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Mitchell quits 9/11 probe

From Ted Barrett and Jonathan Karl

George Mitchell
George Mitchell

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- George Mitchell, the former Democratic senator from Maine, has stepped down as vice chairman of the new independent commission investigating the September 11 terrorists attacks.

Congressional Democrats announced his appointment November 27, the same day President Bush named former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to head the commission.

Creation of the panel was part of a broad intelligence authorization bill approved in November. The 10-person commission will be composed of five Republicans and five Democrats

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle and House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt announced Mitchell's resignation Wednesday. They said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, will replace him.

In a letter to congressional leaders, Mitchell said he stepped down because he does not want to sever ties with his law firm, which he said he had been urged to do to avoid a potential conflict of interest, and because the commission's work will take too much time.

"Some have urged that I sever all ties to the law firm with which I am associated," Mitchell wrote. "Since I must work to support my family I cannot comply."

The letter continued, "I take this action reluctantly, as I wanted very much to be a part of this important effort."

Mitchell, the former Senate Majority leader, informed the congressional leaders of his decision two days ago. He led a group that brokered a peace accord in Northern Ireland and headed an international committee looking into the Middle East conflict.

His replacement, Hamilton, served in Congress for more than 30 years. During that time, he chaired both the International Relations Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence.

He also chaired the committee that investigated the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration.

With the announcement, Daschle and Gephardt named four other Democratic appointments to the panel.

They are: retiring Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Indiana, who spearheaded the creation of the independent commission; outgoing Sen. Max Cleland, D-Georgia; former Clinton Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick and prominent Democratic lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste.

The panel is expected to complete its work in 18 months. The White House would like the commission to issue a final report well before the 2004 presidential elections.

The commission idea was proposed by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut, and John McCain, R-Arizona, and Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Indiana, soon after the 2001 attacks.

The Bush administration wanted to let a select intelligence committee handle the probe, but that investigation encountered problems gathering information from key agencies. In the face of mounting political and public pressure, Bush reversed his position in the fall.

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