June 17 - For most of 2002, 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.
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
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.
the face of those findings, Mr. Bush stood firm,
disputing the particular finding in a staff 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.
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.
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.
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 starting point
in the war on terrorism, but also as a point on
a continuum, one preceded and followed by other
treacheries and failures.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 gaps that might have contributed to
the Sept. 11 failures.
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.
too, the Justice Department and the Pentagon came
under fire, the Justice Department for doing too
little to speed information sharing among law
enforcement and intelligence agencies and the
Pentagon for being ill prepared to combat the
peril posed by aircraft hijacked by suicide pilots.
staff has been critical of the Clinton administration,
too, pointing out missed opportunities in the
late 1990's, when that White House shied from
what might have been opportunities to kill or
capture Osama bin Laden, leader of Al Qaeda.
it was Mr. Bush and his top aides, particularly
Mr. Cheney and Ms. Rice, who were most in the
spotlight, particularly in this final week of
the public hearings. On Thursday, it was Mr. Bush's
self-image of being calm under fire that came
under scrutiny, with a portrayal of a White House
that was slow to respond as the attacks unfolded.
still were preliminary staff conclusions on Wednesday
that took aim at the assertions made by Mr. Cheney,
in particular, of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda
in connection to Sept. 11, including what the
White House has repeatedly said might well have
been a meeting in Prague between Mohammed Atta,
the chief hijacker, and a senior Iraqi intelligence
of the support for the American invasion of Iraq
last year was based, polls have suggested, on
a perception that Mr. Hussein and his government
were behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Bush acknowledged
last fall that there was no evidence of such ties,
but it was a perception that the White House never
actively sought to squelch.
the commission staff's saying it did not believe
that the Prague meeting had occurred and that
there was no evidence of links between Al Qaeda
and Iraq in connection with the attacks, Mr. Bush
on Thursday sounded very much on the defensive.
administration never said that the 9/11 attacks
were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda,"
sole example he cited of "numerous contacts" between
Mr. Hussein and Al Qaeda was a meeting between
a senior Iraq intelligence agent and Mr. bin Laden
in Sudan in 1994, one that the commission said
appeared to have gone nowhere.
2002, Mr. Bush did finally sign off on the plan
to form the commission, bowing to Congressional
pressure. Until now, he has resisted other proposals
being pushed by Congress, including a major overhaul
of intelligence agencies.
plan for such an overhaul is expected to be among
the commission's final recommendations next month,
presenting Mr. Bush and the White House with yet
Posted: June 19, 2004