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Independent Sept. 11 Commission Gaining Ground

by Vernon Loeb, Washington Post, 29 July 2002


House passage last week of legislation to create an independent commission to investigate possible Sept. 11 intelligence failures seemed a vote of no confidence in the House and Senate intelligence committees, which have postponed public hearings in their own probe and already concluded that the intelligence agencies could not have averted the terrorist attacks.

The Bush administration and congressional leaders had opposed an independent investigation, arguing that the intelligence committees had the expertise and the staff to do a better job.

But after the committees fired their staff director, postponed the start of hearings three times and moved beyond the terrorist attacks to consider broader issues of intelligence reform, virtually all House Democrats bolted. Joined by 25 Republicans, they added Rep. Tim Roemer's (D-Ind.) amendment creating an independent commission to the fiscal 2003 intelligence authorization bill.

A similar vote this week in the Senate, where Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are sponsoring similar legislation, could put the issue in conference with considerable momentum.

Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia professor and intelligence expert who served on the staff of the Church Committee in the mid-1970s, says creating special investigative commissions has been the norm in the past when the intelligence agencies seriously misfired.

The reform committee Johnson served, headed by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), was preceded by an independent commission headed by Nelson Rockefeller in investigating two decades of intelligence abuses, Johnson notes. And the select committee headed by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) that probed the Iran-Contra scandal was preceded by an independent commission headed by former Sen. John Tower (R-Texas). "The congressional oversight committees are unlikely to examine congressional oversight--or, if so, without much credibility," Johnson says. "Whether or not the staffs have been suborned by the intelligence community deserves closer attentionSMy guess is that some have, but some remain dedicated to the Madisonian ideal of serious checks and balances-although such checks depend on access to information in the community and this administration seems reluctant to cooperate much in this regard."

Polygraphing Congressmen?

The FBI's investigation of leaks from a congressional inquiry into Sept. 11 intelligence failures could soon have FBI agents interviewing members of Congress and asking them whether they would be willing to submit to polygraph examinations to determine whether they are telling the truth, according to one senior administration official.

Ironically, the investigation was requested by leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees last month after two sensitive electronic intercepts, briefed to the committees as part of their inquiry, were leaked verbatim to the media. The leaders requested the investigation after Vice President Cheney complained bitterly about the leaks.

The messages were intercepted just before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington but were not translated by analysts at the National Security Agency until after the attacks. One said, "Tomorrow is zero hour," and the other said, "The match begins tomorrow."

Congressional staff members and officials at both the CIA and the NSA have been interviewed and queried about whether they would voluntarily taken polygraphs. FBI agents have indicated that they plan on asking members of Congress to do the same.

How about polygraphing military officers and defense officials?

Things are definitely intensifying over at the Pentagon as well, now that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has asked the FBI to find and arrest whoever leaked a classified plan for a large-scale invasion of Iraq to the New York Times earlier this month.

The leakers evidently believed that the American people should know, in the case of the intercepts, what the NSA had obtained and failed to translate, and in the case of the Iraq, what kind of attack is actually under consideration.

As the investigations proceed, some thought should be given to the American people's legitimate right to know about how their intelligence capabilities are performing and why the country should invade Iraq_two things they have been told little about since the war on terrorism began.

Satellite Blues

CIA Director George J. Tenet put the National Imagery and Mapping Agency on notice in a recent memo that spy satellites will be used only under "exceptional circumstances" and that a transition to commercial imagery for less urgent targets should begin "as quickly as possible," according to defense analyst Loren B. Thompson.

Tenet's push for greater use of commercial imagery, according to Thompson, comes as delays beset fielding of next-generation Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) spy satellites and demands from the global war of terrorism shorten the service life of current electro-optical Keyhole and radar-imaging Lacrosse satellites.

"When you delay FIA for years, what happens when the existing satellites start blinking off one by one?" says Thompson, a Ph.D. at the Lexington Institute with close ties to defense contractors and the Pentagon. "It means there will be big gaps in coverage. And that explains the urgency of this Tenet memo."

Thompson credits Peter B. Teets, undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office, with putting defense contractors on notice that they will lose satellite contracts if they do not meet timetables and budget projections.

For several years, a dedicated group of space enthusiasts who have made a high-tech hobby out of tracking the orbits of super secret U.S. spy satellites believed that the NRO launched the first of its next-generation satellites in 1999. They called it 8X.

They believed 8X was a new spy satellite because it was put in orbit four to five times higher than the Keyholes and Lacrosses. Higher altitudes give satellites greater views and long times to photograph their targets, which are thought to be attributes desired of the new FIA satellites.

But Allen Thomson, a former CIA scientist, says the satellite watchers no longer believe 8X is a spy satellite. Given the way the object is pushed and pulled in space by atmospheric drag and solar radiation, he says, whatever is up weighs only about one-tenth as much as the payload on the rocket that launched 8X.

"It's probably either a decoy," Thomson says, "or some sort of debris that we don't understand."

© 2002 Washington Post
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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