WASHINGTON – The White House gave a Senate committee Tuesday more than 2,100 pages of documents under subpoena related to contacts with Enron officials while protesting their handling by the panel's Democratic chairman.
The chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., promised to protect the documents by imposing "extraordinary security precautions" — including keeping them in a locked room equipped with an alarm.
Under an agreement with the White House, only a limited number of committee staff will have access to the room and those who do must sign confidentiality agreements, Lieberman said.
The documents, filling one box and one accordion folder, were transferred to the committee in the early evening, after the panel's noon deadline had passed.
White House officials said the documents comprised an initial response to the two subpoenas the committee issued on May 22, one to President Bush's office, the other to the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. The offices of Bush and Cheney said they were still receiving documents from employees.
Hours after the Democratic-controlled Senate committee voted on party lines to subpoena the documents, the White House provided summaries of dozens of contacts between Enron executives and Bush administration officials, including Cheney. There were at least 60 Enron-related meetings and phone calls involving presidential aides, though the exact number is unclear because the information is vague.
"I'm pleased the White House has begun to deliver the documents I believe are necessary to conduct a complete investigation into the government's oversight of Enron," Lieberman said in a statement. "Thousands upon thousands of people have lost savings, pensions and jobs, and the U.S. economy has suffered a severe loss of confidence. I look forward to determining what, if anything, the federal government might have done differently to avoid these problems."
The White House officials said they were concerned about security of the documents, which contain information such as Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses of government officials, communications among government employees regarding policy and foreign relations, and confidential business information. They had wanted an agreement with the committee on safeguarding the materials before physically turning them over.
The two sides tried Monday and Tuesday to work out an arrangement, after Lieberman extended by 24 hours the noon Monday deadline for handing over the documents under Congress' first subpoenas to the Bush White House.
"We are disappointed that Senator Lieberman has chosen not to handle the documents provided by the White House in the same way the committee treated documents in the past," White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said. "We expect the committee to use the information in a thoughtful and deliberative manner, which lends itself to gathering facts rather than engaging in a partisan fishing expedition."
Womack declined to specify the nature of the White House objections.
Earlier, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer also used the fishing expedition analogy in protesting the Senate panel's actions.
Fleischer said Congress needs to limits its requests to information about contacts between Enron and administration officials, and not "any contact with anybody at Enron for any reason. Those are the kind of open-ended fishing expeditions that the American people have seen before and are tired of."
Presidential counsel Alberto Gonzales said Monday the documents would not be given to the panel until an agreement was reached on "procedures to safeguard the security and confidentiality of these documents."
Rather, the material — 1,745 pages from Bush's office and 432 documents from Cheney's — initially was made available at the White House for inspection and review by the committee staff.
No instance has been found so far of Enron officials asking anyone in the White House for help before the company's bankruptcy last December, Gonzales said. They also show that White House officials' actions were "responsible and consistent with the appropriate performance of their official duties," he said in a letter to Lieberman.
Houston-based Enron has been one of Bush's biggest campaign contributors.
The panel has been seeking the information from the White House since late March as part of its Enron investigation.
The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, sued Cheney in February to force release of the names of figures from Enron and other oil companies who met last year with the vice president's energy task force.
The Bush administration disclosed in January that then-Enron chairman Kenneth Lay made a series of telephone calls to members of the Bush Cabinet, including Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, as the company sank toward collapse last fall.
The material being sought by the Senate committee goes back to January 1992, also covering the Clinton administration.