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White House Misses Deadline to Open Records

November 01, 2003|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The White House defied a Senate deadline for turning over documents and providing access to witnesses on Friday, setting up a possible showdown with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating potential problems with the prewar data on Iraq.

The White House failed to meet committee demands for records and testimony seen as crucial to the inquiry, even as the CIA and the State Department went a good distance toward complying with similar requests the committee made of officials at their agencies.

The standoff with the White House is certain to add to the tension between the committee and the administration over the inquiry and fuel criticism from Democrats that the administration is trying to escape accountability for its prewar claims about Baghdad's alleged illicit weapons programs.

Both sides issued statements Friday that suggested they were trying to avoid a confrontation, but also made it clear they had different views of the White House's obligation to cooperate with a congressional inquiry.

"Despite the fact that they don't have jurisdiction over the White House, we want to continue working with them to help them in their work to review the intelligence relating to Iraq," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. He noted that the latest request had come Thursday, giving the administration just one day to respond.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued remarks indicating that he thinks the White House does not fully understand the stakes of the investigation. But he stopped well short of threatening to issue subpoenas.

"The White House has not met today's deadline," Roberts said. "I am hopeful that the White House will recognize the importance of the Committee's efforts and comply as soon as possible. I look forward to working with the White House in a cooperative manner in hopes of reaching a satisfactory conclusion."

Roberts praised what he described as "a good faith response" from the CIA and the State Department in their efforts to comply. He did not mention the Pentagon, another agency that had been ordered to produce records and testimony by Friday. Congressional sources said they had not heard from the Department of Defense, although Pentagon officials said they were eager to work with the committee's investigation.

A spokeswoman for Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, said the senator did not see the deadline as "hard and fast.... This was about telling [agencies in the executive branch] that we're serious."

Part of the dispute with the White House appears to center on committee requests for highly classified intelligence reports -- known as the president's daily brief -- that summarize the most critical international developments and new intelligence and are delivered to the president each morning.

Seeing the briefings would enable the panel to compare the intelligence on Iraq that was being presented to the president with what the White House was saying about the Iraq threat in the months leading up to the war.

A source close to the committee said the panel was particularly interested in what the CIA was telling the president about Iraq's nuclear program, including its alleged efforts to acquire uranium from the African nation of Niger. President Bush made the uranium claim in his State of the Union address this year, even though the intelligence community had cast significant doubt on the reports.

The president's daily brief is among the most privileged documents in government, and the Bush administration is unlikely to be willing to grant lawmakers access to it. It is not clear whether the committee would have the authority to compel the administration to turn over such documents. The committee can subpoena records. But the White House can assert executive privilege in denying outsider access to its internal deliberations.

The committee has been gathering materials from the National Security Council and other agencies for months, but members issued a series of sharply worded letters to executive branch agencies this week demanding responses to a number of outstanding requests.

A letter to National Security advisor Condoleezza Rice was particularly pointed, instructing her to "lift your objection to the CIA providing the committee with certain documents and allowing us to interview individuals involved in briefing senior administration officials."

The committee said in its letter to Rice that it had been blocked so far from interviewing a specific member of her staff. A Senate aide indicated that the NSC official referred to in the letter was involved in the decision to include the uranium claim. But the aide said it was not Stephen J. Hadley or Robert Joseph, two senior NSC officials responsible for vetting that portion of the speech.

White House officials had no comment on the request to the NSC, except to say that the administration had "not objected to allowing the committee to have access to CIA documents sent to the White House." President Bush and other administration officials had also been accused of hyping the Iraq threat and exaggerating the evidence as they made the case for war. But it has been unclear to what extent the White House would be a focus of the inquiry.

Times staff writers Sonni Efron, Maura Reynolds and John Hendren contributed to this report.

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