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Battle Over Independent Sept. 11 Probe Keeps Intelligence Authorization in Limbo
By Niels C. Sorrells, CQ Staff
October 19, 2002

As one investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks winds down, efforts to start another probe remain stalled, leaving the fiscal 2003 intelligence authorization bill - and relations between Congress and the intelligence community - in jeopardy.

Sally Regenhard demonstrates outside the White House Oct. 15 for an independent probe into the Sept. 11 attacks. (CQ PHOTO / SCOTT J. FERRELL)

Negotiations to create an independent probe into the attacks have now been handed off from lawmakers to family members of Sept. 11 victims, who spent most of the week talking with White House officials to reach some kind of agreement. Family members say talks remain stuck on two points: whether the probe will have subpoena powers and whether it will be headed by a presidentially appointed chairman or by co-chairmen appointed by both parties. "The heart and soul of an independent commission is the composition and subpoena powers," said Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., who has worked closely with the family members. "That's what we're down to."

The administration's refusal to sign off on a commission that would include co-chairmen and full subpoena powers - conditions that most legislators have agreed to - has started to breed ill will between Congress and the White House. Members of a House and Senate inquiry into the attacks, which had its last hearing Oct. 17 before beginning work on a report to be issued early next year, have complained for months that the administration has not cooperated with the investigation. Those same members said that foot-dragging slowed the probe and will necessitate the independent inquiry the White House opposes. "The American people need to know we have been limited by time and by scope," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, during the Oct. 17 hearing. Shelby is the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "The American people must know the full story has yet to be told.

Moving Target
But it is unclear whether the differences that block the independent probe can be removed, thereby opening the way for passage of the intelligence authorization bill. Legislators thought they had reached a deal acceptable to the White House on Oct. 10, when they agreed to earlier administration demands that any probe would limit its investigation into post-Sept. 11 operations. Lawmakers also agreed that extra safeguards would be required to protect information about sources and methods employed by intelligence agencies. Stephen Push, representing the group Families of September 11, said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter J. Goss, R-Fla., backed out of the deal after a phone call from Vice President Dick Cheney, urging him to keep negotiating on the questions of subpoenas and chairmanships. Goss effectively dropped out of the negotiations last week, clearing the way for the direct negotiations between the White House and the families. Also unclear is whether the newest White House demands are a stalling tactic or legitimate complaints. "Every time we've met with them, they've raised new concerns," said Robin Wiener, also with Families of September 11. "Despite everything they say, they don't want a commission." But other family members say it is only a matter of time before the administration signs on to an independent probe. Both chambers have voted for the investigation and would likely adopt an intelligence authorization conference report that contained a commission. It is unlikely the administration would veto legislation to block an investigation into the attacks, these family members maintain.

But the administration has had a history of trying to protect presidential prerogatives to keep some information sealed, which fits with its reluctance to give a commission full subpoena powers. Additionally, there are concerns that a probe could be used for political gains, which is why the White House would like to appoint the chairman. Supporters of the probe say the White House plan would just make the investigation a tool of the administration. They say their plan for co-chairmen - one named by Bush and the other named by congressional Democrats - would ensure that no party dominated the investigation or could use it to score political points. Until the details are worked out, the fiscal 2003 intelligence authorization bill (HR 4628) remains in limbo. Lawmakers say the bill is ready to go to a quick conference, if they can just reach an agreement on the commission. "Those powers should have been decided months ago," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif. "That bill should be law.

