President Bush signed legislation Wednesday creating a blue-ribbon panel to probe intelligence failures before Sept. 11 and chose former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to head the panel.
"Dr. Kissinger will bring broad experience, clear thinking and careful judgment to this important task," Bush said at a signing ceremony in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. "Mr. Secretary, thank you for returning to the service of your nation."
The intelligence commission will have 18 months to conduct an investigation into mistakes in spotting clues to the Sept. 11 attacks. It will also devise ways to prevent future attacks.
It will be made up of 10 members, five of whom will be appointed by Republicans and five by Democrats. No members of the commission will be sitting members of Congress.
Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, will be named vice chairman, Fox News has learned.
The commission will be able to subpoena any witness to testify so long as six members of the commission or the chairman and vice chairman agree. That's to make sure subpoenas are not issued on a partisan basis, and was a demand by Bush, who wanted to avoid finger pointing.
"This investigation should carefully examine all the evidence and follow all the facts wherever they lead. We must uncover every detail and learn every lesson of September the 11th," Bush said.
Kissinger has served as a national security adviser and as secretary of state for two presidents. He is an author, academic, Army veteran, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and New York resident.
Speaking to reporters after the ceremony, Kissinger said he was honored to be appointed to the commission and pledged to "go where the facts lead us."
"To the families concerned, I would like to say this: There is nothing that can be done about the losses they have suffered, but everything must be done to avoid that such a tragedy can occur again. And to the extent that this commission can make recommendations, we will. And we are free to make recommendations, and the president has said that he will take them very seriously. To that extent, it will contribute to the safety of America, to the future of America and to the avoidance of any future tragedies," he said.
Former Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York said there couldn't be a better choice.
"I am very certain the kind of partisan politics that often take place in this kind of organization will be held" to a minimum, D'Amato said.
The Defense Authorization Act also outlines intelligence activities for the 2003 budget year.
Appropriations and authority remain secret, though lawmakers have said it marks the largest-ever increase in intelligence spending and re-orients agencies toward counterterrorism activities, including information sharing, increasing language experts and returning to traditional human intelligence operations. Analysts predict that funding will be about $35 billion this year.
"We have a duty, a solemn duty to do everything we can to protect this country. We've acted to reduce the nation's vulnerabilities. We're stepping up security and transportation systems at port of entries and on our borders. We've made important reforms in federal law enforcement, ensuring that the FBI's primary focus now is the prevention of future attack. We're doing a better job of sharing information among agencies," Bush said.
The small ceremony caps a week of bill-signing before the president leaves for Crawford, Texas, for Thanksgiving with his family.
On Monday, the president signed a law creating a new Department of Homeland Security, the largest reorganization of the government since the end of World War II.
On Tuesday, Bush signed a terrorism insurance bill, providing government backup to construction projects stalled because developers could not acquire coverage against attacks.
The White House only conceded to the intelligence commission after family members of Sept. 11 victims applied pressure to uncover law enforcement failures.
The president had been concerned that an independent probe would distract officials from anti-terrorism efforts and produce leaks that could compromise intelligence operations.
On Wednesday, he thanked the family members for the push.
"Above all, I want to thank the family members of the people who were killed on September the 11th. Family members who are here today and others around the country, in working for this commission, you've been motivated by a noble goal: You want to spare the Americans the kind of suffering you faced. I appreciate that sentiment. America is grateful," Bush said.
Fox News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.