U.S. spy agencies to face fresh round of criticism

9/11 panel's final report details findings this week

July 19, 2004|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Still reeling from a damning report on intelligence failures in Iraq, the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies face another round of intense criticism this week with the scheduled release of the final report by the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

The 500-plus page document is expected to include a lengthy, detailed narrative that contrasts the emerging threat of al-Qaida with the often-futile attempts by the U.S. intelligence community to confront it.

There will be extensive new information that goes beyond the preliminary findings disclosed in a series of staff reports issued this year, commission members said, along with the panel's conclusions and recommendations.

"I think we have done a credible job of providing the public with a very detailed exposition on a wide variety of subjects," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor and a Democratic member of the commission.

One of the recommendations likely to be included is the creation of a Cabinet-level intelligence director who would oversee all 15 U.S. spy agencies, including the CIA.

The commission also is expected to provide new details on al-Qaida's ties to Iran, as well as the text of a high-level briefing President Bill Clinton received in December 1998 from the CIA on al-Qaida's intentions to hijack U.S. aircraft, according to a U.S. official who has seen portions of the commission's report.

The intelligence document warned that al-Qaida was considering hijacking aircraft in an effort to free Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman -- an Egyptian cleric imprisoned in the United States after being convicted of conspiring to bomb New York landmarks. The official said it was "one of many reports" senior policy-makers received on al-Qaida plots throughout the late 1990s and leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

`Taking some heat'

Yesterday, acting agency director John McLaughlin reiterated his opposition to the Cabinet-level intelligence director position.

"It doesn't relate particularly to the world I live in," he said. "I see the director of central intelligence as someone who is able to do that and is empowered to do so under the National Security Act of 1947."

On Friday at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., McLaughlin delivered a speech to employees warning that fresh criticism was coming with the release of the panel report and urging them to keep their "heads held high."

"As an agency and a community, we are taking some heat right now," McLaughlin said, according to a transcript released by the CIA. "And there will be more." He went on to say that while "some criticism is justified, much is not," adding that the agency will "correct the record when critics go too far."

Mixing notes of defiance and contrition, McLaughlin's remarks are part of a public relations campaign he has launched to shore up morale at an agency whose reputation has been eroded by scrutiny in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Last year, a joint congressional inquiry concluded that the CIA had failed to place on a "watch list" two known al-Qaida operatives who had entered the United States.

This month, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report saying that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was based on claims that "either overstated or were not supported by" the underlying intelligence on Iraq's alleged biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs.

Sharing the blame

But commission officials have made it clear that other agencies and branches of government will share the blame. In its 18-month inquiry, the commission has questioned whether the FBI is capable of serving as the nation's domestic intelligence service and turned up information that suggests the Bush administration didn't consider counterterrorism a top priority during its first 10 months.

Under pressure from the commission, the White House released a high-level intelligence briefing that President Bush received a month before the attacks, warning that bin Laden was determined to strike targets in the United States. The panel found little evidence of follow-up by Bush or his senior aides.

Because of the nature of its mission and the timing of its inquiry, political forces have swirled around the commission since its inception. Bush initially opposed creation of the panel, and commission members have complained that they encountered hurdles from the White House, including difficulty obtaining relevant documents and securing an agreement from Bush to submit to questioning.

The panel is planning to issue its report Thursday, before the July 26 deadline, to avoid overlapping with the Democratic National Convention.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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