Great Seal of the United States National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

Second public hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

Statement of John McCain to the
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
May 22, 2003

Thank you for inviting me to testify before your commission. I am pleased to come before you today to discuss your important work.

The September 11th attacks represented a massive failure in the most fundamental duty of our government - the security of the American people from foreign attack - that developed over the course of successive administrations. When Joe Lieberman and I called for an independent commission, we stated clearly that it should not be a "witch hunt" directed at one particular administration, one particular agency, or particular individuals. It should be an honest, probing, and thorough review and critique of U.S. policies, programs, and practices spanning almost two decades and four administrations prior to September 11, 2001, with the goal of understanding what we did wrong and how we can learn from identified failures, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities in order to make necessary, systemic corrections. A full and frank accounting of such policies, programs, and practices should be far-ranging and candid in assessing the failures of vision, threat assessment, and policy response that preceded the attacks.

The joint Congressional investigation into the intelligence failures associated with September 11th did critical work in uncovering how elements of our government failed to share and use existing information to divine the terrorists' planning and intentions. The commission should expand on the joint Congressional committee's investigation of the myriad failures that prevented significant information in our possession about the September 11th plot from being pursued by the relevant agencies. The commission should also recommend additional reforms, above and beyond those implemented to date, to rationalize the way intelligence information is collected, analyzed, disseminated, and acted upon to improve the effectiveness of our efforts to deter, preempt, and counter extremist terrorism.

I was disheartened that members of your commission were until recently denied access to the report of the joint Congressional investigation into the September 11th terrorist attacks. Using the Congressional committee's report as the baseline for your work, as Administration officials proposed and which we agreed to include in the commission's enacting legislation, would theoretically have allowed the commission to hit the ground running. Instead, you've been stuck in the quicksand of negotiating access to a document you should have been entitled to examine on a priority basis at the beginning of your tenure.

I find it particularly troubling that Commission member and former Congressman Tim Roemer, who helped write the Congressional report as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, was until this month denied access to his committee's own product. While I don't want to believe such a basic lack of cooperation was intentional, it nonetheless creates the appearance of bureaucratic stonewalling.

The long-running dispute between the joint Congressional committee and the Administration over the declassification and public release of the committee report sets a troubling precedent for Administration cooperation with your commission. Excessive Administration secrecy on issues related to the September 11th attacks feeds conspiracy theories and reduces the public's confidence in government. The commission's access to relevant documents denied to the Congressional committee will be central to its ability to move beyond what we already know from the Congressional probe and meet its broad mandate to disclose and analyze information relating to every aspect of the attacks. I strongly believe the commission will need access to the National Security Council documents denied the Congressional committee. I hope the Administration will not abuse the principle of "executive privilege" to deny the commission this critical repository of day-to-day activity on issues related to the terrorist attacks. Similarly, the commission's ability to interview key Administration officials is essential. Without full cooperation on access to documents and officials, the Administration will raise more questions than the commission will be able to answer.

The operations of the joint Congressional investigation hold a valuable lesson for the commission on securing information from the executive branch. Leaders of the joint Congressional committee, Republican and Democrat, have been highly critical of the Administration's resistance to Congressional committee requests for information related to the attacks. The committee's subpoena power was absolutely critical, they believe, to the success it did enjoy in ferreting out information related to the government's preparedness and knowledge of planning for the terrorist assault. Notably, the exercise of that critical power did not divide its members along partisan lines, but was accomplished through cooperation between the committee's co-chairmen. It is my hope that your commission will agree to issue most subpoenas by consensus, and that any votes on subpoenas will not split the commission along partisan lines.

I support the fullest possible public disclosure of all commission hearings and findings, consistent with existing law and the national security protections written into the enacting legislation. I encourage you to hold public hearings as frequently as possible, and to publicly issue substantive, interim reports on the commission's progress as envisioned and allowed in the enacted legislation. This is particularly important to the families of the September 11th victims and will provide information Congress and the Administration can use to bolster our homeland defenses.

Let me say that Congress bears some responsibility in this matter also. Too often its decisions are met with resistance due to the cost or the burden on the regulated industry. Many believe that aviation security should have been greatly improved after the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988. Congress enacted stricter security regulations for baggage screening as a result of that tragedy. However, funding issues and complaints from industry delayed many of those requirements.

In 1996, in response to the crash of TWA 800, Congress passed several security mandates in the Federal Aviation Reauthorization bill. It took five years to implement some of these requirements. The General Accounting Office has pointed to industry resistance and a lack of adequate funding as two significant obstacles to improvements in aviation security. I don't necessarily believe that we could have prevented the events of September 11th had Congress acted differently, since the improvements were focused on detecting explosives in baggage. However, time after time, Congress moves in a certain direction, only to have its goals obstructed by industry complaints, special interests or the earmarking of funds that divert precious resources to other non-essential programs. This problem is not industry-specific, but covers all issues on which Congress acts.

Congress has a responsibility to do what it believes is right, even if industry or other interests are opposed. Once it makes a decision, it must exercise proper oversight and ensure that proper funding is available to carry out our mandate.

