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Panel questioning terror detainees

Laura Sullivan Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — At least two top al Qaeda leaders in U.S. custody are being questioned by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as part of the panel’s quest to determine the root of the disaster and whether it could have been prevented.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton said the panel has worked out a secret arrangement with the White House allowing members to pose questions to detainees, though he did not say what sort of answers, if any, they have received.

Although Hamilton would not identify the captives being questioned, he suggested they were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin Al-Shibh, the two accused masterminds of the 2001 attacks.

Hamilton would not elaborate, but said the commission will include as much information as possible in the declassified version of the report due July 26.

“We have had a procedure in mind … whereby we are able to ask questions of these detainees, and that is still being processed and worked out,” he said. ” … We think the result will be that we will have the information we need from these people.”

Mohammed, al-Shibh and Abu Zubaida, a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, are being interrogated in secret locations outside the United States.

“One of the most closely held secrets is where these people are. We were told the president doesn’t know where they are,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton and commission Chairman Thomas Kean said they are working frantically to produce a report before the July 26 deadline to avoid releasing it on the deadline, the same day the Democratic Convention begins in Boston.

“We don’t want our report used in a partisan manner, so we will do everything we can to get our report out as soon as possible,” said Kean.

Members are hoping to submit chapters of the report in advance to the White House, which must review the report to ensure no classified information is made public. He said the group wants to avoid the type of delay the House and Senate faced when lawmakers detailed the failures that lead to the attacks in a bipartisan congressional report in July.

That inquiry involved a months-long battle with the White House over what information could be declassified.

Nevertheless, Kean said that in recent months the group has had unprecedented access to information and cooperation from the White House. The panel has not yet had to use the subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify.

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