Rice Will Face Ex-Colleague At 9/11 Hearing Panel Director Comes Under Scrutiny for Ties to Bush Adviser
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2004; Page A03 When national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testifies this morning in front of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a former colleague and longtime friend will be sitting on the other side of the witness table: Philip D. Zelikow, the panel's executive director.
Zelikow worked for Rice on the National Security Council staff during the administration of George H.W. Bush and went on to write a book with Rice on German reunification that drew heavily on classified documents both had access to during their time in government. In December 2000, Rice brought Zelikow back to the White House to aid in the transition to the current administration.
During that month-long stint, Zelikow sat in on briefings by counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke and others, made recommendations for changes in the NSC's structure and proposed language for security directives having to do with terrorism, according to those familiar with his position.
Zelikow has recused himself from issues involving the NSC transition and has refrained from questioning Rice during private interviews, panel officials said. But as the White House's record on counterterrorism policy has come under sharp scrutiny from the commission, so too has Zelikow's role in helping formulate those policies.
A dogged group of relatives of Sept. 11 victims has renewed its call in recent weeks for Zelikow's removal because of his links to Rice and others in the Bush administration. Some Democratic commissioners have also warned that, although they have great confidence in his credentials and expertise, Zelikow must strive to stay far away from any conflict that might call into question the commission's findings.
"This next phase of the commission's work is going to test his capacity, to the maximum, to remain credible," said Democratic member Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator. "I don't mean that in a personal way. . . . But any perception of conflict will fall against Philip and will hurt his reputation, as well as the credibility of the commission's final work, if he's involved in any way, shape or form in the analysis of the transition."
Zelikow, 49, said he has strived to steer clear of any conflicts. "I knew I'd be attacked about this when I took the job, and it was one of the arguments against taking it," he said yesterday. "The families [of Sept. 11 victims] raised this with me early on. The only answer you can make to things like this, and the answer I gave to them was, 'It doesn't do any good to say you are a person of integrity. . . . Your questions will have to be answered by the work.' "
Some relatives of Sept. 11 victims remain critical. "Rice brought him in because of his terrorism expertise, but apparently he didn't do such a good job because nine months later, al Qaeda killed 3,000 people," said Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ronald, died in the World Trade Center. "Why you would hire him to be a staff director of this commission is beyond my comprehension."
A Rice spokesman declined to comment.
Zelikow's case is one of several examples of perceived conflicts that have haunted the bipartisan panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, since Congress created it in late 2002. The commission has also wrestled in recent weeks with allegations that politics has intruded on the bipartisan panel's deliberations.
Commission guidelines require members and staff to recuse themselves from any issue in which they have a financial interest or in which they played an active role, and to "not play a primary role" in interviewing witnesses with whom they have "a close personal relationship." Officials say at least three commissioners have recused themselves from aviation issues because they work for law firms that represent airline companies, while another member, former House intelligence committee member Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), has avoided issues having to do with congressional oversight.
Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a former Republican New Jersey governor, said the commission and its 60-member staff have struggled since its inception with conflict-of-interest questions, and said the panel has come down on the side of favoring expertise in varying subjects.
"This is a real problem in Washington and a real problem with a commission like this," Kean said. "We wanted experts in very arcane areas. Are they going to be protective of those agencies that they have worked for? Hopefully not. . . . We made the decision to pick people of unquestioned integrity and to disclose everything."
Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor who specializes in ethics issues, said the commission has defined conflicts far too narrowly, especially given the importance of the topic.
"You can't globally say that everybody has conflicts so no one has conflicts," he said. "It's important that the public especially have full confidence in the independence of their product."
Zelikow, a professor and director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, is an eclectic historian whose roles in government have, in fact, formed only a small part of his career. He has led previous commissions on election changes and cyberterrorism and has written on topics as varied as Northern Ireland and the Philippines.
In addition to helping the Bush transition, Zelikow also served on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a seat he vacated to take the commission job. Several colleagues interviewed this week said that Zelikow's views are not overtly partisan and note that the commission's staff reports so far have included damning findings about both the Clinton and Bush years.
With Zelikow, "when the chips fall, historical fairness and accuracy will win out over partisanship every time," said Curt Campbell, a Clinton administration Pentagon official who has worked closely with Zelikow at the Aspen Institute.
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.