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Lawmakers Accuse Bush of 9/11 Deceit

October 13, 2002|Helen Dewar | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Angry lawmakers accused the White House Friday of secretly trying to derail creation of an independent commission to investigate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks while professing to support the idea. The White House responded by renewing its pledge of support for the proposal and suggesting an agreement was near.

A day after the collapse of an announced deal to create the commission, there was little agreement on anything, including causes of the disagreement. The White House said the remaining disputes involve how many votes from commission members would be required to issue subpoenas and who would appoint the chairman. Lawmakers said the real issue is whether the White House wants a commission.

The proposal would create a 10-member panel of private citizens to consider a broad array of concerns about the nation's readiness to deal with terrorism, including aviation, border security and immigration as well as intelligence capabilities currently under investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees. Its membership would be equally divided between appointees of Republican and Democratic officials.

Negotiators plan to meet again this week, but it was unclear whether the dispute would be resolved in time for final action this year.

Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco held a news conference to blame what Pelosi called the "invisible hand" of the White House for torpedoing an all but final accord on the issue.

"The White House is professing openly to support an independent commission [while] privately they're moving to thwart the commission," Pelosi said.

McCain said senior members of the House and Senate intelligence committees had a written agreement approving the proposal for inclusion in the intelligence authorization bill for this year. But then the House Republican leadership weighed in against it and the deal collapsed, he said.

It's no secret that "the White House works through the House Republican leadership," McCain said.

"Do you really want to allow this commission to be created?" Lieberman asked the White House. "And if you don't, why not?"

They were joined by Stephen Push, spokesman for a group representing about 1,300 survivors of Sept. 11 attack victims. He said he did not believe the White House wants a commission because it fears what it might find.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denied that President Bush is trying to sabotage the proposal. "We are very close to getting an agreement on the 9/11 commission, and the president thinks it can and should be done," Fleischer said. He cited two points of disagreement -- subpoenas and the chairmanship -- but said Bush "would be very disappointed if the Congress allowed these issues to keep the agreement from happening."

While lawmakers proposed to allow subpoenas to be issued by five commission members, Bush wants a larger number to assure bipartisan backing, Fleischer said. "One-party subpoenas are a formula for paralysis," he said.

Also, Fleischer said, with nine of the 10 commission members to be appointed by congressional leaders, Bush wants to be able to appoint the chairman. The lawmakers had proposed presidential appointment of a co-chairman.

McCain described the administration's objections as involving "minutia."

In another complication, Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, denied he had signed off on the agreement. He said more details need to be worked out, including issues involving committee jurisdiction and whether the commission should investigate Congress as well as executive-branch agencies. "I want to see an independent commission," Goss said.

Even if details can't be worked out this year, McCain and Lieberman vowed to continue pushing for the commission next year. "It's going to happen," McCain said.

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