9/11 Panel Told Terrorism Initially Not 'Urgent' for Bush
The testimony today followed the presentation of a report by the committee staff that described a rising sense of frustration in the U.S. intelligence community about the seeming inability of policy makers to decide on, and execute, decisive action to disrupt bin Laden's al Qaeda operation.
Attempts to find, capture or kill bin Laden were undertaken after 1998 under intelligence directives signed by then-President Clinton and continued after President Bush took office in 2001, Tenet told the commission.
The report by the committee staff said there was some disagreement during the Clinton period as to whether the CIA had authority to kill the al Qaeda network leader.
While the Clinton officials told the commission that the president wanted bin Laden dead, "every CIA official interviewed on this topic by the commission," including Tenet, emphasized capturing bin Laden and the only "acceptable context for killing bin Laden was a credible capture operation."
One former chief of the agency's bin Laden unit told the commission, "We always talked about how much easier it would have been to kill him."
But Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, who served as Bill Clinton's national security adviser, dismissed those concerns and told the commission today that the CIA had the authorization to kill bin Laden.
"If there was any confusion down the ranks, it was never communicated to me nor to the president, and if any additional authority had been requested I am convinced it would have been given immediately," Berger said.
The commission's report found, however, that confusion continued as the summer of 2001 approached, to the point that two veteran counterterrorism agents "were so worried about an impending disaster" that they considered resigning and "going public with their concerns."
The disaster they expected was overseas, not domestic, however, Tenet testified.
"The predominant focus and thread of the reporting took us overseas," he said. While the agency did not "discount the possibly of an attack on the homeland," he said, "the data just didn't exist with any specificity to take you there. I mean, that was what was maddening about this."
The government just did not have the "kind of specificity we needed . . . that would have led us to conclude that the plot was inside the United States. . . . We didn't steal the secret that told us what the plot was. We didn't recruit the right people or technically collect the data, notwithstanding enormous effort to do so."
He said the problem in part was operational and in part systemic.
"We didn't integrate all the data we had properly, and probably we had a lot of data that we didn't know about that, if everybody had known about, maybe we would have had a chance," Tenet said.
He also pointed to the "wall that was in place between the criminal side and the intelligence side" of law enforcement domestically and internationally as an impediment. "Even people in the Criminal Division and the Intelligence Divisions of the FBI couldn't talk to each other, let alone talk to us or us talk to them," Tenet explained.
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