Bob Kerrey Says 9/11 Group Meets With Condoleezza

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has agreed to be interviewed by the bipartisan 9/11 commission on Feb. 7, after weeks of resistance from the White House to the bipartisan panel’s requests, The Observer has learned.

In a Feb. 3 interview the newly minted commission member Bob Kerrey, the former Senator from Nebraska, now the president of the New School University, said that Ms. Rice’s interview will not be held under oath, and the results of the interview are not to be made public.

But as the Bush administration fights to limit the scope and time allotted to the independent commission investigating a broad array of failures leading up to and during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Kerrey is emerging as a strong antagonist to their efforts to contain the political damage.

Mr. Kerrey, the commission’s unlikely new spitfire, told The Observer he would lobby the comission to request sworn, public testimony from Bush’s embittered national security advisor.

“I’m very much interested in following up on the statement Condoleezza Rice made at her famous press conference in ’02, that ‘I don’t think anybody could have predicted … that they would try to use an airplane as a missile,'” Mr. Kerrey said. “I don’t believe that.”

The commissioners are divided on whether or not to press the point-and to use a subpoena if she refuses.

“We’re not there yet,” said former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, the committee’s chairman.

But with the independent 9/11 commission spinning out of the White House’s control, the fight by Republicans against the panel’s request for an extension of its deadline may hurt the Bush administration more than it will help it, according to Mr. Kerrey.

“Given the administration’s current behavior, which is an unwillingness to allow witnesses to come forward and a reluctance to allow documents to be seen, other narratives will prevail, and the final report is apt to be a more negative story for them,” he said.

Mr. Kerrey also revealed to this writer that the scope of the 9/11 commission will take in “about half of what the President was doing in the pre-9/11 situation in Iraq. He alleged that there were Al Qaeda and terrorist connections, and that’s very much part of what we’re examining.”

Mr. Kerrey is dismayed by the President’s decision this week to create another commission to examine the intelligence failures in assessing Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction before the war. It’s a mission that overlaps with investigations the 9/11 panel is already doing, he claims.

“When the Bush administration began in January of ’01, their transition team rearranged the Clinton national-security agenda. The question is: Did they continue the anti-terrorism effort? Where did they put Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden on their list of national-security threats?”

The formation of a new comittee to investigate U.S. intelligence on Iraq is a neat divide-and-conquer ploy for the Bush administration: it will barely have begun its work by Election Day.

The 9/11 commission didn’t even get fully staffed or adequately funded for its first six months-and still has several hundred more interviews to do to complete its investigation-the consensus of the commissioners is that they need at least another two months to complete a thorough investigation.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert has insisted that the commission “live within the current deadline,” which is the end of May. But significant numbers of Senate Republicans, Mr. Kerrey believes, “have figured out that the best delay for them is a six-month delay, to get our report beyond the election.”

What’s good for the goose, of course, may be good for the gander. The Family Steering Committee is adamant about wanting a six-month extension-the very length that Senate Republicans, according to Mr. Kerrey, are pushing for behind the scenes.

“We were patient and waited 12 months to get the hard-hitting, investigative hearings they promised us after the New Year,” said Kristen Breitweiser, one of the widowed Four Moms from New Jersey previously profiled by this writer as the dominant force behind the very creation of the 9/11 commission. Ms. Breitweiser said they were promised a public hearing on all 12 topics in the commission’s mandate.

“They’ve already scrapped one public hearing in January and two sets in February,” she said. (A spokesman for the commission confirmed the decision to hold fewer public hearings.) “If the commission has to issue more subpoenas to get access to the people and documents they need, we don’t want time to run out while lawyers argue,” Ms. Breitweiser added.

When George Bush replaced Henry Kissinger, his first choice as chairman of the 9/11 commission, with New Jersey’s former Republican governor, the White House may have thought that the mild-mannered, aristocratic Mr. Kean would be a pushover. He is not. The White House may be relying on its five Republican appointees to the commission to ease over the rough patches for the President. But having been dissed, crawfished, starved for funds and now denied access even to the notes made by four commission members chosen to see a key Presidential briefing-the one at which Mr. Bush learned, five weeks before 9/11, that Osama bin Laden and his terrorists were an imminent threat-at least some of the commissioners feel insulted. They must all know that someday they will be questioned, perhaps by their grandchildren, about conspiracy theories certain to spring forth from the murk of facts selectively plucked by agencies and officials under the umbrella of a nervous Bush White House.

Among the 10 white faces arrayed on a raised dais in a Senate hearing room last week, only one belonged to a woman: Jamie Gorelick. A former deputy attorney general of the United States under President Clinton, Ms. Gorelick’s dimpled smile, casual turtlenecks and cocoa-warm voice obscure the steel core of a corporate litigator. Ms. Gorelick was grilling Claudio Manno, the security chief of the F.A.A., who was charged with regulating America’s air carriers.

