Security reform is made election issue by 9/11 Commission inquiry

By Andrew Buncombe in Washington

The Independent

24 July 2004

The panel that produced the 11 September report vowed yesterday to ensure that the overhaul of the intelligence services becomes an election year issue even as they admitted it would not happen soon enough to prevent another attack.

The 10 commissioners set about arguing their case for the recommendations that they outlined while acknowledging that they faced obstacles.

"I would call myself hopeful but not optimistic that these changes will be enacted prior to another terrorist attack on the United States, regrettable though that may be," said Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska. "I'm hopeful that Congress will do something about it, but unfortunately I think we've already forgotten how vulnerable we were on 9-11 and how many mistakes were made to produce that vulnerability."

Speaking to CNN, he added: "I'm just not optimistic that it's going to happen any time soon, unless the American people rise up and ask their Congressmen, their Senators and their President, 'Look, we've got to get these changes in place because if we don't, the country simply is not going to be as safe as it needs to be'."

The commission's report listed a series of steps it believed were vital to prevent a repeat of the attacks on New York and Washington that killed almost 3,000 people. Primary among those recommendations was the creation of a new intelligence centre and a senior level official to oversee the disparate elements of the US intelligence community and report directly to the president.

President George Bush and Congress promised on Thursday that the recommendations would be taken seriously. Yesterday morning, Condeleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, said that she agreed change was needed but stopped short of endorsing the creation of a national intelligence directorship. "Any specific recommendation has to be looked at for its up sides and its down sides," she said.

Few people appear to believe that the commission's detailed recommendations will be carried out soon, with political observers pointing to the problems of "turf, politics and money" that stand in the way. Some of the commission's proposals, for instance, would require legislation from Congress at a time when it is deeply divided along partisan lines.

Others would need widespread bureaucratic reorganisation that would likely take power and influence from groups and individuals. Some recommendations included in the 567-page report would require new money at a time of budget deficits.

The commissioners, who spent almost 20 months completing the investigation, also appear to realise that, while their work was largely free of party politics, their demands have been made at a time when both parties are contesting the upcoming presidential election.

"We're in danger of just letting things slide," said the commission chairman Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey. "We believe unless we implement these recommendations, we're vulnerable to another attack."

The commission's report detailed a series of failings that had allowed the 19 hijackers take control of four passenger planes almost three years ago. But while it said that President Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton, could and should have done more to counter the threat, it did not criticise either in harsh terms. "We do not believe they fully understood just how many people al-Qa'ida might kill and how soon it might do it," the panel said.

For the Republicans in particular, this absence of criticism must have come as a relief given that Mr Bush has made his role in the so-called war on terror a central part of his reelection campaign.

Many of the relatives of those who died in the attack fought for this report. Their next fight will be getting its recommendations put in place. "We're going to hold these people's feet to the fire," said Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Charles, was the pilot of the plane that struck the Pentagon.

But even yesterday there was an admission from those most able to enforce the recommendations that nothing was likely to happen soon. Dennis Hastert, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, voiced doubt that lawmakers would have time to consider an intelligence overhaul this year.