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Congress to Examine Quality of US Intelligence Reports - 2003-07-18

In coming weeks, congressional reports will be released dealing with the quality of information produced by U.S. intelligence agencies. One report is the result of closed and public hearings of a joint House of Representatives and Senate investigation into the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The other is an interim report by a House committee examining the controversy over intelligence used by the Bush administration to justify the war in Iraq. Since the 1970s and the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of then President Richard Nixon, the question: "What did the president know and when did he know it?" has been part of the lexicon of American politics and journalism.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, and more recently in the controversy over information used to justify war in Iraq, the question has applied as much to U.S. intelligence agencies, as it has to the president.

The CIA, FBI and other agencies have been under intense scrutiny by congressional investigations, and an independent commission. On the 2001 attacks, investigators asked one central question: could the al-Qaida hijackings of U.S. airliners have been prevented with more efficient and rapid processing of, and response to, intelligence in hand?

This [past] week, key Democrat and Republican members of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that a final report on the 2001 attacks is likely to be released next week.

It is expected to detail what has become clear from months of hearings - that government agencies were not coordinating and working to piece together bits of information that could have given a clearer warning about al-Qaida plans.

The New York Times reported this week it would also contain the conclusion that U.S. inability to infiltrate the al-Qaida in Afghanistan contributed to a vacuum of knowledge about the terrorist network, even though U.S. intelligence agencies suspected plans for an attack in the United States.

Sections of the report have been deleted for reasons of national security. In a recent news conference, the chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Republican Congressman Porter Goss, nonetheless expressed satisfaction with what the report has achieved.

"I would say that we won virtually all of the [bureaucratic] battles we wanted to win in terms of getting information to the public," he said. "Now, we didn't win it all in exactly the form we wanted it, but the material, the subject matter is pretty much out there."

A separate independent commission, which has not yet completed its work, complained in an interim report earlier this month that some government agencies had been slow in responding to its requests for information.

But it is on pre-Iraq war intelligence that most attention is now focused. "The intelligence case for war relied more than it should have on circumstantial indicators of Iraq's WMD [weapons of mass destruction] programs, rather than on solid facts," said Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "The question remains was the threat to the United States posed by Iraq sufficiently imminent to justify the onslaught of essentially unilateral military action?"

Mrs. Harman says she and other lawmakers voted last October for a resolution authorizing war on the basis of information about a "grave and growing threat from weapons of mass destruction." This, she says, was the morale underpinning of the war.

Despite reassurances from President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that their reasons for going to war against Iraq were well-grounded, congressional Democrats continue to press for an independent inquiry, saying questions remain about pre-war information on alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Africa.

"This is not motivated by Democratic intent to secure political advantage," said William Delahunt of Massachusetts. "If we didn't do this, we would be abrogating our responsibility within our system, to find the truth."

But Republican Tom Tancredo accuses Democrats of trying to use the issue to bludgeon the president and influence his chances for re-election.

"It does seem like what is underlying the rhetoric is an overwhelming desire to find something wrong, to find something out that is bad, that is negative, that would perhaps lead to some sort of political change in this nation," he said.

The first public hearing of the House intelligence committee is scheduled for July 24, with former heads of the CIA among the witnesses. After initially resisting calls for public hearings, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has scheduled at least one such hearing there, probably in September.