- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2001

President Bush yesterday brushed aside criticism of CIA Director George J. Tenet in the wake of harsh criticism by the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The president said he counted himself among many Americans asking "how could this have happened," but drew laughter from 500 CIA employees at the spy agency's headquarters with his wry observation that "George and I have been spending a lot of quality time together."
"There's a reason," Mr. Bush said. "I've got a lot of confidence in him, and I've got a lot of confidence in the CIA."
The president, on another subject, accused Chechnya of harboring terrorists, and thanked Russia for joining the hunt for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. The White House said the two statements did not represent an acceptance of a quid pro quo.
Mr. Bush also met with Sikhs and Muslims at the White House, and urged Americans not to discriminate against religious groups in the wake of the terrorist attacks, which the administration says were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, told a TV interviewer that the CIA director's job was "getting away" from Mr. Tenet. Others have blamed the spy agency for failing to detect the plot to hijack at least four jetliners and turn them into weapons of mass destruction.
Although the president stood by the spymaster, he spoke warmly of Mr. Shelby, the vice chairman of the Senate intelligence panel. "He's a concerned American," Mr. Bush said. "I'm sure other Americans are asking how could this have happened, including the president. But what Americans need to know is that I'm receiving excellent intelligence. The CIA is doing a fine job."
A member of a special congressional commission on terrorism said that CIA efforts to find terrorists have been hampered by weak human spying capabilities and rules limiting the recruitment of unsavory agents.
Paul Bremer, chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism, told the House Select Committee on Intelligence that the commission had called for the restrictions to be lifted, but the CIA ignored the recommendation. "It's my view that the United States for 25 years has seen a significant run-down of its overseas intelligence capabilities, and in particular, its capabilities against human targets," said Mr. Bremer, a former ambassador at large for counterterrorism.
"That progressive degeneration was accelerated by a decision in 1995 to impose restrictive guidelines on the overseas recruitment of terrorist informants."
Mr. Bremer said his commission heard testimony from numerous CIA officers that was "unambiguous, unanimous and conclusive" that the rules had discouraged "people in the field from recruiting terrorist spies." The rules had a "chilling effect" on recruitment efforts, he said. The rules in effect before 1995, which included some consultation with the CIA's Langley headquarters, should be reinstated.
The CIA has denied the guidelines have hampered its spying efforts. The guidelines were imposed under pressure from Congress following reports that CIA officers had recruited Latin American government officials with violent pasts.
Mr. Bremer said it was "astonishing" that 15 months after the commission recommended lifting the restrictions "nothing has been done on this, the most important recommendation our commission made." Lifting the curbs would be "one of the most important steps that could be taken by this country to stop terrorism, because the objective of counterterrorist policy is to prevent attacks. It's to keep Americans from getting killed in the first place.
"When you scrub it all down, if you are going to get good intelligence on terrorist groups, it is going to come from somebody who by definition is a terrorist. If we are not prepared as a nation to do that, then we are not going to get this intelligence. This kind of intelligence is not going to come by wandering down to the League of Women Voters and seeing what you find there."
Mr. Bremer said the guidelines are self-imposed and could be lifted easily by Mr. Tenet.
Bruce Hoffman, president of the Rand Corp., faulted the CIA for not producing regular strategic assessments of the terrorist threat. The last national intelligence estimate on terrorism was conducted in 1997, he said. A newer assessment begun in May was in its final stages but was weeks too late, Mr. Hoffman told the committee.
Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic representative from Indiana, told the committee that the guidelines require CIA officers to obtain direct approval from headquarters if they plan to recruit an informant who is a terrorist, criminal or human rights violator.
"On paper, that restraint appears to be appropriate," Mr. Hamilton said, noting that inexperienced CIA officers should not be allowed to decide whether to recruit such people.
Mr. Hamilton said he did not know whether the policy was appropriate or not and urged the committee to examine it further.
Mr. Shelby has criticized U.S. intelligence agencies for an inability to transform themselves to suit the post-Cold War world. "We need new thinking and new people looking at this problem," Mr. Shelby said.
"We need our country's most talented and capable people leading the effort. The old ways have failed us time and again in this new threat environment."
He noted several intelligence failures, including the Sept. 11 attack and 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center, the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military residence in Saudi Arabia and the October attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen. "We have shed enough blood and squandered enough treasure," he said. "We need a rapid response. And, I'm afraid that the calcified bureaucracies of our national security institutions are not capable of rapid change."

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