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.
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.
If the nation is to have a new, more powerful intelligence oversight official, it should be someone who speaks to the president and the Congress in the effort to shape intelligence issues. It should be someone with real budget authority over Pentagon intelligence activities, which take up the vast majority of the nation's intelligence funds, as well as the CIA.
Of course, the head of the CIA is already nominally the holder of another job, director of central intelligence, noted the official. "The question then arises as to why you have not empowered the director of central intelligence to do those things, and why you should not," said the official.
Mr. Webster says that it is his belief that the timing of the release of the report is unfortunate, coming as it does only months before an election. He worries that it will be used by one side or other to spin their positions on national security.
He adds that in his time in Washington he has seen a number of swings in national attitudes towards the CIA and intelligence-gathering activities in general. At times of national peril the voters allow greater leeway for US espionage. At times they feel safe, they want it reined in, believing in some way that such things are a bit immoral. He urges that leaders today make sure "the pendulum doesn't swing too far in one direction."
The commission members themselves know there is no simple solution to the problem. As Mr. Hamilton put it: "There is no silver bullet or decisive blow that can defeat Islamic terrorism."
Still, commission members believe there is much that can - and should have been done - to reduce the threat. "The United States government was simply not active enough in combating the terrorist threat before 9/11," commission chairman Thomas Kean said.
The commission also notes that security agencies weren't the only ones who didn't understand the dangers before Sept. 11. For example, during the 2000 presidential campaign, there was only one question about terrorism, said Kean: "That means the press didn't get it either."
• Ron Scherer in New York contributed to this report.
The 9/11 commission report challenges President Bush, in the heat of a political campaign, on an issue that one recent poll cites as his key advantage over Democrats in the public view: fighting the war on terrorism.
The report doesn't hurt the president as much as it might have. The bipartisan panel doesn't assign outright blame to the Bush administration for failing to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. But it does identify missed opportunities and "deep institutional failings" that do not enhance the president's bid to keep commanding the US war on terror.
The panel's recommendations are sure to reenergize politically charged debates on Capitol Hill - notably whether to put more authority under one chief to oversee various US intelligence agencies. Mr. Bush is now noncommittal on such a move, while Democratic challenger John Kerry supports it.
Republicans now lead Democrats 45 to 30 percent on who can best fight terrorism, according to a Pew Center poll this week.
In a town where commission reports have the shelf life of vapor, the final report of the 9/11 panel marks a stark exception - for its timing as well as its conclusions. One hot button, as partisans seek political points: The commission listed 10 missed "operational opportunities" to foil Al Qaeda in its plot.
"In eight months the Bush administration missed six things; while in eight years, the Clinton administration missed four things," reckons Robert Boorstin, a national security specialist at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
"We're right in the heart of a presidential campaign where terror and the war in Iraq are front and center. How can it not become front and center?" asks analyst Stuart Rothenberg. Still, Iraq appears sure to outweigh a 9/11 blame game as a campaign issue.
- Gail Russell Chaddock