9/11 Commission: The Panel Tones It Down

Fearing that their high-profile inquiry was being dragged into election-year politics, 9/11 commission chair Tom Kean and vice chair Lee Hamilton made powerful private pleas to fellow commissioners to tone down the rhetoric and avoid politically charged questioning, panel sources tell NEWSWEEK. Those entreaties were one reason last week's long-awaited showdown between the 9/11 panel and President Bush and Vice President Cheney was more muted than the commission's public sessions. After months of acrimonious wrangling, Bush quickly disarmed potential critics on the panel--by expressing chagrin over the Justice Department's release of documents intended to embarrass Democratic commissioner Jamie Gorelick. Later he joked with members; at one point the room erupted in laughter after Bush ribbed Bob Kerrey for leaving the session early for a previously scheduled meeting on Capitol Hill. ("Keep your spirits up, Bob!" Bush shouted as Kerrey left the Oval Office.)

In between, Bush (who spent hours prepping for the session) gave a matter-of-fact account of his pre-9/11 actions, insisting there was little in the urgent intel warnings he got that summer pointing to an attack inside the United States. (Cheney got few questions--and volunteered little.) "I don't think there was a single moment of tension," Hamilton said. "We weren't there to challenge him or ask any contentious questions designed to contradict him."

If that represents an abrupt change from the panel's recent public hearings, it was no accident. On the evening of April 12, Kean and Hamilton, in a private meeting, admonished commissioners for what they saw as overly aggressive questioning of national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice. "This has got to stop or we're going to be seen as [part] of the presidential campaign," Hamilton said in what one source called an "impassioned" plea. Although Hamilton didn't single out members, the talk seemed aimed at two of his Democratic colleagues, former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste and Tim Roemer; their tough grilling of Rice forced her to concede key details about the crucial Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing (PDB). Ben-Veniste told NEWSWEEK he has no regrets. "Everybody has a different style," he said, noting that his questioning ultimately led the White House to release the entire PDB, perhaps the major public disclosure forced by the commission.

Now, however, Kean and Hamilton are focused on preparing a bipartisan report--the only way, they believe, to win backing for what are expected to be tough recommendations for reforms in the U.S. intelligence community. "We have to build a consensus," Hamilton said. "If it seems like a Democratic or Republican report, it will be seen as pretty much dead in the water." The White House too now appears to want a strong, bipartisan report--apparently to use as leverage on Capitol Hill to push for controversial changes, such as the creation of some sort of domestic intelligence agency.