Ashcroft's Efforts on Terrorism Criticized
• The FBI's computers were woefully outdated, its counterterrorism training was abysmal and the bureau had a poor grasp of al Qaeda's presence in the United States, the commission reports said. White House officials, including counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke, complained about the "FBI's unwillingness or inability to share information," and an internal review found that "66 percent of the bureau's analysts were not qualified to perform analytic duties."
The FBI hopes to hold on to its counterterrorism mandate even as Bush indicated Monday that he is considering a revamping of U.S. intelligence services.
• Ashcroft said he never saw a copy of an Aug. 6, 2001, memo given to Bush that warned, "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US," which was declassified Saturday. He also testified that he did not recall seeing a similar, less restricted summary that was widely distributed the next day with the title: "Terrorism: Bin Laden Determined to Strike In The United States."
• The same Aug. 6 briefing document apparently overstated the FBI's capabilities by citing "70 full field investigations" throughout the United States that the FBI considered related to bin Laden. Pickard said that number was high and would have referred to individuals rather than whole cases; he provided details on only 27.
"I expect information that comes to my desk to be real and valid," Bush said at last night's news conference, reacting to the uncertainty over the number of field investigations contained in the August memo. " . . . I can't make good decisions unless I get valid information."
Commission officials also said yesterday that the CIA had granted them access late Monday to the CIA analyst who wrote the Aug. 6 document. Kean and other members said previously that the administration had refused to allow the commission to question the analyst.
As the hearing began, former FBI director Louis J. Freeh sharply criticized Congress and, less directly, the Clinton administration for not giving the FBI resources it requested for counterterrorism.
"We weren't fighting a real war," Freeh said. "We hadn't declared war on these enemies. . . . We were using grand jury subpoenas and arrest warrants to fight an enemy that was using missiles and suicide boats to attack our warships."
But in the afternoon, J. Cofer Black, former head of the CIA's counterterrorism center, told the commission: "I've heard some people say this country wasn't at war. I want to tell you, Mr. Chairman, the Counterterrorism Center was at war, we conducted ourselves at war." Reno offered complaints about the FBI. "When I came into office, I learned that the FBI didn't know what it had," Reno testified. "We found stuff in files here that the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing."
But the most heated questioning, and perhaps the most dramatic testimony, centered on separate appearances by Pickard -- a career FBI agent and accountant who joked about his inability to type -- and Ashcroft, the former Republican senator and Missouri governor who has not shied from defending himself from critics.
Pickard said that just hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, he learned about two of the three most important clues ignored by the FBI that year. They were a July 10 memo from a Phoenix FBI agent that warned that al Qaeda followers might be seeking aviation training in the United States, and the Aug. 15 apprehension of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national who had aroused suspicion while seeking flight training in Minnesota.
A day or two later, Pickard said, he learned that the FBI had been searching since late August for Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, two of the hijackers on the plane that struck the Pentagon.
"It's a frightening thought to think that that could have been on my desk on September 10th, and would I have done something differently or not?" Pickard said. ". . . It keeps me up at night, thinking: If I had that information, would I have had the intuitiveness to recognize, to go to the president, to do something different?"
During his testimony, Pickard confirmed the commission's report that after he briefed Ashcroft twice on terrorist threats during the summer of 2001, "the attorney general told him he did not want to hear this information anymore," according to the findings. Pickard indicated concern about the May 10, 2001, memo that included no counterterrorism strategies, and recounted his plea for more funds that summer after being disappointed by initial 2003 budget proposals.
Pickard said that while counterterrorism was a "top tier" item for the FBI, "I did not see that as a top item on his agenda."
Ashcroft strongly denied Pickard's version of his briefing instructions, and his former deputy and chief of staff have no recollection of that exchange, according to the staff report.
Ashcroft also laid out an aggressive defense of his counterterrorism record before the attacks. He argued that a set of classified 1995 guidelines provided a foundation for the "wall separating the criminal and intelligence investigations" that had "debilitating impacts" on terrorism investigations by restricting the FBI from mixing intelligence and criminal investigations.
Ashcroft said that he had the guidelines declassified and that "full disclosure" required him to indicate they had been drafted by Gorelick. Gorelick did not address the criticism in her questioning and declined to comment afterward.
Commissioner Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington, asked Ashcroft why he had not changed those guidelines on his own, noting that Ashcroft's deputy wrote in an Aug. 6, 2001, memorandum that "the 1995 procedures remain in effect today." Ashcroft said the 2001 order made some improvements.
Ashcroft also said that one of the first things he did after becoming attorney general was to conduct a "thorough review" of the authorities that the Clinton administration had given the CIA to take covert action against bin Laden. His review showed, he testified, that there was "no covert action program to kill bin Laden."
But several commissioners disagreed. They cited the 1998 "memorandum of notification" signed by Clinton, which was found among the documents that the Bush White House originally refused to turn over to the commission.
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