WASHINGTON – Intelligence and law enforcement officials from the Clinton and Bush administrations will face a barrage of questions Tuesday about just how much the United States knew of Al Qaeda (search) in the months preceding the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Beginning at 9 a.m. on Capitol Hill, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (search) will hear from Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, former Attorney General Janet Reno, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center Cofer Black and former acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard.
The panel on Wednesday will hear from CIA Director George Tenet, who has already testified once publicly, director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center John O'Brennan and other officials from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and CIA.
"I think they're going to be drilling down on specific things that … the FBI failed to do before" the Sept. 11 attacks, Graham Allison, former assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton, told Fox News.
Questions likely will include those on the so-called "Phoenix memo," a July 2001 memo by a Phoenix-based FBI agent warning that Al Qaeda terrorists might have been undergoing flight training at U.S. schools, Allison said.
"They have some wonderful, wonderful agents in the FBI out in those field offices. The problem is somewhere in that mushy middle, somehow stuff doesn't get up and doesn't get action from the top," commission chairman Thomas Kean (search) told Fox News Tuesday before the hearing.
Another possible missed signal that could be probed this week is the August 2001 arrest of student pilot Zacarias Moussaoui (search) on immigration charges. Moussaoui has since been charged with conspiracy in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The hearings will focus on the government's structure to address the terrorist threat within the United States before Sept. 11; the existing threat in 2001 and the government's response to it; the intelligence community's actions to address the threat; reforms that have been taken since Sept. 11 to respond to the threat inside the United States; and some of the results achieved by the reforms.
"We're looking very carefully at the record of President Clinton and President Bush, both what their assessment of the threats were prior to 9/11 in the FBI and CIA," the panel's vice chairman, Lee Hamilton (search), told Fox News. "We will be focusing particularly on those today."
Freeh: You Never Know What He's Going to Say
Usama bin Laden's terror network had already carried out attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and in October 2000 had successfully attacked the USS Cole in Yemen. At the time, Freeh headed the FBI. He left in June 2001, three months before the attacks.
In a piece written for the Wall Street Journal Monday Freeh asked: "Why didn't America's leadership declare war on Al Qaeda before Sept. 11, 2001 … when it was clear that Al Qaeda had already declared war on the United States?"
Freeh, who may get to answer his own question on Tuesday, said he met with Bush and Vice President Cheney to talk about terrorism within four days of their taking the White House. He said the president took the Al Qaeda threat seriously.
Political observers said Freeh's testimony should be interesting at the very least.
"You never know what he's going to say," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said of Freeh. "The key question the FBI will answer … is from what Condi Rice said in the 9/11 hearings, were they in fact tapped — the FBI — into looking at these threats before 9/11 by Al Qaeda."
Richardson noted that despite the criticism unleashed by former Clinton and Bush counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke that the White House didn't take the Al Qaeda threat seriously enough, the FBI traditionally has been the agency in charge of implementing all counterterrorism presidential directives.
He said it's no secret that for years, the FBI and CIA have done an ineffective job at communicating.
"Traditionally, in some instances, it was just awful," Richardson said, citing established statutes, turf wars, agency customs and other barriers.
Ashcroft likely will refute criticism that he was more focused on issues such as drugs and gun crimes than terrorism leading up to Sept. 11.
Last week, Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified that "structural problems" between the various intelligence agencies posed the biggest barrier for the White House in getting more exact details intelligence regarding the impending events.
Freeh also is expected to talk about how a lack of funding and resources may have contributed to the FBI's difficulty in fighting terrorism, a topic he's broached before various congressional intelligence panels.
But Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said that with the exception of fiscal year 1996, appropriations for counterterrorism and counterintelligence increased annually and the number of agents assigned to counterterrorism nearly tripled during the last seven years.
Grassley wrote a letter to Mueller on Monday asking how the agency's counterterrorism funds were used throughout the 1990s.
"It is important to note that in the same time period the FBI was receiving such large amounts of counterterrorism money from the Congress, terrorists were organizing, plotting, financing and in some cases, striking U.S. interests, both abroad and in this country itself, at the World Trade Center in 1993," wrote Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
"The FBI certainly had its share of counterterrorism successes, particularly the conviction of persons responsible for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and for the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. Even these victories were bittersweet, in that they consisted of investigations and prosecutions after the deadly attacks."
That Little 'Ole PDB
This week's panelists also likely will be questioned about the much-ballyhooed Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing entitled, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States." The Bush White House on Saturday released the document that was the source of much controversy last week.
Some commission members said the PDB was proof the White House knew enough to take preventative steps before Sept. 11. Other panelists and administration officials argue no details in the memo gave them insight into future events.
"I asked for the PDB ... I said to the intelligence agencies, 'bring me up to date. What do you know? Give me an assessment is the best way to put it,'" Bush told reporters Monday when asked about the PDB during a press briefing with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The document said "Usama bin Laden hated America ... we already knew that," the president said.
"There was nothing in this report that said, 'Oh by the way, we've got intelligence that says something's about to happen in America … this report was kind of a history of Usama's intentions — I guess is the best way to put it — a history of what the agency has known."
He said the memo, which reported that the FBI was conducting 70 investigations involving bin Laden at the time, brought him some comfort.
"Had they found something, I'm confident they would have reported back to me," Bush said.
Fox News' Julie Asher contributed to this report.