Ashcroft faults Clinton in 9/11 failures

Justice official defends Bush anti-terror efforts

Reports are `indictment of FBI'

April 14, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft heatedly rejected assertions yesterday that he failed to make counterterrorism a priority or to improve a woefully inadequate FBI before the Sept. 11 attacks, declaring instead that the Clinton administration was to blame for any failures.

Testifying before the 10-member bipartisan commission investigating the terrorist attacks, Ashcroft also said the Clinton-era Justice Department hampered the efforts of FBI agents to share information about threats to the country.

"We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies," Ashcroft said. "Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions and starved for basic information technology."

Ashcroft's testimony capped a day of developments that, taken as a whole, amounted to a scathing condemnation of the FBI before and during the Bush administration. According to two reports the panel released yesterday, the FBI under Presidents Clinton and Bush failed to adopt bureau-wide changes before Sept. 11 that could have helped its counterterrorism efforts and was rendered almost useless by antiquated computers and legal restrictions.

The staff reports asserted that a more agile bureau, working with the CIA, might have been able to detect clues leading to the hijackers and possibly have uncovered the terrorist plot.

The chairman of the commission, Thomas H. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, said the reports amounted to "an indictment of the FBI."

The daylong testimony by Justice Department, FBI and CIA officials, past and present, also served to highlight the eagerness of witnesses and some commissioners to divide along party lines, with some accusing members of the opposing party of bearing responsibility for pre-9/11 intelligence failures.

In one of the more pointed examples of blame-shifting, Thomas J. Pickard, who served in the FBI during the Clinton administration and briefly as the bureau's acting director under Bush, told the panel that he briefed Ashcroft on the terrorist threat twice in the summer of 2001 when threat reporting was at its peak. After the second briefing, Pickard testified, Ashcroft told him he "did not want to hear this information anymore."

Ashcroft's denial

Later, Ashcroft denied Pickard's statement, testifying: "I did never say to him that I did not want to hear about terrorism."

The attorney general said he repeatedly "interrogated" Pickard about information and progress on terrorism.

Ashcroft also sought to explain why, according to a staff report, he told Congress on May 9, 2001, that the Justice Department had no higher priority than protecting against a terrorist attack - only to issue a budget memo a day later that designated violence and drugs as the department's top priorities.

That budget memo, staff investigators said, made no mention of counterterrorism.

Ashcroft countered that the department's budget on Sept. 11, 2001, had been set by the Clinton administration and that he had believed on taking office that he must increase the FBI's counterterrorism budget and overhaul its computers.

"I wrote later to [congressional leaders] a confirming letter saying that we had no higher priority," the attorney general said. "I cared greatly about the safety and security of the American people and was very interested in terrorism ... and domestic threats in particular."

Ashcroft took a swipe at a Democratic member of the panel, Jamie S. Gorelick, who served as deputy attorney general under Janet Reno from 1994 to 1997. Ashcroft produced a previously classified memo written by Gorelick that he described as instructing FBI agents to maintain a "wall" between intelligence data and crime information.

"Although you understand the debilitating impact of the wall, I cannot imagine that the commission knew about this memorandum," Ashcroft said sternly. "Full disclosure compels me to inform you that its author is a member of this commission."

Gorelick did not respond.

Ashcroft took issue with testimony at previous hearings that the Clinton administration had approved the assassination of Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network. Ashcroft said he found no such order in place when he took over the Justice Department.

FBI faulted

Commission members pressed former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who led the bureau for eight years under Clinton and for about four months under Bush, to explain why, as the staff reports found, most field offices were unaware of the increased threat levels in the summer before the attacks.

The report found that even the Washington field office, which is six blocks from bureau headquarters, "was neither aware of an increased threat, nor did [the field office] take any special steps or actions."

Investigators also criticized the bureau for failing to ensure that pertinent information on terrorism flowed up the chain of officials as well as down.

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