9/11 Panel Is Said to Sharply Fault Role of Congress

By CARL HULSE and PHILIP SHENON

The New York Times

July 22, 2004

WASHINGTON, July 21 - The unanimous final report of the Sept. 11 commission will sharply criticize Congress for failing in its role as overall watchdog over the nation's intelligence agencies and will call for wholesale changes in the way lawmakers oversee intelligence agencies and the Homeland Security Department, lawmakers and others briefed on the panel's findings said Wednesday.

The people who went to the briefings said proposals to revise Congressional oversight would be among dozens of sweeping recommendations aimed at preventing future attacks. The report, scheduled to be made public on Thursday, will detail the intelligence and law-enforcement failures that preceded the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Lawmakers and other government officials who have read or been briefed on the book-length report said that among its recommendations the commission would call for a reorganization of domestic-intelligence programs within the F.B.I., although not for a separate domestic security intelligence agency; for an office within the White House with an estimated 200 employees to coordinate the work of the 15 intelligence agencies; and for an interagency counterterrorism center to absorb the smaller antiterrorism center that the C.I.A. operates.

Officials had previously disclosed the central recommendation, the creation of a post of so-called national intelligence director to coordinate the intelligence community, with budget authority over the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies. But they offered new details about the proposal on Wednesday, saying the report called for the intelligence director to operate in the executive office of the president and to have cabinet-level authority, but not to be in the cabinet itself.

The officials also gave details about the criticisms of the government's performance before 9/11, saying one passage of the report found that Al Qaeda and the 19 hijackers exploited "deep institutional failings within our government" over a long period. The officials said the report did not directly blame the Bush or Clinton administration for the failures, even as it harshly criticizes several agencies, especially the C.I.A. and F.B.I.

Although Congressional oversight was not a focus of the commission's public hearings, officials said Congress's management of intelligence will also be a target of criticism in the final report, with the commission's urging lawmakers to scrap the watchdog system now used for intelligence and domestic security.

The s report will propose that both the House and Senate establish permanent committees on domestic security to oversee activities that are the jurisdiction of dozens of competing committees, officials said. The report will also reportedly recommend that the existing House and Senate intelligence committees be given much broader discretion over intelligence policy and spending, or alternatively to establish a joint House-Senate intelligence panel.

The proposals involving Congress are certain to touch off fierce turf wars in the House and Senate, where lawmakers historically protect the power they wield through their responsibility for setting policy and budgets for federal agencies. Such jurisdictional fights have for years blocked similar proposed changes in the intelligence field, but some lawmakers said Wednesday that they should not stand in the way of the changes recommended by the panel.

"If we're going to, based on the findings of this report, respond and improve, we are going to have the challenge of overcoming the institutional inertia which is a product of a lot of what we have in Washington, D.C.," the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, said after being briefed by the panel's leaders. "That's going to be the challenge for us as leaders."

As they braced for the release of the report, Republican Congressional leaders prepared to emphasize the changes they have enacted since 9/11. But the conclusions and recommendations show that the bipartisan independent commission believes that significant work remains.

The recommendations could force House and Senate leaders either to follow through on the ideas or risk being accused of ignoring the findings in the event of another attack.

"Before, this was unpredictable," the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, said as she urged strong consideration for the proposals. "Now it is predictable, and we all have a heightened responsibility to avoid another tragedy."

The House has a temporary special committee on domestic security while the Senate has none, dispersing those responsibilities through its committees like Defense, Appropriations and Commerce. The shortcomings of even the House approach were exhibited this month when an effort to write comprehensive domestic security legislation for next year broke down in jurisdictional disputes with other committees.

"It goes without saying that chairmen of committees are generally very vigorous in guarding their committee's jurisdiction," Representative Jim Turner of Texas, senior Democrat on the House domestic security panel, said. "But to get this job done, we can't move at a snail's pace."

Congressional aides with long experience in the intelligence field said the proposals for the intelligence panels would represent major changes and would encounter significant resistance.

The intelligence panels now have authority to set policy for the intelligence agencies. They share that power with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, because the military controls such a large segment of the intelligence apparatus. The actual spending for the agencies is established through the appropriations committees, mainly by subcommittees responsible for military spending.

Under the panel's recommendation, as described by the lawmakers and aides, the intelligence committees would gain much greater control over policy and spending, a significant shift in the Congressional approach. Aides said the report would also urge consideration of a joint House-Senate panel responsible for intelligence agencies. That, too, would be rare, because House and Senate committees usually draw up individual items of legislation and then work out the differences in conference committees.

"That would be a major change for Congress," a Democratic official familiar with the report said about the intelligence committee alternative. That official and others said the report represented a clear criticism of Congress's oversight role.

But Dr. Frist, the Senate majority leader, said he did not see it that way. "Congress is doing a very good job,'' he said. "But there are going to be very clear areas of improvement."