Are seared in reports to 9/11 panel

CIA, FBI

Clues and opportunities to block attacks missed, commission's staff says

April 15, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence agencies, blinded by bureaucratic inertia, money shortages and the lack of an overarching strategy, repeatedly missed warning signs of the al-Qaida threat before Sept. 11 and were unprepared to counter it, the staff of the Sept. 11 commission said in a report yesterday.

The report, one of two blistering assessments released yesterday, found that the CIA under George J. Tenet failed to share pertinent information with other agencies and created a culture averse to "admitting errors and improving procedures."

The staff report noted that Tenet and other CIA officials received a briefing in August 2001 on the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui that was titled, "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly" but failed to follow up on it.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions about the 9/11 commission that mentioned a report linking al-Qaida to a 1995 terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia incorrectly said that a U.S. Marine barracks was struck. It was a U.S. military building but not a Marine barracks. The Sun regrets the error.

Calling the report a "damning evaluation of a system that is broken," one commission member, John F. Lehman, a Republican former Navy secretary, told Tenet that his agency suffers from a "smugness and even arrogance toward deep reform."

When Tenet, in his testimony, projected it would take the CIA five more years to build a clandestine service of operatives - human intelligence - to meet America's needs, panel Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a Republican former governor, said, "I wonder whether we have five years."

Some commission members say they were considering proposing structural changes that could include making the CIA director responsible only for his own agency and no longer for the other intelligence units in the federal bureaucracy.

The CIA was not the only agency to come under fire yesterday. The panel concluded two days of hearings with more searing criticism of the FBI. A second staff report asserted that the FBI is still unable to deal properly with terrorist threats, 2 1/2 years after the 9/11 attacks.

Despite often heated questioning, several commissioners praised Tenet and another official who testified yesterday, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, for their efforts to reform their agencies and for their cooperation with the panel.

Still, commissioners pointedly asked how the two agencies had veered so far afield in the years before the terrorist attacks.

Mueller fended off suggestions by some commissioners that counterterrorism should be pulled from the bureau's duties and handed over to a new domestic intelligence agency.

To do so, Mueller warned, would ill-serve the country and the bureau, which he said remains widely regarded as the premier law enforcement agency in the world. He disputed the report's assessment - which found "a gap between the announced reforms at the FBI headquarters and the reality in the field" - and said the bureau has embraced transformation.

"I think it would be a tremendous mistake," Mueller said, "to give short shrift to what has been accumulated by the FBI over the years - the expertise, the professionalism ... our capabilities post-event."

"I would freely admit there were things that should have been done better," he continued. But "I think we can and are fixing what's wrong with the FBI."

Yesterday's reports pointed out opportunities missed by both agencies to stop al-Qaida or discover the terrorist plot.

The staff report noted that the CIA amassed voluminous intelligence on al-Qaida that produced reports disseminated through the federal bureaucracy. Two such reports were titled, "Bin Laden Threatening to Attack U.S. Aircraft (with anti-aircraft missiles)" (1998) and "Bin Laden's Interest in Biological and Radiological Weapons" (early 2001).

But the staff report said the CIA failed to meld such piecemeal intelligence into a comprehensive summary of al-Qaida's terrorist activity. Only belatedly, it said, did the agency recognize al-Qaida as a highly organized, well-funded international network with a powerful figure, Osama bin Laden, as its leader.

The report found that CIA agents did not begin to seriously analyze al-Qaida, which was formed in 1988, until 1999.

Before 9/11, it said, senior intelligence officials were not sure whether al-Qaida "was just a new and especially venomous version of the ordinary terrorist threat America had lived with for decades, or was radically new, posing a threat beyond any yet experienced."

Still, the report credited Tenet with trying to focus attention within intelligence agencies on the gathering threat of terrorism. After two U.S. embassies in Africa were bombed in 1998, Tenet issued a memo saying:

"We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside the CIA or the [rest of the intelligence] community."

"Unfortunately," the staff report said, "we found the memorandum had little overall effect on mobilizing the CIA or the intelligence community."

The agency failed to detect a pattern in reports that pointed to attacks using aircraft, including from September 1998, when a "source" of unknown reliability walked into an American consulate and spoke of a "possible plot to fly an explosives-laden plane into a U.S. city."

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