“Our briefings have told us that in the spring-summer of 2001, the hair of the intelligence community was on fire,” Ms. Gorelick said. “A high-high state of alert existed. Did you take any enhanced security measures?”

No, came the answer from Mr. Manno, testifying for the F.A.A.. When a passenger going through security during this high state of alert set off the magnetometer, were inspectors directed to open the carry-on bag for inspection? No, came the answer. That explains why the passenger-screening program was a failure, despite having flagged five of the hijackers when they or their hand luggage set off the magnetometers.

The F.A.A.’s only requirement for security screeners at that time was to look at any knife or other object and, if it looked “menacing,” designate it as a weapon. It was the “common-sense” test. So the security screeners ran the five men through a second, less sensitive computerized magnetometer and hand-wanded them-but they never opened their carry-ons. Thus the hijackers on three of the four planes all managed to smuggle on bombs (whether real or fake) and compressed chemical sprays. Both items, obviously, were illegal.

Commissioners became exasperated as one official after another pleaded ignorance of any “specific or credible” threats of terrorism in this country.

“We know from classified brief-ings that our government was tracking Middle Eastern terrorist suspects since the year 2000 and the millennium plot to blow up LAX was foiled,” Ms. Gorelick reminded them. That catastrophe had been averted by a female Customs agent, Deanna Dean, one of the many women warriors who rose to the occasion and risked their jobs, if not their lives, in the cause of fighting a war on terrorism before the American government declared it.

Next, Ms. Gorelick drilled down through the gelatinous responses of Jane Garvey, the former F.A.A. administrator who headed the agency during both the highly tense run-up to the millennium and in September 2001.

“Again, did you take any increased measures to respond to the high-high state of alert in the spring-summer of 2001?”

“I don’t recall any,” Ms. Garvey said. “I’d have to go back and look.”

Ms. Garvey had already stalled the commission, which had to subpoena documents from the F.A.A. At this hearing, the commission learned that the F.A.A. itself had sent out a CD-ROM in July 2001 to some 700 airline executives and airports, even putting it in the Federal Registry :

“Members of foreign terrorist groups … and radical fundamentalist elements from many nations are present in the US, recruiting others for terrorist activities and training them to use explosives and airplanes. This increased threat to civil aviation abroad and within the United States exists and needs to be countered and prevented.”

The head of the F.A.A. said she had not seen that information until after 9/11.

Meanwhile, a wintry Mr. Kerrey-now silver-haired but still surly-lipped-brought new fire and outrage to the commission’s first hard-hitting hearings last week.

“One of the presumptions that keeps surfacing is that an attack on our homeland was incredible,” Mr. Kerrey said at one point during the hearings. “Yet there was a pattern beginning with the World Trade Center bombing in ’93, followed by a much more sophisticated attack on Americans in our embassies in Africa in August ’98 and the terrorist attack on the Cole in October 2000, which we knew was Al Qaeda. The possibility of a terrorist strike on our soil was obvious. Do they have to send you a memo?! You people ought to be coming to the microphone and saying, ‘We failed miserably, and it cost us like hell.’ What is this: ‘We couldn’t have imagined … ‘? These people defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan, for Godsakes!”

Mr. Kerrey, though new to the issues, has shown a keen interest in the same vital but minutely detailed questions that have bothered the families of 9/11 victims for over two years now-questions that are still unanswered.

It remains to be seen, so early in his tenure, whether Mr. Kerrey will be capable of mastering the thousands of pages of documents and monitoring the selection of interviews that are so important to the commission’s success.

Part of the problem, family members say, is that the witnesses that come before the commission appear to be cherrypicked to provide testimony that paints a rosier picture of the Bush administration’s intelligence operations before Sept. 11.

“When the commissioners insist they’re doing a thorough, independent investigation, but their staff turns away valuable whistle-blowers like Sibel Edmonds [profiled in a Jan. 26 Observer story], claiming time problems, we worry about the picture the commissioners are getting,” said Ms. Kleinberg.

Nevertheless, as the commission gets angrier, it’s becoming a serious thorn in the side of the administration-especially in an election year hypercharged with security and intelligence concerns.

While things heat up, it is difficult for the Four Moms to take much comfort.

An essential part of the healing process after a trauma of this proportion is getting at the truth, however unpleasant. As the Four Moms watched the January hearings on C-Span, they saw proof of the power of a public airing of the evidence. They want more of the same. “For things to work in government, it’s kind of like religion-you have to go on blind faith,” Ms. Kleinberg said. “We don’t have that anymore. They have to understand that part of their job is to restore the faith in government. They sometimes forget they work for the people. Well, we’re the people.”