Intelligence officials deny lack of imagination

Senior U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday that statements in the Sept. 11 commission report regarding the government's lack of "imagination" in anticipating potential terrorist attacks fail to account for changes made in the aftermath of the 2001 strikes in New York and Washington.

In its report released last month, the commission said that a lack of imagination in understanding the threat posed by al-Qaeda had been "the most important failure" in preventing the attacks.

"Though top officials all told us that they understood the danger, we believe there was uncertainty among them as to whether this was just a new and especially venomous version of the ordinary terrorist threat the United States had lived with for decades, or it was indeed radically new, posing a threat beyond any yet experienced," the commission said.

In testimony before lawmakers yesterday, though, senior intelligence officials from the CIA, FBI and State Department stressed the changes that had been made in their respective departments since the attacks to improve analysis of terrorism-related information.

"The intelligence community that exists today is far removed from the one that existed on Sept. 11. That older community, however, seems to be preserved in amber in a series of reports that do not reflect the changes we have made," CIA Assistant Director for Analysis and Production Mark Lowenthal told the House intelligence committee.

One such change is the creation within the CIA of National Intelligence Collection Boards, which bring together senior managers of all national intelligence collection agencies, CIA Assistant Director for Collection Charles Allen told the committee. Such boards are used to help organize intelligence collection efforts against "specific" threats, he said.

The CIA is also examining ways to improve the training of analysts, such as the creation of a national intelligence university similar to the various war colleges in the U.S. military, Lowenthal said.

In addition, the agency is pursuing more "imaginative" measures, such as by having analysts meet with science fiction writers and Hollywood directors and screenwriters - "people who are known for developing the summer blockbusters or hit TV shows that often have a terrorism theme," CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Jami Miscik said.

"It was an attempt to see beyond the intelligence report and into a world of plot development," Miscik said.

The intelligence officials also told the committee of the need to foster an environment conducive to analytic risk-tasking within the various intelligence agencies.

"To truly nurture creativity, you have to cherish your contrarians, and you have to give them the opportunities to run free. Leaders in the analytic community must avoid trying to make everyone meet a preconceived notion of the intelligence community's equivalent of the man in the gray flannel suit," Miscik said.

Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon testified that improved "red teaming" exercises were needed to help analysts determine the shape and scope of possible future terrorist attacks. Such an improved capability, he said, would help prevent too much of a focus on either conventional attacks or "the next incredibly outlandish attack," he said.

Yesterday's House intelligence committee hearing was the latest in a series of sessions by both House and Senate committees this month to examine the intelligence reform measures included in the Sept. 11 commission's report with the aim of producing legislation by the end of the year. President Bush has publicly come out in favor of the two key intelligence-reform measures put forth by the commission - the creation of a national director of intelligence and the creation of a national counterterrorism center.

During yesterday's hearing, Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, complained that the panel was moving too slow in implementing reform. She noted that there were already two intelligence reform bills before the committee - one sponsored by Democrats and one by Republicans - and called for markup hearings and votes to be held on the existing legislation.

"We've had 62 hearings just this year on topics that are relevant to marking up legislation. So why isn't our committee moving faster?" Harman said. "This committee is behind the curve, and we owe it to the 9/11 families and the country to catch up," she added.

Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., suggested that the existing intelligence reform bills may undergo markup hearings before the end of the month.

In an internal message sent yesterday to CIA employees, acting agency Director John McLaughlin said that it would take time to finalize the details on the new intelligence director, according to the Associated Press.

"As always in our business, the devil is in the details and the truth is that many of these have yet to be worked out," McLaughlin was quoted by AP as having written.

Some committee Republicans yesterday warned against acting too quickly to implement the commission's recommendations.

"Now, we're all applauding the outstanding work of the 9/11 commission … but we've got to be thoughtful as we go forward, and in the meantime we've got to continue the action already under way to significantly improve intelligence," Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York said. James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, also agreed on the need to move slowly, in part, to ward off criticism once reforms are in place.

"If we rush and do this before the election, we will have poisoned the baby, because the criticism will always be that we rushed to do this, whether it's a fair criticism or not. And we will have a hard time getting this off the ground because people will be saying we threw this together even if it's to true," he said.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, rejected the idea that the committee would be "rushing" to act, noting that proposals to create a national intelligence director have been debated since the mid-1970s.

"So the notion that this is rushing to consider and do something about that, I think, would not be reflecting what recommendations and debates have gone on on Capitol Hill and other places for the last 30 years. So I don't think that can be constituted as rushing," Reyes said.

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