Newsbrief: FBI Was Looking for Dope, Not Terrorists, 9/11 Commission Says 4/30/04

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In a report issued April 13, the commission investigating the September 11, 2001, attacks on Washington and New York criticized Attorney General John Ashcroft for not making counterterrorism a top priority. The report, produced by commission staff, singled out a May 10, 2001, Justice Department memorandum setting out priorities for the year. According to that memorandum, the Justice Department's top priorities were fighting the war on drugs and prosecuting gun crimes.

That memorandum stood in stark contrast to Attorney General Ashcroft's testimony before Congress just one day earlier, when he told legislators that his Justice Department had "no higher priority" than fighting Al-Qaeda. But the memorandum issued the next day didn't even mention counterterrorism. Instead, the commission found, "the department issued guidance for developing the fiscal year 2003 budget that made reducing the incidence of gun violence and reducing the trafficking of illegal drugs priority objectives."

Ashcroft's lack of concern about the threat from Al Qaeda came despite increasingly urgent appeals from the FBI's counterterrorism unit to reassess its priorities in the face of growing signs of Al Qaeda activity. According to the report, when Dale Watson, head of the bureau's counterterrorism unit read the May 10 memo setting priorities and found emphases on drugs and guns but nothing about fighting terrorism, he "almost fell out of his chair."

Watson wasn't the only one worried. Then-acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard, who replaced Louis Freeh in the position, testified before the commission that he had appealed to Ashcroft for more money for counterterrorism on September 10, 2001, the day before the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. Ashcroft rejected that appeal.

But blame does not reside only with Ashcroft, the commission found. "As the terrorism danger grew, Director Freeh [a Clinton appointee] faced the choice of whether to lower the priority the FBI attached to work on general crime, including the war on drugs, and allocate those resources to terrorism," the commission noted. The agency formally made counterterrorism a priority, but "it did not shift its human resources accordingly." A year before the devastating attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the report continued, "there were twice as many agents devoted to drug-enforcement matters as to counter-terrorism," and even agents who were assigned to counter-terrorism were often moved temporarily to drugs and crime.

In fact, immediately after the September 11 attacks, the FBI moved more than 400 agents to counterterrorism, the vast majority coming from drug investigations. At that time, only 6% of the FBI's total personnel were working on counterterrorism.

In a 1996 speech, Arnold Trebach, a founding father of the contemporary drug reform and anti-prohibitionist movements (, presciently warned of what could happen if the drug war continued to be a higher priority than fighting terrorism. "All of us would be infinitely safer if the courageous efforts of anti-drug agents in the US... and other countries were focused on terrorists aimed at blowing up airliners and skyscrapers (rather than) drug traffickers seeking to sell the passengers and office dwellers cocaine and marijuana."

Too bad John Ashcroft wasn't listening.

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Issue #335, 4/30/04 Announcing: "The New Prohibition: Voices of Dissent Challenge the Drug War" -- New Compendium by Sheriff Masters Features David Borden and Numerous Other Thinkers on Drug Policy | Peruvian Coca Growers' "March of Protest and Sacrifice" Reaches Lima as Government Seeks to Elevate Alternative Leadership | Like a Phoenix from the Ashes: Vancouver's "Pot Block" Rebounds from Weekend Arson Fire | There You Go Again, Joe: CASA Report Uses Suspect Science to Hype Teen Marijuana Menace | NORML 2004: Stroup to Retire, Lobbying the Hill, Initiative Excitement, Medical Marijuana | Newsbrief: Drug Czar, Media Campaign Well-Positioned to Influence November Elections | Newsbrief: FBI Was Looking for Dope, Not Terrorists, 9/11 Commission Says | Atlantic City Announces Needle Exchange Plans | Newsbrief: European Union Blocks Cannabis Exhibition | Newsbrief: New Web Site Compiles Judicial Opposition to Drug War | Newsbrief: Canadian Couple Appalled at Being Treated Like, Well, New Yorkers | Newsbrief: Albuquerque Cops Block 4-20 Event by Closing Park | Newsbrief: Colorado Drug Task Force Sued Over Methamphetamine "Decontamination" Public Stripping | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar

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