Intel Reform On Front Burner

September 11 commission recommendations results, 9/11 CBS

The campaigns and Congress seem to have heard the 9/11 commission's message, changing tactics to reflect the panel's insistence on quick action.

President Bush has ordered a swift administrative review of the report, while House and Senate committees will begin rare August hearings.

Even before Capitol Hill cleared out for what was supposed to be a lazy August break, the word went out: Get back here and get back to work. CBS News Correspondent Joie Chen reports.

"I think it's a shame if we allow vacation schedules or election year politics to come in the way of safety," says Carrie Lemack, vice president of the Families of September 11 group. Lemack's mother, Judy Larocque, was a flight attendant on one of the hijacked planes that hit the World Trade Center in New York City.

When the 9/11 Commission's final report was released, both the White House and Congress played down any chance of major reform before the November elections. But the message has been heard.

So much for summer vacation.

On Aug. 2, a special Senate panel gets to work on creating a new national counterterrorism center and naming a new intelligence czar. Late Friday, House leaders put out word to their committees to get to work in August, too.

The full Congress returns after Labor Day (Sept. 7). It will have a month to consider specific actions to take before its self-imposed deadline of Oct. 1 for putting the 9/11 panel's recommendations in place.

That leaves another month before Election Day (Nov. 2) for the candidates to wrangle over what has or hasn't been done.

There's even the almost-unheard-of threat of a special session after the elections, to get new laws passed before year's end.

The White House is gearing up, too. The 9/11 report is on the president's summer reading list. And today, during his weekly radio address, Mr. Bush told listeners he'll pay close attention: "We will carefully examine all the commission's ideas on how we can improve our ongoing efforts to protect Americans and to prevent another attack."

It's an unusually swift response for the nation's capital, usually loathe to move quickly on anything. But then, no one wants to be the one who dropped the ball when, as predicted, terrorists strike again.

"The American people expect us to act," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said Friday. "We don't have the luxury of waiting for months."

Collins and the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, said they would invite the commission's leaders, Republican Thomas Kean and Democratic vice chairman Lee Hamilton, to testify.

Congress began its recess Friday and was to be out of session until after Labor Day.

"This is a crisis. People died, and more people will unless we get it together," Lieberman said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., also urged the committee to introduce legislation by Oct. 1 addressing the intelligence proposals, and the committee said it would do so.

Late Friday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who has expressed doubt that lawmakers would have time to consider a sweeping intelligence overhaul this year, said he and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, would also direct House committees to hold hearings next month and make recommendations for legislation in September.

Earlier in the day, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California urged Hastert in a letter to reconvene the House in August, and Hastert responded that he would seek hearings "over the next several months." He later announced the August hearings.

"The House plans to immediately assess everything we have done ... since 9/11 and everything more we need to do," said Hastert.

The panel of five Republicans and five Democrats on Thursday released the findings of its 20-month investigation into the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history. Citing multiple government failures, the panel's final report(.pdf, 7MB) called for a national counterterrorism center headed by a Cabinet-level director to centralize intelligence efforts.

"If these reforms are not the best that can be done for the American people, then the Congress and the president need to tell us what's better," Republican commissioner James Thompson, a former Illinois governor, told a news conference.

"But if there is nothing better, 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," he said.

The idea of a new national intelligence director with budget authority and power to oversee the 15-agency intelligence community already has met with skepticism in Congress, where some key lawmakers are concerned that the position would create more bureaucracy and politicize the business of gathering and analyzing intelligence.

President Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Friday in television interviews that change was needed, but she stopped far short of endorsing the creation of a national intelligence directorship.

The administration will address the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, but it is unclear "what reforms will be made and when," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said.

Rice told the CBS News Early Show that President Bush would "take a little time to examine these proposals."

The unanimously endorsed report could spell trouble for Mr. Bush, who has made his handling of terrorism the centerpiece of his campaign.

The preseident directed his chief of staff, Andrew Card, to study the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.

Card will undertake a Cabinet-level review of the proposals, which will be examined at all levels of government, Buchan said. She would offer no time table for when Card would report back to Bush on the study.

Democrat John Kerry, campaigning for president in Detroit, said disputes within the Bush administration had delayed the commission's work and improvements to the nation's security.

"Nearly three years after terrorists have attacked our shores and murdered our loved ones, this report carries a very simple message for all of America about the security of all Americans — we can do better," Kerry said.

Democratic commissioner Jamie Gorelick said she believed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people when 19 Arab hijackers flew airliners into New York City's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside, represented a "tectonic moment" in history that would force speedy changes.

"There are bad consequences to being in the middle of a political season and there are also good ones, because everyone who is running for office can be asked, 'Do you support these recommendations?'" she told reporters.

Relatives of Sept. 11 victims said they too would lobby.

"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.

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

While there were "friendly contacts" between Iraq and al Qaeda and a common hatred of the United States, none of these contacts "ever developed into a collaborative relationship," the report said. Nor did Iran or Saudi Arabia have knowledge of the plot.

The Sept. 11 commission also concluded that passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 fought back against the hijackers but never actually made it into the cockpit.

While sweeping in its proposals, the commission acknowledges the limits of any effort to thwart killers.

"No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again," it warns. "History has shown that even the most vigilant and expert agencies cannot always prevent determined, suicidal attackers from reaching a target."
  • Lloyd Vries

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