WASHINGTON – "A terrorist Disneyland" unfettered by the international community is how one expert characterized pre-war-on-terror Afghanistan (search) Wednesday during a rare open hearing held by the commission studying intelligence failures prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Rohan Gunaratna, head of terrorism research at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies (search) in Singapore, told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (search) that U.S. leaders would have had to have been blind not to know Al Qaeda would target the nation.
"You knew the intention of Al Qaeda was to kill American people where they could be found, but still you did not act, and you paid a very heavy price for it," Gunaratna said in the full-day hearing on terrorism, Al Qaeda and the Muslim world.
Another scholar, Mamoun Fandy, senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (search), said that Mideast nations and other countries should be more grateful to the United States for taking on terrorism.
"Somehow we tolerate Arab leaders telling us something in private rooms and then dealing with their public the way they want to," he said.
Fandy added that the United States needs a public makeover.
"Although we are winning the war against the organization called Al Qaeda, we seem to be losing the cultural war," Fandy told the 10-member panel.
This is the committee's third public hearing, and follows two others on how hijackers took control of four airplanes and why U.S. air defenses did not react more quickly.
The commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, on Tuesday issued a mixed performance review regarding the government's cooperation in its pursuit to find whether a breakdown in intelligence allowed the attacks to happen.
President Bush and his subordinates have made "significant efforts to keep that promise" they made to cooperate with the group when Bush signed the legislation creating the commission, but not every agency has lived up to the pledge, the review said.
"It is also clear that the administration underestimated the scale of the commission's work and the full breadth of support required," said Kean, a former New Jersey governor.
On Wednesday, Kean, who earlier promised to review, identify and evaluate lessons learned from the intelligence gathered, said the commission must also take a broader look at the rise of terrorist groups and make recommendations for the future.
"To defeat and destroy our enemy, we must understand more than the crimes it already committed," Kean said. "We must understand what drives and motivates it, the source of its power, the resources at its command, its internal strengths and weaknesses."
On Tuesday, former Indiana Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the group, gave the administration a little more latitude for its failure to deliver some documents regarding terror-related intelligence.
The commission has requested 26 briefings and made 44 requests for documents, which cover millions of pages from 16 government agencies. Hamilton said that is not an easy request to fill by people already working hard at their daily jobs.
He added that despite the on-again, off-again cooperation of some agencies, the government is "improving each hour" in supplying the information.
The commission was named last year by Congress and the White House to pick up where Congress left off in examining the government's pre-Sept. 11 failures and ensuring they are not repeated in the future.
The group already has received all the material gathered by Congress, but the additional information sought from the administration is significantly broader, reflecting the commission's mission to go beyond Congress and examine issues like aviation safety, terrorist financing and crisis response.
Asked whether the investigation will call in President Bush and former President Clinton to ask them what they knew when, one commission member said any cooperation will likely be voluntary.
"I would be strongly opposed to us issuing a subpoena or in fact having either president testify under oath," said former Reagan Navy Secretary John Lehman. "I think it is in their interests and very much in the country's interest that in the appropriate time, both presidents come and discuss at length the issues and the pending recommendations involved, and answer questions."
Lehman said the commission is not acting as "a tribunal to establish blame or to put people under personal investigation" and that no criminal issues are being investigated.
"As far as subpoenaing the last two presidents, no, we're not planning on doing that," said Kean. "Whether we have a need to talk to them, and the manner in which we talk to them, and the questions we need to ask them will be determined by the commission at a later date."
Lehman said the hearing on terrorism, Al Qaeda and the Muslim world will be used in "an attempt to put together recommendations to fix the dysfunctions in our intelligence community.
"That is the primary purpose of this commission. And frankly we've made a lot of progress in beginning to formulate those issues which will lead to reforms," he said.
But with some agencies more slow to respond than others, Kean said that it will require everyone's cooperation to finish the job before the commission's deadline next May.
Fox News' Mike Emanuel and Dan Gallo contributed to this report.