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Editorial: Kissinger and credibility / A Sept. 11 investigator brings a lot of baggage

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Americans must have confidence in the results of the independent commission President Bush named Wednesday to look into the question of whether the Sept. 11 attacks could have been avoided if the nation's security agencies had been doing their jobs. His choice of Henry A. Kissinger to chair the commission will make such confidence harder to come by.

On paper, the choice of the 79-year-old Mr. Kissinger, a former White House national security adviser and secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford is logical. Mr. Kissinger is certainly familiar with the domestic and foreign terrain within which Sept. 11 was mounted. He brings long, relevant experience to the task.

On the other hand, many Americans will view Mr. Kissinger's appointment with suspicion and unease. One reason is that his private consulting firm, Kissinger Associates Inc., has a long list of American and foreign clients who could turn out to have interests that figure in the commission's investigations.

So far, Mr. Kissinger has refused to make available even a list of his company's clients, huffing that he has been involved in public affairs ever since his departure from government and no one has ever asked him for such a list. Nor, he says, are law firms normally asked to make available lists of their clients.

The obvious point to make is that no other event the past half-century has touched the American people as deeply as the Sept. 11 attacks did. Nor has the government's role in the lead-up to such events required the profound inquiry this one does.

The United States was spending $30 billion a year on intelligence. How did the government fail to protect the public? Answering that question is more than a matter of historical second-guessing; it also could help forestall another such attack. The public has a right to expect that those leading that inquiry should be open about their own connections.

The naming of former Sen. George Mitchell, 69, as vice chairman of the bipartisan commission is reassuring. Mr. Mitchell's service as Senate majority leader and envoy to the Northern Ireland talks that produced the Good Friday Agreement bodes well for his performance on the commission. Eight other members are yet to be named.

But the choice and role of the chairman of the commission, whose report in the end will bear his name, is critical. At the least, Mr. Kissinger should be required to provide a list of his current clients (as should Sen. Mitchell). If Mr. Kissinger is unable to make that commitment, he should withdraw and President Bush should look for someone else to preside over this vital inquiry.

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