`We could lose a city tomorrow,' Congress is told

Gingrich, Homeland Security intelligence chief review flaws in communications between federal, local officials during terror threats

October 20, 2005|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- This week's terror alert in Baltimore is only the latest symptom of larger problems with the government's ability to avert future attacks, Congress was told yesterday.

What happened in Baltimore reflects Washington's failure to establish a system to share information among different levels of government and shows a lack of urgency at the national level to avert attacks, according to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"We could lose a city tomorrow," the Georgia Republican told a House intelligence panel. "The Baltimore event of yesterday could have been" a weapon of mass destruction.

Separately, the Homeland Security Department's new intelligence chief acknowledged that better relationships need to be forged between the federal government and local officials around the country. He promised that his department would assess how recent threat alerts in Baltimore and New York City were handled "and come back with a proposal."

Performance report

The testimony comes on the eve of a new report by members of the former 9/11 Commission, who are to issue a report card today on the performance of the nation's intelligence agencies.

A spokesman for the former commissioners said the Baltimore incident raised questions about whether the country is equipped to handle another terrorist strike, more than four years after the Sept. 11 attack.

Richard Ben Veniste, a former 9/11 commissioner, said that communication confusion during the Baltimore and New York threats should serve as a further indication of the need for a better flow of information among different levels of government.

"Information sharing is the key to our recommendations," he said in an interview. "I think the confusion over the New York information indicates, in microcosm, that we still have a long way to go."

At a morning hearing on Capitol Hill, Gingrich said the nation's intelligence system suffers from a lack of urgency and leadership.

"The current intelligence system has to be replaced and not repaired," said Gingrich, who resigned as House speaker in 1998 and is considering a run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

He said the government should start from scratch by deciding what intelligence the government needs to collect- on both Islamic extremist enemies and potential future military threats from countries such as China - and design an intelligence system to meet those needs.

Several members of Congress echoed Gingrich's concerns.

"Baltimore just yesterday could have been the intelligence failure that New Orleans was" had it proved to be true, said Rep. Robert E. "Bud" Cramer, an Alabama Democrat.

Gingrich said that John D. Negroponte, the new national intelligence director, was moving much too slowly. Negroponte is running a "peacetime bureaucracy" and moving at "a pace that makes the bureaucracy feel good about itself," Gingrich said.

Retired Adm. William O. Studeman, a member of the president's commission on Iraq intelligence failures, said Negroponte's office is working overtime but lacks "vision and priorities."

Lackluster actions

Several hours later, a joint Intelligence and Homeland Security panel grilled Charles Allen, the Department of Homeland Security's chief intelligence officer, about what several lawmakers described as the department's lackluster performance.

Homeland Security was not "the kind of player ... it needed to be" in the Baltimore and New York threats, said Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat.

Allen, who spent more than three decades at the CIA, acknowledged that his new department needs "a richer, closer relationship with states and locals."

He said he did not know of any "significant disagreements" between Homeland Security and the FBI during the New York and Baltimore scares. But he agreed to discuss the matter in greater depth in a committee session closed to the public.

Allen said he supported the decisions of the local authorities to issue alerts in New York and Baltimore. Questions about the credibility of the threats left local authorities with little federal guidance about what to do, several members of Congress said.

Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican who chairs the homeland security committee, has criticized statements by officials in Washington that cast doubt on the seriousness of the recent alert in New York. He said those statements had undermined the credibility of local officials who were trying to act on a reported threat to the subway system.

But he said in an interview that Allen had assured him the department would work more closely with local officials in the future. "Charlie Allen is a real pro," King said. "He realizes that the situation has to be improved between Homeland Security and the local governments."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, said he is concerned that there is no system for resolving disputes between agencies over the credibility of a threat. "There has to be one person, one boss, one individual to make that decision," he said.

Allen sidestepped that issue by saying he believed that in "most cases" there would not be "significant disagreement."

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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