Seventy lawmakers will have access to testimony from more than 200 witnesses gathered by investigators leading the inquiry into the Space Shuttle Columbia’s destruction.
Lawmakers on two committees with legislative and oversight responsibility of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration reached an agreement yesterday to see unedited witness statements collected by the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the group appointed by the space agency to determine the cause of the Feb. 1 breakup that killed seven astronauts.
Under the terms of the agreement, witness statements will be made available to members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation, and House Science committees. In addition, the chairman and ranking member of the committees can name four persons each to have access to the information.
But the statements won’t be publicly available. Investigators offered witnesses — NASA workers, retirees and contractors — confidentiality when they began their inquiry.
Eighty-six persons who are not part of the investigation board will have access to witness statements.
“There should be no confusion over the committee’s right to all information in the [investigation boards] possession,” House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican, and ranking member Ralph M. Hall, Texas Democrat, wrote in a letter to the investigation board yesterday.
Although lawmakers agreed in general to maintain the confidentiality of witnesses who testified before the investigation board, they also said they reserve the right to subpoena witnesses and reveal their identities.
Harold W. Gehman — the head of the investigation board, who said witness statements would never see the light of day — argued that the secretive approach would help the board yield answers and write a thorough report on the causes behind Columbia’s fiery disintegration.
“If any type of public release of these statements is made, a chilling effect on future accident investigation witnesses will certainly occur. That would result in a loss of potentially critical information from key witnesses,” Adm. Gehman wrote in a letter Thursday to Mr. Boehlert and Mr. Hall.
But lawmakers need access to the statements so they can put the investigation board’s recommendations, due out as soon as next month, into context, said David Goldston, chief of staff for the House Science Committee.
“The purpose of this is to be able to evaluate where the recommendations came from and, if we agree with them, to enforce them. And you don’t need public disclosure to do that,” Mr. Goldston said.
Investigators intended to provide some lawmakers access to the information, even though it balked at full public disclosure, said Air Force Lt. Col. Tyrone Woodyard, a spokesman for the investigation board.
“The board recognizes congressional oversight responsibilities, and Congress recognizes our need to protect from public release the witnesses’ identities and their statements,” Col. Woodyard said.
Accident investigators were able to offer confidentiality because the board is a federal investigative body. The 13-member board comprises civilians and members of the military. The board’s civilian appointees were made federal employees. Adm. Gehman is paid by the Office of Personnel Management. The remaining civilian members are paid by NASA.
Critics charged that the agreement doesn’t go far enough.
“The American people are not going to have the confidence to know that this is not a rigged deal unless it is in the open,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who lobbied for full disclosure of the testimony.
Under the rule for congressional access, lawmakers on the Senate Commerce and House Science committees can view statements and documents. They can also take notes but will be prohibited from making the notes available. Sound recordings of witness interviews will remain off limits.
Investigators won’t include any witness statements in their final report, which will be publicly available.