When faced with criticism, accuse. That seems to be Attorney General John Ashcroft’s rule of political survival. When called before the 9/11 Commission to discuss the Justice Department’s and the FBI’s responses to the Al Qaeda threat before 9/11, he blasted away: at the Clinton Administration, at the commission (one member in particular) and at unnamed Patriot Act critics. He admitted no errors. And he barely addressed the questions raised about his own actions before 9/11.

Interim reports of the 9/11 Commission note that the FBI Ashcroft inherited from Janet Reno was a mess (the computer system was decrepit, 66 percent of its analysts were unqualified to do their jobs, intelligence collection was woefully mismanaged) and that the bureau and the Justice Department had not regarded counterterrorism as a top priority. The reports also indicate that Ashcroft did little to change the status quo. In spring 2001, according to the commission, the Justice Department prepared an FBI budget that did not increase counterterrorism funding (bolstered in the first budget of the Bush Administration). On September 10 Ashcroft denied a request from the FBI for $50 million for additional counterterrorism agents and resources. Thomas Pickard, acting FBI director in mid-2001, told the commission that in summer 2001 he met with Ashcroft to brief him on the surge of intelligence related to terrorist threats but that after two such briefings Ashcroft told him he was not interested. (Ashcroft denies this.)

Ashcroft had a lot of FBI issues on his plate: the Wen Ho Lee investigation, FBI agent Robert Hanssen’s espionage, mishandling of documents in the Timothy McVeigh case. Perhaps it was natural that, as a commission report says, the FBI’s “counterterrorism strategy was not a focus of the Justice Department in 2001.” Rather than acknowledge or explain this, Ashcroft came before the commission loaded for bear. He waved a mid-1990s Justice Department memo his department had just declassified, which he claims was the origin of the so-called wall that separated investigations of terrorists from criminal inquiries and which he and others blame for impeding counterterrorism efforts. This memo had been written by 9/11 commissioner Jamie Gorelick when she was Deputy Attorney General in the Clinton Administration. (Its relevance, one commission official later said, was “almost none”: It merely laid out rules for one case, in which the FBI was actually expanding an inquiry involving Al Qaeda-related terrorists, and it was supplanted by broader guidelines–readopted, with modifications, by Ashcroft’s department in August 2001.)

Ashcroft tossed out budget numbers designed to make it seem as if he were beefing up counterterrorism. (He did not discuss his opposition to Pickard’s request.) He also claimed he had reviewed covert action orders left over from the Clinton Administration and that they did not, as former Clinton officials have said, authorize the assassination of Osama bin Laden. (Commissioner Fred Fielding, a Republican, noted that the commission had received documents showing Ashcroft to be in error.) And Ashcroft’s aides handed out a flier claiming his department had “removed” from the United States “over 515 individuals linked to the September 11th investigation.” (This was apparently a reference to immigrants detained and then deported after 9/11–none of whom were linked to the 9/11 attacks.)

It was an impressive appearance–if honesty doesn’t count. The commissioners generally tossed Ashcroft easy questions, as happened when former FBI director Louis Freeh and CIA chief George Tenet testified. In front of the TV cameras, the 9/11 Commission comes across as lackluster: Its members don’t bother to ask about the most obvious pre-attack screw-ups and oversights. Yet its interim reports are damning. One covering the FBI–which enumerates a host of problems–would make any taxpayer scream. Another reports the CIA mismanaged its counterterrorism mission before 9/11. A third details how the CIA repeatedly failed to inform the FBI about two suspected Al Qaeda terrorists who had entered the United States in January 2000. Both men, it turned out, were thereafter in contact with an FBI informant, and both became 9/11 hijackers. Once the CIA shared this lead with the FBI in late August 2001, the search for the suspects was handled by a single FBI agent–his first counterterrorism case. He was still conducting his search on September 11. It is heartbreaking reading.

In public sessions, the 9/11 commissioners have mostly been gentle, allowing past and present officials to make excuses and avoid responsibility for misjudgments and mistakes. But the commission’s investigative work is hardly forgiving. Citizens who want accountability and answers ought to hope the final report–due this summer–is at least as penetrating as the interim reports and receives as much attention as the hearings.