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Panel may subpoena its summaries of bush briefings { January 31 2004 }

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White House Holding Notes Taken by 9/11 Commission
Panel May Subpoena Its Summaries of Bush Briefings

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 2004; Page A02

The White House, already embroiled in a public fight over the deadline for an independent commission's investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is refusing to give the panel notes on presidential briefing papers taken by some of its own members, officials said this week.

The standoff has prompted the 10-member commission to consider issuing subpoenas for the notes and has further soured relations between the Bush administration and the bipartisan panel, according to sources familiar with the issue. Lack of access to the materials would mean that the information they contain could not be included in a final report about the attacks, several officials said.

"We're having discussions on this almost hourly or at least daily," said the commission's vice chairman Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "We retain all of our rights to gain the access we need. . . . This is a priority item for us to resolve, and we are working to resolve it."

The disagreement is the latest obstacle to face the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which is racing to complete its work by a May 27 deadline after months of fighting over access to government documents. The commission has asked that the deadline be pushed back at least two months, but the White House and leading congressional Republicans oppose that idea.

Such a postponement would mean releasing the potentially damaging commission report on July 26, in the middle of the presidential campaign. Legislation to be introduced next week in the Senate would extend the commission's deadline until next January, avoiding the election altogether.

The latest dispute stems from an agreement reached in November that allowed a four-member team from the commission to examine highly classified documents known as the President's Daily Brief (PDB), including a controversial August 2001 memo that discusses the possibility of airline hijackings by al Qaeda terrorists. The deal allowed the team -- made up of three commission members and Executive Director Philip D. Zelikow -- to take notes on the materials that would be passed along to the rest of the commission, but only after the White House gave its approval.

The team completed its work several weeks ago but has been unable to reach an agreement with the White House on how to share its summaries with the seven commission members who were not privy to the material, officials said.

The standoff has prompted commission members to discuss using subpoenas to obtain either the summaries or the entire catalogue of President's Daily Briefs, several sources said.

Democratic commission member Timothy J. Roemer, a former Indiana congressman, said that "the convoluted and tortuous process set up by the White House has bottlenecked. If it's not resolved within the next few days, I believe we have to pursue other options."

Commission member Jamie S. Gorelick, a deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, who served on the four-person review team, declined to comment on the details of the impasse but said negotiations are continuing.

"All I can say is that we have followed the procedure that we contemplated and we are discussing with the White House whether that can be made to work for us," Gorelick said. "We are trying to ensure that we get the information we need, while at the same time respecting the needs and desires of the White House. . . . We have not been able yet to transmit [PDB summaries] to the whole commission."

White House officials declined to comment on the details of the negotiations, or to say why administration lawyers have objected to releasing the review team's notes.

"The administration has worked closely with the commission, providing unprecedented access to information and documents," said White House spokeswoman Erin Healy. "We continue to have discussions on a number of issues as the process moves forward, and we will continue to do so in a spirit of cooperation."

But Kristen Breitweiser, widow of World Trade Center victim Ronald Breitweiser and a member of a group of victims' families who monitor the commission's work, called the White House position "unacceptable." She said the panel should subpoena the documents it needs.

"The White House needs to stop being all talk and no action," Breitweiser said. "They say they're cooperating. It's time to show that."

After months of delays last fall, the commission issued subpoenas for documents from the Pentagon, the Federal Aviation Administration and the city of New York, eventually working out agreements in all three cases. The panel also threatened to subpoena the White House over the PDB issue, but settled on the compromise because officials said they did not want to get bogged down in a court battle.

The White House indicated at the time that it would consider asserting that the PDB documents were covered by executive privilege and not subject to review by outside parties.

2004 The Washington Post Company

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