WASHINGTON - United States Attorney General John Ashcroft told the September 11 commission today the Clinton administration bore most of the blame for the attacks because it allowed US defences to wither for eight years.
Facing charges he blocked counter-terrorism funds in 2001 at a dramatic day of testimony on the attacks that killed nearly 3000 people, Ashcroft found himself at the centre of a storm over his actions in the months before they took place.
In two staff reports, the panel investigating the hijacked airliner assaults on New York and Washington also levelled stinging criticism at the Justice Department and the FBI for failing to meet the growing threat from al Qaeda.
The commission cited a May 10 Justice Department document setting priorities for 2001. The top priorities cited were reducing gun violence and combating drug trafficking. There was no mention of counter-terrorism.
When Dale Watson, the head of the counter-terrorism division, saw the document, he "almost fell out of his chair," the commission report said.
Ashcroft testified that he had told the Senate the previous day that his number one priority was to protect the American people against terrorism. He said the May 10 memorandum was based on goals developed by the previous administration.
"We did not know that an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies," Ashcroft said.
"Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions and starved for basic information and technology."
Earlier, Thomas Pickard, who was acting FBI director in the summer of 2001, said Ashcroft had blocked the funds he sought.
"The additional funds we were looking for on counter-terrorism were denied," Pickard said. He appealed against the decision but added, "On September 12, (the day after the attacks) I read a denial of that appeal from the attorney general."
Ashcroft said the Justice Department was still operating under the Clinton administration's budget in 2001. He said President George W Bush had proposed the largest counter-terrorism budget increase for five years and was moving urgently to upgrade the FBI's antiquated computer systems when the attacks took place.
He said that over the eight years of the Clinton administration, the FBI's technology budget was "starved for funds" and was US$36 million below its 1992 level.
The commission's two staff reports issued on Tuesday analysed in detail the failure to prevent the hijacked airliner attacks on New York and Washington.
The FBI came in for stiff criticism, as well, with the commission determining the bureau was hampered by a culture resistant to change, inadequate resources and legal barriers.
"On September 11, 2001, the FBI was limited in several areas critical to an effective, preventive counter-terrorism strategy," the report said.
Appearing before the panel to defend his oversight of the bureau from 1993 until a few months before the attacks, former FBI Director Louis Freeh testified that he sought permission to hire almost 1900 counter-terrorism linguists, analysts and agents in the last three years but was allowed to add just 76.
He rejected a characterisation by the commission's Republican chairman, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, that the staff report amounted to an indictment of the FBI.
The second report quoted Pickard as saying he had briefed Ashcroft on terrorist threats in late June and July 2001 but the attorney general was not interested.
"After two such briefings, the attorney general told him he did not want to hear this information anymore," the report quoted Pickard as saying. Pickard himself repeated the charge in his testimony but Ashcroft vehemently denied it.
"Acting Director Pickard and I had more than two meetings. We had regular meetings," he said.
"Secondly I did never speak to him saying that I did not want to hear about terrorism. I care greatly about the safety and security of the American people and was very interested in terrorism, and specifically interrogated him about threats to the American people and domestic threats in particular."
Freeh said FBI counter-terrorism operations were severely underfunded and understaffed before the attacks, partly due to a 22-month congressionally imposed hiring freeze in the early 1990s.
Freeh, who has been criticised widely for failing to usher the FBI into the modern, computerised age, also said intelligence services were aware of the danger that a terrorist might use a hijacked plane as a weapon.
He said steps were taken to defend the White House as well as special events at home and abroad, such as the 2000 Olympic Games and meetings of world leaders, against such a threat but nothing was done to protect the country at large.
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9-11 Commission):
Testimony of John Ashcroft, Attorney-General [PDF]
Herald Feature: September 11
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