A report released by the September 11 commission yesterday states that prior to the terrorist attacks, the FBI had been “limited in several areas critical to an effective, preventative counterterrorism strategy.”
The report was issued hours before the testimony of current and past top law enforcement officials, including former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, former Attorney General Janet Reno and current Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States said the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts were deficient in the years before the attacks, raising questions about where the bureau was channeling its energies during the 1990s.
Mr. Freeh, who was appointed by President Clinton, headed the FBI from mid-1993 until one week before the September 11 attacks. During that period, the threat of terrorism was among a broad spectrum of bureau priorities.
Early in his tenure, Mr. Freeh had focused on hiring a new generation of agents and restructuring the bureau’s management to streamline activities at headquarters.
He also pushed to expand cooperation among law enforcement agencies to stop high-level drug trafficking, and to develop better international cooperation to fight global organized crime.
By the late-1990s, after a series of high-profile domestic and international attacks had killed hundreds of people, most notably the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1994, the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998, the FBI was pulled deeply into efforts to combat terrorism.
During an FBI budget hearing in 1998, Mr. Freeh listed a host of challenges facing the FBI, including streamlining management at the bureau, post-Cold War counterintelligence activities, combating weapons of mass destruction proliferation and international organized crime.
Mr. Freeh listed the “threat posed both by international and domestic terrorists” among the top challenges, but he did not say specifically that protecting the United States from an attack was the No. 1 priority, as it has been described on the FBI Web site since soon after hijacked airplanes slammed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Outside observers said the FBI did not have one overriding focus during the 1990s. “There were multiple concerns,” said Steven Aftergood, a specialist on intelligence policy at the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based nonprofit.
The bureau was involved in investigating global international crime, drug trafficking, money laundering, domestic and international terrorism and economic espionage, said Mr. Aftergood, who has monitored FBI activities for the past decade.
Although the commission outlined several FBI successes in investigating terrorism during the 1990s, including the apprehension of suspects behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, it criticized the bureau for failing to implement reforms needed to prevent attacks.
“The FBI’s energy during this period was devoted to after-the-fact investigations of major terrorist attacks in order to develop criminal cases,” states the report, which hammered the FBI for failing “to see the value of strategic analysis” in driving investigations.
The “poor state of the FBI’s information systems” resulted in a lack of strategic counterterrorism analysis before September 11, the report states, adding that “the FBI had never completed an assessment of the overall terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland.”
The report also criticizes the FBI for lacking an effective system for storing, searching or retrieving valuable information in its files before September 11.
“The FBI’s primary information management system, designed using 1980s technology already obsolete when installed in 1995, limited the Bureau’s ability to share its information internally and externally,” the report states.
Testifying before the commission yesterday, Mr. Ashcroft agreed that “the FBI’s computer technology and information management was in terrible shape” with agents lacking “access to even the most basic Internet technology.”
Although he criticized the bureau on other fronts, Mr. Ashcroft noted that “year after year, the FBI was denied funds” to improve the technology. “Over eight years,” he said, “the bureau was denied “nearly $800 million of its information-technology funding requests.”