A Bogus Capitol Hill Scare

A leading House Democrat has charged that congressional Republicans promoted "bogus" intelligence about a reputed terror threat on Capitol Hill last summer, inflaming debate over the Bush administration's proposal to dramatically expand the U.S. government's electronic surveillance powers.

Rep. Jane Harman, who chairs a key homeland-security subcommittee, has provided new details this week about an alarming intel report in August that warned of a possible Al Qaeda attack on the Capitol. The report, which was quickly discredited, was circulated on Capitol Hill at a critical moment: just as the administration was mounting a major push for a new surveillance law that would permit the U.S. intelligence community to intercept suspected terrorist communications without seeking approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

In the days before the vote on the surveillance bill in early August, the U.S. Capitol Police suddenly stepped up security procedures, and one top Republican senator, Trent Lott, seemed to allude to the report when he claimed that "disaster could be on our doorstep" if the Congress didn't immediately act. Inside the Congress, "there was a buzz about this," Harman told NEWSWEEK. "There was an orchestrated campaign to basically gut FISA [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], and this piece of uncorroborated intelligence was used as part of it."

In fact, the intel report that provoked the concern was never publicly cited by the Bush administration in the run up to the surveillance bill—and was clearly labeled as unreliable when it was first passed to the U.S. Capitol police over the summer. The report lacked any specifics and was based on a foreign intelligence source U.S. officials did not view to be credible. (A written summary of the report, which made clear its limits, was also provided to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.) But the alleged misuse of the information by some members of Congress illustrates the perils of one of the major changes instituted after the September 11 attacks: a commitment by U.S. intelligence officials to share with state and local law-enforcement agencies all reports about prospective terror threats in their communities no matter how vague and unreliable.

"This stuff falls under the category of, 'somebody, somewhere, some day is going to do something,' said a congressional aide who works on intelligence issues but who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive information. In the past, many law-enforcement and intelligence professionals viewed it as irresponsible and unduly alarmist to pass along such uncorroborated reports. But now they are routinely shared—lest federal officials are later accused of "holding back" information that might have saved lives.

Harman's charge—first made last week at a forum sponsored by the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress—has stoked the ongoing debate about whether to pass a new and more extensive version of the surveillance law in the next few months. Concerns about a "heightened threat environment"—and fears that they might get blamed if there was a terrorist attack—led Democrats in Congress to reluctantly approve a six-month version of the proposal, dubbed the "Protect America Act," which President Bush signed into law on Aug. 5.

But that law is set to expire early next year, and the administration has launched a lobbying campaign to make it permanent—and add new features, such as a measure providing retroactive immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies that participated in the surveillance program. (The companies have been accused of sharing private customer information with the government without a valid court order.) But the administration's campaign has been set back by charges that U.S. intelligence officials have made contradictory and in some cases false claims about the spying program. Most notably, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell was forced to retract recent public testimony that the law helped lead to the arrest of Islamic militants who were plotting an attack on U.S. military facilities in Germany.

Harman has been among the most outspoken in accusing McConnell and others of politicizing the debate over the bill, and she is now citing the Capitol Hill terror threat as a prime example. But GOP Sen. Kit Bond said that the discredited report was never a factor during Senate deliberations over the bill: "This is more of House Democrats, with their friends in the media, trying to demonize the Protect America Act." He said the bill is "too important to be politicized. This is a bogus, irresponsible attempt to attack the administration."

The incident dates back to Aug. 2, when the Senate took up floor debate on the politically charged surveillance bill. President Bush had insisted that Congress enact the measure before it left for its summer recess, asserting in a national radio address a few days earlier that it was needed because "the terrorist network that struck America on September the 11th wants to strike our country again." That same day, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported yet another reason for concern: Capitol police had stepped up security procedures after receiving a warning about an intelligence report that Al Qaeda might be planning to attack the Capitol grounds some time before the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Without mentioning a specific threat, GOP Sen. Trent Lott told reporters that same day that Congress needed to pass changes to terrorist-surveillance laws before leaving for the August recess. Otherwise, he warned, "the disaster could be on our doorstep." Asked if people should leave Washington, D.C., during the month of August, Lott responded, "I think it would be good to leave town in August, and it would probably be good to stay out until September the 12th." A spokesman for Lott said today that, the senator was actually only joking (although the Roll Call story gave no indication of that.) "Senator Lott's remarks were made tongue-in-cheek, which everyone who heard them interpreted as such, and bear in mind he said this only a few days after he urged that the Senate follow the Iraqi parliament's lead and go home due to our lack of legislative progress," the spokesman said in an statement e-mailed to NEWSWEEK. "He offered them as a reflection of his total frustration that since nothing was being accomplished, everyone might as well go home."

But other GOP members appear to have taken the matter more seriously. Harman told NEWSWEEK she was approached on the House floor that day by an anxious Republican colleague. The Republican congressman (whom she declined to name publicly) had heard about the Capitol Hill threat report from his colleagues and was concerned because Speaker Nancy Pelosi hadn't briefed the full House about it.  "Doesn't the Speaker have an obligation to inform members when this facility could be under attack?" Harman said her GOP colleague asked her.

A spokesman for Pelosi told NEWSWEEK today that the Speaker receives regular weekly briefing from U.S. intelligence officials, But the prospect of an imminent threat on the Capitol wasn't even mentioned in her weekly briefing that week. Instead, spokesman Brendan Daly said, the Speaker's staff learned of the intel report from the sergeant at arm's office, which said the information it had received from intelligence officials was "very vague."

At the time it was first mentioned, Harman had not seen the written report on the alleged Capitol Hill threat, which had been provided to congressional intelligence panels but not to her Homeland Security Subcommittee. (Harman had previously served as ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee but was ousted by Pelosi in what was widely seen as a personality clash between the two when the Democrats took control of the House this January.) But after hearing her Republican colleagues talk about the prospect of a summertime threat, she contacted an official at the National Counterterrorism Center—a unit of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence—to find out the basis for the report.

At first, Harman said, NCTC staff "claimed to have no idea what the Republican members were referring to," according to an Aug. 14, 2007, letter she sent to the Vice Admiral John Scott Redd (Ret.), director of the counterterrorism center. But after two days, officials tracked back the information to the unreliable report about an attack on the Capitol and passed it along to Harman. That document "made clear that the source of the information was not credible," Harman wrote in her letter. Harman still wasn't satisfied: "Misrepresenting intelligence for the purpose of scoring political points does nothing to enhance the public's trust in either our institutions or our political process," she wrote in her letter to Redd. "Equally frustrating, however, was the NCTC's silence while one of your products was being misrepresented and misused for political gain. This is not how you or anyone else in the Intelligence Community should be doing business, and it severely undermines your credibility going forward."

A spokesman for the NCTC declined comment.

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