Flashback: Ashcroft Blamed Clinton Administration for “The Wall” between FBI and CIA

In Official History on March 4, 2009 at 10:50 am

From the testimony before the 9/11 Commission, reported in April 2004:

Attorney General John Ashcroft blamed what he called the refusal of the FBI and the CIA to work together during the Clinton administration for the failure to detect the plot for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, quoting an FBI investigator Tuesday as complaining that “whatever has happened to this, someday somebody will die.”  Ashcroft, a focus of fire as the commission investigating the attacks resumed its public hearings, said that for 10 years before Sept. 11, “a snarled web of requirements, restrictions and regulations … prevented decisive action by our men and women in the field.” 

“Government erected this wall,” he said. “Government buttressed this wall. And before Sept. 11, government was blinded by this wall.”

Ashcroft said he moved quickly once he was in office to overturn a “failed policy” that allowed U.S. agents to capture terrorist leader Osama bin Laden but not to assassinate him. He testified that he specifically told President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, that “we should find and kill bin Laden.” He said Rice gave the assignment to the CIA.

Ashcroft’s picture of an FBI estranged from its counterparts in the CIA built on criticisms of the FBI under former Director Louis Freeh during the Clinton administration and the first months of the Bush administration. The commission’s chairman described a new staff report as an “indictment” of the FBI during Freeh’s tenure, while Janet Reno, Freeh’s boss during the Clinton administration, said that at the agency, “the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing.”

Freeh told the commission that he resented the characterizations. “We had a very effective program with respect to counterterrorism prior to Sept. 11 given the resources that we had,” he maintained.

Freeh said financial constraints and legal restrictions on surveillance hamstrung his agents. The biggest problem, he said, was a Justice Department policy that restricted FBI counterterrorism investigators from sharing information even within the bureau in some cases. “We were using grand jury subpoenas and arrest warrants to fight an enemy that was using missiles and suicide boats to attack our warships,” Freeh said.

Former Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard and Cofer Black, former director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, also complained about inadequate funding and legal straitjackets  before Sept. 11, echoing Freeh’s testimony that officials did the best they could under the circumstances.

Still, some of the blame rested with Ashcroft, according to Pickard. A second staff report quoted Pickard as saying Ashcroft told him in the summer of 2001 that “he did not want to hear” additional information about possible attacks, an allegation he repeated in his public testimony Tuesday.

Ashcroft vehemently denied the charge. “Acting Director Pickard and I had more than two meetings. We had regular meetings,” he said. “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.”

Black, arguing that counterterrorism should have had more funding starting in the early 1990s, claimed that “if we had engaged this with a warrior ethos,” Sept. 11 would have never happened.

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