Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday blamed the Clinton administration for neutering the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts before the September 11 terrorist attacks, preventing the sharing of information that might have helped expose the plot.
“The simple fact of September 11th is this: We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies,” Mr. Ashcroft told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the congressionally chartered panel looking into the government failures leading up to the September 11 attacks.
“Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions and starved for basic information technology,” he said, calling the intelligence system “destined to fail.”
Before he testified, the commission’s investigative staff released two reports in which it said the FBI and CIA had a series of opportunities to learn of and prevent the attacks in the summer before the hijackings, but financial and legal barriers and a lack of awareness prevented high government officials from putting the pieces together.
“I read our staff statement as an indictment of the FBI for over a long period of time,” said commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean.
Yesterday’s hearing, which focused on law enforcement and the intelligence community, was held in the Senate’s Hart office. But it lacked the fireworks of previous public hearings before the commission, including testimony from Richard A. Clarke, former national coordinator for counterterrorism, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The commission also heard from former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who served from 1993 to 2001; former acting FBI Director Thomas J. Pickard, who served from June 25, 2001, to Sept. 4, 2001; Clinton administration Attorney General Janet Reno and J. Cofer Black, who was the director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center from 1999 to 2002.
Among them, fingers pointed every which way over whether the FBI was allowed to, and did, share information with other agencies and within the bureau.
The commission’s staff report identified the FBI’s “inability or unwillingness to share information” as a critical problem leading up to the attacks and said many sources had expressed “frustration” with the bureau over it.
But Mr. Freeh disputed that notion and said he brought information to the top of the Clinton administration.
“The attorney general and I, every two weeks, almost like clockwork in the last 14, 15 months of our overlapping tenure, sat with [Clinton administration National Security Adviser] Sandy Berger in his office for at least an hour, perhaps two hours, and went over every single piece of counterterrorism, counterintelligence case that we had,” he said. “By the way, Dick Clarke was never present at any of those meetings. Why Sandy Berger didn’t want him there, I don’t know.”
Mr. Freeh also said the attacks could have been prevented with the right intelligence work.
“September 11th, had we had the right sources overseas or in the United States, could have been prevented. We did not have those sources,” he said.
But Miss Reno said the FBI often didn’t even know what information it did have.
“It was common knowledge that one of the problems was that the bureau sometimes didn’t know what it had and that it didn’t share the information,” she said, laying partial blame on the antiquated information systems that the bureau had.
But the biggest charges of the day came from Mr. Ashcroft, who said the Justice Department in 1995 under Miss Reno “embraced flawed legal reasoning, imposing a series of restrictions on the FBI that went beyond what the law required” in setting up a barrier between law enforcement and intelligence gathering.
He called that barrier “the wall,” and said it made intelligence agents afraid to talk with prosecutors or law-enforcement officials.
“In the days before September 11th, the wall specifically impeded the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, the investigation of Khalid Almihdhar and of Nawaf Alhazmi,” he said. “After the FBI arrested Moussaoui, agents became suspicious of his interest in commercial aircraft and sought approval for a criminal search warrant to search his computer. The warrant was rejected because FBI officials feared breaching the wall.”
Mr. Ashcroft also took aim at one of the commissioners, Jamie S. Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general who was responsible for the 1995 rules.
Several times, Mr. Ashcroft made reference to the Clinton administration, at one point even comparing its funding of the FBI technology budget unfavorably to that of the first Bush administration, saying the amount left in 2001 by the Clinton administration “was actually $36 million less than the last Bush budget eight years before.”
His testimony contrasted sharply with Miss Reno, who just three hours earlier told the commission that she hoped that together they could do their work “not talking about blame, not talking about partisan politics.”
She said she thought information sharing could happen under the rules that existed, and she said the Patriot Act since has made that clearly permissible.
Still, she said, “I don’t blame anybody. I’m responsible. If somebody wants to be responsible, it’s going to be me because I tried to work through these issues while I was attorney general and time ran out on me.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Pickard said that in his brief tenure as acting director, Mr. Ashcroft did not seem to consider counterterrorism a priority, based on his funding requests and on a remark he says Mr. Ashcroft made in one meeting that “he did not want to hear this information anymore.”
But Mr. Ashcroft said that never happened: “I did never say to him that I did not want to hear about terrorism.”
Yesterday’s testimony is prompting some lawmakers to call for action. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, called for renewal of the Patriot Act.
House Select Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox, California Republican, called for a renewed focus on sharing information with the new Department of Homeland Security, and Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, renewed his call for an independent department to gather domestic intelligence.
That recommendation, though, was roundly rejected by those who testified yesterday, including Miss Reno and Mr. Freeh, who said establishing such an agency would be “a huge mistake for the country.”