Despite Bush pledge, 9/11 panel battled for access

1.00pm

WASHINGTON - Despite public White House pledges to cooperate with the September 11 commission, the panel has had to fight for access to key information and even President George W Bush's private appearance on Thursday was less than it had wanted.

A review of public records and interviews with people involved in the investigation show the commission, from its inception, has had to wait months for many sensitive documents, including presidential briefing papers detailing what Bush was told about the al Qaeda threat and when he was told it.

In some cases, the White House restricted the panel's access even to its own notes, citing national security concerns.

Over the panel's objections, administration "minders" were sent to commission interviews to take notes and report back on what was said, people close to the investigation said.

At one stage, Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman criticised what he called White House "secrecy, stonewalling and foot dragging."

Bush aides counter that they have cooperated fully and deny charges they delayed the commission's work.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan cited the "unprecedented" number of documents provided to commissioners -- more than two million pages -- along with hundreds of private briefings and interviews.

Bush initially opposed creation of the commission, arguing a congressional investigation would better preserve sensitive security data. Victims' families led a public campaign that helped pressure Bush to back down.

Since then, Bush's lawyers have imposed restrictions on the commission's access to sensitive documents, delaying their release in many cases.

Vice President Dick Cheney, known for playing his cards close to his chest, was particularly critical of the panel's work and opposed releasing some sensitive documents, several sources said.

In most cases, however, pressure from the commission and victims' families forced the White House to reverse course, as when national security adviser Condoleezza Rice testified in public after initially refusing to do so.

Amid the public and private wrangling the commission has had to seek a 60-day extension to complete its final report, now due on July 26. The White House at first tried to make the commission meet its original May deadline.

One of the biggest fights between the White House and the commission was over access to classified presidential briefing papers, including an August 6, 2001, intelligence briefing titled "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US" that was eventually released.

After months of debate, the White House agreed in November to provide limited access to the briefing papers to four members of the panel. But the White House balked at letting them share their notes with the others.

Officials said the commission was so frustrated by the delay that it went so far as to threaten an election-year subpoena before Bush backed down in February. Still, the White House allowed commissioners to receive only a summary -- not the documents themselves.

The White House only agreed to Thursday's session if Cheney could take part as well and it was held behind closed doors.

The White House at first insisted Bush would only take questions for an hour. Bush later agreed to answer all of the panel's questions, and he spent just over three hours with the panel on Thursday.

But the White House would not back down from its demand for secrecy. It barred recording devices and said the panel could only bring one staffer along to take notes.

The commission's final report will still be vetted by the White House to ensure it does not contain classified material. Some people close to the panel say they fear that could lead to more delays.

- REUTERS

Herald Feature: September 11

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