The federal government received failing and mediocre grades yesterday from the former Sept. 11 commission, whose members said in a final report that the Bush administration and Congress have balked at enacting numerous reforms that could save American lives and prevent another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
The 10-member bipartisan panel -- whose book-length report about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks became a surprise bestseller -- issued a "report card" that included 5 F's, 12 D's and two "incompletes" in categories including airline passenger screening and improving first responders' communication system.
The group also said there has been little progress in forcing federal agencies to share intelligence and terrorism information and sharply criticized government efforts to secure weapons of mass destruction or establish clear standards for the proper treatment of U.S. detainees.
"We believe that the terrorists will strike again," the panel's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, told reporters in Washington. "If they do, and these reforms that might have prevented such an attack have not been implemented, what will our excuses be?"
Leading Democrats on Capitol Hill immediately seized on the report, accusing the Bush administration and the GOP-controlled Congress of failing to adequately prepare for future terrorist strikes. Republicans and the White House countered that the government has adopted many of the commission's proposed changes and that administration policies have helped prevent additional catastrophic attacks in the United States.
The report card -- which assigns letter grades to the panel's 41 key recommendations -- marks the last official act by commission members, whose hearings and findings have sparked three years of public debate over the extent of government mistakes before the Sept. 11 attacks. After the release of the "9/11 Commission Report" last year, the commission re-created itself as a private nonprofit group focused on pressuring Congress and the Bush administration to adopt its recommendations.
According to the panel, the government deserves only one top grade, an A-minus, for its "vigorous effort against terrorist financing." The panel gave out B's and C's for government performance on issues such as the creation of a director of national intelligence and an ongoing presence in Afghanistan.
But in nearly half the categories, the government merited a D, an F or an incomplete grade, according to the report card. Kean and other commission members said at a news conference in Washington that all the goals should be achievable, but that many have languished amid political skirmishing and bureaucratic turf battles.
"None of this is rocket science," said John F. Lehman (R), a Navy secretary in the Reagan administration. "None of it is in the 'too hard' category."
One of his colleagues, former Indiana congressman Timothy J. Roemer (D), said that "al Qaeda is quickly changing and we are not. Al Qaeda is highly dynamic and we are not. Al Qaeda is highly imaginative and we are not."
Kean and other panel members focused particular attention on two issues currently stalled in Congress. One proposal would change the way the Department of Homeland Security distributes state grant money, most of which is allocated evenly among the states -- leading sparsely populated states such as Wyoming to receive nearly twice as much money per capita as major terrorist targets such as New York.
An amendment to a House bill reauthorizing the USA Patriot Act would place primary emphasis for homeland security funding on risk assessments, but the proposal is not included in a House-Senate compromise bill because of opposition from small-state senators.
The panel also sharply criticized Congress for failing to enable first responders to communicate easily by setting aside part of the broadcast spectrum for their use. A pending budget bill would open part of the spectrum for first responders in 2009, but the Sept. 11 panel said that date is "too distant given the urgency of the threat."
These and other criticisms prompted a flurry of news releases and statements from congressional Democrats, who said Republicans had failed to make the country safe. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that "an F is too high a grade for the Bush White House and Washington Republicans," while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the report an "indictment of continued failure by the administration."
But in a document distributed to reporters, the White House outlined a lengthy list of changes already implemented after the commission's findings and highlighted other areas, such as the homeland security funding issue, in which the administration has supported changes.
"We have taken significant steps to better protect the American people at home," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. "There is more to do. This is the president's highest responsibility."
The FBI received a C grade from the Sept. 11 panel, which said that the bureau was transforming itself too slowly and that "significant deficiencies remain." Although FBI officials "agree that more remains to be done," Assistant Director John Miller said, "the pace of the FBI's change has been sweeping and continuous."
Mary Fetchet, founder and director of Voices of September 11th, one of the victims' groups that has closely monitored the commission's work, tearfully praised the commission during yesterday's news conference. She said she was disappointed that more has not been done since the attacks.
"I really do feel that it's only a matter of time before our country is going to be struck again, and it would just be tragic if there were other families like ours that suffered a tragic loss," said Fetchet, whose son, Brad, was killed at the World Trade Center.
But another prominent relative of a Sept. 11 victim, Kristen Breitweiser, said yesterday that the panel undercut its credibility by failing to publicly identify those within the government responsible for mistakes before the attacks.
"Part of the problem is that the commission didn't hold anyone accountable," said Breitweiser, whose husband, Ronald, was killed at the Trade Center. "When you don't name names, people don't tend to take you seriously."
Staff writer Peter Baker and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.