9/11 panel undermined by delays
Sunday, November 23, 2003
Only six months remain until the final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States -- more commonly known as the 9/11 Commission. May 2004 was the due date established by Congress and President Bush a year ago, when former N.J. Gov. Tom Kean was appointed to head the commission.
But six more months will not be enough. Not nearly.
Eighteen months didn't seem unreasonable when the commission was established. After all, Congress had completed its own investigation, so much of the fact-finding had been accomplished. A year and a half seemed to be time enough to enlist commission members, get them security clearance, examine the existing data and conduct additional interviews.
What the commission members couldn't foresee, however, was an endless succession of roadblocks that would delay its investigation at every turn.
It took Congress months to release the boxes and boxes of pertinent data. Other sources were no more facilitating. Last May, the commission asked the FAA for all documents pertinent to tracking the hijacked airliners, including all communications with NORAD. It was September before they arrived. Then it was discovered another crucial cache of tapes, statements and agency assessments was missing. It took until the middle of October to get them.
The White House proved no more cooperative, refusing -- until just this month -- to allow the commission to review classified information it had requested repeatedly.
Now the commission is issuing a subpoena to the City of New York for critical documents. The request was made four months ago.
Kean has been very diplomatic about all this. But it's safe to say that, when he was appointed, he couldn't have imagined his commission would spend its precious time not interviewing the right people because the panel hadn't been given the material that would tell them who those people are.
Neither the Bush administration nor Congress wanted this investigation. Essentially, they were forced into it by those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 and were dissatisfied with the outcome of the first inquiry. It was their persistence -- primarily that of wives and mothers of victims -- that pushed Congress and the president into creating the 9/11 Commission.
And when they did, they imposed the tightest possible timetable.
Be assured there will not be another formal, high-level investigation into Sept. 11. No amount of pleading and pressuring will get this Congress -- or any future Congress -- to order such an investigation. The trail is getting cold, in any case. This is the last shot at a thorough examination of everything associated with Sept. 11. That's why it is essential this report be a fully informed analysis of what happened and what needs to be done to enhance security in the event of future attacks.
That every expert on record believes such an attack will happen again underscores the urgent need for the 9/11 Commission to get the whole picture.
To note just one specific area: the safety of workers in tall buildings. No mandate to prevent the structural liabilities that made the World Trade Center towers so vulnerable -- lightweight floors, substandard fireproofing, the absence of an automated sprinkler system, no water source -- has yet been considered, never mind issued.
The compelling need to take such measures was convincingly argued by Skyscraper Safety Campaign chairwoman and founder Sally Regenhard and her co-chairwoman Monica Gabrielle at the commission's public hearing last week at Drew University in Madison.
Gabrielle, of Connecticut, recounted watching in horror from her Lower Manhattan office as the towers collapsed, knowing her husband, Richard, was among those trapped. Noting the towers' numerous safety shortcomings, she detailed the number of warnings dating back to 1975 that should have resulted in adequate retrofitting and safety upgrading.
Regenhard, a lifelong Bronx resident who lost her son Christian, a probationary firefighter with Engine Company 279, said she remains appalled at the absence of a terrorism plan by the City of New York and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, "despite the fact that the WTC was previously attacked in 1993, with deadly consequences."
The commission, she maintains, cannot call its inquiry complete without summoning testimony from former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the city's former fire and police commissioners.
"These were the players," she told several reporters following her testimony. "The buzz words are that they failed to connect the dots. Gimme a break. What did they do with nearly two dozen discreet warnings? Did Giuliani know? Was the Port Authority informed? What discussions did the P.A. and the city of New York have on these issues?
"Why did the city send my son to his death in a building that didn't meet the city's fire and safety codes, with a radio that didn't work?"
This commission, these women say, is the last best hope to put these questions forward and galvanize public opinion for real change -- before the inevitable ongoing sweep of events relegates them to the B-list.
There is no doubt the commission wants to deliver. But that cannot happen unless Congress passes -- and the President signs -- a bill to fund its extension, perhaps for an additional 12 months.
We need to make our elected representatives see that this isn't about satisfying maudlin curiosity. It's about saving lives next time. Our lives.
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