Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - The lead investigator for the joint House and Senate inquiry said in the committee's first public hearing Wednesday that Congress was warned that Osama bin Laden was planning a large-scale attack against U.S. or Israeli interests two months before Sept. 11, 2001.
There was "a modest, but relatively steady stream of intelligence information indicating the possibility of terrorist attacks inside the United States," according to the joint committee's staff director, Eleanor Hill.
"They generally did not contain specific information as to where, when and how a terrorist attack might occur and generally are not corroborated by further information," she said in a prepared statement.
Based on information gathered by the committee, there were a total of 28 pieces of intelligence information gathered after June 1998 that hinted bin Laden wanted to strike the U.S., including 11 indicating an imminent attack after March 2001. Additionally, 12 so-called "intelligence indicators" lead analysts to believe that al Qaeda would use airplanes to strike targets in Washington, D.C., and New York.
Specific details were lacking from those "indicators," Hill said, and the reports were frequently from sources with questionable credibility and could not be corroborated.
That lack of corroboration did not stop intelligence officials from issuing a sobering warning in a briefing to congressional leaders in July 2001.
"We believe that [bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks," the warning stated. "The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning."
Hill told the committee that adequate resources were not dedicated to analyzing the bin Laden threat because of competing demands within the government.
"The intelligence community responds to its "customers.'' Customers being other parts of government that are tasking them to come up with intelligence on certain items," she explained. "There were customers that they had to satisfy, they felt they had to satisfy and were told to satisfy on topics other than al Qaeda."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif)., ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, echoed the feelings of many members of the committee with her response to the disclosures.
"If it could have been prevented, that bodes well for the future," she said, "but we''ll all be haunted by the guilt associated with that, and that's not even good enough punishment for us."
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, had opposed an independent inquiry into the attacks. He now supports such a probe.
"Our inability to detect and prevent the Sept. 11th attacks was an intelligence failure of unprecedented magnitude," said Shelby.
He noted that many members of Congress, who had been unwilling to consider that an "intelligence failure" preceded the attacks, "are now convinced of it."
The Bush administration and Republican leaders in both the House and Senate are on record as opposing such an independent probe.
Shelby complained in television appearances Wednesday that the committee was not getting the cooperation it needed from the intelligence community.
"Absolutely not," he told NBC''s "Today" show.
Pelosi cautioned all involved with the government's intelligence efforts that their full cooperation with the joint committee''s investigation was non-negotiable.
If any of these agencies of government in the intelligence community are not dealing honestly with us, and by that I mean being forthcoming with information," she warned, "I believe there will be hell to pay."
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