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Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2003 / 2 Adar I, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Producing the definitive 9/11 report 10 minutes with Tom Kean


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Its official congressional birth name was the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which is why its media shorthand name has become the 9/11 Commission.

But whatever you call it, the mandate of the commission is broad and deep but simple - examine the government failures that allowed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to happen and learn from those mistakes.

That's going to be no easy task, as the commission's new chairman Tom Kean knows.

Kean, a moderate Republican who was a popular governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990, was named by President Bush to head the bipartisan panel on Dec. 16, three days after its first chairman, Henry Kissinger, resigned following criticism that his business interests (which Kissinger declined to fully disclose) were in conflict with the job.

Intelligence committees in the House and Senate that have investigated the events of 9/11 have already found many problems at the FBI, CIA and other agencies - namely that they ignored warning signs from their field offices and didn't share information across agency borders.

Kean (it rhymes with "cane") has been serving as president of Drew University in Madison, N.J., since 1990 and has no background or expertise in intelligence, immigration, security or other governmental areas the commission will be digging into.

It will be his job to help a half-Republican, half-Democrat panel come up with a more comprehensive final report next summer that - despite the play of partisan politics - can be useful and credible. And without becoming another Warren Commission.

I talked to him Tuesday by telephone from his offices at Drew U.:

Q: What did you do wrong to get this job?

A: That was the same question the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee asked me. He called the day after I was appointed and said, "What did you do to make the president mad?"

Q: Besides your reputation for fairness and good judgment, why are you qualified for this?

A: Oh, I have no idea.

Q: You accepted the job.

A: I don't think it's the kind of thing you can turn down.

Q: Where do you start with something like this? Have you been able to get anything going yet?

A: The first thing you have to do is get 10 people security clearance, because to look at the kind of material we're going to have to look at, you've got to have a top-secret clearance. That can take as long as six months, but we haven't got six months, so I've been working as best I can with agencies in the White House to make sure members of the commission are cleared as fast as possible.

Second, obviously we have to have a place to work - and we can't afford one, given our budget. So we are working with agencies of the federal government to see if we can get some donated space.

Thirdly, we have to hire a staff. The first thing I had to do was interview and hire a staff director, and I've done that. A man called Phillip Zelikow, the director of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

Now that we have a staff director, of course, we can begin hiring from not only the 500 or 600 resumes we've got, but from some people who haven't sent in their resumes but we think would be important if they work on this project.

Q: Your mandate from the president is to "uncover every detail" and "learn every lesson from 9/11."

A: This, by the way, is from Congress. I'm a presidential appointee, but I'm the only one on the commission. The other nine members are appointed by Congress and the commission is created by a congressional resolution, so we have in writing from the Congress what we are supposed to be doing.

Q: Don't we kind of already know what went wrong, in the sense - in my words - it was lousy intelligence work and an immigration system filled with lots of holes and sloppy paperwork.

A: Leaders of the congressional inquiry and intelligence have told me that, yes they have been able to get a number of answers, but there are still holes to fill in. And they expect us to fill in those holes.

There's been some work done in immigration and visas, but not a great deal. There's been very little work done on things we're mandated to look at - like building security, the events of the day. And why were firefighters asked to rush in when they were? Were mistakes made on immediate response and can we learn lessons from that if future problems occur?

There's a wide, wide range of responsibilities. We've got to put together, in a sense, the whole story and all the different pieces, starting probably in the early 1980s, when al-Qaida was first formed.

Q: Do you have any areas of interest that you personally want to look into, or are you just throwing a net out there to see what you can find?

A: We're going to follow the congressional resolution. It spells out things. We've got to look at airline safety, and that means airport controllers and all of that. We've got to look at the World Trade Center itself and the Port Authority that ran it, to see if there are any problems there.

We're mandated to look at diplomacy, at border control, how terrorist organizations are getting their assets. Commercial aviation. We have to look at congressmen - and the role of congressional oversight. So we're mandated to look at those.

Beyond that, the resolution says, "Anything else you're interested in looking at." (laughs)

Q: Do you have the confidence you will be able to go anywhere you want to go and slay all sacred cows?

A: Well, we'll find that out. We're starting on the assumption that we're not going to have people putting boulders in our path and that we are going to have people cooperating with us.

Until the otherwise is proved, we're going to go on that assumption. Everybody - Congress, White House, agencies - all assured me of their cooperation. We'll see as we go along whether that in fact occurs.

Q: What will be the biggest obstacle to your commission doing its job - is it going to be politics?

A: Washington is a very, very partisan town right now and our report is due at about the time of the nominating conventions (early summer of 2004). That's a very political time. But having met now with the nine other commissioners, we really believe that whether we are Republican or Democrat, we can isolate ourselves from all of that and we can do a job where hopefully we can deliver a report that every single one of us can sign and believe in and say this is the facts as straight as we can write them.

Q: I think a senator by the name of Hillary Clinton, and others too, asked "What did President Bush know and when did he know it?" Do you think that's a fair question to ask?

A: Yeah, but I think that's pretty well been answered. What's a deeper question is - when you get into some of these intelligence agencies - "What did they know and how high did it get?" There already seems to be evidence that they didn't talk to each other much.

Q: Will your report be open to the public or will the good, important stuff be classified?

A: No. We'll open everything we're allowed to open. There are a number of things we'll be allowed to read, but we won't be allowed to reveal them in the report. But we can reveal the conclusions we draw from them.

For instance, if we read an interview with an al-Qiada informant and that informant is still giving CIA information, there is no way we can reveal in our report about his name or anything about the information that would lead al-Qaida to know that he was giving us information.

Q: How will you know if you've succeeded? How will you measure it?

A: We're going to measure it on the basis of 50 years. If we create the reliable document on 9/11, and whether it is reporters or historians or librarians - whoever it is - if somebody wants to find out about this event, and they pull out our report, then we'll have succeeded.

If somehow or another we get divided by politics or anything else, or if people don't think we've been credible in some way or we ignored some area we should have been delving into, then we will have failed.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald