WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - The final report of the commission looking into the Sept. 11 attacks might trigger new criticism of President Bush by Democrats who say he is weak on terrorism and homeland security, and will likely pressure him to embrace some of the sweeping changes the panel is expected to recommend.
Yesterday Democrats and their likely presidential nominee, John Kerry, seized on what has been billed as a highly critical report, to be released Thursday, as an opportunity to deflate Bush's standing in areas where he has demonstrated his greatest political strength - counterterrorism and national security.
While the report describes some missed warning signs of gathering terrorist threats on former President Bill Clinton's watch, much of the 500-page report is expected to say that the Bush White House overlooked clues that pointed to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The report will call for radical restructuring of the nation's intelligence apparatus that includes creation of a Cabinet-level post with budget authority over all the 15 agencies of the intelligence community.
The recommendation would strip the CIA and the Pentagon of control over the $40 billion intelligence budget and much of their influence over intelligence policy.
The report, say officials familiar with its contents, also recommends an overhaul of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, a high-profile initiative Bush announced in his 2003 State of the Union address to facilitate sharing of intelligence among the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, CIA and others.
Yesterday Bush said he's looking forward to the commission's recommendations and called some of them "necessary."
The panel members "share the same desire I share, which is to make sure that the president and the Congress gets the best possible intelligence," Bush said. "Some of the reforms I think are necessary: more human intelligence, better ability to listen or to see things and better coordination amongst the variety of intelligence-gathering services."
Release of the report coincides with a continuing erosion in public confidence of Bush's handling of the war on terror, still his greatest political asset, but one in which his advantage seems to have diminished substantially.
Only a few months ago, a healthy majority of voters - nearly 70 percent in many surveys - said they approved of his handling of the war on terror. Now, polls place that number at barely above 50 percent.
Sensing a new vulnerability, Kerry campaign aides argued yesterday that Bush has failed to improve intelligence-sharing among government agencies. They also said the security of air travel and of U.S. borders has not improved under Bush's leadership.
"As the buzz about the report grows this week, the spin from the White House will grow increasingly faster," said a memo e-mailed to reporters by Kerry's campaign staff. "The Bush team has got to be lying awake at night hoping that its last issue doesn't go to John Kerry."
The Bush campaign, quickly responding, scheduled a conference call for journalists with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a close Bush ally, who said some of Kerry's Senate votes in the 1990s cut money from intelligence agencies. Kerry "set up the very failure he is so critical of the Bush administration for," Cornyn said.
Still, Cornyn acknowledged that the new report will open the president up to fresh political attacks.
"Will there be criticism? Sure," he said. "But in fairness, it just has to be recognized that the problem of terrorism did not start when President Bush was sworn in. Nine-eleven was the wake-up call for the entire nation."
That, though, could prove to be a problem for Bush. While criticism from missed warning signs continues to dog him, some of the greatest political fallout could stem from the panel's anticipated criticism of his efforts after the attacks, when the terrorist threat was out in the open and the country looked to him and his initiatives for protection.
The report is expected to find that the terrorist threat center has been ineffective at getting intelligence agencies to properly share information, a failure that previous reports and commissions found made the intelligence agencies unable to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.
The center has faced growing criticism in recent months from counterterrorism analysts who say it has become too analytical, focused too heavily on report writing rather than ferreting out details of the latest terrorist threats. It contributed heavily to the false report released two months ago that claimed terrorist incidents had declined over the past year, when in fact the number of significant terrorist attacks had reached its highest level since 1982.
Officials at the FBI said yesterday that they were relieved that commission members appear to have passed over one of the more controversial idaes: pulling counterterrorism out of the FBI and establishing a new domestic intelligence agency. Instead, the report is likely to recommend creating a new division in the bureau, or an agency within an agency, to focus on terror.