White House Whitewash

A conflict of interest at the heart of the US 9/11 Commission hearings has been exposed by the families of the Twin Towers victims. Neil Mackay reports

ANDREW Rice is angry with George Bush. His brother David was 31 years old when he died as United Airlines Flight 175 ploughed into the south tower of the World Trade Centre where David worked as a financier with the investment firm Sandler O’Neill.
Andrew doesn’t buy the rhetoric from the White House that Bush is a great war president who can make America stronger and safer. To Andrew, Bush is a charlatan making a mockery out of the deaths of his brother and the some 3000 other men, women and children who died on September 11, 2001.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Andrew Rice might then be glad to see the bloody battering that the Bush administration took this week during the ongoing commission hearings in Washington into whether or not the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented.
Bush and his team were painted as a feckless, lazy and ill-informed bunch who had little clue about al-Qaeda, and were fixated on Iraq. Security seemed far from the top of their agenda while an ideological obsession with taking out Saddam appeared to obscure the real dangers posed by Osama bin Laden’s network of fundamentalist killers.
But the hammering that Bush took during the hearings did little to appease Rice and other family members like him. To Rice, who chairs the 9/11 Commission Committee of the September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows organisation, the whole inquiry is one big fix that will do everything it can to hide the truth of what the US president and his closest advisors knew about the attacks.
Last week saw Dick Clarke, the former White House anti-terrorism chief under Bush and Bill Clinton, give evidence before the inquiry. Most of America already knew what he was going to say as they’d read it in his bestseller Against all Enemies where he claimed that the Bush administration ignored mounting warnings of a coming terror attack. Clarke said that when 9/11 did happen the Bush inner circle was desperate to link it to Saddam .
Clarke also said that Bush’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, who has refused to testify before the 9/11 Commission under oath, didn’t seem to know what al-Qaeda was. Rice gave Clarke the brush-off when he warned Bush officials in a January 2001 memo about the growing al-Qaeda threat. Dilatory plans by the Bush administration to deal with al-Qaeda, which weren’t finalised until a week before the 9/11 attacks, were scorned by commission member Bob Kerry, who said he’d seen the document and it contained “nothing new whatsoever”.
While Democrats might be whooping it up at the expense of Bush, Andrew Rice and many other families of 9/11 victims see these events as nothing more than political point-scoring. They don’t care which politician comes off best, what they care about is the truth and they are sure that they are not going to get it.
You can hardly blame Rice for his pessimism. Many family members believe the “fix was in” from the very beginning and cite the appointment of Philip Zelikow as the commission’s executive director as proof positive.
Zelikow was a Bush-appointee who served on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board; he worked under Jim Baker, the former US secretary of state under George Bush Sr; spent three years on the first President Bush’s National Security Council and, as well as working with Condoleezza Rice, wrote two books with her as well.
Zelikow supported the White House when the administration said it would only release the president’s daily briefings (PDB), prepared by the CIA, to the commission once they had been edited. Zelikow said: “ The notion that the commission should want to read PDB articles that have nothing to do with al-Qaeda would be a novel suggestion.”
One Democrat on the commission, Timothy Roemer, said agreeing to the White House demands would remove the context in which intelligence was presented and allow any “smoking guns” to be hidden from public scrutiny.
The White House acknowledged back in 2002 that a copy of the PDB in August 2001 noted that al-Qaeda might use hijacked planes in an attack on the USA. The commission has designated four members to read the reports. They will be allowed to take notes, but the White House can edit their notes to remove anything deemed sensitive.
Family members believe Zelikow’s key conflict of interest stems from his role in the transition period between the Clinton and Bush presidencies. It was then that Zelikow worked on Bush’s team to smooth the handover in terms of intelligence and to help formulate national security policy.
The Clinton administration has claimed that al-Qaeda was a top security priority. Zelikow would know, therefore, just how much importance both the Clinton and Bush governments placed on al-Qaeda. He would also have had a role in fine-tuning the Bush policy on al-Qaeda.
Clarke says he clearly and bluntly warned Bush officials about the risk of al-Qaeda when they took office. “It was very explicit,” he said. “Rice was briefed ... and Zelikow sat in.” Al Felzenberg, spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, said there was no question of any conflict of interests regarding Zelikow.
Andrew Rice seethes over information like this. “I’ve contacted the commission to say that it’s laughable that Zelikow was appointed to such a position. I have big problems with the White House editing the PDBs, but Zelikow defended the decision. He worked with these people and now he is defending them.
“This commission was created by the establishment and the friends of the establishment are now part of the commission. Is it really an investigation? Zelikow is a symbol of the way this inquiry has been constructed. As far as the Clinton and Bush administrations being held to account – we won’t hear about it. It is not about transparency, it is just there to appease the public.
“But it won’t appease me or many other family members. We need a truly independent commission that is outside the realm of government. Zelikow should never have been in this in the first place. Aren’t there other and better people out there who didn’t work with Condoleezza Rice?
“The worst case scenario is that I fear this could be a whitewash and a cover-up. We know these people were obsessed with Iraq and not al-Qaeda – and that could ruin the administration. We also know the administration had strong ties to the Saudis.
“Bush only wants to be re-elected. It is so disingenuous of him to portray himself as the 9/11 president. He doesn’t want people to look at all the dirty relationships.”
The commission findings won’t be published until April 2005 – after the presidential election in November. “We know the commission’s findings can’t affect the election, so why don’t we push back the deadline further and get a new guy in?” asks Rice.
“ No-one at any level of government – from a security guard at an airport to the President – has been held accountable for the biggest security failure in the history of this country.”
Rice suspects that at the end of the inquiry a “figure like Ollie North will take the spear in the chest, while the rest will all be protected”.
“In a situation like this, there is so little I can do,” he adds. “I’m as powerless as when I watched my brother murdered on TV. We have so little recourse to find out who is responsible, who, by their mistakes and incompetency, helped this happen.
“ My brother’s death will not be in vain. I have to work hard to illuminate the hypocrisy of politicians who want to benefit from these tragedies while not caring about transparency.
“There is such a lack of humility. Bush runs ads draping himself in this tragedy. My brother wouldn’t have wanted that. If we want to be secure then we need to know the full truth.”
When Clarke told the September 11 families crowded into the commission chamber that he was sorry, that “the government failed you and I failed you”, they got to their feet, with tears in their eyes, and cheered and clapped him. Why the outpouring of thanks and sadness? Simple, says Kirsten Breitweiser, a 9/11 families spokeswoman: “It was the first time we received an apology, or any acknowledgement of mistakes.”