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Background Report: What Went Wrong?

April 13, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SPOKESMAN: Good morning.

KWAME HOLMAN: The 9/11 commission today turned its focus to what actions the FBI took to investigate and uncover domestic terrorism threats prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. In recent weeks, key commission witnesses such as former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice have pointed to the FBI as the agency that had the most specific information on terrorist suspects in the United States during the summer of 2001. And they agreed that, had that information been properly compiled and shared, it might have disrupted planning of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The commission’s initial findings on the FBI’s efforts, based on previous interviews and its review of thousands of documents to date, were contained in a statement read this morning by staff director Philip Zelikow, a statement commission Chairman Tom Kean later called an indictment of the FBI.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: The FBI took a traditional law enforcement approach to counterterrorism. Its agents were trained to build cases. Its management was deliberately decentralized to empower the individual field offices and agents on the street. The bureau rewarded agents based on statistics reflecting arrests, indictments and prosecutions. As a result, fields such as counterterrorism and counterintelligence, where investigations generally result in fewer prosecutions, were viewed as backwaters.

Agents developed information in support of their own cases, not as part of a broader, more strategic effort. Given the poor state of the FBI’s information systems, field agents usually did not know what investigations agents in their own office, let alone in other field offices, were working on. Nor did analysts have easy access to this information. As a result, it was almost impossible to develop an understanding of the threat from a particular international terrorist group.

KWAME HOLMAN: Staff Director Zelikow said a new counterterrorism policy developed by the Justice Department in 2000 did not get much attention after the Bush administration came into office in January 2001. A day before the Sept. 11 attacks, an internal Justice Department proposal to increase the counter terror budget was rejected by new Attorney General John Ashcroft.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: On Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI was limited in several areas critical to an effective, counterterrorism strategy. Those working counterterrorism matters did so despite limited intelligence collection and strategic analysis capabilities, despite a limited capacity to share information both internally and externally, despite insufficient training, an overly complex legal regime, despite and inadequate resources.

KWAME HOLMAN: Louis Freeh served eight years as FBI director before resigning three months before the Sept. 11 attacks. He was the first witness to appear before the commission today. During his opening statement, Freeh defended his tenure at the FBI, saying the bureau did all it could with the resources provided.

LOUIS FREEH: The FBI, as you know, before Sept. 11 had 3.5 percent of the federal government’s antiterrorism budget. And it’s no news to anybody that for many, many years, as your executive director recounted, the resource issue and the legal authority issue certainly limited what we were able to do before Sept. 11. In the budget years 2000, 2001, 2002, we asked for 1,895 people — agents, linguists, analysts. We got a total of 76 people during that period.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chairman Tom Kean went back to the seriousness of the charges leveled against the FBI in the commission’s staff report.

THOMAS KEAN: I read our staff statement as an indictment of the FBI for over a long period of time. You know, when I read things like that your — 66 percent of your analysts weren’t qualified, that you didn’t have the translators necessary to do the job, that you had FISA difficulties, that you had all the information on the fund-raising but you couldn’t find a way to use it properly to stop terrorism, you tried very hard to reform the agency. According to our staff report, those reforms failed.

LOUIS FREEH: Well, first of all, I take exception to your comment that your staff report is an indictment of the FBI I think your staff report evidences some very good work and some very diligent interviews and a very technical, almost, auditing analysis of some of the programs. I think the centerpiece of your executive director’s report, as I heard it, came down to resources and legal authorities.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Sen. Bob Kerrey asked how the government allowed 19 terrorists to enter the country so easily.

BOB KERREY: Why did we let their soldiers into the United States? Because that’s what al-Qaida men were. They were soldiers. They were part of an Islamic army called the jihad to come into the United States. Why did we let them in the United States?

LOUIS FREEH: I think part of my answer is that we weren’t fighting a real war. We hadn’t declared war on these enemies in the manner that you suggest that would have prevented entry had we taken war measures and put the country and its intelligence and law enforcement agencies on a war footing.

KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout the hearing, Freeh repeatedly claimed that a lack of resources prevented the FBI from properly executing a counterterrorism strategy. But commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton pointed out that the number of FBI personnel and amount of funding dedicated to counterterrorism more than tripled between 1993 and 2001 when Freeh was director.

LEE HAMILTON: My sense of your testimony is that you could have done an awful lot better if you’d had a lot more resources. And in fact, you were receiving a lot more resources.

LOUIS FREEH: Yeah. No, there’s no question but we were receiving a lot of resources. I think my position, which was the attorney general’s position, is there were not enough resources to work a counterterrorism program as the lead agency for the United States.

KWAME HOLMAN: Following Freeh, was former Attorney General Janet Reno. Reno praised the FBI’s performance during her tenure but admitted the bureau had difficulty learning how to put all the intelligence information it collected to the best use. This afternoon, commission staff member Chris Kojm reported on discrepancies about the FBI’s level of awareness of the domestic terrorism alerts that were circulating during the summer of 2001.

CHRIS KOJM: Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard recently told us that during his summer telephone calls with special agents in charge of each FBI field office, he mentioned to each the heightened threat, among other subjects. He also told us that he had a conference call with all special agents in charge on July 19 in which he discussed a variety of subjects. He said one of the items he mentioned was that they needed to have their evidence response teams ready to move at a moment’s notice in case they needed to respond to an attack.

