Toward the end of the recent two days of hearings of the independent 9/11 commission, Kristen Breitweiser and Lorie Van Auken, who each lost a husband in the horrific attacks, were near tears. Not of grief, but of rage. They had much to be angry about, as they and other 9/11 family members walked out of the hearings in protest. They were mad that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had refused to testify publicly. The White House had claimed that it would set a bad precedent and discourage future presidential aides from freely dispensing advice to the commander-in-chief. But in recent years other presidential advisers, including Tom Ridge, have testified before Congress. And Rice had no problem appearing on several television shows right before the hearings to talk about the Bush Administration’s deliberations in order to slam Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism chief in the Clinton and early Bush administrations, who had released a book accusing Bush of neglecting Al Qaeda before 9/11 and undermining the fight against Osama bin Laden with the war in Iraq. On March 29, George W. Bush retreated and announced that Rice could testify under oath before the commission.

But for Breitweiser and Van Auken there was reason to be upset beyond Rice’s no-show. They were infuriated that much of the questioning of the Clinton and Bush officials who did testify–the list included Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Defense Secretary William Cohen, CIA chief George Tenet, and former national security adviser Sandy Berger–was disjointed, lame or off-point. Much of it concerned Clarke’s book, with Republican members of the commission–especially former Illinois Governor James Thompson–helping the White House by seeking to discredit Clarke. “We fought to have serious hearings about the issues of 9/11,” Breitweiser said. “Instead we got a book review. This has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with why my husband and 3,000 people are not on this Earth. I can’t explain how hurtful this is.” Van Auken added, “The occasional fact seeped out–a little bit of the truth. But we want to replace these hearings with hearings on 9/11. This is not a game.”

They did have a legitimate complaint. The hearings were more melodramatic than enlightening. In his brief opening statement, Clarke apologized to the family members and flat-out acknowledged the obvious: that he and the US government had failed them. This was perhaps the most direct admission of guilt from any Clinton or Bush official and was one of the most effective opening statements I have seen in twenty-plus years of paying attention to Washington hearings. And Clarke’s face-off with Republican-appointed commissioners was gripping political theater. The White House that day released the transcript of a background briefing Clarke had given to reporters in August 2002, when he was still a White House official (but no longer the chief counterterrorism coordinator). Time magazine had just reported that the Bush Administration in the months before 9/11 ignored a plan proposed by Clarke to “roll back” Al Qaeda. At that briefing, Clarke, speaking on background (meaning his name could not be used by the journalists), defended the Bush Administration’s early actions regarding Al Qaeda.

Aha, Bush backers exclaimed, pointing to this transcript as proof Clarke had changed his tale to sell books. (The outing of background briefers by a White House is a rare, if not unprecedented, action.) But Clarke batted away questions about the briefing, noting that he had been asked by the White House to put the best spin on the situation. That’s what presidential aides are often requested to do, he explained. He had not been prepared to quit at that time, he maintained, so he engaged in SOP damage control. This explanation did diminish his position as a truth-teller, but it had an all-too plausible ring of truth. He had been a good soldier. In front of the 9/11 commission, he stuck to his argument that Bush had not treated the Al Qaeda threat with the seriousness it had deserved at the time.

Clarke was willing to take and assign blame. Most witnesses were not. They generally adhered to the same line: We did everything we could. Democratic commissioners attempted to highlight what the Clinton Administration had done well and to question Bush’s pre-9/11 actions. Republican commissioners tried to make the Clintonites look lackadaisical. They questioned why the Clinton Administration did not use military action to strike bin Laden after the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole. (But the CIA had not definitively concluded that bin Laden had been responsible.) They pointed to the Clinton Administration’s decision in 1998 not to fire cruise missiles at a camp in Afghanistan where bin Laden might have been. (But several members of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates, supposedly one of Washington’s best Arab allies in counterterrorism, were possibly present at the time. Clarke noted that after he suggested that satellite pictures of the camp made him think it was more a hunting camp than a terrorist compound, Tenet informed Clarke he was not recommending the strike proceed.)

