9/11 panel expected to grill FBI, Justice Dept. officials

Hardest questions await Ashcroft

Bush invites closer scrutiny of bureau

April 13, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - FBI and Justice Department officials will likely face tough questions beginning today from the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, centering on whether terrorism was an urgent priority in the summer of 2001 and whether the agencies missed signs pointing to the disaster.

As a succession of former and current officials face the 10-member panel, the most pointed issues will essentially boil down to one: What were they doing to prevent terrorists from striking inside the United States in the months leading up to Sept. 11, when threat intelligence spiked to new levels?

The hardest questions await Attorney General John Ashcroft. According to congressional audits, Ashcroft proposed cutting counterterrorism money earmarked for the FBI, which the Justice Department oversees, on Sept. 10, 2001. In addition, four months before the attacks, when Ashcroft issued a list of his department's top priorities, he did not include counterterrorism.

Commission members will also question Louis J. Freeh, who served as FBI director under President Bill Clinton and for the first four months of the Bush administration. In 2002, Freeh told the Senate and House intelligence committees' joint inquiry into the attacks that he had asked for more counterterrorism funding for years but was granted only minimal or no increases - a point in dispute with audit reports.

`Have been lock step'

In a statement yesterday, Robert S. Mueller III, the current FBI director, tried to focus attention away from the period before the attacks, to illustrate how much the bureau has changed its priorities since then.

"Since I became director of the FBI in September 2001," Mueller said, "the Department of Justice and the attorney general have provided substantial support to FBI budget requests, including increases for our counterterrorism needs. Attorney General Ashcroft and I have been lock step in ensuring that FBI resources are sufficient to prevent terrorism and fight crime."

Yesterday, though, President Bush invited closer scrutiny of the bureau and its conduct before the attacks by pointing out that he was informed in the summer of 2001 that the FBI was investigating possible terrorist activity.

Referring to a highly sensitive intelligence briefing he received on Aug. 6, 2001, which was released publicly over the weekend, the president said the briefing "included the fact that the FBI was conducting field investigations, which comforted me. You see, it meant the FBI was doing its job, the FBI was running down any lead."

The briefing warned that al-Qaida was operating inside the United States and possibly making "preparations for hijackings and other types of attacks." It said the FBI had 70 field investigations related to Osama bin Laden under way.

"And I will tell you this," Bush said, "that had they found something, I'm confident they would have reported back to me. That's the way the system works."

Authority at stake

At stake, among other things, is whether the FBI will remain in charge of investigating terrorism, or whether the commission will recommend stripping the bureau of that authority in favor of transferring it to a new domestic intelligence agency.

Mueller, who took over as director one week before the attacks, will try to convince the commissioners when he testifies tomorrow that the bureau has succeeded in fixing itself over the past two years.

But today, Freeh is expected to be asked not only why the bureau failed to connect an extensive list of missed cues that pointed to a growing terrorist threat, but also why the FBI did not coordinate what the presidential briefing described as the 70 "bin Laden related" investigations under way around the country.

In an op-ed article yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, Freeh asserted that counterterrorism and al-Qaida were a top priority for him as FBI director, and he said the agency "relentlessly did its job of pursuing terrorists."

He blamed the FBI's counterterrorism funding, which he said was "finite and insufficient," for any failures in that effort. Freeh made a similar point to the joint inquiry when he testified in October 2002.

"The 2000, 2001 and 2002 pre-September 11 budgets fell far short of the counterterrorism resources we knew were necessary to do the best job," he testified.

"For fiscal years 2000, 2001 and 2002 FBI counterterrorism budgets, I asked for a total of 1,895 special agents, analysts, linguists and others. The final, enacted allocation we received was 76 people, over those three years," he said.

Apparent discrepancies

But three independent reports suggest otherwise. For example, at the request of Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican and frequent FBI critic, the Congressional Research Service studied the issue and reported Friday that between 1994 and 2001, Congress granted the FBI 99 percent of the funding it had asked for, except in 2000, when it granted 94 percent.

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