The 9/11 Commission Report
[Following are some key points from the findings of the 9/11
Commission, excerpted from the executive summary.]
Since the plotters were flexible and resourceful, we cannot know
whether any single step or series of steps would have defeated
them. What we can say with confidence is that none of the
measures adopted by the U.S. government from 1998 to 2001
disturbed or even delayed the progress of the al Qaeda plot.
Across the government, there were failures of imagination,
policy, capabilities, and management.
The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not
believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat. The terrorist
danger from Bin Laden and al Qaeda was not a major topic of
policy debate among the public, the media, or in the Congress.
Indeed, it barely came up during the 2000 presidential campaign.
Al Qaeda’s new brand of terrorism presented challenges to U.S.
governmental institutions that they were not well-designed to
meet. Though top officials all told us that they understood the
danger, we believe there was uncertainty among them as to
whether this was just a new and especially venomous version of
the ordinary terrorist threat the United States had lived with for
decades, or it was indeed radically new, posing a threat beyond
any yet experienced.
As late as September 4, 2001, Richard Clarke, the White House
staffer long responsible for counterterrorism policy coordination,
asserted that the government had not yet made up its mind how
to answer the question: “Is al Qaeda a big deal?”
A week later came the answer.
Terrorism was not the overriding national security concern for
the U.S. government under either the Clinton or the pre-9/11
The policy challenges were linked to this failure of imagination.
Officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations regarded a
full U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as practically inconceivable
FAA capabilities were weak. Any serious examination of the
possibility of a suicide hijacking could have suggested changes
to fix glaring vulnerabilities; expanding no-fly lists, searching
passengers identified by the CAPPS screening system, deploying
federal air marshals domestically, hardening cockpit doors,
alerting air crews to a different kind of hijacking possibility than
they had been trained to expect. Yet the FAA did not adjust
either its own training or training with NORAD to take account
of threats other than those experienced in the past.
The missed opportunities to thwart the 9/11 plot were also
symptoms of a broader inability to adapt the way government
manages problems to the new challenges of the twenty-first
century. Action officers should have been able to draw on all
available knowledge about al Qaeda in the government.
Management should have ensured that information was shared
and duties were clearly assigned across agencies, and across the
There were also broader management issues with respect to how
top leaders set priorities and allocated resources. For instance,
on December 4, 1998, DCI Tenet issued a directive to several
CIA officials and the DDCI for Community Management,
stating: “We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in
this effort, either inside CIA or the Community.” The
memorandum had little overall effect on mobilizing the CIA or
the intelligence community. This episode indicates the
limitations of the DCI’s authority over the direction of the
intelligence community, including agencies within the
Department of Defense.
The U.S. government did not find a way of pooling intelligence
and using it to guide the planning and assignment of
responsibilities for joint operations involving entities as disparate
as the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the military, and the
agencies involved in homeland security.
The intelligence community struggled throughout the 1990s and
up to 9/11 to collect intelligence on and analyze the phenomenon
of transnational terrorism. The combination of an overwhelming
number of priorities, flat budgets, an outmoded structure, and
bureaucratic rivalries resulted in an insufficient response to this
Many dedicated officers worked day and night for years to piece
together the growing body of evidence on al Qaeda and to
understand the threats. Yet, while there were many reports on
Bin Laden and his growing al Qaeda organization, there was no
comprehensive review of what the intelligence community knew
and what it did not know, and what that meant. There was no
National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism between 1995 and
There were opportunities for intelligence and law enforcement to
exploit al Qaeda’s travel vulnerabilities. Considered collectively,
the 9/11 hijackers included known al Qaeda operatives who
could have been watchlisted; presented passports manipulated in
a fraudulent manner; presented passports with suspicious
indicators of extremism; made detectable false statements on visa
applications; made false statements to border officials to gain
entry into the United States; and violated immigration laws while
in the United States.
Neither the State Department’s consular officers nor the
Immigration and Naturalization Service’s inspectors and agents
were ever considered full partners in a national counterterrorism
effort. Protecting borders was not a national security issue
Hijackers studied publicly available materials on the aviation
security system and used items that had less metal content than a
handgun and were most likely permissible. Though two of the
hijackers were on the U.S. TIPOFF terrorist watchlist, the FAA
did not use TIPOFF data. The hijackers had to beat only one
layer of security the security checkpoint process. Even though
several hijackers were selected for extra screening by the CAPPS
system, this led only to greater scrutiny of their checked
baggage. Once on board, the hijackers were faced with aircraft
personnel who were trained to be non-confrontational in the
event of a hijacking.
