Former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger and former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell were appointed yesterday to lead a high-profile commission probing the intelligence and security flaws that allowed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to succeed.
President Bush, signing legislation creating the 10-member panel, named Kissinger its chairman and charged him to "follow all the facts, wherever they lead." Hours after Bush's naming of the Nixon- and Ford-era diplomatic luminary, Democratic congressional leaders tapped Mitchell (D-Maine), a globetrotting peace negotiator, to be the panel's vice chairman.
The appointment of Kissinger, 79, ended months of wrangling with Congress over the commission's composition and the scope of its work. It was interpreted by lawmakers in both parties and by families of the Sept. 11 victims as evidence that the Bush administration has come to the view, as the president said yesterday, that "we must uncover every detail and learn every lesson of September the 11th."
The White House originally opposed the creation of such an independent commission, then sought to keep its focus away from intelligence matters. As recently as this month, as negotiations bogged down, the White House threatened to create a weaker commission by executive order. But Bush changed his position amid the growing bipartisan support generated by the lobbying of the victims' families for a commission supplementing the joint House-Senate intelligence committee investigation that is now ending.
"I have been given every assurance by the president that we should go where the facts lead us and that we're not restricted by any foreign policy considerations," Kissinger said in the White House driveway after his appointment. "We are under no restrictions, and we would accept no restrictions."
Despite the enormous scope of its 18-month inquiry, only $3 million has initially been allocated to cover its costs. And though Kissinger promised a "nonpartisan" inquiry, the commission is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, and its report is due to be issued in the middle of a presidential election year.
Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has raised concerns voiced privately by other legislators that the panel would become "a blame game commission" and is being supported by "people here [in Congress] that want to try and find blame within the government, whether it is in the CIA or the FBI or within the administration." Added LaHood: "To try and get 10 people from the outside to come in and understand all of this in such a short period of time, I think, holds out a very big false hope."
Much will depend on the composition of the panel; lawmakers have until Dec. 15 to name the other eight members. The commission, with five Democratic and five GOP appointees, will generally need six votes to issue subpoenas, raising the possibility of partisan deadlock. To minimize that danger, Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), who were selected by the victims' families because they favor an aggressive inquiry, will have the power to approve one of the GOP members.
People who have been mentioned as possible commission members are former senators Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.), former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) and retiring Rep. Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), and Eleanor Hill, staff director of the joint congressional inquiry. Other possibilities face opposition from victims' family groups because of ties to businesses and other entities that might be probed by the commission.
Some family members were at yesterday's White House signing ceremony and were recognized by Bush, who told them: "There's a lot of people continuing to pray for you. . . . [In] working for this commission, you've been motivated by a noble goal -- you want to spare the Americans the kind of suffering you faced." Kissinger met with the group before the signing and pledged to meet with them once a month and assign a staff member to work with them full time.
"The appointment of Dr. Kissinger indicates the White House is taking this very seriously," said Stephen Push, treasurer of Families of Sept. 11. "This is a good start."
Kissinger enjoys the reputation of an elder statesman because of his experience as a national security adviser and secretary of state during the time of the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the U.S. opening up to China. But he has limited experience in domestic security matters, such as visa operations and airline safety, that the commission will handle. And he has a large number of critics who accuse him of dishonest diplomatic actions regarding Cambodia, Vietnam and Chile. He is also considered too close to the intelligence community and the Bush administration to permit an honest appraisal of their failures.
But lawmakers who favor a strong commission expressed confidence in Bush's choice. "Dr. Kissinger, I am sure, does not want this latest act of public service to end in a way that people can say it was either done incompletely or in a partisan way, or in a way that protected anyone or any institution or agency or any country," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said in the White House driveway after Bush's announcement. McCain's office issued a statement saying Kissinger's "depth of experience and broad knowledge of both intelligence and government will undoubtedly help to achieve the commission's objectives."
Both Kissinger and Mitchell were seen as polarizing figures at times in their careers but now command broad respect as wise men in their parties.
Legislation establishing the new commission directs it to "build upon the investigations of other entities and avoid unnecessary duplication," specifically noting the joint committees' inquiry. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies are listed as targets of the commission, as are diplomatic activities, visas, border control practices, commercial aviation and even the roles of Congress in oversight and the allocation of funds.
Among the issues the panel is likely to grapple: the coordination among the FBI, the CIA and the rest of the national security and intelligence apparatus, and how well these agencies "connect the dots" from intelligence leads; the coordination of the State Department's visa operations and the Immigration and Naturalization Service's handling of immigrants and foreign students to prevent foreign nationals with terrorist ties from entering the country; the effort to improve aviation and airport security; and the integration of national law enforcement and intelligence with the work of state and local authorities.
Shelby said Kissinger brings "respect and prestige" to the commission, but he added that "it is very important the rest of the appointees have a deep knowledge of intelligence and are willing to put the time in that is necessary for this inquiry." Shelby said he will meet with McCain next week to determine who their nominee will be.
One thorny question facing the commission will be whether to take testimony from Bush himself. Asked about that possibility, Kissinger replied: "I don't know whom we will want to question, but we will get at all the facts. And the president has promised us that all the facts will be made available."
Lieberman, however, made clear that he would be surprised if the commission "did not want to speak with this president and high officials in this administration, and previous presidents and high officials in previous administrations."
The signing of the Intelligence Authorization Act, which provides for a large increase in the classified intelligence budget in 2003, said to be near $38 billion, was the subject of Bush's last official appearance before he headed to his ranch in Texas for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.