WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Sept. 11 Commission denies that panel members are grandstanding or showing partisanship, but says they plan a more low-key approach as they put together recommendations for a final report.
''There will be a lower profile," Thomas Kean, the Republican chairman and a former New Jersey governor, said in an interview. ''Trying to do anything in Washington is very, very difficult because the atmosphere is so poisonous."
''But I believe we'll steer through the distractions and write a fair and balanced report."
Five Democrats and five Republicans are on the commission. Claims of partisanship intensified after recent public hearings that featured some of the foremost members of the Clinton and Bush administrations, including the highly anticipated testimony of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Critics on both sides of the political aisle contended commission members were engaging in ''gotcha-style" questioning and seeking to promote their agendas.
''In some respects, it's definitely a new low," said Max Holland, a former fellow at the University of Virginia who is writing a narrative history of the Warren Commission. That independent panel investigated the assassination of President Kennedy in the 1960s.
''This is a commission charged with establishing facts and the truth, rather than posturing for political gain," he said, ''but some of the hearings amounted to lecturing and posturing."
Holland cited instances in which Democratic commissioners Bob Kerrey and Richard BenVeniste used the time for questioning to voice personal opinions about potential military action prior to Sept. 11, 2001, or to comment on the significance of an Aug. 6, 2001, intelligence memo.
Kean has said some of the commissioners' disagreements with witnesses were a result of open debate and no more jarring than a typical congressional hearing.
Republicans, led by the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, are starting a campaign to get commissioner Jamie Gorelick, a Democrat, removed from the panel, alleging conflicts stemming from her service as a top deputy to Janet Reno, attorney general in the Clinton administration.
Juliette Kayyem, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who served on a congressional terrorism panel to investigate the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Africa, questioned why Sept. 11 panel members have granted so many interviews.
''They've become too public," she said. ''It tempts commissioners into making assessments and conclusions prematurely."