July 23, 2004
WASHINGTON - National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Friday she agrees with the Sept. 11 commission's findings that the nation is safer nearly three years after the terrorist attacks, but it is not yet safe.
Rice told the morning news shows that Americans remain vulnerable to a new terrorist attack, despite "many changes" made by the Bush administration. "Terrorists only have to be right once," she said.
The bipartisan commission, in a unanimous book-length report released Thursday, called for a major overhaul of the nation's intelligence agencies to stop the next terror attack. Panelists vowed to make their reforms an election-year issue.
The panel of five Republicans and five Democrats outlined the findings of its 20-month investigation into the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history. Citing multiple government failures, the report called for a national counterterrorism center headed by a Cabinet-level director to centralize intelligence efforts.
"If these reforms are not the best that can be done for the American people, then the Congress and the president need to tell us what's better," Republican commissioner James Thompson, a former Illinois governor, said at a news conference Thursday.
"But if there is nothing better, they need to be enacted and enacted speedily, because if something bad happens while these recommendations are sitting there, the American people will quickly fix political responsibility for failure," he said.
The idea of a new national intelligence director with budget authority and power to oversee the 15-agency intelligence community already has met with skepticism in Congress, where some key lawmakers are concerned that the position would create more bureaucracy and politicize the business of gathering and analyzing intelligence.
Nonetheless, Democratic commissioner Jamie Gorelick said she believed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people when 19 Arab hijackers flew airliners into New York City's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside, represented a "tectonic moment" in history that would force speedy changes.
"There are bad consequences to being in the middle of a political season and there are also good ones, because everyone who is running for office can be asked, 'Do you support these recommendations?'" she told reporters.
Rice was non-committal on which of the commission's recommendations the administration would accept. She said the "upsides and downsides" must be examined.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., expressed doubt that lawmakers would have time to consider a sweeping intelligence overhaul this year. But efforts began in both the House and Senate to build bipartisan coalitions of support for the commission's proposals. Relatives of Sept. 11 victims said they too would lobby.
"We're going to hold these people's feet to the fire," said Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of the hijacked plane that struck the Pentagon.
Democratic Senator Joe Biden told NBC's "Today" show that he isn't optimistic the nation will undergo dramatic reforms "any time soon." Biden pointed out that basic things can be done now, including the protection of chemical plants, cargo and Amtrak.
Biden said Americans should vote their elected officials out of office if change does not come quickly.
Coming less than four months before the presidential election, the report could be trouble for President Bush, who has made his handling of terrorism the centerpiece of his campaign and has insisted he fully understood the threat.
Nearly three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks Americans are safer because of improvements in homeland security and the war against terrorists, the report said. "But we are not safe."
"Every expert with whom we spoke told us an attack of even greater magnitude is now possible and even probable," the panel's Republican chairman, Thomas Kean, said. "We do not have the luxury of time."
The report comes on the heels of House and Senate reports that documented U.S. intelligence failures and undermined the major claims cited by Bush to justify the war against Iraq. The commission report repeated its earlier preliminary findings that al-Qaida did not have a close relationship with Saddam Hussein's regime.
Bush welcomed the commission's recommendations as "very constructive" although his administration has reacted coolly toward a key proposal to establish a Cabinet-level national intelligence director. He said that "where government needs to act, we will."
Bush had opposed the creation of the commission, resisted the release of some documents and fought against letting his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, testify publicly under oath.
Democrat John Kerry, campaigning for president in Detroit, said disputes within the Bush administration had delayed the commission's work and improvements to the nation's security.
"Nearly three years after terrorists have attacked our shores and murdered our loved ones, this report carries a very simple message for all of America about the security of all Americans - we can do better," Kerry said.
The 567-page report does not blame Bush or former President Clinton for government missteps contributing to the attacks but did say they failed to make anti-terrorism a more urgent priority.
"We do not believe they fully understood just how many people al-Qaida might kill and how soon it might do it," the panel said in its findings.
"We also believe that they did not take it as seriously as it should be taken. It was not their top priority," said Kean. "We do believe both presidents could have done more in this area."