"[W]e are safer today. But we are not safe."
That conclusion, in yesterday's final report of the Sept. 11 commission, was welcome news for President Bush's reelection campaign. In fact, Bush and his aides have been using the phrase in recent speeches, almost word for word in some cases.
The commission's embrace of a Bush campaign slogan, by coincidence or design, was emblematic of the much-anticipated report. Though openly dreaded for months by many Republicans and quietly feared by the White House, the report was much gentler on the Bush administration than they feared.
Rather than focus criticism on the Bush administration, the commission spread the blame broadly and evenly across two administrations, the FBI and Congress. The panel, though hardly flattering of the Bush administration, did not endorse the view of star witness and former White House counterterrorism director Richard A. Clarke that the Bush administration cared less about terrorism than the Clinton administration did. And Chairman Thomas H. Kean even stood in the Rose Garden yesterday praising Bush's cooperation -- after months of complaints by the commission about a lack of access.
Bush, who originally opposed the commission's creation and then squabbled with the panel, rushed to embrace it after aides concluded that such a course was wiser than disputing with it. Bush's staff hastily announced yesterday morning's appearance in the Rose Garden, where Bush patted Kean (R-N.J.) and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) on the back. Later, in Glenview, Ill., Bush highlighted the report's emphasis on "deep institutional failings" and said: "The commission's recommendations are consistent with the strategy my administration is following to address these failings and to win the war on terror." Bush read several recommendations, prefacing each by asserting: "We agree."
Certainly, there is plenty of damning material in the report's 567 pages about the Bush administration's actions before and after the 2001 attacks. There were administration doubts about CIA Director George J. Tenet's prophetic claim in the summer of 2001 that "the system was blinking red." There were the 36 presidential intelligence briefings given Bush before the attacks that mentioned al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. There is more confirmation that top officials such as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, were obsessed with attacking Iraq in the days after the Sept. 11 strikes.
Also, the commission notably declined to endorse Bush's view that the Iraq war has improved Americans' security and is part of the war on terrorism. In a clear dispute with Bush, the commission concluded that there were contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda, but that "to date we have seen no evidence that these . . . ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship."
Though there is little in the report for the Bush administration to be proud of, the commission's emphasis on the structural changes to be made -- and its determination not to assign personal blame -- allowed the White House to dodge a bullet that allies had been convinced was headed its way after House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) tried in vain to prevent the commission from releasing its report on the eve of next week's Democratic convention.
Instead, Hastert yesterday was exultant, recommending the report as "extremely important" in a statement. "President Clinton is not to blame for those attacks. President Bush is not to blame for the attacks. Al Qaeda is to blame," Hastert said.
Democrats drafted a document citing two dozen damaging passages in the commission's report. And Bush's challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), told reporters that divisions within the Bush administration have "created a struggle that has delayed our ability to move forward."
But, for the most part, Democrats shifted their attention from the report's limited faultfinding to what is likely to be the next political battle: a pre-election struggle to turn the commission's extensive policy recommendations into law. Kerry issued a statement applauding plans by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) to write legislation based on the recommendations.
"The administration and the Congress must get to work on this legislation immediately," Kerry said. Promising to convene an "emergency security summit," he added: "If I am elected president and there has still not been sufficient progress on these issues, I will not wait a single day more."
In a sign of an emerging dispute over the legislation, GOP congressional leaders suggested that the matter will not be considered before the election. "We're not going to rush through anything," Hastert said, promising hearings "over the next several months."
Similarly, Bush did not commit to any legislation or to a timetable yesterday. He embraced the "common-sense approach to how to move forward," but he did not speak specifically about implementing their "very constructive recommendations." Two of his advisers, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin, have already opposed the notion of an intelligence coordinator, a central recommendation of the commission.
Bush said only that he will "carefully study" all the proposals. "We agree that better coordination between the various intelligence agencies is needed," he said. "We agree that more human intelligence is needed."
Administration officials said yesterday was the beginning of an effort by Bush to regain his footing on terrorism, an issue that he successfully exploited while campaigning for the 2002 midterm elections but on which he is now facing charges that too little has been done. In Illinois, Bush stood alongside a rescue truck at a firefighter training center, with signs proclaiming "Protecting America" in gold letters, with billowing flags in the background.
Democrats served notice that they will try to deny Bush an opportunity to rebuild his terrorism credentials and that they will do this by fighting for more expeditious action on the recommendations -- an unusual proposition three months before the election. Former Clinton chief of staff John D. Podesta complained that GOP leaders "have promised no action on the recommendations until after the November elections." He added: "Americans deserve that this report be taken seriously and acted on without delay and with bipartisan support."
In the effort to turn the recommendations into law -- or at least to make the fight an election issue -- Democrats may find the commission more helpful than it ultimately proved to be at finger-pointing.
"All 10 of us have decided to . . . do everything we can, whether it's testimony or lobbying or speaking or whatever's necessary, to let the American people know about these recommendations, know how important they are, our belief that they can save lives," Kean said.