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Counter terrorism was backwater for fbi { April 14 2004 }

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Counter-Terrorism Was a 'Backwater'

April 14, 2004

Members of the Commission, with your help, your staff has developed initial findings regarding law enforcement and intelligence collection in the United States prior to the 9/11 attacks. These findings may help frame some of the issues to be discussed during this hearing and inform the development of your judgments and recommendations.

This statement reflects the results of our work so far. We remain ready to revise our understanding of this topic as our investigation progresses….

The FBI played the lead role in the government's domestic strategy before Sept. 11. In the 1990s, the FBI's counter-terrorism efforts against international terrorist organizations included both intelligence and criminal investigations. Consistent with its traditional law enforcement approach, most of the FBI's energy during this period was devoted to after-the-fact investigations of major terrorist attacks in order to develop criminal cases.

Investigating these attacks always required an enormous amount of resources. As most of these attacks occurred overseas, many of the FBI's top terrorism investigators were deployed abroad for long periods of time. New York was the "Office of Origin" for the Al Qaeda program and consequently where most of the FBI's institutional knowledge on Al Qaeda resided….

The FBI took a traditional law enforcement approach to counter-terrorism. Its agents were trained to build cases. Its management was deliberately decentralized to empower the individual field offices and agents on the street.

The bureau rewarded agents based on statistics reflecting arrests, indictments and prosecutions. As a result, fields such as counter-terrorism and counterintelligence, where investigations generally result in fewer prosecutions, were viewed as backwaters.

Agents developed information in support of their own cases, not as part of a broader, more strategic effort. Given the poor state of the FBI's information systems, field agents usually did not know what investigations agents in their own office, let alone in other field offices, were working on. Nor did analysts have easy access to this information. As a result, it was almost impossible to develop an understanding of the threat from a particular international terrorist group….


Former FBI officials told us that prior to 9/11, there was not sufficient national commitment or political will to dedicate the necessary resources to counter-terrorism. Specifically, they believed that neither Congress nor the Office of Management and Budget fully understood the FBI's counter-terrorism resource needs. Nor did the FBI receive all it requested from the Department of Justice, under Atty.Gen. Janet Reno.

Reno told us that the bureau never seemed to have sufficient resources given the broad scope of its responsibilities. She said in light of the appropriations FBI received, it needed to prioritize and put counter-terrorism first. She also said that Director [Louis J.] Freeh seemed unwilling to shift resources to terrorism from other areas such as violent crime. Finally, even though the number of agents devoted to counter-terrorism was limited, they were not always fully utilized in the field offices. We learned … that prior to 9/11, field agents often were diverted from counter-terrorism or other intelligence work in order to cover … criminal cases….


Certain provisions of federal law had been interpreted to limit communication between agents conducting intelligence investigations and the criminal prosecution units of the Department of Justice. This was done so that the broad powers for gathering intelligence would not be seized upon by prosecutors trying to make a criminal case. The separation of intelligence from criminal investigations became known as the "wall." New procedures issued by Reno in 1995 required the FBI to notify prosecutors when "facts and circumstances are developed" in a foreign intelligence or foreign counterintelligence investigation that "reasonably indicate a significant federal crime has been, is being, or may be committed." The procedures, however, prohibited the prosecutors from "directing or controlling" the intelligence investigation.


The FBI's new counter-terrorism strategy was not a focus of the Justice Department in 2001. Atty. Gen. [John] Ashcroft told us that upon his arrival at the department, he faced … challenges that signaled the need for reform at the FBI. He mentioned the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents, the Wen Ho Lee investigation, FBI agent Robert Hanssen's espionage, the late discovery of FBI documents related to the Timothy McVeigh case, and public disclosures about lost laptops and firearms.

The new Bush administration proposed an 8% increase in overall FBI funding for fiscal year 2002. This included the largest proposed percentage increase in the FBI's counter-terrorism program since fiscal year 1997. On May 9, 2001, Ashcroft testified at a hearing on U.S. federal efforts to combat terrorism. He testified that the Justice Department had no higher priority than to protect citizens from terrorist attacks.


Intelligence collection efforts should begin with a strategy to comprehend what is being collected, identify the gaps, and push efforts toward meeting requirements identified by strategic analysis. Prior to 9/11 the FBI did not have a process … to effectively manage its intelligence collection efforts. It did not identify intelligence gaps.

Collection of useful intelligence from human sources was limited. By the mid-1990s senior FBI managers became concerned that the bureau's statistically driven performance system had resulted in a roster of mediocre sources. The FBI did not have a formal mechanism for validating source reporting, nor did it have a system for adequately tracking and sharing such reporting, either internally or externally.

… the FBI did not dedicate sufficient resources to the surveillance or translation needs of counter-terrorism agents.


Prior to 9/11, the FBI did not have an … ability to know what it knew. In other words, the FBI did not have an effective mechanism for capturing or sharing its institutional knowledge. FBI agents did create records of interviews and other investigative efforts, but there were no reports officers to condense the information into meaningful intelligence that could be retrieved and disseminated.

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 FBI did not have an effective system for storing, searching, or retrieving information of intelligence value contained in its investigative files.


• From the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, FBI and Department of Justice leadership in Washington and New York became increasingly concerned about the terrorist threat from Islamic extremists to U.S. interests both at home and abroad.

• Throughout the 1990s, the FBI's counter-terrorism efforts against international terrorist organizations included both intelligence and criminal investigations.

• The FBI attempted several reform efforts aimed at strengthening its ability to prevent such attacks, but these reform efforts failed to effect change organizationwide.

• On Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI was limited in several areas critical to an effective, preventive counter-terrorism strategy. Those working counter-terrorism matters did so despite 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.


Associated Press provided these excerpts from a staff report by the 9/11 commission assessing counter-terrorism and intelligence collection in the U.S. before Sept. 11, 2001. The report was released Tuesday. For the complete text, visit .

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