White House 'slowing inquiry'

2006-01-25 07:57
Washington - The White House is crippling a Senate inquiry into the government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina by barring administration officials from answering questions and failing to hand over documents, senators leading the investigation said.

In some cases, staff at the White House and other federal agencies have refused to be interviewed by congressional investigators, the top Republican and Democrat on the senate homeland security and governmental affairs committee said on Tuesday. In addition, agency officials won't answer seemingly innocuous questions about times and dates of meetings and telephone calls with the White House, the senators said.

A White House spokesperson said the administration is committed to working with separate Senate and House investigations of the Katrina response, but wants to protect the confidentiality of presidential advisers.

Gag order

"No one believes that the government responded adequately," said Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman. "And we can't put that story together if people feel they're under a gag order from the White House."

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the committee's Republican chair, said she respects the White House's reluctance to reveal advice to President George W Bush from his top aides, which is generally covered by executive privilege.

Still, she criticised the dearth of information from agency officials about their contacts with the White House.

"We are entitled to know if someone from the department of homeland security calls someone at the White House during this whole crisis period," Collins said. "So I think the White House has gone too far in restricting basic information about who called whom on what day." p>Deliberate process

White House spokesperson Trent Duffy said the administration's deputy homeland security adviser, Ken Rapuano, has briefed House and Senate lawmakers on the federal response. A "lessons learned" report from homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend is also expected in coming weeks, Duffy said.

"There is a deliberate process, and the White House has always said it wants to co-operate with the committee, but preserve any president's ability to get advice from advisers on a confidential basis," Duffy said. "And that's a critical need for any US president and that is continuing to influence how we co-operate with the committees."

The Senate inquiry is scheduled to conclude in March with a report detailing steps the federal government took - and didn't take - to prepare for the August 29 storm.

Investigators have interviewed about 260 witnesses from federal, state and local governments and the private sector. Additionally, the committee has received an estimated 500 000 documents.

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