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Compromise possible on White House secrecy

President Bush
"It is unacceptable to leak classified information when we have troops at risk," President Bush said Tuesday.  

From John King
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The rough outlines of a truce emerged Tuesday night in the debate between the White House and Congress over access to classified briefings on the military operation in Afghanistan and the investigation into the September 11 attacks.

President Bush sent out a memo last week, ordering key department heads to limit their briefings of members of Congress to the four major leaders and the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Sources told CNN that Bush was furious that classified information was leaked to the media.

At an appearance Tuesday with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Bush scolded Congress for leaking sensitive information that could jeopardize the lives of U.S. troops.

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"I want Congress to hear loud and clear, it is unacceptable to leak classified information when we have troops at risk," Bush said. "... If you receive a briefing of classified information, you have a responsibility. And some members did not accept that responsibility."

Bush told top advisers he believed he had made his point over leaks and was prepared to expand the list of lawmakers allowed to have the most sensitive briefings, but that he first wanted to discuss the issue face-to-face with congressional leaders.

The president plans to have breakfast at the White House on Wednesday with the top four congressional leaders -- Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota; Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi; House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas; and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri.

Bush met Tuesday with the chairmen and ranking members of the House International Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

At that session, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-California, told the president the law required the Executive Branch to brief members of those committees on major overseas operations. Bush responded that his restrictions were not meant to circumvent any laws but that he felt no choice but to adopt tough restrictions because of what he considered reckless leaks just as he was sending U.S. forces into harm's way.

Lantos emerged from the meeting to say he considered the disagreement resolved.

Two senior administration officials told CNN that Bush believed he had made his point regarding the importance of secrecy and was prepared to expand the circle of those entitled to classified briefings. In addition to the armed services and foreign relations committees, these sources suggested appropriations committees dealing with military matters might at times have reason to be included in such meetings.

These sources said Bush was prepared to discuss a compromise at his breakfast meeting with the congressional leaders but wanted assurances from them that they would help him enforce a commitment to secrecy.

"There will still be some people disappointed," one of the officials said. "But the president believes that as long as people got the message, [then] he is willing to go a little further in consultations with the Congress."

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