Spying eyes and ears

Congressional leaders make the case for a new emphasis on "human intelligence."


Jake Tapper
September 15, 2001 2:32AM (UTC)

On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, in a room on the House side of the Capitol, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla. -- the chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, respectively -- met for breakfast. Also at the meeting were Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., and some other members of the House Intelligence Committee.

They were meeting with the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., Maleeha Lodhi, and the director of Pakistani intelligence, Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed. They were talking about the late-August trip Goss, Graham, and Kyl had made to Pakistan.

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There they had met with Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to discuss various security issues -- including the extradition of Osama bin Laden, officially wanted in the U.S. for allegedly plotting the two U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998. Musharraf had told the delegation that there was really nothing he could do about the matter, however close he and his government have been with the Taliban. "Musharraf insists the Taliban cannot be influenced and the matter is a bilateral problem which should be solved through talks between Kabul and Washington," Agence France Press reported on Aug. 28.

They had also met with Abdul Salam Zaeef, the ambassador to Pakistan from the Taliban, Afghanistan's ruling militia. According to an account at the time from the Afghani embassy, as reported in the Afghan Islamic Press, "Zaeef assured the delegation that the Taliban government wanted to settle the issue" -- of extraditing bin Laden -- "through negotiations."

"Zaeef assured (the) U.S. delegation that the Taliban would never allow bin Laden to use Afghanistan to launch attacks on the U.S. or any other country," the Afghan Islamic Press said.

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Whatever Graham, Goss, and Kyl had felt about their sojourn to Pakistan -- whatever confidence they may have had in the words of Musharraf and Zaeef -- that all changed, perhaps forever, when a Goss staffer entered the room and handed the former CIA agent a note.

Goss opened it. Two planes had just crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack. He passed the note to Graham.

They all turned on the TV. Soon they were all evacuated from the Capitol building.

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Graham, Goss and Kyl are now more assured than ever that they can't rely on the assistance of the Musharrafs and Zaeefs of the world. The U.S. needs to do more on its own, they feel.

This is not a new position. Since the mid-1990s, Graham and Goss in particular have been advocating safeguards against events like Tuesday's. Fighting the entrenched bureaucracy of the intelligence community and the nonchalance of their colleagues and various administrations, the two have been arguing that with the end of the Cold War the U.S. had been lulled into a false sense of security. They wanted more money and more of an emphasis on "human intelligence" -- spies, agents and informants.

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Now, the resistance they had previously encountered stands to change. In the horrific wake of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, leaders of the House and Senate intelligence communities anticipate greater support for the measures they've been shouting about from the rooftops for years.

When the Senate reconvenes on Thursday, it stands to address the Senate Intelligence Bill, which was reported out of committee on Sept. 6, as well as a specific counter-terrorism bill co-sponsored by Kyl and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who work closely as vice-chair and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism and Technology.

Additionally, Graham and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, have agreed to hold hearings in the fall on "what went wrong" that led to Tuesday's horror, according to a source on the committee.

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More pressingly, Graham and Shelby are reviewing the contents of the intelligence bill, which was scheduled for debate sometime this month but as of Tuesday stands to be introduced and debated as soon as possible.

Plans for action in the House are less certain, though as of Friday a congressional working group on terrorism and homeland security had been changed to an official Subcommittee on Terrorism, to be chaired by Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., as part of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Graham said that the intelligence budget -- the actual dollar amount of which is never disclosed, though the 1998 appropriation was around $30 billion -- focuses on improving and increasing aspects of the United States' intelligence capabilities. These are human intelligence capabilities, or spies, "so that we'll have greater capability of getting inside terrorist cells"; eavesdropping abilities through the National Security Agency; analytical skills; and research and development, "so that our intelligence agencies continue in their tradition of leading the world in new knowledge."

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The Feinstein-Kyl bill, which has been languishing in draft form for months, is being expedited and finalized so it can be formally introduced on Thursday.

The bill would, among other things, create a powerful new administration position akin to a counter-terrorism czar, as recommended in January by the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century. While the commission recommended the creation of a new agency -- the National Homeland Security Agency -- to absorb many of the counter-terrorism departments in the 45 different government agencies that have some role in combating terrorism, the Feinstein-Kyl bill would not do that. Rather, the director of the counter-terrorism office would supervise, coordinate, strategize and budget for the various relevant offices in the various agencies.

Graham said that it's not only Tuesday's events, but subsequent government reactions, that reinforce the need for this new position. The Senate was briefed Wednesday on the events of the previous day by officials of the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Agency, the FBI and the CIA. Afterwards, Graham said that he was struck by the fact that "we had four agencies who were all testifying about their particular part in this tragedy" but "there was not a single agency -- much less a single individual -- who could be looked to for ultimate accountability as to what has happened."

Nor was there any one agency or individual with the task of "analysis, and a plan of action for the future." That can't continue, Graham said. Not having a counter-terrorism director "is a serious restraint on the capacity of our intelligence community to deal with the kind of challenges that they will have in the future, particularly in terms of terrorism."

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In May 2000, Goss had issued a report slamming the Clinton White House for allowing the disintegration of the intelligence community. Human intelligence, or spies, suffered from "poor planning" and "infrastructure problems," the report stated. Technological intelligence had suffered from "totally inadequate planning and investment" and "mismanagement of outdated technology."

Another change might be more conceptual in nature than legislative. One of the perceived problems with human intelligence in the recent past has been the feeling by some in the intelligence community that their capabilities have been hamstrung by an unrealistic expectation that spies and double agents should be good people.

In 1992, a Guatemalan colonel, Julio Roberto Alpirez, who also served as a CIA agent, killed a Guatemalan guerrilla, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, during an interrogation. Velasquez, it turned out, was the husband of an American lawyer, Jennifer Harbury, who went on a hunger strike and sued the U.S. government for further information about the incident. In a 1995 hearing on that case and the general topic of U.S. involvement in Guatemala, the then-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and the then-vice chair, Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., charged the CIA with having "knowingly misled" the committee about the human rights abuses committed by its agents in Guatemala.

Some in the intelligence community dispute whether or not this has had an effect on U.S. intelligence, arguing that nothing has changed one way or another since the 1995 hearings and chastisement. On Thursday, however, former President George H.W. Bush, who once served as CIA director, said that "human intelligence is kind of a dirty business. And in it, you have to deal with unsavory people. But if we're going to provide the president with the best possible intelligence, we have to free up the intelligence system from some of its constraints."

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America needs to grow up, Bush Sr. seemed to be saying. "People tried to make a lot out of the fact that at one point the intelligence community dealt with Manuel Noriega," he said. "Well, they did, but it isn't a nice, clean business. And if you're going to infiltrate some cell somewhere or a terrorist cell, you have to deal with people that are willing to betray their country, people that are willing to betray their friends, people that want money or other things. And it's not pleasant."

On CNN on Thursday, Goss agreed that the American desire to not deal with unsavory spies is "a serious problem," though he cautioned that "there is some controversy about how serious." Still, he said, "in order to deal with this kind of a very hard target to get into and to penetrate, we have to have agents that can get down and dirty and live in the ugly kind of world of innuendo and terror that these people live in."

While some might argue that any renewed effort to make use of more "agents that can get down and dirty" runs the great risk of creating not only future Col. Alpirezes but future Noriegas and bin Ladens, sources in the House and Senate agreed that Tuesday's events would probably alleviate most congressional concerns along those lines. If anything, Tuesday's attacks underscore the need for greater emphasis on human intelligence, they say.

"Many of us have been warning about it for some time," Goss said.

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Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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