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9/11 Commission Report

Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2004; 1:00 PM

The final report of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks recommends a major restructuring of the nation's intelligence community and includes broad criticism of the White House, Congress and other parts of the U.S. government for failing to detect, thwart and better respond to the deadly hijackings, according to panel members and other officials: 9/11 Panel Calls for Major Changes, (Post, July 18)

Washington Post staff writer Dan Eggen was online Monday, July 19, at 1 p.m. ET to preview the report and its findings.


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Dan Eggen: Good afternoon, all. The whirlwind continues to swirl around the 9/11 commission today, with President Bush telling reporters that the administration is investigating whether Iran may have played a role in 9/11. This is in response to reports over the weekend indicating that the commission's report will note that as many as 10 of the "muscle" hijackers transited through Iran prior to the attacks.

With that, let the questioning begin...

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washingtonpost.com: Video: Bush Responds to 9/11 Commission Recommendations (July 19)

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Arlington, Va.: The final report's mention of the al Qaeda transit through Iran seems as the most official acknowledgement, thus far, of this news item. How do you think the White House, Congress, etc., will react? Or will we continue to ignore anything related to Iran and 9/11 and plod on with our "no policy" policy toward Iran?

Dan Eggen: The administration is already reacting today, as noted above, and the Post reported this morning on a renewed push to clarify our Iran policy.

However, on one level, this tidbit of information is hardly surprising. The CIA's acting director said yesterday that the agency has known this since shortly after 9/11 and the commission said in interim reports a month ago that al Qaeda and Iran had explored a relationship.

It should also be stressed that both the commission and the government say there is no evidence that Iran knew about the plot, only that it's general policy of helping al Qaeda was taken advantage of.

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Washington, D.C.: Besides the recommendation to create a super-counterterror czar, are there any other expected revelations from the report?

Dan Eggen: The commission members themselves are honoring a tight embargo on specifics, so it's hard to be certain. But it's safe to say that the report is likely to reverberate for some time to come if only by merely reiterating the findings it has released, particularly over the last six months. As we noted yesterday, the commission has effectively rewritten the script for 9/11 on almost every level, finding that the missteps and failures by the government were both numerous and pervasive.

That's not to say there won't be some more specifics that will grab headlines, in part because anything that's new will be put under a media microscope.

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washingtonpost.com: U.S. Faces a Crossroads on Iran Policy, (Post, July 19)

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Arlington, Va.: Wasn't the need to coordinate all national intelligence gathering the issue that led to the creation of the CIA? Why does the Commission believe we now need another layer above the CIA? Is this just change for change's sake?

Dan Eggen: This is a great question, and there is real debate within the intelligence community about the wisdom of another layer of bureaucracy. John McLaughlin, the acting CIA director, criticized the idea yesterday for just that reason.

But the argument on the other side in part is that the current system clearly is not working. The head of the CIA supposedly wears two hats, both as chief of the Agency and director of all the nation's intelligence agencies. But the director has little real power in the latter role, particularly over the Pentagon's intelligence agencies, and at best is left to attempting to herd 15 cats. Backers of an "inteligence czar" argues that one person and office needs to have real budgetary and policymaking authority to make the system work.

The president's spokesman reiterated the White House claim this morning that they are considering just such an idea.

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washingtonpost.com: CIA Chief Faults 9/11 Panel Proposal, (Post, July 19)

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Is the final commission report going to maintain the commission staff's clear contention that there was no meaningful link between Saddam Hussein's government and al Qaeda, or have the commissioners tried to tone this down or say that the absence of a link applies only to planning 9/11?

Dan Eggen: All indications are that the commission, made up of five Republicans and five Democrats, is going to hew to the findings of the panel's staff that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda.

That said, members including John Lehman, the Republican former Navy secretary who has repeatedly discussed possible Iraq-al Qaeda ties, have also said there will be much more information about the subject in the report.

In other words, it will probably not settle the dispute, because the dispute is more political than factual: The commission has essentially found evidence that there were talks and gestures between teh two, but that nothing substantive ever came of it. This has been conventional wisdom in the intelligence community for years. Democrats will undoubtedly pounce on the final report and compare it to some of the more incendiary remarks by Presidet Bush, Vice President Cheney and others in the administration about Iraq and al Qaeda; the administration and Republican supporters will argue that the commission has found links and therefore there is little disagreement.

