Panel: U.S. Underestimated Pre-9/11 Threat
Commission Recommends Creation of National Counterterrorism Center
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2004; 2:20 PM
Citing multiple failures across the government to detect and prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist plot, the bipartisan commission investigating the attacks today called for the appointment of a new high-level intelligence chief and the establishment of a national counterterrorism center to help overcome deep institutional failings and deal with the likelihood of another major terrorist assault.
"Since the [Sept. 11] plotters were flexible and resourceful, we cannot know whether any single step or series of steps would have defeated them," the 567-page report says in its executive summary. "What we can say with confidence is that none of the measures adopted by the U.S. government from 1998 to 2001 disturbed or even delayed the progress of the al Qaeda plot. Across the government, there were failures of imagination, policy, capabilities and management."
The report adds: "The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat."
President Bush, presented with a copy of the report at the White House this morning, said he would study the panel's "very constructive recommendations." But he did not immediately commit his administration to any fundamental changes.
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential challenger to Bush in the November election, called on the administration and Congress to move rapidly to implement the commission's recommendations, adding, "This is a time to come together."
If he is elected and adequate steps have not been taken, Kerry said, he would convene "an emergency security summit" of agency heads and leaders of both parties to make "the administrative changes necessary to protect this country."
In a news conference coinciding with the formal release of the report, commission members said urgent action is needed to implement the recommended reforms in the face of what they described as inevitable attempts by terrorists to inflict even greater casualties on the United States.
"It is not our purpose to assign blame," said the commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey. "Our goal is to prevent future attacks. Every expert with whom we spoke told us an attack of even greater magnitude is possible, and even probable."
"We do not have the luxury of time," Kean said. "We must prepare, and we must act."
The vice chairman of the 10-member panel, Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, cautioned that "there is no silver bullet or decisive blow that can defeat Islamist terrorism."
Outlining the commission's recommendations, Hamilton said a new National Counterterrorism Center would "unify all counterterrorism intelligence and operations across the foreign and domestic divide in one organization." He said, "Right now these efforts are too diffuse across the government."
Hamilton said a new national intelligence director would address the need for "a much stronger head of the intelligence community" in the United States.
"The intelligence community needs a shift in mindset and organization," Hamilton said, so that intelligence agencies operate under the principle of unity of command, "with information-sharing as the norm."
Hamilton said the Sept. 11 commission, which produced its report unanimously with no dissenting views, did not support the creation of a new domestic intelligence agency, such as Britain's MI5.
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