Sept. 11 panel: Intelligence overhaul crucial to stop future attack

Friday, July 23rd 2004, 8:58 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Congress and the White House must swiftly overhaul the nation's intelligence agencies or America will remain susceptible to another deadly terrorist attack, the two leaders of the Sept. 11 commission said Friday.

``We're in danger of just letting things slide,'' said commission chairman Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey. ``We believe unless we implement these recommendations, we're more vulnerable to another terrorist attack.''

Kean and the panel's vice chairman, former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, told reporters that Congress should get to work immediately upon returning in September from its summer recess and that the next president _ either President Bush or Democratic challenger John Kerry _ must push for the overhaul soon after taking office in January.

``Time is not on our side,'' Kean said.

The panel of five Republicans and five Democrats on Thursday released the findings of its 20-month investigation into the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history. Citing multiple government failures, the report called for a national counterterrorism center headed by a Cabinet-level director to centralize intelligence efforts.

``If these reforms are not the best that can be done for the American people, then the Congress and the president need to tell us what's better,'' Republican commissioner James Thompson, a former Illinois governor, told a news conference.

``But if there is nothing better, they need to be enacted and enacted speedily, because if something bad happens while these recommendations are sitting there, the American people will quickly fix political responsibility for failure,'' he said.

The idea of a new national intelligence director with budget authority and power to oversee the 15-agency intelligence community already has met with skepticism in Congress, where some key lawmakers are concerned that the position would create more bureaucracy and politicize the business of gathering and analyzing intelligence.

Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Friday in television interviews that change was needed, but she stopped far short of endorsing the creation of a national intelligence directorship.

``Any specific recommendation has to be looked at for both its up sides and its down sides. But this president is going to want to make decisions and to act because we understand the importance of moving forward with intelligence reform,'' Rice said on NBC's ``Today'' show.

Nonetheless, Democratic commissioner Jamie Gorelick said she believed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks represented a ``tectonic moment'' in history that would force speedy changes. Nearly 3,000 people were killed when 19 Arab hijackers organized by al-Qaida flew airliners into New York City's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.

``There are bad consequences to being in the middle of a political season and there are also good ones, because everyone who is running for office can be asked, 'Do you support these recommendations?''' she told reporters.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., expressed doubt that lawmakers would have time to consider a sweeping intelligence overhaul this year. Congress began its summer recess Friday and was to be out of session until after Labor Day. But efforts began in both the House and Senate to build bipartisan coalitions for the commission's proposals. Relatives of Sept. 11 victims said they too would lobby.

``We're going to hold these people's feet to the fire,'' said Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of the hijacked plane that struck the Pentagon.

During the presidential campaign, the report could spell trouble for Bush, who has made his handling of terrorism the centerpiece of his re-election bid and insisted he fully understood the threat.

Nearly three years after the attacks Americans are safer because of improvements in homeland security and the war against terrorists, the report said. ``But we are not safe.''

The report follows House and Senate reports that documented U.S. intelligence failures and undermined the major claims cited by Bush to justify the war against Iraq. The commission report repeated its earlier finding that al-Qaida did not have a close relationship with Saddam Hussein's regime.

Bush welcomed the commission's recommendations as ``very constructive'' and pledged that ``where government needs to act, we will'' without being more specific.

Bush had opposed creation of the commission, resisted release of some documents to it and fought against letting national security adviser Rice testify publicly under oath.

Kerry, campaigning for president in Detroit, said Bush administration disputes had delayed the commission's work and improvements to the nation's security.

``Nearly three years after terrorists have attacked our shores and murdered our loved ones, this report carries a very simple message for all of America about the security of all Americans _ we can do better,'' Kerry said.

The report does not blame Bush or former President Clinton for government missteps contributing to the attacks but did say they failed to make anti-terrorism a more urgent priority.

``We do not believe they fully understood just how many people al-Qaida might kill and how soon it might do it,'' the panel said.

``We also believe that they did not take it as seriously as it should be taken. It was not their top priority,'' said Kean. ``We do believe both presidents could have done more in this area.''

The commission identified nine ``specific points of vulnerability'' in the Sept. 11 plot that might have led to its disruption had the government been better organized and more watchful. Despite these opportunities, ``we cannot know whether any single step or series of steps would have defeated'' the hijackers, the report concluded.