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Context of 'March 2, 2003: 9/11 Commission Executive Director Zelikow Tries to Prevent Staff Talking Directly to Commissioners'

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At its first formal meeting, the 9/11 Commission decides it will not routinely issue subpoenas for the documents it wants from other agencies.
Different Opinions - There is some debate on the matter. Commissioner Jamie Gorelick argues that the Commission should issue subpoenas for all requests it makes to the administration for documents or other information, saying that a subpoena is simply evidence of the Commission’s determination to get what it needs. She also worries that if the Commission waits to issue subpoenas, the time limit on its activities will mean that a late subpoena could not be enforced. However, she is only supported by the other three ordinary Democratic commissioners, with the top Democrat on the Commission, Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, siding with the Republicans.
Decision Already Taken - Author Philip Shenon will write: “But [Chairman Tom] Kean and Hamilton had already made up their mind on this issue, too. There would be no routine subpoenas, they decreed; subpoenas would be seen as too confrontational, perhaps choking off cooperation from the Bush administration from the very start of the investigation.” The four Democratic commissioners cannot issue a subpoena by themselves, as it requires the approval of either six of the 10 commissioners, or both Kean and Hamilton. This is not the only occasion on which Hamilton’s Republican leanings become apparent (see March 2003-July 2004). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 70-71]
Staffer Critical - John Farmer, leader of the Commission’s team investigating events on the day of the attacks, will be critical of the decision and will urge Kean and Hamilton to change their minds. If subpoenas are issued at the start, the Commission will have time to enforce them in court and the agencies “would know that they couldn’t run out the clock,” whereas if subpoenas were issued later, after non-compliance with document requests, the agencies could use such tactics. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 201]
Difficulties with Receiving Documents - As a result of this policy, the Commission will have trouble getting documents from the White House (see June 2003), Defense Department (see July 7, 2003), FAA (see November 6, 2003), and CIA (see October 2003), leading to delays in its investigation.

Entity Tags: Lee Hamilton, John Farmer, 9/11 Commission, Jamie Gorelick, Thomas Kean

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The 9/11 Commission’s executive director Philip Zelikow issues a five-page memo, entitled “What Do I Do Now?” telling newly hired staff members how to go about their jobs on the Commission. The most controversial part of the memo prevents staffers from returning calls from commissioners, stating: “If you are contacted by a commissioner, please contact [deputy executive director] Chris [Kojm] or me. We will be sure that the appropriate members of the Commission’s staff are responsive.” Author Philip Shenon will write that the staffers are surprised by this: “It occurred to several of the staff members, especially those with experience on other federal commissions, that Zelikow was trying to cut off their contact with the people they really worked for—the commissioners.”
Part of Memo Rescinded - When commissioner Jamie Gorelick learns of the restriction, she calls the Commission’s chairman and vice chairman, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, and tells them this is unacceptable. Fellow commissioner Max Cleland also thinks the order is a bad idea, and will later say, “It violates the spirit of an open look at what the hell happened on 9/11.” Zelikow is forced to rescind this portion of the memo, allowing commissioners free access to the staff.
Other Restrictions - Other rules in the memo include:
bullet Commission staff should not disclose the exact location of the Commission’s offices for security reasons;
bullet Staffers should never talk to reporters about the Commission’s work, because “there are no innocent conversations with reporters.” Zelikow or his deputy should be notified of such calls. A breach of this rule can get a staffer fired; and
bullet All staffers have to prepare a confidential memo describing potential conflicts of interest. Shenon will comment, “Staff members who knew some of Zelikow’s own conflicts of interest found it amusing that he was so worried about theirs.” [9/11 Commission, 3/2/2003; Shenon, 2008, pp. 83-85]

Entity Tags: Philip Shenon, Jamie Gorelick, 9/11 Commission, Philip Zelikow, Max Cleland

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The 9/11 Commission releases a status report showing that various government agencies are not cooperating fully with its investigation. Neither the CIA nor the Justice Department have provided all requested documents. Lack of cooperation on the part of the Department of Defense “[is] becoming particularly serious,” and the Commission has received no responses whatsoever to requests related to national air defenses. The FBI, State Department, and Transportation Department receive generally positive reviews. [Associated Press, 7/9/2003] Commissioner Tim Roemer complains: “We’re not getting the kind of cooperation that we should be. We need a steady stream of information coming to us.… Instead, We’re getting a trickle.” [Guardian, 7/10/2003] The Commission is eventually forced to subpoena documents from the Defense Department and FAA (see November 6, 2003). Commission Chairman Tom Kean also highlights the presence of government “minders” at Commission interviews. The minders accompany witnesses the Commission is interviewing and come from the witnesses’ parent agencies. Kean says: “I think the Commission feels unanimously that it’s some intimidation to have somebody sitting behind you all the time who you either work for or works for your agency. You might get less testimony than you would.” He adds, “We would rather interview these people without minders or without agency people there.” [New York Times, 7/8/2003; Associated Press, 7/9/2003] However, Kean will later play down the effect minders are having on witnesses (see September 23, 2003), the full scope of which will be revealed in an internal Commission memo (see October 2, 2003).

