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Context of 'November 6, 2003: Despite White House Obstruction, 9/11 Commission Votes Not to Subpoena Presidential Daily Briefs'

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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

White House counsel Alberto Gonzales denies a request made by the 9/11 Commission for access to a number of White House documents pertaining to 9/11, citing executive privilege. The documents date from both the Clinton and Bush administrations. The request is made by Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director, who believes the Commission must see the documents if it is to do its job properly, and that the White House has already indicated the Commission will get what it wants. The documents include highly classified presidential daily briefings (PDBs), the “crown jewels” of US intelligence reporting. Only a very few such PDBs have ever been made available, from the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Zelikow says the Commission needs to see the PDBs so it can determine what warnings Clinton and Bush received about al-Qaeda. However, the PDBs had not been provided to the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, and Gonzales says they will not be given to the 9/11 Commission either. Zelikow tells Gonzales that this would be bad for the Commission and the US, recalling the uproar that ensued when it was discovered the CIA had withheld documents from the Warren Commission that investigated the murder of President Kennedy. Zelikow also pressures Gonzales by threatening to resign from the Commission if it is not given the documents, knowing this will generate extremely bad publicity for the White House.
Refusal to Meet with Zelikow - However, Gonzales refuses to cave in and, a few days later, makes what author Philip Shenon calls a “blunt and undiplomatic” phone call to Tom Kean, the Commission’s chairman. He tells Kean that he does not want to see Zelikow ever again, which means that in the future he will only discuss access to the documents with Kean and Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton.
Alleged Involvement of Rove - The battle over access to documents and witnesses will go on for some time (see June 2003), and commissioner John Lehman will say that White House political adviser Karl Rove is “very much involved” in it. According to Lehman, “Gonzales cleared everything with Rove,” and friends tell him that “Rove was the quarterback for dealing with the Commission,” although the White House will deny this. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 73-76, 176]

Entity Tags: Philip Zelikow, Thomas Kean, John Lehman, Alberto R. Gonzales, Karl C. Rove

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The White House comes to prefer dealing with the 9/11 Commission’s vice chairman, Democrat Lee Hamilton, rather than its Republican chairman Tom Kean. Author Philip Shenon will comment: “The White House found that its best support on the Commission came from an unexpected corner—from Lee Hamilton.… Hamilton, they could see, was as much a man of the Washington establishment as he was a Democratic partisan. Probably more so.” This is because Hamilton, a friend of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “underst[ands] the prerogatives of the White House—in particular, the concept of executive privilege—in a way that Kean d[oes] not or w[ill] not.” White House chief of staff Andrew Card will comment: “I came to really respect Lee Hamilton. I think he listened better to our concerns better than Tom Kean.” The White House even comes to view Kean as disloyal, effectively operating as one of the Commission’s Democrats, while Hamilton is a de facto Republican (see Early July 2004). Kean will later say, “I think the White House believed Lee was more reliable than I was.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 177] Hamilton previously helped Republicans cover up political scandals (see Mid-1980s and 1992-January 1993). He is friends with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and trusts them to tell the truth (see Before November 27, 2002).

Entity Tags: Thomas Kean, Andrew Card, Lee Hamilton, 9/11 Commission, Philip Shenon

