WASHINGTON -- The independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks reached an agreement with the White House yesterday to gain restricted access to years of classified presidential briefings, which had been the focus of subpoena threats from the panel's chairman.
The compromise will allow the 10-member commission to create a four-person subcommittee that will have varying degrees of access to the documents known as Presidential Daily Briefs from the Bush and Clinton administrations, according to a commission statement and sources familiar with the agreement.
But the accord includes numerous restrictions limiting what parts of briefings can be seen and what parts can later be shared with the rest of the bipartisan panel and includes White House review of much of that information, according to sources familiar with the agreement. Those with direct access will take notes, and those notes are subject to review by the White House before being shared with others, sources said.
The limitations prompted angry condemnations yesterday from two Democratic commissioners -- former Georgia senator Max Cleland and former Indiana representative Timothy Roemer -- who have argued that the commission should be more aggressive in seeking sensitive materials from the Bush administration.
Cleland called the agreement "unconscionable" and said it "was deliberately compromised by the president of the United States" in order to limit the panel's work.
"If this decision stands, I as a member of the commission cannot look any American in the eye, especially family members of victims, and say the commission had full access," he said. "This investigation is now compromised . . . This is `The Gong Show'; this isn't protection of national security."
Said Roemer: "To paraphrase Churchill, never have so few commissioners reviewed such important documents with so many restrictions. The 10 commissioners should either have access to this or not at all."
But Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor and another Democrat on the panel, said the deal was a "compromise that respects the integrity and independence of the commission.
"It is not perfect, but this will provide the commission with sufficient access," he said.
The commission, which refuses to release vote counts and has conducted many of its deliberations behind closed doors, declined yesterday to publicly provide details about the agreement.
White House spokeswoman Ashley Snee said the administration "has been working closely with the commission to ensure they have the information they need to be successful."
The bipartisan Sept. 11 commission has issued subpoenas to the Defense Department and the Federal Aviation Administration for materials related to air defenses on the day of the attacks.
But the commission balked at a proposal by Roemer last week to subpoena the presidential documents, which include an Aug. 6, 2001, briefing outlining a variety of possible attacks by the Al Qaeda network. Thomas Kean, the commission chairman, a Republican, and former New Jersey governor, had warned two weeks earlier that the panel was considering subpoenas targeting the White House.
Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband was killed at the World Trade Center, assailed the commission yesterday for refusing to provide details of its deal.