Philip Zelikow: Once Condi Rice's Former Aide, Now Director of the 9-11 Commission

Historians in the News

Dan Eggen, in the Washington Post (April 8, 2004):

When national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testifies this morning in front of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, a former colleague and longtime friend will be sitting on the other side of the witness table: Philip D. Zelikow, the panel's executive director.

Zelikow worked for Rice on the National Security Council staff during the administration of George H.W. Bush, and went on to write a book with Rice on German reunification that drew heavily on classified documents both had access to during their time in government. In December 2000, Rice brought Zelikow back to the White House to aid in the transition to the current administration.

During that month-long stint, Zelikow sat in on briefings by counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke and others, made recommendations for changes in the NSC's structure and proposed language for security directives having to do with terrorism, according to those familiar with his position.

Zelikow has recused himself from issues involving the NSC transition, and has refrained from questioning Rice during private interviews, panel officials said. But as the White House's record on counterterrorism policy has come under sharp scrutiny from the commission, so too has Zelikow's role in helping formulate those policies.

A dogged group of relatives of Sept. 11 victims has renewed its call in recent weeks for Zelikow's removal because of his links to Rice and others in the Bush administration. Some Democratic commissioners have also warned that, although they have great confidence in his credentials and expertise, Zelikow must strive to stay far away from any conflict that might call into question the commission's findings.

"This next phase of the commission's work is going to test his capacity, to the maximum, to remain credible," said Democratic member Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska senator. "I don't mean that in a personal way. . . . But any perception of conflict will fall against Philip and will hurt his reputation, as well as the credibility of the commission's final work, if he's involved in any way, shape or form in the analysis of the transition."

Zelikow, 49, said he has strived to steer clear of any conflicts. "I knew I'd be attacked about this when I took the job, and it was one of the arguments against taking it," he said yesterday. "The families [of Sept. 11 victims] raised this with me early on. The only answer you can make to things like this, and the answer I gave to them was, 'It doesn't do any good to say you are a person of integrity. . . . Your questions will have to be answered by the work.' "

Some relatives of Sept. 11 victims remain critical. "Rice brought him in because of his terrorism expertise, but apparently he didn't do such a good job because nine months later, al Qaeda killed 3,000 people," said Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ronald, died in the World Trade Center. "Why you would hire him to be a staff director of this commission is beyond my comprehension."

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