WASHINGTON (UPI) — Lawmakers of both parties Tuesday closely and sometimes angrily questioned U.S. intelligence officials about progress in information sharing on terrorist threats, demanding to know who was in charge of ensuring that gaps that let the 9-11 hijackers into the country would be closed.
Officials from the FBI, CIA and the Department of Homeland Security gave evidence to a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees. Lawmakers wanted to track the progress of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, a multi-agency body designed to ensure that intelligence from every government agency about terrorist threats was shared and analyzed quickly enough to avoid a repeat of Sept. 11, 2001, when three jetliners were hijacked and flown into buildings — a fourth commandeered plane crashed — killing some 3,000 people.
Noting that better sharing of information might have enabled the government to stop the attacks, Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, asked, “As of today, who in the federal government is responsible for making sure that all the terrorism information … is brought together and shared and analyzed appropriately?”
“No single department or agency has the authority or capability to deal with the terrorist threat alone,” replied John O. Brenner, the director of TTIC, adding that, by statute, the responsibility for protecting against terrorist attacks was shared by various government agencies.
“TTIC is those agencies,” he said.
He told the committee the center brought together more than 100 officials from the FBI, CIA and the departments of Homeland Security, State and Defense, with full access to the information systems of their home departments. He compared the center to a joint military command, like the U.S. military’s Central Command, which brought together all the arms of the military.
TTIC’s job, Brenner said, was to analyze raw intelligence data to ascertain threats to the United States and share that information with the appropriate agencies.
But Associate Director for Homeland Security Bill Parrish admitted that his own department’s information systems were not yet up and running fully. He said liaison officers from other agencies were working inside the department “until all of our IT systems are in place.”
“I am confident that these work-around measures are succeeding in ensuring the … flow of information into and out of Homeland Security,” he told the panel.
In response to lawmakers’ concerns that information would not be shared fully enough, Parrish — who, prior to a recent promotion, was one of the Homeland Security analysts tasked to TTIC — said he had always received the data he needed. “I was never denied access to any of that information,” he said.
Brennan told lawmakers that a secure Web site had been established by the center, where authorized personnel could get classified data about potential threats “in real time.”
Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., pointed out that the Homeland Security Act had mandated that the single central point for threat analysis should be located inside the new Department of Homeland Security.
Another witness, Jerry Bremmer, of the lobby group the Center for Democracy and Technology, explained that this was important because the Department of Homeland Security was created by Congress with special departments whose role was to ensure that the privacy and civil liberties of Americans were not infringed in the war on terror.
Oversight and the protection of constitutional rights were built into the department, he said.
But TTIC — announced by President Bush in his January State of the Union address — had “floated out” of Homeland Security, freeing it from the restraints that Congress had imposed, and threatening “a civil liberties disaster.”
“Our experience of Watergate,” he reminded the panel, “was that secret intelligence, without guidelines, without oversight, without careful scrutiny, without auditing, may start with the best of intentions, but a government of deception is not what we are. We are a government of laws.”
He appealed to the panel “to make it right and bring (TTIC) back within the Department of Homeland Security.”
Responding to such concerns, Brennan said that TTIC “is not engaged in any (intelligence) collection activity, clandestine operation or law enforcement measures.” He said the center’s activities were governed by guidelines that protected Americans’ constitutional rights.
He did not give further details about the guidelines and the CIA Public Affairs Office was unable to furnish any Tuesday evening.
Other lawmakers seemed concerned that TTIC was duplicating what the Department of Homeland Security itself should be doing.
Calling the center a jobs program for the intelligence community, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., asked, “Why are we duplicating efforts? … Can’t one of you get it right?” “There is going to be overlap, and there’s got to be overlap,” said Brennan, adding, “We cannot afford to have any gaps or seams.”
Officials at times seemed to struggle to get across their message that progress was being made.
On May 12, in a series of attacks linked to al-Qaida, three vehicles were crashed through the gates of a foreign nationals’ housing compound near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing 34 people, including eight U.S. citizens. Parrish described how, the next morning, he and other officials, learning that attackers had used large vehicles to smash the compound’s gates, decided that state and local authorities and private sector companies needed to be warned about the possibility of attacks using similar techniques in the United States.
He tasked officials to draw up an information sheet, while he set to work getting the data he needed declassified.
“By the end of the day … we had out on the street … a document … seven pages that captured the tactics and techniques deployed (in Riyadh) and recommended protective measures,” Parrish said.
“The process is working,” he concluded.
Not everyone agreed, and many lawmakers seemed doubtful — not to say irritated — by the responses they received.
“I had hoped that having you all here (from your various agencies) would have cleared things up, but it hasn’t,” lamented the Democrat from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Del. Donna Christensen.
Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.