The U.S. government's top law enforcement officials say, based on the information they have seen, it is unlikely they could have prevented the September 11 terrorist attacks. At the same time, they are defending the Bush administration's decision to give federal agents more leeway to conduct surveillance in the United States.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is getting an overhaul, amidst charges it ignored warning signs of possible terrorist activity.
But Attorney General John Ashcroft says even taking into account all those indications of potential trouble, it's unlikely the September 11 attacks could have been prevented. "My view," he told ABC-TV's This Week, "is that information we now have does not indicate that there was a substantial likelihood of detecting."
FBI Director Robert Mueller offered a similar assessment during an appearance on NBC television's Meet the Press. He acknowledged once again, that the agency's performance prior to September 11 was not strong enough. Mr. Mueller noted that major changes are underway to improve the FBI's ability to analyze bits and pieces of information into one cohesive pattern. "There is a torrent of information that comes in," he pointed out. "And what we have to do better in the future is have the analytical capability as well as the technological capability to sort through that and pull out these bits of information and put them in the puzzle so we can better predict future attacks and that is what we are doing."
Both the FBI chief and the attorney general defended their decision to ease surveillance guidelines for federal agents so they can monitor internet sites, political rallies, houses of worship and other public places.
The old rules, put in place in 1976, required evidence of a crime before the FBI could engage in surveillance on U.S. soil. The intention at the time was to prevent the kind of abuses that occurred during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when agents monitored the personal lives of movement leaders.
A key congressman warned Saturday against easing the rules, even in the name of fighting terrorism. Republican James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN he is worried. "I get very, very queasy when federal law enforcement is effectively saying they are going back to the bad old days when the FBI was spying on people like Martin Luther King," Mr. Sensenbrenner said, referring to the slain civil rights leader.
Attorney General Ashcroft responded by saying America is at war, and changing the surveillance guidelines is necessary to protect against future terrorist attacks. "That is our job," he observed. "That is what the American people want us to do. That is what we must do."
On Tuesday, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees will launch a series of hearings into the events of September 11. The closed-door sessions will look into the way the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency handled the terrorist threat and why they were unable to detect that something of this magnitude was about to happen.
Two lawmakers from Florida will lead the congressional inquiry, Democrat Bob Graham in the Senate, and Republican Porter Goss in the House. Senator Graham said on Meet the Press that he has firm goals in mind. "First, we want to inform the American people as to what happened on September 11th and the events that made September 11th possible," he said. "Second, we want to learn from the experience and be able to recommend to the American people the reforms we think are necessary to ease the chances of another September 11th occurring in the future."
The Bush administration has said it will cooperate with the congressional intelligence committees and is turning over detailed information. Leaders of the probe vow to conduct a painstaking, thorough review.