WASHINGTON – Capping 18 months of work, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission released its 567-page report here Thursday, and challenged President George W. Bush and Congress to make sweeping changes to the structure of the U.S. intelligence community.
The report’s central recommendations called for the creation of a “National Counter-Terrorism Center” (NCTC) that would feature joint operational planning and intelligence-sharing across different government agencies and, more controversially, the position of a National Intelligence Director (NID) who would oversee the 15 different agencies that make up Washington’s vast intelligence apparatus.
Such a post, which would require confirmation by the U.S. Senate and be given space in the White House, is certain to be strongly resisted by the Pentagon, which currently controls about 80 percent of the estimated $40 billion U.S. intelligence budget and focuses most of those resources on spying on foreign militaries rather than on suspected terrorist groups.
“Our reform recommendations are urgent,” said former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, one of the Republican members of the 10-person body, whose full name is the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.
“They need to be enacted, and enacted speedily, because if something bad happens while these recommendations are sitting there, the American people will quickly fix political responsibility for failure, and that responsibility may last for generations,” he warned.
Bush met with commission co-chairs, former New Jersey Republican Gov. Tom Kean and former Democratic Representative Lee Hamilton, in the White House just before the report’s official release, and praised the group for “a really good job,” promising to study their “very solid, sound recommendations.” His Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry, issued a statement endorsing its conclusions and calling for their urgent implementation.
“I received an initial briefing on the report from Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton this morning,” he said. “We have a big agenda for reforms and no time to lose in tackling them,” Kerry added, noting that Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman intended to introduce legislation that, if enacted, would translate the key recommendations into law.
In a joint press conference one hour later, McCain and Lieberman said they will ask Congress to convene a special session later this fall, if necessary, to move their legislation.
The independent commission, whose creation and mandate were initially resisted by the Bush administration, reviewed tens of thousands of documents and heard testimony from some 1,200 witnesses, including Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney who insisted, however, on appearing jointly and behind closed doors as well as senior members of the Bush government and that of his predecessor Bill Clinton.
The main findings of the long-awaited report came as little surprise, as much of it has leaked out since the commission issued an initial staff report last month.
The commission said it found no evidence of an Iraqi connection to the 9/11 attacks, nor any evidence of any “collaborative operational relationship” between the al-Qaeda terrorist group and the government of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. “Conversations, yes; but nothing concrete,” said Hamilton.
An alleged link between Hussein and al-Qaeda was one of the Bush administration’s most-repeated arguments to justify attacking Iraq in March 2003.
Similarly, the commission found no evidence of a role by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran with respect to the 9/11 attacks, although it did find evidence that Iran may have had an operational relationship with al-Qaeda at one time an allegation that has already provoked renewed tensions between Washington and Tehran.
“We don’t know of any current relationship,” said Kean. “We do know that when people wanted to get through Iran to Afghanistan to meet with Osama bin Laden, including a number of the [9/11] hijackers, they were able to do [that] without marks in their passports that would indicate they’d been through Iran. But there is no evidence whatsoever, for instance, that Iran knew anything about the attack on 9/11 or certainly assisted it in any way.”
But the main thrust of the report was on how the intelligence community failed to “connect the dots” about the threat posed by al-Qaeda, and specifically the hijackings of the jetliners used for suicide attacks on New York and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, a plan that appears to have been hatched as early as 1998, the report said.
“Ninety percent of the facts that we knew about [al-Qaeda leader] Osama bin Laden we knew in 1998,” said former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey, another commissioner. “But the full story wasn’t delivered until after 9/11 [because] it was held in classified compartmentalized sections [of the government].”
Many critics have charged that Washington failed to detect and disrupt the attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people, in major part because most U.S. intelligence resources were focused on potential conventional military threats as opposed to unconventional threats, such as those posed by al-Qaeda.
Indeed the commission identified 10 “unexploited opportunities” before the attacks four under the Clinton administration and six in the first eight months of the Bush administration when, if the relevant agencies had known what other agencies had known, the government could have discovered, delayed, or disrupted the plot.
“We need changes in information sharing,” said Hamilton. “The United States government has access to vast amounts of information, but it has a weak system of processing and using [it]. Need to share must replace need to know.”
That would be the primary purpose of establishing the NCTC. As for the creation of the NID, the consequences of such a move would be enormous, not only altering the focus of U.S. intelligence gathering and reducing the Pentagon’s control, but also scrambling powerful and jealous congressional committees, several of which oversee different parts of the intelligence community.
The enormity of the task prompted Kerry to say that, while “hopeful,” he was “not optimistic that these changes will be enacted prior to another terrorist attack on the United States.”
“It will require members of Congress to give up committee assignments that … they love,” he said. “It will require, in the government, people to give up authority that they currently have over hiring budgets. The Department of Defense, most notably, will be asked to give up substantial authorities”
Indeed, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld has strongly opposed any move to create a NID, an idea that has long been pushed by Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser under former President George H.W. Bush (1989-93), who chaired a presidential commission on the subject in the late 1990s.
Until now, Rumsfeld has succeeded in keeping the proposal at bay, but the commission’s weighing in so strongly on the question could help tip the balance in Congress, if not in the administration.
The commission’s work before today had already won widespread praise, not only because of the exceptional bipartisanship that characterized its public appearances a striking contrast to the increasingly bitter partisan polarization taking place in Washington in an election year but also as a result of the strong public backing it received from the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks.
On several occasions, the administration and the Republican leadership in Congress were forced to cave in to the commission’s demands for documents or for an extension in completing its work.
A survey by the Pew Center for People and the Press released this week found that over 60 percent of the public had confidence in the commission’s work, compared to only 24 percent who did not a level of support that commission members clearly hope will be used to press Congress and the administration on the reforms.
(Inter Press Service)