WASHINGTON -- In a world "blinking red" with terrorist threats against the United States, the FBI missed a last-minute chance to detect a key al-Qaida cell and possibly disrupt the Sept. 11 attacks, the commission investigating the 2001 hijackings said Tuesday.
Delays and missteps in linking terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui to al-Qaida in the weeks before the attacks were emblematic of chronic problems within the FBI, including limited intelligence and analysis capabilities, outdated technology, poor information-sharing and floundering attempts at reorganization, the commission said.
In a day of finger-pointing, the panel chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, said two scathing reports compiled by the commission's investigators amounted to "an indictment of the FBI," while Attorney General John Ashcroft took a veiled swipe at the Clinton administration.
Louis J. Freeh, who headed the bureau from 1993 to mid-2001, bristled at Kean's words.
"I would ask that you balance what you call an indictment, and which I don't agree with at all, with the two primary findings of your staff," he said. "One is that there was a lack of resources. And two, there were legal impediments" that made it difficult for agents to pursue terrorism investigations.
Former Attorney General Janet Reno also spoke of a lack of resources but said the FBI under Freeh did a poor job keeping track of the information its agents gathered.
"The FBI didn't know what it had," she said. "The right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing."
Ashcroft, her successor and the last witness at Tuesday's hearing, said a key reason for the failures was a legal restriction, known as "the wall," that prevented sharing of FBI intelligence information with criminal investigators. Ashcroft blamed Reno for issuing "draconian" guidelines in 1995 that made such sharing even more difficult.
"The simple fact of Sept. 11 is this: We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies," Ashcroft said. "Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions and starved for basic information technology."
Ashcroft buttressed his contentions by releasing a declassified memo from former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick -- now a member of the Sept. 11 commission -- containing instructions that "more clearly separate" counterintelligence from criminal investigations.
Former acting FBI director Thomas Pickard, who headed the bureau just before the attacks, told the panel Ashcroft did not seem to consider terrorism a priority. He said that after he began briefing Ashcroft twice a week on the threats, Ashcroft told Pickard "he did not want to hear this information any more."
Ashcroft denied saying that, and added that he had "interrogated" Pickard in their meetings about any possible terror threats facing the United States.
"I did never say to him that I did not want to hear about terrorism," Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft also told the panel that on May 7, 2001, he advised national security adviser Condoleezza Rice that the Bush administration should abandon its previous policy of trying to capture Osama bin Laden. "We should find and kill bin Laden," Ashcroft said he told her.
The hearing was in the same Senate hearing room where Rice testified last week and former counterterrorism aide Richard Clarke a few weeks before that. This time there were empty seats and not nearly as much electricity as those appearances.
The commission reports issued at the start of the two-day hearing noted some FBI successes in cracking earlier terrorist cases. But the FBI was unable to stop the 19 hijackers from using commercial airliners as weapons, killing some 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
"All our systems failed," said commission member Fred Fielding. "We were totally beaten on Sept. 11."