Leaders of a federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks complained Tuesday that the Bush administration has been too slow to provide access to key documents and is intimidating witnesses by insisting that CIA and FBI "minders" attend sensitive interviews.
The chairman of the commission, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, said the delays are threatening the panel's ability to meet its congressionally imposed deadline and produce a final report before the 2004 presidential election.
"The coming weeks will determine whether we will be able to do our job within the time allotted," Kean said during a news conference billed as an interim progress report. "Time is slipping by."
Kean and commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton were particularly critical of the administration's insistence that interviews with intelligence or law enforcement officials be supervised.
"The commission feels unanimously it is some intimidation to have someone sitting behind you all the time," Kean said.
The CIA acknowledged it requires interviews with its employees to be monitored, but denied the practice has a chilling effect.
"It has been the CIA's standing operating procedure for decades," said Mark Mansfield of the CIA, who said the minder is present to keep a record of classified information that is disclosed.
Despite their criticism, Kean and Hamilton said they do not believe the White House is stonewalling investigators.
And the officials said that in some cases, they are getting access to highly sensitive materials that congressional investigators did not get in a separate Sept. 11 probe that concluded this year.
Kean said the commission has gotten transcripts of interrogations of al-Qaida detainees. He declined to identify the prisoners, but a commission official said the panel has received interrogation records of at least half a dozen top al-Qaida operatives in custody, a group that would include accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and operations organizer Abu Zubaydah.
The commission also is expecting to get as early as this week National Security Council documents that were not provided to congressional investigators, Kean said. He declined to elaborate, but acknowledged the commission has requested NSC minutes and presidential briefings from the months leading up to the attacks.
Kean said that in some cases, agencies have been slow to turn over records in part because they have been caught off-guard by the nature and volume of materials the commission has requested. Some of these records include officials' private diaries and notes, Kean said.
The commission was created seven months ago and is widely perceived to have gotten off to a slow start. Tuesday's news conference appeared designed to quiet such criticism and put fresh pressure on the White House to accelerate the turnover of records.
CHAIRMAN: Thomas Kean, 68, former Republican governor of New Jersey. Now president of Drew University.
VICE CHAIRMAN: Lee Hamilton, 72, former Democratic representative from Indiana. Now president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
STAFFERS: About 60.
MISSION: To "make a full and complete accounting of the circumstances surrounding the (Sept. 11, 2001) attacks, and the extent of the United States' preparedness for, and immediate response to, the attacks," according to federal law signed Nov. 27.
DEADLINE: May 2004.
HEADQUARTERS: Washington, plus a secret location for reading classified documents.