Inside the sleek wooden walls of a Hart Senate Office Building hearing room, where the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States held two days of hearings, GOP commissioners subjected former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke to sharp questioning during a charged and emotional hearing Wednesday. But while Clarke deftly parried charges about potential partisanship -- asserting, under oath, that he has no interest in ever joining a John Kerry administration, "should there be one" -- the pointed questions highlighted another fault line that may widen as the political season progresses: a divide between the GOP commissioners and the family members of victims of September 11.

Clarke began his testimony by offering the victims' family members a sincere and moving
apology. "Those entrusted with protecting you, failed you," he said, his voice husky with emotion. "And I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed. I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness."

He then proceeded to charge the Bush administration with failing, during its first nine months, to treat the terrorist threat as "urgent," despite repeated warnings. For many family members, it was as if a dam was finally bursting.

"This is the best testimony ever!" exclaimed an emphatic, limping April Gallop after Clarke's testimony. A petite former EF4 Specialist at the Pentagon, she was medically retired after being injured in the attack on the Pentagon. "He was honest. He admitted it! He apologized -- something nobody has done since 2001. That's a real leader.

"It closes the wound a little bit," she added. "There's an open wound there."

Rosemary Dillard, who wore a red "AA77" pin to memorialize the American Airlines flight her husband, Eddie Dillard, was on when he died, was also satisfied. "I thought it was excellent, even when they tried to browbeat [Clarke] down," she said. "And now we're leaving. All the families are leaving….Condoleezza Rice not coming, it's disrespectful."

At the end of Clarke's testimony, the families walked out in a spontaneous protest of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who had declined to testify under oath before the panel. The administration deputized Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to speak in her stead. The protest was hastily decided on by the families during the brief lunch break between the end of former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger's testimony and the beginning of Clarke's, said several family members. And so they picked up their heavy winter overcoats and their wheeled suitcases -- many were heading straight back to New York after the hearings -- and walked out en masse.

"The family members got up as a group and left today because Condoleezza Rice didn't
testify," said Kristin Breitweiser, the articulate head of the September 11th Advocates, whose husband, Ronald, died in the World Trade Center. "The White House lawyers have decided it is better to take the heat for not testifying than [for her] to come down and take an oath and testify."

Breitweiser's advocacy, along with that of other widows from New Jersey, helped lead to
the creation of the commission.

"We've all been so frustrated by Condi Rice," said Patricia Casazza, whose husband,
John, perished along with many other Cantor Fitzgerald employees at the World Trade
Center on 9-11. Having Armitage testify in lieu of Rice, she added, was "totally unacceptable."

"In the middle of our grief, we had to drag ourselves down to D.C. for a whole year,
begging for this investigation," said Casazza. "This is not supposed to be about politics; this is supposed to be about preventing this [kind of] tragedy from happening going forward."

And going forward, the some families say, the Bush administration has stalled and dragged its feet at every possible turn. "This administration has not fully cooperated with the 9-11 commission," charged the Family Steering Committee for the 9-11 commission, a nonpartisan umbrella group that lobbyied for the commission's creation. "President Bush opposed the creation of the 9-11 commission, and his administration has set up roadblocks that have inhibited the commission's progress," the committee said on March 8.

On Saturday, the committee sent a letter to the commissioners demanding the resignation of the commission's staff director, Philip Zelikow, after information surfaced in The New York Times and during testimony that Zelikow was a participant in briefings on the al-Qaeda threat that Clarke gave to the Bush transition team. Zelikow, a long-time colleague of Rice's and co-author of a book with her, has recused himself from all aspects of the investigation that cover the month he served on the transition team.

"It is clear that [Zelikow] should never have been permitted to be a member of the
commission, since it is the mandate of the commission to identify the source of failures," the families wrote in the letter, as reported by Government Executive. "We can now see that trail would lead directly to the staff director himself."

"It is the families' opinion that the staff director has a stark conflict of interest," said Breitweiser at an impromptu press conference Wednesday after walking out of the hearings. "In addition to resigning, we would like the staff director to testify" under oath. Zelikow has testified in executive session but not publicly or under oath. Rice has met with the commission privately for four hours but has refused to testify in open session.

A spokesman for the commission, Al Felzenberg, said earlier in the week that the
commissioners felt Zelikow's recusal was an adequate response. But that response, coupled with the sharp questioning of Clarke's credibility by the GOP commissioners, has caused some of the family members to worry that the GOP commissioners -- through their insinuations that those critical of Bush are partisans -- will themselves be hijacking the commission for partisan electoral purposes as the year progresses.

"Certain people on the commission need to determine who they are representing," said
Breitweiser. "Are they representing the lives of the 3,000 lost or are they representing
people in Washington?"

Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor.

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