WASHINGTON – Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee (search) plan to meet with CIA and FBI officials to examine why a classified 28-page section of the congressional report on the Sept. 11 attacks cannot be released to the public.
The committee chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Wednesday that he and the panel's top Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (search) of West Virginia, hope to schedule the meeting for this week.
He spoke as two senators - a Republican and a Democrat - collected signatures on a letter to President Bush asking him to release the section, believed to deal with Saudi connections to the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Bush on Wednesday repeated his position that the section cannot be released because it could jeopardize intelligence sources and methods.
"Now at some point in time, as we make progress on the investigation and as the threat to our national security diminishes, perhaps we can put out the document," Bush said at a White House news conference. "But in my judgment, now is not the time to do so."
The 28 pages are about foreign support for the hijackers. It is the largest classified section in the 850-page report released last week by a joint House and Senate inquiry. Saudi officials have asked that those pages be declassified, saying the blank pages were being used to spread false information about the kingdom.
Sen. Bob Graham (search), D-Fla., has called on the intelligence committee to start procedures to declassify the material on its own. Graham is a former chairman of the committee, co-chairman of the Sept. 11 inquiry and a presidential candidate.
But both Roberts and Rockefeller seemed wary of having the panel declassify the documents.
"My inner nature says yes," Rockefeller said. But he said he is uncertain about the repercussions of trying to declassify materials over administration objections. That could lead to a closed-door debate by the full Senate.
"It is a process that has consequences," he said.
Roberts said he does not want to set a precedent in which the committee determines what material should be classified. "I don't think that's proper and that starts something that I don't think we want to get into," he said.
Roberts said some portions of the 28-page section probably could be released. "How you parse that out and who makes that decision, that's another whole question," he said.
He said he does not know if that is something that will be worked out with the agencies. "It's too premature to say that we're going to pick and choose," he said.
The letter urging Bush to release the 28-page section was being circulated by Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
"The decision to classify this information sends the wrong message to the American people about our nation's anti-terror effort and makes it seem as if there will be no penalty for foreign abettors of the hijackers," the letter said.
"If we are to protect our national security, we must convince the Saudi regime to get tough on terror. Keeping private its involvement - or that of any other nation - in the September 11th attacks is no the way to accomplish this goal," it said.