Project: Homeland Security - Law Firms The Joint Congressional Inquiry Into The September 11 Attacks: Insights Of The Staff Director

Friday, July 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Ms. Hill, will you tell our readers something about your career?

Hill: Prior to private practice, I worked for the federal government for many years. I joined a U.S. Attorney's Office directly from law school, as a federal prosecutor in Tampa. That was a terrific way for a new lawyer to get litigation experience - I found myself in court, handling a hearing on the very day that I was sworn into the bar. I tried a number of major white collar criminal cases, including what was then the largest RICO case in the country, an arson and insurance fraud trial that had 24 defendants and lasted four months. I moved on to the Department of Justice Organized Crime Strike Force, where I tried organized crime and public corruption cases, including one that led to the first federal conviction of a Florida state cabinet officer.

About that time, I heard that Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, the new Chairman of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, was planning congressional investigations on organized crime. I sent in a resume and soon found myself in Washington as an Assistant Counsel for the Subcommittee. About a year later, Senator Nunn named me the Subcommittee's Chief Counsel and Staff Director. Working in the Senate was fascinating: I spent nearly 15 years handling a wide range of Congressional investigations and legislative issues. In 1995 President Clinton appointed me Inspector General for the Department of Defense, where I directed more investigations and audits before joining King & Spalding in 1999 as a partner in the Special Matters/Government Investigations Group. In 2002, the Chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees asked me to serve as the Staff Director for the Joint Congressional Inquiry into the September 11 Attacks. After the Inquiry's work concluded, I returned to King & Spalding in October 2003.

Editor: Although conceived as a nonpartisan agency when it was established after World War II, the Defense Department has become increasingly politicized over the years. Has this had any impact on the work of the Inspector General?

Hill: I am a fan of the Inspector General Act, which Congress applied to all major federal departments during the 1980s. Ideally, Inspectors General, or IGs, serve as independent, professional "watchdogs" to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. The statute is unique and very effective in the way it insures IG independence. While IGs are appointed by the President and serve in the Executive Branch, the Act requires IGs to keep the Congress "fully informed" and bars agency intervention in IG investigations, with a limited national security exception. Since the Executive Branch and Congress are often controlled by different political parties, IGs, to be credible, must be guided by the facts, and not by partisan politics. Even when the same party controls both branches, Congress and the Executive Branch often view things differently, so IGs generally tread carefully and insist upon independence in their work.

Editor: In 1999 you left government service to join King & Spalding. Will you share with us the factors that went into your decision to join the firm? What attracted you to the firm?

Hill: I knew of King & Spalding's excellent reputation and I had worked with, and liked immensely, several King & Spalding lawyers over the years. The biggest and most immediate factor, however, was probably Sam Nunn. After retiring from the Senate, he had joined the firm as a senior partner and found the firm to be extremely well managed and fully committed to integrity, professionalism, and excellence in legal services. I was well aware of the very high standards that he set for himself and for the people around him. While I had enjoyed my time in government service, I wanted to give private practice a try, and the presence of Sam Nunn at King & Spalding served as an excellent endorsement for the firm.

Editor: Following the terrorist attacks on September 11 you left the firm to become Staff Director for the Joint Congressional Inquiry into the attacks. Please tell us about this undertaking.

Hill: The Joint Inquiry was an extraordinary effort, critically important and unique in Congressional history. Given the magnitude of the September 11th attacks, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees joined in a bipartisan effort to investigate why our intelligence community had been unable to prevent the attacks. The Inquiry included 37 members of both houses, under the joint leadership of Senators Bob Graham and Richard Shelby and Congressman Porter Goss and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. As Staff Director, I felt strongly that, if ever there was a time when the people deserved an accounting of their government's performance, it was in the aftermath of 9/11. Ours was a difficult task, requiring a massive effort by a staff of 25 investigators, lawyers, and intelligence professionals. From the outset, the media questioned whether politics would prevent an objective and nonpartisan review of the intelligence. While the agencies agreed to cooperate, there was considerable resistance to public hearings and many, many times when we had to push very hard to get access to information and witnesses. I had led enough Congressional investigations to know that it was important to keep pushing, and we did. The effort was complicated by the fact that we were dealing with highly classified information, requiring the use of a secure facility for our work. All the persistence and hard work proved worthwhile: in the Inquiry's 2002 hearings, the public first learned of the intelligence community's many "missed opportunities" regarding 9/11 and the critical need for reform.

