Ashcroft denies taking little interest in terrorism
Commission: FBI failed to connect warnings before attacks
Ashcroft: "We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies."
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Stay with CNN for ongoing reports on reaction to President Bush's news conference -- and for updates on the testimony scheduled by the 9/11 commission for Wednesday's sessions in Washington, featuring CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
|9/11 TESTIMONY SCHEDULE|
Wednesday, April 14:George Tenet, 9:30 a.m. ET
Robert Mueller, 2:30 p.m. ET
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Current and former counterterrorism officials offer a strong defense of their actions before the 9/11 commission.
John Ashcroft denied accusations that he wasn't interested in hearing about terrorist threats before 9/11.
Janet Reno tells the 9/11 panel the FBI 'didn't know what it had.'
Louis Freeh tells the panel that investigating terrorists was the best his agency could do.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft defended himself Tuesday against accusations that he showed little interest in terrorist threats before the attacks of September 11, 2001, and he blamed the Clinton administration for hobbling antiterrorism efforts.
The FBI, meanwhile, came in for tough criticism from the commission investigating the attacks, faulted in a staff report for not piecing together "connections" about terrorist activity.
The day's testimony featured key figures from the Bush and Clinton administrations, who alternately blamed inadequate resources, tight budgets, unreasonable restrictions and disinterested superiors for why antiterrorism efforts were not stronger before September 11. (Gallery: Quotes from the testimony)
Ashcroft appeared to criticize the Clinton administration early on in his testimony.
"We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies," he said. "Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions and starved for basic information technology."
Ashcroft criticized his predecessors at the Justice Department, saying a 1995 memorandum by then-Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick -- now a member of the commission -- hamstrung the FBI beyond what the law required.
But former acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard said Ashcroft dismissed warnings of terrorist threats that summer and rejected appeals for additional counterterrorism funds.
Pickard said that "in late June and through July, he met with Attorney General Ashcroft once a week," the report says. "He told us that though he initially briefed the attorney general regarding these threats, after two such briefings the attorney general told him he did not want to hear this information anymore."
Ashcroft disputed Pickard's account when he appeared before the commission, saying he met with him on more than two occasions.
"Secondly, I did never speak to him saying that I did not want to hear about terrorism," Ashcroft said.
Pickard also said that though President Bush had been warned on August 6, 2001, in an intelligence memo that al Qaeda was "determined" to strike U.S. targets, neither Bush nor Ashcroft asked to meet with him between then and the attacks.
But Pickard said he was unsure whether "pulsing" the FBI -- shaking up field offices to produce information about the threat -- would have turned up those items in time to stop the plot.
A staff report by the 9/11 commission says the agency failed to connect terrorism warnings in 2001 with the presence of al Qaeda operatives in the United States and failed to locate two of the hijackers in the weeks before the attacks of September 11, 2001.
"Despite recognition by the FBI of the growing terrorist threat, it was still hobbled by significant deficiencies," the commission concluded in staff reports.
But former FBI Director Louis Freeh said the agency's request for more agents and analysts were not fulfilled before 9/11 and he said the country was not on a "war footing" before the attacks.
"We were using grand jury subpoenas and arrest warrants to fight an enemy that was using suicide boats to attack our warships," he said, referring to the attack on the Cole. The fight against terrorism at that time, he said, was not "a real war."
The commission also heard from J. Cofer Black, the former head of the CIA's counterterrorism center, who said that intelligence reports in the summer of 2001 indicated a "massive" terrorist strike was in the works.
"None of this, unfortunately, specified method, time or place. Where we had clues, it looked like planning was under way for an attack in the Middle East or Europe," he said.
Black said he and his colleagues at the time "are profoundly sorry. We did all we could. We did our best." But he said the agency faced a shortage of money and staff that "seriously hurt our operations and analysis."
The commission reported Tuesday that an effort to locate eventual 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar in late August 2001 failed, hampered by disputes over how widely agents could share information and a failure of coordination.
Both men -- who flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon -- had been identified as attending a meeting of terrorist suspects in Malaysia. They could have been held on immigration charges or as material witnesses in the 2000 bombing of the destroyer USS Cole, the report found.
"Investigation or interrogation of these individuals, and their travel and financial activities, also may have yielded evidence of connections to other participants in the 9/11 plot," the commission concluded. "In any case, the opportunity did not arise.
"Notably, the lead did not draw any connections between the threat reporting that had been coming in for months and the presence of two possible al Qaeda operatives in the United States," the report continued. "Moreover, there is no evidence that the issue was substantively discussed at any level above deputy chief of a section within the Counterterrorism Division at FBI headquarters."
Former FBI Director Louis Freeh says the country was not on a "war footing" before September 11, 2001.
But Pickard testified that restrictions within the bureau on sharing intelligence with criminal investigators "hampered greatly" efforts to penetrate al Qaeda cells. He said the hijackers were picked because their background would raise no red flags among U.S. law enforcement.
"These 19 acted flawlessly in their planning and execution," he said. "They successfully exploited every weakness, from our borders to our cockpit doors."
In addition, FBI counterterrorism chief Dale Watson "told us that he almost fell out of his chair" when Ashcroft outlined his budget priorities in May 2001, because the list made no mention of counterterrorism, the commission reported earlier Tuesday,
"The attorney general on May 10 issued budget guidance for us, and I did not see that as a top item on the agenda," Pickard said.
The Justice Department proposal did not include an increase in counterterrorism funding over its pending proposal for fiscal year 2002, and Pickard said Ashcroft rejected his appeal for additional counterterrorism funds on Sept. 10 -- a day before the al Qaeda attacks.
But Ashcroft said the Justice Department's budget requests actually sought more money for counterterrorism.
Earlier, Ashcroft's predecessor, Janet Reno, testified that she called on the FBI to improve its ability to share information, both internally and with other agencies. She said she did not know of any legal reason the FBI could not share with other agencies information it had about Almihdhar and Alhazmi.
Reno told the commission that she felt a "certain amount of frustration" in early 2000 in trying to improve the FBI's information-sharing capabilities.
Both Reno and Freeh said the agency had regular contact with U.S. intelligence services and held frequent meetings with former President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel Berger.
Reno said she instituted the regular meetings because of complaints that information was not being shared quickly and efficiently. And Freeh said he recalled "extremely close cooperation" between his agency and the CIA in terrorist investigations.