WASHINGTON – Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stepped down Friday from his post as chairman of the panel investigating intelligence failures prior to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, citing potential conflicts of interest.
"It is clear that, although specific potential conflicts can be resolved in this manner, the controversy would quickly move to the consulting firm I have built and own," Kissinger wrote in a letter to President Bush, who appointed him. "I have, therefore, concluded that I cannot accept the responsibility you proposed."
Despite having pledged to offer "no preferences and no favors" during the Sept. 11 commission’s investigations, controversy over Kissinger’s past client dealings did not abate. Kissinger Associates, the firm he founded, advises corporations and national governments from all parts of the world.
"It is with regret that I accept Dr. Kissinger's decision to step down as chairman of the National Commission to investigate the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the years that led up to that event," Bush said in a statement.
Kissinger said he had told White House lawyers he was willing to remove the appearance of conflict of interests by submitting "all relevant financial information" to the White House and to an independent review. He said he could not liquidate Kissinger Associates without delaying the commission's work.
It was not immediately clear who, if anybody, asked him to liquidate his firm.
"My hope is that by the decision to step aside now, the Joint Commission can proceed without further controversy," he said.
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, completed this week, into intelligence failures.
Senate Democrats say all commission members, including Kissinger, must 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 contended Kissinger, as Bush's sole appointee, did not have to submit a report. It said federal law does not require presidential appointees to submit disclosures if they are not drawing salaries, as was the case with Kissinger.
But a second Congressional Research Service report 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 the 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 its report due to come out less than six months before the 2004 presidential election.
Negotiations creating the commission were bogged down by disputes over its makeup and rules, with lawmakers and the White House accusing each other of trying to manipulate it for political purposes.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.