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Freeh Bristles at Critics of FBI Efforts to Fight Terrorism

Intelligence: Ex-director defends his own actions and says bureau lacked money and staffing.

October 09, 2002|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Appearing before Congress on Tuesday for the first time since Sept. 11, former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh strongly defended the bureau's actions before the terrorist attacks and his own record as a key architect of U.S. anti-terrorism policy for much of the last decade.

Freeh, who stepped down in June 2001 after eight years as FBI chief, struck a measured but defiant tone in his testimony before the joint congressional intelligence committee that is investigating the 2001 attacks.

He read aloud a 25-page statement that largely ignored or brushed aside criticism leveled against the FBI by both staff and witnesses in previous hearings.

Instead, Freeh complained that both the Clinton and early Bush administrations--as well as Congress--had failed to provide adequate funding for the FBI's expanding counter-terrorism mission before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks that killed more than 3,000 people.

During questioning, Freeh refused to acknowledge criticism that the FBI had missed crucial clues about the hijackers in America, that it focused too much on prosecuting criminals and too little on thwarting terrorist attacks, or that the tight-lipped FBI "culture" had created communication problems that hampered analysis of incoming intelligence.

"There is an absolute misperception that we have a culture in which information is not shared," Freeh said. He insisted that similar charges that the FBI does not cooperate with the CIA are also incorrect. America's top law enforcement and intelligence agencies "have been fully cooperating," he said, and their communications are "exemplary."

When Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) twice demanded that Freeh "explain the Arizona memo," a reference to the FBI's failure to respond to a Phoenix agent's warnings in July 2001 that potential Middle Eastern terrorists were training at U.S. flight schools, Freeh conceded the system wasn't perfect.

"I'm not saying there were not gaps," he said.

But the failure to act on the Arizona memo, or to fully investigate suspected Al Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui after his August 2001 arrest at a Minnesota flight school and the failure to launch a manhunt for two hijackers who entered the United States after attending a January 2000 Al Qaeda meeting in Malaysia, were "isolated incidences" that ignored the broader FBI successes, Freeh insisted.

"Analyzing intelligence information can be like trying to take a sip of water coming out of a fire hydrant," Freeh said. "The reality is that these unquestionably important bits have been plucked from a sea of thousands and thousands of such bits at the time."

He said he had seen no evidence that indicated the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies could have prevented the attacks. And he bristled at allegations that the FBI had ignored the threat of terrorism in America.

"I take exception to the finding that we were not paying sufficient attention to the threat at home," he said.

Freeh's reputation as an FBI chief who successfully reformed the bureau has been tarnished during the committee hearings, but his appearance sparked little of the fireworks or drama that has characterized several previous public hearings. Panel members, who had been expected to grill the former FBI chief about embarrassing FBI lapses that the committee staff has uncovered, instead seemed sympathetic. Most, indeed, had left the vast hearing room by the time he finished reading his statement.

A more contentious hearing is likely Thursday when the witnesses will include the current FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III, as well as CIA Director George J. Tenet and the director of the National Security Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden. Both the CIA and NSA also have been sharply criticized in previous hearings.

Freeh's seemingly successful tenure as FBI chief came under critical scrutiny immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and Mueller announced plans to refocus bureau priorities. Henceforth, they said, the FBI would seek to prevent terrorist acts, not just respond to them with investigations and prosecutions.

Although the FBI gained more than $1 billion in new funding during Freeh's tenure from 1993 to 2001, he insisted Tuesday that the bureau had too little money and too few agents.

In fiscal year 2000, he said, he requested 864 additional agents--analysts, linguists and other counter-terrorism personnel--at a cost of $380.8 million. He said he received only five people and $7.4 million.

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