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

In a series of meetings with 9/11 Commission Chairman Tom Kean and Vice-Chairman Lee Hamilton, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales continues to deny the commission access to White House documents and personnel (see Late January 2003). The commission wants access to classified White House documents, as well as interviews with President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Claim of Executive Privilege - Gonzales says that the access the commission wants is protected by executive privilege, which means that if advice given to the president by his staff is to have any value, it must remain secret. He thinks that, as the commission was created by Congress, if he gives the commission the access it wants, this will set a precedent, meaning the White House will have to turn over other documents to Congress.
Not a "Viable Position" - Kean thinks that this is not a “viable position” for Gonzales and that he must give them something. He asks himself if Gonzales understands the political damage he is doing to President Bush, and also if Bush knows what Gonzales is doing in his name. Kean is also aware that the commission could subpoena documents, but never makes this threat explicitly to Gonzales. Issuing subpoenas would lead to a constitutional argument that would do a lot of political damage to the White House. Kean believes that Gonzales will have to compromise in the end—9/11 was such a unique event that providing some access will not set a precedent. 9/11 Commissioner and former White House Counsel Fred Fielding is also extremely surprised by what Gonzales is doing. He knows it is only a matter of time before Gonzales retreats, and the longer it takes him to do so, the more damage he will do to Bush. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 122-126] Fielding will return as White House counsel in January 2007. In a scandal over the firing of US attorneys for allegedly political reasons, he will behave in much the same way as Gonzales does in this case. [Washington Post, 4/11/2007]
Gonzales Refuses to Meet Commission Lawyer - Gonzales insists on meeting only Kean and Hamilton and, following an earlier frosty meeting with executive director Philip Zelikow (see Late January 2003), refuses to see anyone else from the commission, including its counsel Daniel Marcus. When Kean and Hamilton return from the meetings with Gonzales at the White House, Marcus has to debrief them and work out a counter-strategy to what Gonzales’ position seems to be. “It was very messy,” Marcus will recall. Marcus also knows Gonzales is getting Bush in trouble: “Gonzales didn’t have good political judgment and staked out positions that got the White House in trouble—these kinds of wooden separation of powers arguments.”
Some Speculate Addington Behind Gonzales - Some commissioners and staff think that what Gonzales is doing is so damaging to President Bush that he may not even be expressing Bush’s views. According to this line of thinking, Gonzales is being directed by Vice President Dick Cheney and his counsel David Addington, both of whom are known to have extreme views on executive privilege (see June 26, 2007 and June 27, 2007). Kean will later say the commission “never knew” who was really behind the arguments. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 122-126]

Entity Tags: David S. Addington, Daniel Marcus, Alberto R. Gonzales, Lee Hamilton, Fred F. Fielding, Thomas Kean

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The 9/11 Commission files a request to see some Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) items it believes it may need for its investigation.
Filed with CIA - The Commission had conducted preliminary discussions about the PDBs with White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, but they have not borne fruit (see Late January 2003 and June 2003) and the Commission understands it may have to fight to get the documents. Therefore, it submits the request to the CIA, which writes and keeps the PDBs, as the Commission’s lawyers think it will be easier to enforce a subpoena against the CIA than the White House.
Credibility - Commission Chairman Tom Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton are aware the Commission must get the PDBs, or at least be seen to try hard, to maintain its credibility. This is particularly because, according to author Philip Shenon, “the PDBs were becoming the ‘holy grail’ for the 9/11 families and for the press corps.” Hamilton will say if the Commission’s investigation ended without it seeing them, “that would be the only thing the press would be interested in.” Shenon will add, “It seemed as if no other evidence unearthed by the Commission mattered; if the Commission did not see the PDBs, it would be seen in history as having failed.”
Scope of Request - The request is not for the full library of PDBs from the Clinton and Bush administrations. The Commission requests items from 1998 on that mention al-Qaeda, domestic terrorist threats, terrorist plots involving airlines used as weapons, and intelligence involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and Germany.
White House Says No - Although the request was addressed to the CIA, Gonzales replies for the White House in September, saying the Commission cannot see the PDBs, or even brief extracts. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 214-215]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Alberto R. Gonzales, Philip Shenon, 9/11 Commission, Thomas Kean, Lee Hamilton

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Following nine months of haggling over access to Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) items related to the 9/11 Commission’s work (see Late January 2003, June 2003, and Late Summer 2003), White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales agrees to provide the Commission with a briefing about them.
No Details Provided - Gonzales says the briefing will be about the “contents” of the PDBs, although the Commission is unsure what this means and thinks it may include verbal information about what is written in items relevant to its investigation. However, at the briefing, lawyers simply tell the Commission about how the documents are prepared. They also say that there are approximately 300 PDB items relevant to the Commission’s work, but they will not provide any details of what the items actually say.
Briefing Is 'Ridiculous' - The commissioners are very frustrated, and Republican Commissioner Jim Thompson, for example, complains, “This is ridiculous.” Author Philip Shenon will comment: “The commissioners were seething. If the briefing was meant to placate them, it had done the opposite; it was one more bit of proof of Gonzales’s ham-handed strategy in dealing with the investigation. If anything, the commissioners were now more anxious to see the actual PDBs.” Thompson will add, “We were not going to take no for an answer.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 215-216]

