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Context of 'July 12, 2001: Attorney General Ashcroft Reportedly Does Not Want to Hear about Al-Qaeda Threat'

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Shortly after being appointed acting FBI director, Thomas Pickard gives his first briefing to Attorney General John Ashcroft. Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson and Ruben Garcia, the FBI’s Assistant Director for Criminal Investigations, also attend the briefing. Pickard sends an agenda in advance, and terrorism is the first item on it, as the CIA is reporting there is an increased risk of attacks. During the briefing, Ashcroft suggests he does not know much about al-Qaeda, so Pickard fills him in. “I told him about al-Qaeda and [Osama] bin Laden, a little history about the World Trade Center bombing and East Africa,” Pickard will later say. Pickard also talks about increase in “chatter” by al-Qaeda operatives, and says this could be a sign of an upcoming attack. The speculation is it would take place in Southeast Asia or the Middle East, but other locales could not be ruled out. His terrorism briefing lasts about an hour. Although Ashcroft listens to Pickard’s explanation, he asks few questions about terrorism. He shows more interest in other items on the agenda, such as ending delays on background checks for gun buyers, which interests him because of his relationship with the National Rifle Association. [Pickard, 6/24/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 246-247]

Entity Tags: Thomas Pickard, Ruben Garcia, Larry D. Thompson, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The CIA briefs Attorney General Ashcroft on the al-Qaeda threat. Several senior CIA Counterterrorist Center officials warn him that a significant attack is imminent, preparations for multiple attacks are in the late stages or already complete, and that little additional warning can be expected. He is told the attack is more likely to occur overseas than in the US. He was also briefed by the CIA on the al-Qaeda threat on May 15, 2001. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 258-259, 534; Tenet, 2007, pp. 150] CIA Director Tenet will later claim in a book that at the end of the briefing, Ashcroft turned to some FBI personnel and asked them, “Why are they telling me this? Why am I not hearing this from you?” [Tenet, 2007, pp. 150] However, in fact, the FBI did brief Ashcroft for an hour an the al-Qaeda threat one week earlier (see June 28, 2001). One week later, the FBI will brief him again about the al-Qaeada threat and he will reportedly reply, “I do not want to hear about this anymore” (see July 12, 2001). By the end of July, he will stop flying commercial aircraft in the US (see July 26, 2001).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Al-Qaeda, George J. Tenet, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Attorney General Ashcroft receive the same CIA briefing about a likely imminent, multiple, and simultaneous al-Qaeda strike that was given to the White House on July 10, 2001 (see July 10, 2001). In 2006, the State Department will reveal the two were briefed within a week of the White House briefing, at the request of National Security Adviser Rice. One official who helped prepare the briefing later describes it as a “ten on a scale of one to ten” that “connected the dots” to present a stark warning that al-Qaeda is ready to launch a new attack. A Pentagon spokesman says he has no information “about what may or may not have been briefed” to Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld does not answer questions about it. Ashcroft says he was not given any briefing and calls it “disappointing” that he was not briefed. After it is confirmed that Ashcroft was briefed, apparently on July 17, Ashcroft will still claim not to remember the briefing, and will say he only recalls another CIA briefing earlier in the month (see July 5, 2001). Journalist Andrew Cockburn later reports that, “according to several intelligence sources,” Rumsfeld’s reaction to the briefing at the time “was one of vehement dismissal, complete with cutting observations about the CIA falling victim to ‘vast doses of al-Qaeda disinformation’ and ‘mortal doses of gullibility.’” McClatchy Newspapers will comment that these briefings raise “new questions about what the Bush administration did in response, and about why so many officials have claimed they never received or don’t remember the warning.” [McClatchy Newspapers, 10/2/2006; Cockburn, 2007, pp. 9] On July 26, 2001, it will be reported that Ashcroft has stopped flying on commercial airlines within the US (see July 26, 2001).

