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Intelligence overhaul necessary, panel says

But the administration is preventing release of the most compelling details, according to committee members.

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 12, 2002


WASHINGTON -- The congressional committee on Sept. 11 released its final report Wednesday, portraying intelligence agencies badly in need of overhaul to prevent future terrorism.

Unfortunately, the committee members said, some of the most illuminating information about why the overhaul is needed must remain secret.

That's because the Bush administration, citing national security, declined to declassify much of the information uncovered during the 10-month, $2.6-million investigation, inquiry leaders said.

They urged the administration to open more of the record to the public.

"I hope that as soon as possible that a lot of the findings can be declassified," said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Senate Republican on the panel. "I know some of them should have been from the beginning."

Sen. Bob Graham , co-chairman of the inquiry, said the committee's investigators were negotiating with intelligence agencies as late as Tuesday night about what findings the panel could release publicly.

The nine pages of findings that were released reiterated what the inquiry had already revealed in several weeks of public hearings this fall: the CIA missed important clues to the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI bungled the Zacarias Moussaoui investigation and both failed to share key information because of turf battles.

But the findings also contained new information, including:

Khalid Almihdhar, a hijacker who slipped into the the United States despite being on a CIA watch list, contacted a suspected terrorist organization in the Middle East while living in San Diego. Intelligence agencies were aware of the call but did not understand its significance.

The intelligence community failed to recognize the significance of information in June 2002 that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a Kuwaiti who had already been implicated in a plot to blow up airliners, was sending al-Qaida operatives to the United States.

Eventually, the intelligence community recognized Mohammed as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. But his role "came as a surprise," the findings say.

Earlier this fall, the administration had objected to the joint panel identifying Mohammed by name in hearings this fall, even though his role had already been reported in the news media.

Such executive branch objections bedeviled congressional investigators throughout the inquiry. And on Wednesday, Graham hinted that the public has seen only a few tantalizing pieces of the puzzle.

"There are many more findings to be disclosed," the Florida Democrat said.

Shelby added that Americans would find the withheld information "more than interesting."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer did not address the classification disagreement at his briefing Wednesday, and White House spokesman Jeanie Mamo had no immediate comment.

In wrapping up the panel's work Wednesday and issuing recommendations for improving intelligence operations, the inquiry leaders handed the baton to a newly created outside commission tasked with further investigating the government's failures.

The new commission, to be led by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, will look at all relevant areas of government, from aviation to immigration to the State Department's visa-issuing procedures. The congressional panel was limited to examining the intelligence agencies.

"This was important work that was done by the Congress . . . that now will be built upon with the 9/11 Commission," Fleischer said.

However, representatives of watchdog groups expressed concern over Bush's appointment of Kissinger to head the commission. When he served in the Nixon administration, Kissinger helped facilitate a secret bombing campaign against Cambodia and a CIA-supported coup against democratically elected Chilean leader Salvadore Allende.

Kissinger's "entire career is one long record of official secrecy and shielding of executive branch activities," said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.

Aftergood said he believes the Bush administration is withholding information from the panel's report on national security grounds when the true motive may be to avoid political embarrassment.

For example, the inquiry was denied information it sought about Saudi Arabia's role in international terrorism. Perhaps the administration did not want to roil Saudi-American relations as it considers a war against Iraq, Aftergood said.

"But that doesn't go to the question of whether this information is a national security threat or not. It brings a political dimension." Aftergood said.

With Kissinger now in charge of the investigation, "It doesn't look very promising for the release of a lot of the information that has been withheld," he added.

Steven Push, who lost his wife in the attack on the Pentagon, agreed that "information is being withheld from the public without good cause."

A member of the advocacy group Families of Sept. 11., Push said he would have more confidence in Kissinger if the former Nixon official would reveal the names of the clients in his international consulting business, Kissinger Associates Inc.

Kissinger has said only that he would drop a client if representation posed a conflict of interest with his commission duties.

Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, whom the Democrats had picked as vice chairman, announced Wednesday that he was stepping down. He said concerns were raised about potential conflicts of interests and whether he would devote the time necessary to the commission because of his work for his law firm. Mitchell said he couldn't quit the firm because he has a family to support.

Replacing Mitchell will be former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. Democratic leaders Wednesday also appointed four other members to the panel: outgoing Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., outgoing Rep. Timothy Roemer, D-Ind., attorney Richard Ben-Veniste, and Jamie Gorelick, a deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton.

Also, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has appointed former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., to the panel.

In an agreement with the White House, Shelby and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have a say in Lott's remaining appointment to the commission. Shelby and McCain, who advocate a vigorous investigation, want to put independent-minded former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., in the post.

But Push said Lott appears to be blocking Rudman's appointment. Push and other Sept. 11 family members want a Republican in the slot who will give the inquiry teeth.

The issue is important because it will take six votes on the 10-member commission to issue subpoenas, and the family members believe a Rudman is more likely than a White House loyalist to side with the other five Democrats on the commission in disputes over issuing subpoenas.

A spokesman for Lott said earlier this week that the Mississippian is still reviewing his choices.

The joint inquiry was composed of members of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Its House leaders, Republican Porter Goss of Sanibel and Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, left a news conference Wednesday without taking questions.

The panel recommended establishing a new Cabinet-level position, the director of national intelligence, who would coordinate work of the nation's disparate intelligence agencies. It also said Congress should consider taking intelligence duties away from the scandal-ridden FBI and giving them to a new domestic spy agency.

The FBI issued a statement saying it has made "substantial progress" in improving its counterterrorism operations, while a spokeswoman for Attorney General John Ashcroft, Barbara Comstock, issued a statement resisting calls for a new spy agency.

-- Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

Recommendations

A summary of recommendations from the House and Senate intelligence committees' joint inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks.

Create a Cabinet-level director of national intelligence to serve as the president's main adviser on intelligence.

Speed up efforts by the National Security Council to examine and revamp intelligence priorities.

The National Security Council and other agencies should develop a national strategy for fighting terrorism at home and abroad.

The National Intelligence Council, which advises U.S. leaders on emerging threats, should have a national intelligence officer for terrorism.

The new Homeland Security Department's role as a fusion center for intelligence should be strengthened, with the department having access to raw intelligence as needed.

The FBI should strengthen its domestic intelligence capabilities through several steps, including designating counterterrorism priorities, establishing career tracks for agents specializing in counterterrorism and improving analytical capabilities.

Congress and the administration should consider the best way to structure domestic intelligence, including considering whether a new domestic intelligence agency is needed.

The Justice Department should ensure that the FBI and other intelligence agencies are well-trained in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which allows spying on foreigners in the United States suspected of being terrorists.

Congress should review whether FISA needs to be revised.

The National Security Agency should present a report by June 30, 2003, on solving technological problems, such as the intercepting of telephone and radio communications. It should also review the agency's goals.

The director of national intelligence should strengthen efforts to recruit intelligence personnel with special skills, such as linguists.

The president should submit budget recommendations for long-term investment in counterterrorism, instead of relying on emergency spending bills.

The State Department should report on what international agreements are needed for fighting terrorism, including extradition and mutual assistance treaties.

The Kissinger commission that will further investigate the Sept. 11 attacks should examine how Congress' oversight of intelligence agencies may be improved.

The president should review classification policies to make sure relevant information is made available to federal, state and local agencies and the public.

Intelligence agencies should develop measures to ensure accountability and their inspector generals should review the record of the inquiry to determine whether personnel should be accountable for actions related to terrorist attacks, including those of Sept. 11.

The administration should review what progress has been made in reducing barriers among intelligence and law enforcement agencies involved in counterterrorism.

A national watch list should be developed, integrating all terrorist-related watch lists.

The intelligence community should aggressively investigate whether foreign governments are providing support to or are involved in terrorist activity targeting the United States.

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