U.S. withholding data on Sept. 11, panel says

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - The independent commission looking into the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks accused several Bush administration agencies yesterday of withholding information that the commission says is vital to its investigation.

The criticism came in a progress report, the first by the bipartisan panel, which is studying the government's performance before and after the terrorist attacks. The commission outlined the resistance it has met in obtaining information from several agencies, in particular the Defense and Justice departments and the CIA.

Thomas H. Kean, the panel's Republican chairman, said members have yet to receive even the complete records from an earlier inquiry into Sept. 11, conducted last year by the House and Senate intelligence committees. Without such information, Kean said, the panel won't be able to finish its investigation by its May deadline.

The report also complained that the Justice Department, the CIA and the FBI have insisted that agency lawyers sit in on the commission's interviews with their employees. This action, Kean said, amounts to a "type of intimidation."

In a statement, Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said: "We have cooperated with the commission's investigation and have already produced thousands of pages of requested documents that are relevant to the inquiry."

He added that "much of the information is highly classified national security information and requires an added amount of care in handling."

Having government lawyers present for interviews with agency employees is "standard practice," Corallo said, and is done "for the benefit of the witness and to help facilitate the investigation."

The report gave its highest marks to two agencies - the State Department and the Transportation Security Administration - for promptly turning over substantial information.

Kean and the panel's vice chairman, former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat, said the White House had offered some cooperation but not enough.

"The administration," Kean said, "underestimated the scale of the commission's work and the full breadth of support required."

The report gave its poorest marks to the Pentagon, which it said had failed to respond to multiple inquiries - a level of resistance that it said was "becoming particularly serious."

Documents from the Defense Department are of particular interest to victims' families. They want to know, for example, when the Pentagon scrambled fighter jets to respond after the first planes were hijacked.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut raised the possibility yesterday that agencies might be delaying providing information to "run out the clock" before the panel's deadline.

"The president must deliver on his pledge to cooperate fully with the commission," said Lieberman, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination to oppose Bush. "To date, that hasn't happened."

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