10 questions for John Ashcroft

When the 9/11 commission grills the attorney general Tuesday, here's what they should ask.


Judd Legum
April 13, 2004 2:11AM (UTC)

Until now, Attorney General John Ashcroft has been a beneficiary of the intense attention paid to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. The controversy surrounding Rice has taken the focus away from Ashcroft's own counterterrorism record -- a record of misplaced priorities, missed opportunities and mistakes. But, on Tuesday, Ashcroft will raise his right hand, take an oath and testify publicly before the 9/11 commission.

Here are 10 key questions the commissioners should ask the attorney general:

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1) If counterterrorism was a top priority for the Justice Department prior to 9/11, why did Ashcroft ignore the FBI's specific request in August 2001 for additional counterterrorism resources?

That month the FBI submitted its internal budget request to the Department of Justice, seeking 248 counterterrorism agents and support staff, 54 translators to review a backlog of foreign language intelligence, and 200 professional intelligence researchers to analyze the intelligence. Yet when Ashcroft submitted his final budget request to the White House on Sept. 10, 2001, 24 hours before the al-Qaida attacks, he did not request funding for any of the FBI's urgent needs. In fact, Ashcroft proposed cuts in counterterrorism efforts, including a $65 million reduction for counterterrorism equipment grants, a $20 million reduction for border control, and a $1.4 million reduction for the National Domestic Preparedness Office. Of the 68 programs where Ashcroft proposed increases, not a single one involved counterterrorism. In Attorney General Janet Reno's budget for 2000, counterterrorism was her first priority. What was Ashcroft's thinking that led him to remove it as a priority and to propose extensive cuts?

2) Why wasn't counterterrorism one of the seven strategic goals Ashcroft outlined in a May 2001 memo to his division heads?

In that memo, he outlined his major goals for the upcoming budget year. Among his priorities: reducing gun violence, protecting the rights of crime victims, and strengthening internal Justice Department financial systems. Counterterrorism was not mentioned. By contrast, Attorney General Janet Reno's budget guidance of April 2000 listed counterterrorism as the area where "up-to-date human and technological infrastructure" was critical.

By August 2001, Ashcroft had created a "strategic plan" document to spotlight his priorities. Out of 36 "objectives" Ashcroft highlighted 13 in yellow. The document explained "Highlight=AG Goal." Although objective 1.3 was "combat terrorist activities," it was not highlighted. Tellingly, in November 2001, Ashcroft released a revised strategic plan that contained the same seven strategic goals as the original and one addition. Now his No. 1 goal: "Protect America Against the Threat of Terrorism." But who had neglected it before 9/11?

3) Between Jan. 20 and Sept. 11, 2001, were the FBI field offices instructed to increase surveillance of known suspected terrorists? If so, why hasn't Ashcroft been able to provide any evidence to the commission proving it?

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In her public testimony, Condoleezza Rice said, "The FBI tasked all 56 of its U.S. field offices to increase surveillance of known suspected terrorists and to reach out to known informants who might have information on terrorist activities." But commissioner Jamie Gorelick rejected Rice's claim as not factual, saying, "We have no record of that. The Washington field office international terrorism people say they never heard about the threat, they never heard about the warnings ... special agents in charge around the country, Miami in particular, no knowledge of this." According to a Newsweek report, Ashcroft rebuffed specific requests by the FBI to discuss counterterrorism with special agents in charge. At a spring 2001 meeting with special agents in charge in Quantico, Va., Ashcroft told then FBI director Louis Freeh that his priorities were "violent crime and drugs," and when Freeh said that those were not his priorities and began discussing counterterrorism, "Ashcroft didn't want to hear about it." This confrontation may be particularly significant in light of commissioner Tim Roemer's comments during Rice's public testimony: "The FBI is the key here. Nothing went down the chain to the FBI field offices." Can Ashcroft recount his conversations and meetings with FBI officials about counterterrorism?

4) After 9/11, why did Ashcroft slash almost $1 billion from an emergency FBI request to bolster counterterrorism efforts?

Immediately after 9/11 the FBI made a $1.5 billion request for emergency resources to combat terrorism. But Ashcroft refused to provide two-thirds of these resources. Roughly $1 billion in funding was denied for items such as security improvements, communications equipment and technical support. Why? Where did the money go instead?

5) Beginning in the summer of 2001, Ashcroft stopped flying commercial airlines and traveled exclusively by private jet because of an FBI "threat assessment." What, exactly, did the threat assessment say? Why is the threat assessment still being withheld from the public?

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In July 2001, CBS News revealed that Ashcroft, on the advice of the FBI, "was traveling exclusively by leased jet aircraft instead of commercial airlines." At the time, the FBI refused to identify "what the threat was, when it was detected or who made it." Eight months after 9/11, in an attempt to deflect criticism, Ashcroft said his decision to stop flying commercial airlines was "because of personal threats on his life, not out of fears about terrorist hijackings." When Ashcroft was asked by a reporter to explain further he "walked from the room without comment." Curiously, when Ashcroft's behavior was initially reported, a top official at the CIA said "he was unaware of specific threats against any Cabinet member." Whatever the rationale, Ashcroft's use of private jets cost taxpayers more than $1,600 an hour. Was he aware of threat warnings? Will he now urge their immediate declassification?

6) Does Ashcroft regret the treatment of the 762 innocent foreign men detained by the federal government in the U.S. for months after 9/11? Does Ashcroft think those men -- many of whom were subject to verbal and physical abuse and had their due process rights violated -- deserve an apology?

