For Nearly a Decade Our Government Had Blinded Itself to its Enemies
Nearly a Decade Our Government Had Blinded Itself to its Enemies
Testimony of Attorney General John Ashcroft Before
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, April 13,
April 13, 2004.
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Washington,
It is with
great sorrow that I join this Commission today in reflection on September 11,
2001. Even today, 31 months after the attacks, I struggle to learn the lessons
of that day without being overwhelmed by the losses of that day. I feel sorrow
for the loss of life, sorrow for the loss of promise, sorrow for the lost
innocence of a nation forever scarred.
My sorrow for
the victims of September 11 is equaled only by my rage at their killer. Usama
Bin Laden is to blame for my anger. I blame his hatred for our values, his
perversion of a faith, his idolatry of death. It was his hand that took the
lives of nearly 3,000 innocents on September 11. It is his face that is the face
revealed not just our enemy's capacity for murder but our fellow Americans'
thirst for justice. The men and women of the Department of Justice have embraced
the cause of our time: the protection of the lives and liberties of Americans.
Working within the Constitution, we fight any battle and shoulder any burden --
no matter personal or political cost -- to prevent additional terrorist attacks.
And for the time being, al Qaeda's slaughter has ceased on American soil.
We have been
aggressive. We have been tough. And we have suffered no small amount of
criticism for our tough tactics. We accept this criticism for what it is: the
price we are privileged to pay for our liberty.
Had I known a
terrorist attack on the United States was imminent in 2001, I would have
unloaded our full arsenal of weaponry against it -- despite the inevitable
criticism. The Justice Department's warriors, our agents, and our prosecutors
would have been unleashed. Every tough tactic we have deployed since the attacks
would have been deployed before the attacks.
But the simple
fact of September 11 is this: we did not know an attack was coming because for
nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies. Our agents
were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed
restrictions, and starved for basic information technology. The old national
intelligence system in place on September 11 was destined to fail.
Commission can serve a noble purpose. Your responsibility is to examine the root
causes of September 11 and to help the United States prevent another terrorist
attack. Your duty is solemn and sobering. But I, too, have a duty today. I have
sworn to tell the whole truth, and I intend to fulfill this obligation.
Today I will
testify to four central issues which have not been developed fully in the
Commission's work and deserve your attention.
Commission has debated the nature of the covert action authorities directed at
Usama Bin Laden prior to 2001. In February 2001, shortly after becoming Attorney
General, I reviewed these authorities.
Let me be
clear: My thorough review revealed no covert action program to kill Bin Laden.
There was a covert-action program to capture Bin Laden for criminal prosecution.
But even this program was crippled by a snarled web of requirements,
restrictions and regulations that prevented decisive action by our men and women
in the field.
When they most
needed clear, understandable guidance, our agents and operatives were given the
language of lawyers. Even if they could have penetrated Bin Laden's training
camps, they would have needed a battery of attorneys to approve the capture.
With unclear guidance, our covert action team's risk of injury may have exceeded
the risk to Usama Bin Laden.
On March 7,
2001, I met with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. I recommended that
the covert-action authorities be clarified and be expanded to allow for decisive,
lethal action; we should end the failed "capture" policy. We should find and
kill Bin Laden. I recall that Dr. Rice agreed and gave Director Tenet
responsibility for drafting, clarifying, and expanding the new authorities.
point today goes to the heart of this Commission's duty to uncover the fact: The
single greatest structural cause for September 11 was the wall that segregated
criminal investigators and intelligence agents. Government erected this wall.
Government buttressed this wall. And before September 11, government was blinded
by this wall.
In 1995, the
Justice Department embraced flawed legal reasoning, imposing a series of
restrictions on the FBI that went beyond what the law required. The 1995
Guidelines and the procedures developed around them imposed draconian barriers
to communications between the law enforcement and intelligence communities. The
wall "effectively excluded" prosecutors from intelligence investigations. The
wall left intelligence agents afraid to talk with criminal prosecutors or
agents. In 1995, the Justice Department designed a system destined to fail.
