WASHINGTON — The independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks will criticize Congress in its final report Thursday as well as the Clinton and Bush administrations for intelligence failures that contributed to the terrorist strikes, a senator who was briefed on the report told NBC News Wednesday.
The commission’s report will, as expected, call for the appointment of an overall director of U.S. intelligence operations, but it will not recommend that the new position be given Cabinet status, said the senator, who spoke on condition of anonymity after leaders of the commission briefed key lawmakers Wednesday afternoon. Critics of the proposal to create a Cabinet-level intelligence agency had complained that the director would be too vulnerable to political influence from the White House.
Commission members also rejected proposals to create a domestic intelligence counterpart to the CIA, which is prohibited by law from conducting operations inside the United States. Reforms at the FBI since the attacks met with praise from the commission, eliminating the need for a new domestic agency modeled on Britain’s MI5, the senator said.
Congress gets its share of blame
U.S. officials told NBC News earlier this week that the commission’s 500-plus-page report would not make the politically explosive conclusion that the 2001 attacks were preventable. But it will criticize the FBI and the CIA for failing to share information and for inaccurately analyzing intelligence, which contributed to the hijackers’ ability to carry out their plot.
The report will also criticize Congress for poor oversight of intelligence gathering, the senator said. Blaming institutional failures dating back to the 1970s, it will recommend combining the House and Senate intelligence committees and removing limits on the numbers of term members may serve on the panels.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., welcomed the commission’s call for reform of the congressional oversight system.
“Right now, a lot of positions in the United States Senate have not evolved with the times,” Frist told reporters Wednesday, noting that there were multiple committees in charge of overseeing and funding the sprawling intelligence community.
But House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said this week that any legislative action on the panel’s recommendations probably would not occur until after the next president was inaugurated in January, given the limited time Congress has left this year.
“It’s a very difficult time to squeeze out and have the oversight and the testimony to put new legislation in place,” Hastert said.
Less bureaucracy for Ridge
Among its other recommendations, the commission will also call for more centralized oversight of the new Department of Homeland Security, proposing that Secretary Tom Ridge be required to report to only one committee each in the House and the Senate. Ridge currently must report to several committees and subcommittees in both bodies.
The commission’s chairman, Republican former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, and its vice chairman, Democratic former Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, briefed national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez separately on the panel’s findings Wednesday afternoon. The panel’s leaders were to personally present President Bush with a copy of the report Thursday.
Administration officials familiar with the report told reporters late Wednesday that “neither President Bush nor President Clinton would be blamed for failing to act.” They said the panel would include an appendix praising the Bush administration for its actions since the 2001 attacks that had made the nation.
The report will also debunk several “myths” that have built up around the terrorist strikes that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania, the officials said.
According to the report, they said:
- The Saudi government did not fund the 19 hijackers.
- Relatives of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden were not allowed to fly out of the country until after air traffic was allowed to move freely after it was grounded following the attacks. Moreover, those family members had no connection to the terrorist plot.
- Bush did not know about the specific threat beforehand, and there was little more that he could to prevent it.
The last conclusion echoed comments made Wednesday by White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who said, “Nothing has come to our attention to suggest we could have prevented that horrible attack from happening.”
“The focus now is making sure we are doing everything we can to win the war against terrorism and prevent something like this from happening again,” he said.
Bush said Wednesday in the White House Rose Garden that he looked forward to receiving the report and stressed that his administration was doing everything possible to prevent another terrorist attack.
“I will continue to work with the Congress and state and local governments to build on the homeland security improvements we have already made,” he said as he signed a bill to develop and stockpile vaccines and other antidotes to biological and chemical weapons.
“Every American can be certain that their government will continue doing everything in our power to prevent a terrorist attack, and if the terrorists do strike, we will be better prepared to defend our people because of the good law I sign today.”
Aggressive lobbying effort planned
Commissioners plan an aggressive lobbying effort in the summer and fall to push their recommendations. The panel will split into bipartisan pairs and travel nationwide for speaking engagements and media appearances.
“Commissioners have all said they hoped the report would not just go on a shelf as so many others have,” said Al Felzenberg, a spokesman for the commission. “They said they hoped both presidential campaigns would endorse the recommendations and Congress would act.”
Still, the report is expected to provide fodder for arguments in the presidential campaign.
Advisers to the Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, have said they hope to use the report to show that the Bush administration was inattentive in the summer of 2001 to threats of a possible attack.
“I'm not looking to cast blame,” Kerry said Wednesday in an interview with NBC News’ Tom Brokaw. “I’m looking to take America to a safer place.”
But he said, “I believe there are things we could’ve done in the last three years since 9/11 — in the last two years — we haven’t done.” He did not elaborate.
The Clinton administration, meanwhile, was under fresh scrutiny after federal authorities said they were investigating former national security adviser Sandy Berger in connection with the disappearance of highly classified terrorism documents .
Berger said he inadvertently took copies of some documents from the National Archives and later returned them but could not find two or three copies of a highly classified report that concerned al-Qaida threats during the December 1999 millennium celebration.
Felzenberg, the commission spokesman, said the Berger probe would not affect the panel’s final report.
By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson with NBC’s Tom Brokaw, Keith Strickland and Les Kretman.