WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- The 10-member commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks met formally for the first time Monday, in a closed session, where they agreed to convene public meetings and perhaps hearings, including some in New York city, as soon as practical.
"New York was the place where the greatest tragedy happened," the commission's chairman, former New Jersey GOP Gov. Thomas H. Kean, told United Press International, "so it makes sense that we would try to hold at least some of our activities there."
The commission met informally Monday with a number of the victims' relatives, who welcomed the new team. "They seemed very enthusiastic and very optimistic," said Stephen Push, who represents a coalition of four groups of victims' families. "They're a good team with the right attitude," he told UPI.
But Push said he was concerned that the commission is underfunded: "Personally, I don't think the $$@$!3 million allocated is nearly enough."
Kean acknowledged that the commission would likely have to ask for more: "Is it enough? Probably not. We don't know yet," adding that they intended to first draw up a work plan and decide staffing levels before developing a budget "as soon as we responsibly can."
If they needed more money, he said, they would "go back to Congress to ask for it. Both (Congress) and the White House have indicated that they are happy with that."
Kean told UPI that the bipartisan commission planned to establish a number of task forces to look at the different areas they are mandated to investigate. "Given we only have 16 months left," he said, "we have to proceed simultaneously on several fronts."
Breaking the commission and staff up into subcommittees in this way will also help head off a potentially thorny issue: that of potential or perceived conflicts of interest on the part of the members. The two men originally nominated as chairman and deputy chairman -- former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell -- both withdrew last year after questions were raised about whether their substantial private-sector client lists might prevent them from doing a thorough job.
Push pointed out that three members of the commission work for law firms that represent airlines.
"We talked in general terms about this issue," Kean told UPI, declining to discuss specific cases of individual members. But he indicated that the commission thought in broad terms about the question: "We have people who were in Congress, for instance, and one of the issues we've got to look at is whether congressional oversight failed.
"We intend to structure our work so that people who might be seen to have a conflict of interest in a certain area will not work on that area."
Kean added that every member of the commission would fully disclose all their outside interests to the Senate ethics committee.
Push said the relatives would trust the integrity of the members not to take part in discussions where they might have a conflict of interest, but added, "we shall be watching them closely."
In a press statement following the meeting, the commission announced the appointment as executive director of Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia. There was also discussion of staffing and other issues, including office space for the commission and a work plan, the statement said.
The bulk of the commission's meetings -- which it hopes to hold every two weeks or so -- would be held in Washington, Kean said, adding that the main office would be there as well. "Most of the people are (in Washington), and more importantly, that is where all the documents are."
On the question of office space, he said, "we hope to nail that down this week."
Kean said the commission hoped -- resources allowing -- to have a field office in New York City. He said they had received hundreds of resumes from people interested in joining their staff.
Kean told UPI that the commission members met informally with each other over dinner Sunday evening -- a "get-to-know-you" session -- and with representatives of the victims' families after the four-hour meeting on Monday morning.
The meeting was held two months to the day after President George W. Bush -- who had initially opposed establishing the commission -- signed the bill bringing into being on Nov. 27.
In addition to Kean, the commission has four Republican members: former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, former White House Counsel Fred Fielding, former Washington state Sen. Slade Gorton and John Lehman, who was Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan
The Democratic members are two former Indiana congressmen, Lee Hamilton and Tim Roemer, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, attorney Richard Ben-Veniste and Jamie Gorelick, a Justice Department official in the Clinton administration.
The group's next meeting will be in Washington on Feb. 12 and will also be closed, because personnel matters will be discussed. But it will be followed by availability to the press, Kean said.