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Skyscraper Safety Campaign Demonstrates at White House
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
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.
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.
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Source: CQ Weekly
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