Monday, April 25, 2005

Anti-proliferation campaigners are suing the presidential commission on weapons of mass destruction intelligence, which they say is bound by federal law to publish transcripts of its meetings.

“The bottom line is we want some visibility into the process, some idea of how they came to the conclusions they did,” said Jules Zacher, special counsel to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction met entirely in closed session during its 14-month existence.



“Due to the sensitive nature of our work, which concerns highly classified matters of national security, these meetings are not open to the public,” says a statement on the panel’s Web site. “We nonetheless intend to keep the public informed of our work, and as we progress we welcome public input and comment.”

“They invited public participation, but it was a sham,” Mr. Zacher said. “We couldn’t even find out where they were meeting.”

He said the center wrote to the commission, asking how to submit evidence or testimony, but never heard anything back.

The lawsuit, filed recently in the D.C. District Court, says the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 requires that “the records, reports transcripts, minutes appendices, working papers, drafts, studies agenda [and] other documents, which were made available to or prepared for or by each advisory committee” be available to the public.

The commission says the act doesn’t apply to it.

“Which arguments are made in court is up to the Justice Department,” which will defend the case, said Stewart Baker, the commission’s general counsel.

The act has exemptions for work that will provide advice to the CIA, Mr. Baker said, adding that there also are constitutional issues about whether Congress can regulate so tightly the way the president receives advice.

Mr. Zacher said he accepts that much of the commission work needs to stay secret, “but I find it hard to believe that everything they discussed, every word they spoke, is classified.”

The case is the latest battle between the Bush administration and open-government campaigners, and highlights the contrast between the WMD commission and the highly publicized hearings of the September 11 panel.

Commission officials say they worked hard to get a remarkable plethora of historical detail about this most sensitive area of intelligence into the public domain in their final report.

“I think we did pretty well on that,” said Mr. Baker, adding that conducting their work in public would have been all but impossible. “I don’t think it would have helped the end product or made the public better informed.”

In its final report, published last month, the commission found that U.S. intelligence was “dead wrong” about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and made a set of recommendations for overhauling the nation’s spy agencies.

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