NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ten years after al Qaeda’s attack on the United States, the vast majority of the 9/11 Commission’s investigative records remain sealed at the National Archives in Washington, even though the commission had directed the archives to make most of the material public in 2009, Reuters has learned.
The National Archives’ failure to release the material presents a hurdle for historians and others seeking to plumb one of the most dramatic events in modern American history.
The 575 cubic feet of records were in large part the basis for the commission’s public report, issued July 22, 2004. The commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, was established by Congress in late 2002 to investigate the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks, the pre-attack effectiveness of intelligence agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the government’s emergency response.
In a Reuters interview this week, Matt Fulgham, assistant director of the archives’ center for legislative affairs which has oversight of the commission documents, said that more than a third of the material has been reviewed for possible release. But many of those documents have been withheld or heavily redacted, and the released material includes documents that already were in the public domain, such as press articles.
Commission items still not public include a 30-page summary of an April 29, 2004 interview by all 10 commissioners with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, conducted in the White House’s Oval Office. This was the only time the two were formally questioned about the events surrounding the attacks. The information could shed light on public accounts the two men have given in recent weeks of their actions around the time of the attacks.
Several former commission staff members said that because there is no comprehensive effort to unseal the remaining material, portions of the records the commission had hoped would be available by now to scholars and the public instead will remain sealed indefinitely.
In 2004 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean said publicly that he was eager for most of the records to be released as quickly as possible. In a Reuters interview last week, Kean said he was not aware until told by Reuters that only a small portion of the records have since been unsealed, and he saw no justification for withholding most of the unreleased material.
Kean said the commissioners had agreed on the January 2, 2009 date for release so that the material would not come out until after the 2008 elections. “We didn’t want it to become a political football,” he said.
But he added: “It should all be available now... We (commissioners) all felt that there’s nothing in the records that that shouldn’t be available” once the election had passed.
The still-sealed documents contain source material on subjects ranging from actions by President Bush on the day of the attacks to the Clinton White House’s earlier response to growing threats from al Qaeda - information that in some instances was omitted from the 2004 report because of partisan battles among the commissioners.
The sealed material also includes vast amounts of information on al Qaeda and U.S. intelligence efforts in the years preceding the attacks.
Shortly before the commission ceased to exist in August 2004, it turned over all of its records to the archives. In a letter dated August 20, 2004, the commission’s chairman and vice chairman instructed the archives to make the material public “to the greatest extent possible” on January 2, 2009, “or as soon thereafter as possible.”
Philip Zelikow, who was the commission’s staff director, said the summary “could be declassified in full without any harm to national security.” Zelikow, a historian at the University of Virginia who for a time also was a top adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said the same is true for a 7,000-word summary he helped prepare for the commission of daily presidential intelligence briefings from 1998 through the attack. He said the summary would be a boon to scholars studying the history of U.S. intelligence work.
Stephanie Kaplan, a former commission staff member who is now working on a Ph.D. dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on al Qaeda, said she has had to rely heavily on other sources because so little of the commission data is public.
Fulgham said that in preparation for the 2009 deadline, the archives assigned additional employees for some months to help prepare disclosure of an initial batch of records. But since then the effort has ground to a halt, in part because of a shortage of personnel and the difficulty of dealing with classified material, Fulgham said.
He said another big problem is that roughly two-thirds of the commission material remains classified by the agencies that gave it to the commission.
In its 2004 letter, the commission had asked the archives to submit all classified material to the agencies that created the documents to review them for declassification. But Fulgham said the archives has not done so. He said there was little point in asking agencies such as the CIA and State Department to declassify the material because they already are swamped evaluating other, much older material for release, in part in response to a presidential order to declassify as many records as possible that are at least 25 years old.
Scholars and public-interest organizations that focus on foreign policy and national security have long complained that the government classifies far more material than necessary.
Kean said when he headed the commission, “Most of what I read that was classified shouldn’t have been.” He said. “Easily 60 percent of the classified documents have no reason to be classified - none.”
Kristen Wilhelm, the sole archives official now assigned to review the commission documents, said in an interview that the records agency has focused on releasing material created by the commission itself, such as “memoranda for the record” in which commission staff summarized research and interviews. She said the archives decided to emphasize releasing that material because it is the only possible source for it.
Wilhelm said she now mainly just responds to individual requests for information, and in most instances refers applicants to the agencies that created the documents rather than working to unseal the material herself. She said researchers could file Freedom of Information Act requests with individual federal agencies for documents they had turned over to the commission.
Commission records held by the Archives itself are exempt from FOIA because the commission was established by Congress and the legislative branch records are exempt from FOIA.
Some of the material now public is posted on the archives website, particularly the staff-written memoranda and transcripts of some commission interviews. But Wilhelm said most of the released material can be viewed only at the archives’ headquarters.
John Berger, an author who maintains a website of terrorism and 9/11-related documents, said the failure to release more material is bad for the country because scholars and journalists are often able to analyze such material in depth, producing valuable insights.
“You can point to things produced from declassified documents that help our understanding and the government’s understanding of urgent problems,” he said.
Editing by Michael Williams and Claudia Parsons