War Stories

Ashcroft Gets a Free Pass

Are the commissioners afraid to seem partisan?

Unchallenged. Why?

Why did the 9/11 commissioners let John Ashcroft off the hook?

As the attorney general took the stand at the hearings this afternoon, any viewer would have expected him to face a very big hook indeed. The evidence was mounting that, of all the negligent screw-ups in this tragic and woeful tale, Ashcroft may have been the most thoroughly negligent.

At the start of the day, Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 commission, delivered the staff’s interim conclusions about the FBI’s multiple mishaps in the months leading up to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center—and about Ashcroft’s role in exacerbating those mishaps.

The FBI, as has long been observed, was badly organized to tackle the threat. It lacked money, skilled personnel, and rudimentary information technology, among other crucial resources. 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, even though Ashcroft was privy to the same spike of threat alerts as President Bush and other officials.

This afternoon, right before Ashcroft appeared, Thomas Pickard, a former career FBI agent who served as the bureau’s acting director for the three months before 9/11, testified that he had briefed Ashcroft twice about the growing terrorist threat—and that, when he tried to brief him a third time, Ashcroft told him that he didn’t want to hear about the subject anymore.

Anticipating a devastating 90 minutes on the stand, the New York Times’ headline this morning read, “9/11 Panel Said to Offer Harsh Review of Ashcroft.” One former official with whom I spoke predicted that Ashcroft would emerge so battered that Bush might tap him as the fall guy.

And yet not only did the commissioners fail to lay a glove on the guy, they barely took a swing.

Something weird is going on in a session when former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson—the panel’s fiercest Republican attack dog—asks the most critical question. But that’s what happened this afternoon. Thompson asked Ashcroft about Pickard’s claim that he didn’t want to hear any more briefings about counterterrorism. Ashcroft replied, “I never said I didn’t want to hear about counterterrorism.”

That was the end of the exchange. No follow-up. Somebody’s lying—Ashcroft or Pickard—about an important matter. The commission didn’t seem bothered by that fact.

Ashcroft began his opening statement, “We did not know an attack was coming because, for nearly a decade, our government had blinded itself against its enemies.” The upshot of the last few weeks of hearings has been that—while, certainly, the FBI and the CIA were plagued with bureaucratic defects—many high-ranking officials, in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, personally failed to recognize and act on the clear signs of danger. Yet none of the commissioners chose to contrast these facts with Ashcroft’s no-fault claim.

Ashcroft insisted that he added more money to the Justice Department’s budget for counterterrorism than for any other function. This is patently untrue. It has been disputed by the commission’s staff, several previous witnesses, and public budget-documents. Yet none of the commissioners called him on it.

Richard Ben-Veniste, the Democratic former Watergate prosecutor, who has been a tough interrogator in previous sessions, went easy on the attorney general. He did ask about the fact that Ashcroft’s top five priorities—listed in a policy document of May 10, 2001—did not include fighting terrorism. Ashcroft answered that, at May 9 hearings before the Senate Appropriations Committee, he cited terrorism as his No. 1 priority. Ben-Veniste let it go.

Jamie Gorelick, a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, at least helped build on the record. Noting Ashcroft’s claim that he had never seen the famous President’s Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001 (the one headlined “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US”), she asked if he was aware of a very similar Aug. 7 executive intelligence briefing—distributed to hundreds of federal officials—that was titled “Terrorism: Bin Laden Determined To Strike in the United States.”* Ashcroft said he didn’t recall such a document; he was in Chicago at the time. Was he briefed about it afterward? He didn’t remember.

Before Ashcroft took the stand, it had been an interesting day of hearings, and not just for Pickard’s revelations. This morning, Janet Reno, the attorney general in the Clinton administration, disputed the notion that legal and structural impediments made it impossible for anyone to have stopped the 9/11 attacks. In the months leading up to the millennium, the FBI and CIA shared intelligence information, to fruitful effect. They’ve cooperated in some circumstances, she said—why not in others? The important thing, she added, is to get the principals—the Cabinet secretaries—together more often, “to cut through the red tape.”

Meanwhile, Reno noted, two things need to happen. First, the FBI has to get its act together. “I learned that the FBI didn’t know what it had,” she said. In the first four months of 2000, Reno wrote three memos to FBI Director Louis Freeh, directing the bureau to develop ways to assimilate, utilize, and share information from its own files. Second, she said, the intelligence agencies had to tear down not so much their structural barriers as their parochial loyalties. “End the culture,” she said, “where people say, ‘This is mine. I’ve got to keep it my case.’ “

Another message came from J. Cofer Black, who was director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 1999-2002 and, by far, the eeriest witness we’ve seen. Black looked like the real deal, a character dropped in (by parachute, on a moonless night) from a John le Carré novel. In his book, Richard Clarke described Black as “a hard-charging, get-it-done kind of CIA officer who had proved himself in the back alleys of unsavory places.” Black seemed uncomfortable to be out in the public glare, but he worked up a controlled rage over what he saw as the main source of our problem. Speaking on behalf of all the shadow warriors, he said, with a quietly spine-tingling fury, “We don’t have enough people to do the job, and we don’t have enough money, by magnitudes.”

Then came Ashcroft, who spoke without challenge on questions of culture, people, money, or responsibility.

Why? One charitable interpretation might be that the Democratic panelists decided to go easy. To bear down on Bush’s most controversial Cabinet officer—the liberals’ favorite whipping boy—might make them seem “partisan.” They have the goods on Ashcroft and the FBI; it will all come out in their final report. Why, they might have rationalized, polarize the situation by adding their own lashes? If that’s what they thought, they might have a point. But then, why hold these hearings? Everything the witnesses say in public, they’ve already said in closed sessions. The whole point of public hearings is to let us in—not just on the testimony and the findings, but also the judgments of and about our decision-makers. This afternoon, on this point, the commission deeply failed.

Correction, April 15, 2004: This piece originally referred to the Aug. 6 PDB by the incorrect title offered by Condoleezza Rice in her testimony before the commission. The title of the Aug. 7 Senior Executive Intelligence Brief was also corrected after examining the transcript of the hearings. (Return to corrected sentence.)