Congressional intelligence committee members were hearing from staff rather than witnesses Wednesday one day after the nation's cybersecurity chief revealed that fear of criticism was a real barrier to effectiveness in government counter-terrorism circles.
Richard A. Clarke testified Tuesday as Democratic lawmakers rallied about 100 family members of Sept. 11 victims to demand an independent commission to investigate intelligence failures.
Democratic Sens. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Hillary Clinton of New York, John Corzine and Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, as well as Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt claimed the American people were wronged by the federal government, which failed to stop the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last year.
"The government of the United States, in ways we don't still fully understand, let our people down," Torricelli told the crowd, urging creation of an independent commission. Sens. Lieberman and John McCain, R-Ariz., have suggested the formation of a 14-member commission to investigate the security lapse.
Roemer has proposed a 10-member panel, and Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., who chaired a hearing into a Cabinet-level homeland security department, wants President Bush to appoint a nonpartisan presidential commission.
The White House argues that the House-Senate joint panel created to investigate intelligence bungling is sufficient to delve into security issues.
As the partisan rankling proceeded outdoors, Clarke, who most recently served as coordinator of anti-terrorism efforts under President Clinton, faced five hours of questioning in the closed-door inquiry that was expected to touch on unsuccessful efforts not only to stop Usama bin Laden in 1996, but also to take him out militarily in 2000.
That military strike never happened.
While the committee has been extremely tight-lipped about what it has learned — not even providing the names of witnesses — members say they want to know what "alarms were going off" among key intelligence and counter-terror experts.
"The (staff) briefings tell us roughly what kinds of warnings and alarms were going off," Roemer said. "The individual witnesses tell us what they did with it or what they didn't do with it."
Clarke is in a position to know where the intelligence fault lines lie. He has worked in the Defense and State departments and at the National Security Council. Under President Reagan, he was deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence. He was also an assistant secretary of state in the first Bush administration.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., ranking member of the Senate intelligence panel said Clarke confirmed that a "risk-aversion problem which is deep in the CIA, the FBI and probably everywhere else" paralyzed "people from doing things that they naturally would do."
Shelby said Clarke revealed that agencies feared criticism from Congress or "being left on the limb by an administration as they move on."
Part of that problem stemmed from a concern by agents that if they take risks and those risks fail "they get accused of racial profiling or violating someone's civil liberties and they're denied a promotion," added Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala.
Everett, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Congress has to support agents even if their efforts aren't always 100 percent successful.
"In high-stakes, risk-taking situations these agents could face in the future, they have to have the right to fail," he said.
Clarke should know. In the first Bush administration, Clarke emerged from allegations that he and the State Department had allowed Israel to transfer U.S. military technology to China.
In 1993, Clarke supported the use of military force against a Somalian warlord, and the resulting action ended with U.S. deaths and the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops.
In 1996, the Sudanese government made an offer to the U.S. government to arrest bin Laden and place him in Saudi custody. At the time, the United States lacked a case to indict bin Laden and the Saudis were not interested in taking him. Instead, Sudan expelled bin Laden to Afghanistan.
Clarke was also involved in the president's secret 1998 directive authorizing U.S. action to capture or disrupt bin Laden and his terrorist network. Several unsuccessful attempts followed.
In the waning weeks of the Clinton administration, the president's advisers debated whether to strike at bin Laden militarily after receiving intelligence on his whereabouts. The plan was rejected over fears that the information was stale and could result in a miss or civilian casualties.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.