WASHINGTON – Advocates of an independent commission to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks on Friday blamed the "invisible hand'' of the White House for the collapse of an announced agreement to create the panel.
"The question we pose to the White House today is: 'Do you really want to allow this commission to be created? And if you don't, why not?''' a frustrated Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. said Friday.
"They are doing everything they can to try to block this and that's what they've been doing since day one,'' said Stephen Push of Families of Sept. 11, a group of relatives of victims of the attacks.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the White House is still behind an independent commission but details on who controls the commission's subpoena power and leadership still have to be worked out.
"The president is confident they can be addressed and be solved,'' he said. "And the president will be very disappointed if issues like this, if a position of sticking to one-party subpoenas, for example, stopped the commission from coming into being. He does not want that to happen.''
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called those issues "minutia.''
The commission "is going to happen,'' McCain said. "It's just very unfortunate it has evolved this way.''
Lawmakers announced Thursday that an agreement had been reached among the four leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees to form a commission. The commission would have a broader scope and more time to do its work than the joint inquiry that the two committees are conducting.
But after the White House and House Republican leadership raised concerns about the plan, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., said more details had to be worked out. He denied that a full agreement had been reached, saying only four particular issues had been resolved.
House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., along with McCain and Lieberman, blamed the White House for killing the deal.
After an agreement was reached, "almost immediately the invisible hand came down,'' Pelosi said. Added McCain: "It was a done deal ... and then all of a sudden something strange happened.''
The leading House advocate for the commission, Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., also blamed the Bush administration for blocking the agreement.
"I worry that the White House is trying to pull the carpet over the independent commission and do the slow roll and kill it,'' he said.
Both the House and Senate have voted for an independent commission, though the two versions differ. The administration initially opposed a commission, but announced last month it would support it. Lawmakers have been meeting with White House officials to work out the commission's structure and scope.
Lawmakers said Thursday morning that talks with the White House had broken down. Hours later, they said intelligence committee leaders had worked out an agreement among themselves, which they would try to add to a bill authorizing 2003 intelligence programs.
But the White House said no agreement had been reached with them, though they repeated their support for a commission.
"We are pleased with the progress being made and believe we are close to reaching a consensus on the best way to proceed,'' White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Under the plan announced Thursday, the commission would have consisted of 10 members with two co-chairmen, one appointed by the president, the other by the Democratic leader of the Senate, and have a two-year mandate. The commission would look into issues such as intelligence, commercial aviation and immigration.
The joint inquiry of the intelligence committees began in February and has a one-year mandate. Its scope is limited to intelligence issues related to the attacks.
Many lawmakers complain the committees' work has been hampered by difficulty in receiving information from intelligence agencies.
On Thursday, the committees met with CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director Robert Mueller, discussing the case of an FBI informant who was the landlord of two Sept. 11 hijackers. Lawmakers have been bothered both by the handling of the matter and their difficulties in obtaining information about it.
Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., declined to discuss details of Thursday's meeting with Mueller and Tenet, but said he believed it helped ease lawmakers' doubts.
"There have been some communications problems, but I don't detect a systematic effort to deceive,'' he said.
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said concerns about communications problems were aired at the hearing. Asked if he was satisfied with the cooperation, he said, "I think it is allowing us to get our job done.''
The Senate committee's top Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, said cooperation from intelligence agencies "has been spotty at best. We have to extract bit by bit, piece by piece any information, it seems.''