Investigating the Investigation

Editorial writers have rightly slammed the White House for stonewalling two key requests by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks. One was for essential information on the lead-up to 9-11. The other was for an extension of the May 27 deadline for completing its investigation.

It was the tough criticism that forced the administration, on Feb. 4, to grant a face-saving but insufficient two-month extension. Two related points need to be made about the stonewalling. The first is that it was entirely predictable, because the administration had tried to prevent any investigation by anybody. The second is that leading newspapers blew the opportunity to report that the administration had done this, thus leaving their readers and those of the hundreds of papers that subscribe to their news services in the dark about this important development. Yet the story was literally staring out at them from the tube.

On Meet the Press on Sept. 19, 2002, Moderator Tim Russert asked Dick Cheney about a charge made by then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle "that you called him several times and urged him not to investigate the events of Sept. 11."

"Tom's wrong," the vice president said. "I think in this case -- well, let's say a misinterpretation. What I did do was work, at the direction of the president, with the leadership of the Intelligence committees to say, 'We prefer to work with the Intelligence committees.'"

The following Sunday, the senator was Russert's guest. After playing a tape of Cheney's statement, Russert asked Daschle, "Did the vice president call you and urge you not to investigate the events of Sept. 11?" Daschle flatly contradicted Cheney: "Yes, he did, Tim, on Jan. 24, and then on Jan. 28 the president himself at one of our breakfast meetings repeated the request."

Russert persisted: "It wasn't, 'Let's not have a national commission, but let's have the Intelligence committees look into this,' it was 'No investigation by anyone, period'?"

"That's correct," Daschle said. "[T]hat request was made" by Cheney not only on Jan. 24 and by Mr. Bush four days later, but "on other dates following" as well.

By repeatedly specifying the dates of attempts by the vice president and the president to prevent an investigation, Daschle knocked down the improbable if not ridiculous claim that he had several times gotten "wrong" or misinterpreted Cheney's calls and the president's face-to-face request at a breakfast. Thus did Daschle implicitly challenge the truthfulness of the vice president about investigating the events culminating in the catastrophic terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

This was highly newsworthy -- how could it not be? The next morning, however, leading national newspapers -- including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and USA Today -- printed not a word about it. It was another big press pass to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Morton Mintz was a long-time Washington Post reporter and is a former chair of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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