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Shelby's doubts drove inquiry

The joint House-Senate investigation of intelligence failures wasn't the rubber stamp many feared, thanks to the Alabama Republican.

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002


WASHINGTON -- Sen. Richard Shelby's public persona is the courtly Alabaman, polite and soft-spoken. In reality, though, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee is one of the Capitol's premier hardball players.

These qualities have sometimes gotten Shelby embroiled in petty Washington feuds. But more recently, they seem to explain how a joint House-Senate inquiry into pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures became a widely praised success, not the timid examination many had originally expected.

At key junctures in the inquiry's history, Shelby pushed for more money, more staff and a more skeptical approach to the nation's intelligence agencies than the two Floridians leading the joint panel -- Sen. Bob Graham and Rep. Porter Goss -- were inclined at first to take.

The result was a surprisingly aggressive investigation that has shaken up the clubby intelligence community, said Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia professor who worked on congressional investigations of intelligence abuses in the 1970s.

"Unlike Porter Goss, Shelby's been unwilling to be simply a cheerleader for the CIA," Johnson said, referring to the Sanibel Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

As for Graham, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the inquiry under Shelby's influence "has taught him a few things, I would say," Johnson said. "I think it's been an eye-opener for him."

At 68, Shelby has waited a long time for such respect. In the 1990s, the then-Democrat was known for his often-humorous feud with the White House over the Alabaman's opposition to President Bill Clinton's 1993 federal budget plan.

"The taxman cometh," Shelby said of the plan's tax increases. Infuriated at their fellow Democrat, Clinton aides retaliated by ordering a transfer of 90 federal jobs out of Alabama and allotting Shelby only one ticket for a coveted White House event honoring the University of Alabama football team.

The feud ended when Shelby, a conservative Democrat increasingly at odds with his party, defected to the GOP in 1994.

A former trial lawyer from Tuscaloosa and son of a steelworker, the back-slapping Shelby is a much different person from the wonkish Graham.

Yet the two have worked closely together on the Intelligence Committee, with Shelby leading the panel from 1997 until he handed the reins to Graham in June 2001 when Democrats took control of the chamber.

Both senators say they work well together. Certainly, though, the relationship got off on the wrong foot in 1987, when both entered the Senate.

Graham had received permission from the Senate Rules Committee to move into the spacious Capitol Hill office suite of Florida Sen. Paula Hawkins, the Republican Graham had defeated in the 1986 election.

But Shelby asserted the seniority he had earned by previously serving in the U.S. House and swiped the choice offices from Graham.

"I was somewhat upset by that, but it was like, "Welcome to the United States Senate,' " Graham said.

Such disputes flared up between the senators on the intelligence panel as well. In early 2001, Shelby -- then the chairman -- fired one of Graham's aides in a clash over staffing issues.

On policy, too, Graham and Shelby differed. The more cautious Graham became identified with preserving the status quo in the intelligence community, while Shelby criticized the spy agencies for not shifting quickly enough from a Cold War mentality to addressing Islamic terrorism.

In 1998, Shelby said he was shocked to learn the CIA had no advance warning that India was resuming nuclear weapons testing. His confidence was further shaken when al-Qaida bombed American embassies in Africa, taking 240 lives.

"But even before then, I had a lot of doubts about things. Like Khobar Towers in 1996. All of our soldiers were killed without warning by a terrorist attack. Or if there was a warning, we missed it," Shelby said, referring to the truck bombing of an apartment complex in Saudi Arabia in which 19 U.S. servicemen died.

When Osama bin Laden's terrorist network killed more than 3,000 people in the United States last year, Shelby immediately blamed the intelligence community for a massive failure.

In the House, Goss, a former CIA officer, insisted the intelligence agencies were not at fault. "Incredible," Shelby said of the Florida congressman's views. "Inappropriate," Goss complained of the Alabaman's criticism.

In the months after the attacks, congressional leaders began discussing what, if any, investigation Congress should make.

People familiar with the discussions said Goss at first opposed a public inquiry. In an interview, Goss denied it. "There was never any question we were going to try to figure out what happened," he said.

Graham, meanwhile, was pushing a joint inquiry conducted by the House and Senate intelligence panels, a move that would block other congressional committees from getting involved.

Goss came to support this idea as a means of averting an independent commission, an idea pushed by surviving Sept. 11 family members, people familiar with the discussions said.

Still, Graham and Goss initially talked about a small inquiry with a staff of about five that would last only a few months, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.

"I honestly don't remember that. If somebody else remembers that, that's fine," Goss said. Graham said there was never discussion of such a limited inquiry.

But Shelby said he threatened to publicly denounce the inquiry as a sham and throw his support behind an outside commission if Graham and Goss did not agree to expand the inquiry.

"I said I didn't want a whitewash job. I wanted the inquiry to be done right," Shelby said. "And if we weren't going to put the proper staff together and ask for the requisite amount of time and money, I didn't want to have anything to do with it."

Eventually, Shelby, Graham, Goss and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., House Intelligence Committee ranking member, agreed on a one-year, $2.6-million joint inquiry.

The next problem was getting someone to run it. Shelby thought he had the perfect choice: former Department of Defense Inspector Eleanor Hill.

Hill was not only a Democrat who had come highly recommended by her former boss, ex-Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., but she was a Florida native and former Tampa federal prosecutor.

Shelby said he thought this background would make Hill especially appealing to the Floridians.

But when Shelby put forth her name, he found out that Graham and Goss had hired someone.

As former special counsel to Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet, L. Britt Snider had been a close associate of the very man the joint panel was investigating.

"I questioned whether Snider would be independent enough to conduct an open, unbiased and hard-hitting inquiry," Shelby said. "But I went along in a spirit of bipartisanship."

An anonymous caller, though, soon tipped a Shelby aide off to the fact that Snider had hired a staffer for the inquiry who had failed a CIA polygraph examination.

Bam! Shelby had the ammunition to oust Snider. The Floridians quickly hired Hill, who proceeded to release a series of devastating staff reports that helped churn public opinion in favor of intelligence reform.

Among the revelations were that Tenet had declared "war" on Osama bin Laden in 1998, but this sense of urgency was never communicated to other federal agencies or the American public.

The inquiry also found the CIA did not effectively exploit repeated intelligence reports predicting that bin Laden was planning attacks on U.S. soil, possibly using airplanes as weapons.

The joint panel held its last public hearing Oct. 17 and will issue a final report by February.

The inquiry's final chapter is far from over, though. With Graham having moved closer toShelby's view that the intelligence agencies need shaking up, both have publicly called for an outside commission to continue investigating.

But when Graham, Shelby and others held a news conference Oct. 10 to announce they had an agreement on legislation to create a commission, Goss outflanked them.

He not only didn't show up at the news conference, as the others thought he would, but he later announced he had not agreed to the deal.

Goss said the other lawmakers, feeling rushed by the imminent congressional adjournment, held the news conference before the matter was settled. Goss said negotiations will continue when Congress meets in November for a lame-duck session.

Goss denied that Vice President Dick Cheney, with whom Goss said he speaks "fairly often" about national security matters, asked him to kill the commission.

But Shelby, long the skeptic, has his doubts. "Obviously, he was getting pressure from somewhere."

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