The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks provided details today of a number of shortcomings in the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts, saying the agency was not properly structured to root out terrorists in the United States and that the Justice Department was not sufficiently focused on the issue during the first months of the Bush administration.
In a 12-page staff report issued before today’s hearings, the commission said that, among other failings, the FBI lacked the ability to carry out “strategic analysis” of the terrorist threat, the kind of work required to pull disparate bits of intelligence together and connect the dots to pinpoint potential attacks.
In fact, before Sept. 11, “the FBI had never completed an assessment of the overall terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland,” said the report, read to the commission by executive director Philip D. Zelikow.
The report, the ninth in a series of staff statements, was devoted to law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence collection in the United States before the Sept. 11 attacks.
It said the FBI “took a traditional law enforcement approach to counterterrorism,” with agents trained to build cases and rewarded primarily for arrests, indictments and prosecutions. Since counterterrorism and counterintelligence generally resulted in fewer prosecutions, these fields “were viewed as backwaters,” the report said.
In addition, field agents, operating in a decentralized system, tended to keep information to themselves and were wary of sharing information that was “potentially discoverable in court.”
Former FBI director Louis J. Freeh, the first witness of today’s commission hearing, acknowledged the agency’s shortcomings in analysis of terrorism intelligence.
“Did we have a deficiency with respect to analytical capability? Absolutely,” he said. He said he had raised the issue repeatedly in congressional appropriation hearings during his tenure. Freeh, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor, was appointed FBI director by President Clinton and continued to serve in that post for a time under President Bush.
Freeh generally defended the FBI’s performance, saying he disagreed that the agency was too decentralized, since it had to be able to assist U.S. attorney’s offices across the country in prosecuting cases. Responding to questions from Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor and one of five Democrats on the commission, Freeh said he was not aware of any counterterrorism plans before Sept. 11 that incorporated the possibility of suicide bombings with aircraft. But he declined to characterize this as a failing of either the Clinton or Bush administration.
“There were air defense systems with respect to the White House,” Freeh said. “I was never aware of a plan that contemplated commercial airliners being used as weapons after a hijacking.” He said this prospect was not integrated into any plan.
Commission member Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, asked Freeh why no action had been taken by FBI headquarters in response to a memo from an FBI agent in Phoenix who had detected suspicious flight training by young Arab men.
“I don’t know,” Freeh replied. But he said that getting the requested information from civil aviation schools nationwide would have required the agency “to first overcome a couple of federal statutes” prohibiting the schools from turning over the information without a subpoena.
Freeh also disputed an assertion by commission chairman Thomas H. Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, that the staff report constituted “an indictment of the FBI over a long period of time.” He said the staff report highlighted a lack of resources and legal impediments in the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts.
Freeh rejected the idea of forming a domestic intelligence agency, saying Americans were unlikely to tolerate such an organization.
“You would in effect be establishing a secret police,” Freeh said.
Former attorney general Janet Reno, who served in the Clinton administration, testified that when she took office, she quickly realized that “the FBI didn’t know what it had” in the way of information on terrorism. “The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing,” she said.
Like Freeh, Reno also argued against setting up a domestic intelligence agency.
“Don’t create another agency,” she told the commissioners. “Let’s try to work through it” and give the FBI director what he needs.
The staff report found that spending on counterterrorism at the FBI was insufficient, despite budget increases.
“Former FBI officials told us that prior to 9/11, there was not sufficient national commitment or political will to dedicate the necessary resources to counterterrorism,” the report said.
It pointed to the failure of a new unit, the Investigative Services Division, that was intended to strengthen the FBI’s strategic analysis capability. At the time it was formed, a review found that two-thirds of the FBI’s analysts “were not qualified to perform analytical duties,” the report said.
“The new division did not succeed,” the report said. “FBI officials told us that it did not receive sufficient resources, and there was ongoing resistance to its creation from the senior managers in the FBI’s operational divisions.”
The report also said, “The FBI’s new counterterrorism strategy was not a focus of the Justice Department in 2001.” It said Attorney General John D. Ashcroft reported that upon his arrival at the Justice Department in January 2001, he faced other challenges, including the espionage committed by FBI agent Robert Hanssen.
The report said a budget prepared under Ashcroft in 2001 did not increase counterterrorism funding and that Ashcroft rejected an appeal for more funding on Sept. 10, 2001.
Before Sept. 11, the report said, “the FBI lacked a fundamental strategic understanding of the nature and extent of the al Qaeda fundraising problem within the United States. As a result, the FBI could not fulfill its responsibility to provide intelligence on domestic terrorist financing to government policymakers.” FBI agents kept tabs on various fundraisers in the United States, “even as millions of dollars flowed to foreign Islamic extremists,” the report said.
Ashcroft is scheduled to appear before the commission this afternoon. He is expected to face sharp questioning about whether he and the Justice Department were sufficiently focused on the threat from Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Some commission members believe Ashcroft placed a low priority on counterterrorism efforts during his first seven months, citing Justice Department documents that show he was focused more on drugs, violent crime and civil rights.
A day before the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Ashcroft formally denied a $50 million request from the FBI to hire more counterterrorism agents and intelligence researchers, according to witnesses and Justice Department documents.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo disputes the characterization of Ashcroft as inattentive to terrorism, pointing to his testimony in May 2001 in which he endorsed additional funding for counterterrorism programs and said “our number one goal is the prevention of terrorist acts.”
Corallo also said that Ashcroft was briefed regularly by the CIA and FBI on the al Qaeda threat in the summer of 2001 but was told that there was no indication of a domestic plot.