9/11 Panel Chronicles U.S. Failures
"I was pleasantly surprised the commission did a heck of a job," said Rosemary Dillard of Alexandria, whose husband, Eddie, died in the Pentagon. "Now we'll be busier than ever making sure those in office know what they are doing." Others, however, expressed disappointment that the commission was not more specific in placing blame for missteps before Sept. 11, and that it did not judge whether the attacks could have been prevented.
Drawing from 2.5 million pages of documents, 1,200 interviews and numerous public hearings, the report by the commission, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, relies heavily on findings released by the commission's staff over the past seven months while adding significant new details about the plot and the government's efforts to grapple with terrorism.
The document, which includes 116 pages of footnotes, provides a remarkable window into the government's secretive war on terrorism and examines the internal debates that raged in the U.S. government over the past decade about the emergence of al Qaeda. The panel also weighs in on such issues as antiterrorism legislation and the status of detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, arguing that the government must justify its use of some of the powers granted under the USA Patriot Act and advocating adherence to the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of alleged combatants.
At the same time, the five Republicans and five Democrats on the commission clearly held back from offering conclusions on some of the most divisive political issues surrounding the attacks, in part because Kean and Hamilton had aimed from the beginning to produce a unanimous and arguably apolitical report.
The panel ducked an issue that exploded on the political stage this spring, for example, when former counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke alleged in testimony and a best-selling book that the Bush administration had been less aggressive than the Clinton administration in combating terrorism. The commission's executive summary says only that "terrorism was not the overriding national security concern for the U.S. government under either the Clinton or the pre-9/11 Bush administration."
Former senator Bob Kerrey (Neb.), a Democratic commission member, said in an interview yesterday that some issues had to be skirted or softened to avoid "a five-five report."
"It's one of the consequences you have when you're selected by political parties in the most partisan town on the planet," he said. "It's very difficult to criticize one side and not the other without appearing partisan, especially when one of them is up for reelection."
Yet through its wealth of detail and fact-finding, the report leaves clear impressions of the commission's apparent views on several of the politically volatile issues it considered. The panel finds that Iraq and al Qaeda had no "collaborative operational relationship," for example, while it outlines a much deeper alliance between the terrorist group and Iran. The report alleges that as many as 10 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were able to freely pass through Iran, although there is no evidence that Tehran was aware of the plot.
The panel also said it could not determine whether the attacks could reasonably have been prevented. Yet it identifies 10 "operational opportunities" that were missed in detecting the plot, and identifies nine major vulnerabilities that enabled the attacks to move forward.
Some of the shortcomings outlined were matters of policy, such as the failure to act on recommendations for hardening cockpit doors on jetliners or the failure to include suspected terrorists on aviation no-fly lists.
Many of the vulnerabilities and missed chances outlined revolved around two of the leading Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, who evaded serious detection by the CIA and, later, the FBI, despite numerous opportunities. Although the mistakes by the CIA, in particular, have been documented previously in the case of these two hijackers, the commission report provides a definitive and damning look at the details.
From the emergence of Alhazmi and Almihdhar at an al Qaeda operations meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000, the CIA repeatedly lost track of the pair and failed to properly follow up on their whereabouts, the report said. And once the CIA finally placed their names on a terrorist watch list in August 2001, the two had already entered the United States and the FBI was laggard in its efforts to find them, according to the commission account.
The report also chronicles the missteps of the FBI in its handling of Zacarias Moussaoui, whose arrest in August 2001 was suspicious enough that the then-director of the CIA, George J. Tenet, was briefed. Yet senior FBI managers never received word of the case and headquarters officials wrongly believed they could not gain a warrant to search Moussaoui's belongings. The commission concluded that Moussaoui was probably being prepared as a replacement Sept. 11 pilot.
Among the many other historical topics addressed by the commission:
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
"The government failed to protect the American people," the panel chairman, Thomas H. Kean, left, said at a news conference. With him are Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton, Fred F. Fielding, Bob Kerrey, John F. Lehman and Richard Ben-Veniste.
(Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
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