No doubt Ashcroft believed he was doing the right thing. His book Never Again reveals the passion and commitment he brought every single day to the counterterrorism mission the president assigned to him after September 11. Nonetheless, it was perfectly legitimate, and I think healthy, for our team to draw its own conclusions. Competitive intelligence should always be encouraged.
And while we disagreed with the conclusions drawn in that press conference, we never expressed them publicly. There were other occasions where we were able to communicate to the intelligence community a difference of opinion. This usually led to private reassessments and a unified public message.
When the differences between our two departments came to the attention of the White House, the Department of Justice normally prevailed. Disagreeing didn't mean I didn't try to understand. The president believed his constitutional obligation "to provide for the common defense" compelled him to take aggressive action at home and abroad to "bring the terrorists to justice." Justice was his domestic counterterrorism agency, and unapologetic about playing offense. DHS played defense. Advantage DOJ.
Although there were some in the administration who saw potential attacks on every threat matrix, our small intelligence shop under General Pat Hughes, who rose from the rank of private to three-star, kept us grounded with thoughtful and compelling analyses. On many occasions when there was interest in raising the threat level, our department was the least inclined to do so. It wasn't about threat fatigue. It was a matter of credibility and trust.
In late July 2004, I flew to Florida to meet cruise ship officials who wanted my thoughts on how they could protect their fleets from terrorism. This scenario was common: Private industry turned to the department for advice and reassurance, both of which we could offer in measured terms. While in the air, I got a call from Fran Townsend, who had succeeded General Gordon as assistant to the president for homeland security. Because it was on an unsecured line, all she could tell me was that some "interesting information" had turned up and that I should be fully briefed upon my return. Later that day, I flew back to Washington and assembled my team at the NAC to get the briefing and determine what, if any, role the department would play. As it turned out, the source was credible, the potential targets identifiable, and we could target our public message and response in a way that we had never been able to do before.
Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, who was twenty-five years old and thought to be among the next generation of Al Qaeda leaders, had been trying to leave Pakistan. Khan was one of the organization's technology whizzes. He was someone they turned to when they wanted to know the amount of plastic explosives necessary for a specific destructive purpose. He had used Internet cafes to relay coded messages, some of which were intercepted by Pakistani authorities intent on capturing him. After they took him into custody, the Pakistani intelligence service raided a safe house and, in doing so, discovered three laptop computers and fifty-one computer discs. It passed them along to U.S. officials, and they sent them quickly to Washington.