MARGARET WARNER: We get an assessment of today's hearings from two of the commissioners: Former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington state, and Richard Ben-Veniste. He worked for the Watergate special prosecutor's office, and was the Democratic chief counsel on the Senate Whitewater Committee. Welcome to you both.
As we heard from today's testimony in the years and particularly months leading up to 9/11, there was a lot of information about al-Qaida, its intentions, its people at various levels of the government.
Mr. Ben-Veniste after listening to today's testimony, where do you conclude was the weakest link?
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: I think in the FBI communication. It was dysfunctional. There's no question about it. We had collected a good deal of information -- very useful information if it had gotten into the hands of people who were trying to put things together at the National Security Council, for example, with Richard Clarke.
But what we learned today, was that on the day of 9/11, within 24 hours, the acting director of the FBI had received information of three things. He had received information about the Phoenix Memorandum, which talked about young Arabs learning to fly planes in the United States. He learned about two individuals, al-Hazmi and Midhar, individuals who the FBI had been looking for who ultimately took part in the 9/11 catastrophe. And he learned about the arrest of Moussaoui, who was trying to learn to fly a commercial jetliner in Minnesota. He had no background in aviation. He could not explain the tens of thousands of dollars which had been deposited in cash in his account. He could not account for why he was in the United States.
Now, all of these things, plus the fresh memory of planes being used as weapons, which resulted in the cap or no fly zone over the G-8 meeting in Genoa early that summer, it would seem to me that it might, just might have been able to give a sufficient warning that something was up involving airplanes. And that since this threat level remained so high, we ought to be looking to the United States and protecting our homeland rather than looking overseas exclusively in connection with this spectacular attack that we knew was coming.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Gorton, do you agree with that, that, a, the FBI comes out of this as the weakest link, and b, if so, who bears responsibility for that?
SLADE GORTON: I do think that so far in our hearings the FBI comes out as the weakest link. Now we're going to hear some equally severe criticisms of the CIA tomorrow in the staff reports on CIA activities leading up to 9/11.
But in addition to what Richard has said about the weaknesses of the FBI, my view is that the FBI, or the CIA's reports on the FBI, greatly exaggerated how close to being on top of all of this the FBI was in that famous Aug. 6 Presidential Daily Briefing to the president in which it said that there were 70 full field investigations going on in the United States itself just five weeks before 9/11 took place. That was really stretching it. It counted each individual as a separate investigation. Many of those investigations were simply on money laundering, about which the FBI did nothing before 9/11. I think it probably contributed to creating a feeling of a degree of security upstairs in the White House that was not warranted.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ben-Veniste, let's look at some of the rationales that the witnesses used today for this breakdown. They basically said it was lack of resources and secondly that there were these restrictions, legal restrictions, this wall. Do you buy that? And what about Attorney General Ashcroft's contention that essentially laid the blame for even those at the feet of the Clinton administration?
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, you know, I think that was unfortunate; everybody who has looked at that and has parsed through that seems to believe that the restrictions were largely exaggerated.
What's interesting is that the PDB memorandum was never sent to the attorney general. Somehow the Bush administration decided that the attorney general ought to be excluded from receiving the PDB. In the Clinton administration Attorney General Reno was a regular recipient of the PDB. And today, General Ashcroft testified that he had no idea that the president was even asking about the potential for bin Laden attack in the United States. That's why I asked him the question, "Well, if you as attorney general has received such an instruction from the president to bring him up to date, would you not have made sure that the FBI pulsed every single one of its agents to find out what was new?"
The acting director of the FBI, Mr. Pickard, did not do that. If that had been done and if the attorney general had been brought into the loop and if the president had made that request, then perhaps -- and there are so many ifs here -- but perhaps the information that immediately was brought forward on Sept. 11 might have been received at a much earlier time and put to good use.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, and just briefly because I want to get back to Mr. Gorton, but whose fault was it that he was not in that loop?
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, I suppose the National Security Council or the vice president or the president, whoever made the decision not to include him.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Gorton, how do you think Attorney General Ashcroft came out of this today?
