WASHINGTON - The White House is declining to make public the financial histories of the commissioners President Bush appointed to investigate U.S. intelligence failures.
Administration officials say the arrangement has helped to attract the best-qualified people to the panel, but critics say the White House's refusal to disclose financial information raises questions about potential conflicts of interest that could cloud the commission's work.
Citing an exemption to federal ethics regulations, the White House says the financial disclosure statements filed by the commission's nine members will remain confidential because they are not being paid for their work.
"The president was looking for highly qualified, well-respected individuals to serve on a temporary basis, and he thought that this was the best way to set up the commission," said Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman.
Although ethics specialists said members of most federal commissions typically have to disclose their financial interests to the public, the White House pointed to a number of exceptions in foreign intelligence and domestic security. "There are several out there like this. I don't think it's unique," Healy said.
But experts said the White House's refusal to make public the commission's business links may fuel questions about its independence and taint its investigation into one of the Bush administration's biggest potential political vulnerabilities: the quality of intelligence used to justify the Iraq war and other issues involving unconventional weapons.
The issue mirrors some of the concerns raised in 2002 when a commission was appointed to investigate the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
In addition to issues of financial disclosure, some critics of the Bush administration have charged that political interests could influence its findings.
Laurence H. Silberman, a conservative judge who is one of the panel's two co-chairmen, has drawn particular criticism from liberal groups because of his judicial record and close ties to the Bush administration. Several other commissioners also have financial links to groups in the Middle East and the defense industry that could become involved in the inquiry.
"This is a critical commission, and if the White House is going to withhold basic information about its members that should be made public, that's a shame," said Bill Allison, a spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit group in Washington that tracks government ethics issues.
"The point of a financial disclosure form is that it's supposed to be disclosed," Allison said. "This completely defeats the purpose. You're starting from a position of bad faith."
One high-level commission that does make public the financial interests of its members is the panel created by Congress and the White House in late 2002 to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks. But it, too, has been dogged by charges of conflicts of interest.
The original chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, Henry A. Kissinger, abruptly stepped down because he said resolving potential conflicts of interest would have meant liquidating his consulting firm. His vice chairman, former Sen. George J. Mitchell, stepped aside in part because of an unwillingness to sever ties with his law firm. The commission's current executive director and a commissioner have also been interviewed by the commission about their knowledge of intelligence activities leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks, spurring charges of a conflict from some of the victims' survivors.
Bush administration officials and ethics specialists said that when politicians seek to appoint people with broad experience to serve on important commissions, charges of conflicts arise almost inevitably because those people usually have extensive contacts in business and global affairs.
"It's a problem that's endemic to Washington," said Stan Brand, a Washington lawyer specializing in government ethics. "If this commission is really going to conduct a wide-ranging review of intelligence gathering, at some point its members are going to bump into individuals or entities of the kind that they've represented, and they're going to have to confront that by sealing themselves off from those clients."
The nine members of the intelligence commission include Republicans and Democrats, and the White House points to their broad experience in intelligence, the military, academics, law and the private sector. Joining Silberman as co-chairman is Charles S. Robb, a former Democrat senator and governor of Virginia.
Critics, however, suggest that the commissioners' extensive resumes may create conflicts.
Clearly the most scrutiny has fallen on Silberman, a senior part-time judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.
Conservatives hail Silberman as a well-respected and savvy leader who has had a long and diverse career as a diplomat, law enforcement official and jurist. But several liberal groups and Democratic lawmakers have attacked what they call his severe partisanship on and off the bench in episodes including the Iran-contra affair, the Whitewater investigation and accusations of sexual misconduct against President Bill Clinton.
In a lengthy attack on Silberman delivered on the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, charged that "the canons of judicial ethics meant nothing" to the judge and that he should be replaced on the panel.
Silberman, Reid said, was on the panel "to protect the president, not to get fair information."
Silberman, in an interview, dismissed such charges as "fabrications" and said he did not believe they would distract from the commission's work.
Silberman acknowledged that he counts among his friends both Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, two of President Bush's most influential advisers on Iraq. And he said, "I plead guilty to being something of a conservative," but added that this would not color his leadership of the commission.
As for the commission members' financial interests, Silberman said he was unaware that the White House planned to keep the information confidential, and he pledged to make his own disclosure form available in the coming days.
"It's plain vanilla - the only financial interests I have are mutual funds," he said.