Entity Tags: US Department of Transportation, US Department of Justice, US Department of Defense, US Department of State, Tim Roemer, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/11 Commission, Bush administration (43), Central Intelligence Agency, Thomas Kean

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Asked about the intimidation of 9/11 Commission witnesses by government “minders,” the Commission’s chairman, Tom Kean, downplays the effect minders are having. Although he had previously complained about intimidation (see July 7, 2003), now he says: “Talking to staff, what they have told me is that as they’ve done these interviews, that the interviewees are encouragingly frank; that they by and large have not seemed to be intimidated in any way in their answers.… I’m glad to hear that it’s—from the staff that they don’t feel it’s inhibiting the process of the interviews.” The Commission’s Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton comments, “it is our feeling that thus far, the minders have not been an impediment, in almost all cases.” He adds that there were “one or two instances where the question has arisen,” but “neither are we aware at this point that the presence of a minder has substantially impeded our inquiry. And nor have we run into a situation where we think a witness has refrained from speaking their minds.” [9/11 Commission, 9/23/2003 pdf file] Kean’s comments about the staff’s feelings are untrue. Nine days later, one of the Commission’s team leaders and two other staffers will send an internal memo entitled “Executive Branch Minders’ Intimidation of Witnesses” (see October 2, 2003).

Entity Tags: 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton, Thomas Kean

