Secrets and untruths

    September 11 Showdown
    Will the White House block a terror panel's access to critical documents? Plus, here's another reason to badmouth France

    May 7- An imminent and potentially nasty confrontation over an independent commission's authority to investigate the White House's handling of the September 11 terror attacks was narrowly averted last week--just before President Bush landed a jet aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in a carefully crafted ceremony touting the toppling of Saddam Hussein as a major victory in the war on terrorism.

    BUT THE BATTLE over the issue is far from over. In fact, NEWSWEEK has learned, President Bush's chief lawyer has privately signaled that the White House may seek to invoke executive privilege over key documents relating to the attacks in order to keep them out of the hands of investigators for the National Commission on Terror Attacks Upon the United States--the independent panel created by Congress to probe all aspects of 9-11.
    Some commission members now fear a showdown over the issue--particularly over extremely sensitive National Security Council minutes and presidential briefing papers--could be coming in the next few weeks. "We do think it's important to engage this issue relatively early--i.e., now," says Philip Zelikow, the executive director for the commission, who is negotiating with administration lawyers to inspect documents and interview senior officials.
    Zelikow says he is still hopeful an accommodation can be reached with administration lawyers and that the issue is now in the hands of senior officials in the White House. But he made it clear that the 9-11 panel has no intention of backing down from its insistence that it receive full access to a wide range of material that has never been reviewed by any outside body--much less made public. "We expect to get what we need," Zelikow says. "We're not going to go quietly into that good night."
    Zelikow's comments, and even stronger ones from some commission members, suggest that last week's brief contretemps over access to transcripts of secret congressional testimony was only one small flare-up in a much broader and potentially high-stakes struggle that could ultimately wind up in federal court.
    Just two weeks ago, one commission member, Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, had sought to read transcripts of three days of closed hearings that had been held last fall by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees--hearings that Roemer, as a member of the House panel, had actually participated in.
    But when Roemer went down to a carefully guarded room on Capitol Hill to read the classified transcripts--he says to refresh his memory--he was stunned to learn that he couldn't have access to them. The reason, relayed by a congressional staffer, was that Zelikow had acceded to a request by an administration official to permit lawyers to first review them to determine if the transcripts contained testimony about "privileged" material.
    Roemer called the deal "outrageous" and 9-11 family members victims bombarded the panel with angry calls. But late Tuesday, White House lawyers relented, thereby averting an embarrassing public escalation of the dispute--and inevitable charges of a White House cover-up--that could well have marred last Thursday's highly publicized ceremony aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in which Bush declared the military action in Iraq "one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001, and still goes on."
    But that by no means settled the matter, sources say. Publicly, the White House has pledged cooperation with the panel and two months ago chief of staff Andrew Card even distributed a memo to agency chiefs instructing them to work with the panel and provide them access to documents. But privately, talks have been far more problematic. Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who Bush named to chair the panel, confirmed to NEWSWEEK that in private talks with White House chief council Alberto Gonzales, the president's chief lawyer, has already told him that he "may seek to invoke executive privilege" over some documents sought by the commission.
    Executive privilege is a doctrine traditionally invoked by all White Houses to keep confidential briefings or advice given to the president. But the precise boundaries of the doctrine are hardly settled. And it is far from clear how a White House attempt to withhold material from a congressionally authorized national commission on 9-11 will play out.
    Gonzales and the rest of the White House legal staff are known to feel particularly passionate about the sanctity of staff advice given to the president--a view that reflects Bush's and Vice President Dick Cheney's adamant opinion that internal executive-branch decision-making should be conducted without fear of congressional or media scrutiny. "Those are like the crown jewels--we'll never give those up," one White House lawyer predicted to NEWSWEEK recently when asked about presidential briefing papers that were likely to be sought by the commission.
    But some commission members say it might be politically difficult for the White House to sustain that position--especially given the panel's broad legal mandate to unearth all pertinent facts relating to the events of 9-11. The invocation of executive privilege could fuel suspicions that the White House is stonewalling the panel in order to cover up politically embarrassing mistakes. "I think they have got to be worried about this," says one panel member. "This is a bipartisan commission, and we've got the family members."
    Among the most sensitive documents the commission is known to be interested in reviewing are internal National Security Council minutes from the spring and summer of 2001 when the CIA and other intelligence agencies were warning that an attack by Al Qaeda could well be imminent. The panel is also expected to seek interviews with key principals--such as national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice and her chief deputy, Stephen J. Hadley--to question them both about advice they gave the president and about what actions they took to deal with the rising concerns of intelligence-community officials about the Qaeda threat.
    An equally dicey subject, sources say, is the commission's expected request to review debriefings of key Al Qaeda suspects who have been arrested--such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh--who played critical roles in the 9-11 plot. The intelligence community has treated those debriefs as among the most highly classified material in the government, and the Justice Department is stoutly resisting a ruling by the federal judge overseeing the Zacarias Moussoui case to make bin al-Shibh available to the defense.
    But commission members argue that they can't possibly do their job to write an authoritative history of 9-11 if they can't discover what the federal government has learned from Al Qaeda operatives who know the most about how the plot was put together.

