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Context of 'May 30, 2002: FBI Allowed to Monitor Political or Religious Groups'

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The FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center.The FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center. [Source: FBI]Attorney General John Ashcroft spends most of the rest of the day at the FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC), after arriving there in the early afternoon (see (Between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 12/17/2003 pdf file; Ashcroft, 2006, pp. 129] The SIOC, which is located on the fifth floor of the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, functions as a 24-hour watch post and crisis management center. The huge, windowless center can seat 380 people, and is equipped with sophisticated computers and communications equipment. [CNN, 11/20/1998; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1/18/2004]
FBI Director Briefs Ashcroft - Ashcroft will later recall that when he arrives at the SIOC, the place is “teeming with people, abuzz with activity, voices and papers everywhere, with dozens of people coming in and out with bits and pieces of new information moment by moment.” Numerous rows of computer screens are “filled with data, and eight large video display screens were being monitored constantly.” Ashcroft is met by FBI Director Robert Mueller, who briefs him on what is so far known regarding the terrorist attacks.
Priority Is to Clear the Skies - During his initial period at the SIOC, Ashcroft will recall, the “overriding priority” is to make sure all commercial aircraft are on the ground. There are also concerns about some planes that have landed and individuals on them who might have been hijackers, and concerns about securing airports so that flights can get up and running again as soon as possible. [9/11 Commission, 12/17/2003 pdf file; Ashcroft, 2006, pp. 120-121]
SIOC Is 'the Place to Be to Get Information' - Most of the leading Justice Department and FBI officials remain at the SIOC throughout the day. Other officials in the center along with Ashcroft and Mueller include Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff, and Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar. [Los Angeles Times, 9/12/2001; US Department of Justice, 9/12/2001] According to Ashcroft, the SIOC is “the place to be to get information, and so everyone wanted to be there.” [9/11 Commission, 12/17/2003 pdf file] Ashcroft will later recall, “I spent the hours, days, and most of the first weeks, months, after the attack on the United States in the [SIOC].” He will add, “That day, in those early hours, the prevention of terrorist attacks became the central goal of the law enforcement and national security mission of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” [CNN, 5/30/2002]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, James W. Ziglar, US Department of Justice, Larry D. Thompson, Robert S. Mueller III, Strategic Information Operations Center, John Ashcroft, Michael Chertoff

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Attorney General Ashcroft relaxes decades-old rules limiting government agents from monitoring domestic religious and political groups. Now, FBI agents can attend political rallies or religious meetings without evidence of a crime or advance approval from superiors. The new rules also permit the FBI to broadly search or monitor the internet for evidence of criminal activity without having any tips or leads that a specific criminal act has been committed. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/31/2002]

