9/11 Panel Is Said to Offer Harsh Review of Ashcroft
New York TimesApril 13, 2004
WASHINGTON, April 12 - Draft reports by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks portray Attorney General John Ashcroft as largely uninterested in counterterrorism issues before Sept. 11 despite intelligence warnings that summer that Al Qaeda was planning a large, perhaps catastrophic, terrorist attack, panel officials and others with access to the reports have said.
They said the draft reports, which are expected to be completed and made public during two days of hearings by the commission this week, show that F.B.I. officials were alarmed throughout 2001 by what they perceived as Mr. Ashcroft's lack of interest in terrorism issues and his decision in August 2001 to reject the bureau's request for a large expansion of its counterterrorism programs.
The draft reports, they said, quote the F.B.I.'s former counterterrorism chief, Dale Watson, as saying he "fell off my chair" when he learned that Mr. Ashcroft had failed to list combating terrorism as one of the department's priorities in a March 2001 department-wide memo.
They said the reports would also quote from internal memorandums by Thomas J. Pickard, acting director of the F.B.I. in summer 2001, in which Mr. Pickard described his frustration with Mr. Ashcroft and what he saw as the attorney general's lack of interest in the issue of how the bureau was investigating terrorism suspects in the United States.
Commission officials said the Justice Department, which was provided with a draft copy of the report, had mounted an aggressive, last-minute effort on Monday to persuade the commission to rewrite the parts of the report dealing with Mr. Ashcroft, describing them as one-sided and unfair to him.
Aides to Mr. Ashcroft, who is scheduled to testify before the commission on Tuesday, said he would tell the panel that he was briefed throughout the year on terrorist threats and was never informed - by either the F.B.I. or C.I.A. - that he needed to take special action, since intelligence reports suggested that any attack would be overseas.
"He asked over and over again if there was any evidence of a domestic threat, and he was told over and over again that there was no evidence of one," said Mark Corallo, Mr. Ashcroft's spokesman.
Mr. Corallo said that Mr. Ashcroft had not seen the top-secret intelligence briefing report that was presented to President Bush on Aug. 6, 2001, and that referred to an active presence of Al Qaeda in the United States. But Mr. Corallo said the memo would not have made a difference, since it listed "no specific threats" that needed to be addressed.
Commission officials said that Mr. Ashcroft might also be asked about why he stopped flying commercially on government business in the summer of 2001 - the department has said the move was requested by the F.B.I. in response to threats to Mr. Ashcroft's safety unrelated to Al Qaeda - and his extensive use thereafter of a luxurious F.B.I. jet, a $40 million Gulfstream 5. The plane had been purchased for use in special investigations and for the transport of terrorists and other dangerous suspects.
Current and former F.B.I. officials have told the commission that they were infuriated by Mr. Ashcroft's use of the jet and that it was seen as emblematic of his detachment from the needs of investigators.
Mr. Corallo said Mr. Ashcroft used the plane only when it was not needed for other business by the F.B.I., which is part of the Justice Department. Previously, Mr. Ashcroft, like others attorneys general, had flown on commercial airlines when traveling on government business.
Law enforcement officials say the hearings this week by the commission, known formally as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, are expected to produce an intense round of finger-pointing between current and former F.B.I. and Justice Department officials.
Panel officials said that the commission's interim reports this week, which will form part of its final report this summer, will also offer a harsh assessment of the F.B.I., saying that the bureau bungled a series of clues throughout 2001 that suggested that Al Qaeda might be preparing for an attack within American borders.
But while the F.B.I.'s failures before Sept. 11 are well-documented - especially the bureau's failure to follow up on warnings from agents in Phoenix and Minneapolis about their suspicions that Islamic extremists were training at American flight schools - Mr. Ashcroft's actions before Sept. 11 have not faced this sort of scrutiny before.
Administration officials say it is not clear how the commission's portrayal of Mr. Ashcroft might affect his standing with the White House or whether it could jeopardize it if Mr. Bush is re-elected in November.
Mr. Ashcroft has long been a lightning rod for criticism from Mr. Bush's critics, especially Congressional Democrats and civil liberties advocates who say that Mr. Ashcroft, a former Republican senator from Missouri, has used the Sept. 11 attacks as a vehicle for a severe clampdown on personal liberties and the rights of immigrants.
Commission officials said that there was irony in the panel's finding that before Sept. 11, Mr. Ashcroft may have been too timid about seeking electronic surveillance of terror suspects. They said their investigation suggested that until the attacks, Mr. Ashcroft had resisted signing emergency warrants that would have allowed eavesdropping in terrorism investigations, apparently because he had only a rudimentary knowledge of how the warrant process worked.
The commission's investigation, they said, had centered on Mr. Ashcroft's actions in the summer of 2001, when intelligence agencies received a flood of evidence of an imminent attack by Al Qaeda.
Current and former F.B.I. officials said that in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Ashcroft weighed whether to approve an elaborate counterterrorism plan that had been conceived with the support of his Clinton administration predecessor, Attorney General Janet Reno.
The plan, known by the code name MAX CAP 05, or Maximum Capacity by 2005, had been assembled by Mr. Watson, the bureau's former counterterror chief, with the help of outside consultants and called for a huge build-up in the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism operations.
On Aug. 20, they said, Mr. Pickard, the acting F.B.I. director, was told by Mr. Ashcroft and his then-deputy at the Justice Department, Robert S. Mueller III, that the budget increases had been rejected. Mr. Mueller is now the F.B.I. director.
A senior F.B.I. official who was part of the counterterrorism division at the time said that Mr. Ashcroft's denial of the extra counterterrorism resources came as a "heavy blow to morale." He continued: "Given the resources we had at the time, it was hard to be enthusiastic or optimistic since we knew there was a clear possibility of an attack."