The Washington Post, November 17, 2003
The accord announced last week between the White House and the national commission charged with investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is not a model of simplicity or openness. The White House, under threat of a showdown with the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States over materials related to the president’s daily intelligence briefing, agreed to provide access to these highly sensitive documents but only under conditions sufficiently restrictive that two of the Democratic commissioners have balked publicly. All members of the commission are cleared to see highly classified material, yet only a subcommittee will get to see the relevant briefs and only a smaller subcommittee will be allowed to see certain other materials. Moreover, the communications between the in-the-loop commissioners and those without access will not be entirely free, and the White House will get to review notes taken on the documents. These restrictions seem excessive and needlessly cumbersome.
But White House reluctance is not surprising. The Bush administration has provided a mountain of material to the commission. The latest negotiations concern especially sensitive material, and it is appropriate to take precautions to protect it. The question was always how to give the commission the access it needs while adequately shielding material no president has previously produced.
Our sense is that the agreement, though imperfect, should secure for the commission the access it needs. Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean insists that, under its terms, commission staff or members will be able to review all of the material the group requested — and, critically, will also be able to see the material the White House deems irrelevant. Given the looming May deadline for the commission to complete its work — a deadline that, as we have argued before, Congress should lift — this is likely as good a deal as the commission is going to get. The bottom line is whether the commission is inadequately informed when it writes its report — which was intended by Congress to be the authoritative account of what led to 9/11 — because of material it never saw. The commission appears to have ensured that this will not happen.