Limbaugh falsely blamed Clinton administration for "wall" that purportedly prevented intelligence sharing about 9-11 hijackers

››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

On the August 9 and 10 broadcasts of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh falsely accused the Clinton administration of enacting a policy that prevented the Pentagon from sharing intelligence -- one year before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon -- about lead 9-11 hijacker Mohammed Atta. In fact, the policy, often referred to as a "wall," was established well before Clinton took office and was retained by the Bush administration; it is unclear whether the "wall" played any role in the decision to withhold information about Atta.

Criticizing a New York Times article for "hid[ing]" the reason for withholding information about Atta, Limbaugh asserted on August 9 that former Clinton deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick was responsible for creating the "wall" that restricted information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement agencies prior to the September 11 attacks and that the "wall" prevented the Pentagon intelligence operation Able Danger from disclosing to the FBI or CIA the Al Qaeda connections of Atta and three other future hijackers. Limbaugh repeated the claim on August 10: "They [Able Danger] couldn't forward the information to law enforcement because there was a wall which prevented them from doing so, erected by Jamie Gorelick, who ran the Justice Department while [then-Attorney General] Janet Reno was the face of that department."

But the joint House and Senate intelligence committees' report of pre-September 11 intelligence failures did not find that the "wall" originated in the Clinton administration; the report states: "The 'wall' is not a single barrier, but a series of restrictions between and within agencies constructed over 60 years as a result of legal, policy, institutional and personal factors." Similarly, a ruling by the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review -- when it met for the first time in 2002 -- traces the origin of the "wall" to "some point during the 1980s."

Nor did enforcement of the "wall" end with the Clinton administration. In his April 12, 2004, testimony before the 9-11 Commission, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft conceded that his own deputy attorney general, Larry Thompson, reauthorized the "wall" in August 2001.

It is unclear whether the "wall" prevented intelligence sharing about Atta during the Able Danger operation; the 9-11 Commission plans to soon investigate why information identifying Atta was withheld from law enforcement agencies.

Some evidence suggests that the "wall" itself was not responsible for the failure to share information on Atta but, rather, that it was an example of what former FBI International Terrorism Operations Section chief Michael Rolince has calledPDF file "perceived walls where none actually existed." The Associated Press reported on August 10 that the Pentagon did not provide the FBI with information on Atta "because of concerns about pursuing information on 'U.S. persons,' " even though the "prohibition against sharing intelligence on 'U.S. persons' should not have applied since [Atta and the other future hijackers] were in the country on visas and did not have permanent resident status." Similarly, The New York Times wrote on August 9 that revealing the identity of a visa holder such as Atta would not have been illegal under the law but that, according to Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) and an unnamed intelligence official, the decision not to do so may have reflected "a sense of discomfort common before Sept. 11 about sharing information with a law enforcement agency":

In the summer of 2000, the military team, known as Able Danger, prepared a chart that included visa photographs of the four men and recommended to the military's Special Operations Command that the information be shared with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the congressman, Representative Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, and the former intelligence official said Monday.

The recommendation was rejected and the information was not shared, they said, apparently at least in part because Mr. Atta, and the others were in the United States on valid entry visas. Under American law, United States citizens and green-card holders may not be singled out in intelligence-collection operations by the military or intelligence agencies. That protection does not extend to visa holders, but Mr. Weldon and the former intelligence official said it might have reinforced a sense of discomfort common before Sept. 11 about sharing intelligence information with a law enforcement agency.

From the August 9 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show:

LIMBAUGH: Let's just get straight to it. I want to take you back in time. Not just to the 9-11 Committee hearings, but shortly after 9-11 itself, when everybody was talking about, "Why didn't we connect the dots? Why didn't we connect the dots?" And I said, "You know why we didn't connect the dots?" Meaning the FBI and the CIA, military intelligence. Why couldn't we share information with each other? There's one reason: the Clinton administration. And most importantly, Jamie Gorelick. Jamie Gorelick, who was number two at the Justice Department. She really ran the place while Janet Reno was the face of the Justice Department. Erected a wall and because the Clinton administration determined that they were gonna fight terrorism not as a war but as a legal matter. And they were gonna use indictments, and they were gonna use grand jury testimony to try to nail these people.

And of course, grand jury testimony is, by law, confidential. And so any information gathered by say, the CIA or the FBI had to be turned over to Justice.And when Justice got it and took it to grand jury, it became confidential, could not be shared with any of the other branches. And that's one of the reasons why we couldn't connect the dots. Because of the strategery that the Clinton administration used to fight terrorism when they cared about it. Well, get this from no less than The New York Times: It's a story that's headlined this way. "Four in 9/11 Plot are Called Tied to Al-Qaeda in 2000". This story is all about how we knew four of the 19 hijackers. And we were tracking it, we knew who they were in 2000, but we couldn't do anything about it because the information that was known couldn't be shared.

[Reading from The New York Times] "More than one year before the September 11th attacks, a small highly classified military intelligence unit identified Mohammed Atta and three other future hijackers as likely members of cell of Al-Qaeda operating in the U.S., according to a former defense intelligence official and a Republican member of Congress."

This is about Curt Weldon and his book [Countdown to Terror (Regnery, June 2005)]. And remember how the left tried to cream Weldon and his book? Turns out now that in the summer of 2000, the military team known as Able Danger, summer of 2000. Who was president? Who was president in the summer of 2000? Somebody help me out here. I think it was this guy Clinton was president or something. Because, yeah, because the campaign of 2000, the election of 2000 wasn't until November. And Bush wasn't inaugurated until January. Of course, that election wasn't decided until December. Remember that, Brian [show engineer]?

So the summer of 2000 would be Bill Clinton was president.

[...]

Now, this story does not say what I just said to you. This story does not go on to talk about the wall that Jamie Gorelick erected and that the 9-11 Commission was not interested in hearing about. But it does cite the fact that Atta was known and that military intelligence was not allowed to share the information with the FBI. They don't say why. The why was because of the wall. They tried to hide this under some visa law, but it has nothing to do with that. And has everything to do with the fact that the Clinton administration had laws on the books that these agencies couldn't share information with one another, i.e. connect the dots, because of the need to maintain the privacy and secrecy of grand jury testimony. I kid you not.

And I don't know where [former U.S. security adviser] Richard Clarke was on this. And I don't know where the Jersey Girls are on this now since -- the Jersey Girls out there leading the charge that Bush didn't do enough, and Bush didn't act fast, and Bush didn't connect the dots, and, of course, we all know now -- and we've known it for awhile. It's just, I find it fascinating that The New York Times actually runs with the story, especially considering Curt Weldon is one of the sources. But it's just another "see I told you so."

From the August 10 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show:

LIMBAUGH: They [Able Danger] didn't forward the information to law enforcement is not the correct way to say it. They couldn't forward the information to law enforcement because there was a wall which prevented them from doing so, erected by Jamie Gorelick, who ran the Justice Department while Janet Reno was the face of that department.

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