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A memo is distributed inside the 9/11 Commission discussing the problem of government minders attending 9/11 Commission interviews. The memo, entitled “Executive Branch Minders’ Intimidation of Witnesses,” is written by three staffers on the Commission’s Team 2, which reviewed the overall structure of the US intelligence community. The authors are Kevin Scheid, a senior staffer who led the team; Lorry Fenner, an Air Force intelligence officer; and lawyer Gordon Lederman. The complaint is sent to the Commission’s counsels, Daniel Marcus and Steven Dunne, about halfway through the Commission’s 19-month life. [9/11 Commission, 2003; 9/11 Commission, 10/2/2003; Shenon, 2008, pp. 87-88, 156]
Minder Interference - Typically, if a witness to be interviewed is from a government agency, such as the FBI, then one or more FBI “minders” also attend the interview. But the Team 2 memo makes clear that these minders are not simply passive observers. The memo complains: “When we have asked witnesses about certain roles and responsibilities within the intelligence community, minders have preempted witnesses’ responses by referencing formal policies and procedures. As a result, witnesses have not responded to our questions and have deprived us from understanding the intelligence community’s actual functioning and witnesses’ view of their roles and responsibilities.”
Minder Intimidation - Furthermore: “[M]inders have positioned themselves physically and have conducted themselves in a manner that we believe intimidates witnesses from giving full and candid responses to our questions. Minders generally have sat next to witnesses at the table and across from Commission staff, conveying to witnesses that minders are participants in interviews and are of equal status to witnesses.” Sometimes, minders simply “answer questions directed at witnesses.” The memo also registers concern that minders take “verbatim notes of witnesses’ statements,” and this “conveys to witnesses that their superiors will review their statements and may engage in retribution.” Furthermore, the verbatim note-taking “facilitates agencies in alerting future witnesses to the Commission’s lines of inquiry and permits agencies to prepare future witnesses either explicitly or implicitly.” The memo states that “the net effect of minders’ conduct, whether intentionally or not, is to intimidate witnesses and to interfere with witnesses providing full and candid responses.”
Not Just Team 2 - The memo makes clear that the problems are not occurring only with witnesses talking to Team 2, but also in “other teams’ interviews.” A hand-written note on a draft of the memo says, “not one agency or minder—also where we’ve sat in on other teams’ interviews.” [9/11 Commission, 10/2/2003]
Trip to Canada Provides Example - Minders are mentioned in passing in many other 9/11 Commission documents. One memo entitled “Canada Trip Lessons Learned” provides more details about how minders behave. The memo is undated, but appears to have been written by staffer Gordon Lederman in the autumn of 2003. The memo complains that one minder “acted as a participant,” “responded to inquiries,” and “consulted with” the witnesses during several interviews. This minder took verbatim notes while sitting next to witnesses, and in one interview, “sighed heavily repeatedly.” The memo further notes that the minder “had an opportunity to coach/poison the well with” the witness “at dinner the night before and with others before they arrived.” It is unclear which agency this minder is from, although she is an intelligence community attorney. The memo also complains about another minder: “He sat next to the subjects in at least two [interviews]. He responded to questions and even asked a question.” Furthermore, “He sought to describe Canadian system/organization while there were three Canadians there to talk to us.” He even invited another minder to attend a later interview; the memo notes that it should have been the 9/11 Commission staff inviting the minders. [9/11 Commission, 2003]
Proposed Action - The memo does not propose that minders should be banned from interviews, but instead suggests a set of rules governing minder conduct. For example, minders should keep a “low profile,” sit out of witnesses’ sight, not take verbatim notes, and not answer any questions directed at the witnesses. The memo also proposes that there should be only one minder per witness, which reveals that witnesses being outnumbered by minders is a common problem. [9/11 Commission, 10/2/2003]
9/11 Commissioners Ignorant or Dishonest about Minders - It is not known if any of the proposals are implemented. However, no documentary evidence will emerge to suggest they are implemented. Furthermore, the heads of the Commission appear to be either oblivious or dishonest regarding the role of minders. In early July 2003, Commission chairman Tom Kean, a Republican, discussed minders in a press briefing, saying: “I think the Commission feels unanimously that it’s some intimidation to have somebody sitting behind you all the time who you either work for or works for your agency. You might get less testimony than you would” (see July 7, 2003). [New York Times, 7/8/2003] But at a later press briefing on September 23, 2003, Kean no longer saw minders as intimidating. Instead, he said: “Talking to staff, what they have told me is that as they’ve done these interviews, that the interviewees are encouragingly frank; that they by and large have not seemed to be intimidated in any way in their answers.… I’m glad to hear that it’s—from the staff that they don’t feel it’s inhibiting the process of the interviews.” In the same press briefing, vice chairman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, commented, “it is our feeling that thus far, the minders have not been an impediment, in almost all cases.” He added that there were “one or two instances where the question has arisen,” but, “neither are we aware at this point that the presence of a minder has substantially impeded our inquiry. And nor have we run into a situation where we think a witness has refrained from speaking their minds” (see September 23, 2003). These comments were made just nine days before the previously discussed memo entitled “Executive Branch Minders’ Intimidation of Witnesses” is sent. [9/11 Commission, 9/23/2003 pdf file] It is unclear if Kean and Hamilton were lying or were just oblivious. 9/11 Commission executive director Philip Zelikow generally controls and limits the flow of information between commissioners and staffers to such a degree that even near the end of the Commission’s tenure, one staffer will confront a commissioner in a bathroom in an attempt to get a complaint to her (see March 2, 2003 and July 2004).
No Press Coverage - The issue of minder intimidation will not be made public until 2009, when some of the 9/11 Commission’s source documents are made public. Even then, there will be no mainstream media coverage of the issue.

Entity Tags: Kevin Scheid, Gordon Lederman, Lorry Fenner, 9/11 Commission, Daniel Marcus, Steven Dunne, Philip Zelikow