Entity Tags: John Ashcroft, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

FBI agents investigating the Plame Wilson identity leak inform Attorney General John Ashcroft that they believe White House political strategist Karl Rove and conservative columnist Robert Novak may be conspiring to hide the truth behind Rove’s involvement in the leak. They also inform Ashcroft that they believe Lewis Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, has lied to FBI investigators about his role in leaking Plame Wilson’s identity to the press. Although it is unclear who provides this briefing to Ashcroft, he is usually briefed on the status of the investigation by John Dion, the head of the FBI investigation, and Christopher Wray, the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division. [National Journal, 5/25/2006; National Journal, 6/8/2006]
Novak's Attempt to Protect Rove - They inform Ashcroft of a telephone conversation between Rove and Novak, in which Novak promised to protect Rove from the FBI investigation, presumably by either refusing to disclose him as a source of his knowledge of Plame Wilson’s identity (see September 29, 2003) or lying to investigators. Although Ashcroft receives routine briefings on the status of the FBI investigation, the bureau considers this important enough to warrant a special briefing for him on the matter. The FBI believes that after the conversation with Rove, Novak did indeed change his story about the leak, characterizing White House officials’ role in it as entirely passive. A week after Novak publicly outed Plame Wilson, he told reporters that he didn’t “dig out” the Plame Wilson information, but rather “it was given to me.… They thought it was significant. They gave me the name, and I used it” (see July 21, 2003). This account suggests that Rove was actively trying to expose Plame Wilson as a CIA officer, as reporter Murray Waas will later write. But the same day he spoke with Rove, Novak provided a different story, saying no one at the White House gave him the information (see September 29, 2003). Novak’s first story fits more closely with accounts later given by reporters such as Time’s Matthew Cooper (see July 13, 2005) and the New York Times’s Judith Miller (see September 30, 2005). [National Journal, 5/25/2006]
Libby's Lies to FBI - The FBI also informs Ashcroft that it has acquired evidence—personal notes from Libby—that contradicts Libby’s assertions that he learned of Plame Wilson’s identity from journalists (see October 14, 2003). Libby also told investigators that he had merely considered the information about Plame Wilson’s covert CIA status “unsubstantiated rumors” when he leaked that information to reporters (see June 23, 2003, 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003, Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003, and 2:24 p.m. July 12, 2003), another lie. [National Journal, 6/8/2006]
Ashcroft Declines to Recuse Himself - Ashcroft will recuse himself from participation in the investigation in December, in part because of the potential of a conflict of interest stemming from his previous relationship with Rove (see December 30, 2003) as well as other White House officials. Some FBI investigators believe that he should have recused himself as soon as he learned that Rove and Libby were possibly involved in the leak; some have also noted privately that many of Ashcroft’s top aides came from the Republican National Committee (RNC), which they suspect has been working closely with the White House to pressure Ashcroft not to name a special prosecutor. In 2006, law professor Stephen Gillers will say: “There is always going to be an interim period during which you decide you will recuse or not recuse. But [Ashcroft] should have had an ‘aha!’ moment when he learned that someone, figuratively, or in this case literally, next door to the president of the United States—who was Ashcroft’s boss—was under suspicion.” Ashcroft’s spokesman Mark Corallo has explained that Ashcroft declined to recuse himself because of his intense interest in the probe. Corallo will later become the spokesman for Rove. Fellow law professor Charles Wolfram, like Gillers a specialist in legal ethics, agrees with Gillers. In 2006, Wolfram says the “most distressing” ethical aspect of the case is that Ashcroft continued overseeing the probe even after Cheney’s name arose. “This should have been a matter of common sense,” Wolfram will note. Ashcroft “should have left it to career prosecutors whether or not to go after politically sensitive targets. You can’t have Ashcroft investigate the people who appointed him or of his own political party.” [National Journal, 6/8/2006]

Entity Tags: Karl C. Rove, Christopher Wray, Charles Wolfram, Federal Bureau of Investigation, John Dion, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Mark Corallo, Stephen Gillers, John Ashcroft, Murray Waas, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Robert Novak

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

A number of senior criminal prosecutors at the Justice Department, as well as top FBI officials, are privately critical of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s failure to recuse himself from the Plame Wilson leak investigation. Many say that the only way to ensure a fair and impartial investigation is to appoint a special prosecutor to handle the investigation. The New York Times calls the criticisms from the officials, who unanimously ask to remain anonymous, “the first sign of dissension in the department and the FBI as the inquiry nears a critical phase.” Ashcroft will soon have to decide whether to appoint a grand jury to look into the possibility of criminal conduct in the leak; such a grand jury could compel the testimony of White House officials. Ashcroft has long political and social ties to many White House officials, and as such, the Justice Department and FBI officials say, he cannot conduct an impartial investigation. Some of the Justice Department officials are supporters of Ashcroft, and worry that his reputation could be damaged by his failure to recuse himself. Democrats say the investigation has been tainted from the outset by Ashcroft’s relationship with White House officials. So far, a Justice Department official says, none of the prosecutors involved in the investigation have asked Ashcroft to recuse himself. [New York Times, 10/15/2003]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bush administration (43), US Department of Justice, John Ashcroft, Valerie Plame Wilson

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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