In another series of high-profile hearings before the 9/11 commission Attorney General John Ashcroft sharply countered former acting director of the FBI, Thomas Pickard who criticized his handling of terrorist threat warnings in the months before Sept. 11. We speak with David Sirota of the Center for American Progress. [includes rush transcript]
The bipartisan panel of ex-government officials investigating the Sept. 11 attacks held a series of high-profile hearings yesterday, with Attorney General John Ashcroft, his predecessor Janet Reno and others taking the stand.
At the start of the day, Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission, delivered a scathing report on the FBI’s performance before and after the 9/11 attacks and on Ashcroft’s role in the bureau’s shortcomings.
Zelikow reported that Dale Watson, the FBI’s counterterrorism deputy, asked Ashcroft for more money, and Ashcroft turned him down. Watson also “fell off his chair” when he read Ashcroft’s formal list of the Justice Department’s top five priorities and realized that not one of them concerned terrorism.
Commission chairman Thomas Kean said the FBI “failed and it failed and it failed and it failed. This is an agency that does not work. It makes you angry. And I don’t know how to fix it.”
Right before Ashcroft appeared yesterday, Thomas Pickard, a former career FBI agent who served as the bureau’s acting director for the three months before 9/11, criticized Ashcroft’s handling of terrorist threat warnings in the months before Sept. 11:
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, COMISSION MEMBER: Good afternoon, gentlemen. Mr. Pickard, on January 21st of this year you met with our staff. Is that correct?
THOMAS PICKARD, FORMER ACTING DIRECTOR, FBI: That’s correct.
BEN-VENISTE: And according to our staff report, you told them that in June 2001, you met with Attorney General Ashcroft and he told you that you would be the acting FBI director.
PICKARD: That’s correct.
BEN-VENISTE: You had some seven or eight meetings with the attorney general?
PICKARD: Somewhere in that number. I have the exact number, but I don’t know the total.
BEN-VENISTE: And according to the statement that our staff took from you, you said that you would start each meeting discussing either counterterrorism or counterintelligence. At the same time the threat level was going up and was very high. Mr. Watson had come to you and said that the CIA was very concerned that there would be an attack. You said that you told the attorney general this fact repeatedly in these meetings. Is that correct?
PICKARD: I told him at least on two occasions.
BEN-VENISTE: And you told the staff according to this statement that Mr. Ashcroft told you that he did not want to hear about this anymore. Is that correct?
PICKARD: That is correct.
Pickard also said Ashcroft rejected appeals for additional counterterrorism funds. Ashcroft, who testified next after Pickard sharply contradicted his claims:
- JAMES THOMPSON, COMMISSION MEMBER: Acting Director Pickard testified this afternoon that he briefed you twice on al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and when he sought to do so again you told him you didn’t need to hear from him again. Can you comment on that please?
ASHCROFT: First of all, Acting Director Pickard and I had more than two meetings. We had regular meetings. Secondly, I did never speak to him saying that I did not want to hear about terrorism. I care greatly about the safety and security of the American people and was very interested in terrorism and specifically interrogated him about threats to the American people and domestic threats in particular. One of the first items which came to my attention — which I mentioned in my opening remarks — was the question of whether we wanted to capture or find and kill bin Laden. I carried that immediately to the national security adviser and expressed myself in that matter. Together with the vice president of the United States, we got a briefing at FBI headquarters regarding terrorism. And I asked the question, “Why can’t we arrest these people because I believe an aggressive arrest and prosecution model is the way to disrupt terrorism?” These are things about which I care deeply. When the Senate Appropriations Committee met on May the 9th, in the summer of 2001, I told the committee that my number one priority was the attack against terror; that we would protect Americans from terror. I wrote later to them a confirming letter saying that we had no higher priority. These are the kinds of things that I did in order to communicate very clearly my interest in making sure that we would be prepared against terror. In addition when we went for the largest increase in counterterrorism budgeting before 9/11, in the last five years, that signalled a priority in that respect. And when we, for the next year, had a 13 percent higher counterterrorism budget than was provided in the last year of the Clinton administration, it was also a signal that counterterrorism was a matter of great concern us to and that we would treat it seriously.
- David Sirota, spokesperson for the Center for American Progress.
AMY GOODMAN: And that was Attorney General John Ashcroft. David Sirota is with us, the spokesperson for the Center for American Progress, your response.
DAVID SIROTA: I think what we’re seeing is Ashcroft in many ways has been almost completely deceptive and in many cases dishonest. He has been — was dishonest in his budget analysis. His budget analysis basically — I can’t figure out how he’s counting his numbers. The only thing I can come up with is that he’s counting everything including basic information technology, computers, not that those things are not important, but the most important counterterrorism areas is field agents and counterterrorism grants to local communities, states, and first responders. Ashcroft from the very beginning was cutting these resources when he came into office. The very first budget that was submitted within a month of taking office asked for a half billion dollar cut in monies for basic counterterrorism resources. That is the most important thing that the agents — and then in a September 10 budget submission that would have been for the next year, he also again asked for major cuts to counterterrorism resources. The other area I think is critical: he very much focused on this so-called wall between intelligence and criminal investigations. He claimed that this wall supposedly impeded his ability to prevent September 11, but what he didn’t address was the fact that — and the point raised by Attorney General, former Attorney General Janet Reno, which is the wall essentially does not prevent information from being shared in almost all of the cases that Ashcroft himself had cited. So, his, in a sense, his main argument was essentially invalid.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the memos that you have gotten from the justice department.
DAVID SIROTA: Yes, I would be happy to. On our website, www.americanprogress.org, we have uncovered a number of internal memos. I would say probably the most important one, and which Ashcroft referenced yesterday, was this so-called strategic plan of the Justice Department. Now, what this does is this basically says how the department is to be set up and what priority it is to focus on. Ashcroft came in. We have this posted on our website: he took the Clinton Administration’s strategic plan which had various priorities in counterterrorism and the like. On our website is a draft of the plan where he has highlighted what he wants to be his new goals. None of them are counterterrorism. They are primarily focused on violent crime and drug, which would be, you know, consistent with Ashcroft’s ideological thinking. He completely took the ball off of counterterrorism. And what the, the reason this is important is because when the new administration start, you have a new boss, and all of the agents are looking to their new boss in terms of what to focus on. This document proves definitively that Ashcroft wanted to focus in other places rather than on counterterrorism. And if I might, the — this is corroborated by Newsweek magazine, who reported this in their first meeting with FBI field agents, this big — they have an annual meeting with all of the FBI field agents that head the offices, Louis Freeh and Ashcroft had a meeting before that meeting to discuss what they were going to present, and Freeh said “I want to focus on counterterrorism,” and Ashcroft essentially said, “We’re not focusing on counter terrorism, I want to focus on my new priorities which is violent crimes and drugs.”