It Usually Starts with John Ashcroft

The pre-9/11 timeline has never made less sense


As the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui conclusively proved, amazing things happen when you ask people to tell the truth or go to jail. Testimony by FBI officials in a real criminal court revealed long-buried facts that show that federal officials had far more information about the 9/11 plot than anyone had suspected.

Now, thanks to Bob Woodward's book State of Denial, we have learned that immediately prior to the Moussaoui-inspired August 2001 attempts by the Minneapolis FBI office to raise an alarm about terror attacks, the CIA was in Washington briefing top Bush administration officials like John Ashcroft and Condoleezza Rice about terror threats.

What's more, at least one crucial July 10, 2001 CIA briefing given to Rice completely escaped the 9/11 Commission report. That would be the same 9/11 Commission that John Ashcroft stonewalled in 2004 and now rips in his new book Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice.

As UPI reports:

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft this week became the only Cabinet-level Bush official to attack the Sept. 11 Commission, writing in his memoirs it "seemed obsessed with trying to lay the blame for the terrorist attacks at the feet of the Bush administration, while virtually absolving the previous administration of responsibility."

Ashcroft also writes that the commission's hearings "were not so much about discovering the truth as they were about assessing blame and grandstanding," adding that they "degenerated into show trials."

GOP Commissioner Slade Gorton, a former senator from Washington State, told United Press International Thursday that he found the charges "extraordinary," recalling that President Bush had personally repudiated Ashcroft's tactics in his sparring with the commission.

"Most of the criticism (the commission received) was the exact opposite: that we didn't blame anyone," he said. "Our job was to write a factual account which readers could use to assess blame for themselves."

Ashcroft "may very well have been the worst witness we interviewed," he said, adding he was "very unresponsive and unhelpful."

What alternate reality are we in where the 9/11 panel's perfunctory, at best, stenography of the 9/11 principals is some sort of partisan witch hunt? Welcome to the world of John Ashcroft, who is now emerging as the epicenter of the pre-9/11 "no warning" cover story.

As Attorney General in 2001, Ashcroft was at the intersection of law enforcement and counter-terrorism. Contrary to the Ashcroft-constructed myth that a Clinton administration-built wall existed between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, info did pass back and forth between the two sides. Only believers in that myth would be surprised to learn that on or around July 17, 2001 Ashcroft was briefed by the CIA on terror threats. In keeping with the myth, Ashcroft denies ever getting such info.

McClatchy Newspapers reported last week:

One official who helped to prepare the briefing, which included a PowerPoint presentation, described it as a "10 on a scale of 1 to 10" that "connected the dots" in earlier intelligence reports to present a stark warning that al-Qaida, which had already killed Americans in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and East Africa, was poised to strike again. .

David Ayres, who was Ashcroft's chief of staff at the Justice Department, said that the former attorney general also has no recollection of a July 17, 2001, terrorist threat briefing. Later, Ayres said that Ashcroft could recall only a July 5 briefing on threats to U.S. interests abroad.

He said Ashcroft doesn't remember any briefing that summer that indicated that al-Qaida was planning to attack within the United States.

Ah, yes, the little wrinkle of there being no warning about a domestic attack. Ashcroft's Justice Department did have three FBI field offices—Minneapolis, Phoenix, and New York—all pursuing domestic terror investigations with varying degrees of connectedness to the 9/11 plot in the weeks before the attack. This, alone, seems to poke a rather large hole in the no-warning myth.

There were, in fact, many pre-9/11 warnings. One involves the small matter of Ashcroft suddenly opting to ditch domestic commercial aircraft. As CBS News reported on July 26, 2001:

In response to inquiries from CBS News over why Ashcroft was traveling exclusively by leased jet aircraft instead of commercial airlines, the Justice Department cited what it called a "threat assessment" by the FBI, and said Ashcroft has been advised to travel only by private jet for the remainder of his term.

"There was a threat assessment and there are guidelines. He is acting under the guidelines," an FBI spokesman said. Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department, however, would identify what the threat was, when it was detected or who made it.

Give the same set of circumstantial facts to any U.S. Attorney looking for fore-knowledge of corporate malfeasance and that lawyer would jump into an investigation to ferret out the truth.

And unease over further investigation into the pre-9/11 timeline apparently has troubled Ashcroft for some time. Certainly his new book has doubled back to blast the 9/11 Commission over just these very points and Ashcroft continues to press the notion that the government pre-9/11 had no hope of stopping terrorists and that only "toughness" can succeed.

A book promo talk last week with right-wing bloggers is quite illuminating on that front. Among friends Ashcroft evidently felt comfortable enough to uncork a few doozies, including suggesting that anyone worrying about how America treats its prisoners should consider the alternative—killing prisoners outright. And when asked about criticisms of the PATRIOT Act, clearly what Ashcroft regards as his lasting legacy, the former Senator from the Show-Me State said, "Name one person who's been victimized by the PATRIOT Act."

Alright, but it will take some setup:

When you have a loose spark plug wire and the auto shop replaces the entire electrical system instead, you have a problem, perhaps a fraud. The real issue is missed and many, many expensive new fixes are attempted.

It is becoming very clear that the 9/11 attacks were the result of a bad spark plug wire. The overall system basically worked. A threat was detected and that information was conveyed to the nation's leaders in a timely fashion. They opted to ignore it. That was the breakdown: not the laws, but the leaders.

The PATRIOT Act and the across-the-board ramping up of government surveillance represent the unneeded new electrical system. A colossal waste of time and resources that does not fix the fundamental problem of a backward-looking and, frankly, Missouri-mule-stubborn ruling class that insists on seeing the world as it would like it to be rather than how it actually exists.

Who has been victimized by the PATRIOT Act? Certainly every American who expects their government to act responsibly and accept blame when things go wrong.

John Ashcroft now stands as the face of this peculiar mix of arrogance and cowardice. His criticism of the 9/11 Commission as a show trial projects his greatest fear: To swear before his God to tell the truth, with the tangible threat of going to prison to back that up.

Anything less, it seems, will not recover reality.