The common theme of the controversies roiling the capital this summer is the contest over access to vital information. This is one of the classic points of contention between the executive and legislative branches, but the conflict is sharper than usual this year.

Senate Democrats blocked the confirmation of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations over the White House's refusal to supply the names of individuals whose security files he had examined in his previous State Department position. The impasse was finally broken this week when President Bush gave Bolton a recess appointment, allowing him to serve for the next 17 months without confirmation.

Now a second storm is blowing up over access to memos Supreme Court nominee John Roberts wrote when he was serving in the solicitor general's office of the Justice Department in the administration of George H.W. Bush. Democrats say those writings would illuminate his judicial philosophy, but the administration insists that divulging them would infringe on the confidentiality of exchanges between a lawyer and his client.

Important as these conflicts are, they may be less significant in the long run than the continuing tug of war over measurements of progress -- or lack of progress -- in Iraq. The whole country has a stake in this one.

As I wrote earlier, Congress, in a little-noted section of the defense spending bill passed this spring, had ordered Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to deliver a detailed report by July 11 on a long list of measures gauging Iraq's economic and political stability, the extent of the insurgency, and the capacity of Iraqi forces to provide security for their own country.

July 11 came and went with no report, and a number of readers asked whether I was going to follow up on the matter. I had been told informally by the Pentagon that work was proceeding, so I decided to wait. The Senate was less patient and passed a resolution reminding Rumsfeld of the unfulfilled obligation. And on July 21 the report was delivered.

It came in two parts, a 23-page public document and a classified annex. The congressional resolution had suggested that questions about planned U.S. force requirements and troop rotations be dealt with in a secret annex, but it asked that everything else be available to inform the public debate.

The Pentagon has not stonewalled the request, but the quality of the information it has given lawmakers and the public is disappointing.

For example, the report includes page after page of blank forms that the coalition command in Iraq has developed to assess the quality of personnel, command and control, training, and logistics in Iraqi military and police forces. But the important question of how many of those units are capable of fighting the insurgency, independently or with help from U.S. and British troops, simply is not answered.

The directive from Congress had asked for that information along with rates of absenteeism in the Iraqi armed forces and the extent to which insurgents have infiltrated those forces. The Pentagon replied that "although there is variance in the rate of absenteeism, AWOL, attrition and desertion among the Iraqi army, rates have diminished significantly and are now around 1 percent for some divisions. Still, units that are conducting operations and units that relocate elsewhere in Iraq experience a surge in absenteeism."

At another point, it simply says, "The extent of insurgent infiltration [into Iraqi forces] is unknown. A vetting process is used to attempt to screen out criminals, foreign and anti-Iraq forces."

Partial or vague answers such as these are understandably frustrating to lawmakers trying to calculate where things really stand in Iraq. Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, said the Pentagon's failure to do everything that Congress had asked "means that the American people continue to lack essential information about operations in Iraq, and Congress is prevented from having an informed debate on the matter without violating classification security protocols."

Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference that his department had answered the specific questions Congress asked but that a full assessment of Iraq would have to come from other parts of the government as well, including the State and Justice departments.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said he was struck by the fact that the Pentagon report not only is silent on the question of the degree of training and preparedness of the Iraqi battalions but also "doesn't capture the quality of the officer corps or the loyalty of the troops. . . . Rumsfeld has a lot more specific information," he said, "and he ought to share it."

Congress has required an update on this report in 90 days, so the Pentagon has an opportunity to improve on the product. The public will be well served if Rumsfeld takes the obligation seriously.

davidbroder@washpost.com