An experienced CIA counterterrorism officer tells Congress the agency is still failing to adequately staff the hunt for Osama bin Laden, a newspaper reports.
The officer claims that the headquarters unit assigned to bin Laden has fewer experienced case officers now than on Sept. 11, 2001.
The New York Times reports Michael Scheuer, who recently penned a book critical of the CIA's counterterrorism efforts called "Imperial Hubris," lodged his complaints in a letter to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
A 22-year CIA veteran who ran the bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, Scheuer also claims that the CIA is rotating inexperienced officers into the bin Laden unit for short stints of 60 to 90 days.
A CIA official who refused to be identified disputed Scheuer's account, saying there are more officers working on bin Laden worldwide now than there were three years ago.
"Our knowledge of and substantive expertise on al Qaeda has increased enormously since 9/11. The overall size of the counterterrorism center has more than doubled, and its analytic capabilities have increased dramatically," he said, according to The Times.
Scheuer also claims that the CIA had more opportunities to capture or kill bin Laden that has been reported previously. He says there were 10 such chances between May 1998 and May 1999. It was not clear who decided not to take those chances.
"The pattern of decision making I have witnessed seems to indicate a want of moral courage, an overwhelming concern for career advancement, or an abject inability to distinguish right from wrong," he said.
Scheuer says the bin Laden unit was slated for elimination in the spring of 1998, but then-CIA director George Tenet blocked the move.
The report of the Sept. 11 commission says the U.S. government missed a few chances to capture or kill the al Qaeda leader.
In May of 1998, after months of planning, officials called off a CIA plan to have Afghan allies capture bin Laden and send him out of Afghanistan for trial. The plan was apparently scrapped because of worries about the chance of killing bystanders, and even bin Laden himself, as well as concerns over the strength of the legal evidence against bin Laden.
After the August 1998 African embassy bombings, President Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan that failed to kill bin Laden.
The Sept. 11 report identifies three other occasions on which there was intelligence on bin Laden's location but not attempt to kill him: December 1998 in Kandahar, February 1999 in his desert camp and back in Kandahar in May 1999.
Questions about the CIA's capabilities are part of a larger debate over reforming U.S. intelligence, reflected on Capitol Hill in the confirmation hearings for President Bush's nominee to head the CIA, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla.
The CIA's last director, George Tenet, earlier this year told the Sept. 11 commission that it would take five years to have in place the kind of clandestine service needed to deal with international terrorism and other threats.
Without being specific, Goss said at a confirmation hearing on Tuesday that it would take longer to hire train and place all the operatives that are needed. The good news, he said, is that some would be ready soon. But "it is a long build-out."
Goss, a former CIA officer, also backed away from a controversial provision he included in an intelligence reform bill in June, which would have loosened long-standing restrictions on the agency's ability to operate inside the United States.
He said he was trying to start a debate then on an important issue — the blurring of the lines between foreign and domestic intelligence. As the CIA's director, he said he would come to policymakers for guidance on intelligence and law enforcement capabilities.
Goss' political past came up at the outset of his confirmation hearing Tuesday. The Senate panel's senior Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, questioned whether Goss displayed a willingness to use intelligence issues as "a political broadsword" against Democratic lawmakers.
"Having reviewed your record closely, I have a number of concerns about whether your past partisan actions and statements will allow you to be the type of nonpartisan, independent and objective national intelligence adviser our country needs," Rockefeller said.
As recently as this summer, Goss criticized John Kerry's voting record on intelligence. Last October, explaining why he did not want to launch an investigation of a White House official's possibly illegal leaking of a CIA officer's name to the press, Goss made reference to the Clinton impeachment saga.
"Somebody sends me a blue dress and some DNA, I'll have an investigation," Goss said.
Goss promised Tuesday to provide Congress and the president with independent, objective intelligence.
"I have made a commitment to nonpartisanship," retiring Rep. Porter Goss, a Florida Republican, told the Senate Intelligence Committee. He conceded that during his 16 years in Congress he may — "at times" — have engaged in debate with too much vigor.
In his testimony, Goss outlined a series of commonly cited priorities for the U.S. intelligence community. They included improving human intelligence and analytic capabilities, expanding intelligence sharing with state and local law enforcement agencies and enhancing foreign language capabilities at the CIA.
Tenet resigned as head of the CIA in June, just before the intelligence committee and the Sept. 11 commission released reports criticizing the agency's performance during much of his tenure.