We found in our field office visits last fall, however, that a number of FBI personnel, with the exception of those in the New York field office, did not recall a heightened sense of threat from al-Qaida within the United States in summer 2001. For example, an international terrorism squad supervisor in the Washington field office told us he was neither aware in summer 2001 of an increased threat, nor did his squad take any special steps or actions. The special agent in charge of the Miami field office told us he did not learn of the high level of threat until after Sept. 11.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard was questioned about the staff’s findings. Commissioner Tim Roemer:

TIM ROEMER: An experienced terrorism supervisor in the Washington office six blocks from headquarters, six blocks away, says he was not aware of any heightened terrorist threat; his squad took no special action leading up to 9/11. A supervisor in the Miami field office, a special agent in charge, said this was inside-the-beltway-kind of thing — never heard of that chatter until after 9/11. What happened?

THOMAS PICKARD: I can’t account for the SAC in Miami as to whether he was actually on the call, but whoever was in charge of the office that day was on that call, because I did not get on it until they were all on it. During that call, I reiterated the issue of the threat level, and also to make sure they were at their maximum effort on that. I don’t know…

TIM ROEMER: Do you recall your precise words that you recently told the 9/11 commission on that conversation? Your words to the 9/11 commission were “evidence response teams ready.” Evidence response. That’s reactive. That’s not proactive, saying, “Here’s the threat, here’s what you need to do about it.” You’re saying, “If we get hit, have the evidence response teams ready.” That’s what you told the 9/11 commission staff.

THOMAS PICKARD: I had a very brief conversation with them about that. I was surprised at the brevity of it.

TIM ROEMER: Well, it sounds like it was pretty brief to the field offices as well — response, not active threat. So could you have done a better job, or are you just saying, “I don’t know why they didn’t hear it”? Did you task them again after the 19th?

THOMAS PICKARD: I don’t understand why they didn’t hear it. I spoke to each of them individually, as I said. And in addition, I had the communications out to them. I don’t know what more I could have done. Some people — I don’t understand whether they can’t recall it or not. But if you talk to — for example, I know the staff, the New York office agents, they got it; they were always on top of it, and many of the other agents that I spoke to over the last week.

KWAME HOLMAN: Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste questioned Pickard about the Aug. 6 briefing memo sent to President Bush by the CIA, warning of a possible terrorist attack here in the United States.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: You never vetted the PDB. You never saw the PDB. You never knew that it was going to be produced. Correct?

THOMAS PICKARD: That’s correct.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Now my question to you, sir, is that if you had the information that the president of the United States was requesting what information the FBI had up to that moment about the potentiality for a strike by bin Laden in the United States, would you not have pulsed the FBI to determine from every FBI agent in this country, what information they had at that moment that might indicate the possibility of a terrorist attack here?

THOMAS PICKARD: Yes, I would have.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: And you learned on Sept. 11 three things, if I understand your testimony. Number one, you learned about Moussaoui. Number two, you learned about the Phoenix memo. Number three, you learned about two of the hijackers who were in the United States who the FBI was looking for. Had you learned that information soon after Aug. 6, was there not a possibility that you could have utilized that information, connected the information, put it together with what you already knew, and taken some action?

THOMAS PICKARD: I don’t know. Moussaoui was arrested on Aug. 15. The information about the other two hijackers came to the FBI’s attention, I believe, Aug. 23 and later on Aug. 27. To bring these three diverse pieces of information together absent the afternoon of Sept. 11 — I don’t know, with all the information the FBI collects, whether we would have had the ability to hone in specifically on those three items.

KWAME HOLMAN: The commission’s final witness of the day was Attorney General John Ashcroft.

JOHN ASHCROFT: In 1995 the Justice Department embraced flawed legal reasoning, imposing a series of restrictions on the FBI that went beyond what the law required. The 1995 guidelines and the procedures developed around them imposed draconian barriers — barriers between the law enforcement and intelligence communities.

The wall effectively excluded prosecutors from intelligence investigations. The wall left intelligence agents afraid to talk with criminal prosecutors or agents. The basic architecture for the wall in the 1995 guidelines was contained in a classified memorandum entitled, “Instructions for Separation of Certain Foreign Counterintelligence and Criminal Investigations.”

The memorandum ordered FBI Director Louis Freeh and others, “We believe that it is prudent to establish a set of instructions that will more clearly separate the counterintelligence investigation from the more limited but continued criminal investigations.” Although you understand the debilitating impacts of the wall, I cannot imagine that the commission knew about this memorandum. So I have had it declassified for you and the public to review.

Full disclosure compels me to inform you that the author of this memorandum is a member of the commission. By 2000, the Justice Department was so addicted to the wall, it actually opposed legislation to lower the wall. Finally, the USA Patriot Act tore down this wall between our intelligence and law enforcement personnel in 2001.

KWAME HOLMAN: Commissioner Jim Thompson gave Ashcroft a chance to answer critics who charge the attorney general had shortchanged the FBI’s counterterrorism budget prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.

JAMES THOMPSON: Can you lay out in timelines, if you can, what budget requests were made by the FBI to you and for what purposes, and what actions were either taken by you to grant or deny them, or taken by OMB after your decision on budgetary requests for the FBI?

JOHN ASHCROFT: The 2002 budget proposed by President Bush had the largest counterterrorism increase in five years. The 2003 budget which we proposed was a 13 percent increase over the last Clinton budget, the 2001 budget, which was the budget under which we were operating at the time of 9/11. Now, over time, obviously after 9/11, there were amendments to the budget process, and there were increases, and so that we ended up with substantially larger increases for terrorism than we had previously had.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ashcroft also said he believed the FBI was responding appropriately to the spike in terror threats during the summer of 2001.