Commissioner John Lehman, secretary of the navy in the Reagan Administration, pointed to the fact that one of the Al Qaeda thugs involved in the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 had fled to Iraq, suggesting that the Clinton Administration had ignored a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. And when commissioner Bob Kerrey, a Democrat but wild-card member of the panel, raised this issue, Clarke replied that only one of the dozen 1993 plotters had been Iraqi and it was only natural that Iraq–which had recently been defeated in a war by the United States–would not turn over a terrorist suspect to the United States. This was not, he said, evidence that the Iraqi government had been involved in the first WTC attack. Republicans also emphasized an issue raised in one of several staff reports released by the commission: that CIA officers had complained during the Clinton years that the orders they received were unclear as to whether they had authority to capture or assassinate bin Laden. Sandy Berger said he had no explanation why that was so and maintained Clinton had been straightforward in telling the CIA it had permission to kill bin Laden.

There was much back-and-forth over Clarke’s claim that Bush had not moved quickly enough on Al Qaeda in the first seven-and-a-half months of his presidency. Had Clarke really presented a plan for dealing with Al Qaeda that had been shoved aside? Bush defenders maintained this was more a list of suggestions. The commission referred to it as a “strategy paper.” Was Clarke right to say that because the Bush Administration had waited until September to hold a Cabinet-level meeting on Al Qaeda, while a policy review was under way, that Bush had not taken the threat seriously? Powell testified that “President Bush and all of us on his team knew that terrorism would be a major concern for us.” Rumsfeld said that he viewed Al Qaeda as “a priority threat.” Tenet said that “both sets of policymakers [in the Bush and Clinton Administrations] cared deeply about terrorism” and that the Bush Administration “was working hard before September 11th.”

But what received less media attention than the hearing room clashes were the several interim reports produced by the commission. One notes that the Clinton Administration had pressed Saudi Arabia to work with the United States against bin Laden. Yet, the report says, “the Bush Administration did not develop any diplomatic initiatives on Al Qaeda with the Saudi government before the 9/11 attack.” (Bush policymakers, though, were at this time reviewing policy regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan vis-à-vis Al Qaeda.) Another of the commission’s interim reports makes it seem that Al Qaeda was hardly a priority at the Pentagon. It states:

Brian Sheridan–the outgoing Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC), the key counterterrorism policy office in DOD–never briefed Rumsfeld. Lower-level SOLIC officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense told us that they thought the new team was focused on other issues and was not especially interested in their counterterrorism agenda [emphasis added]. Undersecretary [Douglas] Feith told the Commission that when he arrived at the Pentagon in July 2001, Rumsfeld asked him to focus his attention on working with the Russians on agreements to dissolve the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and preparing a new nuclear arms control pact. Traditionally, the primary DOD official responsible for counterterrorism policy had been the assistant secretary of defense for SOLIC. The outgoing assistant secretary left of January 20, 2001, and had not been replaced when the Pentagon was hit on September 11…. [Rumsfeld] did not recall any particular counterterrorism issue that engaged his attention before 9/11, other than the development of the Predator unmanned aircraft system for possible use against bin Laden.

In yet another interim report, the commission presents information that contradicts Tenet’s claim that Bush officials were fully cognizant of the threat and in sync with the urgency Tenet had assigned to the Al Qaeda challenge. It notes:

Some CIA officials expressed frustration about the pace of policymaking during the stressful summer of 2001. Although Tenet said he thought the policy machinery was working in what he called a rather orderly fashion, [deputy CIA chief John] McLaughlin told us he felt a great tension–especially in June and July 2001–between the new Administration’s need to understand these issues and his sense that this was a matter of great urgency…. Two veteran [Counterterrorist Center] officers who were deeply involved in [bin Laden] issues were so worried about an impending disaster that one of them told us that they considered resigning and going public with their concerns.

It may be unfair to fault the Bush Administration for not treating Al Qaeda–which had killed several dozen Americans over eight years–as a top-of-the-list priority before 9/11. But the Bush White House has insisted–particularly in the face of Clarke’s blast–that it was fully engaged on this front. The question of Bush’s attitude toward Al Qaeda prior to September 11, though, can be resolved by reviewing what Bush said–not to the commission, which has yet to interview him, but to Bob Woodward, who spoke to Bush while researching his book, Bush at War.

Referring to the period before 9/11, Bush told Woodward, “I was not on point, but I knew [bin Laden] was a menace, and I knew he was a problem…. I was prepared to look at a plan that would be a thoughtful plan that would bring him to justice, and would have given the order to do that…. But I didn’t feel that sense of urgency, and my blood was not nearly as boiling.” Isn’t that case closed? Prepared to look at a plan? He was not demanding one, it would seem.

