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Ashcroft ignored terrorism { April 14 2004 }

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   http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-0404140261apr14,1,1789886.story?coll=chi-news-hed

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-0404140261apr14,1,1789886.story?coll=chi-news-hed

Ashcroft ignored terrorism, panel told
Attorney general denies charges, blames Clinton

By Cam Simpson
Washington Bureau

April 14, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Former interim FBI chief Thomas Pickard testified Tuesday that Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft didn't want to hear about terrorism when Pickard tried to brief him during the summer of 2001, as intelligence reports about terrorist threats were reaching a historic level.

Ashcroft flatly denied the charge Tuesday in testimony before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks and blamed the Clinton administration for creating bureaucratic hurdles that impeded the nation's defense against the assaults. He portrayed himself as taking decisive action against Osama bin Laden and portrayed his predecessors as weak, charging that former President Bill Clinton failed to authorize bin Laden's assassination.

Despite his sometimes pointed attacks, Ashcroft told commissioners that his goal was "not to add to the nation's considerable stock of pain, but to heal our wounds."

His nationally televised, sworn testimony capped a day in which official after official blamed other people and factors beyond their control for problems that commissioners believe made the nation vulnerable to the worst terrorist attacks in its history.

In addition to his testimony about Ashcroft, Pickard said he didn't know why his 56 local FBI chiefs across the nation didn't do more in the summer of 2001 after he asked them to do so, though commissioners said virtually none of those officials recalled such orders.

Louis Freeh, who headed the agency for almost eight years before retiring in June 2001, blamed legal impediments and a lack of resources, while also suggesting the CIA should have done more to alert him that two Al Qaeda members who would become hijackers were in the country.

Cofer Black, the former head of counterterrorism at the CIA, said, "We didn't have enough people to do the job and we didn't have enough money--by magnitudes."

The commission members also heard their own investigators lay out a series of missteps at the FBI that Thomas Kean, the panel's chairman, called "an indictment of the FBI" that stretched "over a long period of time." But witnesses rejected calls for the creation of a new domestic intelligence agency, with Freeh saying that "you would, in effect, be establishing a secret police."

The possible creation of such an agency is expected to be a hot topic of debate when CIA Director George Tenet and current FBI Director Robert Mueller testify before the commission Wednesday.

In a prime time news conference Tuesday, President Bush said he would be open to any suggestion about structural reforms. "What I'm saying is, let the discussions begin, and I won't prejudge the conclusion," Bush said.

"I will encourage and foster these kinds of discussions, because one of the jobs of the president is to leave behind a legacy that will enable other presidents to better deal with the threat that we face."

Ashcroft dove straight into one of the debates that has played out before the commission--whether the Clinton White House authorized the assassination of bin Laden or merely said that he could be killed only in the event that an attempt to capture him turned into a gunfight.

`Web of requirements'

"Let me be clear," Ashcroft said, "my thorough review revealed no covert action program to kill bin Laden."

Instead, agents and operatives were "crippled by a snarled web of requirements, restrictions and regulations that prevented decisive action," Ashcroft testified, adding that even "if they could have penetrated bin Laden's training camp, they would have needed a battery of attorneys to approve the capture."

Ashcroft testified that little more than a month after assuming office he told National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that he wanted to "fix covert authorities to allow for decisive, lethal action" against bin Laden.

But under questioning, Ashcroft couldn't point to anything he did to pursue or enact such a plan after his meeting with Rice.

He said he believed Tenet was handling it as part of a broader review.

And two commissioners, Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste and Republican Fred Fielding, suggested that the panel recently received a previously undisclosed--and highly classified--document showing that Clinton may have authorized just such a strike.

Ashcroft said he was unaware of it. And despite what he called his own thorough review, Ashcroft acknowledged under questioning from Fielding that he couldn't recall what documents he was given, where they came from or whether his staff briefed him on the issue.

Pickard told commissioners that Ashcroft told him he did not want to hear about terrorist threats after just two briefings in the summer of 2001.

But when it was his turn, Ashcroft fired back, testifying, "I did never speak to him saying that I did not want to hear about terrorism."

Ashcroft, answering extensive questions in public for the first time about his actions before the attacks, also said: "I care greatly about the safety and security of the American people and was very interested in terrorism, and specifically interrogated him [Pickard] about threats to the American people."

Ashcroft's former deputy, Larry Thompson, told reporters after Tuesday's hearing that he did not recall Ashcroft cutting off discussions of terrorism during any of the briefings he attended with the men.

Ashcroft called disengaged

But Pickard wasn't the only one who portrayed Ashcroft as disengaged on terrorism.

