Testifying before the bipartisan 9/11 commission, Ashcroft –facing charges of blocking counter-terrorism funds in 2001-  said it was the previous administration that was blind to the dangers threatening the country.

"We did not know that an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies," Ashcroft said.

Restrictions blamed

"Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions and starved for basic information and technology," he alleged.

Launching into a strong self-defence, Ashcroft erjectrd charges he downplayed the terror-risk posed by al-Qaida.

"I cared greatly about the safety and security of the American people and was very interested in terrorism … and domestic threats in particular," he said, insisting he had no higher priority.

"We did not know that an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies"

John Ashcroft,
US Attorney General

"These are things about which I care deeply," Ashcroft told the commission, saying he was focused on the threat right up to the time of the attacks on New York and Washington.

Tough grilling

Ashcroft faced intense questioning from the commission, which is investigating whether intelligence officials did everything possible to prevent the attacks on Pentagon and the World Trade Centre, that left about 3000 dead.

Ashcroft, who oversees the Federal Bureau of Investigation as head of the Justice Department, faced a litany of complaints about his handling of the counter-terrorism dossier in the months leading up to the attacks.

Subordinates said he rejected an FBI request for additional funds to fight terrorism just one day before al-Qaida attacks.

And former acting FBI director Thomas Pickard told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States that Ashcroft spurned his warnings about a possible al-Qaida attack in the summer of 2001.

Some members of the inquiry maintained the attacks could have been prevented had US law enforcement and intelligence officials followed up on leads pointing to suspected terrorists at work in the US.