THE 9/11 COMMISSION: JUSTICE'S BLIND SPOT

The FBI was on the case--or was it? According to the newly declassified Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) for Aug. 6, 2001, the FBI was conducting 70 "full field investigations" into Al Qaeda cells in the United States a month before the 9/11 attacks. That does not mean, however, that the FBI agents were capable of finding much suspicious activity or, if they did, that the information would ever make its way up the chain of command. It is well known by now, for instance, that at least one FBI agent in Phoenix reported in July 2001 that an unusually large number of Middle Easterners, some with Al Qaeda ties, had enrolled in flight schools. And that the next month, the FBI started looking for two Al Qaeda suspects who turned out to be 9/11 hijackers.

But at the top, the FBI leadership was more concerned with squabbling with its supposed bosses in the Justice Department. Or so it may seem this week when top officials from the bureau and Justice testify before the 9/11 commission. After the FBI's embattled Director Louis Freeh left in June of 2001, his temporary fill-in, Tom Pickard--a lifelong G-man described as "bureau to the core"-- struggled to keep new Attorney General John Ashcroft from horning in on his turf. From time to time, Ashcroft had begun occupying a long unused office for the A.G. at FBI headquarters. Ashcroft had ordered up two Inspector General reports and a management review of the FBI by an outside consultant.

To the G-men, Ashcroft seemed at once overbearing and naive. Informed of the FBI investigation into Al Qaeda after taking office in March, Ashcroft asked, "Why don't we go out and arrest these guys?" Not enough evidence, was the answer. Then Ashcroft seemed to lose interest in the terrorism issue, some bureau officials say. His predecessor, Janet Reno, demanded to be regularly briefed on the status of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act cases on terror suspects. Ashcroft told Justice lawyers he did not need to hear daily reports. "It's like a soap opera," Ashcroft said at one meeting, according to a former Justice official. "You can tune in once a week and catch up with what's been going on." (An Ashcroft aide denies that the A.G. made such a comment.)

Ashcroft never saw that Aug. 6, 2001, PDB warning of an Al Qaeda attack inside the United States. Why? Because President George W. Bush, with his penchant for secrecy, had restricted the distribution of the PDB to just seven national-security officials. The A.G. didn't make the cut. On July 12, it is true, Ashcroft had been briefed by Pickard about the rising number of Al Qaeda threats abroad. But when Ashcroft inquired, "Do you have any information indicating a threat to the continental United States?" Pickard responded no.

Pickard will testify that in a July conference call, he alerted all 56 FBI field offices to be on the lookout for Al Qaeda activity. But FBI whistle-blower Colleen Rowley says she never got the word. Rowley tried unsuccessfully to get headquarters to pay attention to Zacarias Moussaoui, an Al Qaeda suspect arrested in August while attending flight training. "I didn't see any warnings about Al Qaeda that summer," she said.

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