Image: U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft testifies before the 9/11 commission.
Molly Riley  /  Reuters
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft testifies Tuesday before the 9/11 commission in the Hart Senate office building on Capitol Hill.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 4/14/2004 6:53:23 AM ET 2004-04-14T10:53:23

Attorney General John Ashcroft blamed what he called the refusal of the FBI and the CIA to work together during the Clinton administration for the failure to detect the plot for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, quoting an FBI investigator Tuesday as complaining that “whatever has happened to this, someday somebody will die.”

Ashcroft, a focus of fire as the commission investigating the attacks resumed its public hearings, said that for 10 years before Sept. 11, “a snarled web of requirements, restrictions and regulations ... prevented decisive action by our men and women in the field.” 

“Government erected this wall,” he said. “Government buttressed this wall. And before Sept. 11, government was blinded by this wall.”

Video: Ashcroft: Patriot Act tore down walls

Ashcroft said he moved quickly once he was in office to overturn a “failed policy” that allowed
U.S. agents to capture terrorist leader Osama bin Laden but not to assassinate him. He testified that he specifically told President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, that “we should find and kill bin Laden.” He said Rice gave the assignment to the CIA.

Ashcroft’s picture of an FBI estranged from its counterparts in the CIA built on criticisms of the FBI under former Director Louis Freeh during the Clinton administration and the first months of the Bush administration. The commission’s chairman described a new staff report as an “indictment” of the FBI during Freeh’s tenure, while Janet Reno, Freeh’s boss during the Clinton administration, said that at the agency, “the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing.”

Freeh disputes charges
Freeh told the commission that he resented the characterizations. “We had a very effective program with respect to counterterrorism prior to Sept. 11 given the resources that we had,” he maintained.

Freeh said financial constraints and legal restrictions on surveillance hamstrung his agents. The biggest problem, he said, was a Justice Department policy that restricted FBI counterterrorism investigators from sharing information even within the bureau in some cases.

“We were using grand jury subpoenas and arrest warrants to fight an enemy that was using missiles and suicide boats to attack our warships,” Freeh said.

Former Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard and Cofer Black, former director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, also complained about inadequate funding and legal straitjackets  before Sept. 11, echoing Freeh’s testimony that officials did the best they could under the circumstances.

Still, some of the blame rested with Ashcroft, according to Pickard. A second staff report quoted Pickard as saying Ashcroft told him in the summer of 2001 that “he did not want to hear” additional information about possible attacks, an allegation he repeated in his public testimony Tuesday.

Ashcroft vehemently denied the charge.

“Acting Director Pickard and I had more than two meetings. We had regular meetings,” he said.

“Secondly, I did never speak to him saying that I did not want to hear about terrorism. I care greatly about the safety and security of the American people and was very interested in terrorism, and specifically interrogated him about threats to the American people and domestic threats in particular.”

Black, arguing that counterterrorism should have had more funding starting in the early 1990s, claimed that “if we had engaged this with a warrior ethos,” Sept. 11 would have never happened.

Ashcroft criticizes Reno’s Justice Department
Ashcroft fiercely defended his performance since taking office, declaring: “Had I known a terrorist attack on the United States was imminent in 2001, I would have unloaded our full arsenal of weaponry against it, despite the inevitable criticism. ... Every tough tactic we have deployed since the attacks would have been deployed before the attacks.”

But the FBI was operating under the constraints of the 1995 policy cited by Freeh.

Ashcroft said he had declassified the memo that laid out the policy so the commission could review it, noting that its author was a member of the panel, a reference to Jamie Gorelick, who was deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.

The memo detailed instructions that were designed to “more clearly separate the counterintelligence investigation from the more limited, but continued, criminal investigations” to allay concerns that intelligence information could be used in criminal prosecutions, according to a copy released late Tuesday afternoon by the Justice Department.

Ashcroft did not mention Gorelick’s name, but according to a commission document obtained by The Associated Press, Pickard had already raised questions about her presence on the panel, reporting that Pickard found her membership “surprising”  because she and Reno had developed the policy to counter international terrorism through the use of law enforcement techniques.

Ashcroft instead broadly criticized inaction in the final months of the Clinton administration, saying a review of proposals to disrupt al-Qaida by the National Security Council in March 2000 went unheeded, perhaps because Clinton officials did not have the stomach for “the outcry and criticism which follows such tough tactics.”

