WASHINGTON (CNN) — Former Attorney General Janet Reno told the panel investigating the September 11 attacks on Tuesday that she told her successor, John Ashcroft, that information on terrorist activity must be pulled together, but said she did not recall if she specifically mentioned al Qaeda or terrorist cells in the United States.
She said she had been briefed by senior security officials about “the presence of cells in the United States” but not their locations.
“I never focused on al Qaeda, because I stood there and watched the Murrah Building (in Oklahoma City) in rubble,” she said. “We have got to be prepared for terrorism in any form.”
Ashcroft is scheduled to appear before the panel this afternoon.
Reno was asked about a series of memos she sent in 2000, in which she called for the FBI to improve its ability to share information in its files, both internally and with other agencies.
She said she felt a “certain amount of frustration” about the problem.
Reno said the FBI “didn’t know what it had” because of a lack of organizational structure when she assumed office.
Budget constraints continue to limit progress in that regard, she said. And she recommended that current FBI Director Robert Mueller (scheduled to testify Wednesday) be given what he needs to make the bureau’s information systems function properly.
Reno said she did not know of any legal reason the FBI could not share with other agencies information it had about entry into the United States of two men who ultimately became 9/11 hijackers.
Both Reno and former FBI director Louis Freeh, who preceded her in the hearing Tuesday, said the agency had regular contact with U.S. intelligence services and held frequent meetings with President Clinton’s national security adviser, Samuel Berger.
She said she initiated the meetings because of complaints that information was not being shared quickly and efficiently.
She also said that she had tried to make it standard practice for counterterrorism investigators to share information with the criminal division.
Reno said the White House did not ask her if the CIA could assassinate Osama bin Laden. She said the White House had asked if the agency could “capture him and follow through.”
Reno declined further clarification because she was unsure what information is still classified, and commission vice chairman Lee Hamilton agreed that the matter could be discussed privately.
Former acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard and former director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center Cofer Black are also scheduled for the afternoon. (Gallery: Quotes from the testimony)
Kerrey: ‘We were at ease’
Commission member Bob Kerrey said during Tuesday’s hearing that he saw three mistakes the United States made prior to September 11, 2001: the failure to give the Department of Defense a leading role in the pursuit of terrorists; allowing al Qaeda members entry into the United States; and the fact that U.S. airlines and airports were not at a high state of alert by that time.
“We were at ease on the 11th of September,” he said. “We were not prepared for a hijacking.”
Reno said she was not in office at the time of the attack, when Kerrey asked why the United States was so relaxed.
“I know, but we were just as relaxed as you were going out of office as we were on the 11th of September, “Kerry said. “I mean, this attack could easily have happened on your watch. I mean, we were just as vulnerable while you were attorney general as we were when John Ashcroft was attorney general.”
In her answer, Reno referred to her prepared testimony in which she said that limitations of budget and resources were at the heart of the systemic problems of the intelligence services.
But, she said, if reports of how much information was available in the summer of 2001 are correct, those problems were secondary.
“You have got to be prepared with the best strategy for the people to meet who are the principals and get the job done,” she said.
Kerrey asked Freeh why the United States allowed the 19 hijackers — Kerrey termed them “soldiers” — to enter the country.
Freeh told the panel that neither the Bush administration nor the Clinton administration “put its intelligence agencies or law enforcement agencies on a war footing” prior to September 11, 2001.
“We were using grand jury subpoenas and arrest warrants to fight an enemy that was using suicide boats to attack our warships,” he said, referring to the attack on the USS Cole less than a year before.
The fight against terrorism at that time, he said, was not “a real war.”
Freeh said that security officials considered the possibility that terrorists might use planes as weapons during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but defending against the use of planes as weapons was not integrated into standard strategic defense plans.
“I don’t think there were probably, at least I never was aware of a plan that contemplated commercial airliners being used as weapons after a hijacking. I don’t think that was integrated in any plan,” Freeh told the panel.
Nevertheless, Freeh said, the threat and air defense “was clearly known and it was incorporated, as I mentioned, into standard special events planning.”
Freeh said that investigating and prosecuting terrorists was not the ideal solution but that it was the best his agency could do without a declaration of war against Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization.
“An arrest warrant, two of them for bin Laden in the southern district of New York, was not going to deter him from what happened on September 11th,” Freeh told the panel.
Budget, analysis woes
Freeh said that budget problems and a 22-month hiring freeze led him to move agents from FBI headquarters in Washington to field offices across the country, but he disputed a characterization of counterterrorism efforts as “decentralized.”
He said that the operations were directed at headquarters, but the cases had to come out of field offices “because that’s where the grand juries and courts are.”
Freeh said the FBI had “a deficiency” in its analytical capabilities prior to September 11, 2001, due to a lack of capable analysts, including linguists.
He said that he made repeated requests to hire Arabic and Farsi speakers at a higher pay grades, because the FBI could not offer competitive salaries in New York.
Kean: Report ‘an indictment on the FBI’
The commission’s staff report, released before the hearing began, said the FBI’s information systems were so poor that agents rarely knew what other agents were working on — and analysts had nothing to analyze.
“In short,” the report said, “analysts didn’t know what they didn’t know.”
Added to that, the report said, the bureau was hampered by perception: Since agents were rewarded based on statistics that compiled arrests, indictments and prosecutions, “fields such as counterterrorism and counterintelligence, where investigations generally result in fewer prosecutions, were viewed as backwaters.”
Thomas Kean, the commission’s chairman, called the staff report “an indictment of the FBI for over a long period of time.”
Louis Freeh objects to Thomas Kean’s characterization of the panel’s staff report as “an indictment of the FBI for over a long period of time.”
“You know,” Kean said to Freeh by way of examples, “when I read things like that 66 percent of your analysts weren’t qualified, that you didn’t have the translators necessary to do the job, that you had FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) 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.”
Kean also mention several other problems at the FBI including the sieges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho; Waco, Texas; the Wen Ho Lee nuclear espionage case; and the Robert Hanssen espionage case.
Freeh said he “took exception” to Kean’s assessment of such issues amounting to an indictment.
“I think the centerpiece of your executive director’s report, as I heard it, came down to resources and legal authorities,” Freeh said. “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. One is that there was a lack of resources; and two, there were legal impediments.”
He said that the USA Patriot Act and other legal reforms and increased funding have helped improve some of those problems.
Freeh was also asked several times whether the FBI was the right agency to lead domestic counterterrorism efforts.
He said it would be “a huge mistake” to create a domestic intelligence agency in the United States because Americans would not accept what would “effectively be a secret police.”
Further, he said, such agencies elsewhere are “not very effective.”
Monday, FBI officials confirmed the existence of 70 investigations relating to al Qaeda in the United States before September 11. Those investigations were referred to in the presidential daily briefing of August 6, 2001, released over the weekend.