- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2002

President Bush yesterday said the FBI and CIA "clearly" were not communicating properly before September 11, but added he had seen nothing to indicate the United States could have thwarted the terrorist attacks that killed more than 3,000 Americans.
Addressing for the first time a growing number of reports that the FBI and CIA missed key clues preceding the attacks, Mr. Bush said congressional intelligence committees are right to probe the matter. But he warned lawmakers not to "tie up our team when we're trying to fight this war on terror."
Yesterday, the joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee met in secret to hold its first hearing into intelligence failures surrounding the September 11 attacks.
Before a closed-door meeting yesterday with staff at the top-secret National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md., Mr. Bush said a spate of news reports detailing how the intelligence agencies failed to pass along information or follow up on staff proposals has convinced him errors were made.
"In terms of whether the FBI and CIA communicated properly, I think it's clear that they weren't, and now we're addressing that issue," he said.
But he added: "I see no evidence today that said this country could have prevented the attacks," even if the two agencies had communicated more efficiently.
While the president acknowledged House and Senate intelligence committees have oversight authority for the FBI and CIA, he warned Congress not to allow numerous other committees with tangential authority to demand appearances by Bush administration officials.
"I'm concerned about distractions from this perspective: I want the Congress to investigate, but I want a committee to investigate, not multiple committees to investigate because I don't want to tie up our team when we're trying to fight this war on terror. So I don't want our people to be distracted.
"What I am concerned about is tying up valuable assets and time, and possibly jeopardizing sources of intelligence. That's why they have intelligence committees on Capitol Hill, and that's the appropriate forum, as far as I am concerned, for these investigations."
Mr. Bush expressed concern about other committees unaccustomed to handling top-secret information.
"It's important for us to not reveal how we collect information. That's what the enemy wants, and we're fighting an enemy."
While the president acknowledged some shortcomings of the FBI and CIA, his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said Mr. Bush still thinks the agencies were doing their jobs before September 11.
"As the president has said, if we had information prior to September 11th that could have allowed us to stop this attack, does anybody possibly think there is anybody in the government who would not have wanted that would not have acted to stop the attack?" Mr. Fleischer said.
The White House spokesman said a "wily enemy" bested the U.S. intelligence agencies by keeping plans for the attacks secret even from some of the terrorists who hijacked the four commercial airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
"So I think, again, people can look back with 20/20 hindsight, people can look back and second-guess; this president is focused on the future, as well," he said.
On his trip to the NSA, a giant intelligence-gathering operation spread out on an Army base between Washington and Baltimore, Mr. Bush praised the men and women "on the forefront of one of the most important wars in our nation's history."
"One of my jobs is to remind those who sacrifice on behalf of our nation that we appreciate it a lot. And I'd rather have them sacrificing on behalf of our nation than, you know, endless hours of testimony on congressional hill.
"I think I'm more worried about them being overworked. These good people are putting in long, long hours," Mr. Bush said before delivering a pep talk to the staff and spending an unusually long time shaking hands.
Although Mr. Bush acknowledged a failure of communication between the domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, he said changes swiftly implemented after September 11 have solved the problem.
"We've addressed that issue. The CIA and the FBI are now in close communications. There's better sharing of intelligence. And one of the things that is essential to win this war is to have the best intelligence possible; and when we get the best intelligence, to be able to share it throughout our government," he said.
Mr. Bush also said the FBI has been changed from a bureau that hunts down domestic criminals after they commit crimes to an agency whose "primary mission" is prevention of future attacks.
"In other words, the FBI was a fine law enforcement agency, chasing down white-collar criminals and people that were committing crimes in America. And that's good and that's still an important function of the FBI. But now the focus is on the primary focus is on preventing a further attack. So the mission has changed, and that's a positive change."
Over the past few weeks, reports have emerged that have raised questions as to whether the FBI and CIA acted properly on the few and often vague clues they had before the attacks.
For example, a Phoenix FBI agent suggested the bureau investigate U.S. flight schools after learning that an unusually high number of Arab men were in training.
The FBI decided it did not have the manpower to conduct a nationwide review.
Over the weekend, government sources said the CIA had tracked two members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda group Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi to a meeting in Malaysia in 2000.
The FBI said the CIA did not share the information before the men slipped into the United States, although a CIA official said yesterday that two FBI officials were briefed on Almihdhar.

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