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Panel plans hard questions for fbi doj { April 6 2004 }

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April 6, 2004
9/11 Panel Plans Hard Questions for the F.B.I. and Justice Dept.

WASHINGTON, April 5 Current and former leaders of the Justice Department and the F.B.I. are expected to come under criticism from the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at public hearings next week, with Attorney General John Ashcroft and Louis J. Freeh, the former F.B.I. director, being called to account for their agencies' failures before the attacks, panel officials say.

Commission members say the hearings will bolster what will almost certainly be a major recommendation of the panel's final report this summer: an overhaul of domestic counterterrorism programs, possibly through creation of a domestic counterintelligence agency separate from the F.B.I. The Bush administration has said it opposes such a move.

Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Freeh have defended their efforts before Sept. 11 in testimony to other investigators and in other forums.

Again on Monday, a Justice Department spokesman, Mark Corallo, said, "I don't think anyone can argue with the fact that this president and this attorney general have made preventing terrorist attacks their No. 1 priority, and that was true before Sept. 11, 2001, and it is true today."

But the chairman of the commission, Thomas H. Kean, said Justice Department and F.B.I. officials could expect "some very hard questions" at the hearings.

Mr. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said in an interview that despite the Federal Bureau of Investigation's insistence that it had made broad changes in its long-beleaguered counterterrorism division since the attacks, he was concerned the bureau would "go back to business as usual" within a few years.

"We've got to seriously consider whether our whole counterintelligence apparatus has to be changed," added Mr. Kean, who has said in the past that the United States may need the equivalent of MI-5, Britain's domestic spy agency.

Commission officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the panel had been eager to schedule long-awaited testimony from Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, for this week in an effort to avoid blunting the effect of hearings next week on law enforcement and intelligence failures. Ms. Rice is scheduled to testify on Thursday.

Besides Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Freeh, the witness list for the hearings next Tuesday and Wednesday includes Janet Reno, President Bill Clinton's attorney general, and Robert S. Mueller III, who became F.B.I. director a week before the attacks.

Panel members said the most probing questions were likely to be directed at Mr. Ashcroft, who was sworn in as attorney general seven months before the attacks, and at Mr. Freeh, who ran the F.B.I. from 1993 until he retired in June 2001. He is now an executive with the MBNA Corporation, a large financial-services company.

Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Freeh have said that their agencies did what they could to try to pre-empt a catastrophic attack in the United States.

But commission officials said evidence gathered in their investigation, when added to the detailed public record about law enforcement failings before Sept. 11, showed that the F.B.I. and the Justice Department had never given adequate attention to counterterrorism, and that the bureau had not seen connections among seemingly obvious danger signs in the summer of 2001.

Those signs included a July 2001 memorandum from an F.B.I. agent in Phoenix warning that Al Qaeda appeared to be training terrorists in American flight schools; the arrest the next month of Zacarias Moussaoui, a flight school student who was later connected to the German terrorist cell that carried out the attacks; and the discovery in late August that two Qaeda operatives had entered the United States.

Commission officials said their evidence showed that Mr. Ashcroft had taken little interest in counterterrorism before Sept. 11 and, days before the attacks, had rejected pleas from senior F.B.I. officials for more money for counterterrorism even as intelligence agencies warned of an imminent, possibly catastrophic, terrorist attack.

They said the commission may make public a series of internal memorandums written by Thomas J. Pickard, who was the F.B.I. acting director in the summer of 2001, criticizing what he perceived to be Mr. Ashcroft's disinterest in counterterrorism. Mr. Pickard, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, is also expected to testify next week.

Mr. Ashcroft may also be confronted with an internal administration budget document, dated Oct. 12, 2001, showing that he had gone along with a White House plan to sharply cut an emergency F.B.I. request for $1.5 billion in extra counterterrorism money after the attacks.

Justice Department officials said the attorney general, who returned to work last month after he was hospitalized for emergency gallbladder surgery, had consistently championed the government's counterterrorism efforts.

His aides cited Mr. Ashcroft's testimony before the Senate in May 2001 when he called for more than $100 million in extra money for projects on counterterrorism and said that the department's "No. 1 goal is the prevention of terrorist acts." The aides said Mr. Ashcroft would also testify that he had been repeatedly advised in 2001 that Qaeda attacks would almost certainly take place overseas and that there was no clear domestic threat.

Commission officials said that Mr. Freeh would be asked why the F.B.I., despite a tripling of its budget for counterterrorism during the 1990's, had failed to develop evidence of a serious domestic threat from Al Qaeda before Sept. 11 and had failed to establish clearer procedures for sharing terrorism information internally and with other agencies.

Commission officials said that evidence gathered by the commission showed that Mr. Freeh had become so involved in managing a handful of criminal investigations, most prominently the investigation of the 1996 bombing of American military barracks in Saudi Arabia, and in other struggles with the Clinton White House that the potential for a domestic terrorist attack by Al Qaeda received relatively little attention.

Mr. Freeh did not return telephone calls seeking comment. In testimony in October 2002 before Congressional investigators, he said that the bureau's counterterrorism program had been hampered by inadequate budgets.

But in that testimony he defended the bureau's record in combating terrorism and said he did not believe the F.B.I. had adequate information to pre-empt the attacks. "I am aware of nothing that to me demonstrates that the F.B.I. and the intelligence community had the type of information or tactical intelligence which could have prevented the horror," he said.

Commission officials said Mr. Freeh would also be harshly questioned about why, under his leadership, the bureau had not been able to obtain basic computer and communications equipment that would have allowed agents around the country to share information about terrorist threats. The communications system was so outdated at the time of the attacks that agents could not even share e-mail on bureau computers.

In hearings before the commission two weeks ago, the bureau was subjected to withering criticism, both from members of the commission and from some of its witnesses.

Richard A. Clarke, who was the White House counterterrorism chief during the Bush and Clinton administrations, said that long before Sept. 11, he had discounted an F.B.I. assessment that Al Qaeda did not have a major presence in the United States.

"I know how this is going to sound, but I have to say it: I didn't think the F.B.I. would know whether or not there was anything going on in the United States," Mr. Clarke said, a comment that drew nods of agreement from several members of the commission.

Samuel R. Berger, national security adviser to President Clinton, was equally dismissive. "I've learned since 9/11 that the mechanisms of information-sharing within the F.B.I. and between the F.B.I. and the rest of government were even worse than I thought," he said.

"I think there was a sclerosis," Mr. Berger said of the bureau. "We've learned since 9/11 that not only did we not know what we didn't know, but the F.B.I. didn't know what it did know."

Panel Sets Hearings for New York

The commission will hold hearings in New York City on May 18 and 19, and among those expected to testify is former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who essentially led the emergency response effort.

Mr. Giuliani is likely to provide evocative testimony on what he saw and how the city responded. His successor, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, has already testified.

In the New York hearings, Deputy Mayor Daniel L. Doctoroff is expected to testify about the economic effect the attacks had on the city.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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