9-11 panel - Hijackers exploited failed system

Thursday, July 22, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The Sept. 11 commission's final report concludes the hijackers exploited "deep institutional failings within our government" over a long period but does not blame President Bush or former President Clinton for the mistakes, administration officials familiar with the findings said Wednesday.

The report describes the patience and determination of the 19 hijackers and said they probed for weaknesses in airline and border procedures, taking test flights to gauge security.

A surveillance video that surfaced Wednesday shows four of the hijackers passing through security gates at Dulles International Airport shortly before boarding the plane they would crash into the Pentagon. In the video, the hijackers can be seen undergoing additional scrutiny after setting off metal detectors, then being permitted to continue to their gate.

The Sept. 11 commission has spent 20 months looking into how the hijackers were able to mount the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, killing nearly 3,000 people and demolishing the World Trade Center's twin towers.

White House officials and congressional leaders were briefed Wednesday on the panel's findings, and Bush is to receive a copy of the 575-page report today, just before it is released to the public.

"It does not place blame on particular individuals or particular incidents, but in fact it identifies institutional failings that have grown up over time about the way our government is organized," one official said.

It concludes that Bush and Clinton took the threat of al-Qaida seriously and were "genuinely concerned about the danger posed by al-Qaida," the official said. It finds that neither president was to blame for failing to stop the attacks, which were the culmination of years of planning.

While administration officials offered a preview of the report, their summary was far from a complete accounting of the commission's findings.

Less than four months before the presidential election, the commission's work already has ignited partisan debate over whether Bush took sufficient steps to deal with terrorism in the first year of his administration.

As expected, the report will call for creating a Cabinet-level national director of intelligence with authority over the CIA, FBI and other agencies. The White House administration is reserving judgment on that recommendation, and officials doubt it could be approved by Congress this year.

Four administration officials briefed reporters on the content of the report on condition of anonymity because it has not been publicly released.

"Rather than finding that there was a failure at the presidential level, what they find though is that there are failings and that there were deep institutional failings within our government," an official said. "And that's what they really examine at some length over a long period of time -- that there were a variety of factors spanning many years and many administrations that contributed to a failure to share information amongst agencies for both legal and policy reasons."

In particular, the official said, the commission found the FBI was not set up to collect intelligence domestically, in part because of civil liberties concerns.

The report also concludes there was a "failure of imagination" to provide either Bush or Clinton with new options -- particularly military options -- to deal with al-Qaida, the official said. There was a failure to adapt to the post-Cold War era, and people just kept trying the same kinds of things that didn't work, the official said.

The report lists a series of missed operational opportunities to stop the hijackers, such as the bungled attempts to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and the FBI's handling of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested in August 2001 before the hijackings and has been accused of conspiring in the plot, the official said.

It also "debunks" some theories that once circulated widely, such as that the Saudi government had funded the hijackers and that the White House allowed a group of Saudis to slip out of the country when all planes were grounded, the official said.

Commissioners have said the report also will fault Congress for poor oversight of intelligence gathering and criticize government agencies for their emergency responses to the attacks.

The harshest criticism will be leveled at the FBI and CIA, with the panel citing poor information sharing and intelligence analysis as key failures that contributed to the plot.

But the 10-member panel declined to recommend a separate domestic spy agency modeled after Britain's MI5, deciding that reform efforts by FBI Director Robert Mueller were on the right track despite the FBI's historical focus on law enforcement, said Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas.

"What they've concluded is, the FBI is moving in the right direction -- it has some capabilities in place, others are developing -- and my sense is they chose not to disrupt that process," said Turner, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.

The commission's proposals are a victory for Mueller, who sought to respond to withering criticism of the FBI after Sept. 11 by making counterrorism the agency's primary mission. Mueller has repeatedly argued that a new domestic intelligence service would be duplicative and raise civil liberties concerns.

In June, Mueller told Congress he was working to create an intelligence service largely independent from the rest of the FBI, with its own budget and with a chief reporting to Mueller.

"Intelligence functions are woven throughout the fabric of the bureau, and any changes to this integrated approach would be counterproductive," Mueller told House lawmakers last month.


On the Net:

Sept. 11 Commission: http://www.9-11commission.gov


AP White House Correspondent Terence Hunt contributed to this report.

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