Today's report by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks will roam far beyond the hijacking plot and the government's failure to detect it, touching on issues including weapons-proliferation policies and the United States' treatment of detainees captured in the war on terrorism.
An excerpt of the report obtained by The Washington Post, for example, indicates that the panel will address the Bush administration's controversial decision not to grant prisoner-of-war protections to captured al Qaeda suspects, calling for the development of "a common coalition approach toward the detention and humane treatment of captured terrorists."
The report also urges more aggressive efforts to prevent terrorist groups from obtaining weapons of mass destruction and reveals that in 1998 U.S. officials worriedly discussed reports that al Qaeda "was intent on carrying out a 'Hiroshima,' " according to the excerpt.
The nearly 600-page report is a broad indictment of the government's efforts to combat al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 attacks. The document, to be released at a news conference here this morning, identifies as many as 10 opportunities to potentially unravel the plot and recommends a dramatic overhaul of counterterrorism efforts, including creation of a Cabinet-level intelligence chief, according to officials who have read the document, which has been the subject of a strict embargo.
President Bush and lawmakers from both parties were briefed on the findings yesterday by the commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean (R), and vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton (D). Before his meeting, Bush told reporters that the government was doing everything it could to protect the country from terrorists and defended his administration's handling of the al Qaeda threat before Sept. 11.
"Had we had any inkling, whatsoever, that terrorists were about to attack our country, we would have moved heaven and Earth to protect America," Bush said. "And I'm confident President Clinton would have done the same thing. Any president would have."
The commission's report includes sharp criticism of congressional oversight in terrorism and intelligence issues and proposes reorganizing the way committees are structured, lawmakers said.
Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he wants the Senate to start work "immediately" on ways to streamline Congress's management of intelligence issues, although a six-week recess begins Friday.
"The question is about congressional oversight, or is Congress doing its job?" Frist said. "The answer is Congress is doing a very good job, but there are going to be very clear areas of improvement."
But House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said yesterday that Congress will be unlikely to consider any major changes this year, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge signaled administration opposition to the idea of a new intelligence chief.
"I don't think you need a czar," Ridge said on Fox News Channel. "We already had one level of bureaucracy that we don't need."
Republican and Democratic lawmakers continued to spar over who is responsible for failures outlined by the commission. Hastert, while saying he did not want the report to become a "political football," noted Tuesday that it "covers eight years of the Clinton administration and eight months of the Bush administration."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) responded, "It happened on President Bush's watch," but she added that the report was not focused on assigning blame.
More details about the report dribbled out yesterday, including confirmation from lawmakers who have been briefed that the commission is not recommending creation of a domestic intelligence agency akin to Britain's MI5.
Also yesterday, the Associated Press released a portion of a surveillance tape from Washington Dulles International Airport showing several hijackers being pulled aside for extra scrutiny on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Commission investigators found in an interim report released in January that three of the five hijackers who boarded American Airlines Flight 77, which would crash into the Pentagon, set off magnetometers but were eventually allowed to proceed. Investigators believe the hijackers were probably carrying knives used in the hijacking.
In its report, the commission appears to raise questions about the Bush administration's legal approach to al Qaeda detainees apprehended overseas, although the extent of the panel's critique is not clear because an excerpt obtained by The Post is incomplete.
"New principles might endorse the application of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions on the law of armed conflict," the report says, according to the excerpt. "That article was specifically designed for those cases in which the usual laws of war did not apply. Its minimum standards are generally accepted throughout the world as customary international law."
The recommendation appears to reinforce the views and longtime understanding of the military legal community, while rejecting the claims of some Bush administration officials that some detainees are not entitled to Geneva protections as a matter of standard practice.
The administration has said that while the Geneva Conventions apply to combatants captured in Iraq, they do not apply to suspected al Qaeda members such as those held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Justice Department has also said the conventions do not apply to unlawful combatants, including many of those detained in Afghanistan.
In a separate section, the report finds that government actions to freeze the financial assets connected to Osama bin Laden or his suspected supporters "appeared to have little effect," even when working through the United Nations. And it noted that in many cases, when confronted with legal challenges, the United States and the United Nations were often forced to unfreeze the assets.
Another section says that efforts to combat Islamic terrorism should "be combined with a parallel, vital effort to prevent and counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."
The commission recommends initiatives including the development of an international legal regime with universal jurisdiction that would enable the capture, interdiction and prosecution of weapons-of-mass-destruction smugglers; an expansion of the Proliferation Security Initiative, which allows the United States and some allies to board ships suspected of transporting illegal weapons materials; and increased support for a 1991 plan to secure dangerous nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union.
One source who has been briefed on panel findings said the report casts doubt on whether the Bush administration has justified its use of some expanded powers under the USA Patriot Act, which gave the FBI broader authority to conduct surveillance and searches in terrorism investigations following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Staff writers Mike Allen, Dan Morgan and R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.