WASHINGTON — The 9/11 commission is busy writing its final report, but is still investigating critical facts, including the conduct of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. NBC News has learned that the commission has interviewed two FBI officials who contradict sworn testimony by Ashcroft, about whether he brushed off terrorism warnings in the summer of 2001.
In the critical months before Sept. 11, did Ashcroft dismiss threats of an al-Qaida attack in this country?
At issue is a July 5, 2001, meeting between Ashcroft and acting FBI Director Tom Pickard. That month, the threat of an al-Qaida attack was so high, the White House summoned the FBI and domestic agencies, and warned them to be on alert.
Yet, Pickard testified to the 9/11 commission that when he tried to brief Ashcroft just a week later, on July 12, about the terror threat inside the United States, he got the brush-off.
"Mr. Ashcroft told you that he did not want to hear about this anymore," Democratic commission member Richard Ben-Veniste asked on April 13. "Is that correct?"
"That is correct," Pickard replied.
Testifying under oath the same day, Ashcroft categorically denied the allegation, saying, "I did never speak to him saying that I didn't want to hear about terrorism."
However, another senior FBI official tells NBC News he vividly recalls Pickard returning from the meeting that day furious that Ashcroft had cut short the terrorism briefing. This official, now retired, has talked to the 9/11 commission.
NBC News has learned that commission investigators also tracked down another FBI witness at the meeting that day, Ruben Garcia, head of the Criminal Division at that time. Several sources familiar with the investigation say Garcia confirmed to the commission that Ashcroft did indeed dismiss Pickard's warnings about al-Qaida.
"When you get two people coming forth and basically challenging a sworn statement by the attorney general regarding a critical meeting in the history of the 9/11 event, you raise serious questions about the Attorney General's truthfulness," says Paul Light, a government reform expert and New York University professor.
Ashcroft's version of events is supported by his top aide, who attended the meeting. But another Justice official also there — who Ashcroft's office claimed would dispute Pickard's account — says he doesn't remember.
"I do not recall the conversation that interim director Pickard referred to," says former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson.
Experts say that in the context of Sept. 11, the issue is not trivial.
"Was there a communications breakdown between the FBI and the Department of Justice, at the highest levels of each agency?" asks former Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich.
Ashcroft's spokesman dismissed the allegations Tuesday, saying, "The suggestion that the attorney general wasn't concerned about terrorism is absurd."
He says if Ashcroft was ever short with FBI officials, it was because "he was unhappy with the quality of information he was getting."
Pickard did brief Ashcroft on terrorism four more times that summer, but sources say the acting FBI director never mentioned the word al-Qaida again in Ashcroft's presence — until after Sept. 11.
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