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Americans more interested in preventing attacks than assigning blame for Sept. 11

Focus shifts from past to future

Posted: Wednesday, June 05, 2002

WASHINGTON -- For President Bush, congressional inquiries into Sept. 11 intelligence lapses are at best an unwanted distraction. The political uproar has to be particularly discouraging to a leader who prides himself on order and control and whose father is a former CIA director as well as a former president.

But, while no president wants his administration to be the target of investigation, Bush also had a few things going for him as hearings began on Tuesday: his continued high popularity and public indifference to another round of congressional hearings.

''The public has investigation fatigue,'' said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. It began with the Iran-Contra hearings of the late 1980s, she said, and continued through multiple Clinton investigations and the recent congressional Enron inquiries.

While curious about pre-Sept. 11 intelligence shortcomings, ''Americans haven't been in the mood to assign blame,'' Bowman said.

Bush's approval ratings remain robust, in the mid-70s in most polls. That gives Democrats pause as they look for vulnerabilities. Criticizing the FBI and the CIA, suggesting an intelligence failure at the highest levels, is safer for them than a frontal political assault on the president.

Pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, said most people believe the FBI and the CIA could have done more to uncover the Sept. 11 terrorist plots. But for the most part, they also believe ''that hindsight is 20-20'' and are more interested in looking ahead than back.

''From the administration's point of view, the issue has shifted from what did the president know and when did he know it to how to reshape the FBI and the CIA. And that's good for the administration,'' Kohut said.

In a visit that hardly seemed coincidental, Bush marked the opening of the congressional inquiry with a trip to the suburban Maryland headquarters of the National Security Agency, which conducts communications intelligence.

There, he gave a pep talk to employees and expressed his frustrations to reporters.

While faulting both the CIA and the FBI for a failure to communicate and share information on terrorists' activities, Bush said many of the shortcomings had been corrected. He urged Congress -- and the nation -- to move on.

Responding to criticism, the administration already has changed some of its internal rules so that information on possible terrorism activities gets reviewed at higher levels and receives wider dissemination. FBI agents in the field now have more authority to pursue leads involving possible terrorist plots.

FBI Director Robert Mueller and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge have been included in Bush's daily morning CIA briefings for some time.

Tuesday's hearing was held jointly by the House and Senate intelligence committees and will be followed by closed-door sessions on Wednesday and Thursday. Open hearings are scheduled later in the month and Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet will testify.

In addition, the Senate Judiciary Committee plans a separate hearing on Thursday, at which Mueller will testify. Other panels are also looking into the subject.

''I want the Congress to investigate, but I want a committee to investigate, not multiple committees to investigate because I don't want to tie up our team when we're trying to fight the war against terrorism,'' Bush said.

He renewed his opposition to calls in Congress for an independent inquiry.

Despite lapses in information-sharing, ''I see no evidence today that said this country could have prevented the attacks,'' Bush said. ''Obviously, if we could have, we would have.''

But Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said, ''We want answers ... answers to prevent this from happening again, answers to console the families and answers that will demonstrate what the accountability is.''

''We cannot be surprised again,'' she told CNN.

Marshall Wittmann, an analyst with the conservative Hudson Institute, suggested that Bush may want to reconsider his opposition to a special independent investigation, given the political fire he's sure to keep getting from Democratic members of various committees.

Right now, ''for most of the American people, this is just background noise,'' Wittmann added.

''They are very pragmatic. They want to see less finger-pointing and more protection for the future.''

Tom Raum has reported on national and international affairs since 1973.



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