The 9/11 attacks cost somewhere between $400,000 and
$500,000 to execute. The operatives spent more than $270,000
in the United States. Additional expenses included travel to
obtain passports and visas, travel to the United States, expenses
incurred by the plot leader and facilitators outside the United
States, and expenses incurred by the people selected to be
hijackers who ultimately did not participate.
The conspiracy made extensive use of banks in the United States.
The hijackers opened accounts in their own names, using
passports and other identification documents. Their transactions
were unremarkable and essentially invisible amid the billions of
dollars flowing around the world every day.
The civilian and military defenders of the nation’s airspace, FAA
and NORAD, were unprepared for the attacks launched against
them. Given that lack of preparedness, they attempted and failed
to improvise an effective homeland defense against an
The events of that morning do not reflect discredit on operational
personnel. NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector personnel
reached out for information and made the best judgments they
could based on the information they received. Individual FAA
controllers, facility managers, and command center managers
were creative and agile in recommending a nationwide alert,
groundstopping local traffic, ordering all aircraft nationwide to
land, and executing that unprecedented order flawlessly.
At more senior levels, communication was poor. Senior military
and FAA leaders had no effective communication with each
other. The chain of command did not function well. The
President could not reach some senior officials. The Secretary of
Defense did not enter the chain of command until the morning’s
key events were over. Air National Guard units with different
rules of engagement were scrambled without the knowledge of
the President, NORAD, or the National Military Command
Since 9/11, the United States and its allies have killed or
captured a majority of al Qaeda’s leadership; toppled the
Taliban, which gave al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan; and
severely damaged the organization. Yet terrorist attacks
continue. Even as we have thwarted attacks, nearly everyone
expects they will come. How can this be?
The problem is that al Qaeda represents an ideological
movement, not a finite group of people. It initiates and inspires,
even if it no longer directs. In this way it has transformed itself
into a decentralized force. Bin Laden may be limited in his
ability to organize major attacks from his hideouts. Yet killing
or capturing him, while extremely important, would not end
terror. His message of inspiration to a new generation of
terrorists would continue.
Because of offensive actions against al Qaeda since 9/11, and
defensive actions to improve homeland security, we believe we
are safer today. But we are not safe. We therefore make the
following recommendations that we believe can make America
safer and more secure.
WHAT TO DO? A GLOBAL STRATEGY
The enemy is not just “terrorism.” It is the threat posed
specifically by Islamist terrorism, by Bin Laden and others who
draw on a long tradition of extreme intolerance within a minority
strain of Islam that does not distinguish politics from religion,
and distorts both.
The enemy is not Islam, the great world faith, but a perversion of
Islam. The enemy goes beyond al Qaeda to include the radical
ideological movement, inspired in part by al Qaeda, that has
spawned other terrorist groups and violence. Thus our strategy
must match our means to two ends: dismantling the al Qaeda
network and, in the long term, prevailing over the ideology that
contributes to Islamist terrorism.
The first phase of our post-9/11 efforts rightly included military
action to topple the Taliban and pursue al Qaeda. This work
continues. But long-term success demands the use of all
elements of national power: diplomacy, intelligence, covert
action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public
diplomacy, and homeland defense. If we favor one tool while
neglecting others, we leave ourselves vulnerable and weaken our
What should Americans expect from their government? The
goal seems unlimited: Defeat terrorism anywhere in the world.
But Americans have also been told to expect the worst: An attack
is probably coming; it may be more devastating still.
Vague goals match an amorphous picture of the enemy. Al
Qaeda and other groups are popularly described as being all over
the world, adaptable, resilient, needing little higher-level
organization, and capable of anything. It is an image of an
omnipotent hydra of destruction. That image lowers
expectations of government effectiveness.
It lowers them too far. Our report shows a determined and
capable group of plotters. Yet the group was fragile and
occasionally left vulnerable by the marginal, unstable people
often attracted to such causes. The enemy made mistakes. The
U.S. government was not able to capitalize on them.
No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of
9/11 will not happen again. But the American people are entitled
to expect that officials will have realistic objectives, clear
guidance, and effective organization. They are entitled to see
standards for performance so they can judge, with the help of
their elected representatives, whether the objectives are being
We propose a strategy with three dimensions: (1) attack terrorists
and their organizations, (2) prevent the continued growth of
Islamist terrorism, and (3) protect against and prepare for
ATTACK TERRORISTS AND THEIR ORGANIZATIONS
Root out sanctuaries. The U.S. government should identify and
prioritize actual or potential terrorist sanctuaries and have
realistic country or regional strategies for each, utilizing every
element of national power and reaching out to countries that can
Strengthen long-term U.S. and international commitments to the
future of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Confront problems with Saudi Arabia in the open and build a
relationship beyond oil, a relationship that both sides can defend
to their citizens and includes a shared commitment to reform.
