Friday, July 25, 2003

Pre-Sept. 11 Intelligence Failures Added Up

WASHINGTON — U.S. Naval ships were in position in the North Arabian sea ready to attack Usama bin Laden between 1999 and 2001, but no spies were close enough to the terrorist leader to help us target him, Sen. Bob Graham (search), D-Fla., said Thursday.

Last year Graham served as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (search), which researched intelligence failures before Sept. 11. The report on those failures was released Thursday.

Congressional Reports: Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001

"The attacks of Sept. 11 could have been prevented if the right combination of skill, cooperation, creativity and some good luck had been brought to task," Graham told a news conference.

The report describes a series of missed opportunities and government gaffes going as far back as 1998, when the intelligence community first heard that bin Laden was plotting an attack in the United States.

The report finds that in 1998, CIA Director George Tenet declared war on bin Laden, but the FBI, Defense Department and others were not aware of Tenet's declaration.

The Pentagon and CIA, the report says, were at odds over what to do about Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.

"Senior U.S. military officials were reluctant to use U.S. military assets to conduct offensive counterterrorism efforts" partly because they believed "the intelligence community was unable to provide the intelligence needed to support military operations," the report states.

A Series of Missteps

The declassified report, over 800 pages in length, concludes that no single bit of information could have prevented the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, even though U.S. intelligence agencies failed to communicate with each other or stop Al Qaeda's buildup in the country.

"Our work started with the recognition of a sobering fact: Al Qaeda was better at planning the attacks and keeping their plans secret than the United States government was at uncovering them," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., ex-officio member of the committee.

While the authors look at problems within other agencies, including the CIA and National Security Agency (search), the report is particularly harsh on the FBI, noting a series of missteps.

For example, the CIA and the FBI were aware in early 2000 that two of the hijackers, Khalid Al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi, had ties to Al Qaeda and had made calls to the Middle East while living in San Diego. The two were later found to have been on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

In early 2000, the CIA had learned independently of the Al Qaeda connections of Al-Mihdhar and Al-Hazmi, but they failed to put the two on terrorism watch lists that might have prevented their entry into the United States.

The two also lived in the home of a longtime FBI informant who was never made aware of who they were. That same informant may also have had contacts with a third hijacker, Hani Hanjour.

In that case, the FBI's San Diego field office did not get enough information from the CIA and FBI headquarters about the search for the hijackers. "As a result, the FBI missed the opportunity to task a uniquely well-positioned informant — who denies having any advance knowledge of the plot — to collect information about the hijackers and their plans in the United States," the report notes.

An agent from the San Diego office told the committee, "It would have made a huge difference'' if they had been privy to the intelligence.

Also, as far back as 1998, the intelligence community received reports that a member of Al Qaeda was planning operations on U.S. targets, including a scheme to hijack U.S. planes. In fact, two individuals "successfully evaded" checkpoints in a dry run at a New York airport, according to a December 1998 intelligence report cited by the joint committee.

A fall 1998 intelligence report says that Al Qaeda was considering a new attack using biological toxins in food, water or ventilation systems of U.S. embassies. And a spring 1999 intelligence report stated that bin Laden's supporters in Afghanistan were experimenting with enhancing conventional explosives with radioactive material, the report notes.

The report criticizes the FBI in particular for failing to devote resources to counterterrorism and failing to locate Al Qaeda cells in the United States. It also points at a larger, government-wide failure to take the threat of terrorism seriously.

"The criticism regarding the FBI's limited attention to the dangers at home ... reflects a large gap in the nation's counterterrorism structure ... a failure to focus on how an international group might target the United States itself," the report says. "No agency appears to have been responsible ... for regularly assessing the threat in the homeland."

Among the more troubling findings:

— The NSA had intercepted "some communications that indicated possible impending terrorist activity" between Sept. 8 and Sept. 10, but these were not translated or disseminated until after the attacks.

— The CIA had received unconfirmed intelligence before the attacks that suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been in the United States as recently as May 2001, possibly to meet with recruits and colleagues already in the country. Mohammed, Al Qaeda's director of operations, is now in U.S. custody.

— The Sept. 11 hijackers had substantial contacts around the world and were not isolated cells.

But even with all the failures, no "smoking gun" has emerged to suggest the government could have stopped the Sept. 11 attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

"While the intelligence community had amassed a great deal of valuable intelligence regarding Usama bin Laden and his terrorist activities, none of it identified the time, place and specific nature of the attacks that were planned for Sept. 11, 2001,'' the report notes.

"There is no question there were some lapses of intelligence, failures of communication," said Sen. Trent Lott (search), R- Miss., who added that for 20 years the intelligence community had been ignored and had failed to modernize to change with the times.

"I think since then they have made and they are making efforts to do a better job, to exchange information, to communicate. Still, I think they have more they need to do, but this report will show that there were some things that should have been picked up on that could have been picked up on, that were not. I don't think there's any one defining moment that you can point to," Lott told Fox News.

Referring to the creation of a Homeland Security Department (search), improved information sharing between government agencies and efforts to freeze terrorist assets, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the report "confirms the importance of the strong, aggressive stance we have already taken to better protect the American people at home and abroad."

