The federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks said Wednesday that it has reached an agreement with the White House that will give investigators unprecedented access to intelligence briefings given to presidents Bush and Clinton on the threat posed by Al Qaeda.
But the agreement was sharply criticized by some members of the panel for placing severe restrictions on how many commissioners will be allowed to see the documents and what they will be allowed to report to the rest of the panel and the public.
The agreement calls for the White House to make sensitive intelligence documents available to the commission, including the daily CIA briefing delivered exclusively to the president.
In exchange, the panel has consented to an arrangement in which only two members will be allowed to view material sought by investigators. Even then, they will face further restrictions imposed by the White House on whether they will be able to take notes from the documents they review, and how much can then be shared with others on the panel, according to sources familiar with the arrangement.
One commissioner, former Indiana Democratic Rep. Tim Roemer, said the restrictions insisted upon by the White House are "maddening" and could seriously undercut the panel's ability to produce a comprehensive report.
"Never have so few commissioners reviewed such important documents with so many restrictions," Roemer said.
Roemer, who refused to discuss certain details of the agreement, is a former member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence who served on a previous congressional investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The criticism underscores sharp internal disagreement over how aggressive the commission should be in pursuing certain documents from the White House and an array of federal agencies.
The commission is charged with producing a definitive account of whether the government failed to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. Its negotiations with the White House have been particularly nettlesome.
Indeed, in recent weeks, the chairman of the commission, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, had suggested the panel was prepared to subpoena the records from the White House. But the commission has also been eager to avoid a major confrontation with the White House, in part because a protracted fight could impair its ability to meet a May 2004 deadline to finish its work.
The commission defended its agreement in a statement released late Wednesday.
"We expect that the terms of this agreement will provide the commission the access it needs to prepare the report mandated by our statute," the panel said. The deal "will provide the commission with access to these key documents while recognizing the sensitivity of the information contained in them."
At stake for investigators is access to materials numerous administrations have guarded jealously. In fact, the White House refused to turn over the same materials to congressional investigators last year, and is resisting calls from Democrats to hand over similar documents in connection with prewar intelligence about Iraq.
A White House spokeswoman declined to discuss terms of the agreement. "We are pleased we were able to reach an agreement and we look forward to their recommendations to make America safer," the spokeswoman said.
According to sources, the deal struck with the White House includes a number of complicated provisions. Some materials will only be made available to two of the 10 commissioners, most likely Kean, a Republican, and the vice chairman, former Indiana Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat. But other less sensitive documents will be shown to as many as four members, or some combination of members and staff investigators.
"There are note-taking limitations" on some documents, a source said. And with other materials "you have to be able to convince the White House that this meets a certain legal threshold" before it can be shared with the rest of the group.
The commission has sought access to the documents to help it answer one of the lingering questions about the Sept. 11 attacks: whether presidents Bush and Clinton ever received warnings from the intelligence community that Al Qaeda might attempt strikes like those that killed nearly 3,000 people a little more than two years ago.
Both presidents have insisted that they never had any specific warning that such attacks were possible, let alone in that the terrorist network had put such plans in motion. But the White House's refusal to provide access to key documents has fostered suspicion.
Investigators are likely to focus in particular on an Aug. 6, 2001, briefing in which, according to national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, Bush was told that Al Qaeda might seek to carry out terrorist plots involving the hijacking of airplanes. That briefing came when the U.S. intelligence community was warning that a major Al Qaeda attack might be imminent.