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House approves extension for 9/11 commission

More access to Bush, Cheney sought

From Phil Hirschkorn and Ted Barrett

Lawmakers have approved an extension for the 9/11 commission, but the panel is seeking more access to President Bush.
Lawmakers have approved an extension for the 9/11 commission, but the panel is seeking more access to President Bush.

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September 11 attacks
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(CNN) -- A deadline extension for the commission investigating the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks took a major step toward becoming law Wednesday when the House of Representatives approved a 60-day extension.

The voice vote on the House floor followed Senate passage of the extension last week. President Bush is expected to sign it into law.

But a key sticking point remains: commission access to Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

The White House has offered the commission chairman and vice chairman -- former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican, and former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat -- an opportunity to sit down for one hour, separately, with Bush and Cheney.

"We have decided the arrangement is not good enough at this point." said Tim Roemer, a Democrat and former Indiana congressman who is a member of the 10-member bipartisan panel, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

"Getting the facts won't kill us, but not getting them might. We need to make sure we get all the facts and write the definitive story. These are certainly the most important people we'll talk to during this investigation," he said in a telephone interview.

Former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have agreed to meet the whole commission for as much time as it needs.

"We need to have fair and full cooperation, not separate and unequal cooperation from the two administrations," Roemer said.

Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the commission, stressed that the White House offer was not rejected.

"It is still under discussion," he said. "We continue to hope that the president will reconsider and meet with the entire commission."

Public versus private testimony

Commission members also want National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to be among the witnesses at the panel's eighth and final public hearing, scheduled for March 23 and March 24 in Washington.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are on the witness list, as are their predecessors, Madeleine Albright and William Cohen, and Rice's predecessor, Sandy Berger.

Rice met privately with the commission for four hours last month.

"Personally, I think Condi Rice would make a very fine witness for the administration, but if they prefer not to have her testify in public, that's their choice," said James Thompson, a Republican former Illinois governor who is a commission member.

No national security adviser has testified in public before a legislative commission, according to Thompson.

"I understand the concern of the Bush White House. They are trying to protect the prerogatives of the presidency, not just for President Bush but future presidents, and that is a legitimate concern," he said.

By all accounts the commission, created by an act of Congress in November 2002, got off to a slow start. Its original chairman and vice chairman bowed out, the commissioners needed to get national security clearances, and there were delays in obtaining documents from executive agencies.

Critics accused the White House, which initially opposed the formation of the commission, of stonewalling. But Thompson said, "We now have every single document we have requested and every single document we need."

Threat information

However, Roemer, who served on the House Select Intelligence Committee, said the commission's success in obtaining redacted copies of the President's Daily Brief (PDB), a CIA-prepared threat assessment, was mishandled.

The commission's chairman and vice chairman have seen only paragraphs focused on terrorism and al Qaeda.

"The commission, I think, erred in asking for the wrong type of information," Roemer said. "I don't know when you pick a paragraph or two from a 12-page document over a four- to six-year period how that informs you as to what the president was warned about ahead of time, or how the intelligence community prioritized this threat of al Qaeda."

"If the Bush administration wants to be able to say at the end of the day that they didn't have sufficient warning leading into 9/11, then they should let us see the PDBs and let all 10 commissioners see them," he said.

The White House-supported extension was initially blocked by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who said he did not want the report coming out in July instead of May because releasing later in the election year could make it "a political football."

Hastert also said he wanted Congress to obtain the commission's recommendations for fixing security breaches made evident in the attacks as early as possible.

But under pressure from some victims' families and lawmakers, Hastert agreed to the extension on Friday.

July 26 will be the commission's new deadline to report on all aspects of the attacks, including government responses. The commission then will have an additional 30 days to close down its operations.

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