Sept. 11 families question Bush’s role in terrorist attacks

Family members of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks issued a list of hard-hitting questions this week that they want a federal commission to ask President Bush.

The Sept. 11 Family Steering Committee wants Bush to publicly answer questions under oath regarding his actions on Sept. 11, what he knew about possible terrorist threats to the United States in the months before the attacks, and what he knew about the intentions of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. The group also asked why, to date, no one in government has been held accountable for the "countless failures leading up to and on [Sept. 11]."

Bush has offered to meet privately with select members of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, which was established to develop a comprehensive report on the Sept. 11 attacks, along with recommendations for averting future attacks.

The president initially opposed the creation of the commission, and the Bush administration and various agencies have been accused of withholding critical information for the investigation.

On Friday, the steering committee asked the Senate Select Intelligence Committee to hold a special, one-day hearing on the status of the commission's work. In a letter to committee Chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the families said they are frustrated that the commission has not been more aggressive in seeking information from the Bush administration and believe the commission is now "substantially compromised." "Currently, the commission has less than optimal access to executive branch documents, limited time to complete their investigation and limited cooperation on behalf of certain high-ranking officials to testify under oath in public hearings," the letter stated. "A congressional hearing is the only way this commission can regain its lost ground, re-focus its investigation, and re-establish good faith in its work product." The commission has not decided yet whether to accept Bush's offer for a limited meeting. Some commission members and the families' committee want Bush to testify publicly under oath. Other high-ranking officials, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and CIA Director George Tenet, have agreed to testify publicly before the full commission during a two-day session in late March.

The commission held a closed session with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice earlier this month, and is trying to reach an agreement with Vice President Dick Cheney, former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore to testify. The commission has not released any reports concerning its meeting with Rice.

The commission has requested a two-month extension--until July 27--to complete its work. President Bush originally opposed extending the deadline, but subsequently reversed his position. Key lawmakers are divided over the issue. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., opposes any extension while Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced legislation that would extend the commission's life to Jan. 10, 2005, taking it past the November presidential elections.

In recent weeks the commission's investigation has focused on what federal agencies and high-ranking officials did in the months leading up to the attacks and on Sept. 11, 2001. Last month, the panel issued its first interim reports highlighting the failures of federal law enforcement, immigration and aviation agencies.

One report concluded that immigration and law enforcement agencies failed to share information and detect fraudulent documents in the months leading up to the attacks. For example, the FBI collected information on two of the 19 terrorists before the attacks, but did not share that information with consular officials in Saudi Arabia, who issued the attackers visas.

Another report concluded that the Federal Aviation Administration failed to heed domestic terrorist warnings and secure the nation's airports.

Last week, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Government Reform Committee, sent Attorney General John Ashcroft a list of questions concerning the conditions under which relatives of bin Laden were allowed to leave the United States in the days following Sept. 11.

Citing press reports and congressional testimony, Waxman asked whether the Justice Department and FBI conducted meaningful interrogations of bin Laden family members before they were permitted to leave the country and why they were apparently allowed to fly in a private plane after Sept. 11 when the FAA had banned all private flights.

"Relatives of Osama bin Laden may have had information relevant to the attacks of al Qaeda in general," Waxman wrote. "Family members potentially could be sources of information concerning his whereabouts, the identity and activities of his associates, or the structure and financing of al Qaeda. It is difficult to understand why the United States government would have voluntarily shut the door on this type of investigative opportunity."

The Family Steering Committee included the same question in their list of queries for President Bush.

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