Deal on 9/11 Briefings Lets White House Edit Papers

New York Times
Deal on 9/11 Briefings Lets White House Edit Papers
Fri Nov 14 15:07:04 2003

The New York Times In America
November 14, 2003
Deal on 9/11 Briefings Lets White House Edit Papers

WASHINGTON, Nov. 13 — The commission investigating the Sept. 11 terror attacks said on Thursday that its deal with the White House for access to highly classified Oval Office intelligence reports would let the White House edit the documents before they were released to the commission's representatives.

The agreement, announced on Wednesday, has led to the first public split on the commission. Two Democrats on the 10-member panel say that the commission should have demanded full access to the intelligence summaries, known as the President's Daily Brief, and that the White House should not be allowed to determine what is relevant to the investigation.

An umbrella group of victims' families joined the criticism, saying the terms of the accord should be public.

While spokesmen for panel refused again to provide the terms, citing the sensitivity of the talks with the White House, its executive director acknowledged that the White House would be able to remove information from the reports unrelated to Al Qaeda and to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"An entire P.D.B. will have articles about China, South Africa, Venezuela," the executive director, Philip D. Zelikow, said in an interview. "The notion that the commission should want to read P.D.B. articles that have nothing to do with Al Qaeda would be a novel suggestion. The commission has not asked to see the country's most sensitive intelligence information on China or North Korea."

A Democrat on the panel who has criticized the accord, former Representative Timothy J. Roemer of Indiana, said in an interview that he believed that the panel had agreed to terms that would let the White House edit the reports to remove the contexts in which the intelligence was presented and to hide any "smoking guns."

"The President's Daily Brief can run 9 to 12 pages long," Mr. Roemer said. "But under this agreement, the commission will be allowed to see only specific articles or paragraphs within the P.D.B.'s. Our members may see only two or three paragraphs out of a nine-page report."

He said the commission should have insisted on access to the full reports, because "you need the context of how the P.D.B. was presented to the president in order to determine whether or not there were smoking guns."

The other Democratic critic on the panel, former Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, has described the agreement as unconscionable.

Administration officials have acknowledged that they are concerned that intelligence reports received by Mr. Bush in the weeks before 9/11 might be construed to suggest that the White House failed to respond to evidence suggesting that Al Qaeda was planning a catastrophic attack. The White House acknowledged last year in response to news reports that a copy of the Daily Brief in August 2001 noted that Al Qaeda might use hijacked planes in an attack.

Commission officials have said that under the agreement the panel will be able to designate four members to read the reports. They will be allowed to take notes on the documents, and the White House will be allowed to review and edit the notes to remove especially sensitive information.

In its statement, the victims' family group, the Family Steering Committee, said the agreement would "prevent a full uncovering of the truth and is unacceptable." The group is led by many advocates who were most responsible for pressuring Congress to create the commission last year over the initial objections of the White House.

"As it now stands, a limited number of commissioners will have restricted access to a limited number of P.D.B. documents," the group said. "The commission should issue a statement to the American public fully explaining why this agreement was chosen in lieu of issuing subpoenas to the C.I.A. and executive branch."

The group said, "All 10 commissioners should have full, unfettered and unrestricted access to all evidence, including but not limited to all Presidential Daily Briefings."

A spokesman for the group, Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ronald, was killed at the World Trade Center, said the families were alarmed that the terms of the accord were kept secret.

`'I think this entire deal needs to be explained to the public," Ms. Breitweiser said. "This is an independent commission that is supposed to be transparent, that is supposed to be open."

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