WASHINGTON – Henry Kissinger on Thursday promised relatives of Sept. 11 victims that his business interests would not conflict with his new role as chairman of a panel investigating the attacks, leaders of two relatives' groups said.
The assurances came as the White House and congressional Democrats clashed on whether the former secretary of state must disclose his business clients to serve on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks. Kissinger was appointed by President Bush.
It was not clear how much information Kissinger was willing to disclose or whether it would satisfy lawmakers.
Stephen Push, a leader of Families of Sept. 11, said Kissinger outlined procedures he was considering for the commission's 10 members to disclose potential conflicts of interest. Push declined to provide details, but said it would not require Kissinger to release a list of his consulting firm's clients.
Kristen Breitweiser of September 11th Advocates described the procedures outlined by Kissinger as "a suggestion. If he is able to do the suggestion, I would be satisfied."
Push said relatives still want Kissinger to abide by any legal requirements for disclosure. "We're not suggesting this as an alternative to following the law," he said.
Push and Breitweiser were among 11 relatives who met with Kissinger in his New York office. Kissinger did not return messages seeking comment.
The commission will investigate events surrounding the attacks, examining issues including aviation security, immigration and U.S. diplomacy. It will build on a congressional inquiry into intelligence failures that was completed this week.
Some politicians and commentators have called on Kissinger to sever ties with his firm because of possible conflicts. The panel's original vice chairman, George Mitchell, resigned from the commission Wednesday, partly because of similar pressures to quit his law firm.
Senate Democrats claim all commission members, including Kissinger, are required to submit financial disclosures that would reveal potential conflicts. That view was supported by a report issued last week by Congress' research arm, the Congressional Research Service.
But the White House claims Kissinger, as Bush's sole appointee, is not required to submit a report. It says federal law does not require presidential appointees to submit disclosures if they are not drawing salaries, as is the case with Kissinger.
A second Congressional Research Service report, though, said all members of the commission -- including a presidential appointee -- would be bound by Senate ethics requirements. That report was released Thursday by the office of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
The dispute is the latest involving a commission that will begin its work early next month. Family members and congressional Democrats have questioned whether the Bush administration wants an honest evaluation of the attacks, with the report coming out less than six months before the 2004 presidential election.
Negotiations setting up the commission were bogged down by disputes over the commission's makeup and rules, with lawmakers and the White House accusing the other of trying to manipulate it for political purposes.
Relatives have criticized Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., for choosing former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., as one of his two appointees to the commission. They consider Gorton too close to the aviation industry.
Lott has promised to consult with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a close ally of the families, in choosing his second appointee. The families and McCain have been pushing for former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., who led an advisory group that warned of U.S. vulnerability to terrorist attacks before Sept. 11.
Push said Lott is refusing to appoint Rudman. A Lott spokesman did not respond to messages.
But Push said the relatives were encouraged by the meeting with Kissinger.
"I think we started to develop a good working relationship," he said.