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Cheney rejects independent probe
Joyce Howard Price
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Vice President Richard B. Cheney yesterday rebuffed demands for an independent commission to investigate intelligence failures before September 11 and said Congress should not get the August presidential daily briefing that mentioned clues about a terrorist hijacking.
In interviews yesterday on two network talk shows, Mr. Cheney also said it's almost inevitable there will be more al Qaeda terrorist attacks in this country. But he said it's not known when the attacks will occur or what the targets will be.
"I think that the prospects of a future attack on the U.S. are almost a certainty. It could happen tomorrow, it could happen next week, it could happen next year. But they will keep trying, and we have to be prepared," Mr. Cheney told "Fox News Sunday."
Mr. Cheney took to the airwaves to defend President Bush against accusations and insinuations by Democrats and some media organizations that the president had some warning of the terrorist attacks and could have done more to stop them.
Democrats in Congress have raised concerns about disclosures that Mr. Bush received in an intelligence briefing Aug. 6 that terrorists connected to Osama bin Laden could be planning American hijackings.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, demanded the White House give Congress a copy of that briefing for use in the lawmakers' probe of intelligence failures that may have allowed the death and destruction of September 11.
The House and Senate intelligence committees are planning a joint investigation to find out what went wrong. But Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, have proposed a probe by an independent, nonpartisan commission.
But on Fox, Mr. Cheney yesterday said he believes an indepedent panel "is the wrong way to go."
He said he supports the "robust investigation under way" by the House and Senate intelligence committees, because it's bipartisan, has the expertise and "staff to deal with these kinds of matters," and is more likely to "safeguard classified information."
As for Mr. Daschle's demand that Mr. Bush provide Congress with the Aug. 6 briefing, Mr. Cheney told Fox he would recommend against it.
He said administration officials might be able to discuss it with the chairmen and ranking members of the intelligence panels.
"But the idea that we're going to bundle up the [presidential daily briefing] and ship it up to the committees, that's never been done, it sets a terrible precedent," he said.
Mr. Cheney voiced concerns that sensitive, secret information on a variety of subjects could wind up in newspapers and compromise intelligence gathering and sources.
He also said those responsible for writing the daily briefings might be tempted to "sanitize" them, rather than "giving us the best advice they can."
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, who last week said Congress needs to find out what Mr. Bush knew about a terrorist threat and when he learned it, also appeared on Fox and reiterated his demand for a "blue-ribbon panel."
But the Missouri Democrat also hit some conciliatory notes, saying Mr. Cheney is "probably right" to reject Mr. Daschle's request for the daily intelligence briefing.
The Missouri Democrat said he wants "outside" people to join representatives from the administration and Congress in evaluating the government's handling of intelligence information before September 11 and "make valid recommendations" to the president and Congress on what should be done "to better prevent acts of terrorism."
"This is not about politics. It's about doing better in the future," Mr. Gephardt said.
As for the content of the presidential briefing in question, the vice president said he went back and examined it.
"It didn't give us any actionable intelligence. It basically was based on earlier reporting. There wasn't anything really new in it or anything precise or specific," Mr. Cheney said on Fox.
"The idea of hijacking by terrorists, that goes back 30 years. The PLO was doing that in the 1970s. The idea that al Qaeda was after us wasn't new. We'd seen the USS Cole attack [and] the East Africa bombings" of U.S. embassies.
On CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer," National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said President Bush requested the intelligence briefing "because he was concerned about al Qaeda and what they might do."
She said the president wanted to have a "strategy to bring al-Qaeda down." Like Mr. Cheney, she said the relevant information in the briefing was old and not specific.
Mr. Cheney said on Fox: "My assessment is that there wasn't anything out there that could have allowed us to predict what was going to happen" on September 11.
Both Mr. Cheney and Miss Rice also defended other branches of the administration from criticism for their pre-September 11 behavior.
Interviewed on Saturday on CNN's "Novak, Hunt & Shields," Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican and ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, accused the FBI of not acting on intelligence information it received before September 11 and of not sharing it with other investigative agencies or the White House.
"The FBI was either asleep, inept or both," he said.
On ABC's "This Week," Miss Rice noted that, before September 11, the FBI was always expected to operate under legal standards "that protect civil rights," not vague suspicions.
As for the FBI's failure to follow up on a July 10 memo from an agent in Phoenix who said followers of bin Laden were supposedly going to flight schools for a possible hijacking or bombing, Miss Rice said the memo alluded to "Muslim youths" being recruited for flight schools.
"Would we have wanted to react on just sort of a general sense that Muslim youth were being recruited in some places to try to stop that recruitment? It was a different world before September 11," she said.
Mr. Cheney and several Senate intelligence panel members on talk shows yesterday confirmed that U.S. intelligence is picking up "noise" or "chatter" that al Qaeda may be planning another attack.
"But it was nonspecific, didn't lead you to a particular course of action other than a general increase in our level of sensitivity to possible terrorist activities," Sen. Bob Graham, Senate Democrat and chairman of the intelligence committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
The FBI issued a warning Saturday that the al Qaeda network is considering attacking U.S. apartment buildings.
When asked whether al Qaeda is planning another attack on U.S. targets, Mr. Cheney said, "We assume they are. There is certainly a level of noise out there in the system that would indicate that those efforts are continuing."
But he said he did not have information about targets.
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