Tenet admits 'mistakes'

Posted in United States | 15-Apr-04 | Author: Terence Neilan and David Stout| Source: The New York Times

But 9/11 panel hears chief defend CIA

WASHINGTON The director of central intelligence, George Tenet, testified Wednesday that the threat posed by Al Qaeda was passed along to senior policy makers in mid-2001, ‘‘even if the timing and method of attacks were not.’’

He told the independent, bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks planned by Osama bin Laden that the intelligence community’s actions had no doubt saved lives.

‘‘However, we never penetrated the 9/11 plot overseas,’’ he acknowledged, adding, ‘‘We made mistakes.’’

‘‘We all understood bin Laden’s attempt to strike the homeland, but we never translated this knowledge into an effective defense of the country,’’ he said.

Tenet’s testimony before the panel was followed a few hours later by an abrupt reversal in which he corrected himself. The director had told one panel member, Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, that while other CIA personnel had briefed President George W. Bush during summer 2001, he himself did not talk to the president that month.

But Wednesday afternoon, a CIA official said the director had been mis taken and had indeed briefed Bush that month, at his ranch in Texas on Aug. 17 and in Washington on Aug. 3. Nothing out of the ordinary was talked about, the official who corrected Tenet said. The month of August 2001 is significant, since it was then that Bush received a controversial briefing prepared by the CIA on domestic threats posed by Al Qaeda to the United States.

Much of the questioning seemed to echo the theme of a staff report by the commission issued Wednesday, which criticized intelligence agencies before Sept. 11, 2001, as being so narrowly focused on details that it missed the broader picture of a huge threat form ing against the United States.

For instance, Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic commission member, said the spy agency seemed to have paid a lot of attention to the prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, who had aroused the suspicion of a Minnesota flight school, instead of picking up on Moussaoui’s activities as suggesting the possible use of airplanes as weapons.

Former Senator Bob Kerrey, another Democratic panel member, pressed Tenet on whether information that Al Qaeda was involved in training the insurgents who killed American soldiers in Somalia in 1993 had been passed on to President Bill Clinton.

And a Republican on the commission, John Lehman, a former navy secre tary, called the staff report issued this morning a ‘‘damning evaluation of a system that is broken, that doesn’t function.’’ He said an Aug. 6, 2001, briefing paper for Bush contained a crucial line that said, ‘‘We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, like the intention of bin Laden to hijack U.S. aircraft.’’

He added: ‘‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men in the CIA could not corroborate what turned out to be true and told the president of the United States almost a month before the attack that they couldn’t corroborate these reports. That’s an institutional failure.’’

In reply, Tenet said he had ‘‘serious issues’’ with the staff report. Referring to his post as director of central intelli gence by that title’s initials, he said: ‘‘When the staff statement says the DCI had no strategic plan to manage the war on terrorism, that’s flat wrong. When the staff statement says I had no program, strategic direction in place to integrate, correlate data and move data across the community, that’s wrong.’’

Lehman also talked of a ‘‘train coming down the track,’’ referring to a reorganization of intelligence agencies.

Whatever reorganizing is done, Robert Mueller, the FBI director, said Wednesday afternoon that it would be ‘‘a grave mistake’’ to create an entirely new domestic-intelligence agency. He said it would be wrong, too, to combine the functions of the FBI and the CIA, which is forbidden by its charter to perform domestic intelligence work. Mueller said the government and the people of the United States should never put themselves in a position that would cause future historians to look back and say, ‘‘O.K., you won the war on terror, but you sacrificed your civil liberties.’’

The FBI head said his agency was correcting himself so that, for example, people with skills in languages, but with no interest in wearing a badge or carrying a gun, could help the bureau be more effective battling terrorism.

The panel’s chairman, Thomas Kean, said he found Mueller a ‘‘reassuring figure’’ at the helm, but that practically everything he had heard about the FBI’s performance in connection with 9/11 had disturbed him.

‘‘Can you fix it?’’ Kean asked.

‘‘We can and are fixing what’s wrong with the FBI,’’ Mueller replied. In his opening statement this morning, the CIA chief said change in his agency would not come overnight. ‘‘It will take us another five years to have the kind of clandestine service our country needs,’’ Tenet said.

That troubled Kean, a Republican and former governor of New Jersey. ‘‘I wonder if we have five years,’’ Kean said. ‘‘When you say five years to rebuild the agency, that worries me a little bit.’’

Tenet, who became the director of central intelligence in 1997, testified that intelligence agencies had spent considerable time and energy during his tenure transforming their ability to collect and act on information, and added that in the mid-1990’s the agencies were in disarray because new analysts were not being hired or given the tools they needed.

On Somalia, Kerrey pressed Tenet on whether Clinton had been told about an intelligence report from 1997 that discussed the terror group’s involvement.

Tenet said he could not recall such a conversation, and would have to check his records, a reply he gave to a number of direct questions about what he did and when.

Kerrey said, ‘‘Now, I got to tell you, I think if the president of the United States of America had come and said that Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, is responsible for shooting down a Black Hawk helicopter in Mogadishu in 1993, I believe that that speech would have galvanized the United States of America against bin Laden.’’