WASHINGTON -- America's leaders failed to grasp the gravity of terrorist threats before the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, taking actions so feeble they never even slowed the al-Qaida plotters, a national commission said in a blistering report Thursday.
The panel warned "we are not safe" -- and called for major intelligence changes. Its work is sure to reverberate across the presidential campaign.
In an exhaustive investigation of the deadliest attack in U.S. history, the commission noted numerous government missteps but did not cast blame on any official and stopped short of saying the hijackings could have been prevented.
While the panel did not fault President Bush or former President Clinton, it did say both failed to make anti-terrorism a top priority.
"We do not believe they fully understood just how many people al-Qaida might kill and how soon it might do it," the 10-member, bipartisan panel said in its unanimous findings.
"We also believe that they did not take it as seriously as it should be taken. It was not their top priority," Thomas Kean, the Republican chairman, said at a news conference with members of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. "We do believe both presidents could have done more in this area."
The final report, available on the commission Web site and at bookstores, largely mirrored the preliminary reports released during the commission's 20 months of investigation.
The commission report repeated its earlier preliminary findings that Saddam Hussein did not have a close relationship with al-Qaida and had nothing to do with the attacks.
Still, in the days after the hijackings, some in the Bush administration were seeking to make that link, the commission found.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in a Sept. 17, 2001, memo to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, wrote that if there was "even a 10 percent chance" that Saddam had a role in the attacks, "maximum priority should be placed on eliminating that threat."
Despite Wolfowitz's arguments, Rumsfeld issued a memo to Pentagon commanders on Sept. 19 that addressed only al-Qaida, the Taliban and Afghanistan.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., expressed doubt that lawmakers would have time to consider sweeping reforms this year. But efforts began in both the House and Senate to build bipartisan coalitions of support for the recommendations. Relatives of Sept. 11 victims said they would lobby, too.
"The families know that this is an election year. 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.
The report portrayed the Sept. 11 terrorists as sure-footed and determined while the nation they were preparing to strike was unprepared, sluggish and uncomprehending of the imminent danger.
"Across the government, there were failures of imagination, policy, capabilities and management," the commission concluded in a 567-page indictment that documented a series of missed opportunities by the CIA and FBI to uncover the Sept. 11 plot. Nearly 3,000 people were killed when 19 Arab hijackers flew airliners into New York's Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.
Three years later, Americans are safer because of improvements in homeland security and the war against terrorists, the report said. "But we are not safe."
"Every expert with whom we spoke told us an attack of even greater magnitude is now possible and even probable," Kean said. "We do not have the luxury of time."
The commission's report said that as the Sept. 11 plot advanced, the U.S. government was bogged down in an outdated Cold War mentality, lacking imagination to deal with new threats or recognize the looming danger.
"What we can say with confidence is that none of the measures adopted by the U.S. government from 1998 to 2001 disturbed or even delayed the progress of the al-Qaida plot," the report said.
Commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, said a key finding was that no one in government was in charge of insuring that intelligence agencies pool resources, avoid duplication and plan jointly to keep America safe. To unify efforts, the commission recommended creating a national counterterrorism center.
It also recommended a Cabinet-level national intelligence director to centralize efforts now spread over 15 agencies in six Cabinet departments, including the CIA.
The report said Congress, like the executive branch, responded slowly to the rise of global terrorism.
But the panel found that the "most important failure" leading to the Sept. 11 attacks "was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat."
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.
Some members have speculated the attacks could have been stopped. "We do not know," Kean said. "We think it's possible. But we have not drawn that absolute conclusion because we don't believe that absolute conclusion is justified by the facts."
The report detailed contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida, noting that Osama bin Laden began exploring a possible alliance in the early 1990s. The report said that an Iraqi delegation traveled to Afghanistan in July 1998 to meet with the ruling Taliban and with bin Laden.
While there were "friendly contacts" between Iraq and al-Qaida and a common hatred of the United States, none of these contacts "ever developed into a collaborative relationship," the report said.
That question has been the subject of intense political debate, as critics accuse Bush of exaggerating the contacts between al-Qaida and Iraq to justify the war.
The panel said it did not find evidence that Iran, Iraq's neighbor, had advance knowledge of bin Laden's plans, or that Saudi Arabia's government had a role in the terror conspiracy, which involved 15 Saudi hijackers.