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Context of 'February 12, 2002: Ashcroft Calls for ‘Highest State of Alert’'

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The FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center.The FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center. [Source: FBI]Attorney General John Ashcroft spends most of the rest of the day at the FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC), after arriving there in the early afternoon (see (Between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 12/17/2003 pdf file; Ashcroft 2006, pp. 129) The SIOC, which is located on the fifth floor of the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, functions as a 24-hour watch post and crisis management center. The huge, windowless center can seat 380 people, and is equipped with sophisticated computers and communications equipment. (CNN 11/20/1998; Federal Bureau of Investigation 1/18/2004)
FBI Director Briefs Ashcroft - Ashcroft will later recall that when he arrives at the SIOC, the place is “teeming with people, abuzz with activity, voices and papers everywhere, with dozens of people coming in and out with bits and pieces of new information moment by moment.” Numerous rows of computer screens are “filled with data, and eight large video display screens were being monitored constantly.” Ashcroft is met by FBI Director Robert Mueller, who briefs him on what is so far known regarding the terrorist attacks.
Priority Is to Clear the Skies - During his initial period at the SIOC, Ashcroft will recall, the “overriding priority” is to make sure all commercial aircraft are on the ground. There are also concerns about some planes that have landed and individuals on them who might have been hijackers, and concerns about securing airports so that flights can get up and running again as soon as possible. (9/11 Commission 12/17/2003 pdf file; Ashcroft 2006, pp. 120-121)
SIOC Is 'the Place to Be to Get Information' - Most of the leading Justice Department and FBI officials remain at the SIOC throughout the day. Other officials in the center along with Ashcroft and Mueller include Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff, and Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner James Ziglar. (Chen and Schrader 9/12/2001; US Department of Justice 9/12/2001) According to Ashcroft, the SIOC is “the place to be to get information, and so everyone wanted to be there.” (9/11 Commission 12/17/2003 pdf file) Ashcroft will later recall, “I spent the hours, days, and most of the first weeks, months, after the attack on the United States in the [SIOC].” He will add, “That day, in those early hours, the prevention of terrorist attacks became the central goal of the law enforcement and national security mission of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” (CNN 5/30/2002)

It is reported that the FBI and Justice Department have ordered FBI agents across the US to cut back on their investigation of the September 11 attacks, so as to focus on preventing future, possibly imminent, attacks. According to the New York Times, while law enforcement officials say the investigation of 9/11 is continuing aggressively, “At the same time… efforts to thwart attacks have been given a much higher priority.” Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller “have ordered agents to drop their investigation of the [9/11] attacks or any other assignment any time they learn of a threat or lead that might suggest a future attack.” Mueller believes his agents have “a broad understanding of the events of September 11,” and now need “to concentrate on intelligence suggesting that other terrorist attacks [are] likely.” The Times quotes an unnamed law enforcement official: “The investigative staff has to be made to understand that we’re not trying to solve a crime now. Our number one goal is prevention.” (Shenon and Johnston 10/9/2001) At a news conference the previous day, Ashcroft stated that—following the commencement of the US-led attacks on Afghanistan—he had placed federal law enforcement on the highest level of alert. But he refused to say if he had received any specific new threats of terrorist attacks. (US Department of Justice 10/8/2001) The New York Times also reports that Ashcroft and Mueller have ordered FBI agents to end their surveillance of some terrorist suspects and immediately take them into custody. However, some agents have been opposed to this order because they believe that “surveillance—if continued for days or weeks—might turn up critical evidence to prove who orchestrated the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.” (Shenon and Johnston 10/9/2001) Justice Department communications director Mindy Tucker responds to the New York Times article, saying it “is not accurate,” and that the investigation into 9/11 “has not been curtailed, it is ongoing.” (United Press International 10/9/2001)

Attorney General John Ashcroft says “I want to encourage…all Americans everywhere to be on the highest state of alert.” The FBI warns of a threat from Yemeni or Saudi Arabian terrorists who may be planning an imminent attack. (CNN 2/12/2002) It is later revealed that the threat hadn’t been corroborated by other US intelligence agencies. In addition, the threat actually indicated a more likely attack in Yemen. This announcement was made the same day that Enron CEO Kenneth Lay appeared before Congress. A week earlier, the White House had been ordered to refrain from destroying any documentation related to Enron. (Dreyfuss 9/21/2006 pdf file)

A number of senior criminal prosecutors at the Justice Department, as well as top FBI officials, are privately critical of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s failure to recuse himself from the Plame Wilson leak investigation. Many say that the only way to ensure a fair and impartial investigation is to appoint a special prosecutor to handle the investigation. The New York Times calls the criticisms from the officials, who unanimously ask to remain anonymous, “the first sign of dissension in the department and the FBI as the inquiry nears a critical phase.” Ashcroft will soon have to decide whether to appoint a grand jury to look into the possibility of criminal conduct in the leak; such a grand jury could compel the testimony of White House officials. Ashcroft has long political and social ties to many White House officials, and as such, the Justice Department and FBI officials say, he cannot conduct an impartial investigation. Some of the Justice Department officials are supporters of Ashcroft, and worry that his reputation could be damaged by his failure to recuse himself. Democrats say the investigation has been tainted from the outset by Ashcroft’s relationship with White House officials. So far, a Justice Department official says, none of the prosecutors involved in the investigation have asked Ashcroft to recuse himself. (Johnston and Lichtblau 10/15/2003)


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