9/11 Commission Opens Hearings In New York City

The current and former police, fire and Office of Emergency Management commissioners are taking the hot seat first as the federal commission investigating the September 11, 2001, attacks opens hearings in New York City Tuesday

The former police and fire chiefs who were lionized after the World Trade Center attack came under harsh criticism Tuesday from the Sept. 11 commission, with one member saying the departments' lack of cooperation was scandalous and ``not worthy of the Boy Scouts.''

Commission members, in New York for an emotional two-day hearing, focused on how leaders of the two departments failed to share information effectively in the early frantic moments after two hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center.

Former fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen and former police chief Bernard Kerik shot back with infuriated responses to commissioner John Lehman's questions, the strongest of a series of pointed statements from the panel.

``I couldn't disagree with you more strongly,'' Von Essen replied. ``I think it's outrageous that you make a statement like that.'' Outside the hearing, he called the questioning ``despicable.''

Families of Sept. 11 victims applauded the tough questioning and shook their heads sadly as the panel enumerated a litany of communication breakdowns between the departments. Family members sporadically mocked and booed Von Essen, Kerik and Richard Sheirer, former Office of Emergency Management commissioner, and they wept earlier in the day as they watched videotape of the buildings collapsing.

As Von Essen testified, Sally Regenhard -- who lost her firefighter son -- held up a piece of paper reading: ``LIES.''

The 10-member bipartisan panel has been holding hearings over the last year, including high-profile meetings in Washington last month about intelligence failures, to examine what led to the attacks and determine ways to avoid future attacks. The panel will issue its final report July 26.

Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was scheduled to testify at the second day of hearings Wednesday.

While the New York hearings -- held 1 1/2 miles from ground zero -- were meant to examine problems in the city's emergency response system, officials also were asked about what they knew about terrorism threats in the months before Sept. 11.

The former director of the World Trade Center told the commission that he knew nothing of Osama bin Laden's terror network until the summer before the attacks, and was never privy to FBI intelligence that Islamic terrorists might hijack U.S. planes.

Alan Reiss said he first heard about bin Laden's al-Qaida network when ex-FBI agent John O'Neill was hired in the summer of 2001 as head of security at the trade center. O'Neill, who had hunted bin Laden for years, was one of the 2,749 people killed in the attack.

``I was aware of the plot against some of the other Port Authority tunnels and the U.N.,'' Reiss testified. ``But we were never briefed'' by the FBI.

Reiss also said he was more focused on fending off possible bioterrorism attacks such as anthrax, spending more than $100,000 to protect the building from such an assault.

``We felt this (anthrax) was the next coming wave,'' he said. ``We had developed plans on how to isolate the air conditioning system and shut it down but never did we have a thought of what happened on 9-11.''

Reiss bristled under questioning from commission member Bob Kerrey, who asked him if he is angry that ``things might have been different had they (FBI) trusted you enough'' to deliver important intelligence.

Reiss said he was not angry at the FBI, but rather at ``19 people in an airplane,'' referring to the hijackers.

Kerrey said he shared Reiss' anger. ``These 19 people ... defeated the INS, they defeated the Customs (Department), they defeated the FBI, they defeated the CIA,'' the former Nebraska senator said as family members of the victims chimed in with the loudest applause of the morning.

But Kerrey said he was more concerned that ``we may not be delivering the key intelligence, the facts, the information'' to the first responders.

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