WASHINGTON – The independent commission on the Sept. 11 attacks (search) announced an agreement Wednesday with the White House that would allow the review of classified intelligence documents previously withheld by the Bush administration.
The 10-member panel will designate a subcommittee that will examine the most sensitive documents and report back, commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste said. The four-person subcommittee will review some of the documents, but only two of those four commissioners will review others. The commission has not yet appointed the subcommittee.
"We believe this agreement will prove satisfactory and enable us to get our job done," according to a statement by the commission.
The White House was pleased by the development. "We look forward to the recommendations to make America safer," spokeswoman Ashley Snee said. At President Bush's direction, she said, the White House "has been working closely with the commission to ensure they have the information they need to be successful."
Bush said last month that the dispute concerned "the presidential daily brief," a classified written intelligence report he gets each morning.
The White House confirmed last year that one such report in August 2001, a month before the attacks, mentioned that Al Qaeda (search) might try to hijack U.S. passenger planes. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) has described the report as an analysis, rather than a warning, and said hijacking was mentioned in a traditional sense, not as it was used on Sept. 11.
Describing the White House's concerns about access to the document, Bush said it is important "for the writers of the presidential daily brief to feel comfortable that the documents will never be politicized and/or unnecessarily exposed for public purview."
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, a Republican chosen by Bush to lead the commission, said repeatedly that he respects the sensitive nature of the documents. But he added, "We're not going to be satisfied until we have everything we need to do our job."
The commission has issued subpoenas to the Federal Aviation Administration and to the Pentagon, after concluding that government offices had not fully complied with requests for documents.
Kean did not rule out sending a subpoena to the White House, although that could have prompted a court battle had the administration claimed executive privilege.
Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said the resolution of the White House dispute will let the panel and its staff move from document collection into analysis full time. Its report is due May 27.
"This brings to an end the last remaining procedural issue that was before" the commission, Felzenberg said. "We have a few matters remaining with the Pentagon, which we've been assured would be removed from the table next week."
Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor, said the subcommittee plan "is not a perfect arrangement" but gives the commission the access it needs. He said the commission has the authority to designate which members will serve on the subcommittee, and there will be no restrictions on sharing that material with the other commissioners.
"I think this is an unnecessary and time-consuming procedure that we're going through," Ben-Veniste said of the negotiations with the White House, "but we will continue to jump through whatever hoops we need to in order to get the material in a timely way."
Another commissioner, former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, criticized the arrangement, saying the panel should have issued a subpoena rather than agree that only some members will see documents. "Either the commissioners have access or they don't," Roemer said.
Ben-Veniste and Roemer are Democrats. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, is investigating the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the causes and the U.S. response to terrorism.