9-11 Commission Funding Woes

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Is the Bush White House trying to put the brakes on the congressional panel created last fall to investigate 9-11 attacks? Sources tell TIME that the White House brushed off a request quietly made last week by the 9-11 Commission Chairman Tom Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey, to boost his budget by $11 million. Kean had sought the funding as part of the $75 billion supplemental spending bill that the president just requested to pay for war with Iraq. Bush's recent move has miffed some members of the 9-11 panel.

Kean and former congressman Lee Hamilton, the panel's top Democrat, requested additional funding in a letter to the administration last week. The money was to pay for a staff of about sixty and their resources. Kean plans to field a separate task force for each of nine areas that the law establishing the commission requires it to investigate. The panel has until the end of May 2004 to complete its work, but it will spend the $3 million it was originally allotted by around August 2003 — if it doesn't get the supplement. "We hope that this request will be included in the supplemental appropriations proposal now being prepared by the administration," wrote Kean and Hamilton in a March 19 letter to a CIA official who is in charge of intelligence community budgeting. The request has been endorsed by the entire bipartisan commission at a recent meeting. In denying the request, the White House irritated many of the members of the commission. "This is very counterproductive if the White House's intention is to prevent the commission from being politicized, because it will look like they have something to hide," said a Republican member of the commission.

On Tuesday night, the White House sidestepped the issue of why the request wasn't granted in the Iraq spending bill. "We've just recently received the letter and we're reviewing it and we look forward to talking about it with Gov. Kean," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "Questions beyond that would be kind of jumping ahead of where it is right now," McClellan said when asked whether the White House had discussed the matter with Kean or plans to back the budget increase in the future. This afternoon, McClellan added: "We have received a request from the Commission for additional funding, and we are working with them to determine what additional resources they need. We want to make sure they have all the necessary resources, including ample funds, to get the job done." But Kean had presented his $11 million request along with a detailed one-page analysis showing that the commissioners already feel they have determined exactly what they need.

Moments after the White House updated its position on Wednesday, Kean told TIME in a phone interview that the White House had just told him they would likely back his request. "The wording they gave me — because I always pay attention to how people word thing — was 'Please be assured that the White House wants this commission funded adequately.'" Kean said the White House told him this afternoon that "they had hoped to be able to go over our budget last week. They just weren't able to." Kean added that they wanted to keep a "clean bill"—but now they don't mind if Congress adds the money. McClellan said this evening that the White House is "looking into whether some additional funding might be available without any further legislation."

The latest effort to curtail funding has angered victims of the attacks. Stephen Push, a leader of the 9/11 victims' families, who are closely monitoring the commission, said the White House decision was another in a long line of efforts to water down or shrink the panel's role. "I think the fact that they didn't include it—didn't warn Gov. Kean that they weren't going to include it, didn't return my phone call—suggests to me that they see this as a convenient way for allowing the commission to fail," said Push. "They've never wanted the commission and I feel the White House has always been looking for a way to kill it without having their finger on the murder weapon." Push said the White House has ignored his phone calls and emails for weeks.

Other commission members were equally disheartened. Commission member Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman, said the probe is off to a disturbingly slow start and that failure to quickly provide the funding increase wouldn't help. "The White House should be strongly supporting that effort, given President Bush's compelling statement when he signed this bill into law," said Roemer, who last year served on the House-Senate joint inquiry on 9/11 that led to the creation of the commission. Roemer has gone so far as to draw comparisons with the $50 million provided to investigate the recent Columbia tragedy in which seven people died. "If we're looking at well over $11 million for that, we certainly should be looking for at least the same vicinity of money for how 3,000 people died and how to strengthen our homeland security," he said.

The slow start is particularly upsetting to some because the panel was given 18 months to complete its probe, and the clock has been ticking since November 27 but the commission has made scant progress in the four months since. Republican commissioner Slade Gorton, a former senator, told TIME that if the investigation needs more time, he'll support seeking an extension. "If I think more important work can be done of course, we'll ask for more time," Gorton said. "We're going to work with this deadline in mind." Kean said that, even though the panel has lost "considerable time," he adamantly opposes seeking an extension — unless "we simply couldn't do our job" without one. "My belief is that we will not be doing that.... It's not going to be easy and we're going to be under the gun, but I think we can do it." He added that a "two or three months' delay would put us right in the middle of the election season, and that's not when we want to report."