President Bush said Monday his staff is cooperating with the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, but stopped short of saying whether the White House would hand over top-level papers that may be subpoenaed.
"Those are very sensitive documents," Mr. Bush said, adding that White House counsel Alberto Gonzales was working with Thomas Kean, chairman of the commission, on this issue.
Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the commission said, "the president is correct on both counts. They are very sensitive documents. That's why we are having negotiations. These aren't things you just hand out to folks." But he added that Kean "feels we need certain things to do our job."
The president's comments come a day after Kean told the New York Times that he was prepared to subpoena the documents if they were not turned over within weeks.
Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, also told the Times that he believed the penal would soon be forced to issue subpoenas to other executive branch agencies because of continuing delays by the Bush administration in handing over documents and other evidence.
The 10-member, bipartisan commission has until May 27 to submit a report that also will deal with law enforcement, diplomacy, immigration, commercial aviation and the flow of assets to terror organizations.
Mr. Bush's remarks were underscored later Monday by White House press secretary Scott McClellan. But McClellan, too, stopped short of saying the White House will turn over certain papers, such as transcripts of the president's daily terrorism briefings.
"We'll work cooperatively with the commission," McClellan said. "We will continue working closely with them to resolve any remaining issues."
"The president made it clear through memos that were sent by the chief of staff and more recently by his general counsel to agencies throughout the federal government that we are very supportive of these efforts and that the administration should work cooperatively with the commission to help learn the full truth of matters," the spokesman said.
Earlier this month, the independent commission voted to issue a subpoena to the Federal Aviation Administration for documents pertaining to the investigation. The commission said the FAA subpoena will "put other agencies on notice that our document requests must be taken as seriously as a subpoena."
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said in a broadcast interview on Sunday that it would be in the administration's interest to release documents the commission has requested.
"Americans and our allies across the globe must have confidence in our leadership," said Hagel, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has frequently criticized Mr. Bush's execution of the campaign against terrorists. "They must trust our processes. And that certainly includes our intelligence community's results."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., co-author of the legislation that created the independent commission, called on the White House to turn the documents over immediately.
"If they continue to refuse, I will urge the independent commission to take the administration to court," said Lieberman, who is running for president. "And if the administration tries to run out the clock, (Arizona Republican Sen.) John McCain and I will go to the floor of the Senate to extend the life of the commission."
Kean's remarks to the Times were his first explicit public warning to the White House that it risked a subpoena and a politically damaging courtroom showdown with the commission over access to the documents, which include Oval Office intelligence reports that reached President Bush's desk in the weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I will not stand for it," said Kean, who is now the president of Drew University in Madison, N.J. "That means that we will use every tool at our command to get hold of every document."
He told the Times that, while he had not directly threatened a subpoena in his recent conversations with the White House legal counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, "it's always on the table, because they know that Congress in their wisdom gave us the power to subpoena, to use it if necessary."
Kean suggested to the Times that he understood the concerns of the White House about the sensitivity of the documents at issue, saying that they were the sort of Oval Office intelligence reports that were so sensitive and highly classified that they had never been provided to Congress or to other outside investigators.
But he added, "Anything that has to do with 9/11, we have to see it — anything. There are a lot of theories about 9/11, and as long as there is any document out there that bears on any of those theories, we're going to leave questions unanswered. And we cannot leave questions unanswered."
While Kean said he was barred by an agreement with the White House from describing the Oval Office documents at issue in any detail — he said the White House was "quite nervous" about any public hint at their contents — other commission officials said they included the detailed daily intelligence reports that were provided to Mr. Bush in the weeks leading up to Sept. 11. The reports are known within the White House as the Presidential Daily Briefing.
Despite the threat of a subpoena and his warning of the possibility of a court battle over the documents, Kean said he maintained a good relationship with Gonzales and others at the White House, and that he was still hopeful the White House would produce all of the classified material demanded by the panel without a subpoena.
"Within the legal constraints that they seem to have, they've been fully cooperative," he said. "But we're not going to be satisfied until we get every document that we need."