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Ex-local prosecutor deftly handled tough 9/11 inquiry

By MARY JACOBY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 18, 2002

WASHINGTON -- If Eleanor Hill had failed as staff director of Congress' recently ended investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, few would have been surprised. The task was daunting.

The former Tampa federal prosecutor came into the job midstream after scandal forced out her predecessor. She had only a few months to digest hundreds of thousands of documents while maneuvering among angry committee members and struggling against an often fiercely secretive White House and intelligence community.

But political and investigative skills honed in nearly 15 years as a top aide to then-Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and four years as Department of Defense inspector general, pulled her through. In the end, the $2.6-million joint House-Senate inquiry was hailed as a tough, clear-eyed look at the nation's intelligence problems.

"The American public had a right to understand what their government did or didn't know" about events leading up to the attacks, Hill said in an interview last week after the inquiry issued its final report.

"That was a cataclysmic event for this country. If that kind of event doesn't justify an effort to make the public familiar with how their government performed, I don't know what kind of event could justify it," she said.

The approximately 3,000 people who died in last year's attacks spurred the Florida State University alumna to leave a cushy Washington law firm for the panel, co-chaired by fellow Floridians: Sen. Bob Graham , a Democrat from Miami Lakes, and Rep. Porter Goss, a Sanibel Republican.

Leaving a husband and 10-year-old son at home, Hill began working nearly around the clock at her new job. No more wood paneled walls and plush carpets for her; Hill's new office was painted plain white, with standard-issue government plastic chairs and fluorescent lights.

Thousands of pages of classified documents were coming in from the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency. They were kept in vaults in the inquiry's offices and could not be taken from the room.

That meant Hill became a virtual inmate of the offices. Even worse, for security reasons the rooms had no windows. It was summer outside, but Hill saw no birds, trees or sun. And her son, Bryan, complained, "I've lost my mother," Hill said.

A petite, soft-spoken Democrat with red hair feathered back from her face, Hill's original patron on the panel was a Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. Shelby was the Senate vice chairman of the inquiry and a harsh CIA skeptic.

He promoted her for the top staff job after it was discovered that her predecessor, former CIA Inspector General L. Britt Snider, had hired a staff member who had failed a CIA polygraph test. The four leaders of the inquiry -- including Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee -- quickly hired Hill.

The leaders, particularly Graham and Shelby, protected Hill from the political crosscurrents that could have doomed the inquiry. Shelby urged her to be tough, while Graham issued a controversial order that only the four leaders of the panel could have direct contact with the inquiry staff.

That order angered many members of the panel, composed of the 37 members of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Other members, particularly incoming Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., were upset that the panel planned to hold public hearings, citing national security concerns.

But the leaders insisted on an open accounting.

The reasoning, Hill said, was that "the American people want to hear this and deserve to hear this."

Hill negotiated with mid-level officials at the intelligence agencies over what information could be released publicly. It didn't always go smoothly.

"For the most part the mid-level people who made the nuts-and-bolts decisions worked very hard and I think were reasonable. I don't agree with everything they did. But I think they were making an honest effort," Hill said.

But sometimes, decisions were made above their head. The White House, for example, refused to release information about what President Bush knew about the al-Qaida threat and when.

CIA director George Tenet also refused to declassify the name of the alleged mastermind of the attacks, a Kuwaiti named Khalid Sheik Mohammed, even though his name had been widely reported in the news media.

Hill hit the administration hard on those points in the first public hearing on Sept. 18. "We believe the American public has a compelling interest in this information and that public disclosure would not harm national security," Hill said before a packed hearing room.

In nine public hearings, the inquiry disclosed a wealth of detail about intelligence lapses. Tenet, for example, had declared "war" on al-Qaida in 1998 but the urgency of the threat was never communicated to the rest of the government and the public, the inquiry found.

The inquiry also revealed that intelligence agencies had repeated warnings that al-Qaida might use airplanes as weapons to attack on U.S. soil but never fully understood the seriousness of the threat.

The panel slapped FBI headquarters for denying a request by its agents in Minneapolis to search a laptop computer owned by Zacarias Moussaoui, later accused of conspiring in the attacks. The French national had been detained in August 2001 after instructors at a Minnesota flight school suspected he might be planning an airplane hijacking.

In the end, the inquiry produced a 450-page report. But, because of disputes over declassification, it could issue only a 19-page document outlining its findings. Hill, who remains on the job until February, said she will continue to push for declassification of most of the committee's report.

The one misstep on Hill's watch occurred in a public hearing in September. A staff member had written in a briefing book for committee members that they could expect a senior CIA officer, Cofer Black, to "dissemble," or lie, in his testimony.

The next day Tenet wrote a blistering letter denouncing the inquiry staff for "bias, preconceived notions and apparent animus."

"That was an error," Hill said. "An editing error. It shouldn't have been in there." But, she insisted, the staff "was not out to get" anyone.

In the end, Hill won praise from the inquiry's leaders. And after a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday to announce the panel's findings, Graham and Shelby approached Hill with a gift.

It was an American flag brooch.

"We respect you and we wanted to honor you," Shelby said, handing Hill a small box in gold wrapping. Graham hugged Hill and then turned to her son, Bryan, who was on hand to witness the end of an investigation that had consumed his mother's life since June.

Acknowledging that his mother's absence had been hard, Graham put his arm around the boy and said, "You're part of our team, too."

Now, the panel hands off its work to an outside commission that will examine governmentwide security failures, particular in aviation and immigration and at visa-issuing foreign consulates.

A rough start -- Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell, named to lead the commission on Nov. 27, have resigned -- would seem to make the new inquiry an ideal Hill project, and she said she would find an offer tempting. But the 18-month commitment it requires gives her pause. "My son's patience is really very thin at this point. If I told him another 18 months, that would be a hard sell," she said.

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