FBI Takes The Stand

The independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is turning its spotlight on the FBI and Justice Department, with commission members seeking to determine what law enforcement officials did when confronted with the rising threat of an al Qaeda attack.

If the FBI had information about an al Qaeda presence in the United States and had 70 ongoing investigations, commission members want to know what actions were taken and how broadly that information was disseminated throughout the government.


CBSNews.com will Webcast the 9/11 panel hearings beginning at 9 a.m. EDT Tuesday


"The FBI is going to have to answer the question: 'Why didn't they deliver the information up? Did they get clear instructions from the top that it should be delivered up?'" said former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democratic member of the Sept. 11 commission.

The panel was beginning a new two-day round of hearings Tuesday with testimony from former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Attorney General John Ashcroft and former Attorney General Janet Reno. Thomas Pickard, who served as acting FBI director in the months just before the attacks, and former CIA counterterrorism center director Cofer Black also were scheduled to testify.

CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart reports other questions include:

  • Why didn't the bureau act when their Phoenix office urged a national inquiry into whether Arab extremists were taking flight training? Why didn't they connect that dot to the arrest a month later of Zacarias Moussaoui who aroused suspicions at another flight school?
  • Why did some FBI field offices tell the commission they never received orders to shake the trees for terrorist suspects during the summer of '01?
  • Why does it take the bureau nearly a year after the East African embassy bombings to put Osama bin Laden on its most wanted list? What about hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who lived with an FBI informant in San Diego?
  • And why did Ashcroft start flying by government jet before Sept. 11, citing an unspecified security threat?
Aides to Ashcroft said he wanted to rebut criticism that he was more focused on issues such as illegal drugs and gun crimes than terrorism before the attacks. They pointed to a May 9, 2001, Senate hearing in which Ashcroft testified his agency had "no higher priority" than protecting against terrorist attacks.

In an article in Monday's Wall Street Journal, Freeh said the FBI "relentlessly did its job pursuing terrorists" before the attacks but was hampered by lack of resources and political will.

For example, the FBI in 1999 made counterterrorism a separate division and created a unit to focus on bin Laden. Freeh pointed out that the FBI expanded its overseas legal attache offices from 19 to 44 during his tenure, which ended three months before the attacks, and increased the prominence of joint terrorism task forces that include personnel from other agencies.

Commission members were skeptical.

"I mean, there were a number of things that happened, some of them in the FBI. There were miscommunications between intelligence agencies, a miscommunication within the FBI itself," commission chairman Thomas Kean, a former Republican New Jersey governor, told the CBS News Early Show. "And if some of those things hadn't occurred, who knows, things might have been a little different."

The panel's vice chairman, former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, added: "what is very clear is that with all of these investigations going forward by the FBI, the pertinent information did not rise to the top so that the top policymakers could take action."

But Freeh says there were budgetary constraints. Hamilton acknowledged that, "Congress is a culprit here as well as many others, including myself."

Still, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a letter Monday to current FBI Director Robert Mueller that total FBI spending rose some 132 percent from 1993 to 2003, with counterterrorism requests nearly always met or exceeded.

And a congressional investigation into Sept. 11 found that prior to the attacks, the FBI's field offices had not made terrorism a top priority and there was only a single strategic analyst focused full-time on al Qaeda at FBI headquarters.

The new attention to the FBI comes after the release last weekend on a secret intelligence memo that relayed FBI suspicions of a possible hijacking plot to President Bush.

The declassified Aug. 6, 2001, intelligence memo — titled "Bin Laden Determined To Strike in U.S." — warned al Qaeda was operating in the United States and might be looking to hijack airplanes. The memo did not provide specific times or places for potential attacks.

"There was nothing in there that said, you know, 'There is an imminent attack,'" Mr. Bush said Monday.

But while Mr. Bush saw the information about the FBI on Aug. 6, senior government policy-makers got a similar document one day later that excluded most of the recent threat information, officials say.

The Aug. 7, 2001, Senior Executive Intelligence Brief didn't mention the 70 FBI investigations into possible al Qaeda activity. The senior executives' memo also did not mention a threat received in May 2001 of possible attacks with explosives in the United States or that the FBI had concerns about recent activities like the casing of buildings in New York, the officials said.

Some members of Congress on Monday said they were concerned that senior executive memos and other similar documents may have given policy-makers below Mr. Bush an incomplete picture of the terror threat at the time.

But administration officials said there was nothing sinister about the deletions because such memos are prepared for two different audiences. The CIA historically uses different standards for the president's daily intelligence update and the one for senior policy-makers, the officials said.