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Woodbridge, Va.: So big deal, some of the 9/11 hijackers went through Iran. The media jumps all over that. Of course the fact that most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis doesn't seem to have the same electrifying effect on the media.

And, by the way, I heard the media jumping all over the fact that Clinton had been warned about hijackings in the 90s. Of course there is never the follow up note that the Clinton team warned incoming Bush about al Qaeda being a threat and were ignored.

Dan Eggen: Regarding Iran, you're correct that there appears to be no evidence that Tehran played any role in 9/11, and that the hijacker transiting merely proves that they turned a blind eye to al Qaeda in general.

But that does not mean the Saudi government was involved either. The commission's earlier staff reports have been startling in their robust and clear dismissals of the kind of Saudi allegations alleged by some in Congress (and now airing on movie screens across the country in "Farenheit 9/11). The commission's investigators essentially cleared the Saudi government of any involvement. We will see if the commission members agree.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you know if the Commission looked into why President Bush, that morning of 9/11, spent so many minutes listening to a children's story in a Florida after Andrew Card told him the second plane had hit and we were at war? Could he not have asked the children to excuse him for an "emergency?"

Dan Eggen: This incident (also featured prominently in Michael Moore's movie) is discussed at some length in an interim staff report released by the commission last month.

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Washington, D.C.: Are any real changes expected to happen as a result of the report? How seriously do Congress, the administration take the report's findings?

Dan Eggen: This is a good but tough question to answer. The commission has aimed from the beginning to keep its work very high profile to avoid producing another blue-ribbon report that gets ignored, and it's safe to say they have already accomplished much more than your garden-variety commission in this regard. That publicity campaign will continue well after the report is out later this week and the panel is formally disbanded.

The combination of the commission report, the findings on intelligence failures by the House and Senate intelligence committees and the presidential election may well force reform.

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Anonymous: "It should also be stressed that both the commission and the government say there is no evidence that Iran knew about the plot, only that it's general policy of helping al Qaeda was taken advantage of."

Wouldn't this fall under the Bush Doctrine of "No distinction between terrorists and those who harbor them"? If the CIA knew about this shortly after 9'11, why do you suppose the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq instead (and yet are still splitting hairs about "ties to al Qaeda and Iraq," WMDs. etc.)?

Dan Eggen: Those are interesting questions, and I'm sure these topics are going to be a big focus of the political debate in coming days.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Has the commission ever broached logically why the president would even consider Hussein behined the attacks if:

1. Tenet was warning him throughout the summer that bin Laden and Al Qaeda were up to something.
2. He received a briefing titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."
3. Richard Clarke had been trying to warn him about an impending incident all summer.

Does my question make sense? If someone keeps warning you about a potential suspect, and something happens, wouldn't logic lead you to consider that suspect?

Dan Eggen: The administration has since the beginning blamed al Qaeda for 9/11. (I believe our first story along those lines ran on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001.) The issue has always been whether Saddam's government had some supporting role. The vice president has been particularly vocal in raising this possibility, and still maintains that an alleged meeting in Prague between lead 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence chief has not been "disproven."

For what it's worth, the 9/11 commission's staff dismissed that possibility, arguing that overwhelming evidence indicates the meeting never occurred (Atta was almost certainly in Florida during that time).

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Baltimore, Md.: Does this latest news help, hurt, or not affect the president, in your estimation?

Dan Eggen: Politics is not my specialty, but I have a hard time imagining that the 9/11 commission report can help the president, especially when it comes at the end of a long line of revelations about intelligence failures and missteps related to 9/11, Iraq, etc.

That said, I do know that some GOPers insist that any focus on national security and intelligence issues can help Bush, and point to polling earlier this summer in which Bush didn't appear to be damaged by the revelations (and even bounced back in some).

But I don't think the White House or the Republican Party welcomes the timing. This was one reason leading Republicans resisted moving the commission's deadline to July 26; the original deadline was two months' earlier.

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Springfield, Va.: How much do we actually know about the actions of the lead pilot hijackers while they were in the U.S. training for the attacks? Do we know where they stayed, who they interacted with and how they paid for things, or are there large knowledge gaps in our understanding of their movements and interactions?