Saudi Connection?

Parts of the report will remain classified, including a section that reportedly discusses whether there was any support for the hijackers from Saudi Arabia.

However, the report notes that the lack of Saudi cooperation may have contributed to the attacks.

"A high-level U.S. government officer cited greater Saudi cooperation when asked how the Sept. 11 attacks might have been prevented,'' the report notes.

For example, a Saudi individual may have been aware in May 2001 of an "upcoming al Qaeda operation'' but the Saudi government did not cooperate with the intelligence community both before and after the Sept. 11 attacks, the report notes.

Further, there are suggestions that the hijackers may have received "foreign support,'' but much of the information that could implicate the Saudi government remains classified.

"Through its investigation, the Joint Inquiry developed information suggesting specific sources of foreign support for some of the September 11 hijackers while they were in the United States,'' the report states. "The Joint Inquiry's review confirmed that the Intelligence Community also has information, much of which has yet to independently verified, concerning these potential sources of support.''

In July 2002, a CIA officer sent a cable expressing his concerns that "persons associated with a foreign government may have provided financial support to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers while they were living in the United States," the report notes.

An FBI agent based in San Diego ended up with a copy of the cable, but never sent it on to FBI headquarters. It should be noted that the joint committee did not talk to any Saudi government officials during its investigation.

McClellan said "80 percent" of the report is being made public, with only the most sensitive national security sections — for instance, sources' names — under wraps.

But Pelosi, who was ranking member on the House intelligence panel when the investigation began, decried the report as "overclassified" and said the administration's "obsession with secrecy does not serve the nation well."

"The administration's failure to cooperate fully with the joint inquiry showed an unwillingness to exhaust every effort to discover information that might assist in better protecting the American people," she said.

Fox News' Anna Stolley, Julie Asher, Malini Bawa and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Bush, Blair defend Iraq intelligence

By Joseph Curl

President Bush, standing shoulder to shoulder with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the White House, yesterday said U.S. and British intelligence on weapons of mass destruction "made a clear and compelling case that Saddam Hussein was a threat to security and peace."

"I strongly believe he was trying to reconstitute his nuclear-weapons program," Mr. Bush said at a joint press conference, adding that after the first Persian Gulf war in 1991, "it became clear that Saddam Hussein was much closer to developing nuclear weapons than anybody ever imagined."

The British prime minister was equally strong in backing British intelligence that charged Saddam had sought to obtain uranium from Niger — a claim that U.S. intelligence agencies now believe was probably erroneous.

He said U.S. and British forces were not deployed to Iraq "on the basis of some speculative intelligence."

"We based our decisions on good, sound intelligence. And ... our people are going to find out the truth. And the truth will say that this intelligence was good intelligence," Mr. Blair said at the White House, shortly after telling the U.S. Congress that Saddam's brutality and the enormous risks of being wrong about his weapons mean the war was morally justified, regardless of intelligence details.

Under fire from Democrats on Capitol Hill for citing British intelligence about the Niger uranium in his January State of the Union address, the president said, "I take responsibility for putting our troops into action.

"The regime of Saddam Hussein was a grave and growing threat. Given Saddam's history of violence and aggression, it would have been reckless to place our trust in his sanity or his restraint. As long as I hold this office, I will never risk the lives of American citizens by assuming the good will of dangerous enemies," Mr. Bush said.

While the validity of a British intelligence report charging that Iraq had sought to buy nuclear material from Niger has been questioned, Mr. Blair stood by other intelligence that Saddam was attempting to restart his atomic-weapons program.

"The British intelligence that we have, we believe is genuine. We stand by that intelligence," Mr. Blair said. "And one interesting fact I think people don't generally know, in case people should think that the whole idea of a link between Iraq and Niger was some invention, in the 1980s we know for sure that Iraq purchased ... about 270 tons of uranium from Niger. So I think we should just factor that into our thinking there."

Mr. Bush also said that enemies of the United States are seeking to undermine efforts to bring democracy to Iraq.
"We are being tested in Iraq. Our enemies are looking for signs of hesitation. They're looking for weakness. They will find none," the president said.

The two leaders made clear that removing Saddam from power ends a clear and present threat of terrorism and advances the effort to squash terror cells across the world.

"The removal of Saddam Hussein is an integral part of winning the war against terror," Mr. Bush said. "A free Iraq will make it much less likely that we'll find violence in that immediate neighborhood. A free Iraq will make it more likely we'll get a Middle Eastern peace. A free Iraq will have incredible influence on the states that could potentially unleash terrorist activities on us."

Both leaders also said that while no mass-destruction weapons have yet been found in Iraq, they have no doubt that Saddam's weapons will be eventually discovered.

"I believe that we will find the truth, and the truth is, he was developing a program for weapons of mass destruction," Mr. Bush said.

"Now, you say, 'Why didn't it happen all of a sudden?' Well, there was a lot of chaos in the country, one. Two, Saddam Hussein has spent over a decade hiding weapons and hiding materials. Three, we're just beginning to get some cooperation from some of the high-level officials in that administration, or that regime," he said.

