Despite an array of obstacles, the joint House-Senate inquiry into pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures is having significantly more effect than anticipated.
Expectations were low for the panel, given its relatively small $2.6-million budget, one-year lifespan and a perception among some that any inquiry run by the House and Senate intelligence committees would not be tough on the agencies they oversee.
But after the panel presented vivid, detailed accountings of intelligence missteps in its first public hearing Sept. 18, the White House dropped its long-standing opposition to an independent commission to investigate further.
Moreover, watchdogs say the inquiry's public hearings have presented a wealth of information about intelligence lapses that help strengthen their arguments for serious reform.
"It's much more informative than I would have anticipated," said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence policy analyst for the Federation of American Scientists, an organization that advocates more openness in government.
The inquiry staff "has been churning out new information about exactly what did and did not occur in the month leading up to Sept. 11. It is very concrete, very specific," Aftergood said.
Loch Johnson, a political science professor at the University of Georgia who worked on the congressional Church Committee in the mid 1970s examining intelligence abuses, agreed.
"It has stimulated the notion we need to find out more, and that in itself is a service," Johnson said. "These large bureaucracies often need the catalyst of shocking public hearings to get things done."
Even Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who is co-chairman of the inquiry, described himself as "surprised" by President Bush's sudden support for an independent commission.
"The president's reversal of position is a direct result of the public testimony of family members and the evidence presented by the joint inquiry staff," said Graham, who leads the inquiry with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Sanibel.
Graham and Goss never said they opposed a commission but made it clear they wanted their inquiry to get first crack at the investigation.
The White House, however, had strongly opposed a commission, fearing it would reveal national security secrets and divert intelligence agencies from their focus on the war on terrorism.
But in moving and thought-provoking testimony, a New Jersey woman whose husband died at the World Trade Center opened the inquiry's public hearing phase two weeks ago by recounting a litany of missed clues that foreshadowed the attacks.
The testimony of Kristen Breitweiser, 31, was especially compelling because it relied not on classified information but facts gleaned from news reports, suggesting a full accounting of the missteps would reveal larger failures.
Joint committee staff director Eleanor Hill, a former Tampa federal prosecutor and Department of Defense inspector general who grew up in Miami Shores, followed with a more detailed summary of the information examined by her staff as it reviewed more than 400,000 classified documents and interviewed nearly 500 people, often meeting resistance from the intelligence agencies.
When congressional aides went to the CIA or FBI to review documents, for example, they were isolated in rooms where an agency representative would stand watch over them, according to Sen. Richard Shelby, vice chairman of the inquiry.
The agencies forbade the congressional staffers from meeting anyone in the agency without supervision and initially refused to grant interviews with key players.
"Many of these problems were ultimately worked out, but that took precious time, time we did not have," the Alabama Republican said on the Senate floor last week in explaining why he now supports an outside commission.
Among the revelations in Hill's public reports:
CIA Director George Tenet had declared "war" on Osama bin Laden in 1998 after his al-Qaida terrorist network bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But Tenet's sense of urgency was not communicated to other federal agencies or the American public.
The CIA had repeated intelligence reports that bin Laden was planning attacks on U.S. soil, possibly using airplanes as weapons.
An FBI agent was rebuffed by his superiors when, two weeks before the attacks, he asked to launch an urgent search for an al-Qaida operative who had slipped into the country. Khalid Al-Mihdhar would become one of the hijackers.
"Someday, someone will die (and) the public will not understand why were were not more effective," the agent wrote in an e-mail.
The Phoenix FBI agent who wrote a memo speculating that Middle Eastern terrorists might be training at U.S. flight schools to use airplanes in attacks against America identified in his memo an associate of future hijacker Hani Hanjour.
But the memo was filed away without action, and the lead to Hanjour was not investigated.
"The staff reports are far better than I expected," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "I think the reports will be viewed very favorably historically."
The House and Senate have voted to create a commission. The measures must clear several legislative hurdles, but by changing the political landscape, the hearings caused a sudden tide of support. After many senators dropped their opposition last week, the vote to create a commission was 90-8.
If Congress gives final approval to such a panel, issues of government competence the administration had preferred to keep out of the spotlight will remain in the news for some time.
And on Friday, Graham and Shelby came out in favor of a Cabinet-level position for intelligence. The move is aimed at ending turf battles between the CIA and the Pentagon.
Officially, the CIA director is responsible for coordinating the work of the nation's intelligence agencies. But with only 15 percent of the intelligence budget allocated to the CIA and 85 percent to the Pentagon, military planners in practice hold more sway.
A Cabinet post for intelligence would usurp the CIA director's supreme authority over intelligence matters but also take power from the Pentagon. For that reason, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expected to oppose the idea, which might be among the recommendations in the inquiry's final report.
The watchdogs are pleased.
"Both Graham and Goss have risen to the occasion," Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists said. "Maybe they surprised themselves. Maybe not. They have done a better job of oversight in this case than at any point previously."
_ Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.