WORLD: A POWERFUL REPORT, BUT WILL IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
By RUPERT CORNWELL
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 theal Qaeda 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 Qaeda - 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.