Years of failure across the federal government left the nation unprepared to thwart the Sept. 11 attacks, a federal commission reported Thursday.
On the morning of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000, "We were unprepared," commission chairman Tom Kean said at a press conference releasing the commission's report (.pdf, 7MB), which was agreed unanimously by the bipartisan panel.
The report blamed no individuals and proposed a major overhaul of the U.S. intelligence community. It found there was no "collaborative operational relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda.
"The U.S. government was simply not active enough in combating the terrorist threat on 9/11," Kean said. U.S. agencies did not track known terrorists, share information, expand "no fly" lists to contain names from terrorist watch lists or involve border and airport security agencies in counter-terrorism policy.
"Our failures took place over many years and administrations. There is no single individual responsible for our failures," Kean said.
He pointed to the looming threat of future attacks.
"We do not have the luxury of time. We must prepare and we must act," Kean said. "We do believe we are safer today than we were on 9/11, but we are not safe."
The highly anticipated 567-page report said an intelligence-gathering center would bring a unified command to the more than dozen agencies that now collect intelligence overseas and at home.
Overseeing the center would be a new Senate-confirmed national intelligence director, reporting directly to the president at just below full Cabinet rank, who "would be able to influence the budget and leadership" of the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security Department and Defense Department.
Longtime CIA analyst and BS News Consultant Milt Bearden suggests two possibilities for a new national Intelligence Czar: Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former assistant Secretary of State and former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.
Those were just a few of the recommendations outlined by vice chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman, who warned: "There is no silver bullet or decisive blow that can defeat Islamic terrorism."
"We need to play offense – to capture and kill the terrorists, to deny them sanctuary and disrupt their ability to move money and men around the globe," Hamilton said. Much of that offensive must through diplomacy: working to bolster stable regimes, to create a coalition of nations to combat terrorism, reversing the proliferation of deadly weapons and spreading in the Islamic world "hope instead of despair, progress in place of persecution, life instead of death."
The commission did not recommend creation of a new domestic intelligence agency similar to Britain's MI5, as proposed by some in Congress. Instead, the report endorsed steps already being taken by FBI Director Robert Mueller to create a specialized intelligence service within the FBI.
Kean said money for homeland security must be parceled out according to need, rather than on a state-by-state basis, meaning that New York City and Washington will get most of the funds.
The report lists a series of missed operational opportunities to stop the hijackers, such as the bungled attempts to kill or capture bin Laden and the FBI's handling of terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested in August 2001 before the hijackings, the official said.
It also "debunks" some theories that once circulated widely, such as that the Saudi government had funded the hijackers and that the White House allowed a group of Saudis to slip out of the country just after Sept. 11 when all planes were grounded, the official said.
On the alleged connection between Iraq and al Qaeda, panel members said that while there had been contacts between the regime and the terrorist group, no concrete evidence emerged of a strategic partnership.
"There was no question in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," Kean said. "We have found no relationship whatever between Iraq and 9/11."
"Conversations, yes," Hamilton added, "but nothing concrete."
The report describes theand determination of hijackers who sought to exploit weaknesses in airline and border procedures by taking test flights.
Less than four months before the presidential election, the commission's work already has ignited partisan debate over whether Bush took sufficient steps to deal with terrorism in the first year of his administration. Republicans have argued that Mr. Bush had just eight months to deal with the terror threat while Mr. Clinton's administration had eight years.
Kean and Hamilton presented Mr. Bush with a copy of the report Thursday morning. Mr. Bush thanked them for a "really good job" and said the panel makes "very solid, sound recommendations about how to move forward."
"I assured them that where the government needs to act we will," Mr. Bush said.
Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, thanked the president for allowing "unprecedented access to documents." He and Hamilton, a former congressman, had wrestled the White House and other agencies over access to some documents and under what circumstances officials — including the president — would meet the commission.
The report might help to clarify what happened before the 2001 attacks. But an open question is whether and when the panel's recommendations will become policy.
Given the looming election and the late date in the legislative calendar, congressional leaders have signaled that action is unlikely this year. And the White House has reserved judgment on whether an intelligence czar is needed.
But commission members have prepared a media campaign to press for their proposals.
An organization of victims' relatives said in a statement this week, "We do not want the recommendations and findings of this report to sit idly on a shelf until after the next attack."
Commissioners have agreed to continue to advocate for changes as individuals after the commission's mandate expires, and will meet in a year to review progress.
"If something bad happens while these recommendations are sitting there, the American people will fix accountability," said commission member Jim Thompson.