Kissinger to Head Sept. 11 Investigation

WASHINGTON -- During the 1970s, Henry Kissinger strode across the foreign policy stage like few other U.S. diplomats of the 20th century. He helped open China to the West, promoted a policy of detente with the Soviet Union and directed a secret war in Cambodia.

He was accused of being a war criminal, yet in 1973, he shared a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the war in Vietnam, though Hanoi resumed the attack in 1975.

With the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, Kissinger fell out of favor with the conservative administration, but not entirely out of view, remaining an influential voice in foreign policy debates.

But on Wednesday, President George W. Bush welcomed Kissinger back into the Republican halls of power -- and into his most high-profile position in more than two decades -- by naming him chairman of a commission to investigate the government's failures to detect and prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Kissinger remains reviled by many on the left and mistrusted by many on the right, occasionally drawing protesters at book signing events in small towns.

Kissinger is also widely considered one of the most influential foreign policy thinkers of recent decades, whose vast experience in government could raise the commission's standing and overcome skeptics worried about a whitewash, analysts and Democratic and Republican officials said.

"Within the foreign policy world, and among many corporate CEOs, Henry Kissinger carries more weight than any senior individual in the world today," said Leslie Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But critics said Kissinger could create as many doubts about the commission as he settles. "He was not the greatest proponent of openness in government," said one critic, Michael Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, citing as an example Kissinger's role in the secret bombing of Cambodia.

Others argue that Kissinger's intimate familiarity with the workings of the national security agencies make him uniquely qualified to pinpoint their shortcomings and fulfill his new commission's mandate to see if the government could have done more to try to avert last year's terrorist attacks.

"He brings a stature to it, which is important," said Sandy Berger, who was President Bill Clinton's national security adviser. "He brings historical perspective, which I think is equally important. And I think that he has a wide-ranging experience, which is relevant. ... It is a very good choice."

Some critics say Kissinger's appointment raises the possibility of conflicts of interest. As the head of an influential consulting firm, Kissinger & Associates, he has represented multinational corporations -- including American Express, Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola -- that have a stake in American foreign policy.

"Henry Kissinger is a world figure and has a world business," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit organization that works on campaign finance reform. "In something as fundamentally important as this investigation, there should be an effort to avoid any potential problems like the appearance of a conflict of interest."