Washington, 14 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The former head of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says his bureau lacked the resources to wage a vigorous counterterrorism campaign prior to the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States.
Former FBI Director Louis Freeh made that assessment in Washington yesterday during testimony before an independent government panel investigating the attacks that killed some 3,000 people.
"Terrorism was not discussed [in the 2000 presidential election]. This was not an issue that the candidates talked about, that the American people talked about during that period."
"The FBI, as you know, before September 11th, had 3.5 percent of the federal government's antiterrorism budget. And it's no news to anybody that for many, many years, as your executive director recounted, the resource issue and the legal authority issue certainly limited what we [the FBI] were able to do before September 11th," Freeh said.
Freeh, who left the bureau in June 2001, also said the issue of terrorism was not a major national topic before 11 September.
"Terrorism was not discussed [in the 2000 presidential election]. This was not an issue that the candidates talked about, that the American people talked about during that period, and this was right after the attack [at a port in Yemen in October 2000] on the USS Cole," Freeh said.
The commission released a written staff report earlier on 13 April that said the FBI was hampered in its fight against terrorism prior to the strikes on New York and the Pentagon. The report said the FBI had poor intelligence, insufficient staffing and resources, and a bureaucratic culture. It said U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Freeh's boss, rejected an appeal from the bureau for more funding on the day before Al-Qaeda struck.
Freeh said it had not been the traditional role of the FBI to wage a war on terror.
"It was never our notion in the FBI that criminal prosecutions of terrorists and investigations of their organizations was a substitute for military action, for foreign policy action, for the United States doing what it did on September 11th -- declaring war on an enemy that had declared war on us many years ago," Freeh said.
But 11 September, he said, changed all that.
The attackers, all men from the Middle East, used four hijacked airlines to carry out their acts. Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center and a third one smashed into the Pentagon. A fourth jetliner crashed in the eastern U.S. state of Pennsylvania.
Freeh said, "The point of these [pre-9/11 antiterrorism] investigations was, in the absence of invading Afghanistan, in the absence of armed Predator missiles seeking out our enemies, in the absence of all the things that were appropriately done after September 11th, when the United States declared war back on Al-Qaeda, we were left with alternatives which were better than no alternatives."
The hearing followed the weekend release of a declassified intelligence memo that warned Al-Qaeda was operating in the United States and might be interested in hijacking airplanes. The memo lacked specifics about potential attacks.
President George W. Bush addressed the issue while talking to reporters on 12 April at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Bush said the August 2001 memo was "kind of a history" of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's intentions but which did not warn of imminent attacks.
Freeh said it took the 11 September attacks to make others see the danger posed by Al-Qaeda.
"We need to keep in perspective, however, what was the reality before September 11th, what was the reality thereafter. And, at the end of the day, the FBI, as a part of the Department of Justice, has to obey the law. And whatever that law is, it's one that protects us. It protects our constitution, it also protects our people. And that law can change. But I think we have to keep in mind that when that changes, we can't judge what happened in the past by different standards," Freeh said.
In subsequent testimony, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who served for eight years under President Bill Clinton, told the commission that she had tried to direct more FBI efforts toward counterterrorism.
Reno added, "One of the frustrations is that the Bureau [FBI], even when it finds that it has something, doesn't share, and it says it doesn't share because legal authorities prohibit it from sharing."
She said the Clinton administration succeeded in preventing attacks around the time of the 2000 Millennium, in part by focusing attention on the matter.
Reno's successor in the Bush administration, Attorney General John Ashcroft, told the panel that he moved quickly once in office to overturn a "failed policy" that allowed American agents to capture bin Laden but not to assassinate him.
Ashcroft said that under the laws on the books prior to 11 September 2001, even if U.S. agents could have penetrated bin Laden's training camps, "they would have needed a battery of lawyers" to take action.