What Went Wrong: The Investigation into Alleged Pre-Sept. 11 Intelligence Lapse
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JIM LEHRER: The congressional investigation into what went wrong before the 9/11 terrorist attacks opened today in Washington, but behind closed doors. We hear from the Chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, Democrat Bob Graham of Florida; and the Vice Chairman, Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama. Gentlemen, welcome.
Senator Graham, how would you characterize the day, the beginning of this investigation, the formal part at least?
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: Jim, it was a very excellent beginning. Today we concentrated on developing a statement of what our inquiry will accomplish and adopted the rules. This is the first time in the history of the Congress or over 200 years, where a standing committee of the House of Representatives and a standing committee of the Senate have joined for the purpose of a specific investigation.
So we are developing a new set of procedures and understandings between the two houses as we do this. It was a very bipartisan meeting today. There was no hint of people trying to speak based on what they thought would be some political interests, rather how could we best accomplish our responsibility to the American people.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Shelby, what would you add or subtract from that?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I would agree with what Senator Graham has said. I would just say that the hearings today started out, and I believe they will stay, in the direction of a very high-principled hearings.
The House and the Senate are working together. We’ve got a great staff that we’ve assembled. We’ve got a staff director now, finally, Eleanor Hill (ph), who is well recognized by just about anybody in Washington that knows her as one of the top investigative attorneys in this area. She brings a lot of experience.
And I believe what we’re going to do and the tone today said a lot, that we are going to conduct a bipartisan investigation; one of credibility, one of substance, one that’s thorough. If we do this, we are going to do a good job for the American people. And the tone today says a lot.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Senator Shelby, if you were talking today about procedure and mission, why was it necessary to do it behind closed doors?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, a lot of this stuff we deal with has to do with the rules of the Senate and House Select Committees. A lot of that is very sensitive, very classified. And this was the way to go.
But I will tell you this, Jim. Senator Graham, Congressman Goss, Congress[wo]man Pelosi, and I have agreed earlier on and we are going to have a lot of open hearings, as many open hearings as we possibly can, considering how sensitive the information is.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Graham, what kind of witnesses are you going to have? Are you going to have mostly the heads of these agencies? Are you going to have some Indians as well as chiefs? What have you worked out?
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: Jim, we’ll have a variety of witnesses, depending on what the issue is. For instance, we may — we will be exploring the issues of the finances of terrorist organizations and what can we do to shut down access, particularly access to the United States financial institutions.
That may entail bringing in people from the private sector who have particular knowledge about that, able to assess how well our current laws are functioning and what should we be doing in order to strengthen them. So we’re going to be led by what we need to learn and, from that, who would be the most appropriate witnesses.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let me be specific. There’s been stories in the last few days, another one this morning in the “Washington Post” about what the FBI knew, what the CIA knew, what they told the FBI prior to September 11. How deeply are you going to go into that? Are you going to go down to the working agent level in trying to determine what the truth is here?
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: We will go as deep as is necessary in order to get the facts. I understand that sometimes — frequently — talking to the top of the agency doesn’t give you the insight that you need to know as to what was really happening at the operational level; for instance, some of the disputes between the FBI and the CIA are going to require at least talking to people at the middle management and field level in order to determine just why certain pieces of information were not shared or if they were shared, what was done with that information.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Shelby, how do you feel about that? How far down this your investigation and this hearing should go? Who should we hear from – you, members of the United States Senate but also we the United States public?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I think that like Senator Graham says, we have to go where the facts lead us, and I believe a lot of the facts are going to go, as far as the FBI is concerned, some of it is going to go to the agents in the field who obviously have been doing a tremendous job and have been stifled right here about a bureaucracy, I believe right here in Washington, D.C. As far as the CIA and other agencies, I think what you’ve been hearing and seeing in the last few weeks is just the beginning of a long summer and fall as we bring this investigation along.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Shelby, former Senator Rudman was on this program last night and he said that all of these leaks that we are reading about in the papers every day is a very conscious war at various levels between the CIA and the FBI right now to try to point the blame “No, it wasn’t our fault. It’s their fault, et cetera.” What do you think is going on?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I don’t know what’s going on, but I can feel tension at times between the various agencies. You know, this is nothing new between the FBI and the CIA except in the last ten years, I believe they have worked together on a lot of issues better than they ever have before.
But, Jim, I think what it says to all of us, that we’ve got to come out of these hearings with a lot of evidence to make some positive recommendations, to make our intelligence agencies, be it NSA, CIA, FBI, to work together for the common goal and that is the security of the people of this country.
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: If I could just say–
JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir.
