9/11 Commission Agencies face heat as long inaction cited

Posted: April 14, 2004

WASHINGTON — The FBI and the Justice Department came under intense criticism from the independent Sept. 11 commission yesterday for failing to respond in the months and years before the attacks to increasing signs that al-Qaeda posed a dire domestic threat.

The failures, which spanned both the Clinton and current Bush administrations, included too little money for counterterrorism units, poorly qualified FBI agents, and bureaucratic turf wars that prevented intelligence and law-enforcement agencies from following leads that might have averted the attacks, the commission said.

"On Sept. 11 we were totally beaten; all of our systems failed," Fred F. Fielding, a Republican commission member, said at a daylong hearing. "We had 19 people, some of whom were known to be terrorists by the FBI, who got into this country and turned four aircraft into missiles. They had to have 100 percent success to do this, and they did."

Attorney General John Ashcroft, one of several high-profile federal intelligence and law-enforcement officials who testified yesterday, sought to counter contentions that he was slow to respond to the terror threat. He said that Bill Clinton's administration hampered the war on terror with legal roadblocks and meager funding.

Ashcroft also alleged that the Clinton administration intended only to capture Osama bin Laden, not kill him, an approach that he said hampered efforts to quash al-Qaeda.

Ashcroft placed some of the blame on a Democratic member of the 9/11 commission, Jamie Gorelick, a deputy attorney general during the Clinton years, who he said issued guidelines while in the Justice Department that hampered information-sharing between intelligence and law-enforcement agents.

"When they most needed clear, understandable guidance, our agents and operatives were given the language of lawyers," Ashcroft testified. "Even if they could have penetrated bin Laden's training camps, they would have needed a battery of lawyers to approve the capture."

Two panel members, Fielding and Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste, contradicted Ashcroft's testimony on that point, saying their investigation had obtained a document suggesting that the Clinton administration fully intended to kill bin Laden.

But differing accounts underscored a fundamental dispute emerging from the probe. Bush administration officials - including CIA Director George J. Tenet, who also served under Clinton - have testified that the Clinton administration put up legal roadblocks to killing or capturing bin Laden. Clinton officials have testified that they gave clear instructions to kill bin Laden.

The commission staff, in preliminary reports, provided new information about alerts in the spring and summer of 2001 that bin Laden was planning a devastating attack. But at the time, most intelligence and law-enforcement officials believed it was aimed at a target overseas.

U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies had even considered that terrorists might use hijacked airliners as weapons, and included that information in planning security for major events, Ben-Veniste disclosed during the hearing.

During a 2000 meeting of heads of states in Genoa, Italy, authorities established a no-fly zone over that city in response to those concerns.

Other witnesses argued yesterday that their resources were stretched far too thin to crack the al-Qaeda plot.

"Before this hearing I contacted former colleagues, and [they] said the same thing: We are profoundly sorry; we did all we could," said the former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center, J. Cofer Black, his voice raised. "We did our best. They said, 'Make them understand how few we were.' The shortage of money and people seriously hurt our operations and analysis. We did the best we could under the law, with the resources that were provided."

In preliminary reports, the commission staff said the FBI and CIA missed several opportunities to disrupt the Sept. 11 plot when they failed to adequately follow up on information that al-Qaeda plotters were in the United States.

Two of those plotters, Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, were known in 2001 to have been in the United States, but the CIA and the FBI, which had separately investigated them, failed to share information in a way that might have led to their apprehension.

The picture that emerged from seven hours of testimony yesterday was one of top law-enforcement officials torn between demands by Congress and the public to confront more traditional forms of violent crime and the growing view that al-Qaeda terrorism posed a huge threat.

In a statement issued before the hearing, the commission staff said the FBI and the Justice Department made several efforts during the 1990s and in the period just before the Sept. 11 attacks to intensify counterterrorism efforts. But budget restrictions imposed by Congress and internal bureaucratic turf battles hindered those efforts, the staff said.

The staff of the 10-member commission, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, said the FBI's outdated information system prevented agents from learning about other investigations that might be related to their work.

In addition, FBI agents cited a major hindrance: legal restrictions before Sept. 11 that barred intelligence-gathering units from sharing information with agents focused on domestic law-enforcement cases.

The restrictions date from the 1970s, when Congress enacted laws aimed at preventing the CIA and FBI from using their intelligence units for widespread spying on U.S. citizens. However, the post-Sept. 11 Patriot Act has made the sharing of such information easier, law-enforcement officials say.

Even after attacks on U.S. facilities overseas in the mid-1990s, the commission staff said, FBI spending on counterterrorism remained unchanged.

Who precisely was most responsible for the lack of resources was the subject of some debate.

According to one of the staff statements released yesterday, former Attorney General Janet Reno said former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh seemed unwilling to shift resources away from violent crime and drug enforcement to counterterrorism. Both were also witnesses yesterday.

Freeh maintained that Congress had restricted his budget, stipulating in appropriations bills how he had to deploy his staff.

"Sept. 11, had we had the right resources overseas, could have been prevented," Freeh said.

Both the FBI and the Justice Department, according to commission staff, had a long history of sending conflicting signals.

Counterterrorism spending under Freeh was flat from 1998 to 2001, even though the FBI regularly announced new programs to intensify its efforts to track down terrorists. On Sept. 11, 2001, only 6 percent, or 1,300, of all agents worked on counterterrorism, the commission staff said.

Ashcroft testified to Congress on May 9, 2001, that protecting Americans from terrorists was his highest priority.

The next day, when the Justice Department issued guidance for the succeeding year's budget, it mentioned battling narcotics and gun violence as top priorities. Counterterrorism, the staff report said, was not mentioned.

The commission hearing will resume this morning.

Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 202-383-6024 or cmondics@krwashington.com.

Today's Commission Witnesses

The Sept. 11 commission reconvenes at 9 a.m. for a second day of its public hearing on the performance of law enforcement and the intelligence community.

Scheduled witnesses, in order of their testimony, are:

* George J. Tenet, CIA director.

* John O. Brennan, director, federal Terrorist Threat Integration Center.

* Lt. Gen. Patrick M. Hughes, assistant Homeland Security secretary for information analysis.

* John S. Pistole, executive assistant FBI director for counterterrorism and counterintelligence.

* James L. Pavitt, deputy CIA director of operations.

* Robert S. Mueller, FBI director.

* Maureen Baginski, executive assistant FBI director for intelligence.

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