Commission investigators said Dale Watson, the former head of counterterrorism at the FBI, told them "that he almost fell out of his chair" when he saw a May 10, 2001, memo from Ashcroft on Justice Department budget priorities "because it made no mention of counterterrorism."

The day before, Ashcroft had testified at a Capitol Hill budget hearing that terrorism was his top priority.

Investigators also said Ashcroft's budget for fiscal year 2003 "did not increase counterterrorism funding over its pending proposal for fiscal year 2002." They also said Ashcroft turned down an appeal from Pickard for more funding--an appeal that Ashcroft formally rejected on Sept. 10, 2001.

But Ashcroft testified that he requested 50 percent increases two years in a row for the FBI's troubled technology program.

When he wasn't on the defensive, Ashcroft was pointing at his predecessors.

He said the Clinton Justice Department never briefed him during or after the transition between the administrations on a counterterrorism plan written after successful efforts to detect and disrupt plots during the millennium celebration.

He saved his sharpest criticism for legal barriers that he said blocked intelligence and law-enforcement officials from sharing critical information. Although previous witnesses also have pointed to these problems, including Rice, Ashcroft blamed Clinton's Justice Department for creating "a wall" separating law enforcement and intelligence operations.

He called it "the single greatest structural cause" of Sept. 11.

Ashcroft also testified that "somebody did make these rules. Someone built this wall."

In dramatic fashion, he then declassified a 1994 memo written by Jamie Gorelick, a Democrat on the 10-member panel who was the deputy to Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno.

He said Gorelick's memo, written to offer guidance on a pending terrorism prosecution in New York, created the "basic architecture for the wall."

Gorelick did not question Ashcroft about his actions or his assertions. Commission staff members said she has formally removed herself from any discussions of actions that she was personally involved with.

But Slade Gorton, a panel member and former Republican senator, sharply questioned Ashcroft about what he did to take down such barriers before the attacks during his first seven months in office.

Gorton also cited an Aug. 6, 2001, memo in which Ashcroft's deputy left the same rules largely intact. Staff investigators said there were no substantial changes under Ashcroft until after the attacks.

And more and more stringent requirements also came from a special federal court regulating intelligence, investigators found.

`Totally dedicated people'

While witnesses were pointing fingers, Kean, the panel's chairman, was zeroing in on the countless missteps at the FBI that he said were identified by his investigators.

Although he said he knew there "are totally dedicated people" throughout the FBI, he also said, "The agency doesn't work very well, and hasn't worked very well for a long time."

Reno said she recognized problems at the FBI and tried to work through them, despite resistance at the agency, which has zealously guarded its independence.

She said she passed a stack of memos to Ashcroft on the issue during the transition. But she also testified, "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."

Freeh said the nation was not prepared to properly confront the threat until after the Sept. 11 attacks, and defended his former agency against virtually all of the commission's attacks.

Freeh said he believed there was one thing that could have prevented the assaults, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

"Sept. 11, had we had the right sources overseas or in the United States, could have been prevented," he said. "We did not have those sources. We did not have that telephone call. We didn't have that e-mail intercept that could've done the job."

Black, who headed the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, echoed Freeh and others by pointing to a lack of resources. He said the CIA only got new infusions of cash when it worked so hard that all funds were exhausted, or when it was too late.

"It's a constant track," he said. "Either you run out, or people die. When people die, you get more money."

- - -

9/11 commission: FBI `hobbled'

Two 9/11 commission staff reports released Tuesday describe the FBI's difficulties in focusing its resources on counterterrorism.

May 1998

FBI issues a five-year strategic plan making national and economic security, including counterterrorism, its top priority for the first time in FBI history.

1998-2001

FBI's counterterrorism spending remains constant after the bureau's counterterrorism budget tripled in the mid-1990s.

1999

Counterterrorism and counterintelligence divisions created to focus FBI on national security missions.

2000

External review of the FBI finds that twice as many agents are devoted to drug enforcement as to counterterrorism.

May 10, 2001

Justice Department identifies reducing gun violence and reducing drug trafficking as top priorities for the 2003 budget. The commission's staff reports that FBI counterterrorism head Dale Watson "almost fell out of his chair when he saw the memo because it made no mention of counterterrorism."

Summer 2001

According to one staff report, U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft

said "he did not want to hear this information anymore" when Thomas Pickard tried to brief him about terrorist threats. Ashcroft denied Pickard's account.

Sept. 10, 2001

Ashcroft rejects interim FBI director Thomas Pickard's appeal for further counterterrorism funding in the budget.

Source: 9/11 commission staff statements Nos. 9 and 10

Chicago Tribune


Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune




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