WASHINGTON – Hoping to avoid partisan attacks, the Sept. 11 commission (search) has drafted a final report that avoids placing blame on individuals in the Bush or Clinton administrations but sharply criticizes the FBI and intelligence agencies for missteps prior to the catastrophe.
The 10-member panel has been reviewing portions of the draft, the bulk of which is a factual accounting of events, including intelligence failures that could lead readers to conclude the attacks were preventable, four commissioners told The Associated Press in separate interviews.
A separate section detailing the panel's recommendations remains under intense review, with no agreement yet on the widespread measures needed to shore up the communications breakdowns that allowed the hijackers to succeed, the commissioners said.
"There's broad consensus that major changes are needed. This is not just a question of running faster, jumping higher," said Republican commissioner John Lehman (search), a former secretary of the Navy. "We need to ensure the fusion and sharing of all intelligence that could have helped us to avoid 9/11."
Among the ideas under consideration is a domestic intelligence agency modeled after Britain's MI5 (search).
Democratic commissioner Timothy Roemer said FBI Director Robert Mueller's (search) recent proposal to improve domestic surveillance by creating an intelligence service within the bureau is another option under review by the panel but might not be enough.
"Certainly there's consensus the FBI has not done a good job prior to 9/11, and they have a long way to go," said Roemer, a former Indiana congressman.
The commission was established by Congress in 2002 to investigate government mistakes before the attacks and recommend ways to improve the nation's protection against terrorists. It has interviewed more than 1,000 witnesses, including President Bush (search), and reviewed more than 2 million documents.
The bipartisan panel's final report is due July 26. However, portions of it, dealing with factual findings leading up to and including the attacks, already have been drafted and sent to the White House for vetting and declassification, commissioners said.
CIA Director George Tenet (search), who has submitted his resignation effective next month, former FBI Director Louis Freeh and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice have been harshly criticized by some lawmakers and relatives of Sept. 11 victims for not doing more to combat the threat of terrorism.
The commissioners who spoke to the AP said the panel wants to avoid blaming individuals to avert charges of partisanship that could undermine their work.
"We're going to say everything we need to say, but there's not going to be a political gotcha," said Republican commissioner Slade Gorton, a former senator from Washington. "It's very important that it be factual and leave major conclusions to the people of the United States. There are huge numbers of facts which are not in dispute."
One example of the FBI's troubles was seen in the case of Sept. 11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who were linked by the CIA to Al Qaeda and were found to have entered the United States in summer 2001. FBI agents involved in the criminal probe couldn't track the men down because intelligence officials weren't allowed to share information on the case.
The two would later board American Airlines Flight 77, which slammed into the Pentagon.
"The restrictions on the FBI after Watergate prohibiting them from modernizing and computerizing their data systems (and) from keeping track of watchlists and investigations" were among the biggest obstacles to terror prevention, Lehman said. "It made it impossible for the FBI to share information even within the bureau."
Democratic commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste said members remain hopeful they can produce a unanimous report, although some are holding out the option of inserting editorial notes if commissioners disagree on certain points or want to flag a particular individual as blameworthy.
"The failure to thwart the 9/11 catastrophe was in part the result of the failure to communicate both internally and externally about information collected by our intelligence agencies," he said. "Had there been effective use of the information, the possibility exists the 9/11 plot could have been disrupted."
Officials with the FBI and CIA declined to comment until agency officials had an opportunity to review the report. CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said cooperation between the CIA and FBI on counterterrorism has never been better.
Other sections of the final report will detail the CIA's missteps, including a failure to recognize the threat posed by Al Qaeda and an overreliance on suspect sources for information. The commission has attributed the problems in part to the loose-knit nature of the intelligence community, which didn't always cooperate because CIA Director George Tenet lacked adequate authority.