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FBI, Justice Dept. facing 9/11 panel
Updated: 2004-04-13 21:29

The day before the Sept. 11 attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft rejected an FBI appeal for an extra infusion of money for counterterrorism, according to a Sept. 11 commission staff statement released Tuesday.

The statement, issued as the independent panel's spotlight turned to the FBI and Justice Department, said Ashcroft on Sept. 10, 2001, rejected a request made earlier by acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard for "further counterterrorism enhancements" in the 2002 budget, which already would have boosted FBI spending by 8 percent.

That rejection came four months after Ashcroft, in testimony at a Senate terrorism hearing, said the Justice Department "has no higher priority" than protecting Americans from terrorism at home and abroad. And the decision occurred after months of rising concern at high government levels that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network might be preparing a major attack against U.S. interests.

The commission staff statement quotes a former FBI counterterrorism chief, Dale Watson, as saying he "almost fell out of his chair" when he saw a May 10 budget memo from Ashcroft listing seven priorities, including illegal drugs and gun violence, but not terrorism.

The statement opened a two-day round of hearings Tuesday on how law enforcement responded to the terror threat, with testimony from Ashcroft, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Pickard and former Attorney General Janet Reno. Former CIA counterterrorism center director Cofer Black also was scheduled to testify.

Ashcroft aides said the attorney general wanted to rebut criticism that he was less focused on terrorism than other law enforcement priorities. In a statement released Monday, FBI Director Robert Mueller, who testifies Wednesday, said that since his tenure began on Sept. 4, 2001, he and Ashcroft "have been in lockstep" in working to secure adequate counterterrorism resources for the FBI.

According to a commission document obtained by the Associated Press, Pickard also raised questions about the presence of former deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick on the panel. The document said that Pickard found her membership "surprising" because she and Reno had developed the policy to counter international terrorism primarily using law enforcement techniques.

Commission members say it is critical to learn what law enforcement officials did to confront the rising threat of terrorism inside the United States.

"The FBI is going to have to answer the question: 'Why didn't they deliver the information up? Did they get clear instructions from the top that it should be delivered up?'" said former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democratic member of the Sept. 11 commission.

The commission staff statement discussed a long list of FBI shortcomings on terrorism, including a culture in which agents got credit and promotions for making cases and arrests but not for intelligence work that resulted in fewer prosecutions. Counterintelligence and counterterrorism, the report said, "were viewed as backwaters" within the FBI.

Other problems included outmoded computer systems that prevented proper information sharing, lack of strategic analysis, a legal barrier called "the wall" that barred most contact between criminal and intelligence investigators, and a decentralized structure that kept terrorism cases in the 56 field offices instead of FBI headquarters.

"It was almost impossible to develop an understanding of the threat from a particular terrorist group," the staff statement said.

Mueller and other officials were scheduled to testify about steps the FBI has taken to improve its counterterrorism programs since Sept. 11.

The law enforcement hearings follow sessions by the commission that featured allegations ! and rebuttals ! that the Bush administration did not consider al-Qaida an urgent priority before Sept. 11.

Over the weekend, the White House released a previously classified Aug. 6, 2001, intelligence memo that warned al-Qaida was operating in the United States and might be looking to hijack airplanes. The memo did not provide specific times or places for potential attacks.

U.S. President Bush, speaking Monday with reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, repeated his view that the memo ! the president's daily brief, or PDB ! was "kind of a history" of bin Laden's intentions but contained no warning that "something is about to happen in America."

"There was nothing in there that said, you know, 'There is an imminent attack,'" Bush said.

Still, he added that now might be the right time to "revamp and reform our intelligence services."

Freeh defended his actions in Monday's editions of The Wall Street Journal, writing that the FBI expanded its overseas legal attache offices from 19 to 44 during his tenure, which ended three months before the attacks, and increased the prominence of joint terrorism task forces that include personnel from other agencies.

Freeh also said that at his first meeting with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, four days after they took office, they discussed terrorism, al-Qaida and several recent overseas attacks targeting American interests.

But Freeh and Pickard, the interim FBI director in summer 2001, said there were budgetary constraints. For example, Freeh said, the FBI asked for 1,895 special agents, linguists and analysts for counterterrorism in fiscal 2000, 2001 and 2002 ! and wound up with just 76.

Still, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a letter Monday to Mueller that total FBI spending rose some 132 percent from 1993 to 2003, with counterterrorism requests nearly always met or exceeded.

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