The Condoleezza Rice-Philip Zelikow Connection: The Kean Commission and its Conflicts of Interest


Condoleezza Rice is a household name. But most Americans still have never heard of the man who wrote a book with her, Philip Zelikow.

As the executive director of the Kean Commission, Zelikow is responsible for framing the agenda. He leads the research staff. He decides what evidence the commission sees.

In April, the world media focused on Rice’s appearance before the commission. She claimed, not for the first time, that no one could have imagined terrorists would use hijacked planes as weapons against buildings. This is a demonstrable falsehood, which Bush himself inadvertently exposed a week later. (See “Bush, Rice and the Genoa Warning”)

Rice’s testimony received mostly bad reviews. The commission was credited with investigative fervor. Few reports bothered to note that in the late 1980s, Rice and Zelikow worked closely together on George H.W. Bush’s national security staff.

Image of Rice and Zelikow

Zelikow and Rice co-authored a 1999 book about their experiences in the first Bush White House, “Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft.” The book presents “a detailed and fascinating account of behind-the-scenes discussions and deliberations” during the fall of the Soviet empire, according to Library Journal.

Zelikow again served alongside Rice as a member of the Bush transition team in 2000- 2001, when he took part in White House meetings on the terror threat. Since this was of interest to the 9/11 investigation, the Kean Commission recently called Zelikow as a witness, in a closed-door session.

Now imagine if the judge in a trial was a close associate of the star witness. Imagine if the judge called himself as a witness to the case, in secret testimony. A parallel situation has arisen, with Zelikow in the role of the judge, and Rice as the star witness.

Even after September 11, two days before the invasion of Afghanistan, Zelikow went back to work for the Bush national security staff, as a member of the White House advisory board on foreign intelligence.

Zelikow’s evident conflicts of interest prompted September 11 family leaders to call for his resignation months ago. “It is apparent that Dr. Zelikow should never have been permitted to be Executive Staff Director of the Commission,” the Family Steering Committee concluded in a March 20 statement. So far, the commission has ignored their plea.

The Rice/Zelikow connection should have set off alarm bells about the Kean Commission’s independence. Yet it has barely caused a stir.

The Kissinger Commission

“When we first envisioned this commission, we did not envision it made up of ex-senators and ex-Navy secretaries and all of this other stuff,” says Beverly Eckert of the Family Steering Committee. “We thought it should be professors and writers, scholars and also people who are involved in the news, but not necessarily a part of it. These people [the commissioners] are all a part of it. In many ways the government is part of the problem.”

By a hair’s breadth, what we know now as the Kean Commission almost went down in history as the “Kissinger Commission.” Soon after assenting to an independent investigation, George W. Bush kicked it off in Nov. 2002 by appointing Henry Kissinger to chair the panel.

Two weeks later, Kissinger declined the appointment. The families and a few of the legislators designing the commission had asked him to rule out possible conflicts of interest involving his consulting firm, Kissinger Associates. Kissinger refused to name his clients, even confidentially. In a letter to Bush, he opined that service to country would ruin his business.

During the two weeks of Kissinger’s appointment, the Internet and alternative press buzzed at the thought of a 9/11 investigation headed by Richard Nixon’s former secretary of state, a known practitioner of the strategic lie. Kissinger remains an elder adviser to many of the key people in the administration and U.S. defense establishment, especially the neoconservative group at the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld. He is under investigation in several countries for alleged involvement in Nixon-era crimes against humanity in Chile, Indochina and elsewhere. During a Paris hotel stay in 2001, he received a surprise visit for questioning by a French magistrate, and had to quietly slip out of the country.

The failed Kissinger appointment was a global public relations disaster, but perhaps the administration felt it needed a cover-up artist of his caliber. Soon after his departure, the job of heading the 9/11 Commission went to Kean, a less controversial figure who was more willing to reveal his business connections. One of these is worthy of a brief detour.

New Jersey to Afghanistan

Before taking his current position, Thomas Kean was a director and part owner of Amerada Hess, a company that maintained a partnership with Delta Oil of Saudi Arabia. Since that is the home country for most of the alleged 9/11 hijackers, and since the Bush family has close business ties to Saudi elites, many people would think that this is already a serious conflict of interest.

Together with UNOCAL, Delta Oil in the mid-1990s began negotiating deals with Central Asian governments, looking to acquire pipeline rights out of the world’s richest remaining store of undeveloped oil fields. The favored plan was to get the oil to a port in Pakistan – meaning, through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Taliban were courted in the late 1990s by a number of American oil projects, including UNOCAL’s. But their hardline behavior ruined their international image, and the companies backed off.

