CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director Robert Mueller appeared before the federal commission investigating the 2001 terror attacks after the panel's staff issued a report that harshly criticized their agencies.
"It was a damning report of a system that's broken, that doesn't function," said commission member John Lehman, a former Navy secretary, referring to flaws found in the intelligence system.
Tenet, making his second appearance before the commission in three weeks, predicted it will take "another five years of work to have the kind of clandestine service our country needs" to confront al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
The commission's chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, said he was "frightened" by Tenet's five-year projection given the terror threats confronting the United States.
"I wonder whether we have five years," he said.
Tenet said a series of tight budgets dating to the end of the Cold War meant that by the mid-1990s, intelligence agencies had "lost close to 25 percent of our people and billions of dollars in capital investment."
A needed transformation is under way, he said, and appealed for a long-term commitment in funding. "Our investments in capability must be sustained," he added.
Tenet insisted he was working to improve his agency when the terrorists struck and that "the warning was well understood" on al Qaeda's danger. But he acknowledged, "We made mistakes."
Mueller recounted a range of steps the FBI has taken since the Sept. 11 attacks to improve its intelligence capabilities, sharpen its focus on terrorism and replace outmoded technology. He urged the panel to let those improvements continue and not to risk derailing them by recommending creation of a new domestic intelligence agency outside the FBI.
"We don't want to have historians look back and say, 'OK, you won the war on terrorism but you lost your civil liberties,'" Mueller said. "We have become, since Sept. 11, a member of the intelligence community in ways we were not in the past."
The commission has been gathering information for more than a year and will release a final report in July. Among the issues it will consider is whether fundamental changes in U.S. intelligence gathering is needed.
credited the agency with collecting a vast array of intelligence on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, which resulted in thousands of individual reports circulated at the highest U.S. government levels. These carried titles such as "Bin Laden Threatening to Attack U.S. Aircraft" in June 1998 and "Bin Laden's Interest in Biological and Radiological Weapons" in February 2001.
Despite this intelligence, the CIA never produced an authoritative summary of al Qaeda's involvement in past terrorist attacks, nor did it fully appreciate bin Laden's role as the leader of a growing extremist movement. Even though al Qaeda had been formed in 1988 after the Soviet Union abandoned Afghanistan, the CIA didn't recognize it as an organization until 1999, the report said.
"Before the attack we found uncertainty among senior officials about whether this was just a new and especially venomous version of the ordinary terrorist threat America had lived with for decades, or was radically new, posing a threat beyond any yet experienced," the commission statement said.
Tenet strenuously took issue with that conclusion — "That's flat wrong," he said — noting that the CIA put in place a plan to combat al Qaeda in 1999 that included clandestine intelligence inside Afghanistan using 25 people and movement of a spy satellite to increase coverage of the terror training camps.
The staff statement noted that several threat reports produced by the intelligence apparatus had "mentioned the possibility of using an aircraft laden with explosives," such as the terrorists used on Sept. 11 in attacks that killed nearly 3,000 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Yet the CIA counterterrorism center "did not analyze how a hijacked aircraft or other explosives-laden aircraft might be used as a weapon," the report said.
Tenet acknowledged that the CIA lacked a government-wide ability to combine foreign and domestic intelligence in a way that might have sharpened the focus on how a foe might strike.
"We all understood bin Laden's intent to strike the homeland but were unable to translate this knowledge into an effective defense of the country," Tenet said.
Mueller and Tenet said a key step has already been taken to improve the situation through last year's creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, in which 124 FBI and CIA personnel work side-by-side to compare overseas and domestic intelligence reports on terrorism. Some 2,600 government officials have access to its products, he said.
The director of the center, John Brennan, told the panel that the recent December-January increase in the U.S. terror risk level from yellow to orange and the close scrutiny of passengers on international flights marked the first major counterterrorism effort by the center. The center is also acting as the focus for intelligence related to terror threats against the Summer Olympics this August in Athens, Greece.
"It is only through such integration of effort that we will be able to prevent future 9/11s," Brennan said.
As with the CIA, credit for beginning a series of changes aimed at focusing on terrorism prevention, intelligence gathering and information sharing. But its statement said there remains skepticism and confusion in the 56 FBI field offices about the changes — and some instances where old habits continue to surface.
For example, despite the FBI focus on hiring and promoting intelligence analysts, the staff report found that many are still "assigned menial tasks, including covering the phones at the reception desk and emptying the office trash bins."
"With the stakes so high for the country, why should we give the FBI another chance?" asked commission member Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana.
"We have changed to meet threats in the past," Mueller replied. "We will change to meet this threat."