Thursday, December 08, 2005

Fight in House for White House Files on Katrina

The New York Times
Fight in House for White House Files on Katrina

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7 - A new battle over Congressional access to White House files broke out Wednesday over the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Mainly at issue is how President Bush and his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., responded when they received the first news from Louisiana and Mississippi of dire conditions.

Since Sept. 30, Representative Thomas M. Davis III, Republican of Virginia, chairman of the special House committee investigating the response, and Representative Charlie Melancon, Democrat of Louisiana, have been seeking from the White House "documents or communications, including internal communications" on the threat and government actions. At first, according to letters released by the committee, the White House said providing the documents was impractical because it would require reviewing more than 71 million e-mail messages.

The committee then limited the request to communications to and from Mr. Card; Frances Townsend, the president's domestic security adviser; and their deputies and senior staff members.

The deputy counsel to the president, William K. Kelley, rejected that, suggesting it would "impinge on the separation of powers of the legislative and executive branches." Mr. Kelley offered in a letter on Dec. 6 "a background briefing by one or more senior administration officials."

Beginning with Vice President Dick Cheney's refusal to turn over records of the energy panel he directed, the White House and Congress have constantly fought over access to information. The White House says presidents need confidential and frank advice they cannot obtain if it might become public.

The new confrontation arose at a hearing on Mississippi's recovery. Gov. Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a familiar figure here, said his state's ability to recover had been severely hampered by Congress's delay in approving more money.

Before Mr. Barbour testified, Mr. Melancon said he would make a formal motion next week to subpoena the White House documents. Mr. Melancon recalled that Michael D. Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told the panel that he had warned the White House before the storm that a disaster was looming and that in the immediate aftermath, he had repeatedly contacted the White House to report an out-of-control situation.