WASHINGTON – A huge uptick in terrorist chatter in the summer of 2001 suggested a "massive terrorist strike" sometime in the future, intelligence and law enforcement experts testified Tuesday, but no specific information pointed to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"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," Attorney General John Ashcroft said.
The "simple fact" of Sept. 11 was, Ashcroft continued, in a thinly-veiled criticism of the Clinton administration, that "we did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade, our government had blinded itself to its enemy."
Plus, he said that "walls," or barriers between intelligence and law enforcement agents helped create the kind of culture that allowed Sept. 11 to happen.
Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno testified earlier before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (search) that she did not specifically brief her replacement, Ashcroft, on Al Qaeda threats to the U.S. homeland. Also, former FBI Director Louis Freeh said the agency didn't have effective resources to go after terrorists, an argument backed up by other officials Tuesday.
Other intelligence and law enforcement officials testified that despite all the chatter in the summer of 2001, all they knew was that Al Qaeda wanted to inflict harm on the United States.
"None of this, unfortunately, specified method time or place," said Cofer Black, former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center, adding that the agency was still actively pursuing Al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden.
"None of what we knew or learned pointed to the events that happened on 9/11," added Thomas Pickard, who was interim FBI director at that time. All threats "were taken seriously but all were daunting," and most pointed to threats overseas, he said.
Officials said the chatter about possible threats subsided in August 2001 but threats remain.
"Our enemies are still out there preparing to attack us and our allies in the war on terrorism," Black said.
"The members of Al Qaeda are a formidable enemy," added Pickard, noting that terror camps in Afghanistan churn out more graduates than the FBI and CIA training camps combined.
Sept. 11 represented the "high cost of the collective failure of the United States' government to penetrate the inner workings of Al Qaeda," he added.
On Wednesday, the commission will hear testimony from FBi Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet, among others.
Ashcroft: Terrorism Was My Priority
Pickard testified that he only met with Ashcroft twice and that he didn't think terrorism was a budget priority for Ashcroft.
But Ashcroft said he had regular meetings with Pickard.
"I never told him that I didn't want to hear about terrorism," the attorney general said. "I was very interested about terrorism and specifically interrogated him about threats to the American people and domestic threats, in particular."
He noted that on March 7, 2001, he met with President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and recommended that since there was no Clinton-era covert-action plan to kill bin Laden but only to capture -- and even that was proving difficult -- a new tactic be taken.
"'We should end the failed capture policy,' I said. 'We should find and kill bin Laden,'" Ashcroft said he told Rice, who agreed and put Tenet on the task.
The commission released a staff report Tuesday saying the FBI failed over several years to reorganize and respond to a steadily growing threat of terrorism. The report said Ashcroft rejected an appeal from the agency for more funding on the day before Al Qaeda struck.
The report quoted former FBI counterterrorism chief, Dale Watson, as saying he "almost fell out of his chair" when he saw a May 10, 2001, budget memo from Ashcroft listing seven priorities, including illegal drugs and gun violence but not terrorism.
Reno: 'I Never Focused on Just Al Qaeda'
Reno said that after Ashcroft replaced her when President Bush took office in 2001, she sent him memos saying the government needs to "connect the dots" in regards to terrorism and to deal with it. But she said she doesn't recall talking to Ashcroft specifically about Al Qaeda or bin Laden.
During her nearly eight-year tenure as attorney general, Reno said she was briefed on the presence of Al Qaeda within the United States but not on the exact locations of the cells.
"I never focused on just on Al Qaeda because I stood there and watched the [Alfred P.] Murrah building in rubble," Reno said, referring to the deadly 1995 attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City. The blast was pinned on two American men, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, but there was rampant speculation at first that it was an act of foreign terrorism.
"You can't jump to conclusions," Reno said. "You can't say that one thing's going to be our overriding issue … We have got to be prepared for terrorism in any form and a focus on one is going to make it difficult."
But she said the Clinton administration knew of many terrorist threats when Clinton took office in 1992.
"We understood from early on in the Clinton administration that terrorism posed a great threat to Americans on American soil," Reno said, adding that Mueller should be given all the resources he needs to counter such threats.
Freeh: We Weren't Fighting a 'Real War'
Freeh, who was FBI chief from 1993-2001, said the agency suffered from a lack of resources to effectively hunt down terrorists. Specialists in Arabic and Farsi were desperately needed, particular in New York City, where many Al Qaeda investigations were housed, Freeh said.
Nobody thought investigating terrorism cases was the best response to "acts of war," committed against U.S. troops overseas in the 1990s known to be the handiwork of Al Qaeda, Freeh said.
But "in the absence of invading Afghanistan, in the absence of armed predator missiles seeking out our enemies … we were left with alternatives that were better than no alternatives … sometimes they worked," he said.
Democratic commissioner Bob Kerrey hammered Freeh on why more airport security and other measures weren't taken when there was even the notion that Al Qaeda was interested in hijacking U.S. airliners.
"Even in the absence of a [formal] declaration of war, why did we let their [Al Qaeda] soldiers into the United States?" Kerry asked.
"We weren't fighting a real war … neither [the Clinton nor the Bush] administration put their intelligence or law enforcement agencies on a war footing" to seal the borders, detain suspicious people or enact legislation like the Patriot Act (search) that tore down many legal barriers to going after terrorists, Freeh responded, adding that he knew of no concrete terrorist plan to use commercial airliners as bombs.
Freeh said he met once every two weeks with Reno and Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger to go over "every single piece" of counterterrorism information. Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism adviser under Bush and Clinton, suggested during his testimony two weeks ago that White House national security officials were frustrated at the lack of information-sharing from the FBI.
Clarke was not present at those meetings with Reno and Berger, Freeh said.
Freeh's argument that agencies didn't have enough resources was backed up by other panelists.
"You'll never hear from us, 'we didn't get it ' … we got it all right, we gave it all we had," Black said. "We didn't have enough people to do the job and we didn't have enough money by magnitudes.
"Unfortunately, when Americans get killed, it would translate into more resources. Either you run out or people die. When people die, you get more money."