Areas of inquiry I would encourage the commission to pursue, but not limit itself to, include rigorous investigation into failings and shortcomings of policy, programs, and practice in the use of force to respond to terrorist attacks on Americans, intelligence, law enforcement, diplomacy, immigration and border control, the financing of terrorist organizations, aviation security, and the role of congressional oversight. No area of inquiry should be off-limits if the commission determines it relates to the commission's mandate to pursue a comprehensive investigation into the September 11th attacks.

I believe there are four specific areas that deserve particular attention from the commission: the U.S. policy response to terrorism; the rise of al Qaeda; state support for terrorism; and the role of Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Response to Terrorism

An evaluation of the effectiveness of the U.S. response to a series of terrorist attacks against Americans by Islamic extremists over the last two decades is critical if we are to prevail in the coming months and years. Osama bin Laden himself regularly cited American inaction after devastating attacks on our Marine barracks and our embassy in Lebanon as inspiration for his cause. Subsequent kidnappings and assassinations, the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103, the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, subsequent planning of massive trans-Pacific hijackings, the 1995 Riyadh and 1996 Khobar Towers bombings of U.S. targets in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the planned attacks against American interests on the eve of the millennium, and the 2000 bombing of the USS COLE all provided a troublingly clear picture not only of terrorists' intentions, but of their ability to significantly damage American interests. The role of U.S. policy in responding to these attacks, and the ways in which American leaders failed to adequately counter the threat posed by international terrorism, should be central areas of inquiry for the commission.

Illustrative questions would include:
  • Did the tension between law enforcement and military responses to terrorism inhibit our response by focusing on legal outcomes (indictments, prosecutions, and convictions) rather than focusing on the destruction and defeat of terrorist infrastructure that targeted Americans?
  • Were more active responses to the threat proposed but not implemented because of legal, bureaucratic, diplomatic, or other concerns?
  • How well was the counter-terrorist mission incorporated into the planning and operations of our Armed Forces? Our diplomatic service? Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies?
  • How was it that a troubled youth from California was able to join the ranks of al Qaeda (and meet Osama bin Laden) while our intelligence assets could not?

Rise of al Qaeda

It now seems clear that U.S. policy toward Afghanistan in the 1980s - and our decision to abandon the region after 1989 - played a significant role in the conditions that allowed al Qaeda to flourish. I believe the formative period of al Qaeda - not just its more recent operations - should be thoroughly examined by the commission. Key questions would include what we knew about bin Laden's efforts to build a terrorist training and operational network in the region, al Qaeda's role in Somalia in 1993, the partnership formed between Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, as well as al Qaeda's ideological development, recruitment practices, networks, and eventual operations on at least five continents.

State Support for Terrorism

The questions surrounding the nature and extent of foreign government sponsorship and support for al Qaeda and Islamic terrorists bear full examination. Afghanistan and Sudan, as former bases for Qaeda training and operations, are obvious candidates for inquiry, but so too are nations like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Syria, and Iran, whose sponsorship of terrorist organizations known to have collaborated with al Qaeda- and in Iran's case, its current support of known al Qaeda leaders - merits investigating and publicizing.

Saudi Arabia

The role of Saudi Arabia in the rise of a global terrorist network deeply hostile to America must be a part of the commission's deliberations. The role of Saudi policy and Saudi money, from both official and private sources - including members of the royal family - must be fully investigated and made public. Until Saudi Arabia itself was attacked last week, the Saudi leadership and public had clearly failed to acknowledge and learn from the Saudi role in the terrorist attacks of September 2001. The United States and Saudi Arabia cannot enjoy a normal relationship, much less the relationship of allies, as long as Saudi leaders continue to deny and deceive us about Saudi culpability in the rise of extremist terrorism. The U.S. government's reluctance to address this issue directly must not extend to your work.

In retrospect, it is simply remarkable that the United States stood by over two decades, preoccupied by other dangers, challenges and opportunities, as a grave threat to our security formed, grew in strength, expanded in reach, and conducted operations against American targets around the world - and ultimately attacked our homeland. The challenge, and the privilege, of the Kean-Hamilton commission is to explain to the American people how and why these developments occurred, and what our government can do to provide the greatest degree of security to our people in the face of these threats, consistent with the rights and laws of a free people.

We will win the war al Qaeda and those who support it started. The commission's investigation and findings will help form our response, and will contribute to our ultimate victory. I am grateful for your service and look forward to your response to a historic mandate that I hope all elements of our government will actively support.

Current News

The Commission has released its final report. [more]

The Chair and Vice Chair have released a statement regarding the Commission's closing. [more]

The Commission closed August 21, 2004. [more]

Commission Members

Thomas H. Kean

Lee H. Hamilton
Vice Chair

Richard Ben-Veniste
Fred F. Fielding
Jamie S. Gorelick
Slade Gorton
Bob Kerrey
John F. Lehman
Timothy J. Roemer
James R. Thompson

Commission Staff

Philip D. Zelikow
Executive Director

Chris Kojm
Deputy Executive Director

Daniel Marcus
General Counsel