Entity Tags: John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, Al-Qaeda, Condoleezza Rice, White House, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Thomas Pickard.Thomas Pickard. [Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation]Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard attempts to brief Attorney General John Ashcroft on the al-Qaeda terrorist threat for a second time (see June 28, 2001), but Ashcroft is uninterested and says he does not want to hear about it, according to Pickard’s later account.
'I Don't Want to Hear about It Anymore' - According to a June 24, 2004 letter from Pickard to the 9/11 Commission, Pickard opens the briefing by discussing “counterintelligence and counterterrorism matters.” Pickard’s letter will go on to say: “The fourth item I discussed was the continuing high level of ‘chatter’ by al-Qaeda members. The AG [attorney general] told me, ‘I don’t want to hear about it anymore, there’s nothing I can do about it.’ For a few seconds, I did not know what to say, then I replied that he should meet with the director of the CIA to get a fuller briefing on the matter.… I resumed my agenda but I was upset about [Ashcroft’s] lack of interest. He did not tell me nor did I learn until April 2004 that the CIA briefed him on the increase in chatter and level of threat on July 5, 2001” (see July 5, 2001 and July 11-17, 2001). [Pickard, 6/24/2004] In testimony under oath to the 9/11 Commission in 2004, Pickard will affirm that, “at least on two occasions” he briefed Ashcroft on a rising threat level and concerns about an impending attack, which were being reported by the CIA. Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste will ask Pickard if he has told Commission staff that Ashcroft “did not want to hear about this anymore,” to which Pickard will respond, “That is correct.” [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004 pdf file] According to Pickard’s later recollection: “Before September 11th, I couldn’t get half an hour on terrorism with Ashcroft. He was only interested in three things: guns, drugs, and civil rights.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 293]
Differing Accounts of What Was Said at the Meeting - According to the 9/11 Commission’s June 3, 2004 record of its interview with Watson, “Pickard told Watson that he was briefing Ashcroft on counterterrorism, and Ashcroft told him that he didn’t want to hear ‘anything about these threats,’ and that ‘nothing ever happened.’” [9/11 Commission, 6/3/2004 pdf file] Author Philip Shenon will write about this meeting in his 2008 book, The Commission, based on interviews with Pickard and “Commission investigators who researched his allegations,” but none of the quotes or representations of fact in Shenon’s text will cite a specific source. Shenon will make reference to Mark Jacobson and Caroline Barnes as being the 9/11 Commission staffers who interviewed Pickard. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 240-248, 433] According to Shenon’s version of the meeting, Ashcroft replies to Pickard: “I don’t want you to ever talk to me about al-Qaeda, about these threats. I don’t want to hear about al-Qaeda anymore.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 247] Ashcroft, in testimony under oath to the 9/11 Commission, will dismiss Pickard’s allegation, saying, “I did never speak to him saying that I did not want to hear about terrorism.” [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004 pdf file] Pickard will respond to Ashcroft’s testimony in his 2004 letter, saying, “What [Ashcroft] stated to the Commission under oath is correct, but they did not ask him, ‘Did he tell me he did not want to hear about the chatter and level of threat?’ which is the conversation to which I testified under oath.” [Pickard, 6/24/2004] The deputy attorney general at the time of the meeting, Larry D. Thompson, and Ashcroft’s chief of staff, David T. Ayres, will sign a letter to the 9/11 Commission on July 12, 2004, in which they say they are responding to Pickard’s allegation that when he briefed Ashcroft “on the al-Qaeda threat prior to September 11, 2001, the attorney general responded that he did not want to hear such information anymore.” The letter will say Thompson and Ayres were present at that and the other regular meetings between Pickard and Ashcroft, and “the attorney general made no such statement in that or any other meeting.” [Ayres, 7/12/2004] The 9/11 Commission Report will conclude, “We cannot resolve this dispute.” [Commission, 2004]
Differing Accounts of Who Was at the Meeting - Pickard’s 2004 letter will state that Ayres is at the meeting, but has left the room prior to that part of the meeting, as he does not have the required level of security clearance. Pickard’s letter indicated that the FBI Assistant Director for Criminal Investigations, Ruben Garcia, is at the meeting and also witnesses the exchange. [Pickard, 6/24/2004] Shenon’s book puts Garcia at the meeting, but does not make reference to Garcia’s account of what is said there. Also, in the notes to Shenon’s book, it will not say that he interviewed Garcia. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 247-248, 433] According to a June 22, 2004 NBC News report: “Commission investigators also tracked down another FBI witness at the meeting that day, Ruben Garcia… Several sources familiar with the investigation say Garcia confirmed to the Commission that Ashcroft did indeed dismiss Pickard’s warnings about al-Qaeda.” Furthermore, “Pickard did brief Ashcroft on terrorism four more times that summer, but sources say the acting FBI director never mentioned the word al-Qaeda again in Ashcroft’s presence—until after Sept. 11.” [MSNBC, 6/22/2004] According to the 9/11 Commission Report, “Ruben Garcia… attended some of Pickard’s briefings of the attorney general but not the one at which Pickard alleges Ashcroft made the statement.” [Commission, 2004, pp. 536n52]
Ashcroft Denies FBI Requests and Appeals, Cuts Counterterrorism Funding - Following the meeting, on July 18, Ashcroft will reject the FBI’s request for an increase in funding for counterterrorism, and instead propose cuts to that division (see July 18, 2001). Pickard will appeal this decision; Ashcroft will reject the appeal on September 10, 2001 (see September 10, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004]

