Sunday 4 August 2002

9/11 widows win support for commission

By Kathy Kiely, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — A group of women who lost their husbands in the collapse of the World Trade Center are beginning to change some minds about the need for an independent commission to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks. Their next target: President Bush.

For months, the president and other administration officials have argued against an independent commission. This week, however, senior White House officials met with three widows spearheading a lobbying campaign.

"They said they have a lot of thinking to do," said Kristen Breitweiser, one of the widows who attended the meeting.

White House officials say that a commission isn't the right way to investigate the terrorist attacks. But Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who accompanied the women to the meeting with Jay Lefkowitz, chief of the president's domestic policy council, said he's "much more hopeful" than he was previously.

Smith, who represents many Sept. 11 victims' families, last week helped Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., engineer a surprise House vote in favor of an independent panel to investigate the attacks. He credits the unexpected victory to lobbying by family members, who helped to persuade 25 Republicans to support the bill. "It's hard to look them in the eyes and not get it," Smith said.

Most Democrats have supported the commission, but backers were stymied in their attempt to get a vote in the Senate this week. A bill providing funding for the intelligence community was held off the floor because of a threat by Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., to attach the commission proposal as an amendment to an intelligence funding bill. The CIA strongly opposes an independent probe.

Opponents of a commission argue that it will duplicate efforts underway in Congress and distract key law enforcement officials at a time when they should be focusing on the war against terrorists. Smith said he has no criticism of the joint congressional inquiry already underway by the House and Senate intelligence committees. But he and the family members want a broader investigation.

Lieberman, who will manage legislation calling for creation of a homeland security department when it reaches the Senate on Sept. 3, says he will try to add the commission to that bill.

Family members are hoping Bush, who could establish a commission by executive order, will act sooner. "We would like to see this as a memorial to our loved ones," said Lorie Van Auken. "With the Sept. 11 anniversary coming up, people are asking us what they can do. This is something they can do."