Intelligence overhaul crucial, says 9-11 panel

WASHINGTON – Warning "we are not safe" yet, the Sept.

11 commission called for a major overhaul of the nation's intelligence agencies to stop the next terror attack.

Panelists vowed to make their unanimously backed reforms an election-year issue.

The panel of five Republicans and five Democrats on Thursday released the findings of its 20-month investigation into the deadliest terror attack in U.S.

history.

Citing multiple government failures, the report called for a national counterterrorism center headed by a Cabinet-level director to centralize intelligence efforts.

"If these reforms are not the best that can be done for the American people, then the Congress and the president need to tell us what's better," Republican commissioner James Thompson, a former Illinois governor, said at a news conference Thursday.

"But if there is nothing better, they need to be enacted and enacted speedily, because if something bad happens while these recommendations are sitting there, the American people will quickly fix political responsibility for failure," he said.

The idea of a new national intelligence director with budget authority and power to oversee the 15-agency intelligence community already has met with skepticism in Congress, where some key lawmakers are concerned that the position would create more bureaucracy and politicize the business of gathering and analyzing intelligence.

President Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Friday in television interviews that change was needed, but she stopped far short of endorsing the creation of a national intelligence directorship.

"Any specific recommendation has to be looked at for both its up sides and its down sides.

But this president is going to want to make decisions and to act because we understand the importance of moving forward with intelligence reform," Rice said on NBC's "Today" show.

Democratic commissioner Jamie Gorelick said she believed the Sept.

11, 2001, attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people when 19 Arab hijackers flew airliners into New York City's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside, represented a "tectonic moment" in history that would force speedy changes.

"There are bad consequences to being in the middle of a political season and there are also good ones, because everyone who is running for office can be asked, 'Do you support these recommendations?"' she told reporters.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., expressed doubt that lawmakers would have time to consider a sweeping intelligence overhaul this year.

Congress begins its summer recess today and was scheduled to be out of session until after Labor Day.

Efforts began in both the House and Senate to build bipartisan coalitions of support for the commission's proposals.

Relatives of Sept.

11 victims said they too would lobby.

"We're going to hold these people's feet to the fire," said Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles was the pilot of the hijacked plane that struck the Pentagon.

Coming less than four months before the presidential election, the report could be trouble for Bush, who has made his handling of terrorism the centerpiece of his campaign and has insisted he fully understood the threat.

Nearly three years after the Sept.

11, 2001, attacks, Americans are safer because of improvements in homeland security and the war against terrorists, the report said.

"But we are not safe."

"Every expert with whom we spoke told us an attack of even greater magnitude is now possible and even probable," the panel's Republican chairman, Thomas Kean, said.

"We do not have the luxury of time."

The report comes on the heels of House and Senate reports that documented U.S.

intelligence failures and undermined the major claims cited by Bush to justify the war against Iraq.

The commission report repeated its earlier preliminary findings that al-Qaida did not have a close relationship with Saddam Hussein's regime.