Active and retired intelligence and defense officials are questioning whether the Sept. 11 commission adequately considered the many changes made since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in recommending the U.S. intelligence community be restructured.
Critics said the commissioners made few visits to the CIA or to view the operations of key new intelligence units or to attend daily meetings such as the 5 p.m. session run by the director of central intelligence with representatives of the FBI, Defense Department and Homeland Security present that sets the operational agenda for counterterrorism operations in the United States and overseas.
"Do the recommendations speak to the community that exists today or the community that the commission was investigating that existed that morning on 9/11?" Mark M. Lowenthal, assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production, asked at last Wednesday's session of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Earlier at the same hearing, John Hamre, a deputy defense secretary in the Clinton administration and currently president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called "astounding" what has happened in the past three years. "The agencies are working together better than any time in my professional recollection . . . but if you were to listen to our public discourse, it'd sound like we've done nothing, and it sounds like we're just as naked and vulnerable today as we were" on Sept. 10, 2001, the day before the attacks.
Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the bipartisan commission, said yesterday the panel "looked at the community continuously. We looked at it as a moving picture, and we had a snapshot of it in July 2004." He added that "based on these continuing discussions with most elements of community, it is arrogant to say we were not mindful of how much had changed."
Ben-Veniste was one of the few commissioners, along with John F. Lehman, Fred F. Fielding and Timothy J. Roemer, who visited the CIA during the investigative phase. Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton visited the CIA only once to arrange for beginning the investigative process.
Philip D. Zelikow, executive director of the Sept. 11 commission and chief author of its complex reform package for the U.S. intelligence community, made several visits to the CIA and other intelligence agency headquarters. "We spent a lot of time trying to understand how the system is working today," he told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee last week. Although he talked generally of "the problems of joint planning and joint operational management," he was not asked to provide details.
Asked yesterday about the commission recommendations, Zelikow said the report "is not a biblical writ, but a set of ideas to create a constructive discussion." He said the commission "achieved the goal of setting an agenda. But writing a new law is the job of Congress and the administration." Unlike some commissioners and legislators who have been pushing for action by October, Zelikow does not see a rigid timetable. "There is a window of three, six or eight months," he said, "but the time should be seized before it passes."
A senior intelligence official, who asked not to be identified, said a House Armed Services Committee session today on intelligence reform with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz would provide an opportunity for legislators to focus on how the Pentagon, which gets more than 80 percent of the intelligence community's $40 billion budget, divides its responsibilities to protect troops and deal with broader national intelligence requirements.
"Will they use their time to find out exactly how the Pentagon's tactical intelligence is managed today and how much is shared in joint accounts with the CIA?" the official asked, noting that the commission spent little time on that subject.
The Pentagon's view of the daily 5 p.m. meeting at CIA headquarters in Langley could be explored, he said. Developed by former CIA director George J. Tenet to coordinate counterterrorism operations overseas and within the United States, it has continued under John E. McLaughlin, the acting CIA director. CIA officials have described it as one of the major post-Sept. 11 changes and point out that the recent operations against the al Qaeda terrorist network began in earnest July 29 at that meeting.
Ben-Veniste and Zelikow attended one 5 p.m. session early last month after interviewing Tenet. An intelligence official who was at that session recalled it as "a tactical activist operations meeting where George gave orders like, 'Get that to [Central Command's Gen. John] Abizaid; make sure Condi [Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser] gets this, and see if this person is on the no-fly list.' "
Zelikow remembers it differently. He described it to the Senate committee as a place where Tenet "seeks help" from other agencies but cannot order people to do things. "It is a cooperative meeting," Zelikow said, "and does not amount to joint planning" that he believes is needed. He said the House Armed Services Committee should ask Stephen A. Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, when he testifies tomorrow "about the notion that Tenet could tell the Defense Department what to do by command."