Former Tampa federal prosecutor Eleanor Hill discusses the joint congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.
By David R. Corder
Sounds of a restless audience greeted Eleanor Hill as she spoke amid the distraction of busy luncheon servers, private conversations and forks clanking against dishes. The Washington, D.C., attorney and former Tampa federal prosecutor thanked members of the Hillsborough County Bar Association for the speaking invitation, which she considered something of a homecoming. In return, she graciously modified the introduction of her often-spoken subject to emphasize the message behind the group's monthly meeting - a tribute to diversity on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
As if she expected it to surprise some, Hill said she could not recall even an instance where prejudicial thought or action reared their ugly heads in the '70s when she served as Tampa's first woman federal prosecutor. Nor could she recall any such barriers during the '80s and '90s as the first woman chief counsel of the U.S. Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations, a job once held by the slain popular political leader Robert F. Kennedy.
The hum of this semi-attentive audience continued, though, as Hill moved closer to the subject she has delivered at dozens of similar gatherings over the past year. She explained how diversity became a talking point during the year she spent as staff director of the joint congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.
Then she uttered words that nearly brought silence to the murmuring and clanking. No, she didn't disclose classified intelligence information, though she had access to it all as staff director. Yes, the information had flooded the national news pages when the joint congressional panel issued its final report last summer on the matter. But for a while about 350 luncheon attendees listened closely to stark words from a woman who participated in one of the most intensive congressional inquiries in this nation's history.
"While we did not find that the intelligence committee, prior to Sept. 11, had a single piece of intelligence, not one piece, that would have told them in advance the time, the place or the nature of the attacks, we did find that our intelligence committee did have prior to Sept. 11 information that was relevant and that was significant in terms of those attacks," said Hill, a partner with King & Spalding LLP. "The (intelligence) community, however, and the report concludes, failed to focus on that information and to appreciate its collective significance. And as a result, they missed opportunities to disrupt the plot by denying entry to what were the hijackers, to unravel the plot through surveillance and investigative work within the United States, and to generate a heightened state of alert and harden the homeland against attack."
While its members surely read or watched news accounts about the congressional inquiry, still the audience became even more attuned to the realism of Hill's words as she painted a picture of government inefficiency and even denial.
"You have heard, if you followed 9/11 ¦ the national security adviser for this administration (Dr. Condoleezza Rice) and Sandy Berger, who testified as national security adviser during the Clinton administration, say that they had not seen any report about aircraft as weapons, that this was something new," Hill said. "We found there was in fact intelligence that pinpointed that as a terrorist tactic."
Hill's speech brought to life information that many probably had read before, says Allen Dell PA attorney Marian McCulloch, the group's volunteer president. But she says the impact of the speech on the audience was apparent. "The membership was pinned to the seats during her talk," she says. "It gave us such candid insight into the workings of the investigative committee. I just hope the administration does something with that report."
McCulloch also took satisfaction in Hill's comments on diversity. She says Hill is a good role model for all lawyers. "She is an example of a powerful woman who has risen to the top of her profession, no small feat in the man's world that she described," McCulloch says. "But she does so without tooting her own horn."
While she takes little credit for the committee's success, others describe her participation as almost invaluable. In fact, many credit her for bringing reason to an investigation fraught with partisan politics and struggling amid a climate of institutional parochialism and secrecy. To compound the problem, Hill accepted the job as replacement to L. Britt Snider, a former CIA inspector general who resigned from the congressional committee amid partisan bickering.
Even before she walked into the congressional committee's staff office Hill knew she faced an overwhelming task. "It was a real caldron of problems," she says. "When I went up, there had been false starts. One staff director had left. There had been some (media) leaks before I had got there. There was a lot of stories in the media - some inaccurate."
Under Hill's leadership, the congressional committee gained momentum, says Sen. Bob Graham, D-Miami Lakes, who served as vice chairman of the congressional committee along with U.S. Rep. Porter Goss, R-Sanibel.
"Eleanor Hill played a critical role in the success of the joint inquiry," Graham says. "We couldn't have completed our work without her extensive experience in the private sector and in government - including her time as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Florida - as well as her organizational skills and dedication to a very complicated investigation. Every aspect of the final report indicates her outstanding abilities. Floridians can be very proud of this daughter of our state."
Hill worked closely with Graham's communications director, Paul Anderson, who says the public cannot imagine the sacrifices Hill made in this effort.
"She kind of became the new quarterback at the end of the second quarter," Anderson says. "It truly was a sacrifice. She sacrificed income from her law practice. She sacrificed time with her family. It was a major commitment on her part."
Although he could speak only hypothetically, Anderson suspects the congressional committee would not have achieved the success it did without Hill's leadership. "Sen. Graham commended her role in this every step of the way, publicly and privately," Anderson says. "At the conclusion of the report, each time he's spoken to the press, he's acknowledged Eleanor's leadership."
Hill's modest nature is no act, says Tampa attorney Lynn Cole, a longtime friend who first met Hill in 1979 as an assistant U.S. attorney. It was Hill who assigned Cole to her first federal racketeering case.
"She is the consummate professional attorney," says Cole, who recommended Hill to the Hillsborough bar as a guest speaker. "And by that I mean that she - irrespective of her own feelings and emotions - professionally searches for and investigates all relevant facts and is able to brilliantly assimilate those facts and apply them to the law. That's what she has done throughout her career."
Some day Hill would like to see the congressional committee's classified report become publicly available at least for historical purposes. But that is not likely to happen any time soon, she says. She recalls the difficulty of just producing the unclassified report, which is available across the Internet through the U.S. Government Printing Office (www.gpoaccess.gov).
"It is the culmination of an unprecedented amount of joint effort by two permanent congressional committees, the review of 500,000 pages of relevant documents, interviews and discussions with over 600 different individuals, testimony produced in 13 private sessions, nine public hearings and nearly seven long months ¦ of difficult and very frustrating declassification negotiations with the intelligence community," she said.
Those negotiations compare with nothing else Hill has done before, though she is satisfied with the end result. She said the 832-page unclassified report contained much more information than she thought originally possible, especially considering the arguments of the intelligence staff. "There was no logic to some of these arguments," she recalled. "We were arguing about some things that had already been declassified."