9/11 panel access will be limited

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor  |  Nov. 14, 2003 at 7:07 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- The access that the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks will get to ultra-secret presidential papers under its deal with the White House is hedged around with restrictions, United Press International has learned.

The deal has drawn flak from relatives of the victims of the attacks and from commission members unhappy with the limits placed on their access.

The 10-member, bipartisan commission announced Wednesday that it had reached a compromise with the White House over access to the so-called presidential daily briefs, which summarize each morning intelligence about the most important threats to the nation. Under the terms of the agreement, a four-strong subcommittee will see parts of the documents and report back to the full commission.

Commission chairman, former New Jersey GOP Gov. Thomas H. Kean, declined to give further details, saying the White House had asked the panel not to reveal them.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchanan said the administration was working closely with the commission to get it all the information it needed, but did not answer questions about why the terms of the agreement were not being made public.

A person familiar with the terms of the deal told UPI that the PDBs had been divided up into two groups.

"There's the documents that have been identified by the White House -- based on the commission's request -- as really of core relevancy to the mission, and there are other documents that, if you view the request in the widest possible terms, could be relevant to it," the person said.

Under the compromise agreement, "people who the commission designates" will see the broader group, and if they believe documents there to be relevant, they will have to "request that it be switched (into the narrower group) and give the reasons."

The final decision on which papers are considered relevant will rest with the White House.

Members of the subcommittee will review the smaller group, and will be allowed to take notes and share them with the full commission, but they will have to keep the White House informed. "Before something is taken back to the commission the White House would like to know what it is, so they can put up any red flags that they want and say 'you realize that this is the most sensitive material,'" and caution against revealing it to the panel.

The New York Times quoted unnamed commission officials Friday as saying that the White House would be allowed to review and edit the notes to remove such material. But UPI's source said that the White House would not have a veto. "As I understand it, they just want to know what's going back."

The commission's announcement Wednesday made it clear that only parts of the PDBs would be reviewed, referring to "intelligence items included in the president's daily brief."

The White House said last year that one PDB about a month before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks warned that al-Qaida might be planning to hijack U.S. jetliners.

"There's all kinds of stuff in there," said a former intelligence official speaking of the PDBs, which are generally up to a dozen pages long. The former official said that items in the document "span the globe," and suggested that this was why the White House would not want the whole document reviewed, even by a small number of commissioners.

"That's the crown jewels," the former official said, "you can't go handing them out like confetti."

Relatives of some of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, were angry both at the conditions imposed by the agreement and the secrecy and confusion about its terms.

"Why won't they publish the deal, so that we can all make up our minds about whether they were right to accept these limitations?" asked Lori Van Auken, who lost her husband Kenneth.

Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said that there was no need to make the terms of the agreement public to allay any doubts about the restrictions. "The public should trust us because the consensus view of the commission is that we have the access we need."

Commissioner Tim Roemer, however, pronounced himself "profoundly disturbed and disappointed" by the restrictions, which he said were unnecessary, bearing in mind that all the members of the commission had top-level security clearance.

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