WASHINGTON – The Sept. 11 commission's executive director had closer ties with the White House than publicly disclosed and tried to influence the final report in ways that the staff often perceived as limiting the Bush administration's responsibility, a new book says.
Philip Zelikow, a friend of then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, spoke with her several times during the 20-month investigation that closely examined her role in assessing the Al Qaeda threat. He also exchanged frequent calls with the White House, including at least four from Bush's chief political adviser at the time, Karl Rove.
Zelikow once tried to push through wording in a draft report that suggested a greater tie between Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden and Iraq, in line with White House claims but not with the commission staff's viewpoint, according to Philip Shenon's "The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation."
Shenon, a New York Times reporter, says Zelikow sought to intimidate staff to avoid damaging findings for President Bush, who at the time was running for re-election, and Rice. Zelikow and Rice had written a book together in 1995 and he would later work for her after the commission finished its job and she became secretary of state in 2005.
The Associated Press obtained an audio version of Shenon's book, which is to go on sale Tuesday.
Reached by the AP, Zelikow provided a 131-page statement with information he said was provided for the book. In it, Zelikow acknowledges talking to Rove and Rice during the course of the commission's work despite a general pledge he made not to. But he said the conversations never dealt with politics.
The White House had no immediate comment Sunday.
According to the book, when Democratic commissioner Bob Kerrey learned the extent of Zelikow's ties to the administration, he confronted Republican chairman Tom Kean and demanded to know why someone with such apparent conflicts of interest had been hired.
"Look Tom," Kerrey is quoted as saying, "either he goes or I go." Kean eventually persuaded Kerrey to stay.
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the panel's Democratic vice chairman, praised Zelikow as a "person of integrity" who was upfront in disclosing his background and White House contacts.
"Did he try to sway the report to protect the administration? I think the answer was no," Hamilton told the AP.
The book says phone logs maintained by the commission's executive assistant showed at least two calls from Rove to Zelikow's office number in June 2003, and two more calls in September. During that time, the commission was in the midst of its fact-finding.
Zelikow ordered the assistant to stop keeping phone records of his contacts with the White House, the book said, but the panel's general counsel instructed her to ignore the order.
The phone logs do not record Zelikow's calls out, nor do they show calls on his cell phone, which he relied on for most outgoing calls. Records from the Government Accountability Office, which maintained some of the commission's phone records, showed frequent calls from Zelikow to telephone numbers in area code 202, with the telephone prefix 4-5-6 — the prefix exclusive to the White House, the book says.
Zelikow, in his written statement, said Rove had called with questions about the Bush library and other business related to Zelikow's work at the University of Virginia. Zelikow also said he enlisted Rice's logistical aid on behalf of the commission at one point to get Saudi cooperation so the panel could interview their citizens.
"Rove and I didn't really know each other," he said in the statement. "I don't recall ever having an extended conversation with him, and certainly not about politics or the commission."
The book seeks to raise new questions about the independence of the bipartisan commission, which was created in 2002 to investigate government missteps that led to the Sept. 11 attacks. Initially opposed by the White House, the panel issued a unanimous 567-page final report in July 2004 during the height of the presidential campaign that did not blame Bush or former President Clinton for the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people but did say they each failed to make anti-terrorism a priority.
The book says that in early 2004, Zelikow allegedly sought to add to an initial staff report wording that linked Al Qaeda to Iraq. The wording would have said the terrorist network repeatedly tried to communicate with the government of Saddam Hussein, a claim of cooperation the administration had cited to justify the war in Iraq. After a staff protest, Zelikow backed down; the final report said there was no "collaborative relationship" between Saddam and Al Qaeda. Zelikow has said that he simply wanted the panel to keep an open mind on the issue.