Administration won't release 9-11 data

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO  |  Sept. 18, 2002 at 5:24 PM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 (UPI) -- The administration has denied lawmakers investigating the Sept. 11 attacks permission to reveal whether the president or other White House staff received warning of potential terrorist attacks against the United States, including plans by al Qaida linked terrorists to use hijacked planes as weapons.

The joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee -- which is charged with determining why intelligence and law enforcement agencies missed apparently numerous warnings prior to Sept. 11 -- Wednesday released summaries of dozens of now-declassified intelligence briefings dating back to the early 1990's, but was denied permission to release the names of the recipients by CIA boss George Tenet.

"The Director of Central Intelligence has declined to declassify two issues of particular importance to this inquiry," Eleanor Hill, staff director for the committee told the panel, "any references to the intelligence community providing information to the president or White House and the identity of and information on a key al Qaida leader involved in the September 11 attacks."

But the panel's co-chairman, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said that the point of the panel's inquiry was to fulfill an oversight responsibility and not to point blame at anyone in the government, White House or intelligence services.

"These public hearings are part of our search for the truth -- not to point fingers or pin blame, but with the goal of identifying and correcting whatever systematic problems might have prevented our government from detecting and disrupting al Qaida's plot," he said.

Co-chairman Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla. -- without directly addressing the administration's gag order -- said that there were only three reasons to keep information a secret: to protect sources or methods of collection, to protect the plans and intentions of operations, and to avoid interfering with ongoing investigations and prosecutions.

Hill detailed the reasons given for the decision to classify some information about who knew what, in a probe designed to determine exactly that.

"According to (Tenet), the president's knowledge of intelligence information relevant to this inquiry remains classified even when the substance of intelligence information has been declassified," Hill told lawmakers.

"With respect to the key al Qaida leader involved in the September 11 attacks, the DCI declined to declassify his identity despite an enormous volume of media reporting on this individual."

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a Kuwaiti national, has given an interview in which he claims to have been the organizer and financier for the attacks. In an interview with an Arab language news service, he admitted to being a top al Qaida official and appears to be the person in question. He remains at large and is thought to be in Pakistan.

Hill complained that the decision to bar the release of the two sets of information has restricted the probe, but she noted that the committee lacks authority to overrule Tenet, whose formal title is Director of Central Intelliegence on such matters.

"The Joint Inquiry Staff disagrees with the DCI's position on both issues," she said. "We believe the American public has a compelling interest in this information and that public disclosure would not harm national security. However, we do not have an independent authority to declassify intelligence information short of a lengthy procedure in the U.S. Congress."

The dispute over declassification could lead to a showdown between congress and the White House. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mi., threatened in a statement at Wednesday's hearing to try to force the administration to declassify disputed material.

"I hope the leadership will let the Administration know our committee will seek congressional authorization to declassify appropriate information if the executive branch refuses," said Levin in his statement.

The ranking Senate Republican, Richard Shelby of Alabama, said that Wednesday's decision -- and other regulations that have prevented members of the committee from following the work of the joint staff -- threatens the success of the entire committee.

"Many members have found it exceedingly difficult to get information about the inquiry," he said.

"They are frustrated by what they perceive to be efforts to limit their ability to participate fully."

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