WASHINGTON, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- The 10-member blue-ribbon commission investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks has begun hiring staff -- though not yet investigators -- and has found secure office space, but will not be ready to start work on its substantive tasks for at least a month, Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton told United Press International Thursday.
"At this point the commission is still involved in administrative matters. ... When you start, you don't have an infrastructure ... you've got to find space -- in our case secure space -- and get security clearances because we handle classified information, you've got to get a budget, you've got to hire staff. ... We're still in the process of doing that. We really will not properly address the substantive issues for another few weeks, probably," Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said.
The panel members are in a race against time. The commission is mandated to report by May 2004, 18 months after President Bush -- who had initially opposed its establishment -- signed the bill bringing it into being.
"We will be short of time," admitted Hamilton, noting that two months had already past. "It will be very difficult" to meet the deadline, he said. He suggested, however, that the commission might ask for more time. "We'll just have to re-visit (that) issue," if needed, he said.
Hamilton said that the commission had appointed a number of senior staff, including a deputy director, security and administration officers and was close to appointing a communications director. But they had not yet begun to hire investigators, who he said would need to be "first rate."
"We basically want people who know how to conduct an investigation, who know how to contact the various agencies of government, how to ask for the right kind of documentation and information and who will understand, through interviews and maybe depositions, what has occurred, what didn't occur, (and) what needs to occur," he said.
He suggested that those appointed would need experience of the areas the commission would be looking into, which include intelligence, law enforcement, diplomacy, immigration and commercial aviation.
"Because the mandate is broad, you have to have investigators with wide experience in a lot of different areas. None of them will have experience in all areas. ... Take airport security, ... we're going to have bring in someone who has experience in the airline industry and the same goes for each area of the inquiry."
A recent report by Time magazine said two of the Democrats on the commission were pushing for an "aggressive probe that will include testimony from top Bush administration officials." But Hamilton was adamant that the inquiry would not seek, as he put it, to "put (anyone's) head on a pike."
"The focus of the commission will be on the future," he said. "We want to make recommendations that will make the American people more secure. ... We're not interested in trying to assess blame, we do not consider that part of the commission's responsibility."
He acknowledged that what he called "the systemic failure" on Sept. 11, 2001, would have to be investigated. "We will need to look backward in order to look forward ... (but) we're not criminal prosecutors ... we're not out on a witch hunt."
He indicated he was not concerned that hiring former employees of the government departments and other bodies that the commission would be investigating would
He said that Christopher A. Kojm, since 1998 an official at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research which handles the most sensitive intelligence data at the State Department, would be the commission's deputy director. Kojm recently gave evidence to the joint senate and house committee investigating the failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to predict or prevent the 9/11 attacks. Previously, Kojm served as a staffer on the House International Relations Committee.
Hamilton said that the panel had also located office space. Philip Zelikow, the panel's executive director, confirmed that the office was in downtown Washington, but declined to give an exact address, citing security concerns. He added that the commission would acquire a second set of offices in the capital and probably get premises in New York -- where the panel plans public meetings. Hamilton said that by next week, the commission hoped to give a schedule for meetings in March and April.
Hamilton said that the panel would maintain a "very close relationship" with the families of the 3,000 victims.
He acknowledged that the responsibility of the panel members was "profound."
"All of us recognize that ... the American people are very interested in this commission. I feel it's the most important commission I've ever served on. We're very serious about it. ... We feel an obligation not just to the families but to the country to do the best job we can."
He admitted that the panel's work would not be all clear sailing. "There will be some rough patches ahead," he said, but added the panel members were up to the task. "(Commission Chairman) Gov. (Thomas) Kean will be an outstanding leader. He has the respect and admiration of all of the commissioners. ... This is a talented group. ... They have deep experience. ... So I'm confident that we will do a careful, thorough job."
In addition to Hamilton, the Democratic members of the panel are former Indiana congressmen Tim Roemer, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, attorney Richard Ben-Veniste and Jamie Gorelick, a Justice Department official in the Clinton administration.
The commission also has five Republican members: Kean, a former governor of New Jersey; former Illinois Gov. James Thompson; former White House Counsel Fred Fielding; former Washington Sen. Slade Gorton; and John Lehman, who was Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan.
The panel's next meeting will be Wednesday in Washington and will be followed by a news conference.