Magazine article The Nation

Ashcroft Attacks

Magazine article The Nation

Ashcroft Attacks

Article excerpt

When faced with criticism, accuse. That seems to be Attorney General John Ashcroft's rule of political survival. When called before the 9/11 Commission to discuss the Justice Department's and the FBI's responses to the Al Qaeda threat before 9/11, he blasted away: at the Clinton Administration, at the commission (one member in particular) and at unnamed Patriot Act critics. He admitted no errors. And he barely addressed the questions raised about his own actions before 9/11.

Interim reports of the 9/11 Commission note that the FBI Ashcroft inherited from Janet Reno was a mess (the computer system was decrepit, 66 percent of its analysts were unqualified to do their jobs, intelligence collection was woefully mismanaged) and that the bureau and the Justice Department had not regarded counterterrorism as a top priority. The reports also indicate that Ashcroft did little to change the status quo. In spring 2001, according to the commission, the Justice Department prepared an FBI budget that did not increase counterterrorism funding (bolstered in the first budget of the Bush Administration). On September 10 Ashcroft denied a request from the FBI for $50 million for additional counterterrorism agents and resources. Thomas Pickard, acting FBI director in mid-2001, told the commission that in summer 2001 he met with Ashcroft to brief him on the surge of intelligence related to terrorist threats but that after two such briefings Ashcroft told him he was not interested. (Ashcroft denies this.)

Ashcroft had a lot of FBI issues on his plate: the Wen Ho Lee investigation, FBI agent Robert Hanssen's espionage, mishandling of documents in the Timothy McVeigh case. Perhaps it was natural that, as a commission report says, the FBI's "counterterrorism strategy was not a focus of the Justice Department in 2001." Rather than acknowledge or explain this, Ashcroft came before the commission loaded for bear. He waved a mid-1990s Justice Department memo his department had just declassified, which he claims was the origin of the so-called wall that separated investigations of terrorists from criminal inquiries and which he and others blame for impeding counterterrorism efforts. This memo had been written by 9/11 commissioner Jamie Gorelick when she was Deputy Attorney General in the Clinton Administration. (Its relevance, one commission official later said, was "almost none": It merely laid out rules for one case, in which the FBI was actually expanding an inquiry involving Al Qaeda-related terrorists, and it was supplanted by broader guidelines--readopted, with modifications, by Ashcroft's department in August 2001. …

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