In testimony before the 9-11 commission in April, Attorney General John Ashcroft pointed to a National Security Council document now at the center of the FBI’s investigation of former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, urging the panel to ask why its warnings and “blueprint” to thwart al-Qaida’s plans to target the U.S. were ignored by the Clinton administration and not shared with the incoming Bush security staff.
Drafts of the sensitive NSC “Millennium After Action Review” on the Clinton administration’s handling of al-Qaida terror threats during the December 1999 millennium celebration are reported to be among the documents still missing from classified materials Berger removed from a secure reading room.
Ashcroft said the review – which he was not shown prior to 9-11 – recommends, 17 months before the attacks, “disrupting the al-Qaida network and terrorist presence here using immigration violations, minor criminal infractions and tougher visa and border controls.”
Ashcroft told the commission, “It is clear from the review that actions taken in the Millennium Period should not be the operating model for the U.S. government.”
The March 2000 review, Ashcroft told the panel, warns the Clinton administration “of a substantial al-Qaida network and affiliated foreign terrorist presence within the U.S., capable of supporting additional terrorist attacks here.”
Ashcroft said the “highly-classified” review “was not among the 30 items upon which my predecessor [Janet Reno] briefed me during the transition. It was not advocated as a disruption strategy to me during the  summer threat period by the NSC staff which wrote the review more than a year earlier.”
The strategy advocated by the review, Ashcroft said, includes “the same aggressive, often criticized law enforcement tactics we have unleashed for 31 months to stop another al-Qaida attack.”
“I certainly cannot say why the blueprint for security was not followed in 2000,” he said. “I do know from my personal experience that those who take the kind of tough measures called for in the plan will feel the heat. I’ve been there; I’ve done that. So the sense of urgency simply may not have overcome concern about the outcry and criticism which follows such tough tactics.”
The millennium plot involved planned attacks on Israeli and U.S. tourists in Jordan, on the USS Sullivans in Yemen and the Los Angeles airport.
On Dec. 12, 1999, Jordanian authorities thwarted plans to bomb the Raddison Hotel in Amman and Mount Nebo, the site on the Jordan River where John the Baptist is said to have baptized Jesus. Twenty-two of the 28 suspects were tried, including Boston cab driver Raed Hijazi, who was sentenced to life in prison.
The bomb-laden boat deployed to attack the USS Sullivans was overloaded and sank before detonating.
Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam was arrested Dec. 14, 1999, trying to enter the U.S. from Canada at Port Angeles, Wash., when he was found to be in possession of nitroglycerin.
During his trial, Ressam revealed he had been trained in a terrorist camp in Afghanistan run by bin Laden. At the camp were jihadists from Central Asia, the Philippines, the Middle East and China who learned how to blow up a nation’s infrastructure and conduct rocket-launching, urban warfare, assassination and sabotage.
Berger is the focus of a Justice Department investigation for removing the documents and handwritten notes from a secure reading room prior to the Sept. 11 commission hearings. He had been serving as a national security adviser to John Kerry’s campaign but announced today he is stepping down.
The officials said the missing documents included critical assessments about the Clinton administration’s handling of the millennium terror threats as well as identification of America’s terror vulnerabilities at airports to seaports.
Berger had ordered his anti-terror czar, Richard Clarke, in early 2000 to write the after-action report.
Berger testified that during the millennium period, “we thwarted threats and I do believe it was important to bring the principals together on a frequent basis” to consider terror threats more regularly.
Defenders of the Clinton administration testified at the 9/11 commission hearings that the White House’s high-level meetings kept the nation on alert, foiling the Los Angeles airport plot.
But the customs agent who stopped Ressam at the border, Diana Dean, says it was her gut instincts, not an alert White House that prevented disaster.
No one had told her to be on a special lookout for terrorists, she said in an April interview with NBC News.
Commission member Timothy Roemer declared April 13 that the Clinton administration had a “great deal of success during this time period. My theory is, because of this small group that is meeting at the top levels of government.”
But Dean said Roemer’s story “didn’t make sense to me.”
Recalling the incident, Dean said she had a hunch something wasn’t quite right and asked Ressam to open his trunk. Big bags of white powder, first thought to be drugs, were found, but the tests came back negative.
When further probing uncovered timers, investigators realized the powder was explosives.
“My heart dropped right into my toes when I realized what it was,” Dean told NBC.
She says she didn’t remember any warnings of specific threats, adding, “I don’t recall anybody saying watch for terrorists.”
Who’s to blame?
During the Sept. 11 hearings in April, commissioner Jamie Gorelick, former assistant attorney general under President Clinton, tried to put National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on the spot for the Bush administration’s purported failure to heed advice from the previous administration.
Gorelick pointed to a report from 2001 that indicated, in her own words, that “we have big systemic problems. The FBI doesn’t work the way it should, and it doesn’t communicate with the intelligence community.”
In the ensuing dialogue, however, Rice apparently implicated Gorelick in the allegation.
Gorelick: Now, you have said that your policy review was meant to be comprehensive. You took your time because you wanted to get at the hard issues and have a hard-hitting, comprehensive policy. And yet there is nothing in [the policy review] about the vast domestic landscape that we were all warned needed so much attention. Can you give me the answer to the question why?
Rice: I would ask the following. We were there for 233 days. There had been a recognition for a number of years before – after the ’93 [World Trade Center] bombing, and certainly after the [thwarted] millennium [attack in Los Angeles] – that there were challenges inside the United States, and that there were challenges concerning our domestic agencies and the challenges concerning the FBI and the CIA. We were in office 233 days. It’s absolutely the case that we did not begin structural reform at the FBI.
In his testimony before the commission, Ashcroft pinned blame on Gorelick for issuing a 1995 memo that established a “wall” between the criminal and intelligence divisions, hindering the ability of the U.S. government to detect the Sept. 11 plot.
The document by Gorelick [pdf file], who served as deputy attorney general under President Clinton, helped establish the “single greatest structural cause” for Sept. 11, which was “the wall that segregated criminal investigators and intelligence agents,” Ashcroft said in his prepared statement.