'The system was blinking red'

Official investigation into 11 September admits US ignored obvious warnings and says attacks might have been prevented
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The Independent US

A blue riband commission delivered a blistering indictment of America's failure to prevent the September 2001 terrorist attacks yesterday.

A blue riband commission delivered a blistering indictment of America's failure to prevent the September 2001 terrorist attacks yesterday.

Concluding that the attacks were "a shock, not a surprise", it detailed a litany of intelligence failures to act upon the "drumbeat" of warnings that al-Qa'ida was planning a "spectacular" attack on American soil.

As early as 23 March 2001, the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was warned that al-Qa'ida cells were in the US and that terrorists might use a truck bomb in Washington.

US intelligence agencies warned of "something very, very, very big". "The system was blinking red," CIA director George Tenet said. But the information pointed to an attack outside the US.

In May the FBI had warned of plans to launch attacks on London, Boston and New York. By late August a report, Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly, had landed on Mr Tenet's desk and the CIA warned the Paris embassy of "subjects involved in suspicious 747 flight training".

The commission issued recommendations for reform of the country's intelligence structure yesterday but warned that further and probably deadlier attacks were to be expected.

In a 567-page report, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission said neither President George Bush nor President Bill Clinton was directly to blame for not thwarting the al-Qa'ida plot. It says the massive failure was primarily one of "imagination", that such a scheme could be devised and carried out on US soil. Since 11 September, America had become safer, but was not safe.

It lists nine "missed opportunities" by the CIA, the FBI, the immigration service and the air transport authorities, but concludes that the attacks almost certainly would have gone ahead.

The main recommendation is for a complete overhaul of the country's discredited intelligence bureaucracy, and the creation of a new intelligence "tsar" with cabinet rank. He would have overall control of the more than a dozen US intelligence agencies and their $40bn (£22bn) annual budget. But the commission came out against a new domestic intelligence agency, along the lines of MI5.

At an operational level, the report calls for the introduction of a biometric screening system, and increased spending on neglected aspects of the US transport system. Since September 2001, 90 per cent of such security spending had gone on aviation, the commission acidly noted, "to fight the last war".

At home, it urges creation of a fully integrated national anti-terrorism centre. Abroad, the commission says the US must not only carry the battle to terrorism's sanctuaries. It must work towards a more honest relationship with Saudi Arabia, where 15 of the 19 hijackers originated, and provide a stronger commitment to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The US also had to develop more effective public diplomacy to counter the enemy, that was "not Islam, the great world faith" in the commission's words, "but a perversion of Islam". The most sensitive political aspect of the report is its conclusion that Iraq had no hand in the 11 September attacks, and that there were no close links between Saddam Hussein's regime and al-Qa'ida. Specifically, it dismisses reports of the alleged meeting in Prague in April 2001 between Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the hijackers, and an Iraqi intelligence officer.

The commission found that Iran did give transit to some of the hijackers on their way from Saudi Arabia to the US, but there was no evidence that Tehran had any inkling of the planning for the terrorist attacks. The same went for the Saudi government in Riyadh.

The report, the fruit of 20 months' work, was given a positive welcome across the political spectrum yesterday.

After being given a preview of the report at the White House, President Bush promised that "where the government needs to act, we will". His Democratic challenger in November, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, went further, vowing that if the intelligence shake-up had not already been adopted, he would if elected summon a "national security summit" to push it through.

The report is deeply critical of the culture and mindset of government and the various agencies responsible for national security. The CIA lacked resources and was forced to rely excessively on proxies in its efforts to tackle al-Qa'ida. The FBI is blamed for focusing too much on catching criminals and terrorists after the event, rather than on preventing the crime. Both agencies are blamed for their refusal to pool all information. Above all, the various strands of the fight against terrorism in general and al-Qa'ida in particular were never pulled together. The report notes that between 1995 and 11 September itself there was no National Intelligence Estimate - the most important intelligence report - on terrorism.

The report, based on more than 2,000 interviews with top officials, offers a remarkably detailed account of the build-up to the 2001 attacks.

The US was facing one of the greatest security challenges in its history.

"We looked back to look ahead," Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who chaired the report, said yesterday, demanding a "shift in the national mindset".

"The goal is to prevent future attacks. We don't have the luxury of time. We must prepare and we must act."

"If, God forbid there is another attack, we must be ready to respond. We must educate the public, train and equip first responders and anticipate countless scenarios," Mr Kean said.