In the days
before September 11, the wall specifically impeded the investigation into
Zacarias Moussaoui, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. After the FBI arrested
Moussaoui, agents became suspicious of his interest in commercial aircraft and
sought approval for a criminal warrant to search his computer. The warrant was
rejected because FBI officials feared breaching the wall.
When the CIA
finally told the FBI that al-Midhar and al-Hazmi were in the country in late
August, agents in New York searched for the suspects. But because of the wall,
FBI Headquarters refused to allow criminal investigators who knew the most about
the most recent al Qaeda attack to join the hunt for the suspected terrorists.
At that time,
a frustrated FBI investigator wrote Headquarters, quote, "Whatever has happened
to this -- someday someone will die -- and wall or not -- the public will not
understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at
certain 'problems'. Let's hope the National Security Law Unit will stand behind
their decision then, especially since the biggest threat to us, UBL, is getting
the most protection."
Headquarters responded, quote: "We are all frustrated with this issue ... These
are the rules. NSLU does not make them up."
did make these rules. Someone built this wall.
architecture for the wall in the 1995 Guidelines was contained in a classified
memorandum entitled "Instructions on Separation of Certain Foreign
Counterintelligence and Criminal Investigations." The memorandum ordered FBI
Director Louis Freeh and others, quote: "We believe that it is prudent to
establish a set of instructions that will more clearly separate the
counterintelligence investigation from the more limited, but continued, criminal
investigations. These procedures, which go beyond what is legally required, will
prevent any risk of creating an unwarranted appearance that FISA is being used
to avoid procedural safeguards which would apply in a criminal investigation."
memorandum established a wall separating the criminal and intelligence
investigations following the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the largest
international terrorism attack on American soil prior to September 11. Although
you understand the debilitating impact of the wall, I cannot imagine that the
Commission knew about this memorandum, so I have declassified it for you and the
public to review. Full disclosure compels me to inform you that its author is a
member of this Commission.
By 2000, the
Justice Department was so addicted to the wall, it actually opposed legislation
to lower the wall. Finally, the USA PATRIOT ACT tore down this wall between our
intelligence and law enforcement personnel in 2001. And when the PATRIOT ACT was
challenged, the FISA Court of Review upheld the law, ruling that the 1995
guidelines were required by neither the Constitution nor the law.
issue I would like to raise with the Commission this afternoon is another
limitation government placed on our ability to "connect the dots" of the
terrorist threat prior to September 11: the lack of support for information
technology at the FBI.
After I became
Attorney General in February 2001, it soon became clear that the FBI's computer
technology and information management was in terrible shape. The Bureau
essentially had 42 separate information systems, none of which were connected.
Agents lacked even the most basic Internet technology.
did not just hamper interagency communication; they hindered information sharing
with the Justice Department, the intelligence community, and state and local law
enforcement. It is no wonder, given the state of its technology, that the
Phoenix memo warning that terrorists may be training in commercial aviation was
lost in the antique computers at Washington headquarters.
Yet for year
after year, the FBI was denied the funds requested for its information
technology. Over eight years, the Bureau was denied nearly $800 million of its
information technology funding requests. To put this $800 million shortfall in
perspective, the Trilogy program, which is now revolutionizing computer, data
and information sharing at the Bureau, has cost $580 million.
11, 2001, the FBI's annual technology budget under the prior Administration was
actually $36.1 million less than the last Bush budget eight years before. The
FBI's information infrastructure had been starved and by September 11 it
collapsed from budgetary neglect.
Hannsen and McVeigh failures fully exposed that this neglect cost national
security, I ordered four independent external reviews of the FBI's information
infrastructure under coordination from the Deputy Attorney General. And my first
two budgets, both proposed before 9/11, requested a 50 percent increase for FBI
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am aware
that the issues I have raised this afternoon involve at times painful
introspection for this Commission and for the nation. I have spoken out today
not to add to the nation's considerable stock of pain, but to heal our wounds.
This Commission's heavy burden -- to probe the causes of September 11 -- demands
that the record be complete. Our nation's heavy burden -- to learn from the
mistakes of our past -- demands that this Commission seeks the whole truth.
Commission be successful in its mission. And may we learn well the lessons of
members of the Commission for their service and for the opportunity to testify