Six years after the deadliest attack on U.S. soil, the head of U.S. spy operations admitted to lawmakers that "9/11 should have and could have been prevented."
Director of National Intelligence, Michael McConnell, told members of the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday that "it was an issue of connecting information that was available."
McConnell, explaining that the intelligence community was, at the time, very focused on foreign threats, said the community allowed itself "to be separated from anything that was potentially domestic," and that domestic threats were "not something we [were] supposed to be concerned with."
"Yeah, that translates to negligence," charged committee chairman John Conyers, D-Mich.
"Or interpretation of the law — of how the culture had evolved," McConnell countered.
Given the vast resources of the intelligence community, along with the FBI's and CIA's knowledge that al Qaeda had an interest in flight training, and had sent 9/11 hijackers Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi and terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui to undertake such training in the United States, McConnell said, "For whatever reason, we didn't connect the dots."
A federal judge in Virginia sentenced Moussaoui, the only person indicted in connection with the 9/11 attacks, to life in prison without the possibility of parole, in May 2006. He is serving his time at a super-maximum security federal facility in Florence, Colo.
"We could have done a better job as a community," McConnell told the House panel.
McConnell's admissions before the panel took a statement he made on June 29 a few steps further.
In his earlier remarks, McConnell said, "The rules that were established during the Cold War and post-70s served us well, but it created seams. In my view, the 9/11 tragedy should have been prevented. It was preventable. But, I think the terrorists took advantage of the seams that had been created in the process for how we conduct our affairs, both intelligence and law enforcement."
The 9/11 Commission criticized the National Security Agency and its ability to analyze intercepted communications, noting in its final report, "While the NSA had the technical capability to report on communications with suspected terrorist facilities in the Middle East, the NSA did not seek FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court warrants to collect communications between individuals in the United States and foreign countries, because it believed that this was an FBI role.
"It also did not want to be viewed as targeting persons in the United States and possibly violating laws that governed NSA's collection of foreign intelligence," the report continued.
Intelligence officials had previously stated that the NSA's Terrorist Surveillance Program was established after analyzing the pre-9/11 movements and communications of the hijackers after the attacks.
After poring over the hijackers' phone calls and e-mails, investigators noticed missed opportunities — communications that could have been intercepted, and possibly would have tipped investigators to the coming attacks.
After a review by lawyers from the White House, NSA and Justice Department, the program operated at the NSA, and allowed the agency to perform warrantless electronic surveillance of suspected al Qaeda members in the United States.
Much of Tuesday's hearing focused on changes in the FISA law, and technical aspects of the government's data collection programs.
Shortly after the NSA's Terrorist Surveillance Program was transferred to the FISA court's jurisdiction in January 2007, a secret order from the court required intelligence agencies to obtain a warrant to intercept foreign-to-foreign communications that were routed on U.S. communication networks.
Given the NSA's ability to collect communications and data from around the world and the Internet, the nation's security officials faced a daunting task. McConnell told the House Judiciary Committee that, in some cases, this meant that the U.S. was required to get a warrant to intercept Iraqi insurgent communications.
He added that the changes made to FISA under the Protect America Act, signed into law in August, provided wider surveillance coverage of terrorism targets by freeing up resources.
Civil liberties groups have long voiced concerns about the changes in the law, and over the NSA program. The Terrorist Surveillance Program had operated covertly until it was revealed in a December 2005 story by the New York Times. A pending leak investigation is underway by the Justice Department over the disclosure.
Congress is currently holding hearings on making changes in the FISA law permanent. At the Tuesday hearing, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said, "The power to invade people's privacy cannot be exercised unchecked."