A report released in December by Department of Justice inspector general Glenn Fine found "foreign nationals held at a New York detention facility after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were victims of physical and verbal abuse by guards." Officers at the facility "slammed and bounced detainees against the wall, twisted their arms and hands in painful ways, stepped on their leg restraint chains and punished them by keeping them restrained for long periods of time." A T-shirt with the detention center's slogan, covered in blood stains, "including those that appeared to have come from detainees being slammed into the wall," hung in the receiving area for prisoners for months. An earlier report, released by Fine in June, documented how hundreds of detainees' due process rights were violated by federal officials who imprisoned them without charges or evidence. Of the 762 individuals who were the subject of Fine's review "none was ever charged with terrorism-related crimes." Nevertheless, when questioned about the situation before Congress last June, John Ashcroft said he had "no apologies," adding, "We must be vigilant." What message does Ashcroft believe he is sending to the world about the protection of legal rights and civil liberties that are at the heart of the American example?

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7) In October 2001, Ashcroft appeared with President Bush at a press conference to unveil a list of 22 "most wanted terrorists." Thirty months later at least 20 of those individuals are still at large. Why is the war on terrorism lagging?

On Oct. 10, 2001, Ashcroft, President Bush and FBI director Robert Mueller appeared at FBI headquarters to announce the creation of the Most Wanted Terrorists list. Bush called the 22 individuals placed on the list "the most dangerous [terrorists] -- the leaders and key supporters, the planners and strategists." Bush added, "They must be found. They will be stopped, and they will be punished." But only one person on the list -- Khalid Shaikh Mohammed -- has been captured. (One other individual on the list, Muhammed Atef, may be dead). Yet despite capturing or killing fewer than 5 percent of the individuals who, by their own admission, are the world's most dangerous terrorists, Ashcroft continues to repeatedly tout the success of his counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaida. In a speech in October 2003, Ashcroft bragged that "two-thirds of al-Qaida's leadership worldwide is either in custody or dead." It seems that, when success proves elusive, Ashcroft simply changes the definition of success. Were resources moved from the war on terrorism to the war in Iraq? Would additional resources assist in the capture of the terrorists on the Most Wanted list?

8) Why, in the days after 9/11, did Ashcroft, along with White House and State Department officials, allow two dozen members of the bin Laden and Saudi royal families to circumvent FAA restrictions forbidding flights and leave the country without full FBI questioning?

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Immediately after the 9/11 attacks all domestic aircraft were grounded. While some commercial flights slowly resumed, private aviation was completely prohibited for weeks. Despite the fact that 14 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, Craig Unger's new book, "House of Bush, House of Saud," reveals that numerous Saudi citizens -- including two dozen members of the bin Laden family -- were permitted to violate the ban so they could quickly return to Saudi Arabia. Not one of the bin Ladens was questioned by the FBI or the Justice Department before departing, even though many had direct ties to Osama bin Laden and might have provided valuable information about Osama's finances, associates and supporters. U.S. officials later learned from a captured al-Qaida operative that one of the men permitted to leave without questioning, Saudi Prince Ahmed, "knew beforehand that an attack was scheduled for American soil" on 9/11. On Sept. 19, 2001, as Saudis with close associations to Osama bin Laden were permitted to freely leave the country, Ashcroft said he had "a responsibility to use every legal means at our disposal to prevent further terrorist activity by taking people into custody who have violated the law and who may pose a threat to America." But instead of focusing on the Saudis who likely had valuable information, Ashcroft launched a dragnet that avoided Saudis. Why?

9) Condoleezza Rice testified that, during the summer of 2001, "there were 70 full field investigations underway of [al-Qaida] cells." Why didn't Ashcroft demand that the national security advisor organize daily meetings at the White House of the highest officials with national security responsibility, including himself, to force information from the bureaucracy to the top and locate the terrorist threat? Why did Ashcroft not raise the subject of those field investigations at the one principals meeting of national security officials that discussed terrorism (specifically, the Predator drone aircraft) before 9/11?

Rice has insisted that principals meetings on the al-Qaida threat were unnecessary. She testified that she did not believe "bringing the principals over to the White House every day ... was a good way to go about this. It wasn't an efficient way to go about it." Yet the only knowledge she had of the 70 investigations into al-Qaida cells operating in the United States was from the still classified Aug. 6 President's Daily Brief. That memo was not enough to induce Rice to act. She testified that reading there were 70 investigations into al-Qaida cells operating domestically, at a time al-Qaida had publicly declared war on America, suggested to her that she did not need to do more. She explained that the Aug. 6 PDB contained "no recommendation that we do something about this." In contrast, during the Clinton administration, frequent high-level meetings conducted by then National Security Advisor Samuel Berger in 1999, spurred action that disrupted the al-Qaida Millennium plots. Will Ashcroft produce and declassify the memos on these 70 investigations? Detail any discussion he ever had with Rice or President Bush about the investigations? If not, why not?

10) If there were structural impediments to information sharing among federal agencies prior to 9/11, why did you testify under oath before the Congress in May 2001 that the National Security Council was a "highly effective instrument" in coordinating federal agencies dealing with counterterrorism?

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The Bush administration has repeatedly attempted to deflect responsibility for the intelligence failures prior to 9/11 by claiming that structural impediments to information sharing among agencies precluded effective counterterrorism efforts. Condoleezza Rice testified, "If anything might have helped stop 9/11 it would have been better information about threats inside the United States ... [but] structural and legal impediments ... prevented the collection and sharing of information by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies. So the attacks came." But Ashcroft told the Congress in May 2001 that the National Security Council was "a highly effective instrument in facilitating coordination among the pertinent federal agencies with counterterrorism responsibilities." Why did the Justice Department and the NSC fail to coordinate federal agencies with counterterrorism responsibilities prior to 9/11?

Attorney General Ashcroft, what is your responsibility -- and the responsibility of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and President Bush -- for this failure?


Judd Legum

Judd Legum is research director at the Center for American Progress in Washington and co-editor of the Progress Report.

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