White House on 9/11 Accountability: The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here
The Bush administration fought the establishment of the 9/11 Commission and its access to government documents and witnesses. It fought the clock on how much time the president would "visit" with the Commission. When he does some time in the future, he’ll be chaperoned by the vice president.
Since former terrorism official Richard Clarke highlighted a "lack of urgency" about al Qaeda inside the White House prior to 9/11, the Bush administration has been busy passing the counterterrorism buck as far from the President as possible. Dr. Condoleezza Rice in her testimony last Thursday painted a picture of a passive White House that took in threat information about a possible al Qaeda attack; established a strategic view; but took little action. The White House repeatedly mentioned a lack of complete intelligence, but failed to acknowledge a complete lack of leadership and responsibility.
While the White House has been busy blaming the FBI, the FBI has pointed fingers at the attorney general, and the attorney general has shot back at the FBI and the CIA. Amid all of the "he said, she said," the 9/11 Commission has uncovered some troubling facts.
For a president who came into office pledging to restore accountability, the Bush White House apparently does not believe the buck stops there.
- During questioning before the 9/11 Commission, Rice said, "I also understood that that was what the FBI was doing, that the FBI was pursuing these al Qaeda cells. I believe in the August 6th memorandum it says that there were 70 full field investigations under way of these cells. And so there was no recommendation that we do something about this; the FBI was pursuing it."
- Later in the hearing, when pressed on whether the FBI was actually aggressively pursuing terrorism threats in the United States, Rice ducked any White House accountability, "The responsibility for the FBI to do what it was asked was the FBI’s responsibility."
- Last Friday, White House officials "questioned whether the FBI executed the instructions to intensify its scrutiny of terrorist suspects and contacts in the United States." The White House provided The New York Times parts of a classified memo from Richard Clarke to Rice that referenced the tasking of the FBI’s field offices.
- On Monday, President Bush again put the focus squarely on the FBI, saying "whoever was the Acting FBI Director, had they found something, would have said, Mr. President, we have found something that you need to be concerned about in your duties to protect America. That didn’t happen."
- Newsweek reported an "extraordinary confrontation" between the attorney general and the then-director of the FBI Louis Freeh at the annual meeting of FBI Special Agents in Charge in May 2001. Ashcroft and Freeh met before their appearance and the attorney general laid out his priorities, "’basically, violent crime and drugs,’ recalls one participant. Freeh replied bluntly that those were not his priorities, and started to talk about terror and counterterrorism. ‘Ashcroft didn’t want to hear about it,’ says a former senior law enforcement official."
- The New York Times and Washington Post reported recently that Thomas J. Pickard, acting director of the FBI in the summer of 2001, has told the 9/11 Commission that Ashcroft had "little interest" in terrorism.
- Attorney General Ashcroft’s press spokesperson, Mark Corallo, asserted that Ashcroft was briefed regularly by the CIA and FBI regarding threats posed by al Qaeda, and "he [Ashcroft] was not briefed that there was any threat to the United States. He kept asking if there was any action he needed to take, and he was constantly told no, you’re doing everything you need to do."
- 9/11 Commissioner Tim Roemer said during Rice’s hearing that "we have done thousands of interviews here at the 9/11 Commission. We’ve gone through literally millions of pieces of paper. To date, we have found nobody – nobody at the FBI who knows anything about a tasking of field offices. We have talked to the director at the time of the FBI during this threat period, Mr. Pickard. He says he did not tell the field offices to do this. And we have talked to the special agents in charge. They don’t have any recollection of receiving a notice of threat."
- 9/11 Commissioner Jamie Gorelick described messages sent out from FBI HQ on terrorism during the summer of 2001 as "feckless," that "they don’t tell anyone anything," and that "the Washington field office international terrorism people say they never heard about the threat, they never heard about the warnings, they were not asked to come to the table and shake those trees."
- A July 10, 2001 electronic communication from an FBI Special Agent in Phoenix asking FBI HQ to initiate an investigation of possible penetration of U.S. flight schools by al Qaeda operatives was not acted upon.
- INS agents assigned to the Minneapolis Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested Zacarias Moussaoui on August 15, 2001 on a visa over-stay because of his suspicious behavior at a flight training school prompted the school’s officials to contact the FBI. Minneapolis FBI agents urgently and repeatedly demanded a broader investigation into Mr. Moussaoui but were refused by FBI HQ.
- According to the report of the Congressional Joint Inquiry into September 11th attacks, two of the hijackers had extensive contacts with an active FBI counter-terrorism informant while living in San Diego, California. The report also indicated that seven individuals known to the FBI through earlier or then-current investigations had contacts with some of the hijackers.
- During Rice’s testimony, Commissioner Gorelick illustrated what may have occurred had the FBI been more proactive. "I personally believe, having heard [FBI Special Agent] Colleen Rowley’s testimony about her frustrations in the Moussaoui incident, that if someone had really gone out to the agents who were working these issues on the ground and said, ‘We are at battle stations. We need to know what’s happening out there. Come to us,’ she would have broken through barriers to have that happen, because she was knocking on doors and they weren’t opening."
- Whether a more focused response by the White House during the Spring 2001, as threat information of an attack mounted, could have prevented the attacks is unknowable. No one is suggesting that the president or White House knew the full details of the al Qaeda plot. Among the questions before the 9/11 Commission is "Why not?" A contributing factor has to be the clear reduction in the priority counterterrorism received during the first eight months of the Bush administration. The President and his national security team had time to thoroughly review the issues of national missile defense, Iraq and big power relationships such as Russia and China. As Rice acknowledged, there were 33 high level meetings before the administration finally focused on al Qaeda – exactly one week before the attacks. It is simply not credible for the administration to claim that counterterrorism was a real priority or that it could not have done more.
- Despite her attempts to point the finger at anyone else, in her testimony before the 9/11 Commission Rice admitted that the national security adviser is responsible for ensuring that the agencies responsible for protecting the American people from attack are doing their jobs. Rice said, "the president of the United States had us at battle stations during this period of time. He expected his secretary of state to be locking down embassies. He expected his secretary of defense to be providing force protection. He expected his FBI director to be tasking his agents and getting people out there. He expected his director of central intelligence to be out and doing what needed to be done in terms of disruption. And he expected his national security advisor to be looking to see that – or talking to people to see that that was done."