White House backs away from plan to keep classified info from Congress

The White House today indicated it has suspended a controversial memo from President Bush stating that classified information related to the war effort be provided only to Congress' four top leaders and leaders of the intelligence committees.

But the decision left unclear--at least publicly--whether Congress would, as a result, receive more or less sensitive information from the administration.

Nevertheless, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., indicated they were satisfied following their weekly breakfast with Bush.

"I think it's fair to say the four of us are quite pleased with the understanding that we've again confirmed today about the way this information will be provided," Daschle said "We'll get what we need and he'll be able to do what he needs to do," Lott said.

Last Friday's memo was addressed to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and the directors of the CIA and FBI.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the President had agreed that Rumsfeld should brief the Armed Service committees and that Powell will brief the panels handling foreign affairs.

"It's important that member of Congress have information that they need to do their proper oversight activities, while at the same time, the President will continue to remind members of Congress about the importance of keeping classified information classified," Fleischer said.

But Fleischer refused to say whether Rumsfeld and Powell's briefings would include classified information.

Fleischer noted Rumsfeld would be briefing the entire panels, meaning that dozens of legislators would receive whatever details are provided. In Bush's memo, the only lawmakers beyond the four leaders to receive classified information were the chairmen and the ranking members of the intelligence committees.

Back in the Capitol, Lott said of Bush, "He's made his point," adding, "We're all going to be a little more careful about what we say." And as for Rumsfeld and Powell, Lott said, "They're going to be very careful about briefing very sensitive, classified information about planned or ongoing operations."

Lott said that he, like a lot of members, "don't want to know too much, for fear that I might let it slip." Lott said it was "irrelevant" to him who let the classified information slip, saying the leak "didn't do significant damage."

Fleischer sought to give assurances that lawmakers would be satisfied with the White House approach as events unfold. But he nevertheless declined to even specifically say that the memo was defunct, only indicating as much. Instead, he pointed to a phrase in the memo stating the policy "shall remain in effect until you receive further notice from me."

Fleischer said, "The President met this morning with leaders of the Congress and gave them some notice," presumably meaning such notice would be understood by the agency heads listed in the memos as well.