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Volume 79, Number 8 | July 29 - August 4, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


8 years later, push to put a new 9/11 probe on the ballot

By Will Glovinsky

Supporters of a ballot initiative that would create a second, independent 9/11 investigative commission are awaiting the City Clerk’s certification of 52,000 signatures submitted on June 24 by the New York City Coalition for Accountability Now, or NYC CAN. The decision could bring the measure to the City Council for a vote and, if approved, the referendum would appear on this November’s ballot.

“This could be one of the most important ballot referendums ever put to city voters because of what happened, the nature of the event, the scale of it — and because so many questions were unanswered,” said Kyle Hence, a spokesperson for NYC CAN.

Before the initiative reaches voters, however, it still faces a series of hurdles, the certification decision being only the first. The City Clerk must certify that at least 30,000 signatures belong to registered New York City voters, although NYC CAN’s leaders are confidant that they can supply enough additional signatures if necessary. Another 15,000 signatures may also be needed to override a veto by City Council.

Seizing upon the comments by Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, co-chairpersons of the original 9/11 Commission, that their investigation was “set up to fail,” NYC CAN argues that the original 9/11 Commission was a flawed investigation marred by reticent government agencies and inconsistent testimony. The group proposes a new subpoena-powered commission of mostly private citizens (the list in the petition does include former Senators Lincoln Chafee and Mike Gravel), which proponents say would pursue the remaining questions aggressively and independently.

The new commission would try to find answers for all of the questions initially posed by the Family Steering Committee, the group of victims’ family members that lobbied for the creation of the original 9/11 Commission. However, Ted Walters, executive director of NYC CAN, said that the terrorists’ funding and the military’s failure to intercept the hijacked jetliners were especially high priorities for a new investigation.

“We’re talking about a serious failure to comply with protocols,” he said, referring to the failure of military interceptors.

The new commission would also investigate the illnesses that have afflicted survivors, first responders and local residents and workers in the eight years since the attacks. On its Web site, NYC CAN says that first responders have been unable to draw benefits from the World Trade Center Captive Insurance Company, which was set up by the government to underwrite medical costs for injured parties.

The Coalition for Accountability Now reflects an effort to unify and legitimize a broad spectrum of interests that have questioned the government’s ability to investigate itself. Working with an issue that has fostered a bevy of conspiracy theorists, NYC CAN takes pains to clarify on its Web site that its commission would be impartial and start with zero assumptions.

Walters did say that the new commission would follow a more aggressive investigative strategy than the first commission, which issued subpoenas for Pentagon and White House documents only after it encountered stiff resistance from government officials.

“The first step, on Day One, would be to draw up a list of everybody they want to interview, and issue the subpoenas at the beginning,” Walters said. He added that, in addition to mandating testimony from tight-lipped government officials, subpoenas would also provide a legal green light for people who want to share information but cannot without an explicit order to do so.

William Pepper, legal counsel for NYC CAN and a slated commissioner if the referendum is approved, said that despite the municipal mandate of the commission, its subpoena power would, in effect, range far beyond the city line.

“Subpoenas are honored by other districts,” said Pepper. “If a witness refuses to appear, the subpoena could be converted to another court. There may well be challenges, but I think legally they can be overcome.”

Walters explained that if the commission were to meet the same kind of resistance that the original investigation encountered, attention could be directed at the persons or agencies that were not forthcoming.

“There will be a dichotomy of those who want to testify and those who don’t,” he said.

Regarding the work of the original 9/11 Commission, Walters said that one of his major concerns was its refusal to hold any entity accountable for failing to fulfill its duty.

“There were structural failures,” he said, referring to the tangled bureaucracy that slowed the military’s immediate response to the attack, “but there were also individual failures.”

Although Walters insisted that the new commission would not be a witch hunt, he said he would be surprised if it did not ultimately hold anyone responsible. He noted that the petition’s language charges the commission to “seek indictments” where prudent, meaning the commission could work in tandem with prosecutors’ offices.

“Ultimately, what our justice system does with the findings of the commission is beyond our control,” Walters said. “Changes will be made through political pressure rather than legal obligation.”

The “set up to fail” comment by Kean and Hamilton is from their 2006 book, “Without Precedent,” which details the internal workings of the 9/11 Commission and criticizes the Federal Aviation Administration, the military command and House Republicans for obstructing the commission’s investigation.

Another 9/11 Commission member, Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska senator and current president of The New School, has also spoken out about the commission’s work, specifically the difficulty of discerning the truth from information obtained through terrorism suspects who were subjected to “enhanced interrogation.” Kerrey, who could not be reached for this article, was quoted in a March Newsweek essay saying that it might take “a permanent 9/11 commission” to answer remaining questions.

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