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: What Senator Shelby said is absolutely correct, and it’s also true that we aren’t the first people and this isn’t the first time that we have been aware of these problems such as between the FBI and the CIA. The fact that they haven’t been corrected is an indication of how deeply ingrained these habits of practice are.
So it is going to be our job to build a case of the seriousness of these gaps between our agencies, the failure to communicate, the failure to use information to protect our people, to build a case that will be strong enough to overcome the support of the status quo and the resistance to change, which, in the past, has overwhelmed a whole series of reports such as the one that Senator Rudman and Senator Hart developed just a few months ago.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Graham, are you and your colleagues — how many members are involved in this, both House and Senate — 13?
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: No, 38.
JIM LEHRER: Thirty eight all together. Are you all prepared, when this is all said and done, to go back pre-9/11 and issue a report and name names and say look, there was a piece of information that came through whatever technique on this particular day in September a year ago. It came from the CIA. It didn’t get to this and this and this. Are you going to be that precise?
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: We are going to be that precise and go beyond that and by saying why did this happen? What is the reason that people acted in such perverse ways, and what do we need to do, whether it’s changing the way in which we recruit or train or deploy our intelligence personnel in order to reduce the chances of this repeating itself in the future.
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Jim, if I could add this.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: If we fail to do our investigation and do it properly and I tell you, we’re going to do it right. I believe that from the members and the attitude and the staff. But what we’re trying to do, and will do, I believe, is bring about some reform into our intelligence community, some areas where they’ve got to work together for the common good.
This is not necessarily so today it hasn’t been in the past. As Senator Graham has alluded to it, but the security of this nation, security of our people will trump any of that. It’s more important than the bickering between agencies, the lack of sharing of information between agencies for various and sundry reasons.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Shelby, what I was going to get at, just on a basic human level, that somewhere — if it turns out that somewhere down the line some individual or some one, two, three, four, five individuals failed to act in a way that might have prevented September 11, what kind of burden does that put on you and the members of the committee to call that to the public’s attention?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: That’s what our obligation is not only to the Senate, but to the people of the United States, to call it as we see it, as we find it by the facts, because we if we don’t, we will never hold anybody accountable for their actions.
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: And there is also going to be a focus on the leadership of these agencies. If there were people within the agencies who acted in a demonstrably inappropriate manner, and that resulted in the loss of American lives or could have resulted in that, then what did the higher ups in the organization do in order to indicate that was behavior that that was unacceptable and that there would be some strong sanctions for such behavior. We don’t want to tolerate the agencies’ whitewashing, ineptitude or incompetence.
JIM LEHRER: Is there evidence that there has been some of that Senator Graham?
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: Well, I would say just the superficial facts of some of the cases that we are now dealing with raise questions of how could a professional intelligence or law enforcement officer come to what appear to be such bizarre conclusions and actions based on those conclusions. We deserve to give them the chance to present their side of this case. But if they’re not able to make a convincing case, then their higher-ups should be prepared to respond, why did you not sanction this individual.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Shelby, let me ask you this. We just talked about how the two agencies and probably there are others involved in this, too, are trying to protect their reputations, let’s say, at this stage of the game, and maybe their futures. How are you going to decide who is telling the truth when they finally get up there?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, we’ve got a great staff. We’ve got good investigators that come from all over the intelligence community. They know these people — if not personally, they know what they do, what they should do and they know a lot about the standards.
But if people don’t measure up, if they’re not doing their work, then they’re not doing anything for their– for this country. And a lot of people have been– have lost their lives already because of terrorism.
And if we fail in our job, a lot more will. We’re going to get to the bottom of the problems in our intelligence agencies, whatever it costs. And I’m talking about we are going to follow the facts.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Graham, finally, to both of you, beginning with you, how long is it going to be before the two of you are back on this program and elsewhere and say okay, here are our findings. Here’s what we think happened. This is what we think should be done. How long is this going to take?
SEN. BOB GRAHAM: The scope of inquiry we adopted today, we indicated that our charter runs out with the end of the 107th Congress, which is January 3 of 2003. So that’s sort of the outer date that we have.
So I would hope that sometime before New Year’s Eve, we would have the opportunity to be with you, Jim, to indicate what we have found, what we think it means, and what actions we are going to be recommending to our colleagues as to how to reduce the chances of this happening again.
JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, Senator Shelby, in just in terms of a time frame here?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, probably another six months. But we don’t know that for sure. We’ve got to follow the facts. Something could lead us to some investigation that we cannot ignore, would not ignore.
JIM LEHRER: It’s going to be a leak-free investigation?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, I don’t know about that, but I’ll tell you what, the biggest leakers; and we’ve had testimony by the FBI Director and CIA Director before our committee before — are the executive branch– is the executive branch of government.
JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much and good luck.