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Context of 'October 2, 2003: 9/11 Commission Staffers Complain about ‘Executive Branch Minders’ Intimidation of Witnesses’'

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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

Kevin Scheid.Kevin Scheid. [Source: Abledangerblog(.com)]After finding that nobody else on the 9/11 Commission is interested in what the NSA knew about al-Qaeda in general and the 9/11 plot in particular (see Late 2002-July 2004 and Late 2003), commission staffer Lorry Fenner decides to try to read through a portion of the material herself. Fenner is “astonished” that nobody from the commission’s team investigating the 9/11 plot is reading the material, and thinks about asking her boss, Kevin Scheid, to tell the commission’s executive director Philip Zelikow that somebody should read the material. However, Scheid resists a confrontation with Zelikow, and Fenner does not want to go over her boss’s head and talk to Zelikow herself. Therefore, although she has other duties on the commission, she starts to read through the material herself. There are tens of thousands of pages of NSA documents about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and, according to author Philip Shenon, “It would take several days of reading to get through even a small portion of it.” Fenner spends “two or three hours” on “several days” between January and June in the reading room, and some colleagues help her towards the end (see June 2004 and Between July 1 and July 17, 2004), but most of the information will go unread by the 9/11 Commission. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 156-7, 370]

Entity Tags: Philip Zelikow, National Security Agency, Kevin Scheid, Lorry Fenner, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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