Why did the 9/11 commissioners let John Ashcroft off the hook?
As the attorney general took the stand at the hearings this afternoon, any viewer would have expected him to face a very big hook indeed. The evidence was mounting that, of all the negligent screw-ups in this tragic and woeful tale, Ashcroft may have been the most thoroughly negligent.
At the start of the day, Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 commission, delivered the staff's interim conclusions about the FBI's multiple mishaps in the months leading up to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center—and about Ashcroft's role in exacerbating those mishaps.
The FBI, as has long been observed, was badly organized to tackle the threat. It lacked money, skilled personnel, and rudimentary information technology, among other crucial resources. Zelikow reported that Dale Watson, the FBI's counterterrorism deputy, asked Ashcroft for more money, and Ashcroft turned him down. Watson also "fell off his chair" when he read Ashcroft's formal list of the Justice Department's top five priorities and realized that not one of them concerned terrorism, even though Ashcroft was privy to the same spike of threat alerts as President Bush and other officials.
This afternoon, right before Ashcroft appeared, Thomas Pickard, a former career FBI agent who served as the bureau's acting director for the three months before 9/11, testified that he had briefed Ashcroft twice about the growing terrorist threat—and that, when he tried to brief him a third time, Ashcroft told him that he didn't want to hear about the subject anymore.
Anticipating a devastating 90 minutes on the stand, the New York Times' headline this morning read, "9/11 Panel Said to Offer Harsh Review of Ashcroft." One former official with whom I spoke predicted that Ashcroft would emerge so battered that Bush might tap him as the fall guy.
And yet not only did the commissioners fail to lay a glove on the guy, they barely took a swing.
Something weird is going on in a session when former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson—the panel's fiercest Republican attack dog—asks the most critical question. But that's what happened this afternoon. Thompson asked Ashcroft about Pickard's claim that he didn't want to hear any more briefings about counterterrorism. Ashcroft replied, "I never said I didn't want to hear about counterterrorism."
That was the end of the exchange. No follow-up. Somebody's lying—Ashcroft or Pickard—about an important matter. The commission didn't seem bothered by that fact.
Ashcroft began his opening statement, "We did not know an attack was coming because, for nearly a decade, our government had blinded itself against its enemies." The upshot of the last few weeks of hearings has been that—while, certainly, the FBI and the CIA were plagued with bureaucratic defects—many high-ranking officials, in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, personally failed to recognize and act on the clear signs of danger. Yet none of the commissioners chose to contrast these facts with Ashcroft's no-fault claim.