April 13, 2004
In a dramatic moment of his testimony before the 9/11 commission this afternoon, Attorney General John Ashcroft released a previously classified memo from 1995 that instructed the FBI and U.S. Attorneys around the country to ensure they had "walled off" overseas intelligence information from domestic crime-fighters. The separation between overseas intelligence gathering and domestic criminal prosecution has been widely criticized by both Democrats and Republicans on the committee for having helped make the 9/11 attacks possible.
"[T]he simple fact of Sept. 11 is this," Ashcroft testified: "We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies. Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions, and starved for basic information technology. The old national intelligence system in place on Sept. 11 was destined to fail."
Ashcroft went on to explain the "wall" that had been erected between criminal investigators and intelligence agents was "the single greatest structural cause for Sept. 11 [successes by al-Qaeda]." He said, "Government erected this wall. Government buttressed this wall. And before Sept. 11, government was blinded by this wall."
Ashcroft then described the 1995 memo that initially established the wall, which later impeded the investigations of the 9/11 hijackers and their accomplices. When frustrated field agents complained to headquarters about it in August 2001, Justice replied: "'These are the rules.' ... But somebody did make these rules," Ashcroft said. "Someone built this wall."
Then the attorney general dropped his bombshell: "Although you understand the debilitating impact of the wall, I cannot imagine that the commission knew about this memorandum, so I have declassified it for you and the public to review. Full disclosure compels me to inform you that its author is a member of this commission."
The 1995 memo by then Deputy Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick - now a member of the 9/11 commission - explains that the new rules dictated by the Clinton administration to separate criminal investigations from intelligence gathering "go beyond what is legally required." The Gorelick rules were meant to ensure that "no 'proactive' investigative efforts or technical coverages" of terrorist suspects be carried out on U.S. soil.
The result of the 1995 Gorelick rules, Ashcroft said, were devastating, and hampered the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to communicate the identify of two of the 9/11 hijackers to law-enforcement agencies, even after they had entered the United States. That failure specifically contributed to 9/11.
Read the Gorelick memo (pdf file)
Read Ashcroft's testimony (text file)
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight and author of The French Betrayal of America, just released from Crown Forum.