In its latest report detailing security breakdowns throughout the government, the commission issued two lengthy staff reports analysing the failure to prevent the hijacked airliner attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3000 people.
One report drew attention to a 10 May Justice Department document that set out priorities for 2001. The top priorities cited were reducing gun violence and combating drug trafficking. There was no mention of counter-terrorism.
When Dale Watson, the head of the counter-terrorism division, saw the report, he "almost fell out of his chair," the report said. "The FBI's new counter-terrorism strategy was not a focus of the Justice Department in 2001."
Then-acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard said he appealed to Ashcroft for more money for counter-terrorism but on 10 September 2001, one day before the attacks, Ashcroft rejected the appeal.
Former FBI Director Louis Freeh testified that he sought permission to hire almost 1900 counter-terror linguists, analysts and agents in the previous three years but was allowed to add just 76.
"That's not to criticise the US Congress. It's not to criticise the Department of Justice. It is to focus on the fact that that was not a national priority," Freeh told the commission.
Former FBI Director Louis Freeh
complained of understaffing
A second staff report issued before the afternoon session said Ashcroft was briefed on terrorist threats by then-FBI Director Pickard in late June and July 2001.
"After two such briefings, the attorney general told him he did not want to hear this information anymore," the report quoted Pickard as saying.
It added that Ashcroft and two top aides denied the attorney general made any such statement to Packard.
Ashcroft told the panel in a previous private session that he had assumed the FBI was doing what it needed to do to avert any threats. "He (Ashcroft) acknowledged that, in retrospect, this was a dangerous assumption," the report said.
Ashcroft was due to testify later on Tuesday.
The commission reports analysed
a wide range of FBI problems
Freeh said the bureau's counter-terrorism operations were severely underfunded and understaffed in the years leading up to the attacks, partly due to a congressionally imposed hiring freeze in the early 1990s that lasted for 22 months.
He rejected a characterisation by the commission's Republican chairman, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, that the staff report amounted to an indictment of the FBI.
Freeh also said intelligence services were aware of the danger that a terrorist might use a hijacked plane as a weapon.
He said steps were taken to defend the White House as well as special events, such as the 2000 Olympic Games and meetings of world leaders, against such a threat but nothing was done to protect the country at large.
Former Attorney General Janet Reno, who served for eight years under former President Bill Clinton, said she had tried to direct more FBI efforts toward counter-terrorism.
She said the Clinton administration succeeded in preventing attacks around the time of the 2000 Millennium, partly by focusing top-level attention on the matter.
Reno said she tried to direct more
FBI counterterror efforts
The commission reports analysed a wide range of FBI problems including the shortage of qualified analysts and translators. It said the agency was hampered by a culture resistant to change, inadequate resources and legal barriers.
"On September 11, 2001, the FBI was limited in several areas critical to an effective, preventive counter-terrorism strategy," the report said.
Although the FBI's counter-terrorism budget tripled during the mid-1990s, its counter-terrorism spending stayed fairly constant between fiscal years 1998 and 2001, it added.
On September 11, 2001, only about 1300 agents, or 6% of the FBI's total personnel, worked on counter-terrorism.