WASHINGTON, April 30 (UPI) -- Officials of the blue ribbon commission set up to investigate the Sept. 11 terror attacks will be questioned at its meeting Thursday about a decision to let the U.S. government screen materials before releasing them to commission members.
One commissioner, and representatives of the families of the 3,000 killed in the attacks, are concerned that Justice Department officials were allowed to review transcripts of congressional testimony, before deciding whether commissioners should see them.
"There's no entity that should be going through the basic material that the commission is to review and filtering it to decide if or when we should be able to see it," commission member and former Democratic Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer told United Press International. "By statute we are entitled to that information."
The transcripts at issue are of sessions of the special joint inquiry by house and senate intelligence committees into the institutional and other failures that allowed the 19 members of the al-Qaida terror network to enter the country, hijack four planes and crash them into buildings in New York and Washington.
Although the sessions were closed for national security reasons, all the commission members have security clearances.
Roemer was actually present at the hearings, as he was then a member of the house intelligence committee.
All the documents were released to the commissioners on Wednesday after a five-day period, but Kristen Breitweizer, a representative of the families, says the delay is still the cause of concern for them.
"Our problem was the delay," she told UPI. "Why did the Justice Department need five days? They've had months to look at those transcripts."
"Every day's delay (to the commission's work) is another day we're at risk."
Roemer said he is worried that commission officials, by striking the deal they did with the administration, have set a dangerous precedent.
"That's just not the way we should be conducting this inquiry," he said, pointing out that "it weakens the position of the commission -- both politically and symbolically -- in future negotiations. If people can negotiate this kind of delay to existing information ... which we should have complete and full access to, how are we going to get new information?"
Breitweizer agrees there are worrying implications for the future. "This is not the last time that the commission is going to be asking for documents," she said. "If every one expects that they can force delay by putting up a fight, it is going to impede the commission's work."
Al Felzenberg, the commission spokesman, said U.S. government officials asked for, and were granted, the chance to review the documents, "as a courtesy."
"We don't think that a delay of five to seven days is an excessive burden on the commission," he told UPI. "The (commission) chairman (former GOP New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean) thought that was appropriate ... This is not unusual in government."
Felzenberg says the affair is a storm in a tea cup. "I don't think this is a setback ... Because (the work of the commission) is so important to the American people, there's a lot of interest in every detail."
Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock agrees.
"The vast majority of documents were released to the commission without any delay," said Comstock.
She says the documents that were delayed needed to be reviewed "in case they raised any privilege issues."
But Breitweizer points out there would be no basis for claiming executive privilege as the transcripts had already been made available to members of the intelligence committee. "On the merits, (the administration) did not have a leg to stand on in asserting executive privilege ... we knew that. So why the delay?" she asks.
Asked how any question of privilege could attach to transcripts of evidence already given by officials to congress, Comstock said, "It was just an abundance of caution."
Breitweizer said she is sympathetic to the motives of commission officials, but remains concerned.
"My understanding is that they have a good working relationship with the administration and this (delay) was extended as a courtesy to maintain that. I understand that. But by the same token, we want to make sure that this doesn't set a precedent ...
She says she will raise the issue at Thursday's meeting of the commission, but in the meantime she is glad the issue appears to have been resolved.
Felzenberg says that Thursday's meeting of the 10-member commission will also review staffing issues -- the panel has nearly finished hiring its full staff compliment -- and set a date for the next public hearing, expected in mid- to-late May.