Congress committee finds no ‘smoking gun’ in probe

WASHINGTON, The Washington Post

After six months of culling through intelligence files and nearly a dozen closed-door hearings, the House-Senate intelligence committee investigating the Sept. 11 attacks has uncovered no single piece of information that, if properly analyzed, could have prevented the disaster, according to members of the panel.

“As far as I know, there is no smoking gun,” Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Wednesday. Without any evidence pointing to a single intelligence breakdown, the panel has turned to the broader task of identifying and fixing more systemic weaknesses within the country’s US$30 billion intelligence system, members said.

The shift in focus constitutes a significant evolution for a committee that formed this year amid expectations it would uncover damaging evidence of intelligence missteps that would prove potentially embarrassing to the Bush administration. Instead, it now seems unlikely that the administration, or any senior official in the intelligence community, will be held accountable for failing to prevent the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.

“We’ve spent the first couple of weeks on where we’ve been,” Bayh said. “Now we need to pivot and focus on where we need to go. I hope we’re in the process of shifting from a place where people were looking to assign blame and instead focusing on systemic problems and improvements.”

Some committee members cautioned that the investigation is not over and that some revealing memo, cable or intercept could still be uncovered.

“It would be nice to find a smoking gun,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (Alabama), the ranking Republican on the Senate panel who has been a fierce critic of CIA Director George Tenet. “But absent that, we’re looking for problems that need to be solved.”

Shelby said he still expects to find “a lot of pieces of information that, had they been correlated, analyzed and disseminated, you could have had a different outcome.”

Just a month ago, the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies were reeling from a series of revelations of apparent pre-Sept. 11 blunders.

There was the disclosure that FBI headquarters had not acted on a request by the bureau’s Phoenix office for an investigation into whether terrorists were potentially training at U.S. flight schools. Then there was the revelation that President Bush had been briefed in August about possible attacks by al-Qaida in the United States that included the prospect of hijacking commercial airliners.

That report was followed by the disclosure that FBI headquarters had blocked a request from the Minneapolis bureau for a search of the computer of Zacharias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker” who had been arrested a month before the September attacks.

And there was a subsequent revelation that the NSA, the nation’s premier eavesdropping agency, had intercepted two Arabic conversations on Sept. 10 with imprecise warnings that something significant would happen the following day but did not translate them until Sept. 12. These revelations suggest the government missed some important clues that could have led officials to focus more of their attention on averting a potential attack in the United States rather than overseas. But panel members have concluded that none of these pieces of information — on their own — could have prevented attacks. And they now understand that, at least from what their investigation has uncovered to date, there are no critically damaging disclosures to come.