9/11 report: Uber-agency would help prevent terror

Congressional study envisions Pentagon-like model for FBI and CIA - with a Cabinet slot.

Given the continued threat of terrorist attacks on the American homeland, the US intelligence community needs to be as cohesive - and prominent in high councils - as the nation's military.

That's an overarching conclusion drawn from the just-released full report of a Congressional committee that investigated what the government knew about Al Qaeda's intentions prior to September 11, 2001.

The US needs the equivalent of a Secretary of Intelligence who sits in the Cabinet, as does the Secretary of Defense, according to report recommendations. The FBI and CIA need to work together more closely while maintaining separate identities, as do the Air Force, say, and the Army.

Such change may be necessary if the US is to be able to prevent terrorist strikes, instead of react to them.

"There's been a lot of talk about intelligence ... reform, but it's hard to see that there's much happening," says Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and coauthor of "The Age of Sacred Terror."

The 900-page report of the Congressional Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities has been eagerly awaited in Washington for months. Preliminary findings were released months ago, but the full report has been held up while the committee and intelligence officials fought over how much of the text needed to remain classified.

Deleted, for instance, was an entire section dealing with what cooperation of foreign governments, which reportedly focused on Saudi Arabia. Congressional anger about a perceived lack of help from the Saudis has been growing - while the administration has struggled to maintain good ties with what it considers one of the nation's most important Middle Eastern allies.

A congressional source familiar with the report says that most mentions of Saudi Arabia were withheld from the public report. Overall, says this source, the final study is the result of seven months of torturous discussions with the intelligence community.

"We tried to get as much as we could, responsibly, out of the [classified original text]," says the Capitol Hill source.

The basic conclusion of the study is that the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented. Due to communications lapses, the FBI and CIA failed to share intelligence data about two of the 9/11 hijackers in particular.

The two men, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, lived in San Diego beginning in 2000 and were known to an FBI counterterrorism informer.

In addition - and unbeknownest to other intelligence agencies - the National Security Agency had intercepted communications indicating their terrorist proclivities in 1999.

The two men were among the hijackers on the American Airlines flight that crashed into the Pentagon.

Prior to Sept. 11, the US government as a whole did not have a comprehensive counterrorist strategy addressing the threat posed by Osama bin Laden, concludes the study. Neither money nor technology for counterrorist activities was adequate.

"There was a dearth of creative, aggressive analysis targeting Bin Laden and a persistent inability to comprehend the collective significance of individual pieces of intelligence," concludes the declassified study.

For instance, at one point prior to 9/11, an FBI agent in San Diego requested that a source - later found to have had contact with the hijackers travel to San Diego from Los Angeles - for an interview. The source said the travel would be too much of a strain - so the agent simply closed that investigation.

Among the committee's recommendations to help fix this problem: amend current law and establish a statutory Director of National Intelligence, a Cabinet-level position appointed by the President and subject to Senate confirmation. Furthermore, this person should not simultaneously serve as director of the CIA, according to the report.

Current efforts by the National Security Council to reform intelligence should be expedited, says the committee study. The Department of Homeland Security should develop an effective all-source intelligence fusion capability.

Intelligence agencies should develop a Civilian Linguist Reserve Corps to augment currently inadequate linguistic capabilities.

And Congress, says the study, should consider enacting legislation to instill the concept of "jointness" throughout the intelligence community. Just such a bill, the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, is credited with serving a similar purpose within the military - forcing services to work together while maintaining separate identities and, to a certain extent, bureaucratic rivalries.

There is a certain amount of hindsight in this Congressional effort, but the criticism it contains is undoubtedly unpleasant for the intelligence community, it is still a useful exercise, says Philip Heymann, a Harvard Law School professor and former deputy attorney general.

"These turn out to be very revealing," he says. "You simply have more time to make more connections and see more possibilities."

The report will also surely serve as a starting point for further investigations. It could set the standard for a current broad investigation of the terrorist attacks being led by former Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey.

"It lays a better foundation for the independent commission ... as well as raising the bar in terms of stringency," says Jennifer Kibbe, an intelligence expert at the Brookings Institution.

Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed.

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