WASHINGTON, April 1 — The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks said on Thursday that it was pressing the White House to explain why the Bush administration had blocked thousands of pages of classified foreign policy and counterterrorism documents from former President Bill Clinton's White House files from being turned over to the panel's investigators.
The White House confirmed on Thursday that it had withheld a variety of classified documents from Mr. Clinton's files that had been gathered by the National Archives over the last two years in response to requests from the commission, which is investigating intelligence and law enforcement failures before the attacks.
Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said some Clinton administration documents had been withheld because they were "duplicative or unrelated," while others were withheld because they were "highly sensitive" and the information in them could be relayed to the commission in other ways. "We are providing the commission with access to all the information they need to do their job," Mr. McClellan said.
The commission and the White House were reacting to public complaints from former aides to Mr. Clinton, who said they had been surprised to learn in recent months that three-quarters of the nearly 11,000 pages of files the former president was ready to offer the commission had been withheld by the Bush administration. The former aides said the files contained highly classified documents about the Clinton administration's efforts against Al Qaeda.
The commission said it was awaiting a full answer from the White House on why any documents were withheld.
"We need to be satisfied that we have everything we have asked to see," Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the bipartisan 10-member commission, said. "We have voiced the concern to the White House that not all of the material the Clinton library has made available to us has made its way to the commission."
The general counsel of Mr. Clinton's presidential foundation, Bruce Lindsey, who was his deputy White House counsel, said in an interview that he was concerned that the Bush administration had applied a "very legalistic approach to the documents" and might have blocked the release of material that would be valuable to the commission.
Mr. Lindsey said he first complained to the commission in February after learning from the archives that the Bush administration had withheld so many documents.
"I voiced a concern that the commission was making a judgment on an incomplete record," he said. "I want to know why there is a 75 percent difference between what we were ready to produce and what was being produced to the commission."
The debate over the Clinton files was disclosed as the commission announced that it had reached agreement with the White House to schedule a public hearing for next Thursday at which Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, will testify under oath for two and a half hours.
It also came as the White House, in an effort to bolster Ms. Rice's credibility before the hearing, released some of the language of a presidential directive awaiting Mr. Bush's signature on Sept. 11, 2001. It instructed the Pentagon to plan action against Qaeda terrorists and their Taliban sponsors in Afghanistan, "including leadership, command-control-communication, training and logistics facilities."
White House officials said the language showed that the Bush administration had a tougher, more comprehensive plan than the Clinton administration had for dealing with Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and the Taliban. Ms. Rice has cited the directive in recent interviews in trying to undermine the credibility of Richard A. Clarke, Mr. Bush's former counterterrorism director, who has accused the Bush administration of largely ignoring terrorist threats before Sept. 11.
The disclosure that many Clinton administration files had been withheld took several of the members of the panel by surprise on Thursday.
"If it did happen, it's an unintentional mistake or it's another intentional act of the White House that will backfire," said Bob Kerrey, a former senator from Nebraska who is a Democratic member of the commission.
Another Democrat on the panel, Timothy J. Roemer, a former House member from Indiana, said he learned only on Thursday that so many documents had been withheld. "There could be some innocent explanation for it," he said. "I am assured that our staff will be looking into it."
Mr. Lindsey said that President Clinton and his foundation, which is based in Little Rock, Ark., had given authorization to the National Archives to gather evidence from Mr. Clinton's files that was sought by the independent commission, which was created by Congress in late 2002. But the Bush administration, he said, had final authority to decide what would be turned over.
Mr. Lindsey, who is Mr. Clinton's liaison to the National Archives, said he was surprised to discover from the archives in later months that the Bush administration, after reviewing the Clinton documents gathered by researchers there, had decided not to turn over most of the material.
He said he had read through many of the 10,800 pages that were collected and believed them to be valuable to the work of the panel.
"They involved all of the issues — Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, terrorism, all of the areas with the commission's jurisdiction," he said. He made his first public complaints about the handling of the documents in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday.
In February, Mr. Lindsey said, he complained to the commission's staff director, Philip D. Zelikow. He said he renewed his complaint in a meeting with Mr. Zelikow last month.
Mr. Felzenberg, the commission's spokesman, said that after the meeting, Mr. Zelikow and other staff members began pressing the White House for an explanation of what had happened. "The commission has voiced Mr. Lindsey's concern to the White House," he said. "We made the concerns known and we are awaiting a definitive answer."
The White House decision to release some of the wording of the classified September 2001 presidential directive on Al Qaeda and the Taliban was an opening volley in what is expected to be an aggressive public relations campaign on behalf of Ms. Rice in the days before her testimony next Thursday.
Mr. Bush bowed to political pressure this week and agreed to allow Ms. Rice to testify to the commission after insisting for weeks that public testimony by such an important White House aide would erode his constitutional authority.
The so-called National Security Presidential Directive envisioned the military action as the last step of a three-to-five year plan. It called for two earlier steps — a diplomatic mission to the Taliban and covert action — and envisioned military strikes only as a last resort.
The actual language in the directive could be interpreted in two very different ways when Ms. Rice testifies. On the one hand, she will undoubtedly use it to build her case that the administration took the Qaeda threat seriously.
But because the policy was supposed to unfold over three to five years, it suggests that the threat posed by Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan was not considered an urgent one by the White House, bolstering Mr. Clarke's accusations.
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