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Bush accepts independent but 'focused' 9/11 probe

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a move applauded by Democrats, President Bush Friday reversed himself and endorsed the formation of an independent commission to conduct a "focused inquiry" of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States that goes beyond intelligence failures already being probed by Congress.

Bush's switch was announced in a letter from White House aide Nicholas Calio to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois.

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It said the administration has cooperated with the joint inquiry of the Senate and House intelligence committees into failures of U.S. intelligence agencies to follow through on leads involving some of the hijackers due in some cases to rules hampering cooperation between criminal investigation and intelligence gathering.

But that inquiry "did not address the panoply of other important and related issues as they may relate to September 11," Calio said, "such as coordination between the intelligence community and non-national security agencies, border security and visa issues, commercial aviation and the role of state and local governments.

"A focused inquiry into these matters will help strengthen our ability to prevent and defend against terrorism and protect the security of the American public," the letter said.

A congressional report released earlier this week said the U.S. intelligence community had multiple warnings of possible terrorist attacks -- even one using airplanes -- against the United States years before the September 11 hijackings. However, that report also said there was no one single warning that spelled out the particulars of what ultimately transpired last fall. (Full story)

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, welcomed the White House's announcement.

"I am encouraged that the White House today ended its opposition to an independent commission to investigate all aspects of the September 11th terror attacks," he said in a statement.

"As I have been saying for months, we need a commission that can build on the good work of the congressional intelligence committees' joint inquiry, and help us all understand what happened, why it happened, so we can dramatically strengthen all aspects of our nation's homeland defenses," he said.

"In this instance," he added, "knowledge will help us heal as a nation and better prepare ourselves in the war against the terrorists."

He said he is confident that "the majority of Americans" would accept the findings of an independent, bipartisan inquiry.

An aide to another key Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, said, "We appreciate the White House switching its position" after 10 months of prodding by Lieberman and others pushing for an independent commission investigation.

But one senior Senate Democratic aide who asked not to be identified took issue with the White House suggestion that the commission focus on matters other that intelligence failures.

"The intelligence lapses are the number one core problem relating to 9/11," the aide said. "A commission not looking into intelligence is near useless."

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