WASHINGTON – As Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge testified on the need to coordinate homeland security offices into one Cabinet-level department, the top four members of the joint congressional committee investigating pre-Sept. 11 intelligence lapses wrote the attorney general asking for a probe of leaks from their own committee.
"There has been a report that has reached the highest levels of the White House that has said that congressional sources may have been involved in a leak of information," said Rep. Porter Goss, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "The four principles have signed a letter to the attorney general asking for an investigation of those leaks."
The move, admits Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham, was prompted by a phone call from Vice President Dick Cheney at the president's request to complain that such leaks undermine national security
"The vice president was not a happy man," Graham said.
The offending leak came Wednesday when, citing congressional sources, CNN reported the actual phrases the National Security Agency intercepted on Sept. 10 but failed to translate until a day after the attacks.
Fox News and others also reported the same information. But a week earlier, Fox News broke the story that NSA had intercepted two calls from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia the day before the attacks. At the request of sources who said it was a matter of national security, Fox did not report the actual words.
"If our enemies know with great specificity that we have means of obtaining things that they say, and all of a sudden they find out that something they say with specificity is known by our government, they are going to change their methods," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Meanwhile, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, officially testifying for the first and second time before Congress Thursday, told Senate and House committees that the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security would be an "historic step" by Congress.
"I am here to ask, as the president did, that we move quickly. The need is urgent," Ridge told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. "It is crucial that we take this historic step."
The Bush administration wants to combine 22 federal agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, and the Customs Service, into one department. The CIA and the FBI would remain separate but would provide intelligence to the new department so it could for the first time analyze all the information at once, Ridge said.
"You get the information, you analyze it. For the first time, it would all be integrated in one place. You map that information against potential vulnerabilities and if it calls for action then the federal government directs the action that must be taken. We've never done that before," Ridge said.
The proposal has the support of lawmakers on both side of the aisle, although many questions arose during Thursday's hearing asking how the agency would get a hold of information it doesn't know that it doesn't have, particularly because the CIA and FBI are notorious for not sharing information.
"There's no accountability here. If the FBI doesn't share the information with you, you don't know about it. If the CIA doesn't share the information with the FBI, the FBI doesn't know about it," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. "Where is all the relevant information properly gathered about threats going to be coordinated?"
Testifying at the House Government Reform Committee, Ridge heard similar concerns.
"If the FBI and CIA were loathe to communicate before 9-11 and are now casting blame at one another as we investigate 9-11, what makes anyone think they will communicate with a new untested agency or state and local first-responder?" asked Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass.
But despite concerns, senators, even those who in principle oppose expanding the federal government, said that the need for a federal office is urgent.
"As a former governor and mayor, I didn't believe Congress should force a management structure on an administration without its input and agreement, and the administration did not initially favor the creation of a Cabinet-level department. The president's new proposal follows months of analysis and Congress should now work closely with the president to expedite the creation and operation of the new agency," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio.
Congress' sorting out the people, processes and technology to be included in a new agency will likely entail a lot of backroom negotiating, but Senate Government Affairs Committee chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said the Senate is committed to bringing a bill to the floor by mid-July. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has said floor debate in the House is planned for the week of July 21.
"This isn't about rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. It's about building a stronger ship of state," Lieberman said. "Slowly but surely won't do it in this case. We must proceed swiftly but surely."
Lieberman already proposed a bill that cleared his committee in May, which could be used as a negotiating tool along with the president's plan provided to Congress by Ridge on Tuesday.
The administration originally opposed the Lieberman bill, and Ridge had refused to testify before Congress, citing his role as a confidential presidential adviser. The president has said he wants a new Cabinet-level department up and running by Jan. 1, 2003.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and the Associated Press contributed to this report.