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More Than a Decade Later, Senators Look Back on 9/11

Burr is 1 of 4 Intelligence Committee members who were on the committee on 9/11 (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Fourteen years ago, the 9/11 terror attacks shattered the illusion that Americans were safe on their own soil.  

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard M. Burr, a member of the House Intelligence Committee at the time, recalls the panel had spent a tremendous amount of time the preceding summer listening to warnings by George Tenet, a top CIA official at the time, and intelligence reports that something was going to happen.  

But they never thought something would happen here.  

"Nothing we could find made any of us concerned domestically,” the North Carolina Republican told CQ Roll Call in mid-August in Raleigh. "We weren’t surprised something happened, we were surprised something happened here."  

Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland were on the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time. In Burr’s estimation, the biggest changes in the committee’s focus have been the awareness of the possibility of domestic attacks and a stronger commitment to providing the intelligence community with the tools it needs to fight terror. Of course, there’s debate over what those tools should be.  

"You know, when it happens at home, the impact is so totally different,” Burr said, adding later that: "There’s a degree of commitment that we have to make sure the intelligence community has the tools they need. Because we lived up close and personal the results of the deficiencies last time."  

During the passage of the USA Freedom Act a few months ago, Congress debated the need for certain techniques used by the intelligence community in response to 9/11, including the bulk collection of phone records.  

Burr was one of the proponents of the program during the debate (which is being phased out with the passage of the USA Freedom Act), arguing that while access to phone records in 2001 may or may not have linked the 9/11 hijackers, the program could have tipped intelligence agencies to the fact that the attack would be domestic.  

"Could you have tied [Khalid] al Mihdhar and [Marwan] al Shehhi then to the rest of the 18 in the cells? Burr asked. "I don’t know whether we could have done that, but we would have had a lot different perspective."  

Unlike Burr, Wyden is a staunch opponent to the bulk collection program. He said the biggest change in the committee has been an awakening to the lengths that some of America’s enemies will take to harm and terrorize U.S. citizens.  

"All of us on the committee had this very strong bond with what the American people were going through,” Wyden said. "This changed everyone’s expectations with respect to military and national security policy — the concept that those for ideological reasons would murder our fellow citizens in cold blood by flying into (public spaces) with airplanes.”  

Wyden points to page 104 of the 9/11 Commission Report  to support his opposition to the meta-data program. During the USA Freedom Act debate, he aided Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in filibustering the meta-data program’s reauthorization, which lapsed for a few days.

  • "Our review suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks and could readily have been obtained in a timely manner using conventional section 215 orders. Moreover, there is reason for caution about the view that the program is efficacious in alleviating concern about possible terrorist connections, given the fact that the meta-data captured by the program covers only a portion of the records of only a few telephone service providers."

Wyden recalled the chaos of 9/11, how he thought of his family, his staff, and the uncertainty, how rumors of what was happening came in at a rapid clip, each more "farfetched" than the one before — a climate he could only describe as "really unique."  

From that unique climate emerged the USA Patriot Act, which passed the Senate 98 to 1. While Wyden voted for it, policy questions and concerns lingered and evolved — and he was grateful for an opportunity to revisit the issue.  

"I looked at a lot of these provisions and I said I’m really glad there’s a time stamp on them," Wyden said. "Because we’ll come back, and then of course we did."  

Proponents of the meta-data collection program, such as Burr and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., ultimately lost that debate. At the time, McConnell was criticized for his handling of the schedule which allowed for the meta-data program and other USA Patriot Act provisions to lapse. But Burr still defends the strategy.  

"I think we made a tremendous, rational, legal case for why this was something that we should continue," Burr said. "At the end of the day, the net result was that the members felt that assuring the privacy to the American people was politically more of a concern than the information that was gleaned from it. I’ll take the responsibility that we didn’t make a strong enough case, but I think the case against us was started long before we started the debate on it."  

Correction : An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Burr, who was a member of the House at the time of the 9/11 attacks and his committee membership .