What’s Bush Hiding From 9/11 Commission?

In an election year, a Republican President seeking his second term can be expected to propose more tax cuts and, in this era of right-wing profligacy, considerably more spending as well. Informed critics calculate the costs of George W. Bush’s latest proposals in the trillions of dollars-a vague yet substantial sum that will come due sometime during what budgetary jargon denotes as “the out years,” meaning long after Mr. Bush has departed the White House.

Excessive spending and tax breaks always elicit more applause than controversies over the global “Axis of Evil,” Niger’s phantom yellowcake and Iraq’s weapons of mass disappearance. So do such perennially popular topics as improved health care, the protection of heterosexual marriage and, in the immortal words of the President’s father, jobs, jobs, jobs. Estimates of future deficits depend on whether the President actually tries to send astronauts to live on Mars and the moon, or abandons that vision in deference to disapproving poll numbers. In short, bread and maybe circuses.

What Mr. Bush understandably chose not to highlight, however, is his administration’s continuing determination to undermine, restrict and censor the investigation of the most significant event of his Presidency: the attacks on New York and Washington of Sept. 11, 2001.

The President is fortunate that until now, the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States has received far less attention than controversies over the design for a World Trade Center memorial. At every step, from his opposition to its creation, to his abortive appointment of Henry Kissinger as its chair, to his refusal to provide it with adequate funding and cooperation, Mr. Bush has treated the commission and its essential work with contempt.

In the latest development, the President’s aides refused additional time for the 9/11 commission to complete its report. Although the original deadline in the enabling legislation is May 27, the commissioners recently asked for a few more months to ensure that their product will be “thorough and credible.”

Earlier this month, Thomas Kean-the former New Jersey governor who has chaired the commission since Mr. Kissinger recused himself-explained why the commission needs more time. As the genial Republican told The New York Times , he is only permitted to read the most important classified documents concerning 9/11 in a little closet known as a “sensitive compartmented information facility” (or SCIF). He cannot photocopy the documents, and if he takes notes about them, he must leave the notes in the SCIF when he leaves.

Other recent statements by Mr. Kean, which he subsequently modified, suggest that the White House has ample reason to worry about what the commission’s report will say. In December, he told CBS News that he believes the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented-and that incompetent officials were at fault for the failure to uncover and frustrate the plot.

Following the creation and staffing of the commission, many months passed before the administration agreed to let Mr. Kean look at any of those crucial documents. The commission still has hundreds of interviews to conduct, and millions of pages to examine, before its members begin to draft their conclusions.

But the President’s political advisers, concerned about the political impact of the commission’s report, are unsympathetic to its requests for additional time-and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who would have to approve an extension, is perfectly obedient to his masters in the White House. According to Newsweek , the administration offered Mr. Kean a choice: Either keep to the May deadline, or postpone release of the report until December, when its findings cannot affect the election.

Mr. Bush doesn’t want his re-election subject to any informed judgment about the disaster that reshaped the nation and his Presidency. But why should such crucial facts be withheld from the voters? What does the President fear?

Perhaps inadvertently, Mr. Kean provided a clue to the answers in his Times interview. Asked whether he thinks the disaster “did not have to happen,” he replied, “Yes, there is a good chance that 9/11 could have been prevented by any number of people along the way. Everybody pretty well agrees our intelligence agencies were not set up to deal with domestic terrorism …. They were not ready for an internal attack.” Then, asked whether “anyone in the Bush administration [had] any idea that an attack was being planned,” he replied: “That is why we are looking at the internal papers. I can’t talk about what’s classified. [The] President’s daily briefings are classified. If I told you what was in them, I would go to jail.”

But the commission’s final report may well indicate what the President was told in his daily briefing of Aug. 6, 2001, when he was sunning himself in Crawford, Tex.-as well as the many warnings he and his associates were given by the previous administration. That kind of information could send him back to Crawford for a permanent vacation.