Washington — President Bush passed up an opportunity to throw his support behind the FBI on Monday and instead said the nation's intelligence operations might need overhauling to prevent another terrorist attack against the United States.
Bush's remarks sent a shudder through the FBI on the eve of crucial testimony today before the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft are expected to face tough questioning about the bureau's failure to act more effectively against the al-Qaida terrorist assault.
The hearing, scheduled to last two days, will also explore whether the FBI has done enough to reform itself in the more than two years since the attacks.
The FBI has been lobbying hard against proposals to create a separate domestic intelligence agency, in the mold of Britain's MI-5. Until now, the Bush administration has opposed such a move, saying the FBI needed time to transform into an agency dedicated to counterterrorism.
However, Bush administration officials and Republicans have been trying to deflect criticism of the administration onto the FBI and the CIA, while Democrats try to highlight deficiencies in the president's and his advisers' response to the terrorism threat.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice did the FBI no favors in her high-profile testimony last week when she said the only thing that might have prevented the 9-11 attacks would have been better domestic threat information and a major overhaul of intelligence gathering.
Bush echoed her remarks when he spoke to reporters Monday in Crawford, Texas.
"Now may be the time to revamp and reform our intelligence services," Bush said, adding that he was looking forward to seeing the commission's recommendations.
Ashcroft's predecessor at the Justice Department, Janet Reno, is also scheduled to testify today. FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director George Tenet will testify Wednesday.
"The FBI has more questions to answer than Condoleezza Rice or (former presidential anti-terrorism adviser) Dick Clarke or anyone we've had testify before us so far," commission member Slade Gorton, a former Republican senator from Washington state, said after Rice's testimony.
The commission is expected to focus on a newly declassified presidential intelligence memo, dated Aug. 6, 2001, that revealed the FBI had some 70 active investigations related to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden under way in the United States.
Yet the bureau apparently did little to alert thousands of agents in its 56 field offices nationwide to the bin Laden threat or to the surge in intelligence warnings of possible attacks that the FBI received in July 2001.
A federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said then-acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard told the 56 special-agents-in-charge, who run the FBI's field offices, to increase their terrorist surveillance in July 2001. Whether Pickard's urging reached street-level agents is uncertain.
"We have done thousands of interviews here at the 9-11 commission. We've gone through literally millions of pieces of paper. To date, we have found nobody, nobody at the FBI, who knows anything about a tasking of field offices," Democratic commissioner Timothy Roemer, a former congressman from Indiana, said during Rice's hearing last week.
Bush said Monday that when he read the intelligence memo in August 2001 he was comforted to learn the FBI was juggling 70 terrorism probes.
"It meant the FBI was doing its job. The FBI was running down any lead," Bush said. "Had they found something, I'm confident they would have reported back to me. ... That didn't happen."