Entity Tags: Larry D. Thompson, John Ashcroft, Mark Jacobson, Thomas Pickard, David Ayres, Dale Watson, 9/11 Commission, Caroline Barnes, Central Intelligence Agency, Philip Shenon, Al-Qaeda, Ruben Garcia

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Attorney General John Ashcroft replies to the FBI’s annual budget proposal. The proposal had asked for a sizable increase for only one area—counterterrorism. However, Ashcroft says that the FBI’s budget for counterterrorism should be cut, not increased. The budgets for some other divisions will also be cut. Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard asks Ashcroft if the FBI can appeal and Ashcroft agrees. Pickard and his top assistants discuss what should be appealed and decide only to appeal the counterterrorism cuts, as they feel that this is “the most important thing,” according to Pickard. The appeal will be denied on September 10 (see September 10, 2001). [Shenon, 2008, pp. 249]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Thomas Pickard, US Department of Justice, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Dan Rather in July 2001 presenting the story about John Ashcroft.Dan Rather in July 2001 presenting the story about John Ashcroft. [Source: CBS via Banded Artists Productions]CBS News reports that Attorney General Ashcroft has stopped flying commercial airlines due to a threat assessment, but “neither the FBI nor the Justice Department… would identify [to CBS] what the threat was, when it was detected or who made it.” [CBS News, 7/26/2001] One newspaper reports, “Ashcroft demonstrated an amazing lack of curiosity when asked if he knew anything about the threat. ‘Frankly, I don’t,’ he told reporters.” [San Francisco Chronicle, 6/3/2002] It is later reported that he stopped flying in July based on threat assessments made on May 8 and June 19. In May 2002, it is claimed the threat assessment had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, but Ashcroft walked out of his office rather than answer questions about it. [Associated Press, 5/16/2002] The San Francisco Chronicle will later conclude, “The FBI obviously knew something was in the wind.… The FBI did advise Ashcroft to stay off commercial aircraft. The rest of us just had to take our chances.” [San Francisco Chronicle, 6/3/2002] CBS’s Dan Rather will later ask of this warning: “Why wasn’t it shared with the public at large?” [Washington Post, 5/27/2002] On July 5, the CIA had warned Ashcroft to expect multiple, imminent al-Qaeda attacks overseas (see July 5, 2001) and on July 12 the FBI warned him about the al-Qaeda threat within the US (see July 12, 2001).

Entity Tags: John Ashcroft, Dan Rather, Al-Qaeda, US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Attorney General John Ashcroft rejects a proposed $58 million increase in financing for the FBI’s counterterrorism programs. The money would have paid for 149 new counterterrorism field agents, 200 additional analysts and 54 additional translators. On the same day, he sends a request for budget increases to the White House. It covers 68 programs—but none of them relate to counterterrorism. He also sends a memorandum to his heads of departments, stating his seven priorities—none of them relate to counterterrorism. [Guardian, 5/21/2002; New York Times, 6/1/2002; New York Times, 6/2/2002] He further proposes cutting a program that gives state and local counterterrorism grants for equipment like radios and preparedness training from $109 million to $44 million. Yet Ashcroft stopped flying public airplanes in July due to an as yet undisclosed terrorist threat (see July 26, 2001), and in a July speech he proclaimed, “Our No. 1 priority is the prevention of terrorist attacks.” [New York Times, 2/28/2002]

