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Tenet admits mistakes

2 directors vow to fix intelligence flaws

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WASHINGTON — CIA director George Tenet admitted Wednesday that the nation's intelligence agencies failed to recognize the rising threat posed by al-Qaida before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and predicted it would take the United States five years to have the kind of clandestine service the country needs.

Tenet and FBI Director Robert Mueller testified before the commission following the release of a sharply critical report of the nation's intelligence community for missteps in preventing the attacks on New York and Washington.

"We all understood bin Laden's attempt to strike the homeland, but we never translated this knowledge into an effective defense of the country," Tenet said. "In the end, one thing is clear: No matter how hard we worked — or how desperately we tried — it was not enough."

Tenet said part of the problem was that the intelligence community was operating throughout the 1990s with a "significant erosion in resources and people and was unable to keep pace with technological change."

But some commissioners expressed frustration at Tenet's suggestion that it would take five years to bring the intelligence community up to speed.

"This is not a new problem," said Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana and member of the House Intelligence Committee. "We've been talking about the difficulty of developing human intelligence for 10 or 15 years."

Both Tenet and Mueller told the commission that they are taking steps to dramatically overhaul the way their agencies collect and analyze intelligence.

The daylong hearing probed what needs to be done to plug intelligence gaps outlined in a highly critical report by the commission's staff. The report, which built off the work of the 2002 joint House and Senate intelligence committee investigation, revealed a broken intelligence apparatus.

"That report that you heard this morning was a damning report," said commissioner John F. Lehman, former secretary of the Navy during questioning of Tenet. "Not of your actions or the actions of any of the really superb and dedicated people that you have, but it was a damning evaluation of a system that is broken, that doesn't function."

Tenet said the intelligence community has devoted itself to "transforming" its collection, operational and analytical capabilities since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The intelligence community has taken strides in tearing down barriers between officers collecting information in the field and analysts producing reports in Washington, Tenet said. He said the creation of the Terrorism Threat Integration Center last year would improve the fusion of data from all sources in one place.

At the moment the center has 124 FBI and CIA agents working side-by-side to compare overseas and domestic intelligence reports on terrorism. Some 2,600 government officials have access to its products. But commissioners noted that the CIA still operates the Counterterrorism Center with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security has its own office of intelligence analysis. They raised doubts about duplication among the agencies.

Mueller introduced a 74-page report on steps the bureau is taking to improve its focus on terrorism and replace outdated technology.

Much of the questioning focused on whether Mueller could make lasting changes at the FBI.

"With so little confidence right now in the FBI and the stakes being so large for the security of the country, why should we give the FBI another chance?" asked Commissioner Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic representative from Indiana.

Mueller rejected the contention that confidence in the FBI is low.

"I think, perhaps, if you get outside of Washington you will find . . . that the FBI has a tremendous amount of respect from the community, but also from state and local law enforcement," Mueller said.

Mueller also echoed a number of witnesses over the two days of hearings in rejecting the possibility of creating a domestic intelligence agency separate from the FBI.

Such action, he said, would be a "grave mistake," raising concern over the potential loss of civil liberties and the effect it might have in derailing recent improvements at the bureau.

He added: "Splitting the law enforcement and the intelligence functions would leave both agencies fighting the war on terrorism with one hand tied behind their backs."

In addition, the commission staff released a report that found significant problems with the FBI's analyst division.

"We heard from many analysts who complain they are able to do little actual analysis because they continue to be assigned to menial tasks, including covering the phones at the reception desk and emptying the office trash bins," the report states.

Most of the hearing was spent deconstructing why the CIA and a dozen other intelligence agencies failed to connect vital pieces of information about Osama bin Laden's surge in power and support.

The intelligence community did not complete a comprehensive analysis of al-Qaida until 1999, almost a full decade after bin Laden started the terrorist organization, according to the staff report. As late as 1997, the agency's Counterterrorism Center described bin Laden as a "financier of terrorism," despite intelligence that showed bin Laden headed an organization that included operational commanders and an agenda for targets, the report found.

