The U.S. Congress launched two separate inquiries yesterday into alleged intelligence failures leading up to the 11 September attacks in the U.S. Their investigations begin after a series of dramatic disclosures blaming the CIA and FBI for not sharing key information that some believe could have prevented or at least limited the damage from the attacks.
Washington, 5 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Who knew what when? And why was nothing done about it?
Those were some of the main questions addressed on 4 June when the intelligence committees of the U.S. Congress convened closed-door hearings into a dramatic string of alleged intelligence failures that marked the days prior to the 11 September terrorist attacks on America that killed more than 3,000 people.
The confidential hearings by the Senate and House committees were launched after recent U.S. media reports alleging that in the months prior to the attacks, both the CIA and FBI had vital information that could have provided key clues to the impending tragedy -- but failed to share it with other government agencies or to properly act upon it.
The revelations have put the administration of President George W. Bush on the defensive and generated finger-pointing between the CIA, the key U.S. spy agency, and the country's leading law-enforcement body, the FBI.
For the first time yesterday, Bush acknowledged the agencies made a mistake in not sharing vital information before the attacks. But Bush says those kinds of errors will not happen again after recent reforms to focus both agencies on counterterrorism:
"In terms of whether or not the FBI and the CIA were communicating properly, I think it is clear that they weren't and that now we've addressed that issue. And the CIA and FBI are now in close communication; there's better sharing of intelligence."
This week, citing anonymous CIA sources, the weekly magazine "Newsweek" reported that 18 months before 11 September, the spy agency successfully tracked two of the 19 men believed to have hijacked the four U.S. jetliners used in the attacks.
The magazine reports that the CIA had spied on two Saudi nationals while they attended an Al-Qaeda "conference" in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur in January 2000 and re-entered the U.S. to attend flight school before eventually flying an American Airlines jet into the Pentagon last fall.
According to the story, the FBI believes it could have unraveled the 11 September plot if only the CIA had shared its information with itself and other government agencies, such as the State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which runs U.S. customs and guards the borders.
However, the CIA said on 3 June that it did share with the FBI information about at least one of the two men in early 2000. The FBI has declined further comment.
Last week, "Time" magazine reported that in the weeks before 11 September, the FBI leadership was itself responsible for a major mistake: failing to listen to its own field agents in the state of Minnesota who were probing the case of Zacarias Moussaoui.
In a letter sent last month to FBI Director Robert Mueller, one of the field agents says FBI leaders systemically dismissed and undermined requests to wiretap or search the computer hard drive and belongings of Moussaoui, a French-Moroccan who also attended flight schools and may have been part of the 11 September plot but was arrested just days before the attacks.
The letter's author, FBI lawyer Coleen Riley, says she believes that her office might have been able to "limit" the damage done on 11 September if agents had been able to obtain more information from Moussaoui.
Several U.S. lawmakers have called for purging the CIA and FBI leadership for their failures. "Information will come out, some public -- showing that there were massive intelligence failures," Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Republican, said shortly before yesterday's hearings began.
The hearings are expected to open up briefly to the public this month, when both Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet are expected to testify.
Bush has so far resisted calls to fire Mueller or Tenet, saying that both men did all they could and that both agencies are now on the proper footing following key reforms to focus on preventing terrorism.
But Michael O'Hanlon disagrees. A senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, O'Hanlon says despite all the White House rhetoric about homeland defense and the war on terrorism, the CIA and FBI still have a long way to go before they are truly reformed:
"The substantive things you need to do to redress the problems is one thing; the idea that there's been some egregious dereliction of duty is another. I think the reform will continue -- there will be a lot more that has to be done there. But I think it will be done in a fairly businesslike way, not as a matter of major political crisis."
O'Hanlon also says he believes that Bush's high popularity ratings will not be overly affected by the intelligence failures.
As the congressional intelligence hearings were set to begin yesterday, Bush again defended the agencies. And he repeated his concern that Congress not compromise key intelligence data during its inquiries, which will involve expert interviews throughout the year and culminate in a report in early 2003:
"What I am concerned about is tying up valuable assets and time, and possibly jeopardizing sources of intelligence. And that's why it is very important that the Congress do investigate, but they do so in a way that doesn't jeopardize our intelligence-gathering capacity."
Bush also said that regardless of what the CIA or FBI knew or didn't know about 11 September, it would never have been enough to prevent the worst attacks on U.S. soil from taking place.