The Bush White House has never hidden its preference for secrecy. "For 35 years that I've been in town, there's been a constant, steady erosion of the prerogatives and powers of the president of the United States," Vice President Dick Cheney declared in January 2002. "And I don't want to be part of that." From Cheney's energy task force to presidential records, the White House has tried to restrict the information given Congress and the public.
A good compromise reached last week with the bipartisan, 10-member federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks provided a welcome break in that pattern.
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, who heads the commission, had threatened to subpoena the White House for access to the president's top-secret daily briefings prepared exclusively for him by the CIA. Victims' families and two Democrats on the commission, former Rep. Tim Roemer and former Sen. Max Cleland, complained that the conditions of the deal with the White House were too restrictive. Kean, however, said the agreement "gives the commission full access to all the documents we're asking for."
The deal marks the first time that any White House has handed over top-secret intelligence documents to outside investigators.
The commission has agreed that only two members will be allowed to look at the most sensitive materials and that the White House will determine whether they may takes notes and share them with other panel members. Up to four members will be allowed to look at other documents.
Such access might not be perfect, but it will permit the commission to help answer the key question of whether presidents Clinton and Bush were warned by intelligence agencies that an Al Qaeda attack was in the works.
Both Clinton and Bush say the allegation is unfounded. If that is the case, allowing the commission to look at key documents would dispel doubts. Even if all commission members receive only summaries, they will have a firm grasp of what was, and was not, in the daily briefings.
The commission thus avoids a protracted battle over White House documents, but other roadblocks remain. It has already subpoenaed the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration for documents on the national air defense network. Bush's concession on intelligence should prompt other agencies to cooperate. If they don't, the White House ought to intervene. To ensure that the commission has sufficient time, Congress should extend by a few months its deadline for submitting a report, currently May 2004.
The White House agreement removes a potential cloud of doubt over the commission report. The secret material should settle cover-up charges once and for all, denying fodder to Sept. 11 conspiracists.