The heads of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have told lawmakers there are no sure ways to prevent future acts of terror. However, the directors of the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency say important lessons have been learned from the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Five weeks of public hearings by a House-Senate committee of inquiry, as well as closed door hearings, have produced no "smoking guns" evidence that specific failures led to, or could have prevented, the September 11 attacks.
But the investigation has resulted in some general conclusions about inefficiencies in U.S. intelligence gathering. Eleanor Hill is staff director of the Joint Intelligence Committee inquiry. "While the specifics of the September 11th attack were not known in advance, relevant information was available in the summer of 2001," she said. "The collective significance of that information was not, however, recognized. Perhaps as a result, the information was not fully shared, in a timely and effective manner, both within the intelligence community and with other federal agencies."
Going far beyond his allotted 10 minutes, CIA Director George Tenet, presented a nearly hour-long defense of his agency's counter-terrorism efforts. Acknowledging mistakes, he said the agency has nevertheless had many successes, many of them never made public. "The U.S. intelligence community could not have surged, as it has in the conflict in Afghanistan, and engaged in an unprecedented level of operations around the world, if it were as 'mired' as some have portrayed," said George Tenet. "It is important for the American people to know that despite the enormous successes we have had in the past year, indeed over many years, al-Qaida continues to plan, and will attempt more deadly strikes against us."
Mr. Tenet said the CIA had been hobbled over the years by post-Cold War budget cuts, forced to make tradeoffs in resources and people to ensure aggressive counter-terrorism efforts.
FBI Director Robert Mueller, said agencies have moved to improve information sharing, and reorganized to meet continuing terrorist threats. But he said performance before the September 11 attacks must be viewed against the backdrop of how al-Qaida operated. "I do believe that the context in which these 19 individuals were able to come to the United States, and take advantage of the liberties this country has to offer, and operate without detection, is important to a full understanding of how these attacks were successfully undertaken," he said.
Also testifying Thursday was the director of the National Security Agency (NSA), who said his agency had no specific detailed information that terrorists would target New York and Washington.
After Thursday's final public hearing, the House-Senate committee will now get to the work of preparing its report.
Republican Senator Richard Shelby said it should reflect not only lessons learned, but the dedication of those working in the intelligence agencies. "We have discovered many instances where our intelligence agencies failed to perform as we expect them to," said Senator Shelby. "We have also discovered many more examples of dedicated and tireless Americans, performing their duties with distinction and honor. The American people should know that the latter is the rule, not the exception."
In addition to the report from the joint committee, an independent commission to investigate the September 11terrorist attacks is to be formed. The White House and Congress are still negotiating on the specifics of that.