WASHINGTON – The CIA missed the big-picture significance of "tell-tale indicators" of impending terrorist attacks, partly because of its culture of a piecemeal approach to intelligence analysis, a federal panel probing the Sept. 11 attacks said Wednesday.
With the commission holding a second day of hearings on U.S. intelligence leading up the 2001 hijackings, preliminary findings from the panel's latest report Wednesday concluded that a more detailed looked at clues prior to Sept. 11 could have unveiled the plot behind the attacks.
A more strategic analysis could have identified that the plot might need suicide hijackers who would take flight courses, the commission said. Establishing such "tell-tale indicators" could have raised red flags following a July 2001 FBI report of terrorist interest in aircraft training in Arizona, and the August 2001 arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui (search) because of suspicious behavior in a Minnesota flight school, it said.
"While many dedicated officers worked day and night for years to piece together the growing body of evidence on al-Qaida and to understand the threats, in the end it was not enough to gain the advantage before the 9/11 attacks," the commission said.
The panel's did acknowledge that the CIA was hobbled by staffing limitations and the daily demands of issuing fresh intelligence summaries to government policy-makers.
It noted, for instance, that CIA Director George Tenet recognized the need for strategic analysis against al-Qaida in late 2000 and appointed a manager in the CIA's Counterterrorist Center to create a new branch.
Tenet was to testify Wednesday along with FBI Director Robert Mueller and officials of the Department of Homeland Security and the federal Terrorist Threat Integration Center.
Other CIA shortcomings cited by the panel:
— An inadequate counterterror management strategy before Sept. 11. The panel said Tenet sought greater funding across the entire CIA, rather than just counterterrorism, making a build up of long-term capabilities difficult.
— A lack of an institutionalized process to learn from successes and failures, such as surprise terrorist attacks such as the embassy bombings in August 1998 and the USS Cole attack in October 2000.
"Reviews were perceived as faultfinding, without enough constructive emphasis on learning lessons and discovering best practices," it said.
One suggestion that has been posed to improve intelligence gathering involves possibly expanding the powers of the director of central intelligence or creating a domestic intelligence agency, such as MI5 in Britain.
Asked about such a potential overhaul, Bush said Tuesday night that he was open to suggestions.
"I look forward to seeing what the 9-11 commission comes up with," the president told reporters at a White House news conference.
Earlier Tuesday, top intelligence officials blamed their failed efforts to locate key al-Qaida operatives before the Sept. 11 attacks on poor communication and limited staffing.
"We are profoundly sorry. We did all we could," said J. Cofer Black, former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center. "The shortage of money and people seriously hurt our operations and analysis," Black said at a hearing Tuesday.
In a day of finger-pointing, the panel's chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, said two scathing reports compiled by the commission's investigators amounted to "an indictment of the FBI," while Attorney General John Ashcroft took a swipe at the Clinton administration.
The commission said Tuesday in a separate report that delays and missteps in linking Moussaoui to the al-Qaida terrorist group in the weeks before the attacks were emblematic of chronic problems within the FBI, including limited intelligence and analysis capabilities, outdated technology, poor information-sharing and floundering attempts at reorganization.
"Despite recognition by the FBI of the growing terrorist threat, it was still hobbled by significant deficiencies," the commission said.
Louis J. Freeh, who headed the bureau from 1993 to mid-2001, bristled at Kean's "indictment" charge.
"I would ask that you balance what you call an indictment, and which I don't agree with at all, with the two primary findings of your staff," Freeh said. "One is that there was a lack of resources. And two, there were legal impediments" that made it difficult for agents to pursue terrorism investigations.
Former Attorney General Janet Reno also spoke of a lack of resources but said the FBI did a poor job keeping track of the information its agents gathered.
"The FBI didn't know what it had," she said. "The right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing."
Her successor, Ashcroft, defended himself against allegations that he wasn't attentive to the terrorist threat, and pointed blame at the Clinton administration for not acting in the previous eight years.
"The simple fact of Sept. 11 is this: We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies," Ashcroft said. "Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions and starved for basic information technology. The old national intelligence system in place on Sept. 11 was destined to fail."
But former FBI acting director Thomas Pickard told the commission that after he began briefing Ashcroft twice a week on the threats, Ashcroft told Pickard "he did not want to hear this information any more." Ashcroft denied making that statement.