Entity Tags: John Ashcroft, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Attorney General John Ashcroft before the 9/11 Commission.Attorney General John Ashcroft before the 9/11 Commission. [Source: Associated Press]Attorney General John Ashcroft testifies publicly before the 9/11 Commission. Due to information leaked to the public about Ashcroft’s apparently poor performance and lack of interest in terrorism before the attacks (see Spring 2001, July 12, 2001, and September 10, 2001), in the words of author Philip Shenon, “Everybody expect[s] it to be a difficult day for Ashcroft—maybe the day that mark[s] the end of his tenure as George Bush’s attorney general.” Executing a strategy designed in advance by the Justice Department’s leadership, instead of defending his record, Ashcroft goes on the offensive against the Commission. First, Ashcroft withholds from the Commission a copy of his written statement, although all other witnesses provide this. Then, when his testimony starts, he blames the problems dealing with terrorist threats on information-sharing regulations set up by former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, now a 9/11 commissioner. [Shenon, 2008, pp. 325-327]
Ashcroft Exaggerates Effect of Gorelick Memo - He comments: “The single greatest structural cause for September 11 was the ‘wall’ that segregated criminal investigators and intelligence agents. Government erected this ‘wall.’ Government buttressed this ‘wall.’ And before September 11, government was blinded by this ‘wall.’” The wall was a set of procedures that regulated the passage of information from FBI intelligence agents to FBI criminal agents and prosecutors to ensure that information obtained using warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would not be thrown out from criminal cases (see July 19, 1995). Ashcroft says that the wall impeded the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui and that a “warrant was rejected because FBI officials feared breaching the ‘wall.’” (Note: two applications to search Moussaoui’s belongings were prepared. The first was not submitted because it was thought to be “shaky” (see August 21, 2001). The second warrant application was prepared as a part of an intelligence investigation under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, so it was not affected by the “wall” (see August 28, 2001)). According to Ashcroft, the wall also impeded the search for hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi because criminal investigators were not allowed to join in. However, the 9/11 Commission will find that they could legally have helped, but were prevented from doing so by FBI headquarters (see August 29, 2001). Ashcroft asserts that 9/11 commissioner Jamie Gorelick was responsible for the wall. He cites a document he just declassified that had been written by Gorelick to deal with the two 1993 World Trade Center bombing cases (see March 4, 1995). That document becomes known as the “wall memo.” However, this memo only governed the two WTC cases; all other cases were governed by a different, but similar memo written by Attorney General Janet Reno a few months later (see July 19, 1995). [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004]
Commission's Response - 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton will say that the “attorney general’s claim was overstated,” and that the two 1995 memos only codified a set of procedures that already existed (see Early 1980s). During questioning, Republican 9/11 commissioner Slade Gorton points out that Ashcroft’s deputy reaffirmed the procedures in an August 2001 memo that stated, “The 1995 procedures remain in effect today” (see August 6, 2001). [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 194-6] Ashcroft’s accusation against Gorelick produces an immediate public response. Commissioner Bob Kerrey (D-NE) will say: “Ashcroft was still speaking, and the e-mails were already coming in. The e-mails said things like, ‘You traitor, you should be ashamed of yourself for having somebody like Gorelick on the 9/11 Commission.’ I could see that this was a setup.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 329]
Falsely Claims No Clinton Program to Kill Bin Laden - Ashcroft also claims there was no program to kill Osama bin Laden before 9/11, saying, “Let me be clear: my thorough review revealed no covert action program to kill bin Laden.” However, the 9/11 Commission has already found a memorandum of notification signed by President Clinton in 1998 after the African embassy bombings that allowed CIA assets to kill bin Laden, and two commissioners, Fred Fielding and Richard Ben-Veniste, point this out to Ashcroft. [9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 132, 485]
Attack Brings Commission Together - Paradoxically, the effect of Ashcroft’s attack is to bring the Commission—made up of five Democrats and five Republicans—together. Shenon will comment, “The Republicans were just as angry as the Democrats over what Ashcroft had done, maybe angrier.” Commissioner Slade Gorton (R-WA) will add, “There was universal outrage on the part of all 10 people.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 332]

Entity Tags: Thomas Kean, Zacarias Moussaoui, Slade Gorton, Philip Shenon, Lee Hamilton, Khalid Almihdhar, 9/11 Commission, Bob Kerrey, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Fred F. Fielding, John Ashcroft, Nawaf Alhazmi, Richard Ben-Veniste

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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