9/11 Panel to Recommend Combining Intel Agencies

A member of the Sept. 11 commission (search) predicts the panel will support centralization of the nation's intelligence agencies as the only way to prevent future terrorist attacks.

"You're going to see unanimous recommendations on the intelligence community ... They couldn't distinguish between a bicycle crash and a train wreck," commissioner John Lehman (search), a Republican, said Sunday in previewing a final report due for completion next month.

Centralization will enable information to get to people "in a position to make a difference," the former secretary of the Navy said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Click to read the Sept. 11 Commission's report (pdf).

Change must be fundamental, Lehman said, "not just tweaking and moving the deck chairs or the organization boxes around," and the FBI (search) should undergo a transformation as well.

He said FBI Director Robert Mueller (search) is on the right track, but "we probably will go further in our recommendations to institutionalize changes" at the bureau.

The comments came amid a debate over the Bush administration's insistence that there were close ties between Al Qaeda (search) and Saddam Hussein, an assertion that provided the White House with an important justification for invading Iraq.

A commission staff report, released last week, said there were contacts between Usama bin Laden's terror network and the Iraqi government, but they did not appear to have produced a collaborative relationship.

Commission chairman Thomas Kean (search), a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said "we don't see any serious conflicts" between the panel's and the White House's positions. At the same time, he said, "We believe ... that there were a lot more active contacts, frankly, with Iran and with Pakistan than there were with Iraq."

"Al Qaeda didn't like to get involved with states, unless they were living there. They got involved with Sudan, they got involved ... where they lived, but otherwise no," Kean told ABC's "This Week."

Along with differences over ties between Saddam's government and Al Qaeda, a new question arose over whether President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney gave the order on Sept. 11, 2001, to shoot down the fourth of the hijacked airliners.

The two told the commission that Bush gave his approval after a discussion with Cheney, who was in the White House command center.

Newsweek magazine reports in this week's issue that an early draft of the commission staff report reflected skepticism by staffers about the account of Cheney getting Bush's approval for the shoot-down order. After objections by the White House, the panel removed the wording from the draft, it said.

On the issue of Al Qaeda's ties to Iraq under Saddam, Lehman defended Cheney, the most aggressive promoter of that idea.

Lehman said new intelligence that "we are now in the process of getting" indicates one of Saddam's Fedayeen fighters, a lieutenant colonel, was a prominent Al Qaeda member.

Cheney has said he probably has intelligence the commission does not have, and Lehman said "the vice president was right when he said that."

Cheney also has said it's "never been proven" and "it's never been refuted" that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with a senior Iraqi intelligence official on April 9, 2001, in Prague, Czech Republic.

Commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic representative from Indiana, said the panel has a picture of Atta taken in Virginia a few days before the supposed meeting in Prague, as well as his cell phone records with calls placed in the United States at the time of the alleged meeting.

Hamilton noted that such data "is not conclusive proof" on Atta's whereabouts, and noted that Cheney was saying the proof was not clear one way or the other.

But commission member Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat, said the Iraqi with whom Atta supposedly met is in custody and that "our staff statement has again refuted the notion that there was any Czech meeting."