WASHINGTON – The FBI failed over several years to reorganize and respond to a steadily growing threat of terrorism, and Attorney General John Ashcroft rejected an appeal from the agency for more funding on the day before Al Qaeda (search) struck, the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks said Tuesday.
"On Sept. 11, the FBI was limited in several areas," the commission said in a staff report. It cited "limited intelligence collection and strategic analysis capabilities, a limited capacity to share information both internally and externally, insufficient training, an overly complex legal regime and inadequate resources."
The commission released its unflinchingly critical report at the outset of two days of hearings from several current and former officials at the Justice Department and FBI.
Former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh (search) was the first to take the witness chair. "We had a very effective program with respect to counterterrorism prior to Sept. 11 given the resources that we had," he said.
That seemed a reference to internal bureaucratic wars covered in part in the commission staff report.
In that report, former Attorney General Janet Reno (search) said that while the FBI never seemed to have sufficient resources, "Director Freeh seemed unwilling to shift resources to terrorism from other areas such as violent crime."
On Sept. 11, 2001, the commission staff said, "about 1,300 agents, or 6 percent of the FBI's total personnel, worked on counterterrorism."
The report said the FBI had an information system that was outdated before it was installed, further hampering efforts to battle terrorism. The report also cited legal impediments — the need to separate the fruits of intelligence from criminal prosecution — as complicating anti-terrorism efforts.
Creation of a new Investigative Services Division (search) in 1999 was a failure, the commission said, adding that 66 percent of the FBI's analysts were "not qualified to perform analytical duties."
A new counterterrorism strategy a year later again fell woefully short, and a review in 2001 showed that "almost every FBI field office's counterterrorism program was assessed to be operating at far below `maximum capacity.'"
"The FBI's counterterrorism strategy was not a focus of the Justice Department in 2001," the first year of the Bush administration, it said.
Ashcroft has testified previously that the Justice Department had "no higher priority" than protecting Americans from terrorism at home and abroad.
Yet 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.
Additionally, on Sept. 10, Ashcroft rejected an appeal from Pickard for additional funding, the commission said.
Ashcroft aides said the attorney general hoped to use his appearance before the commission to rebut criticism that he was less focused on terrorism than other law enforcement priorities. In a statement released Monday, the current FBI director, Robert Mueller, 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. Mueller is scheduled to testify Wednesday.
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 Pickard found her membership "surprising" because she and Reno had developed the policy to counter international terrorism primarily through the use of law enforcement techniques.
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.