Working in secret, the Sept. 11 commission is finishing a final report that several members believe will be done by week’s end and have unanimous support.
The report’s factual findings, which are virtually complete, will in some respects echo last week’s Senate Intelligence Committee report by harshly criticizing the FBI and CIA for poor intelligence-gathering that many members believe could have otherwise prevented the attacks.
It also will stand by the finding in its preliminary staff report last month that said al-Qaida had only limited contact with Iraq before the terrorist attacks, commissioners say. Strong ties was one of the justifications the Bush administration gave for going to war with Iraq.
“We have a firm and resolute conclusion on this,” Democratic commissioner Timothy Roemer, a former representative from Indiana, said in a recent interview. “We have not found cooperation or collaboration, in general terms and specific instances, between al Qaida and Iraq.”
The endorsement of all 10 commissioners is important if the findings and recommendations for improvements are to avoid charges of partisanship in a presidential election year. The panel meets this week to finalize recommendations, which commissioners say will call for an overhaul of the nation’s intelligence agencies.
“They are all taking their broader responsibility seriously,” said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “They know this is not about scoring political points in the heart of a campaign but about making sure the attacks don’t happen again.”
A report without any dissenters would be an accomplishment given the charges of partisanship that surfaced during public hearings featuring officials such as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Attorney General John Ashcroft and former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke.
'Lot of consensus'
As recently as last month, former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and several other commissioners on the panel of five Republicans and five Democrats said unanimity might not be possible.
The meetings since then have changed his mind.
“We’ve had a good personal relationship in our internal deliberations, with no traces of partisanship,” Gorton said.
Added Democratic commissioner Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration: “We have a lot of consensus.”
The commission was established by Congress in 2002 to investigate government mistakes before the attacks and recommend ways to better protect the country against terrorists. Commissioners and their staff have interviewed more than 1,000 witnesses, including President Bush, and reviewed more than 2 million documents.
The final report is due July 26. The commission hopes to have the report finished this week and wants to release the 500-plus-page document on July 22 to avoid competing with the Democratic National Convention, which begins on July 26.
The public release will be dictated by the White House, which is reviewing the report to ensure that no classified information is disclosed. That is not seen as a major stumbling block, however. Once the report is cleared for release it will be available to the public via the Internet and at bookstores.
Down to the nuances
The commission met several times last week in private sessions, online and by telephone, and will meet twice more this week. “High-level concepts” have been agreed upon, commissioners said. Nuances of language, tone and specific detail are being debated.
Specifics about the report are being closely held by the commission. Several commissioners previously told The Associated Press the report will refrain from assigning blame to individuals in the Bush and Clinton administrations to avoid the appearance of partisanship.
Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a scathing condemnation of intelligence-gathering leading up to the war with Iraq. A committee report said assertions that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons and was working to make nuclear weapons were wrong and based on false or overstated CIA analyses. The report also harshly criticized CIA Director George Tenet, who left his job on Sunday.
The Sept. 11 commission did not look into intelligence failures after the terrorist attacks. It is expected to address modernizing FBI data systems to improve tracking and sharing of terror watchlists; improving coordination for local authorities, the military and Federal Aviation Administration in the event of an attack; and strengthening airport passenger screening.
The commission’s preliminary reports have outlined failures in all those areas that helped the Sept. 11 hijackers carry out their plot.
Republican commissioner John Lehman said the reforms will be “very strong, substantive and practical.” He has pushed for centralizing the intelligence agencies as well as improving domestic surveillance beyond FBI Director Robert Mueller’s proposal to create an independent intelligence service within the bureau, such as by creating a domestic spy agency.
Mueller, Ashcroft and their Democratic predecessors strongly reject the idea of establishing a stand-alone domestic intelligence-gathering agency modeled after Britain’s MI5, saying it would be a costly duplication of FBI efforts.
The commission plans final back-and-forth revisions with the White House this week, with the aim of submitting the complete, declassified report to private publisher W.W. Norton & Co. by Friday. Norton has promised the panel a quick turnaround so the $10 paperbacks can be ready for sale July 22.