Justice may probe leaked pre-9/11 intercepts
Arabic message warned 'Tomorrow is zero hour'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Leaders of a joint congressional panel probing pre-September 11 intelligence lapses have asked the attorney general to investigate who leaked cryptic intercepts that hinted of imminent attacks.
The White House said Thursday that President Bush has "deep concerns" about the release of the information, which came from communications intercepted by the National Security Agency. And in a written statement Thursday, the Justice Department said it would "expeditiously review this matter and take any appropriate action."
Rep. Porter Goss, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he and Sen. Bob Graham, his counterpart on the Senate panel, have asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak. Goss, R-Florida; Graham, D-Florida; and the ranking members of each committee signed a letter asking for an investigation.
Goss said the letter "asks for an investigation of those leaks, with particular concern that if there is any inappropriate leak coming from the United States Congress that we be so advised so we may take appropriate action."
The September 10 intercepts, details of which were provided to CNN on Wednesday, came from conversations in Arabic between individuals in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia that U.S. officials believe were connected to al Qaeda. The intercepts, however, were not analyzed until September 12, the day after terrorist attacks on New York and Washington killed more than 3,000 people.
Congressional and other sources said that in one communication intercepted by the NSA, a person said, "The match begins tomorrow." In another intercept that same day, a different person said, "Tomorrow is zero hour." In both instances, the two people who said those words were in Afghanistan, speaking to others in Saudi Arabia.
To this day, officials say, they do not know for sure the identities of the two people who spoke.
Vice President Dick Cheney phoned the House and Senate committee chairmen Thursday to complain about the leaks. Cheney thinks an investigation by the attorney general is a "good idea," a senior administration official told CNN.
Bush signaled his displeasure with the leak of the "alarmingly specific" information about the intercepts and asked Cheney to phone the key intelligence committee chairs to register his concerns, according to White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
"The president does have very deep concerns about anything that would be inappropriately leaked that could in any way endanger America's ability to gather intelligence information, and even that could harm our ability to maintain sources and methods and anything that could interfere with America's ability to fight the war on terrorism," Fleischer said.
The official said the idea for an investigation came from Congress and was discussed generally during Cheney's conversations with the committee leaders.
Shelby: Public needs to know committee findings
"This is something the Congress, to its credit, these four leaders, feel strongly about," the senior official said. "It is a federal crime to disclose information of this type, and Congress made it a crime because of the impact such disclosure can have on national security."
In 1998, according to Fleischer, an "unauthorized disclosure" of information about Osama bin Laden's use of a satellite phone undermined U.S. intelligence gathering efforts.
"As soon as it was publicly revealed, we never heard from that source again," Fleischer said. "We never again heard from that satellite phone."
But Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking minority member on Senate Intelligence Committee, said the public needed to know about the lapses -- even though he signed the letter sent to Attorney General John Ashcroft.
"I do believe that the American people need to know a lot about the shortcomings of our intelligence community, but they also need to know the good things that are going on, and what we are going to do in this investigation, I believe, is bring out the best of both," Shelby, R-Alabama, said.
The NSA, which is the nation's eavesdropping intelligence agency, intercepts literally millions of communications each day and must prioritize which intercepts to translate immediately, which within days, and which within weeks.
U.S. officials said the communications intercepted September 10 would have been translated within 48 hours even if the attacks had not occurred, given the high level of interest in al Qaeda's activities.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said how the intercepts were handled underscores the need to reform intelligence-gathering operations.
"It again demonstrates why we have to address the infrastructure of our intelligence-gathering analysis and the actions that are taken as a result of that analysis," said Daschle, D-South Dakota. "We've got a lot of work to do, and this is just the most recent reminder that we've got a problem here and it's got to be fixed and it's got to be done this year."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, said it was "disconcerting that we did have some kind of warning." He added that it was unfortunate the United States apparently believed it had an "aura" that would protect it against terrorist attacks.
In the future, Hastert predicted, the United States would be more efficient at analyzing threats.
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