WASHINGTON -- Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stepped down Friday as chairman of a panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, citing controversy over potential conflicts of interest with his business 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 President Bush, who appointed him. "I have, therefore, concluded that I cannot accept the responsibility you proposed."
The decision was another blow for the fledgling panel. Its original vice chairman, former Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine, resigned from the commission Wednesday, partly because of pressures to quit his law firm.
No replacement for Kissinger was announced, but Bush was expected to fill the position soon.
Kissinger's resignation came one day after he tried to assure victims' relatives that his business interests would not conflict with his duties as chairman.
A leader of a relatives' group, Kristen Breitweiser of September 11th Advocates, said the Kissinger and Mitchell resignations "reaffirms my belief that the commission needs to be pure, transparent and purely independent."
Stephen Push of Families of Sept. 11, said Kissinger's resignation gives Bush "a second chance to appoint someone who will be a thorough and competent investigator."
Kissinger said he had told White House lawyers 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.
Kissinger called White House chief of staff Andrew Card and told him he was willing to disclose his client list, but feared that would not be enough, and that critics would demand that he liquidate his firm, a senior White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Kissinger said he could not liquidate Kissinger Associates, his international consulting firm, without delaying the commission's work.
A spokeswoman for Kissinger said he had no comment beyond his letter to Bush. White House aides said the resignation was Kissinger's idea.
Bush issued a written statement saying he accepted Kissinger's resignation with regret and that "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."
The commission will investigate events surrounding the attacks, examining issues including aviation security, immigration and U.S. diplomacy. It will build on a congressional inquiry, completed this week, into intelligence failures.
Senators said all commission members must submit financial disclosures that would reveal potential conflicts. That view was supported by reports issued by Congress' research arm, the Congressional Research Service.
But the White House contended Kissinger, as Bush's sole appointee, should not have had to submit a report because the law does not require presidential appointees to submit disclosures if they are not drawing salaries.
There have been other disputes surrounding the commission which begins its work early next month.
Negotiations creating the commission were 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.
Some family members of victims and a number of congressional Democrats have questioned whether the administration wants an honest evaluation of the attacks, with its report due to come out less than six months before the 2004 presidential election.
Victims' relatives have criticized the appointment of former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who they say is too close to the airline industry. They are pushing for the appointment of independent-minded former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., for one of the five Republican slots. Five Democrats have already been appointed, including former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who will be the panel's vice chairman.