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Ashcroft and 9/11

 
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Lilli
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 14, 2004 3:28 am    Post subject: Ashcroft and 9/11 Reply with quote

Former Attorney General Janet Reno also spoke of a lack of resources but said the FBI under Freeh did a poor job keeping track of the information its agents gathered.

"The FBI didn't know what it had," she said. "The right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing."

Ashcroft, her successor and the last witness at Tuesday's hearing, said a key reason for the failures was a legal restriction, known as "the wall," that prevented sharing of FBI intelligence information with criminal investigators. Ashcroft blamed Reno for issuing "draconian" guidelines in 1995 that made such sharing even more difficult.

"The simple fact of Sept. 11 is this: 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 buttressed his contentions by releasing a declassified memo from former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick now a member of the Sept. 11 commission containing instructions that "more clearly separate" counterintelligence from criminal investigations.


Former acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard, who headed the bureau just before the attacks, told the panel Ashcroft did not seem to consider terrorism a priority. He said that after he began briefing Ashcroft twice a week on the threats, Ashcroft told Pickard "he did not want to hear this information any more."

Ashcroft then hired two times more drug officers then he did terrorist officers.

Ashcroft denied saying that and added that he had "interrogated" Pickard in their meetings about any possible terror threats facing the United States.

"I did never say to him that I did not want to hear about terrorism," Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft also told the panel that on May 7, 2001, he advised National security adviser Condoleezza Rice that the Bush administration should abandon its previous policy of trying to capture Osama bin Laden. "We should find and kill bin Laden," Ashcroft said he told her.

The hearing was in the same Senate hearing room where Rice testified last week and former counterterrorism aide Richard Clarke a few weeks before that. This time there were empty seats and not nearly as much electricity as those appearances.

The commission reports issued at the start of the two-day hearing noted some FBI successes in cracking earlier terrorist cases. But the FBI was unable to stop the 19 hijackers from using commercial airliners as weapons, killing some 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

"All our systems failed," said commission member Fred Fielding. "We were totally beaten on Sept. 11."

The inability of the FBI to link Moussaoui to al-Qaida was a prime example, the commission concluded in revealing previously unreported details about the investigation of the terrorism suspect.

Moussaoui was taken into custody Aug. 16, 2001, on immigration charges while trying to learn to fly a Boeing 747 at a flight school in Minnesota. A dispute between FBI agents in the field and supervisors meant no warrant was quickly obtained to search his computer, the commission said.

It wasn't until after the attacks that the FBI learned that an imprisoned terrorist convicted Los Angeles airport bomb plotter Ahmed Ressam had told agents he recognized Moussaoui from Afghan training camps run by al-Qaida.

Also, the commission said the FBI asked the British for help in identifying Moussaoui in late August, but the British did not handle the request as a priority. It wasn't until Sept. 13 that London provided intelligence about Moussaoui's attendance at the Afghan camps.

"A maximum U.S. effort to investigate Moussaoui could conceivably have unearthed his connections" to the hijackers and their financiers through an al-Qaida cell in Hamburg, Germany, the commission statement said.

"The publicity about the threat also might have disrupted the plot," it concluded. "But this would have been a race against time."

Moussaoui is awaiting trial on charges of conspiracy related to the Sept. 11 plot. A federal appeals court is mulling whether Moussaoui should have access to terrorist confederates in U.S. custody that he says can vouch for his innocence.

Another missed opportunity occurred because of a dispute over sharing of intelligence information with FBI criminal investigators regarding Khalid al-Mihdhar, one of the 19 hijackers, the commission said. The search finally was assigned in August to an FBI agent working his first counterterrorism lead, who on Sept. 11 sent a memo to the FBI office in Los Angeles about Mihdar.

The missed chances came at the end of a summer of heightened intelligence reports about bin Laden's determination to strike the United States. These intelligence reports carried such headlines as "Bin Laden planning multiple operations" and "Bin Laden threats are real."

CIA Director George Tenet, who is to testify before the commission Wednesday, told the panel in private that in July 2001 "the system was blinking red" and that "it could not get any worse," according to the commission statement.

"None of this, unfortunately, specified method, time or place," J. Cofer Black, former director of the CIA counterterrorism center, testified Tuesday. "Where we had clues, it looked like planning was under way for an attack in the Middle East or Europe."

Still, FBI offices on April 13, 2001, were sent an alert from headquarters urging stepped-up surveillance and use of informants to uncover "current operational activities related to Sunni (Islamic) extremism."

There were similar alerts to the FBI's 56 field offices in June and July, and Pickard told the commission he conducted July 19 conference calls with top officials in the field offices about the heightened threats.

Despite that, the commission found many FBI agents in field offices could not recall any such increased threat and some, including the Washington office, took no special steps or actions in response.

"I don't understand why they didn't hear it," Pickard testified.

A recently declassified Aug. 6, 2001, intelligence memo given to President Bush summarized the al-Qaida threat and cited 70 FBI field investigations under way. Pickard testified that the number was "somewhat inaccurate" he said the actual number was classified and that the cases involved individuals linked to al-Qaida around the country. It turned out none was involved in the Sept. 11 plot.
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