Former FBI director defends tenure

By SHARON OTTERMAN  |  Oct. 8, 2002 at 6:28 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 8 (UPI) -- Former FBI Director Louis Freeh defended the FBI Tuesday against charges that it had failed to take domestic terrorism seriously before Sept. 11, 2001, telling lawmakers that a lack of resources was to blame for the agency's woes.

Freeh, who led the CIA from 1993 to 2001, said that he believed the CIA and FBI had cooperated fully in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks, and pooh-poohed suggestions that the culture of the two agencies had prevented them from working together.

He also said that the intelligence community and the FBI did not have sufficient information to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

His testimony before the Select Intelligence Committee, which has heard weeks of testimony about how the FBI failed to focus on terrorism and share information with other agencies, came under fire by some lawmakers.

"How do you explain the idea that there was information out there that never reached the highest levels of our government? How do you explain that other people weren't communicating with one another?" asked Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill.

"What I am telling you is that there is an absolute misperception if there is a notion that we have a culture where information is not shared," Freeh replied.

Tuesday's hearing marked the first time Freeh has spoken at length publicly about the FBI's performance before Sept. 11. But his firm defense of the agency contradicted many of the findings presented Tuesday by lead congressional investigator Eleanor Hill, and the complaints of a one-time terrorism analyst who testified alongside him.

"Not to contradict what's been said up here, but the FBI's never shared s--t with anyone, and they still don't," said Kie C. Fallis, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, as he prepared to testify in front of the committee.

Fallis, a former liaison officer to the FBI, told lawmakers that the FBI had repeatedly failed to share its criminal investigative information with him and other analysts, seriously impacting their ability to predict terrorist attacks.

For more than two years after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, the FBI refused to release details of their investigation, leading many analysts to incorrectly assume that al Qaida -- and not Saudi Hezbollah--had been behind the attacks, he said. Analysts were also not told of investigations into an al Qaida cell leader in Nairobi until after the 1998 Embassy bombing there, Fallis said.

The lack of information meant analysts could not paint an accurate picture of al Qaida's methods of operation. It also led analysts to underestimate the importance of a critical January 2000 Malaysia meeting of al Qaida operatives attended by two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Fallis told lawmakers.

"We have literally a treasure trove of intelligence information, spanning back decades. The problem is how to use that information and build databases to access it. Solving that problem won't solve everything, but it would take us a lot further along than we are now," Fallis said.

The former analyst's testimony echoed some of the findings presented by lead congressional investigator Hill Tuesday. Among other things, the Sept. 11 investigation has found:

-- Though the FBI had set up a special Osama bin Laden Unit in 1999, only one FBI analyst worked exclusively on al Qaida before Sept. 11.

-- The leading National Security Council-level U.S. policy-maker with counter-terrorism responsibilities told investigators that most FBI field offices around the country were "clueless" with regard to counter-terrorism and al Qaida and did not make them priorities.

-- The FBI was not able to gather intelligence from disparate cases nationwide to produce an overall assessment of al Qaida's presence in the United States.

-- FBI officers told investigators that training on counter-terrorism was extremely limited.

-- The FBI did not inform policy-makers of the extent of terrorist activity in the United States. Former national security adviser Sandy Berger testified that the FBI told him that there was little radical activity in the United States and that it was "fully covered," Hill said.

-- While Freeh was instrumental in creating interagency Joint Terrorism Task Forces, not all of them included CIA officers. Of the 35 task forces operating on Sept. 11, only six had CIA officers on them, Hill said.

Freeh defended his agency against each of the charges, pointing to his success in building the FBI's counter-terrorism force from a sleepy backwater with 600 agents before the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to a top-tier division with 1,300 agents in 1999.

He stressed that the FBI had played a critical role in thwarting a number of massive attacks: including a 1993 plot to explode the Holland and Lincoln tunnels in New York, and the 1999 millennium plot to blow up U.S. landmarks.

"The notion that the FBI, other law enforcement agencies and the intelligence community were not focused on homeland threats is not accurate and belied by many factors," Freeh said.

Freeh said that the resources given to the FBI by Congress fell far short of what was needed to maintain the "critical growth and priority" of the counter-terrorism program. Between fiscal years 2000 and 2002, the FBI requested funding for 1,895 additional agents and support staff, and received funding for only five new agents, he said.

Freeh said that the CIA and FBI had cooperated fully in their efforts against terrorism. He added that the FBI could not be blamed for its alleged failures in isolation.

The Federal Aviation Administration, he said, had known since 1996 that commercial aviation was a likely terror target, but it did little about it.

"The FBI conveyed repeated warnings to the FAA and the airline agency right up to Sept. 11. This is not to criticize the FAA, which does a difficult job very well. Rather the point is that while the CIA and FBI should be intensely examined, they should not be examined in a vacuum," he said.

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