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updated 9/11/2006 7:17:37 AM ET 2006-09-11T11:17:37

After five years, it’s clear that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, failed to alter America’s fundamental commitment to liberty and openness, say those tasked with steering the country through the aftermath of the terrorist strikes. But, they add, there’s no denying that the attacks changed the United States in ways big and small, forcing Americans to rethink their notions of a free society.

Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers “killed some of our fellow citizens, and we’re mourning them,” said former Secretary of State Colin Powell. “They knocked down some of our structures, and we rebuilt them. But you didn’t win anything. We’re still here, and we’ll be here long after you’ve gone to hell.”

At the same time, the extended struggle with militant Islamic terrorism “has caused us to look more carefully at the freedoms we have, the privileges we enjoy and what, if any, of those freedoms and privileges we need [to] talk about adjusting and changing in order to combat this,” said Tom Ridge, President Bush’s first secretary of homeland security, a position that was created in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Powell and Ridge were among numerous current and former government officials closely involved in Bush’s “war on terror” who talked about the lessons of Sept. 11 in interviews with the MSNBC-TV program “Hardball.” The interviews are airing over several days around the fifth anniversary of the attacks, which killed more than 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Intelligence improvements called dramatic
If nothing else, Americans are significantly safer today than they were on Sept. 10, 2001, because of how the attacks forced the U.S. military and intelligence communities to change course, said John Negroponte, Bush’s director of national intelligence.

Like Ridge, Negroponte assumed a new job created expressly to address weaknesses exposed by the attacks. Before 9/11, the nation’s intelligence agencies were loosely coordinated, and a major theme of post-attack investigations was that the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.

Video: ‘No absolute guarantee’

But now, there’s “much better cooperation in the key agencies — the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency,” he said. “They work as teams now. There’s teamwork all the way down to the local level, both in our country and abroad, between these agencies.”

The history of the last five years “completes the transition, if you will,” Negroponte said. “It’s a huge break from the Cold War. All of a sudden, terrorism, global terrorism, international terrorism — that transnational issue — moved to the front and center of our foreign and of our intelligence policy. So that’s the big shift.”

Acknowledging that “there’s no absolute guarantee,” Negroponte insisted: “We’ve certainly set up mechanisms — no-fly lists, databases, checking on names of people prior to their boarding flights and so forth — that put us in a better position to prevent these kinds of things than prior to 9/11.”

Progress overseas faulted
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who challenged Bush’s handling of 9/11 and the ensuing war in Iraq in the 2004 presidential race, agreed that changes in security and law enforcement policies had “changed certain aspects of day-to-day life, because you walk into a building and you’ve got tighter security; you go fly, you’ve got tighter security — in those ways it has changed us.”

But Kerry disputed that the country was any better off because of mistakes made in confronting the terrorist threat outside America’s borders.

“I think that there was a stunning opportunity afforded the president in ways that perhaps only Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman ... have had in American history, where the entire world was united to support us,” he said.

But Kerry and others harshly criticized Bush for having “squandered that support over the last five years.”

“I think we are making the world more dangerous,” Kerry said. “This administration is making the world more dangerous through its stubbornness, through its ideological rigidness, through its insistence that it is right and everybody else is wrong.”

Retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who led the Army’s 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, said the first step should be to fire his old boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

“He’s gotten it so wrong for such a period of time, going on four years now, since our involvement in Iraq,” Batiste said. “He has so much baggage that he can no longer effectively serve the American people or his president.”

The post-war Shiite Muslim insurgency “didn’t have to happen,” Batiste said, and “the American people ought to be furious that this happened.”

“We went to war without a plan to do the tough work," he said. “And we certainly went to war without sufficient resources and soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors on the ground to accomplish what had to be done.”

Americans not asked to do enough?
Batiste and others — notably Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the president’s own party and a decorated Vietnam War hero — accused the administration of losing the war in Iraq because it failed to win the war at home. The first priority, they said, should have been to rally the support of the American people before committing troops,

“This country’s not mobilized. It never has been, other than putting a ‘Support Your Troops’ bumper sticker on the back of your car and care packages being sent to the front,” Batiste said. “What is the country doing? What kind of rationing has been imposed? How are we paying for a campaign that is costing a billion and a half dollars a week with an unbelievable amount of American blood spilled?”

Video: ‘We passed up an opportunity’

McCain said that in the months after the 2001 attacks, “the country was united,” but the government didn’t take the next step of calling on Americans to sacrifice for the necessary battles to follow.

“I think we passed up an opportunity after September 11th,” he said. “I think we should have said we’re going double the size of the Peace Corps [and] triple the size of AmeriCorps,” the domestic version of the Peace Corps.

The administration should have “set up volunteer organizations all over America to ensure our security ... give young people $18,000 in educational benefits for 18 months of military service,” McCain said. “Call Americans to serve.”

Instead, he said, “a small percentage of our population are bearing the brunt of this war and paying the price.” 

“In real democracies, everybody contributes, and everybody serves, and we spread the sacrifice out amongst the people as much as we can,” he added. “And we’re not doing that now.”

By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson with MSNBC-TV’s Chris Matthews and Jeremy Bronson.

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