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Panel Cites Progress, Weaknesses in US Anti-Terrorist Intelligence Efforts

A bipartisan congressional panel reports that, while reforms of the U.S. intelligence community approved in 2004 have helped protect against new terrorist attacks, some serious weaknesses remain. Release of the report coincided with testimony by the homeland security chief on steps to secure U.S. borders amid ongoing partisan debate over illegal immigration.

When it approved an overhaul of the intelligence system two years ago, Congress named its legislation The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

That reflected hopes that improving the way U.S. government agencies collect, analyze, share and act on intelligence could go a long way toward preventing a recurrence of the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks.

The House Intelligence Oversight Subcommittee says while the Bush administration has made important strides, progress has been slow in key areas. Despite hard work by people in the intelligence system to make needed changes, the 12-member panel points to what it calls a lack of urgency on information sharing, and human intelligence.

Without mentioning him by name, the report faults the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, for not doing enough to focus on important priorities. "A lack of urgency, a reliance on incrementalism, like we have a plan to get a plan. We are concerned about not trying new approaches, and thirdly not enough prioritization," said Congressman Mac Thornberry.

Thornberry hastens to add that "lots of good things have been happening in the new intelligence structure."

The panel's report gives high marks to managers of the National Counter-terrorism and Counterproliferation Centers created in 2004, who it says are working hard to integrate capabilities across the intelligence community.

However, what lawmakers call a relatively successful counterterrorism strategy is attributable more to exceptional individuals overcoming organizational shortfalls than to deliberate planning. The report also refers to insufficient long-term analysis, and quotes one official as saying the CIA and two other key agencies are "analyzing the same 10 percent of available information on terrorist targets."

The report calls progress in sharing terrorism information across the government "unacceptably slow." Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger says it's clear more work needs to be done. "What we need to do is to make sure that all of our intelligence agencies have the resources to do the job, we need to hold them accountable for their performance, and we need to make sure they communicate, that they connect the dots."

Memories of the September 11, 2001 attacks, as well as continuing threats from al-Qaida, and recent statements by groups such as Hezbollah, form the backdrop to the panel's assessment. "We have learned to take those [threats] seriously, but that is why we are focused on building this intelligence capability because the way that we stop this is with not good intelligence, it is with great intelligence," said Congressman Pete Hoekstra, who heads the House Intelligence Committee.

Government efforts to keep Americans safe from terrorism were also discussed by the nation's homeland security chief, Michael Chertoff in a hearing on immigration.

Addressing lawmaker's concerns about porous U.S. southern and northern borders, Chertoff said the U.S. is working with Mexico and Canada on counter-terrorist efforts. "They have been aggressive in dealing with the issue of terrorism in their own country. I can tell you we have been very, very closely in touch with each other in every step of the way in regard to intelligence sharing and potential terrorist activity that has an impact in this country," he said.

Chertoff projects there will be about 18,300 border patrol agents by the end of 2008, enabling the government to gain what is called "operational control" of U.S. borders.

However, he faced lawmakers skeptical about the Department of Homeland Security's ability to carry out the plan. "If we are ever some day get to a comprehensive immigration policy, you have to succeed first at a border security plan and no one that I know really has confidence that you can do this, that we can do this," said New York Congressman John Sweeney

As the House and later the Senate prepare to leave for a long summer break, border security and immigration remain hot political issues as lawmakers gear up for mid-term legislative elections in November.