WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Monday wrote the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States to outline areas of potential inquiry and to call on the Administration to fully cooperate with the commission’s requests for information.
“You have just 14 months to do your work,” Lieberman wrote in a letter dated March 31, 2003. “There must be no stonewalling or bureaucratic foot-dragging … We must make sure that this Administration – as well as previous administrations, and members of Congress, to the extent that Congress itself is a subject of the inquiry – work with you, not against you.”
Lieberman suggested five areas he believes are ripe for independent inquiry: intelligence analysis, cooperation between federal and state and local officials, gaps in transitions between presidential administrations, action taken against Al Qaeda, and transportation security.
“In our legislation, Senator McCain and I gave this commission broad scope and authority for a reason,” Lieberman wrote. “We believe your inquiry should not be constrained or directed by those with a vested interest in the status quo but guided by the evidence and the evidence alone.”
Following is a copy of the letter:
March 31, 2003
Thomas H. Kean, Chair Lee H. Hamilton, Vice-Chair National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
c/o GSA Agency Liaison Division Room 7120
701 D St. SW
Washington, D.C. 20407
Dear Chairman Kean and Vice-Chairman Hamilton:
I write at your invitation to share my thoughts on the occasion of the first public hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Having worked alongside Senator McCain to create this Commission in legislation passed last year, it is gratifying to see the Commission’s work get underway in earnest. Your work will be a service to the nation and especially to the victims’ families and survivors of the attacks. It has been their persistence, their ability to draw strength and resolve from their grief, that has motivated this effort from the start.
As Senator McCain and I worked to establish this Commission throughout the last year, we heard a chorus of skeptics, small but vocal, repeat a common refrain: Why look back? Why focus on the past, when we have so many urgent responsibilities before us? In reply, the families were clear and firm. They said only a definitive, comprehensive, and independent investigation could set their wrenching questions to rest. They said we who live owe it to those who died, and to posterity, to look with open eyes and open minds, without fearing or flinching, at what went wrong. They said that as we marshal our strength for a long and difficult war against terrorism, our future progress would depend on the lessons we learn from the past.
When the Commission passed the Senate by a resounding vote of 90-8 on September 24 of last year, it was an affirmation of the power of that message. Now we must make good on our promise, and that will not be easy. For nearly a year the Bush Administration staunchly opposed efforts to create this Commission, only to reverse course on the eve of a Senate vote it knew it would lose. And just this month, the Administration initially resisted efforts to provide the additional funds the Commission needs to conduct the independent and exhaustive inquiry that the law demands and the American people deserve.
Now that those battles are behind us, I call on the Administration to cooperate with your Commission as it begins its investigation in earnest. The White House must ensure that all federal agencies respond to the Commission’s requests for information and assistance as quickly as possible. You have just 14 months to do your work. There must be no stonewalling or bureaucratic foot-dragging. And to that end, we in Congress have a responsibility to keep close watch, monitoring the Commission’s efforts and ensuring that your path is paved, not obstructed by anyone from whom you seek information. We must make sure that this Administration—as well as previous Administrations, and members of Congress, to the extent that Congress itself is a subject of the inquiry—work with you, not against you.
Some of what you learn will be unnerving. Some will be dispiriting. The truth can hurt. Despite numerous warnings that we would be attacked at home, America failed to prevent an attack that killed 3,000 innocent men, women and children. But we as a government must put the public’s right to know, and our common need to improve our defenses, first. The primary purpose of this Commission is not to assign blame or point fingers at individuals; it is to find the facts and recommend constructive reform. But in so doing, you must not hesitate to go wherever the facts lead. That may include holding accountable for their errors particular agencies and, if appropriate, even individuals.
I hope you will not shy away from this responsibility, if it proves necessary. In our legislation, Senator McCain and I gave this Commission broad scope and authority for a reason. We believe your inquiry should not be constrained or directed by those with a vested interest in the status quo, but guided by the evidence and the evidence alone. Nevertheless, because you have sought my input, let me mention a few outstanding questions that I believe you should pursue.
This list should not be taken as comprehensive. I simply wish to identify a few specific questions among many that have arisen in my work on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. First, intelligence. The September 11th attacks involved one of the most catastrophic intelligence failures in American history. The Congressional Joint Inquiry conducted by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees found countless, now infamous glitches, gaps, and overlaps preventing the swift and effective flow of vital intelligence between and within government agencies. Clearly, to thwart future attacks, all the agencies involved from the intelligence community and law enforcement must collaborate in the fullest sense of the term.