PREVENT THE CONTINUED GROWTH OF ISLAMIST
In October 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked if
enough was being done “to fashion a broad integrated plan to
stop the next generation of terrorists.” As part of such a plan, the
U.S. government should:
Define the message and stand as an example of moral leadership
in the world. To Muslim parents, terrorists like Bin Laden have
nothing to offer their children but visions of violence and death.
America and its friends have the advantage – our vision can offer
a better future.
Where Muslim governments, even those who are friends, do not
offer opportunity, respect the rule of law, or tolerate differences,
then the United States needs to stand for a better future.
Communicate and defend American ideals in the Islamic world,
through much stronger public diplomacy to reach more people,
including students and leaders outside of government. Our
efforts here should be as strong as they were in combating closed
societies during the Cold War.
Offer an agenda of opportunity that includes support for public
education and economic openness.
Develop a comprehensive coalition strategy against Islamist
terrorism, using a flexible contact group of leading coalition
governments and fashioning a common coalition approach on
issues like the treatment of captured terrorists.
Devote a maximum effort to the parallel task of countering the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Expect less from trying to dry up terrorist money and more from
following the money for intelligence, as a tool to hunt terrorists,
understand their networks, and disrupt their operations.
PROTECT AGAINST AND PREPARE FOR TERRORIST
Target terrorist travel, an intelligence and security strategy that
the 9/11 story showed could be at least as powerful as the effort
devoted to terrorist finance. Address problems of screening
people with biometric identifiers across agencies and
governments, including our border and transportation systems,
by designing a comprehensive screening system that addresses
common problems and sets common standards. As standards
spread, this necessary and ambitious effort could dramatically
strengthen the world’s ability to intercept individuals who could
pose catastrophic threats.
Quickly complete a biometric entry-exit screening system, one
that also speeds qualified travelers.
Set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of
identification, such as driver’s licenses.
Develop strategies for neglected parts of our transportation
security system. Since 9/11, about 90 percent of the nation’s $5
billion annual investment in transportation security has gone to
aviation, to fight the last war.
--In aviation, prevent arguments about a new computerized
profiling system from delaying vital improvements in the “no-
fly” and “automatic selectee” lists. Also, give priority to the
improvement of checkpoint screening.
Determine, with leadership from the President, guidelines for
gathering and sharing information in the new security systems
that are needed, guidelines that integrate safeguards for privacy
and other essential liberties.
Underscore that as government power necessarily expands in
certain ways, the burden of retaining such powers remains on the
executive to demonstrate the value of such powers and ensure
adequate supervision of how they are used, including a new
board to oversee the implementation of the guidelines needed for
gathering and sharing information in these new security systems.
Base federal funding for emergency preparedness solely on risks
and vulnerabilities, putting New York City and Washington,
D.C., at the top of the current list. Such assistance should not
remain a program for general revenue sharing or pork-barrel
Make homeland security funding contingent on the adoption of
an incident command system to strengthen teamwork in a crisis,
including a regional approach. Allocate more radio spectrum
and improve connectivity for public safety communications, and
encourage widespread adoption of newly developed standards for
private-sector emergency preparedness since the private sector
controls 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure.
HOW TO DO IT? A DIFFERENT WAY OF ORGANIZING
The strategy we have recommended is elaborate, even as
presented here very briefly. To implement it will require a
government better organized than the one that exists today, with
its national security institutions designed half a century ago to
win the Cold War. Americans should not settle for incremental,
ad hoc adjustments to a system created a generation ago for a
world that no longer exists.
Our detailed recommendations are designed to fit together. Their
purpose is clear: to build unity of effort across the U.S.
government. As one official now serving on the front lines
overseas put it to us: “One fight, one team.”
We call for unity of effort in five areas, beginning with unity of
effort on the challenge of counterrorism itself:
Unifying strategic intelligence and operational planning against
Islamist terrorists across the foreign-domestic divide with a
National Counterrorism Center; unifying the intelligence
community with a new National Intelligence Director;
Unifying the many participants in the counterrorism effort and
their knowledge in a network-based information sharing system
that transcends traditional governmental boundaries;
Unifying and strengthening congressional oversight to improve
quality and accountability;
Strengthening the FBI and homeland defenders.
Ed. As you all have heard the report also proposes the creation of
a National Counterrorism Center (NCTC) that “would become
the authoritative knowledge bank, bringing information to bear
on common plans Placed in the Executive Office of the
President, headed by a Senate-confirmed official (with rank
equal to the deputy head of a cabinet department) who reports to
the National Intelligence Director, the NCTC would track
implementation of plans. It would be able to influence the
leadership and the budgets of the counterrorism operating arms
of the CIA, the FBI, and the departments of Defense and
Hott Spotts will return August 5.