Failure of 'imagination' led to 9/11
The 9/11 final report assigns little blame, but cites many errors, and lays out bipartisan steps to avert future terror acts.
Nearly three years after the attacks of Sept. 11, a national commission blames no one agency or administration for the strikes, but makes it clear that many errors occurred prior to that fateful day.Skip to next paragraph
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It leaves open the question as to whether the attacks could have been prevented, but in total it portrays a strike against America that did not come out of nowhere. It was rather the result of a growing threat that perhaps could, and should, have been foreseen.
Top officials all told the 9/11 commission that they understood the dangers of Al Qaeda - but commissioners in the end became convinced that there was uncertainty at the top as to whether this was just a new and especially venomous version of the longstanding terrorist menace, or whether it was indeed something radically new.
The most important failure was "one of imagination," says the final report. "We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat."
In the end, the bottom line of the historic document, released Thursday in Washington, seems to be this: The US government still needs a profound reorientation to better fight terrorist threats to come.
The report could well launch a national conversation about tragic events still fresh in memory, and about the control and limits of intelligence-gathering - all in the heated context of a presidential election year.
Does Congress need to exert more oversight of intelligence agencies? Should a powerful secretary of intelligence sit in the cabinet? How does the Department of Homeland Security really fit into this effort? Important questions, say experts.
But they are questions that should be discussed, without sharp partisanship. "Any time you're talking about the restructuring of a major national security instrument of government, that ought to be done when people are weighing and considering it, and not hurling it into each other's faces to make a political point," says William Webster, who has served as director of central intelligence and the FBI.
The 9/11 commission (formally known as The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States) issued its report with 37 recommendations to help prevent future strikes on the homeland. These recommendations were unanimously approved by the panel's five Republican and five Democratic commissioners. In general, the report urges a three-pronged approach to antiterrorism security: attacking terrorists and their organizations, preventing the continued growth of Islamist terrorism, and protecting and preparing for terrorist attacks.
"The first phase of our post-9/11 efforts rightly included military action to topple the Taliban and pursue Al Qaeda," said Vice Chair Lee Hamilton. "But long-term success demands the use of all elements of national power - diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy, and homeland defense."
To execute this strategy, the commission proposed a five-part plan:
• Link foreign and domestic intelligence and operational planning in a new National Counterterrorism Center;
• Appoint a national intelligence director and create a National Intelligence Center;
• Centralize and strengthen Congressional oversight of intelligence and homeland security;
• Strengthen the national security workforce within the FBI and clarify the missions of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
From the White House to the halls of the CIA, the common reaction to the report's release was: This deserves serious study.
After receiving the report from leading commission members yesterday, Bush said, "I assured them that where government needs to act, we will." And Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, said, "There are imperatives that we must move on rapidly."
But this is not to say that the nation's intelligence community welcomed recommendations about how it should be organized with open arms. A senior CIA official who briefed reporters made it clear that the agency considers itself in the middle of the war, and it wants nothing to disrupt what it sees as wartime-level activities.