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Senators Say White House Is Hurting Katrina Probe

They claim aides won't answer questions about the government's slow hurricane response.

January 25, 2006|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The White House is crippling a Senate inquiry into the government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina by barring administration officials from answering questions and failing to hand over documents, senators leading the investigation said Tuesday.

In some cases, staff at the White House and other federal agencies have refused to be interviewed by congressional investigators, said the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. In addition, agency officials won't answer seemingly innocuous questions about times and dates of meetings and telephone calls with the White House, the senators said.

A White House spokesman said the administration was committed to working with Senate and House investigations of the Katrina response but wanted to protect the confidentiality of presidential advisors.

"No one believes that the government responded adequately," said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). "And we can't put that story together if people feel they're under a gag order."

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the committee's Republican chairwoman, said she respected the White House's reluctance to reveal advice to President Bush from his top aides, which is covered by executive privilege.

Still, she criticized the dearth of information from agency officials about their contacts with the White House.

"We are entitled to know if someone from the Department of Homeland Security calls someone at the White House during this whole crisis period," Collins said. "So I think the White House has gone too far in restricting basic information about who called whom on what day."

She added, "It is completely inappropriate" for the White House to bar agency officials from talking to the Senate committee.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the administration's deputy domestic security advisor, Kenneth Rapuano, had briefed House and Senate lawmakers on the federal response.

He defended the administration's decision to prohibit White House staffers or other presidential advisors from testifying before Congress.

"There is a deliberate process, and the White House has always said it wants to cooperate with the committee but preserve any president's ability to get advice from advisors on a confidential basis," Duffy said. "That's a critical need for any U.S. president, and that is continuing to influence how we cooperate with the committees."

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