Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - In the final joint public hearing of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees into the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., a senior Democratic senator criticized the CIA and FBI for not punishing employees responsible for alleged mistakes prior to the attacks.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) noted a number of what he described as "intelligence failures" that allowed the Sept. 11 hijackers to plan and execute their attacks without being discovered.
He charged that, for 21 months prior to the attacks, crucial information was either not acted on, or not shared with appropriate agencies resulting in "numerous opportunities to thwart the terrorist plot [being] squandered."
Eleanor Hill, staff director of the joint inquiry, noted as an example, that the CIA knew two al Qaeda followers had obtained visas to enter the United States as early as Jan. 2000, but did not share that information.
"Representatives of the State Department, the FAA, and the INS all testified that - prior to September 11th - their agencies were not asked to utilize their own information databases as part of the effort to find [the two]," she recalled.
"An FAA representative, for example, testified that he believed that, had the FAA been given the names of the two individuals, they would have 'picked them up in the reservations system,'" Hill said.
Levin was highly critical of both the FBI and the CIA for, in his estimation, not holding accountable the individuals who failed to share or act on that information.
"If we want to change things, the way things operate around here, we're going to have to be open and we're going to have to hold some people accountable," he said before asking FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet how many people in their agencies had been held liable.
"I haven't held anybody accountable, yet, sir," Tenet responded.
"Well, it depends on your definition of 'accountable,'" Mueller responded, drawing a quick scowl from Levin. "But I would say I have not held somebody accountable in the sense of either disciplining or firing somebody."
Neither Mueller nor Tenet could name the individuals who should have been responsible for carrying out those tasks.
"If changes are going to be real and are going to stick," Levin observed, "people who failed in their responsibilities have got to be held accountable."
The Michigan Democrat stressed that he is not looking for scapegoats.
"There's been, I believe, too little effort made to pinpoint the responsibility," he argued. "You don't even know the names of people who were responsible for failures."
Hill said she does not know whether the agencies could have done anything differently that would have prevented the attacks.
"But, it is at least a possibility that increased analysis, sharing and focus would have drawn greater attention to the growing potential for a major terrorist attack in the United States involving the aviation industry," she observed.
"This could have generated a higher state of alert regarding such attacks and prompted more aggressive investigation, intelligence gathering and general awareness based on the information our government did possess prior to September 11th, 2001," Hill added.
Levin was less forgiving.
"After months of investigation and numerous joint inquiry hearings, both open and closed, a fair reading of the facts has led to a deeply troubling conclusion," he said. "Prior to September 11th, U.S. Intelligence officials possessed terrorist information that, if properly handled, could have disrupted, limited, or possibly prevented the terrorist attacks."
Tenet urged the members of the panel not to focus so much on the past that they overlook the present situation.
"The country's mindset has to be changed fundamentally; no more sighs of relief, we're in this for the long term," he warned. "Because the threat environment we find ourselves in today is as bad as it was last summer.
"They're coming after us," Tenet continued. "They intend to strike this homeland again, and we'd better get about the business of putting the right structure in place as fast as we can."
Mueller added his assessment.
"We have to do a better job of gathering our intelligence, analyzing that intelligence, and disseminating that intelligence," Mueller acknowledged. "We have not filled that void in the past.
Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) noted that the disputes holding up Homeland Security legislation relate directly to the kind of accountability Levin is demanding.
"If the person in question was a part of the Homeland Security Department under current law, you could look forward to one year's notice of their deficiencies, several levels of appeal, several hours or days before appeal examiners, and an average of about 18 months before you could do anything with that person," he explained.
"We've just been told by the director of the CIA that we're about at the same level of concern as we were last summer, and we're debating issues like that," Thompson added.
Tenet stressed that, based on the increased frequency of terrorist attacks around the world in the last few weeks, there is little time for such delays.
"Al Qaeda is in an execution phase and intends to strike us both here and overseas," he said. "We are their enemy. We are the people they want to hurt, inside this country."
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