Sunday, October 26, 2003

Members of the commission set up to probe the September 11 terrorist attacks are so frustrated about the slow pace of negotiations over access to sensitive presidential documents that they are considering issuing a subpoena to White House officials.

“There is a great deal of frustration among members of the commission,” panel spokesman Al Felzenberg told United Press International yesterday.

The use of a subpoena would mark a breakdown in relations with a White House that initially opposed the establishment of the commission, but says it has been cooperating. Mr. Felzenberg said subpoenas would be a last resort.

“We hope we don’t have to use [our subpoena power], but at the same time, we must have the documents we need to do our work,” he said. “We’re not going to go on [negotiating] like this indefinitely.”

White House spokesman Brian Besanceney told UPI yesterday that the administration was cooperating in an “unprecedented” manner with the inquiry.

“We have turned over more than 2 million pages of documents,” he said.

Negotiations over access to highly classified national security documents — including the so-called presidential daily briefings (PDBs) that summarize the most important threats to the nation — have been continuing for several months.

During the summer, there were reports that a PDB in August 2001 had warned of an al Qaeda plot to hijack U.S. airliners. The Islamic terror network is thought to have carried out the attacks, in which four hijacked airliners were used as missiles to kill more than 3,000 people.

Mr. Felzenberg would not give a deadline for the subpoena, but said the commission did not want “to go into the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays still negotiating.”

Some senior intelligence figures have been skeptical that the commission will ever get to see the PDBs — which are generally considered the country’s most sensitive national security documents.

“If they’re trying to subpoena the president’s daily brief on intelligence,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, told NBC’s “Meet The Press” yesterday, “I would think that would be pretty hard to get.”

An administration official, who spoke to UPI on the condition of anonymity, echoed that sentiment.

“There are documents we do not feel it is appropriate to make available,” the official said. But he added that negotiations were continuing. “We’re not at that point [of a subpoena] yet. We’re still talking to the commission, trying to work out how we can accomplish our shared goal of them completing their work.”

The subpoena threat — first issued by the commission chairman, former Republican New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, to the New York Times — is the first time the panel’s leadership has publicly suggested that it might have to fight the White House in court to get the documents it needs.

But it is the latest shot at the administration that some commissioners have said is dragging its feet to run out the clock.

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