When the Bush administration came to power in 2001, it opened new pipeline negotiations with the the Taliban. Despite awards to Afghanistan of $143 million in U.S. aid in the first half of 2001, the Taliban refused to accept the U.S. proposal of a joint government with the Northern Alliance. They broke off the back-channel Berlin talks in June. At the time, a U.S. representative promised that the Taliban had a choice between “a carpet of gold or a carpet of bombs.”

The White House has admitted that documents placed on Bush’s desk on Sept. 9, 2001 detailed a plan for attacking Afghanistan by mid-Oct. 2001. Significant deployments to the region of U.S. and British forces were already underway. All that was missing for an invasion was the casus belli – the cause for hostilities. That arrived two days later, in New York, in the form of the 9/11 attacks.

The subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan installed Hamid Karzai as prime minister and Zalmay Khalilzad as the powerful White House envoy to Kabul. Interestingly, both men were previously employed as consultants by UNOCAL. The new Afghan government has since entered a pipeline consortium. UNOCAL is not known to be involved, but is seen within the industry as the likely ultimate beneficiary of a future pipeline.

In other words, 9/11 became the reason for an already-planned war in Afghanistan, as a result of which a long-delayed Afghan pipeline deal was struck. Given that context, the appointment as commission chair of an any oil company director – let alone the director of one involved in a Central Asian pipeline consortium – appears improper. But within the commission, Gov. Kean’s involvement is by no means exceptional. A look at the member resumes shows that almost all of them have had business ties to oil companies – or else, airlines.

Pipelines and Airlines

After Kean’s appointment, the White House shifted from resisting the very idea of an investigation to the more mundane matter of obstructing it. Although the commissioners were all government and national security insiders, getting security clearances took months. For most of the first year, the White House claimed executive privilege in withholding access to the Presidential Daily Briefings. The rules were fashioned so that issuing a subpeona required a majority vote.

Bush initially approved a budget of just $3 million for the panel, which requires a staff of dozens to comb through millions of documents. Only after months of wrangling did the White House give in to an additional $8 million in funding.1

Congressional Democrats and Republicans and the White House set out to apportion the seats in what was termed a bipartisan manner, meaning five for each party.

Kean’s vice-chair, Lee Hamilton, was the chairman in the 1980s of the House Select Committee on Iran/Contra. Afterwards, he told PBS Frontline that he didn’t wish to indict Reagan or Bush, because he didn’t think it would be “good for the country,” although a wealth of evidence showed that Reagan and Bush authorized illegal arms shipments to Iran in 1985. Then Chairman Hamilton, a Democrat, was influenced by heavy political pressure from a hawkish fellow congressman from Wyoming by the name of Dick Cheney.

The New York Post and FOX NEWS have yet to report any of the above details concerning Zelikow, Kean or Hamilton, but in April they devoted much energy to exposing commission member Jamie Gorelick, who served on Bill Clinton’s national security staff. The Murdoch media and Republican politicians have said she is too partisan to serve on the commission, and urged that she resign.

In May 2003, shortly after joining the Kean Commission, Gorelick also joined the Washington firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. A month earlier, this firm announced it would defend Saudi Prince Mohammed al Faisal, third in command in the Saudi government?and a plaintiff in several of the billion-dollar lawsuits filed by relatives of 9/11 victims.

Richard Ben-Veniste, former Clinton White House lawyer, was a partner until February 2003 in one of the biggest bankruptcy firms in the world, Weil, Gotshal, and Manges. As the N.Y. Post disclosed, the firm received a famously inflated $3 million retainer from Enron, when the latter filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

Former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton is a lawyer in the Seattle firm of Preston, Gates and Ellis, which counts among its clients both Delta Air Lines and the Boeing Employees’ Credit Union. Is either of them likely to want the airlines forced to pay off lawsuits from September 11 relatives?

While Henry Kissinger did not make the cut, he does have close ties to Republican John Lehman, whom he recruited for his staff during the Nixon administration. Lehman, the secretary of the Navy under the Reagan administration, is also close to several members of the current Bush government. Along with Kean, Hamilton, and Gorelick, he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

As for former Illinois Governor James R. Thompson, it really takes no rocket science to figure out his conflict of interest. He is chairman of the Winston & Strawn law firm in Chicago. From Jan. 1997 through June 2002, Thompson’s law firm received $1.66 million for federal lobbying efforts on behalf of American Airlines?one of the two carriers potentially liable for negligence on 9/11.

