The bombshell memo that Attorney General John Ashcroft revealed during his testimony before the 9/11 Commission marked a dramatic shift in the hearings. Till then, the Bush administration had largely been on the defensive trying to explain their failure to connect the dots that might have prevented the 9/11 attacks. By declassifying and releasing a 1995 memo written by then-deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick, also a member of the 9/11 commission investigating what went wrong, the perception of the committee and the investigation vastly changed.
The highlight of the hearings had been the dramatic dueling testimony of former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, and current National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, over whether the Clinton or Bush administration had taken the al-Qaeda threat more seriously. Then came the declassification and release of the August 6, 2001 President’s Daily Brief, and the spin surrounding it. Did it in fact warn of the impending attack by al Qaeda, or was it one memo in a series of memos documenting chatter that terrorism on U.S. soil was an ongoing goal of bin Laden’s fanatics? The Washington Times reported that Phillip Zelikow, the executive director of the commission, “pointed out that more than a dozen comparable domestic-threat items?were prepared for President Clinton in the final three years of his tenure.”
Ashcroft then released the memo, which revealed that Gorelick had actually written the policy procedures that “go beyond what is legally required” in building up the wall between counterintelligence and criminal investigations that had been erected in the 1970s as part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA. She had not disclosed this to the committee when she accepted her place on it. The Ashcroft move was so effective and dramatic that liberal Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal tried to compare him to Joseph McCarthy.
McCarthy, of course, uncovered real communists, and the Gorelick memo was a crucial piece of evidence. Rep. James Sensenbrenner called for Gorelick to step down from the commission. He argued that she should be testifying before the committee as to why, in the period leading up to 9/11, the FBI and CIA were not sharing information about people with known terrorist ties. The acting FBI director Thomas Pickard had told the 9/11 commission that he was “surprised that?Gorelick is serving on the panel because she had played a key role in setting the very counterterrorism policies being investigated.”
Gorelick refused to step down, or testify before the commission, as eleven Republican senators requested in a letter. A Washington Post editorial came to her defense, and blamed the wall on years of department practice and judicial opinions. The Post blasted Ashcroft for making this an issue, and said that the Bush administration had “explicitly maintained the 1995 procedures before the September 11 attacks.”
The Post was right; Ashcroft’s Justice Department had basically retained the Gorelick memo. But it was Ashcroft who was testifying before the commission. Gorelick was sitting in judgment of him when she should have been under scrutiny herself.