Chaney complains of leaks by panel investigating attacks

Thursday, June 20, 2002

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Vice President Dick Cheney complained to lawmakers Thursday about leaks that he believes led to disclosure of the National Security Agency's Sept. 10 intercepts of at least two messages in Arabic that suggested a major event was to take place the next day.

At President Bush's direction, Cheney called Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, "to express the president's concerns about this inappropriate disclosure," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

"The information that is being provided to these committees is extraordinarily sensitive," Fleischer said. "The selective, inappropriate leaking of snippets of information risks undermining national security, and it risks undermining the promises made to protect this sensitive information."

There was no immediate comment from Graham and Goss's offices. Their committees are holding a joint inquiry into Sept. 11 attacks.

Concern about possible leaks has been a key reason the White House has opposed setting up an independent commission to investigate the attacks. The commission has been sought by some lawmakers and relatives of the victims.

President Bush has said the intelligence panels were better positioned to avoid leak. They "understand the obligations of upholding our secrets and our sources and methods of collecting intelligence," he said last month.

But Bush has clashed with Congress before over leaks. On Oct. 5, he issued a memo limiting sensitive congressional briefings to the top leaders of the House and Senate and their intelligence committees. He dropped the restrictions a week later after getting assurances from Graham and Goss that they would rein in their members.

Fleischer did not address questions from reporters about the NSA's intercepts themselves. But he said that a 1998 leak -- that American intelligence agencies were eavesdropping on Osama bin Laden's satellite phone conversations -- led bin Laden to stop using that phone.

The Sept. 10 intercepts were not translated until Sept. 12. Intelligence agencies aren't sure if it they were actually a warning of the attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, an intelligence source said Wednesday.

Even if they were, they provided no information that authorities could have acted on, the intelligence source said. The mere mention of a time was insufficient to provide clues of what was to come, the source said.

The messages, recorded in two separate conversations, contained the phrases, "Tomorrow is zero hour," and "The match is about to begin," the intelligence source said.

The messages were believed to be recorded from telephone conversations.

A U.S. intelligence official, while declining to comment on the NSA intercepts, said a piece of raw intelligence that contains only a date provides little useful information.

The official said that both before and after Sept. 11, U.S. intelligence frequently has received threat information that consists of only a date and a vague notion something will happen -- and then, nothing happens.

The congressional inquiry wrapped up its third week of closed-door hearings Wednesday. The NSA's director, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, underwent a second day of questioning alongside FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet.

The panel is investigating the events surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks, problems in counterterrorism efforts and how future attacks can be averted.

Much of the questioning Wednesday addressed problems that have hindered intelligence-gathering, such as communications problems among agencies, a shortage of linguists and the difficulty of dealing with massive amounts of intercepted communications.

Richard Clarke, President Bush's adviser for cyberspace security, said Thursday that the NSA "is pushing adoption of leading-edge technologies" to help deal with the glut of information.

Clarke spoke briefly with a reporter after addressing a congressional forum on using technology to fight terrorism. Last week, he became the first witness to appear before the congressional inquiry.

The intelligence hearings were scheduled to be opened to the public Tuesday, but could be postponed. They said the committee and staff need to sift through huge amounts of information and are working with the Justice Department to see what information can be presented in public.

Associated Press Writer Pete Yost contributed to this report.

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