Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the ranking minority member on the House intelligence committee, said she wanted to express her "deep concern" about what "appear(s) to be an attempt to muzzle these (intelligence) agency heads."
The chairman, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., asked all of the witnesses whether they felt muzzled, and told them to speak up if they did. None did so.
The comments followed the recall, alteration and re-submission late Wednesday of prepared testimony submitted to a hearing on recruitment in the intelligence community.
Congressional Democrats said the Justice Department had recalled the testimony because some of it conflicted with the administration's position on affirmative action.
Harman said one official had been blocked from testifying altogether.
No one from the Justice Department, the White House or from the intelligence committee who could answer questions about the testimony was made available to comment, despite repeated requests.
As a result, it was unclear what in the testimony had been changed, since the original versions were not made available by the committee. But Harman read a sentence that she said had been taken out of the testimony of Gen. James R. Clapper of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.
"'The impact of diversity includes the benefit of often diverging perspectives in solving problems and creates opportunities for creativity not available to a more homogeneous group.'
"I'm not sure why that sentence was excised," she added.
Indeed, similar perspectives were apparent in the comments of both lawmakers and officials, who were all keen to stress that the issue was not one of political correctness, but rather, in Goss' words, "the national security imperative for diversity in languages, skill sets and ethnic and cultural understanding."
"Our business is understanding peoples and cultures," Don Cryer, a special assistant to CIA Director George Tenet, told the panel, "a diverse workforce is one of the most powerful resources we can have."
"The power of diversity has been amply demonstrated," agreed Peter B. Teets, director of the National Reconnaissance Office.
But critics -- including Goss -- have long maintained that the intelligence community has insufficient numbers of language specialists -- particularly in Arabic, Pashto, and Persian -- to tackle the task of interpreting the data that the technological superiority of the U.S. agencies gives them copious access to.
Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., joked that -- on the basis of the testimony he had heard, "we might as well pack up and go home, because everything is OK."
But in reality, he said, "The numbers are horrible."
Harman agreed, pointing out that there was only one woman and no member of any racial minority in the top tier management of the intelligence community.
Clapper acknowledged that the problem was historical. "The origins of the (intelligence) community are white and male," he said, a phenomenon that Cryer attributed to its origins in the struggle against the Soviet Union.
Democrats and Republicans alike hammered the witnesses on this issue, urging them to find ways to overcome any historical or institutional barriers.
"It becomes a performance issue," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich. "Without the linguistic and cultural diversity, we won't get the information we need as policymakers."
One problem often raised by critics is the difficulty encountered by foreign-born citizens in being recruited to intelligence agencies, owing to the near-impossibility of carrying out the extensive background checks required overseas.
Louis J. Freeh, the former FBI director, told United Press International earlier this week that one way of dealing with this issue was to build relationships with foreign intelligence agencies.
"If you have someone from Jordan (applying for a job requiring clearance), we have a relationship with the service in that country, and that can help us. We're developing more and more of those relationships," he said of the FBI.