Mr. Blair took up the Bush administration's argument that the recent criticisms leveled by the president's detractors — who have been emboldened by the claims of erroneous British intelligence — does not match their words over the 12-year period that Saddam defied weapons inspectors and the United Nations repeatedly sought to check the Iraqi dictator.

"In the debate in the past few weeks, it's as if prior to the early part of this year the issue of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction was some sort of unknown quantity, and on the basis of some speculative intelligence, we go off and take action," Mr. Blair said.

"The history of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction is a 12-year history, and is a history of him using the weapons, and developing the weapons, and concealing the weapons, and not complying with the United Nations inspectors who were trying to shut down his programs," he said.

"The proposition that actually he was not developing such weapons and such programs rests on this rather extraordinary proposition: that having for years obstructed the United Nations inspectors and concealed his programs, having finally effectively gotten rid of them in December 1998, he then took all the problems and sanctions and action upon himself, voluntarily destroyed them, but just didn't tell anyone," Mr. Blair added.

"I don't think that's very likely as a proposition," he said

Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair departed from the White House together last night, with the president heading for his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and the prime minister going to Japan on a trade mission.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Bush Unsure Ban on Gay Unions Is Needed

Backing Standard Marriage, President Sidesteps Question
By David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 3, 2003; Page A02

President Bush yesterday reaffirmed his belief that "marriage is between a man and a woman," but he sidestepped the question of a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay unions -- reflecting the cautious approach the White House is taking to a potentially explosive public debate.

Last week's Supreme Court decision to strike down the nation's remaining anti-sodomy laws has left some conservatives convinced that so-called "defense of marriage" laws prohibiting gay marriage cannot survive future court challenges. As a result, a move to amend the Constitution to define marriage as applying only to male-female couples has rapidly picked up strength. Last Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he supports such an amendment.

In an exchange with reporters, Bush said he is waiting for a legal analysis of the court's decision. "I don't know if it's necessary yet," he said of a constitutional amendment. "Let's let the lawyers look at the full ramifications of the recent Supreme Court hearing. What I do support is the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer echoed that position in his daily briefing. "This is a matter for lawyers to assess," he said, "and I don't know that there is any clear assessment that anybody has at this point about the legal ramifications of a just-made decision."

Bush is stepping gingerly on an issue that could inflame his conservative base if he equivocates, or turn off live-and-let-live swing voters if he takes a stand that smacks of intolerance. He is also aware, one adviser said, that a constitutional amendment is extremely hard to win -- it must be passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratified by three-quarters of the states.

As one Capitol Hill Republican described it: "Bush is trying to defend the traditional idea of marriage without getting into the realm of gay-bashing."

Inside Bush's campaign strategy meetings, the sudden emergence of the issue has been surprising and unwelcome, one participant said. Although Bush would have a hard time winning an election in the gay community, his administration has taken steps to avoid being seen as antagonistic of gays. Vice President Cheney and his wife, Lynne Cheney, who have a lesbian daughter, have expressed support for equal rights for gays. Without fanfare, the administration has appointed about 20 openly gay officials to government positions, according to the Texas Triangle, a gay newspaper.

Republicans have been thinking for some time that the gay marriage issue would enter the 2004 presidential election from stage left, through the rising prominence in the Democratic field of former Vermont governor Howard Dean. He signed the country's first law legalizing "civil unions" for gays, and it shows signs of becoming a for-or-against issue in the Democratic primaries. GOP strategists believe Democrats will alienate moderate voters if their nominee is supportive of gay marriage.

Having the issue boil up on the right, however, could be a problem for Bush.

"The president does not want to go back to the culture wars of the 1980s and early 1990s," one Republican strategist said. "He remembers what happened to his father in 1992," when Patrick J. Buchanan set the tone of the GOP convention by declaring "there is a religious war going on in our country," and urging Republicans to fight it "block by block . . . [to] take back our culture, and take back our country."

Instead, the strategist said, Bush would prefer to "culturally marginalize the Democrats, without reopening the culture war."

A longtime Bush friend was more forceful. "This is just not an issue we want to talk about," he said. "It plays to a negative stereotype of Republicans as sex-obsessed and narrow-minded. Swing voters -- and the libertarian elements in the Republican Party -- will not enjoy a debate about a constitutional amendment on gay marriage."

But some leading social conservatives believe the issue cannot be dodged. Gary Bauer, who ran for president in 2000 on a religious conservative platform, said in an interview yesterday: "Unless the president's lawyers are from Mars, they will tell him that there is no longer a legislative bar to same-sex marriage. At that point, it will not be possible for the administration to remain neutral as this debate heats up. I don't think they should even try to be cute about it."

The president of the conservative Family Research Council, Ken Connor, was less categorical. He said Bush's position so far is "prudential." But he too predicted that Bush will have to take sides. "All elected officials . . . are going to be forced to express their viewpoints on the meaning of marriage and the role of heterosexual marriage in our society," Connor said.