Will the Commissioners Cave?

Will the Sept. 11 Commission follow the example set by Congress and the Intelligence Community and let itself be intimidated by Vice President Dick Cheney?

Now that the commission’s staff report has pulled the rug out from under the notion so successfully fostered by the administration that Iraq played a role in the attacks of 9/11, no one should be surprised if the commissioners pull the rug out from under the staff. There are disquieting signs that this has already begun to happen.

The stakes could not be higher for the president and vice president. Arguably, the commission is in position to play in 2004 a role analogous to that played by the Supreme Court in 2000 in ensuring the election of George W. Bush and Cheney. This, I believe, accounts for the dyspeptic reaction of the two to the staff report and the press play accorded it last week.

New York Times pundit William Safire is also outraged. In his column today he lashes out at the commission chairman, Republican Tom Kean, and the vice chairman, Democrat Lee Hamilton, for letting themselves be “jerked around by a manipulative staff.” Safire drives home the point that the staff conclusion concerning Iraq and 9/11 was “not a judgment of the panel of commissioners,” but rather “an interim report of the commission’s runaway staff.”

Republican Commissioners Fall Into Line

Appearing Sunday on ABC’s This Week, Sept. 11 commission chairman Kean fell in line, saying repeatedly that the staff report is only an “interim report.” Not only did he note it is “not finished,” the commissioners themselves have not been involved in it so far and the final report will include whatever “new information” becomes available.

It is not hard to see what is coming. On Thursday Cheney told the press that he “probably” had more intelligence information than had been made available to the commission. Commissioner John Lehman, another Republican stalwart, told Meet the Press Sunday “the vice president was right when he said that he may have things that we don’t have. And we are now in the process of getting the latest intelligence.”

Flash back, if you dare, to other “intelligence” promoted by Cheney: the aluminum tubes that turned out not to be suitable for fashioning nuclear materials after all; the mobile “biological warfare labs” that produced nothing more lethal than hydrogen for weather balloons; the infamous report, based on forged documents, alleging that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa.

The Perils of Partisanship

What is clear is that Washington is in for a month of partisan wrangling among the commissioners and staff before the July 26 deadline for the report – partisanship of the kind demonstrated at the grilling of former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clark. This time it will all take place behind closed doors. Lehman conceded on Meet the Press, “We’re under tremendous political pressure … in this election year.”

Indeed, the commission was highly politicized from the get-go, with its work carefully choreographed. Subpoena power, for example, requires a majority vote among the five Republican and five Democrat commissioners. And, as the public hearings have already shown, the White House can count on seasoned protection from heavy hitters like Fred Fielding, legal counsel to Presidents Nixon and Reagan, as well as from Lehman and the other Republican commissioners.

Once again, “intelligence” will be front and center, with Cheney in the background as super-analyst. CIA Director George Tenet is packing his bags for his July 11 departure, and there is zero chance his well-mannered deputy, John McLaughlin, will depart from what has become customary practice – at the CIA and elsewhere – and stand up to the vice president.

The Neuralgic Point

When Meet the Press’ Tim Russert quoted The New York Times’ contention that the commission staff report “directly contradicts public statements by Bush and Cheney regarding Iraq and 9/11,” Lehman, borrowing from Cheney’s lexicon, branded the Times report “outrageously irresponsible journalism.” Echoing Kean’s remarks, Lehman added parenthetically, “And, again, this is a staff statement; the commissioners have not yet addressed this issue.”

Democrat Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste had just told Russert, “There was no Iraqi involvement in 9/11. That’s what our commission found. That’s what our staff, which included former high-ranking CIA officials, who know what to look for [found].”

Interesting. Ben-Veniste saying it is what the commission found; Kean and Lehman saying the commissioners have not yet addressed the issue. A harbinger of the wrangling to come.

That Troublesome Constitution Again

Most observers are familiar with the rhetorical landscape with which Bush and Cheney persuaded a large majority of Americans that Iraq played a role in the attacks of 9/11, and many shrug this off as familiar spin by politicians inclined to take liberties with the facts. So far little attention has been given to the fact that a constitutional issue is involved.

On March 19, 2002, the day the war began, President Bush sent a letter to Congress in which he said that the war was permitted under legislation authorizing force against those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” If the staff’s finding that there is “no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States” is allowed to stand, the Bush administration will be shown to have gone afoul of the Constitution yet again.

Watch for New ‘Intelligence’

So expect new “intelligence” (and hope against hope that there is time to give it the smell test). Lehman’s assurance that the commission report will be updated with new intelligence “right up until we go to press” is by no means reassuring. If it is the truth that is sought, there should by now be widespread awareness of the pitfalls of cherry-picking unevaluated, uncorroborated, “this-just-in” pieces of intelligence.

Also watch for administration attempts to change the final draft report, if the Republican commissioners do not succeed in neutralizing offending passages.

Tim Russert called attention Sunday to reports that the White House had been allowed to review the staff reports just made public, and asked if that was appropriate. Ben-Veniste indicated that the purpose of reviewing the reports is supposed to be to find and eliminate any classified information. He also said, though, that the White House “went somewhat beyond that and took issue with some of what the staff had concluded.”

Indeed, an early draft of one draft report was changed, according to Newsweek. A passage expressing skepticism about the account of Cheney getting Bush’s approval for the shoot-down order was reportedly removed after the White House objected.

Ben-Veniste told Russert that the White House will review the final report before it is made public. Thus, there will be considerable opportunity for the manufacture of “insurmountable” classification problems, for delay and for other mischief – given the potential political explosiveness of the commission’s final report.

It will not be surprising if the final report is not made public until well after the target date of July 26 (the same day the Democratic Convention opens in Boston). If the report does meet that target, it is likely that it will appear in significantly truncated form.

Originally appeared on TomPaine.com.

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).