Senators accuse White House of foiling 9/11 probe

Bill creating commission may be delayed until 2003


WASHINGTON - Two prominent senators from opposite parties accused the White House yesterday of deliberately sabotaging their efforts to create an independent investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks, suggesting that the administration was afraid a commission might turn up embarrassing government mistakes.

"Every bureaucracy in this town is scared to death of an investigation," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. "Remember, no one has really been held accountable. No one has lost their job, no one has been even reprimanded, nothing has happened as a result of Sept. 11. Unless responsibility is assigned, then we can't cure the problem."

McCain and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, said legislation creating a commission may be delayed until next year if the White House does not drop its objections to an agreement reached Thursday by congressional Republicans and Democrats.

The White House said yesterday that it supported the commission and simply wanted to limit its subpoena power. But the two senators and other elected officials said the administration seemed to raise a new objection every week, suggesting it wanted to run out the clock on the current congressional session and delay an inquiry for months.

Senate officials said privately that the White House had raised particular objections to an inquiry into the government's response in the days after Sept. 11, which could call into question the performance of such agencies as the FBI and the CIA.

Specifically, they said the administration wanted sharp limits on the scope of an investigation, although Congress is clearly in favor of a panel that can investigate any government agency, subpoena administration officials and issue a candid report free of political influence. The Senate voted 90-8 last month for such a broad inquiry.

The officials also said the White House wants the commission to reach its findings in a year. Members of both parties - including Sens. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican, and Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat - have said the commission will need as long as 18 months or two years to complete its work, but that would mean the report could come out in the middle of President Bush's re-election campaign.

Families of the victims of the attack were particularly incensed yesterday that the agreement had been undone by the White House late Thursday after it was announced. Stephen Push, whose wife died in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, said the families want to learn the truth about whether the attack could have been prevented, but are being stymied by Bush officials determined to prevent an outside inquiry.

Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said Bush still hoped that Congress would create the commission before it left town in a week or so. But he said the administration felt strongly that members appointed by one party on the commission should not be able to issue subpoenas on their own without bipartisan support.

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