“These are the same aggressive, often-criticized law enforcement tactics we have unleashed for 31 months to stop another al-Qaida attack ... Despite the warnings and the clear vulnerabilities identified by the NSC in 2000, no new disruption strategy to attack the al-Qaida network within the United States was deployed. It was ignored in the [Justice] Department’s five-year counterterrorism strategy,” Ashcroft said.

Video: Ashcroft, Freeh challenged

Reno did not even tell him about the National Security Council report when he became attorney general, he said, adding that he did not learn of its existence until after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“It is clear from the review that actions taken in the millennium period should not be the operating model for the U.S. government,” Ashcroft said dryly.

Despite Ashcroft’s strong defense, the commission staff statement said it had found inconsistencies in his strategy against domestic terrorism before the attacks.

The staff report cited “limited intelligence collection and strategic analysis capabilities, a limited capacity to share information both internally and externally, insufficient training, an overly complex legal regime and inadequate resources.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, the commission staff said, “about 1,300 agents, or 6 percent of the FBI’s total personnel, worked on counterterrorism.”

Before the attacks, Ashcroft once testified that the Justice Department “had no higher priority” than preventing domestic terrorism, but the commission staff statement quoted a former FBI counterterrorism chief, Dale Watson, as saying he “almost fell out of his chair” when he saw a May 10, 2001, budget memo from Ashcroft listing seven priorities, including illegal drugs and gun violence, but not terrorism.

‘Phoenix memo’ under scrutiny
A recurring focus of questioning during the day’s testimony was a July 2001 memo from an FBI agent in Phoenix, which warned that Islamic extremists might be training at flight schools and urged a nationwide probe.

In his testimony, Freeh cited the warning, which has become known as the “Phoenix memo,” as one that could not easily be turned into a national probe because of legal restraints on running surveillance on tens of thousands of foreign students across the country.

Ashcroft testified that the memo got lost in the shuffle because of what he called the FBI’s “antique” computer technology and information management systems. That, too, was the fault of the Clinton administration, he said.

“The bureau essentially had 42 separate information systems, none of which were connected. Agents lacked even the most basic Internet technology,” he charged.

“On Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI’s annual technology budget under the prior administration was actually $36.1 million less than the last Bush budget eight years before,” he said. “The FBI’s information infrastructure had been starved, and by Sept. 11 it collapsed from budgetary neglect.” 

“It is no wonder, given the state of its technology, that the Phoenix memo warning that terrorists may be training in commercial aviation was lost in the antique computers at Washington headquarters,” he concluded.

Bush administration stand
The hearings followed the release over the weekend of a declassified Aug. 6, 2001, intelligence memo that warned that al-Qaida was operating in the United States and might be looking to hijack airplanes. The memo did not provide specific times or places for potential attacks.

Video: 9/11 widows respond

The memo, whose unidentified author met with the Sept. 11 commissioners Monday, remained a point of contention Tuesday.

Commission member James Thompson, the Republican former governor of Illinois, dismissed the memo Tuesday as “junk.” In an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Thomspon echoed Bush’s statement Monday that the memo — the president’s daily brief, or PDB — was “kind of a history” of bin Laden’s intentions but included no warning that “something is about to happen in America.”

But Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat on the commission, said the briefing proved that “al-Qaida was here big-time in the United States.”

Law enforcement officials say the FBI was doing all it could to identify and disrupt terrorists. For example, the FBI made counterterrorism a separate division in 1999 and created a unit to focus on bin Laden.

In an article in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, Freeh said it took the Sept. 11 attacks to make others see the danger posed by al-Qaida.

“The al-Qaida threat was the same on Sept. 10 and Sept. 12,” he wrote. “Nothing focuses a government quicker than a war.”

Freeh pointed out that the FBI expanded its overseas legal attaché offices from 19 to 44 during his tenure, which ended three months before the attacks, and increased the prominence of joint terrorism task forces that included personnel from other agencies.

Freeh also said that at his first meeting with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, four days after the new administration took office, they discussed terrorism, al-Qaida and several recent overseas attacks targeting U.S. interests.

But Freeh and Pickard say there were budgetary constraints. For example, Freeh said, the FBI asked for 1,895 special agents, linguists and analysts for counterterrorism in fiscal 2000, 2001 and 2002 but wound up with just 76.

By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson and Miguel Llanos with NBC’s Tracie Potts. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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