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Kissinger resigns as head of 9/11 panel

Former secretary of state under fire for secrecy of private-sector clients

NBC, MSNBC AND NEWS SERVICES

WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 — Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stepped down Friday as chairman of a panel investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, citing the controversy over whether he would be compromised by conflicts of interest with his business clients.

THE COMMISSION is to follow up the work of the congressional inquiry that issued its final report Wednesday on intelligence failures leading up the attacks. The commission will conduct a broader investigation, looking at issues beyond intelligence, including aviation security and immigration.

Senate Democrats had demanded that Kissinger reveal his list of clients, which include multinational corporations and foreign governments, saying he could be caught in an untenable position if one of them was found to have some culpability. The panel’s original vice chairman, Democratic former Sen. George Mitchell of Maine, resigned from the commission Wednesday, partly because of similar pressures connected with his law firm.

But Kissinger refused, and President Bush supported him, even though the Congressional Research Service issued two reports in less than a week saying all members of the commission — including presidential appointees — were bound by Senate ethics requirements to submit financial disclosures that would reveal potential conflicts.

After a week of withering criticism, Kissinger withdrew from the commission rather than reveal his list of clients.

“It is clear that, although specific potential conflicts can be resolved in this manner, the controversy would quickly move to the consulting firm I have built and own,” Kissinger wrote in a letter to Bush. “I have, therefore, concluded that I cannot accept the responsibility you proposed.”

Bush said in a statement that he had accepted Kissinger’s resignation even though he believed “his chairmanship would have provided the insights and analysis the government needs to understand the methods of our enemies and the nature of the threats we face.”

He promised to pick a new chairman to help “uncover every detail and learn every lesson of Sept. 11, even as we act on what we have learned so far to better protect and defend America.”

MIDDLE GROUND REJECTED

Kissinger said he had told White House lawyers that he was willing to remove the appearance of conflict of interests by submitting “all relevant financial information” to the White House and to an independent review.

But he said he had concluded that such a process would would have “significantly delayed” the commission’s work.

“My hope is that by the decision to step aside now, the joint commission can proceed without further controversy,” he said.

The dispute is not the first involving the commission, which will begin its work early next month. Family members of victims and congressional Democrats have questioned whether the Bush administration wants an honest evaluation of the attacks, with its report due to come out less than six months before the 2004 presidential election.

Negotiations creating the commission were also bogged down by disputes over its makeup and rules, with lawmakers and the White House accusing each other of trying to manipulate it for political purposes.

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