How Congress worked to protect America after 9/11: Reflections from Michael Bopp, former Staff Director of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
Throughout our nation’s history, Congress has risen to meet the challenge of national tragedy. On the evening of September 11, 2001 – as first responders continued search and rescue operations across the river at the Pentagon – members of Congress stood on the Capitol steps in “a public demonstration of unity.” More difficult work would follow – helping stranded constituents, providing accurate information, and on September 14, 2001, authorizing military strikes against Afghanistan.
In the weeks, months, and years that followed the attacks, the responsibility for ensuring the defense of the nation against future attacks became the most important task for Members of Congress and their staff. At the forefront of this work were Mike Alexander and Michael Bopp – diligent and conscientious staffers who instinctively talk about their bosses’ achievements rather than their own. Yet both played a pivotal role in crafting and securing passage of landmark legislation that continues to protect the nation.
New to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Mike Alexander suddenly found himself confronting the urgent and critical task of consolidating the myriad of homeland security responsibilities spread over 100 government agencies and offices into a single federal department. Guided by Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-CT) and supported by ranking member Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the committee would produce the transformational Homeland Security Act of 2002 that created the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
By 2004, committee roles had reversed, and Sen. Collins was entrusted as the new chair of the Governmental Affairs with the most significant reform of the U.S. intelligence community since its creation As committee staff director and chief counsel, Michael Bopp not only drafted key sections of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, creating the position of Director of National Intelligence, but helped guide the bill through fierce negotiations with other committees and initial opposition from the Department of Defense.
Both Mike and Michael have since left Capitol Hill, but we asked them to reflect on how Congress responded to a national tragedy and the institution’s ability to respond to future crises.
Part 2: An interview with former Staff Director of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Michael Bopp. Click here to read an interview with Mike Alexander, his successor on the committee.
Alliance: Thanks for speaking with us Michael. As Staff Director and Chief Counsel of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, you were a key drafter of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA). How did you feel about leading the most significant reform of the intelligence community since its creation? How did the impact of 9/11 weigh on your work?
MB: The first thing I would say is that this was among the biggest challenges in my 12 and half years on Capitol Hill. It also was probably among the biggest challenges for Senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman, who were leading the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Our committee ended up spearheading intelligence reform in the Senate, but there was a pretty big jurisdictional fight over who would take the lead initially. Both the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees wanted to take the lead because they thought they had more experience in the subject matter, but leadership knew you needed to have a committee where the chair and ranking member could pull together a bipartisan consensus with no jurisdictional interest in the outcome. If the legislation was jurisdictionally motivated, it wouldn’t address the problems as effectively.
It was a massive undertaking, and we all knew and appreciated the importance with the events of 9/11 on our minds. Collins and Lieberman worked better together than any other committee and they immersed themselves in the nuances of the intelligence community. The events of 9/11 created a seriousness and sense of urgency within Congress and the administration to fix the problem. This is one of those rare pieces of legislation where partisanship did not play a role.
Alliance: Intelligence reform was not taken up by Congress until 2004, as the 9-11 Commission was completing its work. How significant were the Commission’s recommendations in moving legislation forward and coalescing around solutions?
MB: The weight and memory of what happened on 9/11 resurfaced when the report came out. That created a sense of urgency and willingness to move beyond partisan issues. If amendments were offered and the commission determined that those amendments would weaken the bill, invariably those amendments were rejected. The 9/11 Commission itself and families who lost loved ones played a pivotal role. They became arbiters of what language in the bill was acceptable and what was not. It was an incredibly well-respected panel. The bill survived a barrage of amendments due in large part to the memory of 9/11 and the families.
Alliance: The IRTPA was referred to multiple committees and required both bipartisan and bicameral cooperation to pass. How did you and others build and maintain support during significant disagreements over how to reform the intelligence community and national counterterrorism efforts?
MB: The bicameral process was interesting because in the Senate the process in a lot of ways was simpler to navigate in terms of sorting through and accepting amendments. In the House it was a matter of whether the bill would get to the floor. Even though you had a Republican administration behind the bill, Speaker [Dennis] Hastert would not let the bill come to the floor unless it had a majority of the party behind it. At least two committee chairs were opposed to the legislation and because of that the bill was stuck for a long time.
We had gotten to the point of despair over the bill, but in the 11th hour we were finally able to craft language that satisfied the concerns of the Armed Services Committee. Fundamentally, it was a matter of making sure that the new intelligence apparatus being created was not going to compromise the needs and interests of our military. On a Sunday night, both Senators Collins and Lieberman happened to be at a Kennedy Center event where they excused themselves for a conference call where we were able to huddle up and come to a consensus. Without that language the bill was not going to move, but it was ultimately the result of a confluence of bipartisan consensus and highly respected outside influencers. The families were the most effective lobbyists for the legislation by far. They put a tremendous effort into pushing the legislation and worked directly with us on advocacy. When we encountered roadblocks, the families were right there saying let’s figure out how to get over them and asking who we need to talk to. They were extremely effective and had boundless energy. Their success metrics were incredibly high in persuading people to get behind the bill.
Alliance: How has Congress’s ability to respond to crises changed since 9/11 and passage of landmark legislation like the IRTPA? What opportunities does Congress have to better respond to future crises?
MB: I don’t think Congress’s ability to respond to crises has changed fundamentally. When there is a crisis acknowledged by both sides of the aisle and when U.S. citizens expect action, that’s when it happens. During the pandemic both sides were able to put in place the resources to respond to this tremendous crisis, which is another example of Congress overcoming partisanship. Intelligence reform was in some ways trickier because we had to alter substantive law, not just appropriate money, which is something we see more often. Passing legislation that reorganizes and changes the way our government addresses a key aspect of our security is a big deal.
I am still very confident in Congress’s ability to come together when there is an imperative. Structurally, nothing has changed. Yes, the use of the filibuster and Congress getting rid of the filibuster for nominations has made politics more vitriolic overall. Congress can still come together notwithstanding that vitriol and achieve remarkable things. When you see Congress acting on a bipartisan basis it restores your faith in our political system. It can happen and it does happen. When there is a crisis, we can take some comfort that Congress can come together and do the right thing.