Friday, July 23, 2004

9/11 panel calls Bush's actions feeble - commission warned "we are not safe"

9/11 panel calls leaders' actions feeble: "9/11 panel calls leaders' actions feeble

SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER NEWS SERVICES

WASHINGTON -- America's leaders failed to grasp the gravity of terrorist threats before the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, taking actions so feeble they never even slowed the al-Qaida plotters, a national commission said in a blistering report Thursday.

In the report that reflected remarkable bipartisan unity, the five Democrats and five Republicans on the commission warned "we are not safe" -- and called for major intelligence changes. The report was released in the midst of a presidential campaign that already has been shaped by the events of Sept. 11, as well as by the controversy over President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq.

In an exhaustive investigation of the deadliest attack in U.S. history, the commission noted numerous government missteps but did not cast blame on any official and stopped short of saying the hijackings could have been prevented.

While the panel did not fault President Bush or former President Clinton, it did say both failed to make anti-terrorism a top priority.

"We do not believe they fully understood just how many people al-Qaida might kill and how soon it might do it," the panel said in its unanimous findings.

"We also believe that they did not take it as seriously as it should be taken. It was not their top priority," Thomas Kean, the Republican chairman, said at a news conference with members of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

"We do believe both presidents could have done more in this area."

The final 567-page report largely mirrored the preliminary reports released during the commission's 20 months of investigation.

The report comes on the heels of House and Senate reports that documented U.S. intelligence failures and undermined the major claims cited by Bush to justify the war against Iraq. The commission report repeated its earlier preliminary findings that Saddam Hussein did not have a close relationship with al-Qaida and had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks.



Still, in the days after the hijackings, some in the Bush administration were seeking to make that link, the commission found.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in a Sept. 17, 2001, memo to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, wrote that if there was "even a 10 percent chance" that Saddam had a role in the attacks, "maximum priority should be placed on eliminating that threat."

Despite Wolfowitz's arguments, Rumsfeld issued a memo to Pentagon commanders Sept. 19 that addressed only al-Qaida, the Taliban and Afghanistan.

Bush initially opposed the creation of the commission, resisted the release of some documents and fought against letting National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testify publicly under oath. Still, Kean thanked Bush for allowing "unprecedented access to documents and cooperation from your administration."

Republican leaders in the House and Senate have vowed to study the report closely but say there is little time to act on legislation before the general election in November. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., expressed doubt that lawmakers would have time to consider sweeping reforms this year.

After reading the report, several family members of Sept. 11 victims said they felt vindicated by the commission's scathing criticism of the government's intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, and they vowed to pressure Congress and the White House to adopt the commission's recommendations, much as they lobbied for creation of the panel two years ago.

"The families know that this is an election year. We're going to hold these people's feet to the fire," said Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of the hijacked plane that struck the Pentagon. Nearly 3,000 people were killed when 19 Arab hijackers flew airliners into New York's Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.

The report portrayed the Sept. 11 terrorists as sure-footed and determined while the nation they were preparing to strike was unprepared, sluggish and uncomprehending of the imminent danger.

"Across the government, there were failures of imagination, policy, capabilities and management," the commission concluded in its indictment, which documented a series of missed opportunities by the CIA and FBI to uncover the Sept. 11 plot.

Three years later, Americans are safer because of improvements in homeland security and the war against terrorists, the report said. "But we are not safe."

"Every expert with whom we spoke told us an attack of even greater magnitude is now possible and even probable," Kean said. "We do not have the luxury of time."

The report said that as the Sept. 11 plot advanced, the government was bogged down in an outdated Cold War mentality, lacking imagination to deal with new threats or recognize the looming danger.

"What we can say with confidence is that none of the measures adopted by the U.S. government from 1998 to 2001 disturbed or even delayed the progress of the al-Qaida plot," the report said.

Commission co-Chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said a key finding was that no one in government was in charge of ensuring that intelligence agencies pool resources, avoid duplication and plan jointly to keep America safe. To unify efforts, the commission recommended creating a national counterterrorism center.

It also recommended a Cabinet-level national intelligence director to centralize efforts now spread over 15 agencies in six Cabinet departments, including the CIA.

The intelligence director's office would take substantial power away from the CIA, the FBI and the Pentagon, and it would essentially strip the National Security Council of its role in coordinating the actions of intelligence agencies.

Under the commission's proposals, the CIA would cede authority to the Defense Department for control over paramilitary operations, another effort by the panel to end fragmentation among agencies in the government's war on terrorism. The panel also urged lifting the shroud of secrecy about how much money is spent for national intelligence operations.

"A critical theme that emerged throughout our inquiry was the difficulty of answering the question: Who is in charge?" said Hamilton.

In assessing the performance of Congress, the commission said that lawmakers "responded slowly to the rise of transnational terrorism as a threat to national security" in the years before Sept. 11 and that oversight of intelligence and counterterrorism issues was "dysfunctional" and divided among too committees.

The panel recommended that Congress either create a joint House-Senate committee on intelligence, with budget authority over all of the nation's intelligence agencies, or provide that authority to a single committee in each house.

The commission identified nine "specific points of vulnerability" in the Sept. 11 plot that might have led to its disruption had the government been more watchful. Despite these opportunities, "we cannot know whether any single step or series of steps would have defeated" the hijackers, the report concluded.

Some members have speculated the attacks could have been stopped. "We do not know," Kean said. "We think it's possible. But we have not drawn that absolute conclusion because we don't believe that absolute conclusion is justified by the facts."

The panel also said it did not find evidence that Iran, Iraq's neighbor, had advance knowledge of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's plans or that Saudi Arabia's government had a role in the terror conspiracy, which involved 15 Saudi hijackers.

The report did not dwell on questions of how civil liberties might be affected by tightened anti-terrorism efforts, although it called for the government to be sensitive to the issue and to the need for humane treatment of foreign citizens detained in counterterrorism operations abroad.

Former Washington Sen. Slade Gorton, the only commission member from the West, described the report as a combination of definitive, objective history and far-reaching recommendations for changes designed to better shield the nation from further terrorist attacks.

Gorton said he's confident that the commission has the credibility and the tenacity to help lobby the changes through Congress and the White House.

"We based all of our recommendations on the facts and realized that to engage in the blame game would have split us up and reduced the overall effectiveness," Gorton said."

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