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White House is said to have blocked probe

June 26, 2007|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A federal watchdog agency planned to inspect the president's executive offices in the White House in 2005 for evidence of suspected leaks of classified information, but it was rebuffed by Bush administration officials, congressional investigators have been told.

The report of the White House's refusal to be inspected comes amid criticism from congressional Democrats of how President Bush signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to submit to independent oversight of their handling of classified information, but did not enforce it for his office or that of Vice President Dick Cheney.

The blocked inspection was described in an April 23 letter to former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card from Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who provided a copy of the letter to the Los Angeles Times on Monday.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters Monday that the president considered his office and that of the vice president exempt from his directive. The 2003 executive order addressed a system of safeguards for government agencies aimed at ensuring that classified national security information is properly handled so it doesn't fall into the wrong hands, that improper leaks of such information are investigated promptly, and that government secrets are properly declassified at the appropriate time.

The Information Security Oversight Office, an agency within the federal National Archives and Records Administration, is in charge of the effort, with broad authorities that include inspections of government agencies to make sure that they are in compliance.

The president's and vice president's offices handle some of the most highly classified national security information.

The controversy flared up last week when Waxman criticized Cheney for rebuffing the agency's oversight efforts, saying his office's refusal to file annual reports on how much information it was classifying and declassifying had created a potential national security risk.

Waxman also released letters showing that Cheney's office had blocked efforts by the oversight agency's director, J. William Leonard, to inspect the vice president's office in 2003.

On Monday, Perino said she thought the oversight office had "had only a complaint about the vice president's office, not about other places within the executive branch."

But Waxman said the White House in 2005 denied a similar effort by the oversight agency to inspect the executive offices where the president's top advisors work, known as the West Wing. Waxman said investigators from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform were told of the incident by White House security officers.

It was not clear what prompted the inspection. The oversight agency has not commented on it.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said late Monday that he didn't know of the oversight agency "requesting anything of the White House. I've never seen a [contact] record or letter from them."

Waxman said the executive order gave the agency "governmentwide authority to conduct on-site inspections of all executive branch offices and agencies to ensure that security programs are effective."

But, he told Card, "the security officers reported that after an initial meeting, a senior White House official intervened and instructed the White House Security Office to block any inspection of the West Wing. The security officers expressed shock that the Information Security Oversight Office was not permitted to conduct an inspection."

Waxman, the chairman of the powerful House oversight committee, told Card that his staff investigators also found numerous problems with the way the White House handled classified information. That investigation was prompted by a March hearing in which the committee examined the leak by White House officials of the identity of now-retired CIA officer Valerie Plame.

At the March hearing, White House Chief Security Officer James Knodell testified that the White House Security Office never conducted an internal investigation to identify the source of the leaks, did not initiate corrective actions to prevent future breaches, and never considered administrative sanctions or reprimands for officials involved.

Waxman said the failure of the White House to take such steps appeared to be a violation of the executive order Bush signed, which establishes minimum requirements for safeguarding classified information and responding to breaches.

Subsequent interviews with security officials, he said, also uncovered a failure to investigate other security violations, to take corrective action after other breaches, and to physically secure classified information.

"These security officials described a systemic breakdown in security procedures at the White House," Waxman wrote to Card.

Waxman asked Card, who was White House chief of staff until April 2006, to voluntarily testify before his committee about the problems. Card declined, Waxman said Monday, but Waxman might still call him to testify.

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