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Several months into its investigation, the 9/11 Commission is already dissatisfied with the Department of Defense (see July 7, 2003).
Recorded Conversations Not Provided to Commission - When its staff take a tour of a Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) facility in Rome, New York, which helped coordinate the air defense on the day of 9/11, the staff enter the operations room, which has “more than 20 banks of operators: some weapons controllers and some flight controllers.” The staff find that the operators’ conversations are always tape-recorded, but the tapes for 9/11 have not yet been sent to the Commission. In addition, according to Commission Chairman Tom Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, “there were also discrepancies between things NORAD was telling [the Commission] about their performance on the morning of September 11—things that the agency had stated publicly after 9/11—and the story told by the limited tapes and documents the Commission had received.”
'Egregious' Failure - Upon learning of the existence of the tapes, team leader John Farmer immediately suspends the tour and the interviews and flies to meet Kean in New Jersey. [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 85-88] Farmer will say that the failure to produce the tapes was “egregious,” as, “Those tapes told the story of the air defense better than anything else that anyone could have given us.”
Subpoena Demanded - Farmer demands that a subpoena be issued to the Pentagon for the tapes. He tells Kean: “Listen, we have to subpoena this stuff. We may not get it, but if we don’t try to get it, how can you explain to the public that we have done our job?” Farmer is aware that it will be difficult to get a subpoena on the Pentagon—“When you’re talking about subpoenaing the DOD, the room goes quiet”—but he decides privately: “I would have quit if we didn’t. I felt we were becoming a laughingstock.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 204]
Lost Time - Despite opposition from its Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton (see (Late October-Early November 2003)) and, allegedly, its Executive Director Philip Zelikow (see November 5, 2003), the Commission will subpoena NORAD for the tapes (see November 6, 2003). However, according to Kean and Hamilton, this means that “the staff had lost so much time that our hearing on the 9/11 story in the skies was postponed for months. Indeed, the delays from NORAD and the FAA made it highly unlikely that the team could complete its work as scheduled.” [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 85-88] Chapter 1 of the Commission’s final report will draw heavily on the tapes. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 1-46]
Contrast with Other Aspects of Investigation - However, the Commission does not make the same effort with all day of 9/11 recordings. For example, it does not even find out which person(s) from the Department of Defense participated in a White House video conference chaired by counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke during the attacks (see (9:10 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 36]

Entity Tags: Northeast Air Defense Sector, Lee Hamilton, 9/11 Commission, John Farmer, Thomas Kean

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The 9/11 Commission votes to issue a subpoena on the Defense Department for documents withheld from it regarding the fighter response on the day of the attacks. The vote follows a demand from the Commission’s team investigating the air defense that it be issued, as the military has been withholding documents and making false statements (see Late October 2003), as well as the failure of last-ditch attempts to stop the subpoena’s issue (see (Late October-Early November 2003) and November 5, 2003).
Chairman Kean Has Decisive Vote - The four ordinary Democratic commissioners vote for the subpoena’s issue, but Democratic Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton votes against, together with three ordinary Republican commissioners. The fourth Republican commissioner, Slade Gorton, votes for the subpoena. This means that Tom Kean, the Commission’s Republican chairman, has the deciding vote, and he votes for the subpoena. He dislikes voting against Hamilton, but thinks NORAD is trying to hide something. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 207-208]
'Especially Dismayed' - In a statement issued after the vote, the Commission says it is “especially dismayed” by incomplete document production on the part of NORAD. The Commission explains, “In several cases we were assured that all requested records had been produced, but we then discovered, through investigation, that these assurances were mistaken.” [Associated Press, 11/7/2003]
Documents Expose Apparent False Statements by NORAD - When the documents arrive, according to author Philip Shenon, they show that “NORAD’s public statements about its actions on 9/11 had been wrong, almost certainly intentionally.” Based on interviews of 9/11 Commission staffers, Shenon will add: “This was not the fog of war. This was the military trying to come up with a story that made its performance during 9/11 look reasonably competent, when in fact the military had effectively left the nation’s skies undefended that morning.” In particular, tape recordings of communications at NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) indicate that the military did not know of the hijacking of Flight 93 until it had crashed. 9/11 Commission team leader John Farmer will even say that it is “99 percent” certain that Pentagon officers knew they were lying when they made statements to the Commission, sometimes under oath. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 208]

Entity Tags: Slade Gorton, Thomas Kean, US Department of Defense, Philip Shenon, Lee Hamilton, 9/11 Commission, John Farmer, North American Aerospace Defense Command

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

9/11 Commission staffers that looked at the FBI’s performance prior to the attacks are amazed when they read a draft of the report. The draft recommends almost no changes at the FBI and says that, regarding FBI reforms, “we defer to Director Mueller.” Several staffers go so far as to call this a “whitewash,” as they want an overhaul at the FBI, in particular of its counterterrorist operations. One of the staffers, Caroline Barnes, decides she has to appeal this to the commissioners. However, Executive Director Philip Zelikow does not like staffers talking to the commissioners directly (see March 2, 2003), so Barnes has to make contact with them in a place where Zelikow will not see it. She corners female commissioner Jamie Gorelick in the ladies’ room and tells her the staff are uncomfortable with what the report recommends about the FBI. Gorelick is concerned, and arranges for the whole of the team dealing with the FBI to brief the commissioners before the recommendations are approved. This leads to some minor changes in the final report. The phrase about deferring to the FBI director is edited out, and the commission calls on the bureau to promote the work of counterterrorist agents instead of treating them like second-class citizens. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 403-404]

Entity Tags: Jamie Gorelick, 9/11 Commission, Caroline Barnes, Philip Zelikow

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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