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9/11 commission chairman vows no 'business as usual'

From Phil Hirschkorn
CNN New York Bureau

Thomas Kean, commission chairman, and September 11 victims' family members.
Thomas Kean, commission chairman, and September 11 victims' family members.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- The chairman of the government commission conducting an inquiry into the September 11 terrorist attacks is vowing to disclose new information on security lapses that may have allowed the attacks to happen.

"We're going to write the history," Thomas Kean said Tuesday after the commission concluded its first public hearings. "I doubt very much this report will be business as usual."

The commission is finally getting up to full speed with scarcely more than a year for it to complete the job.

The 10 commissioners, all with ties to the major political parties, are also facing skepticism that they will hold government appointees accountable for missed opportunities that, in hindsight, might have foiled the plot.

"We're not going to try to go out of our way to assess blame. The most important thing, I think, that we have to do is to make recommendations to make the American people safer," Kean told reporters.

The commission spent Monday and Tuesday in Lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center, hearing testimony mainly from relatives of the 2,792 people killed at the World Trade Center, attack survivors, and emergency responders.

Two of the planes commandeered by 19 al Qaeda hijackers crashed into the 110-story Twin Towers, causing their collapse.

President Bush named Thomas Kean as chairman of the commission after Henry Kissinger resigned the post.
President Bush named Thomas Kean as chairman of the commission after Henry Kissinger resigned the post.

A third plane crashed into the Pentagon in northern Virginia, killing 184 people, while 40 more were killed when a fourth plane, en route to Washington, D.C., crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers fought back against the hijackers.

A congressional investigation has largely explored the counterrorism lapses, such as the CIA and FBI failing to share information or "connect the dots" between bits of intelligence obtained from monitoring al Qaeda.

"There were two people on my wife's plane who were known by the CIA to be associated with al Qaeda," Stephen Push, founder of Families of September 11th, said in an interview with CNN. He was referring to Pentagon plane hijackers Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Alhazmi. Push testified about his wife, Lisa, who was killed in that attack.

"One of them was known to have a multiple entry visa to come into the United States. They were not put on the watch list for about a year and a half. During that period, they came and went to the country. Why? Who was responsible for that, and what action has been taken," Push said.

Large portions of the congressional report remain classified, though commission members, who have received security clearance, were able to read the full report last week.

The commissioners have access to half a million pages of classified documents, but no authority to declassify them.

"We can argue -- and will, forcefully, if we believe something is being classified and we can't see any reason for it to be classified -- why the public shouldn't know. Our interest is going to be to let the public in on everything," Kean said.

He cited border control, access to entry visas, and money laundering as topics that should be investigated further.

The law that created the commission last fall mandates nine areas of inquiry, including terrorist financing and aviation security.

Kean deflected conflict of interest worries stemming from the commissioners' private sector ties. For example, half the commissioners work at law firms that represent airlines, according to the Chicago-based Aviation Integrity Project.

"These are people of proven integrity, and we will be able as a commission, where something is a legitimate conflict of interest, we'll understand that, and that commissioner will not act," Kean said

The panel's vice chairman is former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton.

The other commissioners are: Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor and Democratic counsel of the Senate Whitewater Committee; Max Cleland, former U.S. senator from Georgia; Fred Fielding, former counsel to presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush; Jamie Gorelick, Fannie Mae vice president and former deputy attorney general under Janet Reno; Slade Gorton, former U.S. senator from Washington; John Lehman, former U.S. Navy secretary; Timothy Roemer, former congressman from Indiana; and James Thompson, former Illinois governor.

The commissioners are scheduled to meet every 10 days to two weeks, and a staff of 40 is being hired.

Their report is due in May 2004.

"We expect to complete it on time," Kean said. "If there's any way to do it sooner we will."

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