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In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, there was extensive public discussion of whether the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center represented an "intelligence failure." In response, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence undertook a joint investigation of the September 11 attacks. Public hearings by the resulting “Joint Inquiry” were launched on September 18, 2002 beginning with testimony from representatives of families of those who died in the attacks.

Former policymakers and senior CIA and FBI officials also testified. Eleanor Hill, the Inquiry Staff Director summarized the Inquiry’s findings: "the Intelligence Community did have general indications of a possible terrorist attack against the United States or U.S. interests overseas in the spring and summer of 2001 and promulgated strategic warnings. However, it does not appear that the Intelligence Community had information prior to September 11 that identified precisely where, when and how the attacks were to be carried out."

The two intelligence committees published the findings and conclusions of the Joint Inquiry on December 11, 2002.[1] The committees found that the Intelligence Community had received, beginning in 1998 and continuing into the summer of 2001, "a modest, but relatively steady, stream of intelligence reporting that indicated the possibility of terrorist attacks within the United States." Further findings dealt with specific terrorists about whom some information had come to the attention of U.S. officials prior to September 11 and with reports about possible employment of civilian airliners to crash into major buildings.

The Inquiry also made systemic findings highlighting the Intelligence Community’s lack of preparedness to deal with the challenges of global terrorism, inefficiencies in budgetary planning, the lack of adequate numbers of linguists, a lack of human sources, and an unwillingness to share information among agencies.

Separately, the two intelligence committees submitted recommendations for strengthening intelligence capabilities. They urged the creation of a Cabinet-level position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) separate from the position of director of the CIA. The DNI would have greater budgetary and managerial authority over intelligence agencies in the Defense Department than possessed by the DCI. The committees also expressed great concern with the reorientation of the FBI to counterterrorism and suggested consideration of the creation of a new domestic surveillance agency similar to Britain’s MI5.

The Joint Inquiry was focused directly on the performance of intelligence agencies, but there was widespread support among Members for a more extensive review of the roles of other government agencies.

Commission's activities[]

Provisions for establishing an independent commission on the 2001 terrorist attacks were included in the FY2003 Intelligence Authorization Act.[2] The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (more popularly known as the 9/11 Commission) was established on November 27, 2002 "to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks," including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. The Commission was also mandated to provide recommendations designed to guard against future attacks.

Chaired by former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, the commission consisted of five Democrats and five Republicans. The commission was created by Congressional legislation, with the bill signed into law by President George W. Bush.

The Commission's final report was lengthy and based on extensive interviews and testimony. Its primary conclusion was that the failures of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation permitted the terrorist attacks to occur and that had these agencies acted more wisely and more aggressively, the attacks could potentially have been prevented.

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After the publication of its final report, the Commission closed on August 21, 2004.

Commission's conclusions and recommendations[]

Although the 9/11 Commission surveyed the roles of a number of Federal and local agencies, many of its principal recommendations concerned the perceived lack of authorities of the DCI. The Commission recommended establishing a National Intelligence Director (NID) to manage the National Intelligence Program and oversee the agencies that contribute to it. The NID would annually submit a national intelligence program budget and, when necessary, forward the names of nominees to be heads of major intelligence agencies to the President. Lead responsibility for conducting and executing paramilitary operations would be assigned to DOD and not CIA.

The Commission also recommended that Congress pass a separate annual appropriations act for intelligence that would be made public. The NID would execute the expenditure of appropriated funds and make transfers of funds or personnel as appropriate. Proposing a significant change in congressional practice, the Commission recommended a single intelligence committee in each house of Congress, combining authorizing and appropriating authorities.

The Commission concluded that congressional oversight of intelligence activities was "dysfunctional." A number of measures were undertaken to address issues raised by the Commission, including the establishment of oversight subcommittees on both committees. Proposals to establish one committee with both appropriations and authorization responsibilities proved unacceptable, but H.Res. 35, passed on January 9, 2007, established a panel within the appropriations committee with additional staff to review intelligence activities. Senate rules require that the Intelligence Committee include Members also serving on the Appropriations Committee, thus providing for a measure of coordination; although S.Res. 445 in the 108th Congress envisioned an appropriations subcommittee on intelligence, no such entity has been established.

The involvement of the Intelligence Community in homeland security efforts that involve domestic law enforcement agencies has affected congressional oversight. In the past the two intelligence committees and the appropriations committees were almost the only points of contact between intelligence agencies and the Congress. In the 109th Congress the House Homeland Security Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also undertook oversight of some aspects of intelligence activities.

Subsequent activities[]

On August 27, 2004, President Bush addressed key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission in signing several executive orders to reform intelligence. In addition to establishing a National Counterterrorism Center, the orders provided new authorities for the DCI until legislation was enacted to create a National Intelligence Director. In addition, several legislative proposals were introduced to establish a National Intelligence Director, separate from a CIA Director. The Senate passed S. 2845 on October 16, 2004; the House had passed H.R. 10 on October 8, 2004.

Efforts by the resulting conference committee to reach agreed-upon text focused on the issue of the authorities of the proposed Director of National Intelligence in regard to the budgets and operations of the major intelligence agencies in DOD, especially NSA, NRO, and NGA. Conferees finally reached agreement in early December, and the conference report on S. 2845[3] was approved by the House on December 7 and by the Senate on December 8. The President signed the legislation (the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004) on December 17, 2004.[4]


  1. The full report was released some months later as H. Rep. 107-792/S. Rep. 107-351.
  2. Pub. L. No. 107-306.
  3. H. Rep. 108-796.
  4. Pub. L. No. 108-458.

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