Commission Cuts Deal with White House

Under a deal the Kean Commission made with the White House in Nov. 2003, Jamie Gorelick is the only commissioner?alongside Executive Director Philip Zelikow? allowed to view White House documents, such as the famous Presidential Daily Briefing entitled “BIN LADEN DETERMINED TO STRIKE IN U.S.”

That document (of which the government recently published 1 1/2 pages out of 11) was delivered from George Tenet to George Bush on Aug. 6, 2001. Gorelick is a long-standing Tenet associate and an adviser to the CIA. Once again, the investigator is on the friendliest terms with the subject of the investigation.

While viewing White House documents, she and Zelikow are allowed to take notes, which remain with the White House. They then report to the other commission members. At one point, the White House withheld the notes. The commission was said to be debating a subpoena for its own notes, instead of the actual documents.

Max Cleland Drops Out

Max Cleland, the former Democratic Senator from Georgia, objected strenuously to the deal restricting access to White House documents. In the course of autumn 2003, he issued a challenge to both the White House and his fellow members of the Kean Commission. “Bush is scamming America,” Cleland declared.

“As each day goes by, we learn that this government knew a whole lot more about these terrorists before September 11 than it has ever admitted,” Cleland told the New York Times (10/26/03).

“Let’s chase this rabbit into the ground here,” Cleland said in an interview. (Salon, November 2003) “They had a plan to go to war, and when 9/11 happened that’s what they did. They went to war.” He called this “a national scandal.” Cleland compared the Kean Commission to the earlier investigation of the Kennedy Assassination. “The Warren Commission blew it. I’m not going to be part of that. I’m not going to be part of looking at information only partially. I’m not going to be part of just coming to quick conclusions. I’m not going to be part of political pressure to do this or not do that.”

At the time of Cleland’s impassioned outbursts, the hearings were not even covering September 11, but issues of Homeland Security. The commission was barely a blip on the media radar. Aside from the Salon interview, Cleland’s revolt was treated to cursory coverage in a total of two other outlets: the Times and the Washington Post. In the midst of an apparent news black-out, followers of the commission process were not even sure if Cleland had resigned.

In December, Bush stepped in and settled the question. He appointed Cleland to direct the U.S. Export-Import Bank. Cleland accepted, and left the Commission.

Ignoring the Elephant

Max Cleland’s departure exposed the commission’s conflicts of interest and willingness to compromise its mission. Despite reports of turmoil behind the scenes, the public consequences approached nil.

Yet it was also a chance for the panel to change course, to address the issues he raised. Activists launched a campaign to nominate a member of the Family Steering Committee to fill the vacancy. Did the commission have room for one person who is not a government insider, and who has a clear incentive to seek the truth? A well-known FSC member expressed her willingness to serve. Calls and faxes advocating her nomination poured in from around the country to the offices of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. He had nominated Cleland, and therefore got to choose the replacement.

At the commission’s next public session on December 8, 2003, Cleland went unmentioned until the closing press conference, when a reporter asked Kean and Hamilton how they intended to restore the commission’s credibility. Both proclaimed, needlessly, that Cleland was a man of integrity, without addressing anything he had said.

In addition, confronted with open-source evidence of U.S. military preparations for the 9/11 scenario prior to September 11 (the Pentagon MASCAL exercise), they gave their usual answer, which can be summed up as follows: “We are grateful. Please provide us with these materials. We will pursue all leads.” The materials were duly provided.

The next day, Daschle filled the vacancy with former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, president of The New School University and an outspoken hardliner on homeland security issues. (Kerrey was also a member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which lobbied foreign countries to support the ousting of Saddam Hussein.) The decision had been made. The 9/11 Commission had room for no one but insiders.

Leaving aside the behind-the-scenes stories and conflicts of interest we have detailed, does the commission truly pursue all leads? In the next article, a case study of how the commission operates in public, we shall see what happened when its members had a golden opportunity to ask top Pentagon officials about the wargames of September 11. – Nicholas Levis

1 By comparison, the Columbia Space Shuttle explosion led to immediate approval of $30 million for a commission within a week. The investigation of Bill Clinton’s sexual affairs in the 1990s took up on the order of $40 million in funds.

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