'WASHINGTON POST ON 911 PROBE - 20 MAY 2002'
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Dissent Beset Hill's Sept. 11 Panel
Dana Priest and Walter Pincus
The congressional panel authorized and funded to investigate the performance of intelligence agencies leading to the Sept. 11 attacks has been racked with internal strife, partisan politics and disagreements over its ultimate goal.
The panel, composed of members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, has hired 23 staff members and obtained 150,000 pages of CIA documents. But it has not agreed whether its central mission is to figure out if federal agencies failed to do their job, or the less politically-charged question of how the nation's intelligence system should be reorganized.
The panel has delayed its opening hearing date three times and forced out its original director. The replacement is expected to be someone who has no background in the specialized world of intelligence matters. The problems have been aggravated by what some staff members see as roadblocks being thrown up by the CIA and delays in resolving differences over access to FBI and Justice Department documents.
The panel's troubles come amid a swirling controversy over the Bush administration's handling of intelligence information before Sept. 11 and questions about whether the CIA, FBI and other agencies misread warning signs about a possible attack against the United States.
As the lone body in Congress authorized to study the intelligence community's performance, and with a $2.6 million budget, the committee could provide valuable insight, according to its co-chairmen, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.).
The review will provide an "opportunity not only to study the tragedy in more detail, but to determine whether previous concerns regarding the intelligence community's capabilities are viable," Goss said in February when the panel was formed.
But some members, charging that the committee has already been unduly politicized, have called for a separate, independent commission to replace the panel even before the two chairmen call it to order for the first time.
"We need an independent commission because we do not need to engage in a political witch hunt to blame the Clinton administration or the Bush administration for failure," said Rep. Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.). "We need to involve professional experts and people with technical skills who not only know the right questions to ask but what to do with the answers to transform the intelligence agencies from Cold War agencies into agencies targeting terrorists and transnational threats."
Vice President Cheney said yesterday that creating another commission could create "a circus atmosphere." He backed the work of the special intelligence committee panel. "They've got the expertise, they've got the staffs, they've got the procedures for dealing with classified information," Cheney said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "They know what they're doing in this area, and we're comfortable working with them."
Even without the political and organizational differences, the committee's job would be daunting, given the mass of information it must sift through and the reluctance of secretive, competing intelligence agencies to fully cooperate.
Many of the panel's 23 staffers have moved into offices at the CIA, National Security Agency and National Imagery and Mapping Agency. At the CIA, they have conducted 45 interviews, many with senior staff, but have sifted through only about 75 percent of the 150,000 pages of documents turned over to the panel.
At the same time, the CIA has created what staff members consider to be obstacles. Interviews with CIA officers must be conducted in a room adjacent to the agency's congressional liaison office, a lack of anonymity that staffers believe will intimidate some employees. The CIA has also forbidden its employees from exchanging business cards with the committee staff and has declined to turn over documents that originated in other departments, invoking what is called the "third agency" rule under which the agency that originated the information must give its approval before it can be released.
CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said the agency is being "extremely cooperative" and has given the panel "virtually everything they've asked for."
Harlow said the agency has dedicated 15 employees to helping the panel staff. To assist the committee, the agency has built a timeline of counterterrorism incidents from 1993 to 2000, which, laid out on the floor, is 327 feet long with 2,600 entries. Each entry has hundreds, sometimes thousands, of documents connected to it.
Graham said Friday that he and Goss expect to announce this week a tentative hearing schedule that will last from late June into the fall.
The committee staff, which has been divided into four teams, has been at work over the past six weeks gathering materials, reviewing documents and identifying and interviewing witnesses. The CIA, FBI and National Security Agency, which intercepts electronic intelligence, each have separate teams, with the fourth group covering the other agencies.
A meeting is set for this week between Graham, Goss, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and two ranking committee members, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to work out issues over obtaining FBI and Justice Department materials involving current prosecutions and investigations.
"These have been the toughest issues so far," Graham said. Another meeting is being arranged with CIA Director George J. Tenet, he said, although the problems there "are not much."
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said the gathering of information from Justice has been "difficult where cases are going to trial," but otherwise "almost everyone agrees there has been good cooperation."
The committee has confronted several problems of its own making. Its senior members initially could not decide whether its review should be called an investigation for fear of sounding too critical of the Bush administration and the war on terrorism.
Then last month, as the committee was preparing to set its hearing schedule, an internal flap over a person's security clearance led to the resignation of L. Britt Snider, the committee's staff director. Snider's departure not only pushed back the inquiry but also exposed internal tensions over the original appointment of Snider, who was Tenet's inspector general at the CIA and a longtime associate of the director going back to their days together on the staff of the Senate intelligence panel.
Snider's replacement is expected to be former Defense Department inspector general Eleanor Hill, committee sources said.
There also has been a running disagreement among several members as to the purpose of the inquiry. Graham and Goss have said the object is not to place blame but rather to determine what changes should be made to make sure an attack like Sept. 11 does not happen again.
The inquiry would not play "the blame game about what went wrong from an intelligence perspective," Graham said in February, but would build for the future by identifying "any shortcomings in our intelligence community and fix[ing] these problems as soon as possible."
Shelby, on the other hand, wants to see whether actual failures took place for which individuals should be held responsible. Shelby has been calling for Tenet's resignation going back to the 1999 investigation of former CIA director John M. Deutch for mishandling classified information. He has repeated his concerns about Tenet in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Another disagreement has been over how long the inquiry should take. Under the original plan, Graham and Goss believed that hearings over the summer would lead to introduction and perhaps even passage of remedial legislation by the end of the year.
Although the resignation of Snider and delay in finding a replacement set the schedule back, they still hope to finish this year because both chairmen will rotate off the committee at the end of this Congress, having served their prescribed terms.
Shelby, on the other hand, who also will be ending his intelligence panel service this year, has made clear he would like the investigation to continue on into the next Congress.
Among the more difficult, yet crucial, issues the panel will consider is the coordination or lack of coordination among counterterrorism offices at competing agencies.
The CIA's counterterrorism center, how it operates and how it meshed with similar centers run by the FBI and more recently the Pentagon, was a focus of the joint inquiry from the beginning. When the center opened at CIA headquarters, its role was to function on behalf of all intelligence agencies, a central role that has slowly been dissipated as the other centers grew.
The center grew from about 300 CIA case officers and analysts, plus representatives from the FBI, the Pentagon and other agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and Immigration and Naturalization Service, to about 1,200 people today. Directing it was "a killer job" for Cofer Black, who left the post this week.
Intelligence sources said Black was not forced out, but his departure is likely to be one avenue of inquiry for the panel.
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