Commission walked ‘tightrope’ |

Commission walked ‘tightrope’

General counsel of Sept. 11 investigators speaks of group's work

Brent Boyer

The path that eventually led to the unanimous and bipartisan report on the circumstances surrounding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, wasn’t always a smooth one.

Power struggles, legal debate and compromise characterized the journey that began with the creation of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States and ended with the release of its 500-plus-page report in July.

Involved in many of those struggles and debates was Daniel Marcus, general counsel of the Sept. 11 commission. Marcus, whose work with the commission ended last week, was in Steamboat Springs on Monday to present a behind-the-scenes account of the work of the commission’s 10 members and 80 staffers. His presentation was the fourth and last Seminars at Steamboat discussion of the summer.

The Sept. 11 commission, which Marcus described as a “unique institution” that evolved into a “powerful political force,” and its work will influence U.S. foreign policy for years to come, Marcus told a crowd that filled Centennial Hall’s Citizens Meeting Room.

But there was a time when the creation of such a group was being questioned and cautioned against by top government officials. Motivated, in part, by the resolve of families of Sept. 11 victims, Congress eventually approved legislation creating the commission.

Controversies immediately engulfed the newly formed group, particularly one concerning who would serve as its chairman and vice chairman. Other political footballs would soon follow, notably whether the commission would be granted the power to subpoena, its deadline for completing its work and negotiating with the White House over issues including testimony from executive branch officials and review of the highly classified President’s Daily Briefs, or PDBs.

“We had a whole series of issues that were fascinating,” Marcus said.

Marcus, whose primary charge was to deal with any and all legal issues surrounding the commission’s investigation, said he spent about half of his time negotiating with White House lawyers over the status of classified national security documents. The White House had “serious and legitimate” concerns about setting a precedent regarding executive privilege and access to classified information, Marcus said. Those concerns were worked out through a series of compromises.

“In the end, we got virtually everything we wanted, but it took a long time,” he said.

The two biggest breakthroughs for the commission were negotiating a deal with the White House that enabled a small number of its members to review and take notes on select PDBs and getting public testimony from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Marcus said.

He also addressed the controversy over the joint and private interview of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Bush dominated the interview and answered significantly more questions than Cheney, Marcus said.

“The president was terrific,” he said. “But he took a lot of beating in the press from insisting on the joint interview.”

The 18 months of work performed by the commission often involved treading on new ground.

“I felt like we were walking a tightrope the whole time,” Marcus said. “We managed to stay on that tightrope to the very end.”

The report, which is a No. 1 bestseller, is a “definitive, unbiased, factual reconstruction of what happened on 9/11 and what happened leading up to 9/11,” Marcus said.

The conclusions of the well-publicized report emphasize massive intelligence and border patrol deficiencies as well as a failure to have the foresight to consider suicide-hijacking scenarios.

Marcus only spoke briefly about the report’s specific recommendations. He expressed surprise at how widely the report has been embraced, particularly by the White House and both houses of Congress. For a long time Marcus wondered if the commission and its report would have any impact at all, he said.

The responsibility for that impact lies with the commission members and the dedicated staff who worked with them, he said.

“These are bright people with strong views, and they really took it very seriously,” Marcus said.

— To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail

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