In an about-face, White House backs broad 9/11 inquiry

Letter from Bush aide says president supports independent commission

September 21, 2002|By BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has endorsed setting up an independent commission to investigate the failures of U.S. intelligence, law enforcement and other agencies before the Sept. 11 attacks, reversing its position in the face of mounting support in Congress for such an inquiry.

President Bush had adamantly opposed an independent inquiry, saying it would compromise national security and distract from counter-terrorism efforts. But in a letter yesterday to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, Bush's congressional lobbyist said the White House had changed its opinion.

"I am writing to express the administration's strong support for the establishment of a 9/11 commission that will build on the work of the congressional Intelligence committees' joint inquiry," White House aide Nicholas Calio wrote.

The turnabout was made during a week of revelations of repeated warnings of potential terrorist attacks.

House and Senate Intelligence committee members heard yesterday from FBI and CIA agents, whose identities were shielded by a screen, about obstacles to counter-terrorism investigations.

On Wednesday, congressional investigators issued a report that detailed information warning of a terrorist attack against the United States and noted repeated references in intelligence intercepts to the use of aircraft as weapons.

Intelligence officials were also reported to have received information indicating that al-Qaida was recruiting members in the United States and that terrorists were offering a $9 million-per-head bounty for the assassination of high-ranking administration officials. The report did not show that the government had specific advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Leaders of Sept. 11 victims groups have been pushing for an independent inquiry.

The administration's change of heart represents the second time the White House has reversed course on a terrorism issue when it became clear that Congress might override White House objections. In June, the Bush administration agreed to back the creation of a Department of Homeland Security despite earlier opposition.

That policy switch also was made amid disclosures of the failure of federal agencies to collate and follow up on warnings of a terrorist threat. In June, FBI agent Coleen Rowley testified before Congress about the agency's failure to follow up aggressively on evidence that might have implicated accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.

Lawmakers learned yesterday that two hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, were able to live openly in San Diego, renewing their visas, even after they were spotted at an al-Qaida meeting in Malaysia.

But a New York-based FBI agent, whose identity was protected by a screen in the hearing room, said he was denied permission to use his office's full resources to find Almihdhar because of the "wall" between law enforcement and intelligence.

"Someday someone will die - and wall or not - the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at certain problems," the agent had replied in an e-mail to his superiors.

The Senate is expected Tuesday to take up a proposal by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, to create an independent blue-ribbon commission to study all aspects of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We appreciate that the White House has switched its position and is again following Senator Lieberman's lead," said Lieberman spokeswoman Leslie Phillips. "We look forward to engaging in a dialogue."

The House has already approved the establishment of an independent panel to investigate the intelligence failures preceding Sept. 11. Some senators contend that the House bill is not sweeping enough.

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