WASHINGTON (CNN) — The CIA’s failure to stop the September 11, 2001, terror plot ” haunts all of us to this day,” the agency’s director, George Tenet, said on Wednesday. But he defended his efforts to battle the al Qaeda terror network before the attacks.
“Three thousand people died,” Tenet told the 9/11 commission. “No matter how hard we worked or how desperately we tried, it was not enough. The victims and the families of 9/11 deserve better.”
Tenet said the agency’s “plumbing” — the infrastructure needed to train and field spies — had been long neglected and was under repair at the time of the attacks.
“It will take us another five years to have the kind of clandestine service our country needs,” he said. “There is a creative, innovative strategy to get us there that requires sustained commitment, leadership and funding. The same can be said for our other disciplines.”
Committee Chairman Thomas Kean said “I wonder if we have five years … that worries me a little bit.”
Before the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, the U.S. intelligence community “had the right strategy and was making the right investments to position itself for the future,” he said.
However, he added, “We never penetrated the 9/11 plot overseas.”
FBI Director Robert Mueller is scheduled to testify in the afternoon session. CNN plans live coverage of the testimony, starting at 2:30 p.m. ET Wednesday.
Tenet on report: ‘Flat wrong’
Tenet has led the CIA since 1997. He disputed the commission’s findings that he had no management strategy to battle terrorism before the September 11, 2001, attacks, saying the staff report read before his testimony was “flat wrong.”
The report states that Tenet did not develop a “management strategy” that would “define the capabilities the intelligence community must acquire for such a war, from language training to collection systems to analysts.” (Excerpts of staff report)
Tenet acknowledged that “it ain’t perfect,” but said he had “serious issues” with the panel’s conclusions.
“By no stretch of the imagination am I going to tell you that I’ve solved all the problems of the community in terms of integrating and in lashing it up,” he said. “But we’ve made an enormous amount of progress.”
By September 11, 2001, when al Qaeda members flew hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he said U.S. intelligence networks “were operating throughout Afghanistan” and were in place to aid the U.S. invasion of that country a month later.
But he added, “We made mistakes” — among them, the CIA’s failure to alert other U.S. agencies that eventual 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar were believed to be in the United States.
The CIA, FBI and the State and Defense departments all kept databases, but “none were interoperable or broadly accessible.”
“Most profoundly, we lacked a government-wide capability to integrate foreign and domestic knowledge, data, operations and analysis. Warning is not good enough without the structure to put it into action,” Tenet said.
Tenet said that intelligence officials were not able to turn their knowledge of the threat into an “effective defense of the country.”
“Doing so would have complicated the terrorist calculation of the difficulties in succeeding in a vast open society, that in effect, was unprotected on September 11th,” Tenet said.
The panel on Wednesday is also hearing from John O. Brennan, the director of Terrorist Threat Integration Center; Lt. Gen. Patrick M. Hughes from the Department of Homeland Security; and John S. Pistole and James L. Pavitt, counter terrorism officials from the FBI and CIA, respectively.
On Tuesday, the commission focused on law enforcement’s counterterrorism efforts prior to the attacks — hearing testimony from Attorney General John Ashcroft and his predecessor Janet Reno, as well as former FBI Director Louis Freeh and former acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard.
J. Cofer Black, former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, also testified.
The FBI was criticized by some commission members and was faulted in a staff report for for not piecing together “connections” about terrorist activity. (Gallery: Quotes from the testimony)
Ashcroft criticized his predecessors at the Justice Department, saying a 1995 memorandum by then-Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick — now a member of the commission — hamstrung the FBI beyond what the law required.
“We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies,” he said. “Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions and starved for basic information technology.”
But former acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard said Ashcroft dismissed warnings of terrorist threats that summer and rejected appeals for additional counterterrorism funds.
Ashcroft: “We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies.”
Pickard said that “in late June and through July, he met with Attorney General Ashcroft once a week,” the report says. “He told us that though he initially briefed the attorney general regarding these threats, after two such briefings the attorney general told him he did not want to hear this information anymore.”
Ashcroft disputed Pickard’s account when he appeared before the commission, saying he met with him on more than two occasions.
“Secondly, I did never speak to him saying that I did not want to hear about terrorism,” Ashcroft said.
Former FBI Director Louis Freeh said the agency’s request for more agents and analysts were not fulfilled before 9/11 and he said the country was not on a “war footing” before the attacks.
“We were using grand jury subpoenas and arrest warrants to fight an enemy that was using suicide boats to attack our warships,” he said, referring to the attack on the Cole. The fight against terrorism at that time, he said, was not “a real war.”
Black said that intelligence reports in the summer of 2001 indicated a “massive” terrorist strike was in the works.
“None of this, unfortunately, specified method, time or place. Where we had clues, it looked like planning was under way for an attack in the Middle East or Europe,” he said.
Black said he and his colleagues at the time “are profoundly sorry. We did all we could. We did our best.” But he said the agency faced a shortage of money and staff that “seriously hurt our operations and analysis.”