WASHINGTON – The findings of a congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks could be shaped by lawmakers who have had little to do with the investigation, if intelligence committees fail to complete their work by the end of the year.
Congressional staff are racing to complete their report so it can be approved before January by the House and Senate intelligence committees conducting the inquiry. But they're unsure they'll meet the deadline.
"We're certainly trying to do that,'' staff director Eleanor Hill said. "Whether it's going to happen, wait and see.''
Regardless of next week's congressional election results, the committees will have new leaders and new members. Some of the new members may have different ideas about why intelligence agencies didn't prevent the attacks and what changes are needed to strengthen the fight against terrorism.
Among those leaving the Senate committee is Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the panel's top Republican and one of the biggest critics of the CIA. The leading Republican on the panel next year will probably be Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., one of the agency's main defenders during the inquiry.
In months of closed and public hearings, inquiry staff and committee leaders have focused on the failure of the CIA, FBI and other agencies to share information with each other and within their own organizations. Hill has suggested that the hijacking plot might have been uncovered if key clues had been connected.
The final report is likely to include recommendations for improving communications and intelligence analysis. Among the proposals lawmakers have heard are a new domestic intelligence agency and a new position overseeing overall intelligence operations.
Inquiry staff hope to complete a draft, classified version of the report, circulate it among the committees' 37 members for comment, and have them vote on it before Congress ends on Jan. 3. An unclassified version would be released later.
If the classified version isn't approved in time, the new Congress' intelligence committees would have final say on the report. "We would have new members who may not have been so familiar with the testimonies,'' Hill said.
A member of the House committee, Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., said he is confident a report will be completed before he leaves the House in January. Even if it isn't, he said, he already helped shape it by participating in hearings and meetings.
But he admits he would be "somewhat disappointed'' and concerned about having a revamped committee consider it.
"It would be cumbersome and uncomfortable and difficult for a brand new team to get up to speed on everything that's gone into the last year's work,'' he said.
Roemer is one of four members of the panel who did not seek re-election. Others will leave after reaching the committees' term limits. Among them are three of the four leaders who have had the greatest control over the inquiry: Shelby, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House Democratic whip.
The fourth, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has reached the term limit, but could ask the House Republican leadership to stay on. He has not said whether he would do so.
Despite the changes, Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia political science professor, said he expects the new committee would respect the work done by Hill and her staff.
"I don't think they'll get involved in the very last minute tampering with the report,'' said Johnson, a former congressional intelligence staffer.
But Charles Tiefer, deputy House counsel from 1984-1995, said the changes in the committees could "disrupt the delicate understandings worked out by the existing committee leadership and it could become difficult, if not impossible, for a whole new group to achieve as much.''
If the committees rush to approve a report before January, that might force compromises that could weaken tough conclusions, said Tiefer, a University of Baltimore law professor.
"The impending turnover at the 9/11 inquiries' leadership seriously threatens to undermine Congress' ability to forcefully drive home its independent conclusions about big, needed reforms,'' he said.