weeks, as well as quarter-page ads in The Washington Post.
By Chris Strohm
March 22, 2004