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Sept. 11 Commission Opens Meeting - 2003-05-22

The independent commission probing the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001 has opened a two-day meeting on Capitol Hill.

A number of lawmakers offered suggestions to the 10-member, bipartisan panel.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said the commission should focus on four areas: the U.S. policy response to terrorism, the rise of the al-Qaida terrorist network, state-sponsored terrorism, and the role of Saudi Arabia.

Senator McCain underscored the last issue, noting that 15 of the 19 hijackers who slammed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon two years ago were Saudis. He also made reference to last week's suicide bombings in Riyadh at three housing compounds for Americans and other foreigners.

"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," he said. "The U.S. government's reluctance to address this issue directly must not extend to your work."

Senator Bob Graham of Florida, a member of the Intelligence Committee, which conducted its own investigation of the September 11th attacks, said the lesson he learned from the probe was that the United States has to do better at recruiting counter-terrorism agents:

"If you want to get someone from inside a terrorist organization, you cannot go to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to start recruiting," he said. "You have to find somebody who looks and talks and understands the terrorist about as well as they do. We do not have that capability, at least we do not have it today. We have trouble recruiting assets who do have that capability. That is an example of the kind of more nimble reform we need to make."

Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, who, like Senator Graham, hopes to challenge President Bush in next year's election, criticized Republicans for not allocating enough resources for local and national efforts to protect Americans at home.

"The administration and the majority here in Congress have not adequately funded first-reponders, or the Department of Homeland Security," he said.

Senator McCain, who along with Senator Lieberman helped create the independent commission, agreed. He also criticized the administration for withholding critical documents from the panel until just recently.

"Excessive administration secrecy on issues related to the September 11 attacks feeds conspiracy theories, and reduces the public's confidence in government," he said.

It was the second such meeting of the commission. The first was held earlier this year in New York.

The commission has until next May to complete a report on the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon two years ago.