Sept. 11 Panel Plays Politics, Public, Victims Lose

For all its talk about not wanting to point fingers or engage in a "he said, she said" affair, the panel probing the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks seems to be getting pretty good at playing the blame game.

Although the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (search) is characterized as bi-partisan because it is comprised of six Republicans and six Democrats, without exception, the commissioners are all either former elected officials or politicos with long histories in Washington.

Case in point: commissioner Jamie Gorelick (searchwas a deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration — one huge focus of the panel's investigation. Concerns about a potential conflict of interest and calls for her resignation have become a distraction to the hearings.

Joining Gorelick on the Democratic side of the panel are two former U.S. representatives from Indiana, a former Watergate prosecutor and a U.S. senator from Nebraska.

Among the Republican commissioners, two are former governors, one is a former counsel to presidents Reagan and Nixon, one is a former Washington senator and another was Navy secretary under Reagan.

Lost from the commission are national security experts, academics, family members of the Sept. 11 victims.

The partisanship behind the non-political facade was perhaps most blatantly evident in the panel's treatment of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) and of Richard Clarke, the former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism adviser who caused a firestorm with allegations that the Bush administration was not concerned enough with foreign terrorists before Sept. 11.

Democrats badgered Rice with pointed questions while Republicans sought to find the holes in Clarke's version of events.

"Certainly in the Rice hearings and the Clarks hearings, a lot of the members got partisan because they're in front of the cameras and there's a role for them to play," Republican commissioner John Lehman (search) told Fox News, adding that he would give the panel a grade of a 'C' for keeping partisanship out of the picture.

Prior to Rice's testimony, individual members of the commission had said they did not want to play "pin the tail" of the blame game but only wanted to determine what had gone wrong leading up to the attacks, and what could be done differently to prevent future ones.

Just one day before Rice's appearance last week, Democratic commissioner and former Rep. Tim Roemer (search) told Fox News, "I think it's important this not turn into a media circus, that we not make this only a 'he said, she said."

"We need to make this a serious, substantive, nonpartisan look at what was done right, what priority was put on terrorism, what was done wrong," Roemer said.

Republican commissioner and former Illinois Gov. James Thompson (search) said "we're not out to play a game of 'gotcha.' We're out to play a game of 'got to,' ... We're asking these questions on behalf of the American people."

Yet during her testimony last Thursday, Rice took a beating.

Roemer himself went down the blame-game route in his questioning.

"The buck may stop with the president but the buck certainly goes through you on these issues," he said to Rice.

Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste (search), a former Watergate prosecutor, went after Rice like a bulldog, refusing to allow more than a one-word answer.

"I think some of the commission members treated her like a hostile witness, which wasn't appropriate to get the answers they were seeking," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. "We shouldn't be trying to fix blame or point fingers. I don't think any one person or one cause was blame for this … how do we prevent if from happening again? That's what should be our focus."

Mike Baker, a former CIA covert operations officer, said the panel was "a little more interested" in hearing themselves talk than anything else.

What's worse is that the audience was allowed to clap during the exchange. Who would have thought the tragedy of Sept. 11 was something to get excited over?

But if the panel is going to play the blame game, they should either wag the finger at everyone equally or not at all.

Witnesses like Thomas Pickard (search) — who was interim FBI chief in the summer of 2001 when there was a huge uptick in terrorist chatter about a possible attack, former FBI Director Louis Freeh (search), and Cofer Black (search), who ran the CIA's counterterrorism center, got nowhere near the treatment Rice or Clarke got while at the witness table.

They were at least able to finish their sentences.

Attorney General John Ashcroft was also raked over the coals this week, with Ben-Veniste even questioning him about using a government plane instead of a commercial one for travel.

Yet when Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno told the commission Tuesday that she didn't even mention Al Qaeda (search) or Usama bin Laden to Ashcroft when he took over the Justice Department reins, not one commissioner — Republican or Democrat — raised an eyebrow or their voice.

Republicans hounded Democratic officials like former Secretary of State Madeline Albright while treading much more lightly with Secretary of State Colin Powell; Democrats did the exact opposite. As a whole, however, the commission has clearly been more critical of the Bush administration than Clinton's.

But Bush was only in office 233 days before the Sept. 11 attacks. During Clinton's eight-year tenure, there were six Al Qaeda-linked attacks against U.S. interests. Both Reno and Freeh testified before the commission that the Al Qaeda and terrorist threat was known.

Former Sen. Dennis Deconcini of Arizona, a Democrat, told Fox News that with the hearings falling in an election year, the panel's behavior was inevitable.

"What we want to do here is point the finger at Clinton or Bush rather than point the finger at intelligence," Deconcini said. "Unfortunately, you have a political election right before this commission is going to report its findings."

Though on Wednesday, the commission finally did focus more on discussing the prevention of future attacks, it should be noted that, so far, not a single commissioner has appeared to place a higher priority on the issue of prevention than on assigning blame. 

Solicitor General Ted Olson (search), whose wife, Barbara, died aboard one of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11, offered some insight as to how the hearings were playing for the victims' families and survivors.

"I think people need to focus on what we need to do to prevent this kind of disaster from happening again," Olson told Fox News. "There's way too much grandstanding and playing to the cameras from some members of the commission … we ought to focus on what can be done to save the lives of American citizens."