    After his trip to Damascus last weekend, Secretary of State Colin Powell proclaimed new progress in the war on terror. The Syrian government, he announced, had agreed to shut down offices of Hamas and two other militant anti-Israel groups that the U.S. government views as violent terrorist organizations.
    It is still far from clear how much the Syrians will actually make good on their promises to Powell. But if they do, Syria may turn out to be more helpful than some of the United States' supposed European allies in the war on terror. Despite renewed pressure from the Bush administration, the European Union is refusing to crack down on some of the same organizations on the grounds that they aren't terrorists--despite their role in staging suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.
    The issue came to a head late last year, NEWSWEEK has learned, when Jimmy Gurule--then a top U.S. Treasury official involved in cracking down on terrorist financing--asked his counterparts at the European Union to freeze the assets of six organizations on Washington's terrorist list. According to a copy of the list obtained by NEWSWEEK, the targeted groups included Hamas, two Hamas-related businesses (the Al-Azsa Religious Bank and Beit al-mal Holdings) and Hizbullah, as well as two others outside the Middle East, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka and the Communist Party of the Philippines. But in the case of Hamas and Hizbullah, the European Union refused. The purported reason: both groups run large-scale social services and medical operations in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Europeans say that they have no problem going after the terrorist arms of both outfits--but not the entire group, a distinction that Washington rejects as meaningless.
    At the moment, sources tell NEWSWEEK, the issue is at a stalemate--one more sign that when it comes to the war on terror, the perspective in Washington can often be sharply different than the view in other capitals, even those of our traditional allies.

    2003 Newsweek, Inc.
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  3. by   Mkue
    WASHINGTON-Sen. Bob Graham on Sunday accused the Bush administration of engaging in a "coverup" of intelligence failures before and after the Sept. 11 attacks to shield it from embarrassment, and said the war with Iraq has allowed Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to become a greater threat to Americans than ever before.

    Graham, a presidential candidate and former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also accused the administration of jeopardizing the safety of Americans by blocking the release of a landmark congressional report on the government failures that preceded the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The Florida Democrat said the White House has withheld from the public important information about the continued existence of terrorist cells in the United States-including some with ties to foreign governments that the U.S. has been afraid to go after.

    "By continuing to classify that information the American people have been denied important information for their own protection, for the protection of the communities," Graham said on CBS News' "Face the Nation."

    Perhaps Graham could share what he knows about the confidential report, or is it speculation? unconfirmed?
  4. by   pickledpepperRN
    I've never liked Bob Graham but I think he is not allowed to release information in a confidential report.
    There seems to be a BIG problem with the release of confidential reports.
    One man published the 40+ year old report the House Un American Activities Committee and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had made confidential on him. He plead the 5th on advice of council at the time. There were detailed reports/ The conclusion? He was suspicious for being 'red' because his ancestry was Russian Jew (family came ti the US in 1917. He also had negro friends. Seems this created a file thousands of pages long. Neighbors and co workers were interviewed. The family was followed to Yosemite by the FBI.

    To get back to the subject - Why not release the report?