Commission tests appetite for 9/11 details

White House draws criticism from Democrats and victims' families for lackluster support of intelligence-lapse probe.

With just four months to complete its mandate, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States is beginning to roll out its findings - and to grapple with the question: How much is enough?

For relatives of 9/11 victims - the first to arrive and last to leave at this week's hearings - the questions can't be hard-hitting enough. They applaud any tough line from the 10 commissioners, meeting this week for their seventh public session. "They want accountability," says Ellie Hartz, the commission's family liaison.

The question is whether this week's hearings, by unveiling new views of 9/11, will change the overall climate of an investigation that may be winding down without ever catching hold of official Washington.

So far, no heads have rolled for the intelligence and security lapses that may have opened the door to terrorists slamming jetliners into buildings on Sept. 11, 2001. No smoking guns and - as yet - no defining moments.

But the facts emerging for the first time from the commission this week challenge widely held assumptions about 9/11, especially the view that the attackers entered the country legally and violated no laws while they were here.

Meanwhile, commissions are pressing for an extension of the deadline for their work.

By law, the commission must report back to the president and the Congress by May 27, but there is a 60-day closeout period, which could give commissioners a chance to extend their report. Already, White House aides and GOP congressional leaders have squelched suggestions that that deadline could be extended. If so, an extension would mean the controversial report lands deep in the presidential campaign.

"For obvious reasons, the White House would not want this report released in the heat of presidential politics.... It would politicize one of the great tragedies of American history," says political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia.

'Americans are not inclined to look back and point fingers, as other societies are. We're very forward looking. The vast majority of Americans have already personally rejected the theory that the president is responsible because he should have foreseen what happened," he adds.

But many Democrats on Capitol Hill and GOP critics like Sen. John McCain of Arizona say the Bush administration has been "stonewalling and slow-walking" the commission for months. "Time and time again, the Bush administration has refused to declassify relevant information so that it can be examined by the Commission," says House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. White House opposition to extending the commission is "at odds with the enormity of the tragedy we suffered on Sept. 11."

Commissioners say they are closing in on important and difficult issues. "We have significantly advanced our understanding of the immigration and aviation security systems in place on Sept. 11, 2001," says Thomas Kean, former GOP governor of New Jersey and chairman of the 9/11 commission.

These include evidence that the 9/11 hijackers:

• Included known Al Qaeda operatives who could have been watchlisted.

• Presented passports "manipulated in a fraudulent manner" with "suspicious indicators" of extremism.

• Made detectable false statements on their visa applications.

• Did, in fact, violate immigration laws while inside the United States.

In addition, commission staff reported Tuesday that "no-fly" lists could have been used to stop the hijackers, but the Federal Aviation Administration had not been provided any of their names, even though two were already on a watchlist.

For commission staff, a key theme emerging from the investigation is one of "failed opportunities," but they also caution that it would be "misleading" to conclude from such narratives that the blame falls on whether one or two did their jobs.

At various points in the hearings this week, commissioners pressed current and former US officials on why they had failed to note warning signs as hijackers navigated the US border security and immigration systems.

"The idea that they all came in clean and nothing could be done about it is a false idea," said former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, one of 10 commissioners and currently president of New School University in New York. Other commissioners questioned why so few US officials have been penalized for the intelligence failures leading up to 9/11.

An emotional burst of applause erupted from victims' families when one commission member emphasized that virtually no one has been disciplined.

But former antiterror officials say it is unlikely that individuals will be singled out for blame.

"After the millennium, we explored a series of steps that would have brought more scrutiny on individuals coming from countries that are state sponsors of terrorism, but there was tremendous resistance both inside and outside of government to taking these steps. It looked like [racial or ethnic] profiling," says Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism official in the Clinton administration, now with Good Harbor Consulting in Arlington, Va.

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