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Gephardt favors bill creating independent 9/11 panel

"Coordinating intelligence information and the responses of government agencies is absolutely critical," Gephardt says.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt repeated Tuesday his call for an independent commission to review what was known prior to September 11 about potential terrorist attacks.

The goal of such a commission, insisted Gephardt, would be "not to place blame, but to do better next time."

Gephardt announced Monday that he would co-sponsor legislation to create the panel.

"As we have found in the past few weeks, various branches of our government possessed information prior to September 11 that could have contributed to our understanding of the terrorist attacks that occurred that day," the Democrat from Missouri said in a statement.

"No one will ever know if better coordination would have enabled us to prevent those attacks. But we do know now that coordinating intelligence information and the responses of government agencies is absolutely critical as we work to maximize the safety of all Americans."

Gephardt said he would support an effort by Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Indiana, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, to attach language to an upcoming intelligence authorization bill in the House creating the commission.

Momentum for a probe by an independent panel gained steam last week after revelations that President Bush received a written CIA briefing August 6 that said al Qaeda operatives might try to hijack U.S. commercial aircraft.

The FBI also has come under fire for not passing along information gathered from field agents in Phoenix and Minneapolis that men of Middle Eastern descent were training in U.S. flight schools.

Last week, after the August 6 briefing came to light, Gephardt said, "We need to know what the White House knew, when they knew it, what they did about it and why this didn't come to light until now." That led to criticism from a number of Republicans that he was trying to score political points from the September 11 tragedy with language alluding to the Watergate scandal, a charge he strongly denied.

The Bush administration opposes creation of an independent panel, saying an ongoing, behind-closed-doors investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees is, in the words of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, the "proper venue."

The White House said opening up the investigation to an outside panel, with the possibility of public hearings, could compromise intelligence information and harm the war on terrorism.

On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney said he would "actively" discourage creation of an independent panel.

"We want an investigation," Cheney said on Fox News Sunday. "But it's absolutely essential that we do it in a way that protects and preserves our capabilities to deal with security in classified information."

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Florida, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Monday he wants to see whether the independent panel proposed by Gephardt and Roemer would replace or merely supplement the investigation by the intelligence committees.

"I'd want to look at the language, but I think it's very important that the oversight of the intelligence committees continue on and this joint bicameral, bipartisan investigation is allowed to do its work," he said.

"We are doing good work. We've already turned up some good stuff. Unfortunately, some of it has been leaked prematurely and in a way that was not understandable, so it's caused a political firestorm."

The commission, as envisioned by Roemer's bill, "will have a broad mandate to investigate all relevant facts and circumstances relating to the attacks," including issues surrounding intelligence, law enforcement, commercial aviation, diplomacy, immigration and border control, according to a statement from Roemer's office issued Friday.

The panel would have an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

By contrast, a Senate bill setting up an independent investigative panel, to be offered by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, could wind up with a Republican majority because, in addition to members chosen from the Democratic-controlled Senate and the GOP-controlled House, President Bush would also get to choose members.

Gephardt's spokesman, Erik Smith, said the minority leader decided to sign on to Roemer's measure, rather than the McCain-Lieberman plan, because it was introduced first and would have an equal number of people from each party.

--CNN Capitol Hill Producer Ted Barrett and CNN's Wolf Blitzer contributed to this report.




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