To address this issue, the legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security focuses intelligence analysis in an independent entity, outside of existing rivalries, under the Secretary. After initially resisting, the President recently embraced the idea of a single center to analyze all terrorist threats, but, rather than challenging the status quo, he is creating it under the Director of the CIA. The Commission can look at the mistakes and lessons of the past, including the shortcomings of existing analysis centers already under the CIA and other agencies. By identifying the blind spots and weaknesses in the old design, this inquiry can recommend reinforcements to the new one that will prevent similar problems from recurring.
A related issue is the way our terrorist watch-lists work—and don’t work. They are currently designed to keep terrorists out of the United States by denying them visas rather than proactively identifying, locating, and deporting terrorists who may somehow have gained entry into the United States. A national watch-list system must be redesigned to do both, and I would welcome the Commission’s guidance in this area. Beyond intelligence failures, let me touch upon a few other areas I believe are ripe for independent inquiry. State and local leadership. In our domestic war on terrorism, it’s state and local authorities who will be the first responders and first preventers of another attack.
Let’s find out precisely how the federal government might have empowered them and collaborated with them to stop the 9/11 plot, so that we can give them every available opportunity to thwart future plots. Precisely what relationship between local and state officials and federal authorities do you recommend to make our domestic war against terrorism as swift and effective as possible? Administration transitions. Transitions between Administrations, and all the complex handoffs that they involve, can be harmful if critical problems are neglected in the process. With threats as urgent as those we face today, our government cannot afford to lose a single step in turning over power from one administration to the next.
I hope the Commission examines the Bush-Clinton and Clinton-Bush transitions to see if there was continuous coverage and helmsmanship of counterterrorism efforts. Is this a problem, how important is it, and what solutions can be proposed? Actions against Al Qaeda. Osama Bin Laden declared war on our country and our citizens five years ago, but our government was unable to prevent the 9/11 attacks. I hope you investigate the failure to aggressively pursue and cripple Al Qaeda in the months and years leading up to the attacks. As is now broadly known, the head of our Central Intelligence Agency declared war on Bin Laden’s network in December 1998—but the Joint Inquiry found that this declaration of war faltered due to either a lack of initiative and leadership or benign neglect.
The Joint Inquiry also found there was reluctance by our military leaders to pursue military options against Bin Laden during that time. We look to the Commission to answer why more aggressive intelligence tactics and military options against Bin Laden were not proposed, considered, and used, and whether specific international partnerships would have rooted him out sooner, with an eye to orienting our intelligence, military and foreign policy more effectively to counter terrorism today. Again, it is my expectation that the National Commission will delve into the facts and point out where leadership was lacking and consequently where future leadership can safeguard our domestic defenses as well as strengthen our counterterrorist efforts abroad. Transportation security.
I also urge you to carefully examine why airlines, airports, federal and local officials failed to collaborate more effectively to safeguard our skies. Exhaustive investigations and reconstructions of events follow every commercial aviation crash, no matter what the size or circumstance. On September 11th, 2001, four American jumbo jets were hijacked and used as weapons against us, and yet many basic questions remain unanswered to this day. For example, what weapons did the terrorists smuggle onto the four hijacked planes? How did existing screening systems function on September 11? And why were we so unprepared for hijackings of commercial airliners? Much of what we think we know about the circumstances of the hijackings is anecdotal or even assumed. Troubling questions about our apparently lax commercial aviation security system as it existed on September 11 must be answered if we are to ensure the success of ongoing reforms.
I repeat that the above is just a short list of the questions you will encounter and answer—which will also include immigration policy and practice, law enforcement rules and regulations, and many others. The scope of your investigation is broad, but you also have been granted substantial powers. The law authorizing your Commission requires federal agencies to provide information that you request. But your investigative fiat extends to state and local governments and the private sector. You must not hesitate to use the subpoena power granted by Congress, to secure the information you need to need to conduct a careful and thorough investigation. You have a complex challenge ahead of you. But it is vital to our common security. By telling the story of precisely how the September 11th attacks happened, you have an opportunity here to provide a definitive policy resource for today’s government, and a definitive historical resource for Americans for all posterity.
I thank you for your commitment and look forward to the product of your service.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman