WASHINGTON (AFP) - The September 11 commission's report, due out Thursday, says Iran may have facilitated the 2001 attacks on the United States by providing eight to 10 al-Qaeda hijackers with safe passage to and from training camps in Afghanistan (news - web sites), US media reports said.
Time and Newsweek, in similar reports quoting congressional, commission and government sources, said Iran relaxed border controls and provided "clean" passports for the so-called "muscle hijackers" to transit Iran to and from Osama bin Laden (news - web sites)'s camps between October 2000 and February 2001.
In addition, The New York Times said the commission's report would recommend the creation of a cabinet-level post that would take power from the CIA (news - web sites), FBI (news - web sites), National Security Council and Pentagon (news - web sites) to oversee intelligence gathering said to have been lacking before and after the September 11 attacks.
The commission's report says Iran at one point proposed collaborating with al-Qaeda on attacks against America, but bin Laden declined, saying he did not want to alienate his supporters in Saudi Arabia, according to Time.
Newsweek said the Iranian finding in the commission's report is based largely on a December 2001 memo discovered buried in the files of the US National Security Agency.
The memo, according to Newsweek, says "Iranian border inspectors were instructed not to place stamps in the passports of al-Qaeda fighters from Saudi Arabia who were traveling from bin Laden's camps through Iran."
Time said commission investigators "found that Iran had a history of allowing al-Qaeda members to enter and exit Iran across the Afghan border," a practice they said dated back to October 2000.
Iranian officials, Time said, issued "specific instructions to their border guards ... not to put stamps in the passports of al-Qaeda personnel and otherwise not harass them, and to facilitate their travel across the frontier."
"The new discovery about Iran's assistance to al-Qaeda," said Newsweek, "is among the most surprising new findings" in the 500-page report compiled by the non-partisan commission.
Former White House counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke, who in a recent book said President George W. Bush (news - web sites)'s administration was obsessed with involving Iraq (news - web sites) in the attacks and had ignored intelligence on Iran, told Newsweek the commission's report confirms that.
The day after the attacks, Clarke said in his book, Bush told him: "See if Saddam (Hussein) did this. See if he's linked in any way."
Although there was no evidence linking Iraq to the attacks, Newsweek quoted Clarke as saying "there were lots of reasons to believe (al-Qaeda) was being facilitated by elements of the Iranian security services. We told the president that specifically. The best evidence we had of state support (for al-Qaeda) was Iran."
Time said the Iranian offer to collaborate with al-Qaeda to attack America was made after the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole (news - web sites), which killed 17 US sailors as the ship was being refueled in Yemen.
"But the offer," said the weekly, "was turned down by bin Laden because he did not want to alientate his supporters in Saudi Arabia."
Time said much of the new information about Iran "came from al-Qaeda detainees interrogated by the US government, including captured Yemeni al-Qaeda operative Waleed Mohammed bin Attash, who organized the ... attack on the USS Cole."
The New York Times, meanwhile, said the intelligence czar proposal would likely meet fierce opposition from the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (news - web sites), "which would have to cede significant authority over the government's estimated 40-billion-dollar intelligence budget and other policy matters."
Under the proposal, the CIA director, who now reports directly to the White House, would have to go through the new national intelligence director, the Times quoted one official as saying.
Democratic presidential contender John Kerry (news - web sites) made a similar proposal on Friday, saying: "We need to create a true director of national intelligence with the ability to manage and direct the myriad components of the intelligence community."
The post, Kerry said in a statement issued by his campaign, should include "authority over the budget, operations, personnel and the exchange of information."