WASHINGTON – Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, legal, cultural and operational "walls" hindered the FBI from making more progress on terrorism investigations and coordinating better with other intelligence agencies, FBI Director Robert Mueller (search) testified Wednesday.
"We in the FBI are committed to doing everything in our power to make sure America again never suffers such a loss," Mueller told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (search).
"Since Sept. 11 ... we and our partners have been breaking down each of these walls … since that morning, protecting the United States from another attack became our over-riding priority."
Just one day earlier, Attorney General John Ashcroft also testified that these "walls" contributed to the culture that prevented the United States from effectively thwarting the attacks that left about 3,000 people dead.
"While we still have much work to do, the bureau is moving steadily in the right direction," Mueller said.
Mueller's testimony followed a morning of questioning of various intelligence and law enforcement officials of the commission. On Wednesday, the panel probed law enforcement and intelligence failures leading up to Sept. 11 that left the United States blindsided by the attacks.
CIA Director George Tenet (search), who has led that agency since 1997, earlier testified that the CIA provided "clear and direct" intelligence information to senior U.S. policy-makers about the threat Al Qaeda posed and the role Afghanistan played in coddling the terror network.
"The warning was well understood," Tenet said. "However, we never penetrated the 9/11 plot overseas … We did not discern the specific nature of the plot."
Prior to Sept. 11, the CIA was building the counterterrorism capability to effectively position the United States to go after Al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden, Tenet said, including more training of field spies.
That would be "instrumental" in going after the terror network operating in 68 countries and which had safe haven in Afghanistan, Tenet said. But it will take "another five years of work to have the kind of clandestine service our country needs," he added.
Commissioner Bob Kerrey asked why — given that Al Qaeda was responsible for attacking the USS Cole in October 2000 and that Ramzi Yousef (search), who was linked to Al Qaeda, had planed to put bombs on U.S.-bound airliners — both President Clinton and President Bush were so cautious about taking military action.
"Why couldn't they see alternatives to cruise missiles and basically the Normandy invasion?" asked Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska. "It seems to me, that contributed substantially to our failure to see 9/11."
Tenet said he's no policy-maker but "the most important strategic decision that was ultimately made was to take down the sanctuary [Afghanistan]." Al Qaeda was safe in Afghanistan when the Taliban led the country before U.S. forces drove the radical Islamic government out.
Tenet: CIA Indictment 'Flat Wrong'
The commission released the latest in a series of reports Wednesday that said the CIA missed the big-picture significance of "tell-tale indicators" — such as suicide hijackers needing to take flight courses — of impending terrorist attacks, in part because of its culture of a piecemeal approach to intelligence analysis.
Establishing these indicators could have raised red flags following a July 2001 FBI "Phoenix memo" (search) of terrorist interest in aircraft training in Arizona, and the August 2001 arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui because of suspicious behavior in a Minnesota flight school, the report said.
The panel did, however, note that the CIA efforts were challenged by staffing limitations and the daily demands of issuing fresh intelligence summaries to government policy-makers.
"While many dedicated officers worked day and night for years to piece together the growing body of evidence on Al Qaeda and to understand the threats, in the end it was not enough to gain the advantage before the 9/11 attacks," the commission said.
Tenet said he has "serious issues" with the staff statement, which said as director of Central Intelligence, he didn't have a strategic plan to handle the War on Terror or to collect and manage intelligence data.
"That's flat wrong," Tenet said, adding that the current process "ain't perfect … but we've made an enormous amount of progress."
"The implication that the intelligence community can't talk to each other is wrong."
Separating Agency Roles Would be 'Grave Mistake'
Both Mueller and Tenet opposed any notion that separating the law enforcement components of the FBI and CIA from the terrorism and intelligence components would be a better organization for the intelligence community. The FBI deals mainly with domestic intelligence; the CIA deals with intelligence overseas.
Siphoning off the agency responsibilities "would lead both agencies to fighting the war on terrorism with one hand behind their backs" and would be a "grave mistake," Mueller said.
He said so much progress has been made in breaking down the walls between the CIA and FBI, that the two agencies are now "integrated at virtually every level of our operation" and will be more so when the FBI's counterterrorism division is housed in the same building as that of the CIA.
Other officials echoed Tenet's sentiment that the threat was "unambiguous."
"We fought this enemy in the 1990s but it was the tragedy of 9/11 that unified us and allowed us to counter this threat" as never before," testified James Pavitt, CIA deputy director of operations.
"We knew the threat was lethal, unambiguous and we knew it was coming at us. We put our heart and soul into preventing those attacks … but we failed."
Officials also said that the country is better off now in terms of being able to protect itself against attacks than it was prior to Sept. 11.
"There's been a fundamental paradigm shift at the FBI since 9/11," testified John Pistole, executive assistant director for counterterrorism and counterintelligence at the FBI.
We Knew the Who, Not the What
On Tuesday, officials said that a huge uptick in terrorist chatter in the summer of 2001 suggested a "massive terrorist strike" sometime in the future 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," Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) testified.
"We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade, our government had blinded itself to its enemy," Ashcroft continued, citing "walls," or barriers between intelligence and law enforcement agents.
Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno (search) testified that after Ashcroft replaced her, she never told him specifically about Al Qaeda or bin Laden, even though, during her nearly eight-year tenure as attorney general, she was briefed on the presence of Al Qaeda within the United States but not on the exact locations of the cells.
Former FBI Director Louis Freeh said the agency didn't have effective resources to go after terrorists and the country wasn't prepared to launch an all-out effort against them until after Sept. 11.
"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," Freeh said.
"You'll never hear from us, 'we didn't get it ' … we got it all right, we gave it all we had," testified Cofer Black (search), former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center. "We didn't have enough people to do the job and we didn't have enough money by magnitudes."