WASHINGTON — In a world “blinking red” with terrorist threats against the United States, the FBI missed a last-minute chance to detect a key al-Qaida cell and possibly disrupt the Sept. 11 attacks, the commission investigating the 2001 hijackings said Tuesday.
Delays and missteps in linking terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui to al-Qaida in the weeks before the attacks were emblematic of chronic problems within the FBI, including limited intelligence and analysis capabilities, outdated technology, poor information-sharing and floundering attempts at reorganization, the commission said.
In a day of finger-pointing, the panel chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, said that two scathing reports compiled by the commission’s investigators amounted to “an indictment of the FBI,” while Attorney General John Ashcroft took a veiled swipe at the Clinton administration.
Louis Freeh, who headed the bureau from 1993 to mid-2001, bristled at Kean’s words.
“I would ask that you balance what you call an indictment, and which I don’t agree with at all, with the two primary findings of your staff,” he said. “One is that there was a lack of resources, and two, there were legal impediments” that made it difficult for agents to pursue terrorism investigations.
Former Attorney General Janet Reno also spoke of a lack of resources but said the FBI under Freeh did a poor job keeping track of the information its agents gathered.
“The FBI didn’t know what it had,” she said. “The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing.” Ashcroft the last witness at Tuesday’s hearing, said a key reason for the failures was a legal restriction, known as “the wall,” that prevented the sharing of FBI intelligence information with criminal investigators.
Ashcroft blamed Reno for issuing “draconian” guidelines in 1995 that made such sharing even more difficult.
“The simple fact of Sept. 11 is this: We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies,” Ashcroft said. “Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions and starved for basic information technology.”
Ashcroft buttressed his contentions by releasing a declassified memo from former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, now a member of the Sept. 11 commission, containing instructions that “more clearly separate” counterintelligence from criminal investigations.
Former acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard, who headed the bureau just before the attacks, told the panel that Ashcroft did not seem to consider terrorism a priority. He said that after he began briefing Ashcroft twice a week on the threats, Ashcroft told Pickard “he did not want to hear this information any more.”
Ashcroft denied saying that and added that he had “interrogated” Pickard in their meetings about any possible terror threats facing the United States.
“I never did say to him that I did not want to hear about terrorism,” he said.
Ashcroft also told the panel that on May 7, 2001, he advised National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that the Bush administration should abandon its previous policy of trying to capture Osama bin Laden.
“We should find and kill bin Laden,” Ashcroft said he told her.
The hearing was in the same Senate hearing room where Rice and former counterterrorism aide Richard Clarke testified. This time there were empty seats and not nearly as much electricity as those appearances.
The commission reports issued at the start of the two-day hearing noted some FBI successes in cracking earlier terrorist cases. But the FBI was unable to stop the 19 hijackers from using commercial airliners as weapons, killing some 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
“All our systems failed,” said commission member Fred Fielding. “We were totally beaten on Sept. 11.”
The inability of the FBI to link Moussaoui to al-Qaida was a prime example, the commission concluded in revealing previously unreported details about the investigation of the terrorism suspect.
Moussaoui was taken into custody Aug. 16, 2001, on immigration charges while trying to learn to fly a Boeing 747 at a flight school in Minnesota. A dispute between FBI agents in the field and supervisors meant no warrant was quickly obtained to search his computer, the commission said.
It wasn’t until after the attacks that the FBI learned that an imprisoned terrorist, convicted Los Angeles airport bomb plotter Ahmed Ressam, had told agents he recognized Moussaoui from Afghan training camps run by al-Qaida.
Also, the commission said the FBI asked the British for help in identifying Moussaoui in late August, but the British did not handle the request as a priority. It wasn’t until Sept. 13 that London provided intelligence about Moussaoui’s attendance at the Afghan camps.
“A maximum U.S. effort to investigate Moussaoui could conceivably have unearthed his connections” to the hijackers and their financiers through an al-Qaida cell in Hamburg, Germany, the commission statement said.
“The publicity about the threat also might have disrupted the plot,” it said, “but this would have been a race against time.”
Moussaoui is awaiting trial on charges of conspiracy related to the Sept. 11 plot. A federal appeals court is mulling whether Moussaoui should have access to terrorist confederates in U.S. custody that he says can vouch for his innocence.
CIA Director George Tenet, who is to testify before the commission Wednesday, told the panel in private that in July 2001 “the system was blinking red” and that “it could not get any worse,” according to the commission statement.