Can Bush Handle Panel’s Questions?

The people in charge of the United States government, up to and including the President, are firm believers in the concept of accountability. So they always say, and there is no reason to doubt them-as long as someone else is being held accountable. How our leaders feel about being held accountable themselves has been illustrated once more, as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States prepared for its first public hearings a few blocks from Ground Zero.

For more than a year, the Bush White House resisted and sabotaged the work of the 9/11 commission, as it is more commonly known. Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and President Bush have all warned members of Congress against an independent investigation, claiming that its work would interfere with the war on terrorism. When that argument crumbled, and Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman pushed a commission into existence, the President appointed Henry Kissinger, the dean of deception, as its chair. And ever since public outrage forced Mr. Kissinger to step aside last summer, the administration has sought to deprive the commission of the money needed to complete its mission.

Of course, White House spokesmen have insisted all along that the President supports the commission. They said that even as the paltry $3 million provided for it dwindled away, and even as their budget negotiators nickel-and-dimed the commission last week over its tiny portion of the administration’s $75 billion supplemental budget request.

Having approved a swift appropriation of $50 million to investigate the Columbia shuttle disaster, the White House turned down the request by 9/11 commission chairman Thomas Kean for an additional $11 million. Instead, the former New Jersey governor, a loyal Bush Republican, was forced to accept only $9 million. He didn’t deserve that humiliation, which only casts additional doubt on the administration’s commitment to the truth.

It offends decency that the Republicans, who were only too happy to spend upward of $30 million investigating Whitewater, suddenly pull the purse strings tight for a probe into the deaths of 3,000 Americans in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the planes hijacked by Al Qaeda. (These are the same Republicans telling us not to worry too much about the yawning federal deficit.)

Against that discouraging backdrop, representatives of the bereaved families who have fought to learn the full story behind the Sept. 11 attacks made themselves heard at the old Custom House in Bowling Green on March 31. Along with a few of the police officers and firefighters who suffered horrendously that day, the family members recounted some of the many stories of loss and survival now so familiar to us. Amid the gasps and tears, they also brought another message to the commissioners: resist the cover-up.

Specifically, the family members and the broader public want to know who was responsible for the intelligence and bureaucratic errors that enabled the terrorists to strike-and they want those officials held accountable. Said the courageous Stephen Push, whose wife died on the plane that hit the Pentagon and who speaks for the Families of Sept. 11: “I think this commission should point fingers. I’m not suggesting that you find scapegoats, but there were people-people in responsible positions-who failed us.”

To Mr. Kean’s credit, he didn’t attempt to contradict that unvarnished insight. “There is no doubt that government failed to do its job,” he acknowledged. The problem that he and his fellow commissioners now confront is the same problem that almost prevented them from convening their first hearing. “Government” is not just an abstraction, but a concrete entity composed of individuals with personal and partisan interests at stake in this investigation’s outcome. At the top sit the President and his advisers, on whose watch this disaster occurred.

From the first days following the attacks, even as politicians of both parties rallied behind President Bush, conservative propaganda has tried to focus blame for the terror assault’s success on his predecessor. That alibi fit perfectly with the continuing Clinton obsession of the Republican right, whose motives are suspect. Still, there were surely mistakes that should be laid to the Clinton administration, particularly with regard to airline-security measures that were recommended by former Vice President Al Gore and never implemented.

But there is also much to be explored about the actions-and inaction-of the Bush administration during the nine months that led up to Sept. 11. And there is much to be explained by the President, Mr. Cheney, Ms. Rice and other officials about the severe warnings they ignored while pursuing other agendas.

While Mr. Kean has few visible qualifications for the duty he has undertaken, other members of the commission possess the experience and skills needed to uncover the truth. Should they fail, all of them will indeed be held accountable. That is what those sad, angry families showed up to tell them.

Can Bush Handle Panel’s Questions?