WASHINGTON – The reasons behind the pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures just kept growing: not enough staff, poor technology, inadequate information-sharing, a piecemeal approach to intelligence analysis.
Yet after two days of hearings examining flaws and searching for solutions, members of the Sept. 11 commission said they have yet to reach firm conclusions on what change is necessary. The bipartisan panel is scheduled to issue its final report in July.
"Everybody speaks of reform," said the panel's Democratic vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, a former congressman from Indiana. "It's very easy to come out for reform. The task of the commission is going to be to put specificity to that, and that's going to be a major job."
The 10-member commission is reviewing proposals on how to prevent future domestic terror attacks, including expanding the powers of the director of central intelligence, establishing a domestic intelligence agency or endorsing more limited measures embraced by the heads of the CIA and FBI.
The panel on Wednesday heard from those two men — CIA Director George Tenet (search) and FBI Director Robert Mueller (search). It also released statements criticizing the CIA for failing to fully appreciate the threat posed by Al Qaeda before Sept. 11 and questioning the progress of what commissioners say are the FBI's badly needed reorganization efforts.
Among other examples, the panel statement cited a briefing titled "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly" presented to Tenet and other top CIA officials in August 2001 about the arrest that month of Zacarias Moussaoui (search) because of his suspicious behavior in a Minnesota flight school.
But the briefing had "no evident effect on warning," the commission said. Moussaoui is the only U.S. defendant charged with terrorism related to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Tenet testified that intelligence-gathering flaws exposed by the attacks will take five years to correct. He said that in the 1990s the CIA had lost 25 percent of its staff and was haphazard in training undercover officers who worked overseas to penetrate terror cells and recruit secret informants.
The commission in its statement also found that Tenet, like his predecessors, had limited authority over the direction and priorities of intelligence agencies, hampering his ability to devise a more comprehensive defense strategy.
"By no stretch of the imagination am I going to tell you that I've solved all the problems of the community in terms of integrating and in lashing it up," said Tenet. "But we've made an enormous amount of progress."
He noted that the National Security Agency, which handles electronic surveillance, and U.S. mapping and analytic intelligence agencies need time and continued funding to improve.
But the commission's chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean (search), said he was concerned by how long it would take to rebuild. "It scares me a bit that we dismantled the CIA to the point that it now takes five years to rebuild it," he said.
Mueller recounted a range of steps the FBI has taken since the Sept. 11 attacks to improve its intelligence capabilities, sharpen its focus on terrorism and replace outmoded technology. He urged the panel to let those improvements continue and not to risk derailing them by recommending creation of a new domestic intelligence agency outside the FBI.
"We don't want to have historians look back and say, 'OK, you won the war on terrorism but you lost your civil liberties,'" Mueller said. "We have become, since Sept. 11, a member of the intelligence community in ways we were not in the past."
The commission's statement credited the CIA with collecting a vast array of intelligence on Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, which resulted in thousands of individual reports circulated at the highest levels of government. These carried titles such as "Bin Laden Threatening to Attack U.S. Aircraft" in June 1998 and "Bin Laden's Interest in Biological and Radiological Weapons" in February 2001.
Despite this intelligence, the CIA never produced an authoritative summary of Al Qaeda's involvement in past terrorist attacks, nor did it fully appreciate bin Laden's role as the leader of a growing extremist movement.
The commission also said the CIA didn't recognize Al Qaeda as an organization until 1999, even though Al Qaeda had been formed in 1988 after the Soviet Union abandoned Afghanistan.
"Before the attack we found uncertainty among senior officials about whether this was just a new and especially venomous version of the ordinary terrorist threat America had lived with for decades, or was radically new, posing a threat beyond any yet experienced," the commission statement said.
Tenet strenuously disagreed — "That's flat wrong," he said, adding that the CIA put in place a plan to combat Al Qaeda in 1999 that included clandestine intelligence inside Afghanistan using 25 people and movement of a spy satellite to increase coverage of the terror training camps.
The staff statement also said several threat reports produced by the intelligence apparatus had "mentioned the possibility of using an aircraft laden with explosives," such as the terrorists used on Sept. 11 in attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Yet the CIA counterterrorism center "did not analyze how a hijacked aircraft or other explosives-laden aircraft might be used as a weapon," the statement said.