WASHINGTON — In its second high-profile turnabout of the week, the Bush administration agreed Friday to give the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks full access to the papers of former President Clinton.
The decision came after commission officials pressed the White House to turn over thousands of pages of documents that had been shipped from the former president's archives for review by the commission.
The White House received 11,000 pages of Clinton documents, but turned over less than 25% of them to the commission despite repeated requests for all of them, according to commission officials and a top aide to the former president.
The decision to release all the Clinton papers came three days after President Bush announced that White House national security advisor Condoleezza Rice would testify publicly before the commission. The decision on Rice's testimony, which will take place Thursday, came after weeks of pressure by the 9/11 panel. Senior Bush administration officials had refused, citing the constitutional separation of powers and Rice's role as a confidential advisor to the president.
Rice is expected to be asked about claims by Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief, that Bush underestimated the threat of terrorism in the months before the attacks and that the war on terrorism had been hampered by Bush's insistence on waging war on Iraq.
White House officials confirmed Thursday that they had withheld the Clinton-era documents, but said they had done so because some were duplicative or unresponsive to the commission's request for information. Others were considered highly sensitive.
On Friday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said any suggestion that the Bush administration was not cooperating with the commission "is simply ridiculous."
"If the commission now wants to go back and verify that some documents are duplicative or nonresponsive to their request, then we are more than happy to work with the commission so that they can do so," McClellan said.
Commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said hours later that the panel had been granted full and free access to all 11,000 documents. The commission may gain access to other documents at the Clinton Library as well.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the administration was not reversing course but merely was trying to accommodate a new and broader request for documents made Thursday by the Sept. 11 commission, spurred by complaints from Bruce Lindsey, director of the Clinton Presidential Library and Archives in Little Rock, Ark., that the papers had not been forwarded.
Lindsey, a longtime Clinton confidant and the former president's legal representative for documents, disagreed with Duffy. He said he has complained for months that the commission needs the entire set of documents to get a full and accurate picture of the Clinton administration's counterterrorism policies.
"Yesterday the commission didn't have access to the documents," Lindsey said. "Today they have access to the documents. I think that speaks for itself."
The commission had asked the White House to be an intermediary, since only a sitting administration and Congress can gain access to a prior administration's archives during the latter's first five years after leaving office. McClellan said the White House was using the same policies for releasing Clinton documents to the commission as it was using for its own records.
Commission officials and Lindsey said they had no reason to believe the White House was intentionally withholding specific information.
The mostly classified materials refer to discussions among senior Clinton officials about counterterrorism, intelligence, law enforcement and foreign policy matters. The commission had requested them as part of its effort to investigate how the events of Sept. 11 occurred and what might be done to shore up the nation's defense against future attacks.
The commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, has 10 congressionally appointed, bipartisan members and is required to complete its investigation and issue its report by July 26.