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Panel grills alqaeda chiefs on 911 { May 12 2004 }

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9/11 panel grills al Qaeda chiefs
Secret deal allows questioning of suspect pair held in custody
Laura Sullivan, Baltimore Sun
Wednesday, May 12, 2004
2004 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback | FAQ

Washington -- At least two top al Qaeda leaders in U.S. custody are being questioned by the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as part of the panel's quest to determine the root of the disaster and whether it could have been prevented.

Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton said the panel has worked out a secret arrangement with the White House allowing members to pose questions to detainees, though he did not say what sort of answers, if any, they have received.

Although Hamilton would not identify the captives being questioned, he suggested they were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin Al-Shibh, the two accused masterminds of the 2001 attacks.

Hamilton would not elaborate, but he said the commission will include as much information as possible in the declassified version of the report due July 26.

"We have had a procedure in mind . . . whereby we are able to ask questions of these detainees, and that is still being processed and worked out, " he said. " . . . We think the result will be that we will have the information we need from these people."

Mohammed, al-Shibh and Abu Zubaida, a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, are being interrogated in secret locations outside the United States.

"One of the most closely held secrets is where these people are. We were told the president doesn't know where they are," Hamilton said.

He declined to say if the commission had also been granted access to transcripts of prior interviews with the detainees, but both he and commission Chairman Thomas Kean said the panel has not been denied access to any documents it sought.

Hamilton cautioned, however, that the responses they get from the detainees must be viewed with skepticism: "Keep in mind that one of the sub- judgments here is the credibility of that information."

Still, he added, "the 19 key players (the hijackers) are all dead and it means you have to reconstruct things through just gumshoe detective work."

Kean also said the commission staff has spoken to many people in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Staff members, he said, are "following the trail of the hijackers, and in the process they have gotten a number of interviews."

Hamilton said the scandal over the treatment of Iraqi prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad may hurt the U.S. war on terror.

"It is bound to be an effective recruiting tool for terrorist activities or al Qaeda," Hamilton said, adding that "in many respects the damage is done with the circulation of those pictures, which will be searing images of the United States across the world for many, many years to come."

The commissioners' remarks came as they headed to a private meeting with other commissioners and staff members to prepare for the panel's 11th public hearing scheduled for next Tuesday and Wednesday.

To be held in New York, the hearing will examine the local and federal responses to attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.

Kean and Hamilton said portions of their commission's final report already are being drafted.

"We've now reached . . . the stage of where we've seen just about everybody we're going to see, we've gotten just about every document we need . . . and we're moving now into the stage where we are talking about our recommendations, we're talking about the form of our report," Kean said.

Hamilton and Kean said they are working frantically to produce a report before the July 26 deadline to avoid releasing it on the deadline, the same day the Democratic National Convention begins in Boston.

"We don't want our report used in a partisan manner, so we will do everything we can to get our report out as soon as possible," said Kean.

Members are hoping to submit chapters of the report in advance to the White House, which must review the report to ensure no classified information is made public. He said the group wants to avoid the type of delay the House and Senate faced when lawmakers detailed the failures that lead to the attacks in a bipartisan congressional report in July.

That inquiry involved a monthslong battle with the White House over what information could be declassified.

Nevertheless, Kean said in recent months the group has had unprecedented access to information and cooperation from the White House.

"We have had access to documents that nobody has ever had access to before in the Congress or investigatory committees," Kean said. "We have gotten in the end every document we have requested."

Newhouse News Service contributed to this report.

2004 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback | FAQ

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