Editor: Would you summarize for us the Inquiry's report and recommendations for reform of the intelligence community?

Hill: The report was the last part of the effort. In December 2002 the Committees approved a 900 page classified report and released, in unclassified form, the report's recommendations for reform. After seven long months of difficult negotiations with the agencies, a redacted, unclassified version of the report was released in July 2003. It details the missed intelligence opportunities and the many problems that hindered pre-9/11 counterterrorism efforts. The report's findings generally fall within three broad areas: there was a lack of access to relevant intelligence information; even when the intelligence community had the relevant information, there was a lack of focus on terrorist attacks within the United States; and there was a lack of quality in two important areas, analysis and investigations. The pre-9/11 effort fell far short of what we would expect in terms of creative, aggressive and thorough analysis and investigation. The Inquiry made many recommendations, including the appointment of a Director of National Intelligence, which has now occurred. There were recommendations to improve FBI efforts, which were more focused on law enforcement than on intelligence prior to 9/11. Other recommendations focused on the CIA, the NSA, and on technology, which was not used to its fullest potential. Others addressed personnel, training, language skills and specific steps to improve counterterrorist efforts.

Editor: By way of a scorecard, I would like to return to October 17, 2002 and your Joint Inquiry Staff statement. You concluded that statement with several questions, including: What lessons has the intelligence community drawn from the September 11 experience? What will the intelligence community do, in specific terms, to improve future performance? Where are we two and half years later?

Hill: I still move in circles that are focused on national security, and, although I am no longer in government, I try to stay abreast of developments. While we have made progress, we are not yet where we need to be in a post-9/11 world. The new Director of National Intelligence is a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to bring focus and direction to the intelligence community, to harness its wide range of capabilities to a single purpose, and to drive it in a way that results in cohesive, coordinated, and effective action. That kind of effort was absent prior to September 11, and I am not certain that the statute gives the Director the clear authority he needs to fully address that shortfall as we move forward.

The private plane that recently flew into Washington, DC airspace comes to mind. Despite the attention given by the Joint Inquiry and the 9/11 Commission to the lack of information sharing, the DC police were reportedly never advised about the airspace violation until after the threat subsided. While the White House and the Congress were evacuated, people in nearby non-governmental buildings were not even notified of the threat, much less evacuated, reportedly because DC authorities were not "cleared" to receive the information. The Joint Inquiry reported on the problems security clearances had caused in information sharing prior to 9/11. Apparently, those problems have still not been fixed.

Editor: In October of 2003 you returned to King & Spalding and the firm's Special Matters/Government Investigations Group. How would you like to see this practice evolve?

Hill: Our Special Matters/Government Investigations group is comprised of people with some very impressive criminal justice and investigative credentials, from both the defense and prosecution perspectives. We have lawyers, for example, with senior-level experience at the Justice Department, U.S. Attorneys Offices, the Inspector General community, the Congress, and the SEC. The group advises clients on the serious issues that companies confront in white collar criminal matters, Congressional investigations, inquiries from government regulators, corporate internal investigations, and whistleblower complaints. The group brings together expertise on all aspects of government investigations and is uniquely well-equipped to assist clients in these kinds of matters. My own practice focuses heavily on Congressional investigations and corporate internal investigations, where I find my years of experience in conducting government investigations to be extremely useful.

Editor: And the future? Is another stint of government service a possibility for Eleanor Hill?

Hill: I enjoy King & Spalding and the chance to represent clients, supported by the firm's wealth of legal talent and experience. For lawyers, there are differences between private practice and public service: in perspective, in focus, even in skill sets. Having a taste of both gives you a much fuller understanding of both the law and the practice of law, and so I am glad that I've had the chance to do so. Right now, I'm very focused on doing my best in private practice, but I guess I would never completely rule out a return to government, given the many good years I had in public service. The erosion of public trust and respect for government over the last 25 years has not, in my view, served the country well. Public service can still be a noble and tremendously satisfying profession. The country needs to attract public servants with the ability and commitment to bring government to its full and best potential. Hopefully, the good experiences that I and others have had will cause others to consider public service. It's important for all of us.

Please email the interviewee at ehill@kslaw.com with questions about this interview.