Congress, too, may shoulder Sept. 11 blame
House-Senate panel on intelligence lapses turns gaze inward on funding, oversight.
WASHINGTON — As Washington gears up for months of investigation on what went wrong on 9/11, Congress is beginning to face its own share of blame for missed warnings and intelligence lapses.
Since the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, scores of witnesses and blue-ribbon panels sounded alarms that other attacks were coming and that big changes in funding and coordination among government agencies were needed to meet them.
Such warnings did not go entirely unheeded. Between 1996 and 2001, Congress increased funds to combat terrorism by more than 50 percent, to some $10 billion, making antiterror efforts one of the fastest-growing federal programs.
But experts say the new efforts were scattershot, uncoordinated, and still seriously underfunded. The $10 billion was spread across what one study calls "a convoluted maze" of 46 federal bureaus and 20 agencies. Beyond the dollars spent, critics give Congress poor marks for its role in overseeing the agencies.
That's why members of a joint House/Senate inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks have said a main focus of its investigation will be the institution of Congress itself and why lessons that seem obvious now were not taken more seriously much earlier.
"It's a tangle of oversight, and inevitably messages don't get through to the people they need to," says Claudine McCarthy, a research associate at the Stimson Center in Washington, which has studied the issue.
The criticism of Congress ranges from its chronic underfunding of domestic security to oversight that reinforces an insular culture at various agencies.
"There has not been an adequate tradeoff between intelligence-gathering overseas and the handoff to law enforcement. But it's not their fault. They didn't make the laws. Congress did," says Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a cochair of the joint inquiry into Sept. 11.
Throughout the 1990s, members of Congress who had access to closed briefings have been clamoring for more funding for antiterrorism efforts. But other priorities such as a long and partisan firefight between Congress and the Clinton White House preoccupied official Washington. Warnings on terrorism received little attention either in the press or on Capitol Hill.
"There is not the slightest doubt that Osama bin Laden ... and his sympathizers are planning further attacks against us," CIA director George Tenet told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 2, 1999. Mr. Tenet is expected to be a primary witness at the first open hearing of the joint committee in late June.
In March 2001, the Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security in the 21st Century released a prescient and stinging indictment of the nation's fitness to defend the homeland against a "mass-casualty" terrorist threat. It called for an overhaul of government as sweeping as that begun in 1947 to fight the cold war, including establishment of Homeland Security Agency with cabinet-level status.
The report also targeted Congress for obstructing national security with its tangle of oversight committees, often hauling top officials to discuss the same topics before several committees.
"Congress needs to completely overhaul its committee system to reflect the new postwar world. A year and a quarter have gone by since our report was issued, and I don't see any indication that Congress is willing to do that," says former Sen. Gary Hart (D) of Colorado, a panel cochair.
The current oversight system also reinforces a culture of secrecy that contributed to intelligence lapses prior to Sept. 11, critics say. As a full picture of missed opportunities emerges, the inability of agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to share information is emerging as a critical flaw in homeland defense. The most recent effort to overhaul the nation's intelligence capacity, sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and John Kyl (R) of Arizona, passed the Senate but failed to become law.
Another problem Congress will be taking up is the culture of intelligence operations, including whether Congress contributed to tendencies such as not wanting to rock the boat or take risks within the intelligence community.
Another early question the joint inquiry will pursue is whether Capitol Hill concern about so-called racial profiling may have led FBI headquarters or field offices to not aggressively follow up some leads.
Some critics say Congress is not in the best position to remedy this issue, because it helped create it. "We can let the intelligence committees do their investigation, because they're concerned about secrecy," says John Gannon, former chair of the National Intelligence Council. "But ... I want the best people from intelligence and the corporate world at the table on this issue. The families of 9/11 deserve the best our country can produce, and the best is not out of the Congress."