President Bush's decision to agree to an independent panel to investigate the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks could lead to the most far-reaching and explosive government inquiry in decades. It happened only after weeks of intense, behind-the-scenes wrangling that had put the White House on a collision course with a politically potent new force: a coalition of angry family members of 9-11 victims. For the past year White House aides had resisted proposals for an independent inquiry, arguing that it would divert resources from the war on terrorism and duplicate the work of an ongoing joint inquiry by the House and Senate intelligence committees. But last week, after a series of stunning disclosures about CIA and FBI intelligence failures, the White House abruptly shifted course. The change came, NEWSWEEK has learned, after three secret and at times contentious White House meetings between family members and top presidential aides, including one with chief of staff Andrew Card and two others with domestic-policy counselor Jay Lefkowitz. At the meetings, family members pushed for a blue-ribbon panel and voiced their frustration that top government officials had yet to be held "accountable." With momentum for the blue-ribbon commission rapidly gaining on Capitol Hill, and the family members threatening to go public, the White House had virtually no choice. "There was a freight train coming down the tracks," said one White House official. "They realized how powerful the voices of the families were," added Democrat Rep. Jane Harman, a House intelligence committee member.
But the tensions continue. Bush aides still don't want the commission to delve further into CIA and FBI failures. They suggested it focus on new areas like border security and visa issues; they also want the panel to investigate the "role of Congress" in overseeing the work of the intelligence agencies. Another potential flash point: the White House's refusal to turn over documents showing briefings the intelligence community gave Bush prior to 9-11. One aide described the documents as the "crown jewels" of executive privilege. "That's the kind of stuff we'd never give up," said the aide. Those positions could set up a new confrontation with family members. They say they are more furious than ever over new details about how the CIA lost track of two of the 9-11 hijackers who flew to the United States from a terrorist summit in Malaysia. (The lapse was first reported by NEWSWEEK.) "I never want to hear the phrase 'lessons learned' again," said Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son was killed in the World Trade Center. "I want people brought up on charges of malfeasance." Bush aides say they want to work "constructively" with the families to ensure a productive inquiry. Discussions have begun about possible candidates to head up the panel. Among the top suggestions: former senators Bob Dole and Sam Nunn.