Rupert Cornwell: A powerful report, but will it make a difference?

Share
Related Topics

It is an imposing volume, 567 pages thick, a scathing indictment of America's intelligence agencies, its homeland defences and the very organisation of its government which, for future historians, is likely to be mother lode for research into the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

It is an imposing volume, 567 pages thick, a scathing indictment of America's intelligence agencies, its homeland defences and the very organisation of its government which, for future historians, is likely to be mother lode for research into the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

It contains a battery of recommendations for change, to help stave off the future, even more devastating strikes which, in the words of its chairman yesterday, "are possible, even probable". The most pressing question however is simple - whether the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States - more popularly known as the 9/11 Commission - and the report it delivered, will make any difference.

"Where the government needs to act, we will," President George Bush said after a meeting at the White House with Thomas Kean, the former New Jersey governor who chaired the 10-member group, and his deputy, Lee Hamilton.

The authority of the commission's work, and its conclusions, are unimpeachable. It studied 2.5 million pages of documents and interviewed 2,000 officials - from Mr Bush down - and experts. Rarity of rarities in today's viciously polarised Washington, it has been genuinely bipartisan. Five of its members are Democrats, five are Republicans. The report however is unanimous, with not a single dissenting opinion.

But a host of problems, some practical, some ideological - stand in the way of implementation. Everyone will pay lip service to its thoroughness and wisdom. Let it not be forgotten, however, that Mr Bush long resisted the establishment of the commission. Only intense pressure from the country at large, led by the relatives of the 3,000 people who were killed that day, forced the administration to change its mind. Yesterday, he did not sound like a man galvanised into action by the report.

Some of the proposals, especially the central recommendation of a new intelligence tsar, are likely to arouse fierce objections from both the CIA and the Pentagon, determined to suffer no loss of power.

Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, had stated publicly that the "centralisation" of intelligence would be the worst of all solutions. The acting CIA director, John McLaughlin, insists that all that needs to be done is for the agency's chief - himself - to be given in practice the powers he already possesses in theory. A massive institutional turf battle, that Washington speciality, is on the cards.

The political calendar, too, makes swift action unlikely. Congressional time has all but run out for the current session. Minds are most intensely fixed on the presidential campaign. The report strikes a deliberately neutral balance, holding neither the Bush administration nor its predecessor under Bill Clinton responsible.

Both had made mistakes, Mr Kean said as he presented the report, "but they were ill-served by their intelligence agencies and the FBI". Congress too is chastised for its sloppy oversight of the intelligence community. Above all, the commission declared, "the most important failure was one of imagination." The country's leaders, of both political hues, "did not understand the gravity of the threat". Yes, there had been warnings but no one could believe that aeroplanes could be turned into suicide bombs on the sovereign soil of the USA.

The scrupulous impartiality of the commission has been criticised as a deliberate shying away from controversial questions - whether, as the former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke has charged, amid his administration's obsession with Iraq and its general Cold War mindset, Mr Bush paid no heed to the al-Qa'ida threat.

Nonetheless, the report is bound to have an impact on the unfolding election campaign. Obviously, President Bush, as the man in charge when the attacks happened, has more to lose in political terms, even if the document's broad conclusion is that the attacks almost certainly could not have been prevented, barring an extraordinary piece of luck.

Senator John Kerry, Mr Bush's challenger in November, was typically cautious in his initial reaction last night, urging Congress to implement the proposals but avoiding any criticism of the President. But it would be astonishing if such bipartisan civility survives long in the run-up to 2 November.

One of the commission's main findings - that Iraq had no part in the 9/11 attacks nor had any "collaborative relationship" with al-Qa'ida - can hardly be separated from any discussion of the Iraq war, and undermine Mr Bush's rationale for launching an unpopular conflict.

At the appointed publication hour of 11.30am yesterday, ordinary people were crowding into ordinary bookstores seeking to buy the report. Nowhere will the resonance be greater than among those who lost relatives and friends in the attacks. If nothing is done, they will not allow the issue to go away. And neither John Kerry nor George Bush wants to be the president on whose watch the terrorists strike again.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Construction Solicitor – Surrey

Excellent Salary Package: Austen Lloyd: This is a rare high level opportunity ...

Construction Solicitor NQ+ Manchester

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: This is an excellent opportunity within...

Corporate Finance

£80000 - £120000 per annum + Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: US QUALI...

Banking / Finance Associate - City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: Banking / Finance Associate - We have an exce...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Enjoy the sushi and hot noodles while you can, Barack – the Chinese will remain cold

David Usborne
David Moyes has been backed by Sir Bobby Charlton to succeed at Manchester United  

It's not David Moyes I pity, but the other over-50s facing unemployment

Simon Kelner
Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

Migrants in Britain a decade on

The Poles who brought prosperity
Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish

Judith Owen: 'How my husband helped my music flourish'

Her mother's suicide and father's cancer also informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

Online lifeline: Housing association's educational initiative

South Yorkshire Housing Association's free training courses gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
Face-recognition software: Is this the end of anonymity for all of us?

Face-recognition software: The end of anonymity?

The software is already used for military surveillance, by police to identify suspects - and on Facebook
Train Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video - so how can you cash in on your candid moments?

Viral videos: Cashing in on candid moments

Train Kick Selfie Guy Jared Frank could receive anything between $30,000 (£17,800) to $250,000 (£149,000) for his misfortune - and that's just his cut of advertising revenue from being viewed on YouTube
The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

World's fastest elevators coming soon to China

Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject
Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture that causes men to miss out on seeing their children

Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture

The organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills, a chief operating officer who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group that now boasts more than 3,000 members
Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable