Ashcroft's Efforts on Terrorism Criticized
Ex-FBI Official Doubted Priorities
By Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 14, 2004; Page A01
The former acting director of the FBI testified yesterday that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft rejected any further briefings on terrorist threats in the weeks before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and did not view combating al Qaeda as "a top item on his agenda."
Thomas J. Pickard, who ran the FBI for several months before the attacks, also told the commission investigating the terrorist strikes that Ashcroft rejected a plea that summer for an extra $58 million to combat al Qaeda. Pickard testified that he received the formal denial on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the attacks.
The allegations came during another day of dramatic and often tense testimony before the panel. They prompted an aggressive defense from Ashcroft, who denied barring Pickard from offering him threat reports and said he was highly focused on the dangers posed by terrorists that summer.
Ashcroft sought to blame the Clinton administration for many of the shortcomings in counterterrorism strategies before the attacks, taking the unusual step of publicly citing the work of a Democratic member of the commission, Jamie S. Gorelick, who served as a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. Ashcroft announced the declassification and release of a 1995 memo she wrote that outlined legal rules on sharing intelligence information, characterizing the guidelines as "the single greatest structural cause for the September 11th problem."
"We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies," Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft's pointed remarks capped a day of finger-pointing by current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials, who defended their own roles in assessing and fighting the al Qaeda threat while generally criticizing the missteps of others.
The staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as the panel is known, also released two new reports that broadly condemned the FBI and the CIA for missing clues that might have revealed the workings of the Sept. 11 plot. The reports repeated a now familiar list of lost opportunities in 2001 to follow leads that might have helped them unravel the impending assault, and disclosed new details about financial and policy failures contributing to the problems.
Commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean called one of the reports "an indictment of the FBI over a long period of time."
In a news conference last night, President Bush defended his administration's counterterrorism efforts before the attacks, saying that there was no evidence that such a plot was in the works and that he was "sick when I think about the death that took place on that day." He also supported Ashcroft's complaints about legal restrictions before the hijackings.
"We weren't on a war footing," Bush said. "The country was not on a war footing, and yet the enemy was at war with us."
Disclosures at yesterday's commission hearing included:
• The panel last week obtained a copy of a previously unknown secret order that may clarify a long-raging debate over whether the CIA had the authority to assassinate Osama bin Laden during the Clinton administration, or whether it was required to attempt to capture him. Commissioners were vague on details, citing secrecy rules, but indicated that the document rebutted assertions by Ashcroft and others that no clear kill order existed.
• One day after telling the Senate that combating terrorist attacks was his highest priority, Ashcroft issued a memo on May 10, 2001, outlining the Justice Department's strategic goals that contained no mention of counterterrorism. Dale Watson, the FBI's terrorism chief at the time, told the commission staff that he "almost fell out of his chair" when he read it.
Ashcroft said he based his memo on a strategic plan issued by former attorney general Janet Reno, although he acknowledged that the original included several goals relating to terrorism.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company