April 13, 2004
In a dramatic moment of his testimony before the9/11 commission this afternoon, Attorney General John Ashcroftreleased a previously classified memo from 1995 that instructed theFBI and U.S. Attorneys around the country to ensure they had "walledoff" overseas intelligence information from domestic crime-fighters.The separation between overseas intelligence gathering and domesticcriminal prosecution has been widely criticized by both Democrats andRepublicans on the committee for having helped make the 9/11 attackspossible.
"[T]he simple fact of Sept. 11 is this,"Ashcroft testified: "We did not know an attack was coming because fornearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies. Ouragents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed bygovernment-imposed restrictions, and starved for basic informationtechnology. The old national intelligence system in place on Sept. 11was destined to fail."
Ashcroft went on to explain the "wall" that hadbeen erected between criminal investigators and intelligence agentswas "the single greatest structural cause for Sept. 11 [successesby al-Qaeda]." He said, "Government erected this wall. Governmentbuttressed this wall. And before Sept. 11, government was blinded bythis wall."
Ashcroft then described the 1995 memo thatinitially established the wall, which later impeded theinvestigations of the 9/11 hijackers and their accomplices. Whenfrustrated field agents complained to headquarters about it in August2001, Justice replied: "'These are the rules.' ... But somebody didmake these rules," Ashcroft said. "Someone built this wall."
Then the attorney general dropped his bombshell:"Although you understand the debilitating impact of the wall, Icannot imagine that the commission knew about this memorandum, so Ihave declassified it for you and the public to review. Fulldisclosure compels me to inform you that its author is a member ofthis commission."
The 1995 memo by then Deputy Attorney GeneralJamie S. Gorelick - now a member of the 9/11 commission - explainsthat the new rules dictated by the Clinton administration to separatecriminal investigations from intelligence gathering "go beyond whatis legally required." The Gorelick rules were meant to ensure that"no 'proactive' investigative efforts or technical coverages" ofterrorist suspects be carried out on U.S. soil.
The result of the 1995 Gorelick rules, Ashcroftsaid, were devastating, and hampered the ability of U.S. intelligenceagencies to communicate the identify of two of the 9/11 hijackers tolaw-enforcement agencies, even after they had entered the UnitedStates. That failure specifically contributed to 9/11.
Read the Gorelickmemo (pdf file)
Read Ashcroft'stestimony (text file)
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a seniorwriter for Insight and author of TheFrench Betrayal of America,just released from Crown Forum.