Appearing before the federal commission investigating the attacks, Ashcroft also said he moved quickly once in office to overturn a "failed policy" that he said allowed American agents to capture terrorist leader Osama bin Laden but not assassinate him.
In a nationally televised appearance, Ashcroft said the Justice Department had become addicted to a legal wall that had been put in place to separate criminal investigators from intelligence agents.
"Even if they could have penetrated bin Laden's training camps, they would have needed a battery of lawyers" to take action, he said dismissively.
Ashcroft slid into the witness chair on a day on which the commission, in a pair of scathing reports, pointed blame at the CIA, the Justice Department and the FBI for not doing enough to prevent the 2001 attacks.
"We did not have great sources in al Qaeda," conceded Thomas Pickard, who was acting FBI director briefly at a critical period in the summer of 2001.
"We didn't have enough people to do the job and we didn't have enough money by magnitudes," added Cofer Black, former head of the CIA's counterterrorism activities. "When you run out (of money) people die. When people die you get more money," he said bitingly.
The day also produced a clear-cut case of contradiction between Pickard and the man who was briefly his boss, the attorney general.
The panel's report quoted Pickard as saying Ashcroft told him in the summer of 2001 that "he did not want to hear" additional information about possible attacks, and the former FBI acting director confirmed that in his testimony.
But Ashcroft denied it forcefully.
"I did never say to him that I did not want to hear about terrorism," he said, removing his glasses for emphasis. Rather, he said, he "interrogated" him and asked him about the threat of terrorists.
The commission report also raised questions about aand declassified over the weekend at the panel's request.
Pickard, who was acting head of the FBI at the time, said he was unaware the document had been prepared. The report said the FBI had 70 field investigations under way of individuals linked to al Qaeda. But one member of the commission, Slade Gorton, suggested that many of the probes related to fundraising activities and not the threat of terrorist attacks.
Pickard also said Ashcroft did not list terrorism as a top item on his agenda when he took office.
In one prominent case that underscored bureaucratic difficulties, the commission said officials did not immediately recognize the significance of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was taken into custody the month before the attacks on immigration charges while attending flight school in Minnesota. A dispute between FBI agents in the field and supervisors meant no search warrant was immediately obtained to search his computer, the commission said.
Nor was Pickard told after Moussaoui's arrest on Aug. 16, 2001 — less than a month before the attacks that resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people.
And it wasn't until after the attack that the FBI learned that an imprisoned terrorist told agents he could have recognized Moussaoui from Afghan training camps run by al Qaeda.
Additionally, the commission said the FBI asked the British for help in identifying Moussaoui. "The case, though handled expeditiously at the American end, was not handled by the British as a priority amid a large number of other terrorist-related inquiries," it said.
The commission said that "a maximum U.S. effort to investigate Moussaoui could conceivably have unearthed his connections" to the plotters.
In one report that adopted a sports metaphor to describe the nation's counterterrorism effort, the commission said the CIA preferred a zone defense, concentrating on "where" an attack might occur, not "who" would carry it out. By contrast, it said, the FBI focused more on individuals.
"A combination of the CIA's zone defense and the FBI's man-to-man approach might have been far more productive," it noted.
Despite the lapses it detailed, the report stopped well short of claiming the worst terrorist strikes in the nation's history could have been stopped.
The report recalled the nerve-racking months leading to the attacks, a period during which CIA Director George Tenet told investigators "the system was blinking red" at times with warnings of attacks at nonspecific times and places.
Former FBI Director Louis Freeh and former Attorney General Janet Reno took turns in the witness chair during a morning session that focused unstinting criticism on the FBI.
The bureau failed miserably over several years to reorganize and respond to a steadily growing threat of terrorism, and Ashcroft rejected an agency appeal for more funding on the day before al Qaeda struck, the commission said.
"On Sept. 11, the FBI was limited in several areas," the commission said in a staff report.
On the day of the attacks, "about 1,300 agents, or 6 percent of the FBI's total personnel, worked on counterterrorism," reported the commission investigating the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Freeh politely and firmly took issue with the findings.
"We had a very effective program with respect to counterterrorism prior to Sept. 11 given the resources that we had," he said.
But Reno testified that she had told Freeh "if we need to reprogram, let's do it."
More broadly, Reno said the FBI faced huge challenges in learning how to use all the information it collected on intelligence and criminal matters. "The FBI didn't know what it had. The right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing," she said.
Asked whether the government had ever contemplated the use of planes as weapons, Freeh said the subject "was part of the planning" for the summer Olympic Games at Atlanta and other special events.
But he said, "I'm not aware of any such plan "being incorporated into routine air defense plan in Washington or elsewhere.