'The system was blinking red'

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

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Project Manager - Birmingham - up to £40,000 - 12 month FTC

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Manager - Birmingham - ...

SThree: Recruitment Consultant - IT

£25000 - £30000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Sthree are looking fo...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before