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Battle over 911 panels deadline intesifies { January 29 2004 }

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Battle Over 9/11 Panel's Deadline Intensifies
New Disclosures Complicate Administration's Decision on Election-Year Extension

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2004; Page A10

Long-simmering tensions with the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks became a more immediate problem for the White House this week as the panel released a series of damaging revelations about missed opportunities to stop the al Qaeda hijackers and opposed the administration by asking for more time to complete its work, according to panel members and political experts.

The developments represent a political problem for the Bush administration, which objects to granting the commission a later deadline and has long sought to play down criticism of the government's performance before the terrorist strikes. The administration has also not agreed to the panel's requests for direct testimony from President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that "this White House is committed to making sure the commission has all the information that they need to do their job," but that "it's important that they move forward as quickly as they can to complete their work."

The commission, which is required by law to complete a report by May 27, is asking for at least two months more, which could thrust the release of its final report into the turmoil of the presidential campaign. Administration officials and the office of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) have indicated in recent weeks that they would vigorously oppose any such extension.

But several commission members and political analysts said yesterday that opposition to a proposal favored by many families of attack victims could hurt Bush, even as Democrats step up their criticism of the administration's use of intelligence before the Iraq war. Already this week, two Democratic presidential candidates -- Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) and John Edwards (N.C.) -- issued statements supporting an extension of the deadline.

"Any charge that the administration is engaged in political damage control to keep any report on 9/11 from coming out any time near the election is bound to reverberate," said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "First, you'll start hearing a drumbeat from Democrats in the House and Senate, and then it will make its way into the presidential campaign."

One possible exit strategy could come in the form of a proposal from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said in an interview yesterday that he will sponsor legislation giving the commission until January 2005 to complete a report. The delay would lessen the possibility that the panel and its work would become a major issue in the presidential race, McCain said.

"Surely the speaker of the House and the White House would want the best job to be done," said McCain, who co-wrote the bill that created the commission after months of White House opposition. "I would rather see a complete job done, and I think most Americans would, too."

Lieberman -- who, with McCain, helped create the commission -- is also working on legislation to grant the panel more time, aides said.

Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic House member from Indiana who serves as vice chairman of the commission, said the panel would welcome any extra time that Congress and the White House are willing to give.

"We decided to put aside the politics and ask for the time we think we really need," Hamilton said. "We understand at least some of the political ramifications of this. But, at the end of the day, this commission is going to be judged by the quality of its report, and we need additional time for that."

The 10-member bipartisan panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, was created by Congress in late 2002 after the White House dropped its long-standing opposition to the idea, in part on the condition that the panel complete its work within 18 months. But the commission, which is headed by former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R), has confronted a succession of obstacles that have slowed its pace, including battles with the Bush administration over access to closely held intelligence materials.

As a result, commission officials said, they have already had to cancel a number of planned public hearings and are increasingly uncertain that they can produce a thorough report by the May 27 deadline. "One of the many reasons we need an extension is to avoid the curtailment of hearings that we have already planned for," said commission member Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor. "We simply can't do everything at the same time."

The deadline issue has come to a head just as the commission released its first substantive findings on government shortcomings before the Sept. 11 attacks.

In a series of staff reports issued during hearings on Monday and Tuesday, commission investigators disclosed that U.S. border authorities missed numerous warning signs that could have helped them stop the attackers from entering the United States, including clearly fraudulent passports and false statements on visa applications. The commission also found that nine of the 19 hijackers had been flagged by the Federal Aviation Administration's computerized screening system but were still allowed to board their flights on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

The missteps span both the Clinton and Bush administrations. The commission's conclusions contrast with repeated statements by government officials, since the attacks, that characterized the hijackers as law-abiding travelers who did little to attract official scrutiny.

"The commission seems to have turned a corner," said Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland. "Things are starting to come out that are quite disturbing. . . . This is why the Bush administration and the Republicans want this to end in May, so it's old news by the time you reach the heat of the election cycle."

2004 The Washington Post Company

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