9/11 panelists say attacks preventable

Some on commission reveal view has changed since start of probe


WASHINGTON - This year, the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks played four minutes of a call from Betty Ong, a crew member on American Airlines Flight 11. The power of her call could not have been plainer: In a calm voice, Ong told her supervisors about the hijacking, the weapons the attackers had used, the locations of their seats.

At first, however, Ong's reports were greeted skeptically by some officials on the ground. "They did not believe her," said Bob Kerrey, a commission member. "They said, `Are you sure?' They asked her to confirm that it wasn't air rage. Our people on the ground were not prepared for a hijacking."

For most Americans, the disbelief was the same. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, seemed to come in a stunning burst from nowhere. But now, after two weeks of extraordinary public hearings and a dozen detailed reports, the lengthy documentary record makes clear that predictions of an attack by al-Qaida had been communicated directly to the highest levels of the government.

The threat reports were more clear, urgent and persistent than was previously known. Some focused on al-Qaida's plans to use commercial aircraft as weapons. Others stated that Osama bin Laden was intent on striking on U.S. soil. Many were passed to the Federal Aviation Administration.

While some of the intelligence went back years, other warnings - including one that al-Qaida seemed interested in hijacking a plane inside this country - had been delivered to the president Aug. 6, 2001, just a month earlier.

The new information produced by the commission has led six of its 10 members to say or suggest that the attacks could have been prevented, though there is no consensus on when, how or by whom. The commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, a Republican, has described failures at every level of government, any of which, if avoided, could have altered the outcome. Kerrey, a Democrat, said, "My conclusion is that it could have been prevented. That was not my conclusion when I went on the commission."

While the commission was created to diagnose mistakes and recommend reforms, its examination has powerful political resonance. The panel has reviewed the records of two presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Bush, who is in the midst of a campaign for re-election, said last week that none of the warnings gave any hint of the time, place or date of an assault. "Had I known there was going to be an attack on America, I would have moved mountains to stop the attack," he said.

Over an intense two-week stretch this month, the commission pried open some of the most closely guarded compartments of government, revealing the flow and details of previously classified information to two presidents and their senior advisers, and the performance of intelligence and law enforcement officials.

The inquiry has gone beyond the report of a joint panel of the House and Senate intelligence committee in 2002, which chronicled missteps at the middle level of bureaucracies. Urged on by a number of families of people killed in the attacks, the Kean commission has used a mix of moral and political leverage to extract presidential communications and testimony. Among the new themes that have fundamentally reshaped the story of the attacks:

Al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, did not blindside the United States but were a threat recognized and discussed regularly at the highest levels of government for nearly five years before the attacks, in thousands of reports, often accompanied by urgent warnings from lower-level experts.

Presidents Clinton and Bush received regular information about the threat of al-Qaida and the aim of the bin Laden network to strike inside the United States. Each president made fighting terrorism a stated priority, failed to find a diplomatic solution and viewed military force as a last resort. At the same time, neither grappled with the structural flaws and paralyzing dysfunction that undermined the CIA and FBI, the two agencies on which the nation depended for protection. By the end of his second term, Clinton and the director of the FBI, Louis J. Freeh, were barely speaking.

Even when the two agencies cooperated, the results were unimpressive. Kean, the chairman, said he viewed the reports on the two agencies as indictments. In late August 2001, George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, learned that the FBI had arrested Zacarias Moussaoui after he had enrolled in a flight school. Tenet was given a memo titled, "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly." But he took no action, he testified, and did not tell Bush about the case.

During the Clinton years, particularly at the National Security Council, the commission has found, there was uncertainty about whether the threat posed by al-Qaida and bin Laden justified military action. Much of the debate was provoked by Richard A. Clarke, who led anti-terrorism efforts under both Clinton and Bush and argued for aggressive action.

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