The United States is less vulnerable to terrorism today because of heightened vigilance but must improve its international relations in order to starve terrorist groups of new recruits, experts said Wednesday.
Scholars on terrorism and al Qaeda told the independent commission studying the Sept. 11 attacks that the United States badly needs an image makeover in the eyes of the world.
"Although we are winning the war against the organization called al Qaeda, we seem to be losing the cultural war," said Mamoun Fandy, senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.
Fandy said leaders of other countries, particularly in the Middle East, should be expected to express public gratitude for U.S. help. "Somehow we tolerate Arab leaders telling us something in private rooms and then dealing with their public the way they want to," he said.
Dennis Ross, a peace envoy to the Middle East under former President Clinton, said the United States' choice of friends in the region contributed to the anger and resentment that helped al Qaeda.
"We are resented in no small part because we are seen as using democracy as a tool or weapon against those we don't like, but never against those we do like," said Ross, now director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "We are seen as mouthing the words of democracy but then supporting regimes seen as repressive." He offered Saudi Arabia as one example.
The daylong hearing by the 10-member National Commission on Terrorist Attacks concerned al Qaeda, state support of terrorism and other challenges within the Muslim world.
Rohan Gunaratna, head of terrorism research at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, told the bipartisan commission that the United States and the international community sat by for a decade as Afghanistan became "a terrorist Disneyland" where attackers were trained and assaults were planned.
In previous hearings, the commission has focused specifically on the events of Sept. 11, 2001, including how hijackers took control of four airplanes and why U.S. air defenses did not react more quickly.
"To defeat and destroy our enemy, we must understand more than the crimes it already committed," said commission chairman Thomas H. Kean, a former governor of New Jersey. "We must understand what drives and motivates it, the source of its power, the resources at its command, its internal strengths and weaknesses."
Kean and the panel's vice chairman, former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, said Tuesday that government agencies have not cooperated fully with requests for information.
"We haven't gotten the materials we have needed and we certainly haven't gotten them in a timely fashion. The deadlines we set have passed," said Kean.
Tardiest of all are the Justice Department and Department of Defense, which owe the commission hundreds of thousands of documents, followed to a lesser extent by the CIA and Homeland Security Department, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart.
"We can't brook that kind of thing. We've got to get the information we need to do our work," Kean said.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., reacted Wednesday by asking internal watchdog offices at the departments of Justice and Defense to investigate whether those departments should be assisting the commission more. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the Justice Department is "intent on providing all the access as expeditiously as possible."
Wednesday's was only the third public hearing of the commission, which got off to a stumbling start when President Bush's first choice as chairman, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, resigned rather than disclose his consulting clients.
Some victims' relatives said they believed Wednesday's hearing could have focused more on the Sept. 11 terrorists, rather than on terrorism in general, had the commission gotten the documents it needs.
"I'm frustrated that it was more a series of opinions rather than testimony that would establish accountability, which is what I'm most interested in," said Annie MacRae of New York, whose daughter was killed at the World Trade Center.
Part of the problem is that some agencies require their intelligence agents be accompanied by a "minder" when interviewed by the commission – the same tactic Iraq used when its weapons builders were questioned and that so infuriated the U.S. at the time.
Other issues involve the questioning of al Qaeda suspects who may still face criminal charges.
The commission's report is due in May and there's serious concern it may not meet the deadline, meaning the final accounting for 9-11 wouldn't be ready until next fall, just in time for the elections.