Revisiting 9/11 Failures

The Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA may be headed for a new confrontation over an old issue: why an internal report documenting the agency's failures in the run up to the September 11 terror attacks is still being withheld from the public.

The report, prepared by the CIA's inspector general, is the only major 9/11 government review that has still not been made publicly available.

When it was completed in August 2005, NEWSWEEK and other publications reported that it contained sharp criticisms of former CIA director George Tenet and other top agency officials for failing to address the threat posed by Al Qaeda, as well as other mistakes that might have prevented the attacks.

In a letter sent just this week, three panel members—including Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller and ranking Republican Christopher Bond—revived the issue and asked that an executive summary of the report be declassified "without delay" and released to the public.

The letter was addressed to outgoing Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, but Oregon's Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden—who has made the issue a personal crusade—said he intends to press the new DNI designate, J. Michael McConnell, on the matter at his confirmation hearings Thursday.

And, Wyden added, he doesn't intend to stop until the report gets released.

"I'm going to bulldog this until it gets out," Wyden told NEWSWEEK. "The bottom line is that this is an extraordinary important perspective on one of the defining events of the country's history. I do not believe there is a national-security case for keeping this under wraps."

Wyden added that if McConnell doesn't reverse the decision made by Negroponte in refusing to declassify the report, he intends to use admittedly cumbersome intel-committee procedures to try to force the release of at least some of the inspector general's findings. One concern, he said, is that "a desire for political security" is influencing the Bush administration's refusal to greenlight the release of the document.

While Bush administration officials are hardly eager for a public rehash of the 9/11 intelligence failures, the issue is an especially sensitive one at CIA headquarters.

The inspector general's report is believed to have documented multiple faults by the agency's leadership during both the Bush and Clinton years, painting a picture of an intelligence community (which was then overseen by Tenet) that never fully mobilized to deal with the Al Qaeda threat—in part because it was embroiled in internal conflicts and bureaucratic battles, according to current and former officials familiar with the document who asked not to be identified because it involves still-classified information.

Among the matters covered in the report, the officials said, was the CIA's alleged failure to develop a strategic plan to go after Al Qaeda as well as the failure to resolve disputes about sharing National Security Agency intercepts of Al Qaeda leaders with other government agencies—another potentially sensitive matter because the NSA chief at the time is now CIA Director Michael Hayden.

In addition, the report provides the CIA's own internal account of what some believe was the most spectacular of the pre-9/11 failures: the agency's failure to alert the FBI and other U.S. government agencies to information showing that two of the hijackers had entered the United States as early as January 2000.

In their letter, Rockefeller, Bond and Wyden noted that a Justice Department inspector general report on the miscommunications between the FBI and the CIA over the two hijackers—Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi—has long since been made publicly available. "There is no reason why that story, as told from the vantage point of the CIA inspector general, should not also be released," they wrote.

What's really behind the intelligence community's refusal to release the report, the senators suspect, is a desire to protect the reputations of some of the main figures. Indeed, the committee staff late last year prepared its own redacted version of the inspector-general report's findings, stripping out anything it viewed as relating to "sources and methods" or other national-security secrets. The panel then sent over a copy of its version of the report to Negroponte in hopes of getting it cleared for public release.

But Negroponte refused, insisting in a Nov. 13, 2006, letter that the committee's version still contained sensitive national-security secrets. But the senators point out that he also gave another reason for refusing to clear the panel's version: it would publicly identify current and former agency officials, some of them high profile, who had been faulted by the inspector general.

That remark especially bothered the senators. The fact that publication of even the redacted version would publicly identify officials who were being criticized "does not appear to be a valid basis for classification under current laws and executive orders," the senators wrote in their letter, a copy of which was obtained by NEWSWEEK.

In fact, the committee version of the report did not actually name officials, like Tenet, who are criticized, but it did refer to them by title. In any case, the senators wrote in their letter, that worry could be addressed. "If you are concerned about damage to individuals' reputations, we encourage you to permit them to release redacted versions of their respective responses to the report," they wrote in a reference to the lengthy rebuttals prepared by Tenet and other officials faulted by the inspector general.

Whether the new letter will shift the administration's position is still far from clear. A spokesman for Negroponte's office declined to comment today. A CIA official, asked about the letter, referred a reporter to a Oct. 5, 2005, statement made by former CIA director Porter Goss when he decided not to release a version of the report or to accept the inspector general's recommendation that an "accountability board" be convened to reprimand current and former officials whose actions were criticized.

Goss said then the report identified systemic problems within the CIA during a "snapshot in time," and he saw no reason to single out any current or former individuals for punishment. "Singling out these individuals would send the wrong message to our junior officers about taking risks—whether it be an operation in the field or being assigned to a hot topic at headquarters," he said. The CIA spokesman said that Hayden, the current CIA director, "supports the decisions that were made by then-director Goss on this matter."

As for Tenet, the former official whose reputation is perhaps most at stake, he is currently finishing up his book, titled "At the Center of the Storm," which he hopes to publish this spring. The book is expected to deal extensively with his own version of the 9/11 story, including his efforts to alert the Bush White House to the prospect of an attack in the summer of 2001. A spokesman for the former director declined any comment on the senators' letter.