WASHINGTON – Senate leaders have set an Oct. 1 deadline for lawmakers to present a legislative package following up on the recommendations made by the independent commission probing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks (search).
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Minority Leader Tom Daschle have asked the Senate Government Affairs Committee to evaluate the commission's recommendations about re-organizing the executive branch and figure out how best to implement those proposals.
The senators also called for the creation of a Senate working group to deal specifically with reform of the Senate's oversight functions.
"The threat of terrorism will be with us for a long time. It is important we address the problems raised by the commission so that we can make America safer," said Frist, R-Tenn.
"Change is certainly long overdue. We simply cannot afford to let another opportunity to improve our national security slip by," added Daschle, D-S.D.
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (search) on Thursday released its report, which concluded that the Sept. 11 attacks occurred largely because of a "failure of imagination" by the U.S. government to deal with a gathering threat.
To read the full report, click here (pdf).
The commission is in favor of fast action.
"We're in danger of just letting things slide," commission chairman Thomas Kean (search), a former Republican governor of New Jersey, told reporters Friday. "We believe unless we implement these recommendations, we're more vulnerable to another terrorist attack."
Kean and the panel's vice chairman, former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton (search) of Indiana, said not only would Congress have to work on its recommendations as soon as it got back from summer recess in September, but the next president must make suggested overhauls soon after taking — or retaking — office.
"Time is not on our side," Kean said.
The most historic recommendation is the creation of a Cabinet-level national director of intelligence that would have authority over the 15 government agencies that deal with intelligence, including the CIA and FBI.
"That's something that we're very interested in and we're taking it seriously and we're going to work with the Congress on it," White House spokesman Dan Bartlett told FOX News, stopping short of endorsing the idea and saying the last thing Bush wanted to do was add another layer of bureaucracy to government.
But lawmakers like House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search), R-Ill., have said it's unlikely that idea will be acted on before the November election.
Commissioner James Thompson, a former Republican governor of Illinois, said time cannot be wasted.
"Now we've been warned, specifically warned, and we've been told by everyone from the president of the United States on down it's going to happen again," Thompson said. "And if it happens and we don't move, the American people are entitled to make very fundamental judges about that."
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he was ready to ask commissioners to testify in hearings in early September when Congress returns from its summer recess. He told FOX News on Friday that his committee already met this week to talk about the commission's suggestions.
"We're going to ask the tough questions ... [but] I don't think there's a silver bullet here," Roberts said. "The intelligence committee looks forward to the challenge and we will be ready to move."
Kean said the threat wasn't realized because intelligence information didn't reach the uppermost echelons of government and that the U.S. government's response to the attacks was "improvised and ineffective." But not one president — George W. Bush or Bill Clinton — was blamed.
"They, like the rest of us, did not understand the gravity of the threat ... they did not think that 3,000 people could be killed in an hour's time," Hamilton said.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Friday she agrees with the findings that the nation is safer now than it was on Sept. 10, 2001 but it's still not safe.
Americans remain vulnerable to a new terrorist attack, despite "many changes" made by the Bush administration, she said on morning talk shows. "Terrorists only have to be right once," she added.
President Bush vowed to move forward on the panel's suggestions, saying that he assured commission chairmen that "where government needs to act, they will."
"There's still a threat, and we in government have an obligation to do everything in our power to safeguard the American people," Bush said. "The most important duty we have is the security of our fellow countrymen
'We Must Act'
Experts told the panel than an attack of even greater magnitude than that of Sept. 11 is not just possible but probable.
"We do not have the luxury of time — we must prepare and we must act," Kean said.
Some lawmakers blasted the report, saying it ignored the fact that the intelligence community shrugged off Congress' attempts at establishing more counter-terror measures years ago.
"The commission's report failed to acknowledge the repeated request in 1999 of myself and other lawmakers to implement a data fusion center that would protect our nation from the flood of terrorist threats," said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee and senior member of the Homeland Security Committee.
Weldon said ideas like a National Operations Analysis Hub — which would have allowed information to flow to a central data center amongst agencies — "fell on deaf ears within the intelligence community."
One of the actions the panel recommends is to unify and strengthen congressional oversight of intelligence activities and to streamline oversight functions through one or two powerful committees instead of having those oversight functions spread out throughout many.
While politicians may not want to give up any power, lawmakers said they're sure Congress will do what's necessary.
"That's the part of the political situation going to be a tough situation to deal with," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., told FOX News on Friday. "Any time you take jurisdiction away from Congress, you're going to have a tough fight."
But "I think some criticism was properly leveled at the way Congress does oversight of the intelligence community," Chambliss added, so "I think Congress will be willing to step forward" and do what it has to do.
Roberts said he believes the commission wants to empower his own committee rather than diminish its responsibilities but agreed that the intelligence duties are spread too thin across his own panel and the Senate Armed Services.
"I think what the 9/11 commission said was 'whoa, wait a minute — that is way too fractured,'" Roberts said. "I think most members of Congress understand that and it's a very important time in our history and we're going to have to put turf battles aside if we can and do a better job."
Spy Agencies Respond
FBI Director Robert Mueller said his agency took the critiques seriously and has already taken "substantial steps" to reform.
"We agree with the commission that much work remains to be done, and their findings and recommendations will certainly guide and help us refine our continuing transformation efforts," Mueller said in a statement.
The FBI is actively working to build a workforce with expertise in intelligence, per the commission's recommendation, he added.
Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin noted that before Sept. 11, "no agency has more responsibility — or did more — to attack Al Qaeda." The CIA bore the brunt of much criticism in the report but McLaughlin said many changes have already been made and "in the weeks and months ahead," the agency will determine which recommendations can help the agency.
FOX News' Bret Baier and Anna Stolley contributed to this report.