SLADE GORTON: Let's take those two questions. First as a former member of the United States Senate, lack of enough money is an all-purpose excuse for any agency, whichever fails completely to engage in its mission. We spent literally billions of dollars on terrorism and on intelligence, and I think there's a reasonably good argument that we didn't get our money's worth for what we were spending.
Secondly, with respect to Attorney General Ashcroft, he had four major points or complaints, many of which were criticisms of the previous administration. Now two of those didn't fall within his own jurisdiction. He gave advice to other agencies, and apparently that advice was not followed up till 9/11. Two of them were within his jurisdiction. He did go and ask for more money for the FBI for its computers, for its communications skills and he deserves credit for that.
But when he says that this wall between law enforcement and intelligence tied everyone's hands during those eight months, he did not break down that wall. As a matter of fact, the only memorandum that came from the attorney general's office said that those rules stayed in effect and made only very, very minor changes in them. That, I think was a shortcoming.
I think the wall was built too high but I don't think that John Ashcroft did anything about knocking that wall down before 9/11 took place.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Ben-Veniste, Mr. Pickard painted at least a picture of Mr. Ashcroft as not making terrorism a top priority. He talked about the budget priorities not being what he thought they should have been. There was that difference between them about whether Ashcroft had said "I don't want to hear anymore about it or not." What is your judgment on that question?
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, the documentary evidence is that the attorney general circulated a list of his priorities or goals. There were five major ones. Counterterrorism did not appear anywhere. When Pickard asked for $58 million to supplement his counterterrorism budget, he was turned down flat by the attorney general. He asked whether he could appeal. He appealed to the attorney general, and the attorney general denied his appeal. So we have a fairly strong record there. As you know, Mr. Pickard testified under oath that after a few briefings, each of which he began with counterterrorism, during this very heightened period of alert, the attorney general said to him, in substance, "Stop talking about that. I don't want to hear about it."
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Gorton, let me go back briefly to a point you raised about the resources. We also heard -- although we didn't run any tape from Cofer Black, who ran the CIA counterterrorism center -- and he made really an impassioned statement about how hard his people worked and that they just didn't have the resources to track everything in a timely way. What did you make of that?
SLADE GORTON: His people did work very hard. Some of them at least made recommendations to both White Houses, more to the Clinton White House because he was involved longer with that one, but there was always a good reason not to act on any of the intelligence that they came up with. Whether twice as much money would have resulted in action or just more talk I think is very, very much an open question. There was never enough to do anything about the al-Qaida in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks.
Both the present secretary of state and secretary of defense and their predecessors have said that the country wouldn't stand for a war in the absence of 9/11, and they may be right though neither of them ever tried to find out whether or not that was available. As I said, it's an all-purpose excuse to say that we didn't have enough money. They did do a good job but no action ever resulted from any of the intelligence that they delivered to either president with respect to al-Qaida before 9/11.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, there was the one missile attack.
SLADE GORTON: Yeah, that's right. There was the one missile set of missile attacks. One in Afghanistan and one in the Sudan immediately after the embassy attacks -- but no follow-up on them, and nothing with respect to the Cole -- plenty of intelligence but we had this wonderful phrase "actionable intelligence" and no one ever felt that the intelligence was good enough to act on.
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly Mr. Ben-Veniste, do you think lack of resources was a huge problem here, or was it lack of competence in using the resources they had?
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: You know, one of the things that came out of today's hearings was a look at the New York office of the FBI, which had the principal responsibility for hunting al-Qaida. In that office, Jim Kallstrom and then Barry Mawn and then John O'Neill reapportioned on their own. They engaged in some self-help. They took resources away from other kinds of responsibilities, traditionally in the bailiwick of the FBI and they pushed them to counterterrorism. They did it on their own.
SLADE GORTON: Richard is entirely right on that, but that didn't happen back here at headquarters.
MARGARET WARNER: I'm being pushed to end this so thank you both very much.
SLADE GORTON: You're very welcome.