In his public testimony before the 9/11 Commission the other day, Attorney General John Ashcroft exposed Commissioner Jamie Gorelick’s role in undermining the nation’s security capabilities by issuing a directive insisting that the FBI and federal prosecutors ignore information gathered through intelligence investigations. But Ashcroft pointed to another document that also has potentially explosive revelations about the Clinton administration’s security failures. Ashcroft stated, in part:
… [T]he Commission should study carefully the National Security Council plan to disrupt the al Qaeda network in the U.S. that our government failed to implement fully seventeen months before September 11.
The NSC’s Millennium After Action Review declares that the United States barely missed major terrorist attacks in 1999 — with luck playing a major role. Among the many vulnerabilities in homeland defenses identified, the Justice Department’s surveillance and FISA operations were specifically criticized for their glaring weaknesses. It is clear from the review that actions taken in the Millennium Period should not be the operating model for the U.S. government.
In March 2000, the review warns the prior Administration of a substantial al Qaeda network and affiliated foreign terrorist presence within the U.S., capable of supporting additional terrorist attacks here.
Furthermore, fully seventeen months before the September 11 attacks, the review recommends disrupting the al Qaeda network and terrorist presence here using immigration violations, minor criminal infractions, and tougher visa and border controls.
These are the same aggressive, often criticized law enforcement tactics we have unleashed for 31 months to stop another al Qaeda attack. These are the same tough tactics we deployed to catch Ali al-Marri, who was sent here by al Qaeda on September 10, 2001, to facilitate a second wave of terrorist attacks on Americans.
Despite the warnings and the clear vulnerabilities identified by the NSC in 2000, no new disruption strategy to attack the al Qaeda network within the United States was deployed. It was ignored in the Department’s five-year counterterrorism strategy.
I did not see the highly-classified review before September 11. It was not among the 30 items upon which my predecessor briefed me during the transition. It was not advocated as a disruption strategy to me during the summer threat period by the NSC staff which wrote the review more than a year earlier.
I certainly cannot say why the blueprint for security was not followed in 2000. I do know from my personal experience that those who take the kind of tough measures called for in the plan will feel the heat. I’ve been there; I’ve done that. So the sense of urgency simply may not have overcome concern about the outcry and criticism which follows such tough tactics.”
What is Ashcroft talking about? An article in Reader’s Digest, “Codes, Clues, Confessions” (March 2002; by Kenneth R. Timmerman), provides some valuable insight. It states, in part:
French counter-terrorism magistrate, Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, first began tracking Ahmed Ressam back in 1996. As a Magistrate, he was allowed to use prosecutorial evidence, as well as share intelligence gathered by French intelligence agencies in his investigations and prosecutions. Between 1996 and 1999 he had gathered enough evidence to know that Ressam was part of al-Qaeda, what he called the “spider web.” And that Ressam and al-Qaeda had made the U.S. a target, and that Ressam had moved from Europe to Canada at some point in 1999 to prepare his attack. Bruguiere shared this information with both Canadian and U.S. intelligence some time prior to 1999.
By March 1999, Bruguière had gathered enough information from terrorist cells he had broken up in France, Jordan, and Australia, to send a thick file to Canadian authorities, asking that they arrest Ressam and hold him for interrogation, but Ressam had already gone underground. ‘On December 14, 1999 the news came of Ressam’s arrest [near Seattle]. As you know, it was completely by chance. Just plain luck!’
U.S. Customs officer Diana Dean told the Digest she found the olive-skinned Canadian who identified himself as “Benni Norris” unusually nervous. The ferry from Vancouver had just chugged up to its slip at Port Angeles, Washington on the afternoon of December 14, 1999, and Norris lowered the window of his Chrysler 300. Despite the chilly air, he was sweating, Dean noticed. When she asked him to open his trunk, he bolted. After a brief chase, “Norris”/Ressam was arrested. In the trunk, they found 130 pounds of plastic explosives, two 22 ounce plastic bottles full of nitro glycol, and a map of LAX.
When the Department of Justice began interviewing “Norris”/Ressam, they didn’t have a clue who he was. But Judge Bruguière did. He called the Department of Justice, and offered prosecutors his file on Ressam and his ties to al Qaeda. At the time, Bruguiere said, DOJ had no idea what a big catch they had, nor did DOJ have access to any intelligence about Ressam’s ties to al-Qaeda. Ultimately, because of “The Wall” Bruguiere had to testify for seven hours in Seattle to lay out the al Qaeda connection to help U.S. prosecutors make their case against Ressam.
In other words, the “wall of separation” constructed by Jamie Gorelick made it virtually impossible for U.S. authorities to stop Ahmed Rassam, the “Millenium Bomber,” by design or intention. It was left to blind luck. The NSC’s Millennium After Action Review — which, based on Attorney General Ashcroft’s testimony, must be devastating in its analysis of not only this event but of the Gorelick policy — remains classified. And, most significantly, it’s likely the Review’s criticisms and warnings were either ignored or rejected by the Clinton Justice Department.
Given all the past intelligence information that has been made public by the 9/11 Commission — including the August 6, 2001, President’s Daily Brief, which had never before been released — there appears to be no legitimate basis for the 9/11 Commission keeping the Review under lock and key. It’s time to release it.