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Context of 'July 26, 2001: Attorney General Ashcroft Stops Flying Commercial Airlines; Refuses to Explain Why'

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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

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

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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