Entity Tags: James Thompson, 9/11 Commission, Alberto R. Gonzales

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean gives an interview to the New York Times in which he attacks the White House over its withholding of classified intelligence about al-Qaeda and attacks on the US from the Commission (see Late January 2003, June 2003, Late Summer 2003, and October 16, 2003). Although he does not mention Presidential Daily Briefs (PDBs) specifically, thinking their name secret, he says, “We’re having trouble with the White House,” meaning that a subpoena may have to be issued. He adds: “Any document that has to do with this investigation cannot be beyond our reach. I will not stand for it.” The piece runs as the lead story on page one of the newspaper, causing a good deal of criticism of President George Bush. It is picked up by Democrats, such as presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, who says, “After claiming they wanted to find the truth about September 11, the Bush administration has resorted to secrecy, stonewalling, and foot-dragging.” [New York Times, 10/26/2003; Shenon, 2008, pp. 215-216] As a result of this story, President Bush makes a statement identifying the documents the Commission wants as PDBs and promising to work with the Commission to give it some access. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 216-217]

Entity Tags: Joseph Lieberman, George W. Bush, Thomas Kean, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The 9/11 Commission votes 6-4 not to subpoena Presidential Daily Briefs (PDBs). Four of the five Democratic commissioners vote in favor. The five Republicans vote against, as does Democratic Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, who sometimes sides with the Republicans (see March 2003-July 2004 and January 27, 2003). The vote came up because the White House has been stonewalling the Commission on access to the PDBs for nearly a year (see Late January 2003, June 2003, Late Summer 2003, October 16, 2003, and Shortly Before October 26, 2003). The White House has just offered the Commission a deal in which Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Hamilton, as well as two staff members, could read a group of 20 significant PDBs, and one of these four could then read all the other PDBs. If he found anything significant, he could insist the other three read it as well. The Commission rejects this, but only obtains a slightly better deal in the end (see November 7, 2003). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 217-219]

Entity Tags: White House, Lee Hamilton, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The 9/11 Commission and the White House come to a deal on the Commission’s access to Presidential Daily Briefs (PDBs) relevant to its work. The Commission and White House had been in dispute about the issue for nearly a year (see Late January 2003, June 2003, Late Summer 2003, October 16, 2003, Shortly Before October 26, 2003, and November 6, 2003).
Arrangement - The deal gives Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, plus two others on the Commission to be designated, access to a group of 20 “core” PDBs clearly relevant to the Commission’s work. In addition, two of these four can read all possibly relevant PDBs and insist on the other two being allowed to see anything they think is important. The deal is struck by Kean and Hamilton for the Commission, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, and White House chief of staff Andy Card. The Commission designates commissioner Jamie Gorelick and its executive director, Philip Zelikow, as the two who will help Kean and Hamilton and also review all the other PDBs. The other seven commissioners and the rest of the staff cannot see the PDBs.
Criticism - Two of the commissioners, Democrats Tim Roemer and Max Cleland, are extremely angry with the deal and complain the Commission cannot function properly without all the commissioners seeing all the relevant documents. The victims’ relatives are also extremely unhappy, and the Family Steering Committee releases a statement saying, “A limited number of commissioners will have restricted access to a limited number of PDB documents,” adding, “The Commission has seriously compromised its ability to conduct an independent, full, and unfettered investigation.” They are also unhappy that Zelikow is one of the two handling the main review, because they are concerned about his ties to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, among other issues (see March 21, 2004). One of the victim’s relatives, Kristen Breitweiser, says, “How much more of Zelikow do we have to take?” The Commission’s counsel, Daniel Marcus will agree with the families, saying, “If we were going to have a staff person do this, Philip was not the right person.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 218-219]

Entity Tags: Andrew Card, White House, 9/11 Commission, Alberto R. Gonzales, Thomas Kean, Tim Roemer, Max Cleland, Daniel Marcus, Jamie Gorelick, Philip Zelikow, Lee Hamilton, Kristen Breitweiser, 9/11 Family Steering Committee

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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