Dan Eggen: Actually, we know a startlingly large amount about the hijackers' activities in the United States. The FBI in particular, through the work of a special team assembled to investigate the attacks, has assembled a massive timeline of their movements, from pizzas they ordered to reconnaisance flights they took. If memory serves, I think the entire timeline is some 8,000 lines long.

That said, there are still important gaps, in part because all of the participants are dead. Why did the hijackers pass through Las Vegas and, at one point apparently meet there, during surveillance flights? Why did Atta and Khalid Almihdhar start their flight on Sept. 11 in Portland, Maine, nearly missing their target flight out of Boston? It's possible we will never know the answer to these questions.

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Upland, Calif.: Will the report bring any more clarity to the issue of WMD supplies from Niger that the Brits reported on and included in the president's State of Union message? In the last couple days the press is reporting that this matter may be true or partly true now?

Dan Eggen: Almost certainly not. The panel's mandate is to investigate 9/11 and related subjects. The only reason the commission weighed in on Iraq last month is because of the overwhelming public debate about disputed links with al Qaeda. (It's worth noting that the staff's conclusions about Iraq and the Prague meeting took up just two paragraphs in interim reports that were about two dozen pages long.)

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washingtonpost.com: FBI's 9/11 Team Still Hard at Work, (Post, June 14)

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think about the collection of domestic intelligence -- will the Commission recommend further changes within the FBI (possibly a new intelligence division within the FBI) or will they recommend an entirely new domestic intelligence agency as advocated by John Edwards?

Dan Eggen: The latest conventional wisdom on this question (and one backed up in the conversations I've had in recent months) is that the 9/11 commission has soured on the idea of a domestic intelligence service akin to Great Britain's MI5.

But many of the panelists do like the idea of a semi-autonomous domestic intelligence operation within the FBI, much like what FBI Director Robert Mueller recently announced in something of a preemptive strike. The idea is to give the operation more autonomy and budget authority, but not remove it altogether.

Whatever the details, members and other officials are telling me they are going to recommend a major shakeup at the FBI.

As many of you may have noted last week, John Kerry pointedly did NOT endorse Edwards' MI5-style plan, opting instead for calling for more FBI agents overseas and a Mueller-style intelligence service within the bureau.

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Virginia: Most intelligence services in other countries are under the Foreign Affairs Ministries -- like in the U.K. and most of Europe. Can we do that here?

Dan Eggen: The dilemma here is that Americans don't want to be spied on by their own government, and--especially in light of FBI and CIA abuses in the 60s and 70s--Congress erected a lot of walls to limit what can be done domestically. Some of those walls have come down of course since 9/11, but there is real political danger to going too far.

In testimony before the 9/11 panel, a whole parade of current and former U.S. officials strongly urged the panel not to create a separate domestic intelligence service--former FBI director Louis J. Freeh said it would be akin to creating a "secret police."

The argument is that the FBI's law enforcement side keeps a check of sorts on the spies. FBIers also argue that, under recent reorganizations, the cops and spies share information completely, and that separating them would just be a return to old problems.

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Richmond, Va.: If the 9/11 commission report is created from a consensus among the members, how close to the truth could it be?

Dan Eggen: Even the more outspoken members on both sides have not uttered a word of complaint so far about the final package they came up with. In addition, even what's come out so far could hardly be seen as meek or cautious. The commission has been blistering in its findings and condemnations, finding fault with almost every facet of the U.S. national and border security system and even criticizing New York City's famed firefighters. They do not appear to have a timidity problem.

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New York, N.Y.: The report is supposed to be issued on Thursday. I thought the White House was going to have to "vet" it first. So when was it actually finished since the last hearing was only three or so weeks ago.

Dan Eggen: The White House has been involved in declassification issues. The report was still undergoing tinkering as recently as Sunday, from what I'm told, so this has been right down to the wire.

One reason the classification issue has not held things up too much--as it did with the previous 9/11 report by the House-Senate intelligence committees--is that a lot of the information has already gone through that battle. The last three interim reports, for example, included an astonishing wealth of previously classified info, including details of interrogations of al Qaeda leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

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Dan Eggen: Well, folks, I'm afraid our time is up. I'm sorry I couldn't get to more of your great questions.

Keep reading, and we'll see what all the fuss is about on Thursday.

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