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Bush Team Tries to Stop Independent Probe of 9/11 Intelligence Failure - 2002-05-22


The top two U.S. law enforcement officials went to Capitol Hill Tuesday amid continuing controversy over the handling of last September's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The Bush administration is trying to head off calls by some in Congress for an independent inquiry.

FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft met members of key House and Senate committees developing their inquiry into events surrounding September 11.

Lawmakers reacted Tuesday to the latest media reports concerning how much administration officials knew before and just after the terror attacks.

The New York Times reported that Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller were told just days after September 11, about a key FBI memo concerning possible airline hijackings, but did not brief President Bush.

The House Democratic party leader, Congressman Richard Gephardt, said now is not the time to place blame, but to determine what steps are required to improve intelligence coordination and cooperation.

"We all can admit we didn't do what we needed to do on September 11. There is plenty of blame to pass around if that's what we're interested in," he said. "That's a waste of our time. We've got to solve the problem."

One of the steps Mr. Gephardt says would be to strengthen the powers of homeland security director, Tom Ridge. Critics say he has been frustrated by bureaucratic infighting and a lack of budgetary authority.

Democratic Congressman David Obey, referring to what he calls "chaos and a lack of focus" in the intelligence community, says Mr. Ridge needs more power, as well as accountability.

"He needs to have the authority to knock heads, and he needs to be able to see it to that information is shared on a full-time basis," he said. "We cannot in Congress, just talk to the hired hands, we need to talk to the foreman as well."

Mr. Obey was referring to the refusal so far of the White House to allow Mr. Ridge, a presidential appointee, to testify before Congress.

The White House is resisting calls by democratic leader Gephardt and others for a separate independent commission to investigate intelligence failures.

The administration has also declined to provide Congress with a CIA briefing paper used to brief President Bush last August.

Democratic leader Gephardt believes an independent commission, in addition to Congressional investigations, is needed:

"That's the reason for this suggestion today, and that's the reason I think we need a commission in addition to the good work that is going on in the intelligence committees, to get answers to these questions as quickly as possible," he said.

Late Tuesday, a member of the House intelligence committee, Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, said Attorney General Ashcroft had given assurances of administration cooperation with Senate and House investigations.

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