Road Block

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APRIL 5, 2004

Road Block

Richard Clarke chose a good time to charge the Bush administration
with ignoring the threat from Al Qaeda. After all, this week he--and
a raft of Bush officials--testifies before a 9/11 Commission
dedicated to evaluating just those kind of allegations. Once the
Commission releases its report this summer, the nation should have
a pretty good idea of which officials, agencies, and
administrations took Al Qaeda seriously and which did not.At least, that's what you'd assume. In fact, it's quite possible the
public will never learn whether Clarke is telling the unvarnished
truth. Evaluating Clarke's allegations will require the Commission
to examine sensitive or classified documents from the National
Security Council (NSC) or intelligence agencies. But, as a result,
once the Commission completes its report, it will have to negotiate
with the White House about which of its findings must remain
classified for reasons of national security. As the 2002
congressional investigation into the September 11 attacks showed,
this administration considers the national interest to be largely
synonymous with President Bush's political interest--and will fight
to keep information damaging to the president out of public view.
The White House has already clashed repeatedly with the 9/11
Commission--over access to intelligence, interviews with
administration officials, and the deadline for the final report--but
the struggle over how much of the report the public will get to
see, says Commissioner Tim Roemer, will be "one of the battles of
Armageddon."

The White House will face Armageddon well-prepared. In 2002, the
House and Senate Intelligence Committees conducted a joint inquiry
into whether U.S. intelligence agencies could have prevented the
September 11 attacks. The Committees finished their work in early
December after a contentious investigation, during which the White
House denied them access to senior-level Bush administration
officials, NSC counterterrorism policy documents, and highly
classified presidential intelligence digests known as the
President's Daily Brief (PDB). But the most pitched battle came
when Staff Director Eleanor Hill and her deputy, Rick Cinquegrana,
delivered the report to an administration review committee for
declassification. They hoped the review would be completed by
February 2003, when the joint inquiry's specially hired staff was
scheduled to disband. Instead, Bush officials dragged out the
declassification process for seven months. "It was very difficult,
very long, and frustrating," Hill remembers.

The review panel tried to strike significant portions from the joint
inquiry report--including information that, if released, posed no
conceivable threat to national security. Even material that was
already public was put on the chopping block. "At one point, we
were told we couldn't use the word 'PDB,'" she says, "until we told
them it was already on a CIA website." As the negotiations ran into
the spring--and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss
arranged for Hill and Cinquegrana to continue working beyond the
official end of the inquiry--the two staffers were forced to argue
for declassification of the report, as Hill recalls, "page by page,
word for word." Some issues weren't even open to negotiation, such
as the 27-page section on foreign support for Al Qaeda, which
intelligence officials succeeded in fully redacting from the
report. By the time the declassification was complete in July 2003,
though, even such massive redactions felt like a victory for
transparency, Hill says: Initially, the review panel had wanted the
public version of the nearly 900-page report to appear without any
indication that large parts of the narrative had been removed. At a
press conference announcing the report's release, both the
Democratic and Republican leaders of the joint inquiry denounced
the "layer after layer after layer of obstacle," as Goss put it,
which Hill and Cinquegrana faced in declassification. "There's a lot
of information that's not in here that should be," growled Alabama
Republican Richard Shelby. Added California Democrat Nancy Pelosi,
"This is especially true with respect to references to sources of
foreign support for hijackers," spurring speculation the
administration was concealing politically inconvenient evidence of
Saudi complicity in the attacks.

For some on the 9/11 Commission, the joint inquiry's past is their
prologue. According to Roemer, the only official to serve on both
investigations, the declassification issue will confront the
Commission "like a brick in the face." It's not hard to see why.
After spending months in tense discussions with the White House
over access to intelligence reports and senior officials, the
Commission endured a three-week standoff with House Speaker Dennis
Hastert in February over whether the Commission would receive a
two-month extension to its May 26 deadline. Hastert eventually gave
in, but he extracted two concessions: first, that the Commission
try to finish its report ahead of schedule; and, second, that the
Commission conclude all its business--including the
declassification process (a process that took the joint inquiry
seven months)-- within a month after the new deadline. This means
that, after August 26, the Commission will simply cease to exist.
No commissioner or staffer will be empowered to negotiate
declassification with the Bush administration, granting the White
House tremendous leverage to edit the public version of the report.
The likelihood of the administration and the GOP-controlled Congress
allowing the Commission a second extension to continue haggling
over declassification-- during a congressional recess and on the
eve of the Republican National Convention--is practically nil.

Which is why the Commission's pace has become increasingly frenetic.
Commissioners and staffers are reviewing over two million pages of
documents and over 1,000 interviews with former officials--and they
still need to interview such central players as Presidents Clinton
and Bush and Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney. As they work, the
fight over how much the public will be able to read is about to
begin in earnest. According to Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg,
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card recently convened a
declassification committee, though it's not yet clear when it will
begin work. Felzenberg is optimistic that the administration's
redaction won't be overzealous: "It may well be that certain
sources will not be identified ... [or] the most sensitive
background material will stay out," he says. Of course, that's what
the joint inquiry thought, too, and to date the 9/11 Commission's
dealings with the White House have hardly been promising. The Bush
administration has tightly controlled any information--from the PDBs
to testimony by Bush, Cheney, and national security adviser
Condoleezza Rice--that could reveal what the White House knew about
the threat from Al Qaeda and how it addressed it.

Furthermore, as with the joint inquiry, it remains to be seen
whether the declassified version of the 9/11 Commission's report
will indicate that it has been edited. One option is to release a
public version of the report written as an uninterrupted text and
subsequently issue "classified monographs"--i.e., indexes that call
attention to the fact that material was excised from the public
version. That doesn't satisfy a watchdog group of family members of
September 11 victims known as the Family Steering Committee, who
want to make sure any censorship is made clear in the body of the
report itself, as in the joint inquiry report. "The final report
needs to be one report," says Bill Harvey of the Family Steering
Committee, who took his concerns to White House Counsel Al Gonzales
this week. "Those sections that are classified need to be visibly
redacted." The problem, he concedes, is that "it takes more time to
produce one report"--time the Commission doesn't have.

What the Commission does have is the final word. After it finishes
its investigation, further information on the attacks--and whether
Bush did everything he could to stop them--won't be available until
executive branch archives are opened, which, depending on the
documents' national security status, might not happen for decades.
Indeed, Clarke's testimony may be the last chance to unearth
answers tantalizingly hinted at in the joint inquiry's final
report. When the Bush administration took office, the inquiry noted,
"It appears that significant slippage in counterterrorism policy
may have taken place"--slippage that was at least partially "due to
the unresolved status of [Richard] Clarke as National Coordinator
for Counterterrorism and his uncertain mandate to coordinate Bush
Administration policy on terrorism and specifically on [Osama] Bin
Ladin." But, since the joint inquiry couldn't review NSC documents
or speak to top-level officials, it couldn't be definitive. The
9/11 Commission report could settle the question. Let's hope
Americans get to read it.

By Spencer Ackerman

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