WASHINGTON – The independent commission on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is trying to get a half-million pages of documents compiled by the House and Senate intelligence committees.
The commission's vice chairman, former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, said Friday he is working with the Justice Department and the FBI to obtain or examine the documents, many of which are classified.
The law creating the commission requires it to begin by reviewing the work of the joint congressional inquiry, which held five weeks of public hearings last year. That panel found that organizational problems and human failings prevented intelligence agencies from unraveling the Sept. 11 terrorist plot.
Hamilton said three members of his commission have obtained security clearances so far, and the White House is working to expedite the others. But even for people with such clearances, he said, "it's no easy task" to gain access to classified information compiled by the intelligence committees.
The commission's chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, said law enforcement agencies want assurances that no information that could compromise investigations will be released.
Kean said he is hopeful an agreement will be struck next week. "I gather when that process is through, we'll have total access," he said.
Hamilton and Kean met Thursday with lawmakers who headed up the joint congressional inquiry.
Earlier that day, they convened the third meeting of the 10-member National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Like the first two meetings, it was held in private.
Kean and Hamilton said the panel made progress in creating task forces to divide its workload. The commission's broad list of study topics includes intelligence, law enforcement, diplomacy, immigration, aviation and the flow of assets to terrorist organizations.
Kean has said the commission's early agenda includes examining the United States' policy toward Afghanistan, its interactions with "crucial friends, such as Saudi Arabia," and information-sharing among agencies of the U.S. government.
So far, the commission has hired 25 to 30 employees -- some of whom worked on the joint congressional inquiry -- and will probably end up with a staff of about 50. It is also drafting a budget to determine whether it can get by on the $3 million appropriated by Congress.
"The answer is almost certainly 'no,"' Hamilton said, "but what we do not know yet is how much additional money we will request."
The commission plans to hold its first public hearings in New York City, tentatively scheduled for March 31 and April 1.
In addition to the half-million pages compiled by the congressional intelligence committees, the commission may soon get 45,000 pages of documents from the trial in Germany of Mounir el Motassadeq, who recently became the first person convicted in the Sept. 11 plot.
About 20 Americans, relatives of Sept. 11 victims, joined that case as co-plaintiffs -- a status allowed under German law -- and got access to evidence that otherwise would be classified.
One co-plaintiff, Stephen Push of Virginia, said he is putting the 45,000 pages onto computer disks that he will give to the independent commission.
"I have to assume somewhere in those 45,000 pages of documents are things they can use," said Push, whose wife was a passenger on American Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.
Relatives of Sept. 11 victims lobbied hard for an independent investigation. President Bush, who initially opposed the idea, signed the law creating the commission in November. Its report is due in May 2004.
The five Republican members are Kean, former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, former White House Counsel Fred Fielding, former Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington and John Lehman, former Navy secretary under President Reagan.
The Democrats are Hamilton, former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, former Rep. Timothy Roemer of Indiana, attorney Richard Ben-Veniste and Jamie Gorelick, a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.