WASHINGTON -- Enormous intelligence and law enforcement gaps that contributed to the Sept. 11 attacks are being filled, but it will take years more for America to build the needed systems to effectively combat terrorists, the heads of the FBI and CIA said Wednesday.
CIA director George Tenet and FBI director Robert Mueller went before the commission investigating the 2001 hijackings after the panel's staff released statements harshly criticizing the CIA for failing to fully appreciate the threat posed by al-Qaida prior to Sept. 11 and questioning the FBI's reorganization efforts.
"It was a damning report of a system that's broken, that doesn't function," said commission member John Lehman, a former Navy secretary, referring to flaws found in the intelligence system.
Tenet, making his second appearance before the commission in three weeks, said that in the 1990s the CIA lost 25 percent of its personnel, was not hiring new analysts and faced disarray in its training of clandestine officers who work overseas to penetrate terror cells and recruit secret informants.
Although strides have been made since the attacks, Tenet said it would take five more years to "have the kind of clandestine service our country needs." The National Security Agency, which handles electronic surveillance, and U.S. mapping and analytic intelligence agencies also need time and sustained funding to improve, he said.
"You can't build this community in fits and starts. It won't happen and the country will suffer," Tenet said.
Mueller recounted a range of steps the FBI has taken since the Sept. 11 attacks to improve its intelligence capabilities, sharpen its focus on terrorism and replace outmoded technology. He urged the panel to let those improvements continue and not to risk derailing them by recommending creation of a new domestic intelligence agency outside the FBI.
"We don't want to have historians look back and say, 'OK, you won the war on terrorism but you lost your civil liberties,"' Mueller said. "We have become, since Sept. 11, a member of the intelligence community in ways we were not in the past."
The commission has been gathering information for more than a year and will release a final report in July. Among the issues it will consider is whether fundamental changes in U.S. intelligence gathering is needed.
The staff report on the CIA credited the agency with collecting a vast array of intelligence on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, which resulted in thousands of individual reports circulated at the highest U.S. government levels. These carried titles such as "Bin Laden Threatening to Attack U.S. Aircraft" in June 1998 and "Bin Laden's Interest in Biological and Radiological Weapons" in February 2001.
Despite this intelligence, the CIA never produced an authoritative summary of al-Qaida's involvement in past terrorist attacks, nor did it fully appreciate bin Laden's role as the leader of a growing extremist movement. Even though al-Qaida had been formed in 1988 after the Soviet Union abandoned Afghanistan, the CIA didn't recognize it as an organization until 1999, the report said.
Tenet acknowledged that the CIA lacked a government-wide ability to combine foreign and domestic intelligence in a way that might have sharpened the focus on how a foe might strike.
"We all understood bin Laden's intent to strike the homeland but were unable to translate this knowledge into an effective defense of the country," Tenet said.
Mueller and Tenet said a key step has already been taken to improve the situation through last year's creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, in which 124 FBI and CIA personnel work side-by-side to compare overseas and domestic intelligence reports on terrorism.
Some 2,600 government officials have access to its products, he said.
The director of the center, John Brennan, told the panel that the recent December-January increase in the U.S. terror risk level from yellow to orange and the close scrutiny of passengers on international flights marked the first major counterterrorism effort by the center. The center is also acting as the focus for intelligence related to terror threats against the Summer Olympics this August in Athens, Greece.
"It is only through such integration of effort that we will be able to prevent future 9/11s," Brennan said.
As with the CIA, the commission staff gave the FBI credit for beginning a series of changes aimed at focusing on terrorism prevention, intelligence gathering and information sharing. But its statement said there remains skepticism and confusion in the 56 FBI field offices about the changes -- and some instances where old habits continue to surface.
For example, despite the FBI focus on hiring and promoting intelligence analysts, the staff report found that many are still "assigned menial tasks, including covering the phones at the reception desk and emptying the office trash bins."
Questions also remain about the adequacy of FBI training and language translation abilities and whether field agents will continue to resist changes such as running terrorism cases through headquarters.
"With the stakes so high for the country, why should we give the FBI another chance?" asked commission member Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.
"We have changed to meet threats in the past," Mueller replied. "We will change to meet this threat."
On the Net:
To view commission statements, witness testimonies and a hearing transcript: http://wid.ap.org/transcripts/statement....