The independent commission investigating the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington highlighted a series of missteps and missed opportunities Tuesday by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the months before September 11.
The 9/11 commission issued an interim report Tuesday taking the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to task for not making terrorism more of a priority in the months leading up to the 2001 attacks.
The commission also faulted a lack of cooperation on sharing intelligence information between the FBI and the CIA and said the FBI was limited in its efforts to collect and analyze intelligence information about domestic terrorist threats.
Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the Bush administration during Tuesday's hearing, saying the country was caught unaware on September 11 because the U.S. government had "blinded itself to our enemies" for nearly a decade.
But Mr. Ashcroft also came in for criticism for turning down a request for more money for counter-terrorism efforts on the day before the September 11th attacks.
In addition, the acting FBI director on the day of the attacks, Thomas Pickard, told the commission that Mr. Ashcroft was impatient with repeated briefings on the threat of terrorism in the weeks before September 11.
Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste questioned Mr. Pickard about his briefings of Attorney General Ashcroft.
Ben-Veniste: You said that you would start each meeting discussing either counter-terrorism or counter-intelligence. At the same time, the threat level was going up and was very high. Mr. Watson [FBI official] had come to you and said that the CIA was very concerned that there would be an attack. You said that you told the attorney general this fact repeatedly in these meetings. Is that correct?
Pickard: I told him at least on two occasions.
Ben-Veniste: And you told the staff, according to this statement, that Mr. Ashcroft told you that he did not want to hear about this anymore. Is that correct?
Pickard: That is correct. Attorney General Ashcroft denied Mr. Pickard's account and said the threat of terrorism was always one of his top priorities.
"Acting Director Pickard and I had more than two meetings. We had regular meetings," he said. "Secondly, I did never speak to him saying 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."
Commission Chairman Thomas Kean says the critical report on the FBI amounts to what he called "an indictment." Former FBI Director Louis Freeh took issue with that assessment. He said the main problem was a lack of resources devoted to identifying terror threats and dealing with them.
Former CIA counter-terrorism chief Cofer Black says his people were trying to track down intelligence on terror threats in the months before September 11 but didn't have enough resources.
"The bottom line here, I got to tell you and I will take part of the blame on this, I kind of failed my people despite doing everything I could, we did not have enough people to do the job and we did not have enough money by magnitudes," he said.
Commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic Senator from Nebraska, expressed frustration that the increase in terror warnings in the weeks before the September 11 attacks seemed to have little impact on both law enforcement agencies and civil aviation officials.
"We were at ease. We stacked arms," he said. "I mean, we were not prepared at all and it is baffling to me why some alert was not given to the airlines to alter their preparedness and to go to a much higher state of alert."
The commission report says the FBI had a culture in which agents were often promoted for investigations that led to arrest and prosecutions, but that probes involving intelligence and counter-terrorism efforts were considered what it called "backwaters," or low priority areas within the agency.
The 9/11 commission was established by Congress and the White House in 2002 for the purpose of finding out what went wrong in the lead-up to the 2001 attacks and what can be done to prevent future attacks. A final commission report is due by the end of July.