Questioning Nearly Every Aspect of the Responses to Sept. 11

By DOUGLAS JEHL

The New York Times

Published: June 18, 2004

WASHINGTON, June 17 - For most of President Bush< argued that a commission created to look into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks would only distract from the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism.

Now, in 17 preliminary staff reports, that panel has called into question nearly every aspect of the administration's response to terror, including the idea that Iraq and Al Qaeda were somehow the same foe.

Far from a bolt from the blue, the commission has demonstrated over the last 19 months that the Sept. 11 attacks were foreseen, at least in general terms, and might well have been prevented, had it not been for misjudgments, mistakes and glitches, some within the White House.

In the face of those findings, Mr. Bush stood firm, disputing the particular finding in a s taff report that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist organization. "There was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda," Mr. Bush declared.

Such assertions, attributed by the White House until now to "intelligence reports," may now be perceived by Americans as having less credibility than they did before the commission's staff began in January to rewrite the history of Sept. 11, in one extraordinarily detailed report after another.

With its historic access to government secrets, the panel was able to shed new light on old accountings, demonstrating, for example, that Mr. Bush himself, in the weeks before the attack, had received more detailed warnings about Al Qaeda's intentions than the White House had acknowledged.

For now, the panel is casting its work in tentative terms. Its final report is due next month, on the eve of the Democratic convention. In this election year, its contribution has already been to portray Sept. 11 not just as a start ing point in the war on terrorism, but also as a point on a continuum, one preceded and followed by other treacheries and failures.

At a briefing, a senior White House official sought again to turn away attention from the past. "The real issue is how do we move forward," the official said. "We've made a lot of changes since Sept. 11, because this country was simply not on war footing at the time of the attacks."

In the studies, Mr. Bush in particular has come off as less certain and decisive than he has portrayed himself. The final report, issued on Wednesday, reminded Americans that Mr. Bush remained in a classroom in Florida for at least five minutes after the second jet struck the World Trade Center, in what he told the panel was an effort "to project calm" for a worried nation.

Initially it was Henry A. Kissinger, the pillar of Republican foreign policy, whom Mr. Bush selected as the panel chairman, with George J. Mitchell, a former Democratic leader in the Senate, as vice chairman.

< P>But those two appointees quickly fell by the wayside, to be replaced by former Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, a Republican, and Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana , whose milder manners undoubtedly gave the panel a less partisan demeanor.

Notably, the two men joined forces successfully to persuade the White House to allow the panel access to crucial documents, including copies of the Presidential Daily Brief, and to pivotal figures, including Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, who testified under oath in March, and to Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who appeared jointly in a closed session.

Whether the two leaders and the other panel members, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, can join forces in presenting final conclusions remains to be seen. Among the issues to be decided, and which the White House is closely watching, is the position on how and whether to reorganize United States intelligence agencies, in hopes of closing ga ps that might have contributed to the Sept. 11 failures.

The Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation bore the particular brunt of the staff reports, for missteps in communication, intelligence gathering and analysis that contributed to failures in anticipating the attack and in intercepting the hijackers.