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Ashcroft blames clinton rules for 911 { April 14 2004 }

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Ashcroft criticizes Clinton rules
Edward Epstein, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Wednesday, April 14, 2004
2004 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback | FAQ

Washington -- Attorney General John Ashcroft, painted Tuesday in two reports from the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks as disinterested in terrorism, lambasted the Clinton administration for overly legalistic rules that he said hamstrung inquiries into men who eventually participated in the suicide hijackings.

Ashcroft's aggressive testimony before the bipartisan commission, perhaps the most partisan it has heard in 16 days of public hearings over the past year, was highlighted by his release of a previously classified memo written a decade ago by Democratic commission member Jamie Gorelick when she was deputy attorney general under former President Bill Clinton.

That memo, which Ashcroft said displayed "flawed legal reasoning,'' erected a wall between domestic intelligence and criminal investigations because Gorelick wrote that mixing the two types of probes could jeopardize prosecutors' chances for success.

"Government erected this wall. Government buttressed this wall. And before Sept. 11, government was blinded by this wall,'' Ashcroft said. The attorney general said fears about violating the Clinton-era rules impeded the FBI investigations into Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, and Khalid al Midhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, who were among the suicide attackers.

"Although you understand the debilitating impact of the wall, I cannot imagine that the commission knew about this memorandum, so I have declassified it for you and the public to review. Full disclosure compels me to inform you that its author is a member of this commission,'' he said as Gorelick and her nine colleagues sat facing the attorney general in a crowded Senate hearing room.

Ashcroft's disclosure was a surprise to the commission. Republican member James Thompson, the former governor of Illinois, interrupted to ask that copies be given to the panel, which has waged a running battle with the Bush White House to get classified documents released.

Members of the 10-member panel, equally divided among Democratic and Republican Washington insiders, say they are trying to be nonpartisan in their approach to their task. But even before Ashcroft's condemnation of anti- terrorism efforts under Clinton, the panel's commitment had frayed publicly over the past few weeks during sharp-edged testimony from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism official who said President Bush wasn't serious enough about the al Qaeda threat before the Sept. 11 attacks.

The commissioners' task is further complicated by the heated presidential election campaign. Panel members say they still hope to release a unanimous report this summer that is expected to criticize the Clinton and Bush administrations for missteps in the fight against terrorism and to make recommendations for the future.

Under questioning from a Republican commission member, former Washington Sen. Slade Gorton, Ashcroft conceded that even though he found the legal rules onerous, he didn't move to change them until after Sept. 11 when Congress overwhelmingly passed the Patriot Act.

"If that wall was so disabling, why was it not destroyed in those eight months'' between Bush's inauguration in January and the September attacks that killed about 3,000 people? Gorton asked.

Ashcroft had little in the way of a response other than to say the Clinton-era rules were changing before the September attacks.

Ashcroft also criticized the Clinton White House for what he said were unclear rules of engagement on whether al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden could be killed by U.S. agents, failure to support efforts to modernize FBI computer technology and failure to implement a proposal in early 2000 to disrupt the al Qaeda network in the United States.

But Ashcroft, who was one of five witnesses the commission heard Tuesday, was also on the receiving end of criticism.

Former FBI acting director Thomas Pickard, who headed the agency for two months in the summer of 2001, testified that during his tenure, Ashcroft cut him off when he repeatedly raised the possibility of a domestic terrorist attack.

One of the two reports released Tuesday by the commission says, "Pickard told us that although he initially briefed the attorney general regarding these threats, after two such briefings the attorney general told him he did not want to hear this information anymore.''

Ashcroft denied Pickard's account. "I did never speak to him saying I did not want to hear about terror,'' he said. "I care greatly about the safety and security of the American people.''

The reports issued Tuesday charge that, despite Ashcroft's assertions, the Justice Department under his leadership sent out mixed signals about its commitment to fighting terrorism. For example, the commission noted that Ashcroft told Congress on May 9, 2001, he "had no higher priority than to protect citizens from terrorist attacks.''

But the next day his department issued budget documents that made reducing gun violence and drug dealing its top objectives. The department prepared a budget with no increases for counterterrorism spending. Pickard appealed that decision, but Ashcroft rejected his bid on Sept. 10, 2001.

The reports pointed to a multitude of problems with the FBI's effort to investigate potential terrorism activity dating to the early 1990s. The commission chairman, former Republican New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, said the report is "an indictment of the FBI.''

The report lists "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.'' And it says the FBI had missed many opportunities to snag terrorists.

But former FBI director Louis Freeh, another witness Tuesday, defended his agency. "Short of total war, the FBI effectively did its job pursuing terrorists, always with the goal of preventing attacks,'' he testified.

The commission continues its hearings today with current FBI director Robert Mueller as the star witness. It will hold two days of hearings in New York next month and more hearings in Washington in June. It hopes to release its report by July 26, the day the Democratic National Convention opens in Boston.

Hearing excerpts
Attorney General John Ashcroft

"The simple fact of Sept. 11 is this: We did not know an attack was coming, because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies."

Ex-Attorney General Janet Reno

"The FBI didn't know what it had. The right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing."

Ex-FBI Director Louis Freeh

"Short of total war, the FBI effectively did its job pursuing terrorists, always with the goal of preventing attacks."

E-mail Edward Epstein at

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