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Context of '(10:30 p.m.) September 11, 2001: Attorney General Ashcroft Briefs Members of Congress about Attacks'

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Attorney General John Ashcroft.Attorney General John Ashcroft. [Source: US Department of Justice]Attorney General John Ashcroft talks with FBI Director Louis Freeh before an annual meeting of special agents. Ashcroft lays out his priorities, which according to one participant is “basically violent crime and drugs.” Freeh bluntly replies that those are not his priorities and he talks about counterterrorism. “Ashcroft does not want to hear about it,” says one witness. [Newsweek, 5/27/2002]

Entity Tags: Louis J. Freeh, John Ashcroft

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

Attorney General John Ashcroft briefs about 250 members of Congress on the latest developments regarding the day’s terrorist attacks. [Associated Press, 9/12/2001] Since he arrived there in the early afternoon (see (Between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001), Ashcroft has spent most of the day at the Strategic Information and Operations Center at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC (see (2:00 p.m.-8:30 p.m.) September 11, 2001). He and other senior Justice Department officials have repeatedly heard from members of Congress who want more information about the attacks. Ashcroft will later recall, “We tried our best to provide it, but we were still in the heat of battle.” However, “No matter; Congress wanted answers.” Therefore, after attending a meeting at the White House—presumably President Bush’s meeting with his National Security Council and/or his subsequent meeting with his most senior principal national security advisers (see (9:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001)—Ashcroft heads to the police station north of the Hart Senate Office Building, to brief the House and Senate members who are gathered there. [9/11 Commission, 12/17/2003 pdf file; Ashcroft, 2006, pp. 129] About 250 members of Congress are at the briefing. [Associated Press, 9/12/2001] Ashcroft will recall, “The place was jammed with members of Congress, all shouting questions, some complaining about apparent inconsistencies, many expressing dissatisfaction that we didn’t know everything, and all wanting answers that I didn’t know or couldn’t say.” [Ashcroft, 2006, pp. 129] He reportedly tells those at the briefing that “the US government now believes teams of three to five individuals carrying knives commandeered those four airliners earlier today, destroying them and themselves in the process.” [CNN, 9/11/2001; CNN, 9/12/2001] Ashcroft stays at the police station until well after midnight, holding what he will describe as “an intense discussion” with the members of Congress. He has to say “I don’t know” over and over again, he will recall. [Ashcroft, 2006, pp. 129]

Entity Tags: John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The Justice Department’s Patrick Philbin sends a classified memo to Attorney General John Ashcroft. The memo’s contents will not be divulged, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will later learn that it regards Ashcroft’s review of the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP—see March 2002). [American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file] The memo contains a legal review by Ashcroft of President Bush’s order authorizing the TSP, the Bush administration’s name for its warrantless wiretapping program. The review is requested before one of the 45-day reauthorizations by the president as required by law. [ProPublica, 4/16/2009]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Patrick F. Philbin, Terrorist Surveillance Program, American Civil Liberties Union, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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