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9/11 panel gains access

White House admits holding back documents

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WASHINGTON — The White House has agreed to allow the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks to review thousands of Clinton administration national security documents that the White House acknowledged this week it had withheld from the panel, the commission said on Friday.

But even as the White House struggled to convince the panel that it was not withholding valuable information, administration officials refused to make a commitment to allow it to have copies of the Clinton-era documents. And they suggested that similar, highly classified Bush White House documents may have also been withheld from the panel.

The disclosure by the White House on Thursday that it had withheld thousands of highly classified national-security documents gathered by the National Archives from the files of the Clinton White House drew protests from members of the commission, Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as congressional Democrats.

Researchers from the National Archives were allowed to use their discretion in culling information from Clinton White House files in response to a series of document requests over the last year from the commission, which is investigating intelligence and law-enforcement failures before the Sept. 11 attacks.

But the final decision on whether the documents could be handed over to the commission was left to the Bush White House, which decided to block transfer of three-quarters of the nearly 11,000 pages of material, according to former Clinton aides who said they were concerned that so many of the documents had been withheld from the panel.

"This is very disturbing," said Richard Ben-Veniste, the former Watergate prosecutor who is a Democratic member of the commission. The White House said on Thursday that it decided to withhold the Clinton documents from the panel because they duplicated other documents, were not relevant to the commission's requests or involved national security and were "highly sensitive."

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said on Friday that the Bush administration had been "fully responsive to the commission's requests and any allegation to the contrary is simply ridiculous."

McClellan did not respond directly, however, when asked if the copies of the withheld documents would now be released to the commission. "I said we'll work with the commission to make sure they are able to verify that those documents are nonresponsive or that they're duplicative."