CIA Director Porter J. Goss said Wednesday that he would not consider punishing agency officials for failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks -- rejecting pressure from lawmakers, victims’ families and the CIA inspector general to hold accountable those responsible for well-documented breakdowns.
Goss ruled out disciplinary action against former CIA Director George J. Tenet and at least 11 other current and former agency officials who were identified in an internal investigation as being responsible for lapses leading up to the deadly attacks.
No CIA employee has been fired or otherwise punished for Sept. 11-related failures. Goss’ decision makes it increasingly unlikely that any U.S. official will be held accountable for what has been called the worst intelligence failure in the nation’s history.
A classified, 400-page report submitted earlier this year by CIA Inspector General John Helgerson had urged Goss to convene “accountability boards” to weigh the actions of at least a dozen officers and determine whether they deserved to be reprimanded or punished.
Goss was among those who had pushed for the investigation while he was a member of Congress. But since being named CIA director last year, he has resisted the idea of sitting in judgment of his predecessors and risking further damage to agency morale.
“I will not convene an accountability board to judge the performances of any individual CIA officers,” Goss said Wednesday in a written statement.
He said about half of the officers named in the inspector general’s report had already retired from the agency, and that “those who are still with us are amongst the finest we have.”
“Singling out these individuals would send the wrong message to our junior officers about taking risks,” Goss said, adding that “in no way does this report suggest that any one person or group of people could have prevented 9/11.”
Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte issued a separate statement supporting Goss’ decision. Negroponte’s job overseeing the CIA and the nation’s 14 other spy agencies was created as part of a major intelligence overhaul after Sept. 11.
But Goss’ decision was questioned by two key lawmakers, and was denounced by relatives of victims who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon four years ago.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was “concerned to learn of the director’s decision to forgo” accountability panels. Roberts said he had spoken with Goss and Negroponte and asked them to appear before the Intelligence Committee this month “to explore with them this decision and the basis for it.”
The ranking Democrat on the panel, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, said the CIA had mishandled information that could have been used to disrupt the terrorist attacks.
“Director Goss’ announcement leaves me with one troubling question,” Rockefeller said in a written statement. “What failures in performance, if not these, warrant the convening of an accountability board at the CIA?”
Goss could be forced to reconsider his decision if there is a backlash on Capitol Hill or pressure from victims’ groups.
Lorie Van Auken, whose husband was killed in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, said victims’ groups planned to request a meeting with Goss over the issue.
“I think it’s appalling,” Van Auken said. “We’ve waited a very long time for the CIA IG report and for somebody somewhere to be held accountable for the failures that led to the deaths of our loved ones.”
Intelligence officials familiar with the inspector general’s report said it named 12 current and former CIA officials -- most of them senior and midlevel -- and was sharply critical of their performance.
Tenet and former Deputy Director of Operations James L. Pavitt were accused of failing to devote adequate resources to fighting terrorism, and for lapses in leadership at critical times. Pavitt and a spokesman for Tenet denounced the report when details of its contents first surfaced early this year, calling it “absurd” and saying the two men had spent years fighting to marshal resources to combat the terrorist threat.
Pavitt said Wednesday that he welcomed the announcement from Goss, and that he hoped it would help agency employees remain focused on preventing attacks.
“Tenet and I have testified publicly that there was an intelligence failure,” Pavitt said. “But it was also a national failure. I think it’s time to get on with it.”
The report’s criticism of Tenet put Goss in the particularly awkward spot of having to decide whether to discipline a longtime CIA director who was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bush upon leaving the agency last year. A spokesman for Tenet said he did not have a comment on Goss’ announcement.
A U.S. official familiar with the inspector general’s report said it was largely focused on apportioning blame for “managerial failures,” rather than the specific actions of lower-ranking employees.
The official said the report did not call for punishment of agency officers who failed to act in time to place two of the Sept. 11 hijackers on law enforcement watch lists even after the CIA learned they were linked to Al Qaeda and had visas to enter the U.S. The men, Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, lived in an apartment in San Diego before helping to hijack the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
The report “didn’t get down to the failure to watch-list” the pair, the government official said. “The conclusion was that the procedures weren’t in place to make sure that happened. So they held the managers responsible instead of the individuals.”
The report was delivered to Congress in August, and lawmakers including Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) have called on the agency to release a declassified version of the report publicly.
But Goss indicated there was no plan to do that, saying the report “unveiled no mysteries” that hadn’t already been explored by previous investigations. Goss said the report identified 20 “systemic problems” that contributed to Sept. 11 failures, and that “all 20 are being addressed through a series of reforms.” He did not elaborate.
The inspector general’s investigation spanned two years, and was launched at the request of a joint congressional panel established in the aftermath of the attacks to probe intelligence and law enforcement failures. Goss, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, served as co-chairman of that congressional investigation.
In his statement, Goss said that the CIA’s counterterrorism efforts before Sept. 11 were hampered by deep budget and staff cuts in the 1990s. He said he had talked with the current agency employees identified in the report, and was “familiar with their abilities and dedication to our mission.”