9/11 panel sets sights on talking to Al Qaeda members

Commissioners trumpet good access and hope to finish early.

With just 11 weeks to complete a full account of the worst terrorist attack in American history, the leaders of the 9/11 commission say they have had unprecedented access to classified documents - and are planning to question suspected members of Al Qaeda being held by the US government.

"We have had access to documents that nobody has ever had access to before in the Congress or investigatory committees," said Thomas Kean, chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, at a Monitor breakfast Tuesday. "We have gotten in the end every document we have requested.... We have also been able to interview every single person we requested."

Commission vice chair Lee Hamilton said the panel is working out an arrangement with the White House so it can seek information from suspected members of Al Qaeda in US custody. "We have had a procedure in mind ... whereby we are able to ask questions of these detainees, and that is still being processed and worked out...." he said. "We think the result will be that we will have the information we need from these people."

The location of these suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the 9/11 plot, is one of the most closely held government secrets.

The commission has won access to several copies of the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB), the top secret intelligence report that the president and a few top officials receive each weekday morning. One such report to President Bush was declassified and released to the public.

At the breakfast, commissioner Kean said the panel has asked the White House to release a Clinton-era PDB concerning Al Qaeda for its report. The public may be surprised when the document is released, Mr. Hamilton noted. "The product of intelligence, which I think many people expect to be very precise and very accurate and very unambiguous, is anything but," he said. "The product of intelligence raises as many questions as it answers."

The official delivery date for the commission's final report is July 26, the opening day of the Democratic National Convention in Boston. But commissioners say they plan to wind up "well before" then, to avoid any appearance of politicizing their conclusions.

"We would not want to release the report ... in the middle of one of the great political conventions," Mr. Kean said. "That just wouldn't make any sense."

They expect to start sending chapters to the White House as soon as possible, and to produce at the same time an unclassified version that can be quickly released to the public.

Both Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, and Hamilton, a former Democratic representative from Indiana, are veterans of blue-ribbon panels whose reports, they say, are "gathering dust some place." (Most recently, Kean served on President Clinton's race commission.)

All 10 commissioners have committed to "do whatever public relations is necessary" to make sure that their report does not meet the same fate, they say.

"We haven't worked a year and a half to have our recommendations put on the shelf," says Kean.

Early on, they say they had a lot of advice to "take a very confrontational stance toward the White House," go to the press, issue subpoenas. In the end, they opted to do it in the "cooperative way," Hamilton said. It was the right choice, because executive privilege has never been asserted - "it has been discussed," Hamilton acknowledged - and no subpoenas had to be issued.

Still, the 9/11 commission made a point of keeping the press and public informed of the status of requests for access. Key lawmakers, such as Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, and Jon Corzine (D) of New Jersey, often muscled along requests for access along or ran interference with the bureaucracy, the two members said.

They added that at least three-quarters of the classified material they saw, shouldn't be classified. After making his way through one report marked classified, Kean commented to his FBI handler that he had seen it all in the newspapers already. The agent replied: "Yes, but you didn't know it was true."

"Some of the conditions put on access have been a little confining and restricting to us, but we have worked through them. We have kept our eye on the target ... to get the information," said Hamilton, now director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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