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Context of 'July 19, 2001: FBI Director Tells Field Offices to Be Ready to Respond to New Attack but Not to Prevent It'

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The FBI’s Counterterrorism Division issues a warning of possible al-Qaeda attacks to law enforcement agencies called “Potential Anti-US Attacks.” It states: “[T]here are threats to be worried about overseas. While we cannot foresee attacks domestically, we cannot rule them out.” It further states, “[T]he FBI has no information indicating a credible threat of terrorist attack in the United States.” It asks law enforcement agencies to “exercise vigilance” and “report suspicious activities” to the FBI. Two weeks later, acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard has a conference call with all field office heads mentioning the heightened threat (see July 19, 2001). However, FBI personnel later fail to recall any heightened sense of threat from summer 2001. Only those in the New York field office take any action or will recall this later. [CNN, 3/2002; 9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda, Thomas Pickard, Counterterrorism Division (FBI)

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 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

Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard holds a periodic conference call with the heads of all FBI field offices. According to a later account by Pickard, one item he discusses is the need to have evidence response teams ready to move quickly in case of a new attack. This is brought up in light of all the increased threat reporting. However, he does not task the field offices to look into whether any plots are being considered within the US; nor does he tell them to take any action to disrupt any such plots. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 259] FBI personnel will later fail to recall any heightened sense of threat from summer 2001. Only those in the New York field office take any action or will recall this call later. [CNN, 3/2002; 9/11 Commission, 4/13/2004]

Entity Tags: Thomas Pickard, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Dale Watson, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, activates the Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC) at FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, from where the bureau will coordinate its response to the terrorist attacks. Watson learned about the first hijacked plane crashing into the World Trade Center during a briefing in the SIOC attended by the FBI’s assistant directors and Robert Mueller, the bureau’s director (see Shortly After 8:48 a.m. September 11, 2001). Mueller and some of the other officials at the briefing, presumably including Watson, subsequently headed to the office of FBI Deputy Director Thomas Pickard. There, Mueller, Pickard, and the other officials saw the second hijacked plane crashing into the WTC on television (see 9:03 a.m. September 11, 2001). It then became clear to them that this was a terrorist attack.
Deputy Director Says the FBI Needs to Open Its Operations Center - Mueller asks Pickard what they should do in response to the incident and Pickard says they need to open the SIOC. [New Yorker, 9/24/2001; 9/11 Commission, 1/21/2004 pdf file] According to the US government’s Interagency Domestic Terrorism Concept of Operations Plan, “Upon determination of a credible threat,” FBI headquarters is required to activate the SIOC, “to coordinate and manage the national level support to a terrorism incident.” [US Government, 1/2001] Following this protocol, Watson goes to his office and activates the SIOC for crisis mode. [New Yorker, 9/24/2001]
Director Goes to the Operations Center to Manage the Crisis - Mueller and Pickard go to the SIOC to manage the FBI’s response to the attacks. Pickard isolates Mueller in a conference room, restricting access to him so he is better able to stay focused on the decisions ahead. Mueller only took over as FBI director a week ago (see September 4, 2001) and Pickard will later comment, “I was worried that there was going to be this string of people running into the room with news or questions and [Mueller] would be standing there asking them who they were.” [Kessler, 2002, pp. 420; Graff, 2011, pp. 314-316] Meanwhile, a live communications link is established that allows them to listen in as Pentagon and FAA air traffic controllers track suspicious aircraft. [Wall Street Journal, 10/5/2001]
Many Other Officials Go to the Operations Center - Other senior officials and FBI agents also begin pouring into the center, along with representatives from numerous other government agencies, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the FAA, the NSA, and the Secret Service. Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff will head to the center, as will Attorney General John Ashcroft, who arrives there early in the afternoon (see (Between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). The SIOC will become “the place to be to get information and so everyone wanted to be there,” Ashcroft will comment. [Kessler, 2002, pp. 5, 421; 9/11 Commission, 12/17/2003 pdf file]
Center Is Designed for Dealing with Crises - The SIOC, which opened in 1998 and cost $20 million to build, covers 40,000 square feet on the fifth floor of the FBI headquarters building. [CNN, 11/20/1998] It is “a heavily fortified cluster of offices surrounded by video screens and banks of computer terminals,” according to the New York Times. [New York Times, 11/2/2001] It can function as a 24-hour watch post, a crisis management center, and an information processing center. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1/18/2004] It operates around the clock, with at least eight staffers on duty at any one time. It is capable of managing up to five crises at a time and is designed to accommodate up to 450 members of staff during major emergencies. [CNN, 11/20/1998; New Yorker, 9/24/2001]
Center Is Built to Survive Attacks - The center is fortified so those in it can survive a bombing or other kind of attack. [New York Times, 11/2/2001] It has no windows to the street outside and is shielded to prevent electronic signals from entering or leaving it. [CNN, 11/20/1998; Kessler, 2002, pp. 421] Its 225 computer terminals have access to three types of local area networks: the regular FBI network that can connect to the networks of outside agencies; a classified network that operates at the top-secret level; and an even more highly classified Special Compartmented Information network. [Washington Post, 10/14/2001; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1/18/2004] The many computers and video screens in the center can display broadcasts from US television channels and also TV channels from other countries. [CNN, 11/20/1998]
Center Will Become the 'Nerve Center' of the FBI's Investigation - By the end of the week, the SIOC will be “the headquarters of the government’s response” to today’s attacks, according to journalist and author Garrett Graff. As many as 500 people from 56 different agencies will be working in it. [Kessler, 2002, pp. 421; Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, 7/1/2002; Graff, 2011, pp. 317] It will become “the nerve center” of the FBI’s investigation of the attacks, according to the Wall Street Journal. [Wall Street Journal, 10/5/2001]

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration, Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, US Secret Service, Dale Watson, Strategic Information Operations Center, National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Thomas Pickard, Robert S. Mueller III

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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