Panel: FBI miserable failure


Geraldine Sealey
April 13, 2004 6:52PM (UTC)

The 9/11 commission released a staff statement at the outset of this morning's public hearing --- right before former FBI Director Louis Freeh's testimony -- that really amounted to an indictment of the FBI for failing miserably over several years to reform the agency and respond to the building threat of terrorism. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who will testify this afternoon, got slammed in the report for rejecting a request from the FBI for more funding on Sept. 10, 2001.

The commission's conclusion: "From the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, FBI and Department of Justice leadership in Washington and New York became increasingly concerned about the terrorist threat from Islamic extremists to U.S. interests both at home and abroad. Throughout the 1990s, the FBI's counterterrorism efforts against international terrorist organizations included both intelligence and criminal investigations. The FBI's approach to investigations was case-specific, decentralized and geared toward prosecution. Significant FBI resources were devoted to after-the-fact investigations of major terrorist attacks, resulting in several successful prosecutions. The FBI attempted several reform efforts aimed at strengthening its ability to prevent such attacks, but these reform efforts failed to effect change organization-wide. On September 11, 2001, the FBI was limited in several areas critical to an effective counterterrorism strategy that could prevent attacks. Those working counterterrorism matters did so despite limited intelligence collection and strategic analysis capabilities, despite a limited capacity to share information, both internally and externally, despite insufficient training, an overly complex legal regime, and despite inadequate resources.

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Former FBI Director Louis Freeh sat in the witness chair right after the staff report was read aloud, and repeated a defense he has issued before -- the FBI was hamstrung by a lack of political will and financial resources. "We had a very effective program with respect to counterterrorism prior to Sept. 11 given the resources that we had,'' he said.

But the New York Times reported this morning that FBI appropriations actually increased during Freeh's tenure. A "study from the Congressional Research Service released Monday found that F.B.I. financing rose 132 percent from 1993 to 2003, to $4.6 billion from almost $2 billion, though the pace of the increase quickened after the Sept. 11 attacks. It also determined that the money approved by Congress was nearly equal to or greater than what the Clinton and Bush administrations requested in 9 of 11 years. Money for counterterrorism and related areas rose 365 percent to $475 million from $102 million from 1997 to 2003, the study said."

Critics of Freeh say he just plainly failed to force reform at the FBI during his 8-year tenure, which ended in June 2001. Narcotics and organized crime were his areas of expertise, not international affairs. As FBI director probing the 1996 Khobar Towers explosion, critics -- including former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke -- say Freeh was too obsessed with that one incident, was too cozy with the Saudis, overestimating their cooperation with the investigation, and spent too much time fighting the White House.

"Freeh should have been spending his time fixing the mess that the F.B.I. had become and he might have spent some time hunting for terrorists in the United States," Clarke wrote in his book "Against All Enemies."


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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