9/11 commission questions al-Qaida leaders U.S. holds

Arrangements for contact, any answers are withheld

May 12, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - At least two top al-Qaida leaders in U.S. custody are being questioned by the panel investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as part of its quest to determine the root cause of the disaster and whether it could have been prevented.

Commission Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton told reporters yesterday that the panel has worked out a secret arrangement with the White House allowing members to pose questions to detainees, though he did not say what sort of answers, if any, they have received.

Although Hamilton would not identify the captives being questioned, he suggested they were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, accused of masterminding the attacks.

Hamilton would not elaborate but said the commission will include as much information as possible in the declassified version of the report due July 26.

"We have had a procedure in mind ... whereby we are able to ask questions of these detainees, and that is still being processed and worked out," he said. "We think the result will be that we will have the information we need from these people."

Mohammed, Binalshibh and Abu Zubaida, a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, are all being interrogated in secret locations outside the United States.

"One of the most closely held secrets is where these people are. We were told the president doesn't know where they are," Hamilton said.

Hamilton and commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean said they are working to produce a report early, to avoid releasing it on the July 26 deadline, the same day the Democratic convention begins in Boston.

"We don't want our report used in a partisan manner, so we will do everything we can to get our report out as soon as possible," said Kean.

Members are hoping to submit chapters of the report in advance to the White House, which must review it to ensure no classified information is made public. He said the group wants to avoid the type of delay Congress faced when lawmakers detailed the failures that led to the attacks in a bipartisan report in July 2003.

That inquiry involved a months-long battle with the White House over what information could be declassified.

Kean said that in recent months his group has had unprecedented access to information and cooperation from the White House. The panel has not had to use the subpoena power granted to it to compel witnesses to testify.

"We have had access to documents that nobody has ever had access to before in the Congress or investigatory committees," he said. "We have gotten in the end every document we have requested."

Kean said he isn't sure whether all the commission members will sign the final report, but he hopes the group will be unanimous in support of the panel's findings.

"This is a very independent group of people and they were appointed in the most partisan ways," he said. "We are going to do our best to get a unanimous report, but unanimous reports [from such a panel] are rare."

Either way, both Kean and Hamilton said they want to see results from the report.

"We haven't worked a year and a half to have our recommendations put on the shelf," Kean said.

The commission will hold public hearings in New York next week to examine the emergency response on the day of the attacks and what could have been done better.

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