Congress Urged to Take Action on 9/11 Reforms
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MARGARET WARNER: So what are the prospects for rapid congressional action on the 9/11 commission’s recommendations? For that we’re joined by two members of the Senate Committee that held today’s hearing: Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the committee’s ranking Democrat, and Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Welcome to you both.
When the commission’s report came out just last week, the thinking was you all were going home. It was an election year, the campaign was intensifying; nothing would happen until after the election. Now you’ve got all these hearings. What’s driving this, Senator Lieberman?
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: What’s driving it is the real urgency of the moment. I mean, you’ve got this report from the Sept. 11 commission that documents the various ways in which our government failed to protect the American people, and recommendations for how to close those vulnerabilities, alongside intelligence which continues to tell us that al-Qaida intends to attack us again.
Now, you know, recesses are nice, and election campaigns are important, but obviously, we got a responsibility to focus on this first, and that’s why Senator Collins and Senator Specter and I convened this first hearing today. There are going to be a lot more hearings in August, and I believe we’re going to get this done in surprising speed and still be very thoughtful about it.
MARGARET WARNER: And Senator Specter, would you say that the impending election actually intensifies the pressure to get something done?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: No, I think that the 9/11 commission report, when added to the Senate Intelligence Committee documentation of the failures on Iraqi intelligence, and the fact, which we’ve known for a long time, that if everything had been under one umbrella, 9/11 could have been prevented, and then this critical factor, we are a nation at risk now.
The director of the FBI and the secretary of homeland security have both told us to expect an al-Qaida attack between now and the election. So we tend to put it out of our mind it is so ominous, but I think the Congress has a duty. We should have done this a long time ago, but now those confluence of factors, I think, are leading us to some action. And I agree with what Senator Lieberman has said. We have a lot of experience and a lot of expertise. I chaired the intelligence committee in the 104th Congress, and we really know what ought to be done.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, let me get both your views on the two major recommendations you were looking at today, beginning with you Senator Lieberman, the idea of a national intelligence director with the 15 agencies, essentially, under, at least, under budgetary authority.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: A very important recommendation. I support it. We may learn some things in the hearing that will lead me to want to work to adjust one or another part of it, but the basic finding of the 9/11 commission report is that intelligence agencies of our government were not working together.
They were withholding information from one another; there was no one at the top to drive them, no quarterback. And this national intelligence director will be the quarterback, will have budgetary authority over all the 15 intelligence agencies that still run around on their own.
You know, I asked Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean at one point today, ‘okay, we know what you said helped to allow al-Qaida to attack us on Sept. 11, but today is anyone in charge?’ And the answer was no. The bureaucracy will tell you the president is in charge, but you can’t expect the president with all the other responsibilities he has to drive the day-to-day operation of the intelligence community.
We need this director. It’s going to be tough because it runs up against a lot of bureaucratic power. It would mean taking money, control over money away from them and putting it in this new director, but absolutely necessary. I think if this national intelligence director had been in place before Sept. 11, the odds are the attack would not have happened.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you feel the same way, Senator Specter?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I do, and this is something that Senator Lieberman and I tried to accomplish. We introduced the Homeland Security bill 30 days after 9/11, and we pushed very hard to have the secretary of homeland defense. We were creating a new cabinet agency to have the authority to direct all the intelligence agencies. We couldn’t get it done, and now’s the time.
There is one of the commission reports that I have a question about, and that is they have sort of dual adding. They want to keep the head of domestic secure under the FBI, and also the part of the defense intelligence agency under both the new director and under the secretary of defense, and I think that’s not workable. I think we ought to be… take the bull by the horns, as I said in the hearing today, and put these three agencies — CIA included — under this new national director to have a maximum amount of authority and coordination.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Lieberman, a brief comment from you, if you would please, on a danger that Senator Levin raised today, which is that if have you this director and in fact the whole counterterrorism center, cabinet level and in the White House, does it increase the danger of politicization and kind of “group think” in intelligence?
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: It’s always possible, but to me that danger is less than the danger that we know allowed al-Qaida to successfully attack us on Sept. 11, which is that you’ve got 15 agencies, they’re too much on their own.
You know, again, Lee Hamilton and Tom Kean said to us today that about a month ago, they had another example of an agency and the intelligence community still refusing to share data with another American intelligence agency. That creates the vulnerability.
And incidentally, the answer that two co-chairs had to Carl Levin’s concern was not only what I’ve just said, but that good congressional oversight and the right person as the national intelligence director will make sure that there’s coordination, but still objectivity, not political control, and a diversity of opinions coming up from the 15 agencies. And that can happen.
MARGARET WARNER: And Senator Specter, what about the idea of the national counterterrorism center in the White House, a kind of joint command as I understand it for the intelligence agencies, do you think that’s a good idea?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, the more coordination, the better. And let me make a comment, Margaret, about your last question. I think if you gave the director of intelligence a ten-year term, by analogy to what the director of the FBI has, then he would overlap presidential terms and he would have the kind of independence, so that you wouldn’t have a situation where the director wanted to carry out the policy aims of the administration, would have sufficient independence to analyze the intelligence and call it as he saw it.
And this coordination unit, I think, is really indispensable. That puts the meat on the bone, so you have all of the information under one umbrella, which, as I say, had it been prior to 9/11, I think that 9/11 could have been avoided.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Lieberman, how are you going to deal with the predictable bureaucratic resistance from the agencies, and also all these congressional committees who will lose turf and power if this goes through?
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Yeah. The leaders of the Senate, Senator Frist, Senator Daschle, have asked our committee to deal with the executive branch changes. I suppose we should be happy that they’re going to give the legislative branch changes to a special senatorial committee that they’re going create. But I will say to you quite explicitly, I think the commission is absolute right.
The current organization of congressional oversight of the intelligence community is inadequate, and we’ve got to pick one of the two recommendations that the commission has made. There will be bureaucratic resistance, but we’ve got to speak to the urgency of the moment, and the power of the 9/11 commission report and what’s on the line here.
You can’t do business as usual. Just as in the normal course, we never would have held a hearing that we held today because this is recess, and there will be many more to come during August. The normal bureaucratic self- protection won’t work. Look, the status quo failed us on Sept. 11, 2001, and it will fail us again. So we’ve got to change it.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Specter, how do you resolve the tension between moving quickly and doing it right?
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: The facts are really well known. We have a lot of experience. I chaired the intelligence committee in the 104th Congress, and on judiciary oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, we have people in the Senate and in the House of Representatives who really know what the problems are, and we’re experienced in governmental structure, and I think we can move with dispatch.
MARGARET WARNER: Then let me ask you, and very quickly from both of you, a prediction. Senator Specter, beginning with you, will we see a bill before the election?
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Yes, I think we will see a bill, and I think Senator Frist and Senator Daschle have already asked for a bill by Oct. 1, and I think you’ll see the Congress in session in October to enact the bill.
I think we’re on a fast track, and I think with the threat overhanging the American people are going to demand the action, and they’re going to get it. That’s our duty and we’re going to fulfill it.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Lieberman, do you join that prediction?
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: I do indeed. Our committee I believe in a bipartisan way will report a bill out by the end of September, and then I hope that the leaders keep us in to adopt it. It just doesn’t make any sense to break for the election when national security is on the line.
Final word, this is a case where I think politics is going to have a good effect, because everybody will want to be able to go back to their constituents and say, “the commission told us we were vulnerable to terrorist attack, they told us what to do about it, and by God we did it.” And that’s a good result for a political pressure to have.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Senators Lieberman and Specter, thank you both.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Thank you.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Nice to be with you. Thank you.