Congress, too, missed 9/11 threat
WASHINGTON — While attention Thursday will be fixed on the comments of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, she and the Bush administration aren't the only ones who received urgent warnings before 9/11 that terrorists could strike at home.
Key lawmakers in Congress heard similar reports - in more than 80 hearings from 1999 until the Twin Towers collapsed - and could face similar questions about being asleep at the switch.
While Congress isn't generally expected to take the lead on matters of national security, it remains open to criticism regarding its oversight role - which includes setting budgets and keeping watch on executive-branch agencies.
More broadly, the litany of "missed warnings" is one more cautionary tale of a Washington culture in which danger signs are often more abundant than the ability to respond with clarity.
Pre-9/11 warnings fell on deaf ears because "no one had died
yet," says Lawrence Halloran, majority staff director for the House subcommittee on national security, emerging threats, and international relations, which before 9/11 held 22 hearings on combating the terrorist threat.
"We were pounding the table to get people to understand ... this threat," he adds. "But it seemed academic. It didn't fit the mold. It wasn't Russian missiles."
In hearings before that committee and others, experts vetted scenarios from sarin gas attacks to chemical-laced explosions on trains. Three blue-ribbon commissions called for a focus on homeland defense.
If anything, some say there were too many warnings - and no obvious way to determine which were most important. British military historian John Keegan described this in a 2003 book as a problem of the modern age: "Intelligence of all sorts abounds but its volume threatens to overwhelm the power of the human mind to evaluate its worth."
When lawmakers pressed the Clinton and Bush administrations for an assessment of which threats were most serious and how the US should prepare, they got lists of more potential threats.
Even experts on the threat couldn't agree on the way forward. In a closed briefing in the summer of 2000, then-counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke - who has cast himself in recent weeks as a voice in the wilderness on terrorism - said there was no need for a "comprehensive" national strategy to combat terrorism, according to documents recently sent to the 9/11 Commission, the body questioning Condoleezza Rice Thursday.
In a July 5, 2000, letter to Mr. Clarke, subcommittee chairman Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut complained that the information that Mr. Clarke had provided as national coordinator had been "less than useful."
For example, the letter complained of Clarke's pledge to develop a domestic preparedness plan: "When asked how spending priorities are established, you responded by providing a list of terrorist organizations."
By the time the new Bush administration settled into the White House, Congress had boosted counter-terrorism spending to over $10 billion a year. But there was no plan to target funds to actual threat assessments.
Representative Shays tried to follow up on his concerns, passing complaints along to new National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. "During a briefing to this subcommittee, Mr. Clarke stated there is no need for a national strategy," he wrote in a Jan. 22, 2001, letter. "This subcommittee, and others, disagree."
The 9/11 commission, which heard public testimony from Mr. Clarke on March 24, will be looking at these letters "and many other things," in its final report, says spokesman Al Felzenberg.
Between 1996 and 2001, Congress increased funds to combat terrorism by over 50 percent, putting anti-terrorism among the fastest growing federal programs.
Still, the Hart-Rudman commission concluded in its Feb. 15, 2001 report that "the United States is today very poorly organized to design and implement any comprehensive strategy to protect the homeland." The commission - the United States Commission on National Security/21st Century - described "mass-casualty terrorism directed against the US homeland" as a "serious and growing concern."
Nor was Congress organized to provide effective oversight. Dozens of committees on Capitol Hill had some claim to oversight on the issues now known as homeland security. "The number of times that key executive branch officials are required to appear on the same topics in front of different panels is a minor disgrace," concluded the commission.
Last week, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee proposed an overhaul of intelligence agencies to meet terrorist threats. Democrats propose a new Director of National Intelligence with authority over all aspects of the Intelligence Community. Action is needed from Congress, which "built our intelligence community five decades ago to fight an enemy that no longer exists," said Rep. Jane Harman of California, top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Republicans promise a reform drive in the Senate, as early as mid-May. "We're going to rattle some cages and we're way overdue doing this," says Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "We get overwhelmed by 'Oh my gawd' hearings: the [attack on the] U.S.S. Cole, Khobar [Towers bombing], the embassy bombings .... We just simply have not had time to devote to this, but we will."