In finally accepting the 9/11 Commission's request
for public testimony under oath from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice,
the White House was not the one that flinched. It was the 9/11 Commission.
The fine print of the deal takes the chance of the commission taking sworn
public testimony from any other White House official – including Rice's
deputy Stephen Hadley, Bush's political adviser Karl Rove, President Bush himself
or Vice President Dick Cheney – completely off the table. It also precludes
the panel from having the option of calling Rice, who's made media statements
contradicting evidence and sworn statements by other officials, back to testify.
It's a one-shot deal. And it stinks.
Even under oath, Rice can dodge tough questions by claiming her answers would
jeopardize national security or the war on terror. "I'm sorry, Mr. Chairman,
but again, that's a classified area, and I just can't get into it," she
could say. Or she could come down with Washington amnesia – "I have
no recollection of that." And she and everyone else in the White House
could skate. The commission has no recourse at that point.
Other compromises are curious. Why did the panel, which has subpoena power
and could compel Rice to testify, originally bow to White House demands not
to even tape-record the statements they were "allowed" to take from
her in private? Why will it let Bush tag-team with Cheney in a joint Q&A
in the White House without oaths or even tape recorders? Why has it agreed to
let just four panel officials lay eyes on a key intelligence briefing Bush got
a month before the 9/11 attacks?
Why is the commission bending over backwards to please the White House when
it's supposed to be fiercely independent and bipartisan, made up of five Republicans
and five Democrats?
The answer may lie in the little-known fact that the White House has a friend
on the inside. And not just any friend, either.
His name is Philip D. Zelikow, the executive director of the commission. Though
he has no vote, the former Texas lawyer arguably has more sway than any member,
including the chairman. Zelikow picks the areas of investigation, the briefing
materials, the topics for hearings, the witnesses, and the lines of questioning
for witnesses. He also picks which fights are worth fighting, legally, with
the White House, and was involved in the latest round of capitulations –
er, negotiations – over Rice's testimony. And the commissioners for the
most part follow his recommendations. In effect, he sets the agenda and runs
He also carries with him a downright obnoxious conflict-of-interest odor, one
that somehow went undetected by the lawyers who vetted him for one of the most
important investigative positions in U.S. history.
raft of evidence to suggest that Zelikow has personal, professional and
political reasons not to see the commission hold Rice and other Bush officials
accountable for pre-9/11 failings, and may be the de facto swing
vote for Republicans on the panel. Here are just a few of them:
Philip D. Zelikow
He and Rice worked closely together in the first Bush White House as aides
to former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. Zelikow was director
of European security affairs, and Rice was senior director of Soviet and
East European affairs, as well as special assistant to the president. Rice
reportedly hired Zelikow. Both started in 1989 and left in 1991.
The two associated again when Zelikow directed the Aspen Strategy Group,
a foreign-policy strategy body co-chaired by Rice's mentor Scowcroft. Rice,
along with Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, were members.
Zelikow also directed the Markle Foundation's Task Force on National Security
in the Information Age under co-chairman James Barksdale, a Bush adviser
and major Bush-Cheney donor. A 9/11 commissioner, Republican Sen. Slade
Gorton, also served with Zelikow on the task force. (Interestingly, the
pair serves together on yet another panel – The National Commission
on Federal Election Reform – with Gorton acting as vice-chairman and
Zelikow as executive director.)
After the 2000 election, Zelikow and Rice were reunited when George W.
Bush named him to his transition team for the National Security Council.
Rice reportedly asked Zelikow to help organize the NSC under the Scowcroft
model, which was insular and steeped in Cold War worldview.
Former White House terrorism czar Richard Clarke says he briefed not only
Rice and Hadley, but also Zelikow about the growing al-Qaida threat during
the transition period. Zelikow sat in on the briefings, he says.
Zelikow's regular job, the one he'll return to after the commission releases
it final report in late July, is director of the Miller Center of Public
Affairs at the University of Virginia. The center is dedicated to the study
of the presidency, and maintains contact with the Bush White House, which
fought the creation of the commission.
Kristen Breitweiser, a 9/11 widow, insists Zelikow has a "clear conflict
of interest." And she suspects he is in touch with Bush's political adviser,
Rove, which she says would explain why the White House granted him, along with
just one other commission official, the greatest access to the intelligence
briefing Bush got a month before the 9/11 suicide hijackings.
The two-page memo in question mentions "al-Qaida" and "hijackings,"
that much we know. What we don't know is if it gets any more specific about
the threat. And the White House won't let us find out. It refuses to declassify
any of the August memo (or any of the other briefings Bush got before 9/11,
for that matter), and it won't even let most commissioners review it.
Bush and his top security adviser insist they have nothing to hide.
Rice pal Zelikow, for his part, says he's recused himself from any part of
the probe that deals with the roughly one-month period after the election when
he worked with Rice on the transition, as if any potential conflicts he might
have would end there. Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg doesn't understand
the fuss over Zelikow. "He has not served in the Bush administration,"
he argues more technically than convincingly.
The fuss, Mr. Felzenberg, is that 9/11 relatives like the wife of the late
Ronald Breitweiser want to know they are getting an honest investigation into
what their government did to protect their loved ones from a foreign-ordered
attack on American soil.
But the way key pre-9/11 documents and sworn testimony from top officials
are being denied the public, it looks like the fix is in.
To be sure, Zelikow could be a remarkably objective fellow and not let his
close ties to the Bush administration influence his final report in any way.
But with the commission still refusing to subpoena the documents and caving
to White House ground rules on testimony, the stench of political bias has become
too strong, and Zelikow should nonetheless step down, immediately, for the sake
of the families, many of whom are demanding his resignation. And the commission
should vote to further extend its deadline while it finds a more politically
detached replacement for him and redoubles its efforts to deliver the "full
and complete" and "independent" investigation it originally promised