Setting the Tone
Theoretically, if there is a breakthrough in the next few weeks, lawmakers could return, hold a quick conference on the bill and have a report ready for final votes in the House and Senate when Congress reconvenes in November for a lame-duck session. But if any meetings are held in the interim, it is far more likely lawmakers would work on the final report generated by the Intelligence committees' joint inquiry. Appearances by CIA Director George J. Tenet, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and National Security Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden at an Oct. 17 hearing set the tone for that final report. Led by Tenet, the three testified that they had implemented many changes after Sept. 11, including greater information-sharing programs, investments in technology and employment of new linguists, to reduce the possibility of another successful terror attack on U.S. soil. Many of those changes were based on proposals in the fiscal 2002 intelligence authorization bill (HR 2883 - PL 107-108) and in a report released over the summer by the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security. Those changes already have prevented some planned attacks, Tenet said. "In the last year, we have gone on high alert several times for good reason, only to have no attack occur," he said. "We all breathed a sigh of relief and thought, `Maybe it was a false alarm.' It wasn't." He went on to note that, while there were missteps in the government's handling of information that might have been used to stop the Sept. 11 attacks, other successful operations have gone unnoticed. For example, he said years of intelligence operations in Afghanistan cleared the way for quick and successful operations in that nation once U.S. forces were sent there to invade. But not all lawmakers were in the mood to hear Tenet's self-congratulation. "It seems no one is responsible," said Shelby, noting that neither the CIA nor the FBI have forced any resignations or fired anyone over the missed clues leading up to the attacks. "No one is accountable," Shelby continued. "In other words, it's no one's responsibility. That's very troubling." Tenet responded that now - while the United States is engaged in a war on terrorism - is not the time to shift officials around. But Shelby blocked that argument, noting that numerous military officers were pulled from duty during World War II when they failed to score victories. The key, Shelby said, is accountability. "I think you ought to go back and look at the real meaning of the word," he told Tenet.

Tense from the Outset
A tense, confrontational atmosphere pervaded the hearing from the outset. Even basic issues, such as the format of witnesses' testimony, turned contentious. As the hearing began, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla., asked the witnesses to limit their testimony to 10 minutes each. Tenet promptly said he would need longer than that. Graham stopped him at 10 minutes, then again at about 20 minutes into his testimony. With each reminder, Tenet insisted he needed more time. "I just have to say, I've been waiting about a year [to give this testimony]," Tenet said. Graham paused for a moment to consider Tenet's request and several lawmakers jumped in to say they wanted to hear the complete statement. Tenet ended up speaking for nearly an hour. The CIA chief said the agency had been aware of al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden for years and had done its best to track the group's activities. But he noted that CIA budgets had been slashed during the 1990s and that the agency was busily trying to track the actions of four different groups, unsure of which to give its highest priority. Tenet said he had begun making requests for enhanced CIA funding as early as 1998 - the same year he declared a de facto war on al Qaeda. He would not speculate why the Clinton administration never gave him the increases he sought in the classified budget. The nation's spymaster urged lawmakers not to make the same mistake. "I think this is an endeavor where if you don't make the needed investments, you don't get the performance you need," he said. He added that any delay in bulking up intelligence operations leaves the United States vulnerable to future terror attacks. He said the danger of new terror attacks in the United States is as high today as before Sept. 11. "We need to be honest about the fact that our homeland is very difficult to protect," he said.

The Need to Share
But Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the problems were not limited to funding issues. He noted a litany of information that had not been shared between the FBI and CIA. He also lambasted Mueller when the FBI director did not know the status of an investigation into 10 possible terrorists named in the notorious "Phoenix memo," which posited in July 2001 that al Qaeda was sending terrorists into the United States to take flight training in hopes of using airplanes as weapons of terror. Levin expressed his dismay that Mueller has yet to publicly release the memo, saying this was endemic of problems that linger in the intelligence community. "If we're going to change the way things work around here, we're going to need to be more open," said Levin. The committees' conclusions, along with the testimony of Tenet and Mueller, will be considered together in the coming weeks as the two panels write their final report. Unless an independent inquiry is formed, it may be the final word on the Sept. 11 attacks.


Source: CQ Weekly
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Sally Regenhard,

P. O. Box 70
Woodlawn Station
Bronx, NY 10470

Monica Gabrielle,

P. O. Box 70
Woodlawn Station
Bronx, NY 10470