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Friday, July 23, 2004 - Page updated at 10:54 A.M.

"We are not safe," says 9/11 report

By Seattle Times news services

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WASHINGTON — Government leaders, their policies and their capabilities all failed to protect Americans from the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history — one that could be repeated unless there is a bold and urgent restructuring of U.S. defenses, members of the bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks said yesterday.

"We do believe we are safer today than we were on 9/11," the commission's chairman, former New Jersey Republican Gov. Thomas Kean, said. "But we are not safe."

The final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States chronicles in exhaustive detail the sporadic and failed attempts of the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies to track some of the Sept. 11 plotters and their associates. Although the 567-page report stops short of blaming President Bush or former President Clinton for the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, the document concludes that both administrations were lackluster in efforts to combat Islamic terrorism and derides congressional oversight of the issue as "dysfunctional."

While Washington has reshaped itself dramatically — creating the Homeland Security Department, invigorating a weak counterterrorism mission within the FBI and adopting the USA Patriot Act, among other things — the commission said the government still is not configured properly to achieve maximum success against al-Qaida and its offspring.

Although the CIA and FBI are working together more closely and information-sharing has improved significantly, commissioners expressed concern that terrorism analysis remains spread across several agencies, leading to duplication and stress on limited resources. They also questioned the lack of an overarching leader for the intelligence community, comprising 15 agencies in six Cabinet departments.

Recommendations


The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks suggests the following changes to enhance America's safety:

Creation of a high-level intelligence director to oversee the nation's 15 intelligence agencies. The director would have control over intelligence budgets and the ability to hire and fire deputies, including the CIA director and top intelligence officials at the FBI, Homeland Security Department and Defense Department. The intelligence chief would report directly to the president and would have to be confirmed by the Senate.

Creation of a National Counterterrorism Center to improve cooperation and data analysis among the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies. It would build on the existing Terrorist Threat Integration Center, created after the Sept. 11 attacks.

A global strategy of diplomacy and public relations to dismantle the al-Qaida network and defeat the militant Islamic ideology that feeds such terror groups.

More safeguards at home, such as setting national standards for issuance of drivers' licenses and other identification, improving "no-fly" and other terrorist watch lists, and using more biometric identifiers to screen travelers at ports and borders.

Better oversight by Congress of intelligence and counterterrorism agencies, especially during transitions between administrations.

The Associated Press

"A critical theme that emerged throughout our inquiry was the difficulty of answering the question, who is in charge?" said Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "Who oversees the massive integration and unity of effort necessary to keep America safe? Too often the answer is no one."

To remedy this, "The 9/11 Commission Report" proposes a series of controversial reforms that would amount to perhaps the most dramatic restructuring of the government in half a century. The 10-member bipartisan panel recommends forming a new Cabinet-level office of national intelligence and creating a terrorism center that not only would analyze intelligence, but would run counterterrorism operations at home and abroad. The panel also wants Congress to completely change the way it governs the intelligence community.

The report advocates encoding U.S. passports with personal information — as is required for some foreigners entering the United States — and recommends standardized driver's licenses nationwide. Civil-liberties advocates quickly blasted both ideas.

Plot went undisturbed

After 20 months of interviews, hearings and other research, the commissioners concluded that the United States had not come close to thwarting the attacks.

"Since the plotters were flexible and resourceful, we cannot know whether any single step or series of steps would have defeated them," Kean said. "What we can say with a good deal of confidence is that none of the measures adopted by the United States government before 9/11 disturbed or even delayed the progress of the al-Qaida plot."

Kean and others on the panel vowed to lobby Congress for the changes. A "report card" on the government's progress is planned in six to 12 months.

Bush praised the commissioners and said he agreed with them.

"The commission has suggested a number of reforms to improve our intelligence capabilities so we can better anticipate emerging threats," the president said in Glenview, Ill. He said the administration will "carefully study all of their proposals."

Missed opportunities


"Operational failures" that allowed terrorists to carry out their attacks, according to the Sept. 11 commission:

Failing to include hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi on a watch list until late August 2001. The two were linked by the CIA to al-Qaida and were known to have entered the United States in the summer of 2001, but government agents lost track of them. The two were on American Airlines Flight 77, which slammed into the Pentagon.

Not sharing information linking individuals in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen to al-Mihdhar, who had contacts with a longtime FBI informant. The Cole attack killed 17 sailors.

Not taking adequate steps in time to find al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi in the United States.

Not linking the August 2001 arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui to the threat of an upcoming attack. Moussaoui was arrested after arousing suspicions at a Minnesota flight school. He has admitted belonging to al-Qaida but denied he was part of the plot.

Not discovering false statements on visa applications of some of the future hijackers.

Not recognizing that some hijackers' passports were fraudulent.

Failing to expand no-fly lists to include names from terrorist watch lists.

Not searching airline passengers identified by a computer-based airline screening system known as the Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System..

Not hardening aircraft cockpit doors or taking other measures to prepare for the possibility of suicide hijackings.

The Associated Press

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who has endorsed some reforms similar to those the panel advocated, said in Detroit that the "report carries a very simple message for all of America about the security of all Americans: We can do better."

The report draws from 2.5 million pages of documents, 1,200 interviews and numerous public hearings.

The document provides a remarkable window into the government's secretive war on terrorism and examines internal debates that raged in the U.S. government over the past decade about the emergence of al-Qaida. The panel also weighs in on such issues as anti-terrorism legislation and the status of Guantánamo Bay detainees, arguing that the government must justify its use of some of the powers granted under the USA Patriot Act and advocating adherence to the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of alleged combatants.

Apolitical report

At the same time, the five Republicans and five Democrats on the commission clearly held back from offering conclusions on some of the most divisive political issues surrounding the attacks, in part because Kean and Hamilton had aimed from the beginning to produce a unanimous and arguably apolitical report.

The panel ducked an issue that exploded on the political stage last spring, for example, when former counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke alleged in testimony and a best-selling book that the Bush administration had been less aggressive than the Clinton administration in combating terrorism.

Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democratic commission member, said some issues had to be skirted or softened to avoid "a five-five report."

"It's one of the consequences you have when you're selected by political parties in the most partisan town on the planet," he said. "It's very difficult to criticize one side and not the other without appearing partisan, especially when one of them is up for re-election."

Yet, the report leaves clear impressions of the commission's apparent views on several politically volatile issues. The panel finds that Iraq and al-Qaida had no "collaborative operational relationship," despite Bush administration claims to the contrary, while it outlines a much deeper alliance between the terrorist group and Iran. The report alleges that as many as 10 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers passed through Iran freely, although there is no evidence that Tehran was aware of the plot.

"Opportunities" missed

The panel also said it could not determine whether the attacks could reasonably have been prevented. Yet it identifies 10 "operational opportunities" that were missed in detecting the plot, and identifies nine major vulnerabilities that enabled the attacks to move forward.

Among other historical topics addressed by the commission:

• The report concludes that the stated intent of the Clinton administration to kill bin Laden "was never well-communicated or understood within the CIA."

• Bush and Clinton, both interviewed by the commission, disagreed in their recollection of a two-hour meeting on national-security and foreign-policy issues in December 2000. Clinton recalls telling Bush that "by far your biggest threat is bin Laden and al-Qaida." Bush told the commission "that he felt sure President Clinton had mentioned terrorism, but did not remember much being said about al-Qaida."

Compiled from The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune and Knight Ridder Newspapers.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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