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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Intelligence Gaps Preceding Attacks Subject of Inquiry

Congress: Senate and House panels begin looking into U.S. spy agencies' lapses leading up to Sept. 11.

January 26, 2002|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Senate and House intelligence committees quietly began sending notices this week to the nation's spy agencies, requesting documents and other evidence for a pending probe of intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The letters mark the opening of a high-stakes inquiry that could determine whether the intelligence community overlooked possible warning signs and missed opportunities to prevent the attacks.

The probe had been delayed, largely because members of Congress were reluctant to distract intelligence officials in the frantic aftermath of the attacks and the ensuing war in Afghanistan. Some lawmakers also expressed concern that the inquiry could lead to a demoralizing witch hunt.

But ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence panels set the investigation in motion this week after reaching an agreement that calls for the two panels to share staff and resources for the probe and to hold joint hearings this spring.

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Friday that the first wave of letters requesting documents and records from spy agencies went out in the last few days.

"We made requests of the agencies under our jurisdiction," which includes the CIA and at least 13 other spy agencies, Graham said. "We anticipate that for the next 60 days, [the committees' activities] will primarily be the collection and review of documents and the identification of witnesses."

A CIA official said the agency had not received a request from Congress for records.

"We will consider their request and respond appropriately," he said. "We work closely with the oversight committees on a regular basis and will assist them as best we can."

The scope of the investigation will be expansive, Graham said, covering the CIA's efforts to combat terrorists since the agency established its counterterrorism center in the mid-1980s.

But a central focus, he said, will be on determining what U.S. intelligence agencies knew before Sept. 11 and how the CIA, which had a task force focused on terrorist leader Osama bin Laden for several years, could have been caught so off guard by the attacks.

"The public deserves an answer to that, and we will try to provide it," Graham said.

The probe is certain to be a source of embarrassment to the spy community, which has been upbraided by Congress for a string of blunders in recent years, including the failure to anticipate nuclear weapon tests in India.

But there are also signs that the mood in Congress has softened since Sept. 11, when many lawmakers were sharply critical of the CIA and some called for the ouster of its director, George J. Tenet.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said America's successful military campaign in Afghanistan has improved the intelligence community's standing in Congress.

"That has had some impact," Edwards said. "My view is that serious mistakes were made before Sept. 11. But our war in Afghanistan and our effort against terrorism have been intelligence-driven, and obviously that effort has been successful."

U.S. forces have yet to locate Bin Laden, the alleged sponsor of the attacks, or Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of Afghanistan's defeated Taliban regime. But Edwards and other lawmakers who have visited Afghanistan recently said they came away with an understanding of the difficulty of that mission.

And while there are still some voices on Capitol Hill calling for Tenet's ouster, many members of the intelligence committees have lobbied to steer the inquiry away from assigning blame.

"I'm interested in a very effective investigation with a focus on protecting us against the second wave" of terrorism, said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), a member of the House intelligence committee. "If you demoralize people, it's counterproductive."

Graham said that the committees have begun to hire additional staff members to manage the inquiry and that hearings could stretch into the summer. Given the classified nature of the material, he said, it's not clear how many of the joint committee's hearings will be public.

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