With much of the questioning at the 9/11 hearings dominated by Clarke’s charges, many issues went unaddressed or barely mentioned. Tenet was not asked about the CIA’s failure to tell the FBI about two of the 9/11 hijackers it had tracked to the United States. If the FBI–which had an informant who was in touch with the two men–had been provided that information, it may have been able to locate the two hijackers-to-be and place them under surveillance. Who knows where that might have led? (The commission says it will examine this screw-up in a future hearing.) In fact, Tenet, who was responsible for a massive intelligence failure, was not challenged by the commissioners. Why had the in telligence community not focused on the reports dating back to the mid-1990s that noted Al Qaeda and other terrorists were interested in using airliners as weapons and crashing them into such targets as the White House, the CIA headquarters, the Pentagon, and nuclear reactors? Tenet was not pressed on this.

Former Representative Timothy Roemer, a Democrat, did raise a related issue with Tenet. He referred to an important section of the 9/11 report produced by the Congressional intelligence committees, which revealed that the intelligence community in August 2001 had warned “senior government officials” that bin Laden had been looking to mount attacks in the United States, that Al Qaeda had apparently developed cells in the United States, that bin Laden was considering hijackings, and that some bin Laden supporters in America were planning attacks with explosives. In this report, the intelligence committees hinted–quite strongly–that this warning had been conveyed to Bush in a Presidential Daily Brief he had received on August 6, 2001. But the White House had not allowed the intelligence committees to review this PDB, and in previous public statements Rice had indicated this PDB had merely contained routine historical information on bin Laden. (The 9/11 commission was only allowed to send representatives to read and summarize the PDBs, including this one.)

Roemer laid out this background and asked Tenet why the intelligence community in the summer of 2001–when the dramatic rise in “chatter” was suggesting that Al Qaeda was about to strike–had focused only on the possibility of an attack overseas, not one at home. But by the time Roemer explained all this, his allotted minutes were nearly expired. Tenet ducked the question; the subject was dropped. And the possibility that Rice had mischaracterized the August 6, 2001, PDB was not explored. Nor was Bush’s reaction to a warning that said bin Laden was aiming to hit a target in the United States. (The commission promises this, too, will be examined in a coming hearing.)

The missed (at least for now) opportunities irritated some of the family members–as has Philip Zelikow, the commission’s executive director. Breitweiser, Van Auken and other 9/11 relatives have called on him to resign. Zelikow served with Rice in the Bush I Administration and co-wrote a book with her. He was on the transition team for the current Bush Administration and in that capacity participated in a meeting that has become part of the Clarke controversy. He also was appointed to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board by George W. Bush. Given all his connections to the Bush Administration (which is, after all, a subject of the commission’s inquiry) and his own direct participation in the story, some 9/11 family members believe he cannot be an impartial investigator. They question his ability to go head-to-head with the White House and Rice and argue that his presence undercuts the commission’s credibility. Asked about this (by me), commission chairman Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor in New Jersey, and vice chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic Congressman, dismissed the concerns of the family members. “I don’t know why there is a conflict of interest beyond the fact that he was part of the transition team,” Kean said. But, Kean noted, Zelikow worked on the Bush transition team for “a very short period” because the transition itself, due to the fracas in Florida, had been truncated.

The commission still has plenty of work ahead. It has scheduled hearings in April, May and June. And it has until July 26 to finish and release its report–which will have to go through a declassification process. (When the Congressional intelligence committees tried to release their 9/11 report, they battled the Administration for over half-a-year on declassification issues.) And the commission has to resolve a dispute with the White House. It wants all ten commissioners to participate in the private interviews the panel will hold with Bush and Dick Cheney. The White House, which opposed the commission initially and which recently opposed its request for a two-month extension before relenting, has said Bush and Cheney will only grant audiences to Kean and Hamilton. On March 29, when Bush announced that Rice would be permitted to testify before the commission, he also said he and Cheney would meet with all members of the commision.

“We want the most comprehensive, transparent and definitive report possible,” Breitweiser says. “We originally wanted the commission to work until January 2005, to have time to get it all right. But we were told the White House did not want to see public hearings being held at the height of the political season.” After watching the latest hearings, Van Auken notes, “We are worried about the final report. It seems this whole thing could disintegrate into a partisan circus.” These widows want complete answers and full accountability, not partisan bickering and cover-your-ass testimony. They deserve to have their expectations met. The commissioners have yet to prove they can do so.