CONGRESSIONAL PANEL WIDENS TERROR PROBE 



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Last Updated

18 Aug 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2002.

THE NATION

Congressional Panel Widens Terror Probe

Inquiry: House-Senate committee will look at intelligence lapses dating to the 1980s. The unsolved anthrax attacks will also be investigated.

By ERIC LICHTBLAU and NICK ANDERSON, TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON -- A joint congressional panel agreed Tuesday to conduct a surprisingly broad probe of intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11, even as President Bush acknowledged past lapses and sought to curb Congress' appetite for an ever-widening investigation.

Leaders of the House-Senate panel said they plan to go back 16 years to the days of the Reagan administration in examining what the U.S. intelligence community knew -- or should have known -- about terrorist threats to the United States. And the review will encompass related areas such as last fall's anthrax attacks along the Eastern Seaboard, an expansion of the panel's mandate that stirred sharp debate among lawmakers.

The aggressive opening of the intelligence panel's review came as the finger-pointing within the besieged intelligence community continued to escalate. A senior FBI official sought to explain to members of Congress at a separate closed hearing why he had failed to connect terrorism leads in Phoenix and Minneapolis, while CIA officials defended their handling of intelligence information in the weeks and months leading up to Sept. 11. With Tuesday's start of closed-door hearings before the joint House-Senate intelligence committee, Congress has now clearly seized control of the debate over whether the U.S. intelligence community missed warning signs that could have allowed authorities to prevent the hijackings.

Congressional investigators have already begun collecting more than 400,000 documents from government agencies, and the agenda laid out by panel leaders Tuesday after their meeting allows them to go back to 1986, the year the CIA's counter-terrorism center was created, in examining the U.S. response to terrorism. That period will include the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, as well as more recent attacks on U.S. embassies and facilities overseas.

"I think it's important for us to go back. The farther we go back, the more we learn ... from our mistakes," Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview.

Some members of Congress, however, continued to push for an independent commission to investigate the intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11, saying that Congress is not up to the task.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that, with every recent revelation of missed warning signals, the call for an independent commission "gains momentum.... Sooner or later, we're going to win. The American people deserve a thorough and complete investigation."

President Bush, however, reiterated his strong opposition to that idea.

"I'm concerned about distractions from this perspective: I want the Congress to investigate, but I want a committee to investigate, not multiple committees to investigate, because I don't want to tie up our team when we're trying to fight this war on terror," Bush told reporters.

Bush added that investigators have to be careful to "guard the methodology" used by the intelligence community in its counter-terrorism operations. "It's important for us to not reveal how we collect information. That's what the enemy wants."

At the same time, however, Bush acknowledged in his most explicit terms to date that the counter-terrorism system had not worked as designed before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"In terms of whether or not the FBI and the CIA were communicating properly, I think it is clear that they weren't," Bush said. "Now we've addressed that issue. The CIA and the FBI are now in close communications, there's better sharing of intelligence."

A Surprise on Anthrax

The decision to investigate the still-unsolved anthrax attacks as part of the intelligence committee's scope was something of a surprise and came only after at least one member insisted that it be included, according to a congressional source who asked not to be identified.

"That broadens the scope. The only real debate was over anthrax, and [the members] had to figure out a way to accommodate that," the source said. The result, part of a seven-point plan developed by the joint panel, was a decision to look at how well the intelligence community has investigated biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear threats, including the anthrax attacks.

Shelby said the anthrax attacks, which killed five people and have stymied the FBI in its efforts to find a culprit, are relevant to the investigation. "I don't think we should close our eyes to anything. As surely as night follows day, we'll be hit with biological and chemical weapons," Shelby said.

Leaders of the 37-member joint panel emerged from their three-hour meeting, held in a sound-proofed room at the Capitol, with bipartisan pledges of cooperation. They also condemned the recent rash of finger-pointing within the intelligence community.

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the joint inquiry a milestone for Congress and a rare instance of two standing committees from two chambers working as one. "There is no set of precedents."

Graham will alternate with Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, in chairing the hearings.

"We're off and running with momentum," Goss said, promising a "fact-driven, witness-driven" review. Goss said no decision had been made on who will testify before the committee, which is scheduled to hold its first public hearings at the end of the month.

A senior FBI official at the center of a key breakdown was called Tuesday before a separate closed-door hearing of Senate Judiciary Committee staff members to explain the FBI's performance.

David Frasca, head of the FBI's Radical Fundamentalists Unit, led Washington's much-criticized supervision of the Minneapolis field office's investigation into suspected "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui last summer. A memo written in July by a Phoenix FBI agent about the threat posed by Middle Eastern flight students was also sent to his attention, and members of Congress have demanded to know why the FBI failed to connect the threats.

Frasca told committee staffers that two research analysts in his 11-person unit didn't give the memo to him at the time, and he was unsure whether anyone in his office had done any research of name traces on the people identified in the memo, according to congressional sources familiar with the briefing. Frasca said the first time he saw the memo was in October, after the Justice Department inspector general's office, which is reviewing the FBI's handling of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence, informed him of it.

Frasca's comments "say that nobody in that office was putting two and two together. You'd think one person would have remembered that Phoenix memo," a congressional official said.

Frasca also told the committee that on four separate occasions he brought the Minneapolis office's request for a secret search warrant on Moussaoui to the FBI office that handles those requests, sources said. But FBI officials in Washington agreed that there was not enough evidence linking Moussaoui to terrorists to justify the request.

That decision was heavily criticized in a letter last month from Minneapolis FBI agent and lawyer Coleen Rowley, who is expected to meet privately with several senators today and will testify publicly before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

CIA Hit by Criticism

Criticism of the intelligence failures has shifted in part from the FBI to the CIA in recent days amid allegations that the agency failed to share or act on information about threats, but on Tuesday CIA officials defended their performance in several of the episodes that have come under attack.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in an interview in Tuesday's New York Times that his country had warned U.S. intelligence officials of a vague but serious and impending attack a week before the Sept. 11 hijackings.

But a CIA official who asked not to be identified said the agency ''received no such warning.'' The Egyptians had passed on intelligence months earlier about Al Qaeda intelligence they had picked up, but such information was fairly commonplace, did not refer to hijackings or attacks on U.S. soil and was ''not anything like what was represented'' by Mubarak, the official said.

Egypt also downplayed the significance of Mubarak's comments Tuesday. The intent of Mubarak's remarks, said spokesman Nabil Osman, was to emphasize that ''Egypt has been cooperating with the United States on the campaign against international terrorism dating back many years, as we are veterans of terrorism in our own country. The cooperation in this field is an ongoing process. It's nothing new.''

The CIA has also come under criticism for allegedly poor coordination with the FBI in tracking Sept. 11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, who were allowed into the country and then lived openly in the San Diego area despite suspicions that they had ties to terrorist groups.

The CIA official insisted Tuesday that, despite the FBI's insistence that it was kept in the dark, the CIA sent electronic communication to the FBI about Almihdhar both in January 2000, when his name came up in connection with a suspicious meeting in Malaysia, and a year later, when his link to a suspect in the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole was confirmed.

A Jan. 5, 2000, cable about the Malaysian meeting said that ''the FBI already has the facts'' on the case, the official said.

''The point of the matter is that the [FBI] was aware of this,'' the CIA official said.

What remains unclear, however, is what the FBI did with that information, what the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service were told, and why the two men were allowed into the country despite the CIA's suspicions. Members of Congress said they want to explore that issue in depth as part of their ongoing investigation.

Times staff writers Edwin Chen, Josh Meyer and Robin Wright contributed to this report.