Panel investigating 9/11 attacks requests more time to finish study

May deadline threatened by difficulty obtaining key records, members say

January 14, 2004|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks has asked the White House and congressional leaders for more time, panel officials said yesterday.

Members of the commission said delays in obtaining materials from numerous agencies and constraints on access to sensitive White House documents were among the factors that made them skeptical that a comprehensive report could be completed by May 27.

The push for an extension created friction between the panel and the Bush administration, which is concerned that a delay could lead to the release of damaging information about its counterterrorism efforts just as the presidential election campaign is heating up in late summer.

Al Felzenberg, a commission spokesman, said the White House had not responded.

"They didn't say no, they didn't say yes," Felzenberg said.

He declined to name the officials involved in the talks.

Two other commission sources said that the administration made clear it opposed the idea of an extension, and that the panel must decide whether to press its case with the public and on Capitol Hill, over White House objections.

A Bush administration attorney reached yesterday at the White House declined to discuss the matter; a spokesman for the National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.

The standoff comes at a particularly delicate moment for the commission in its relationship with the White House. Felzenberg said the panel is in the process of submitting requests to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to appear before the commission. Similar requests will go to former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.

The commission is still poring over highly classified intelligence documents, known as the "president's daily brief," that could show whether Bush was warned ahead of time about the possibility of airplane attacks like those of Sept. 11. The commission only recently was granted access to those documents after lengthy negotiations. The White House imposed restrictions that allow only a handful of members to see the materials.

The Bush administration initially opposed the creation of the commission. When it dropped that objection under political pressure, the administration pressed to shorten the panel's life span from the 24 months proposed in the original legislation to 18 months.

The commission had said it was committed to producing a final report within that timeframe. But officials said members got into a heated discussion at a Jan. 5 meeting over whether the panel could meet that deadline without sacrificing the quality of work. The prospect of a delay was first reported on Newsweek's Web site this week.

Felzenberg said the commission did not take a vote or adopt a formal position, but at least one commissioner said a majority favored an extension.

"Most of the people on the commission believe that additional time is necessary," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor and one of five Democrats on the 10-member panel.

Ben-Veniste said he believed that the commission could finish its work with an extra two months. Others are pressing for an extra three to five months.

Another Democratic member, former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, said an extension was necessary largely because the administration had dragged its heels in providing access.

Times staff writers Maura Reynolds in Monterrey, Mexico, and Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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