And the description of bin Laden as a terrorist financier belied the evidence that bin Laden had planned terrorist attacks that included a Yemen hotel where U.S. military personnel were stationed in 1992; shooting down Army Blackhawk helicopters in Somalia in 1993; and possibly the 1995 Riyadh bombing of the American training mission to the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Nor had analysts answered questions about links between al-Qaida and the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the report states.

Despite the information flowing into the agency, a comprehensive intelligence report, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, failed to mention the terrorist group's intentions to attack the United States.

The agency produced analytical papers about bin Laden's political philosophy, his global network and his operational style, investigators for the 9-11 Commission said, but "there were no complete authoritative portraits of his strategy and the extent of his organization's involvement in past terrorist attacks."

"Most important, our interviews of senior policymakers in both administrations revealed a fundamental uncertainty about how to regard the threat posed by bin Laden and al-Qaida," the report states.

For example, when a CIA analyst developed a comprehensive paper on bin Laden in 1998, her supervisor "did not consider the paper publishable" in an internal report given to top intelligence officials. He broke the topic down into four separate papers assigned to four other analysts and it took more than two years for two of the four papers to be published. The remaining two papers were not completed until after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the staff report.

Former CIA officials, including a past chief of the Counter Terrorism Center, downplayed the threat from al-Qaida before the attacks. One even attributed it to "overheated rhetoric," according to the report.

"Before the attack, we found uncertainty among senior officials about whether this was just a new and especially venomous version of the ordinary terrorist threat America has lived with for decades, or was radically new, posing a threat beyond any yet experienced."

Tenet took issue with the staff report's conclusion that it didn't take al-Qaida seriously enough.

"That's flat wrong," Tenet said.

The CIA's plan to derail al-Qaida has been in existence since 1999, Tenet said. It included developing intelligence sources inside Afghanistan. Between 1999 and 2001, the agency's human agent base against al-Qaida grew by over 50 percent. The agency used over 70 sources and subsources, 25 of whom operated inside Afghanistan. It moved its spy satellite over the country to increase coverage of bin Laden's terror training camps.

The staff report suggested the intelligence community was unprepared for a surprise attack like the one orchestrated by al-Qaida.

For example, there was no evident analysis within the intelligence community about the danger of using boats to bomb a tanker before the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000. The staff report noted that expertise about such a surprise attack existed within the community at the Office of Naval Intelligence.

And some of the threat reports pouring in warned about the use of aircraft before the Sept. 11 attacks, the report stated.

"The most prominent hijacking threat report came from a foreign government source in late 1998 and discussed a plan for hijacking a plane in order to gain hostages and bargain for the release of prisoners such as the "Blind Sheikh," it said.

Other threat reports, according to the staff report, mentioned the possibility of using an aircraft laden with explosives to attack a U.S. city. That report was circulated in September 1998, but neither the source's reliability nor the information could be corroborated.

Despite an Algerian group's attempt to fly an airliner into the Eiffel Tower and a terrorists linked to Ramzi Yousef plotting to fly a plane into CIA headquarters in Virginia, the staff report found that the Counter Terrorism Center did not analyze how a hijacked aircraft or other explosives-laden aircraft might be used as weapon.

"If it had done so, it could have identified that a critical obstacle would be to find a suicide terrorist able to fly large jet aircraft," the report stated. "This had never happened before 9/11."

As the commissioners heard testimony, an aide for the Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, passed out a statement from him calling for Commissioner Jamie S. Gorelick to resign because of a memo she authored in 1995 when she was the deputy attorney general.

The memo, released on Tuesday by Attorney General John Ashcroft, urges law enforcement agents to keep a wall between intelligence operations and criminal investigations. Ashcroft said the memo showed that the wall was the policy of the Clinton administration and it undermined the department's ability to detect the impending al-Qaida attacks.

"Ms. Gorelick has an inherent conflict of interest as the author of this memo and as a government official at the center of the events in question," Sensenbrenner said.

Several commissioners rejected Sensenbrenner's call for Gorelick to step down.

"People ought to stay out of our business," said Kean, former Republican governor of New Jersey.

Commissioner Slade Gorton, a Republican senator from Washington for 18 years, said Gorelick's experience was an asset to the commission and that she had acted properly throughout her tenure on the 10-member panel.