9/11 Inquiry Panel, Citing Access Hurdles, Seeks More Time

Times Staff Writer

The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks has approached the White House and congressional leaders about securing more time to continue its inquiry, panel officials said Tuesday.

Members of the commission said delays in obtaining materials from numerous agencies and constraints on access to sensitive White House documents were among the factors that had made them skeptical that the panel could produce a comprehensive report by its May 27 deadline.

The push for an extension has created new friction between the panel and the Bush administration, which is concerned that a delay could lead to the release of damaging information about its counterterrorism efforts as the presidential campaign is heating up in late summer.


Al Felzenberg, a commission spokesman, said the White House had not responded to an approach from several commissioners in recent days expressing concern that the existing deadline may be unrealistic. “They didn’t say no, they didn’t say yes,” Felzenberg said.

But two other commission sources said the administration made clear it opposed an extension, and that the panel must decide whether to press its case with the public and on Capitol Hill, over White House objections. A Bush administration lawyer reached at the White House on Tuesday refused to discuss the matter; a spokesman for the National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.

The standoff comes at a particularly delicate moment for the commission in its relationship with the White House. Felzenberg said the panel was in the process of submitting requests to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to appear before the commission. Similar requests also will go to former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.

And the commission is still poring over highly classified intelligence documents, known as the “president’s daily brief,” which could show whether Bush was told ahead of time about the possibility of airplane attacks like those on Sept. 11, 2001. The commission recently was granted access to those documents after lengthy negotiations. The White House imposed restrictions that allow only a handful of members to see the materials.

The Bush administration initially had opposed the creation of the commission. When it dropped the objection under political pressure, the administration pressed to shorten the panel’s lifespan from the 24 months proposed in the original legislation to 18 months.

Until now, the commission has said that it was committed to producing a final report within 18 months. But officials said that members got into a heated discussion at a Jan. 5 meeting over whether the panel could hit the deadline without sacrificing the quality of its work. The prospect of a delay was first reported on Newsweek’s website this week.

Felzenberg said the commission did not take a vote or adopt a formal position on the matter, but at least one commissioner said a majority favored seeking an extension.

“Most of the people on the commission believe that additional time is necessary,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor and one of five Democrats on the 10-member panel. Ben-Veniste said he believes the commission could finish its work with an extra two months. Others are pressing for three to five months.

Another Democratic member, former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, said an extension was necessary largely because the administration had dragged its heels in providing access.

In addition to protracted negotiations over the president’s daily brief, the panel has criticized numerous federal agencies for being slow to turn over records, and has issued subpoenas to the Federal Aviation Administration, the North American Aerospace Defense Command and New York City to get them to comply with demands for materials.

“We’ve taken too much time dealing with access when we’ve been wanting to submerge ourselves in substance,” Roemer said. “Asking for a couple more months for the most important investigation in the history of the country is, I think, a reasonable and sound request.”

Felzenberg said the Republican co-chairman of the commission, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, opposes an extension. “He feels we’ve got the stuff and that we should continue to put in extra hours and try to meet the deadline,” Felzenberg said. Kean was not available for comment, nor was his Democratic counterpart, former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton.

The panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, is charged with investigating government agencies for their failure to detect or prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

Felzenberg said the panel had conducted more than 800 interviews but that it had “almost an equal number planned” in the coming months. The commission also has obtained more than 2 million pages of documents to examine before it produces its report.

Times staff writers Maura Reynolds in Monterrey, Mexico, and Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report.