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Interview With Senator Patrick Leahy

Aired June 8, 2002 - 17:30   ET


AL HUNT, CO-HOST: I'm Al Hunt. Robert Novak and I will question the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: He is Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.


NOVAK (voice-over): In the face of increasing criticism of the performance of both the FBI and the CIA, President Bush proposed a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security in a major reorganization of the U.S. government.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have concluded that our government must be reorganized to deal more effectively with the new threats of the 21st century.

NOVAK: Earlier in the day, the Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Senator Leahy, heard a call for FBI reorganization from Director Robert Mueller and whistle-blower Coleen Rowley.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: The need for change was apparent even before September 11. It has become more urgent since then.

COLEEN ROWLEY, FBI AGENT: We need to streamline the FBI's bureaucracy in order to more effectively combat terrorism.

NOVAK: Patrick Leahy entered public life in 1966 at age 26 when he was elected Chittenden County state's attorney in Vermont. After eight years in that post, he was elected to the U.S. Senate at age 34, nearly 28 years ago. He served as Agriculture Committee chairman until the Republicans took control of the Senate in 1994. When the Democrats regained the majority last year, he became Judiciary Committee chairman.


NOVAK: Chairman Leahy, I'd like to get your view of President Bush's really sweeping reorganization of homeland security. Does it do the job?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: I've just started looking at it. We all want it to do the job, of course. That's the -- we all know that we face more terrorist threats. And from America's point of view, it's a lot better if you can stop the terrorists before they hit than to have to clean up the damage after they hit.

So we hope it'll work, and I think that the members of the House and Senate of the appropriate committees will look at this very, very carefully and with a complete open mind.

What I want to do is make sure that, whatever we do, we correct what are some very glaring mistakes. My hearings yesterday, the other hearings that have been held show the mistakes. I think it was Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican of Pennsylvania, who said it wasn't a question of connecting the dots prior to September 11, but that they didn't look at the road map that was there. The hearing we had this week with the Senate Judiciary Committee with the inspector general of the Justice Department, Director Mueller and Agent Coleen Rowley showed that there were all these pieces that nobody looked at.

NOVAK: But the two agencies that have been most criticized, the FBI and the CIA, are not brought into this new department under the president's proposal. Is that a problem, do you think?

LEAHY: Well, it's going to be a problem if the kind of Balkanization that has existed for decades between those two agencies continues. I think that there's a real effort, I think both Director Mueller and Director Tenet are trying to break down those walls so that they would be.

9/11 is the worst example of what happens when information is not shared and is not acted upon. There was plenty of information available before September 11. I think historians are going to find, tragically, that, had it been acted upon, the hijackers could have been stopped.

Now, we just have to find how those mistakes don't happen in the future, because whoever is president is going to want to stop hijackers, is going to want to stop terrorists. I mean, that is one thing that no matter who the president is, they're going to want to stop them if they know they're going to hit.

HUNT: But, Chairman Leahy, you know, the president proposes to establish a new department, a big new bureaucracy. But to follow up on Bob's question, it has no enforcement, it has no intelligence authority. So how is that going to change...


LEAHY: Well, there are a lot of things -- you know, a lot of things also we have to determine for after the fact. You're talking about FEMA and all these other things.

Something terrible happened. I'll give you a couple examples. Biochemistry. I received one of the two major anthrax letters. A number of people died simply handling the letter that was sent to my office. Hundreds of thousands of people could have died from the anthrax that was in it.

And we have smallpox, dirty bombs that could be set off. If something like that happened, we have to be able to respond very much to just protect the survivors.

But here, you're not going to do away with the FBI, and I don't think we should. You're not going to do away with the CIA; I don't thank we should. But we have to find out whoever is operating this, to get them to cooperate and work closer together.

HUNT: We can agree, critically important who heads any new agency like this. Should it be Tom Ridge or someone else?

LEAHY: Well, that's, you know -- the president's going to have to make the call. But who would you like to see head that agency? I happen to think that FBI Director Mueller could do a very good job of that. I like Tom Ridge. He has, I think, been somewhat frustrated in the job he has because he has no real authority today, he has no budget, he can't control people's...

HUNT: You think he'd be up to heading an agency like that?

LEAHY: If he had the president's confidence, I think he could. It depends upon how it's organized and who comes under it.

This is the problem. We all saw this last night. Everybody's trying to digest it. I don't have any question in my mind that the president wants to protect the United States from terrorist attacks, we all do, but I want to make sure we have something that really protects us and doesn't simply move organization boxes around.

I'll give you one example that came out in our hearing: Well, do we have the resources? And yet the Justice Department and the FBI just completed about a year's, extraordinary expensive in manpower and money, investigation in New Orleans to find out, guess what? There are prostitutes in New Orleans. I mean, who ever would have guessed that?

Frankly, I would much rather that they were spending that time trying to determine what might come in in some of the shipping containers into the port in New Orleans. That's where the threat to America is going to be.

NOVAK: Senator, on this program a week ago we had your House counterpart, the Republican chairman of the House Judicial Committee, James Sensenbrenner. And the attorney general, Mr. Ashcroft, John Ashcroft, had just issued the new guidelines for the FBI, removing some restrictions of 26 years' standing on surveillance, and let's listen to what Chairman Sensenbrenner said a week ago.


REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER (R), WISCONSIN: I believe that the Justice Department has gone too far in changing the domestic spying regulations that have been on the books for 25 years and which were originally promulgated by a Republican administration.


NOVAK: Do you agree they went too far? LEAHY: I am concerned that they may well have gone too far. I mean, these are guidelines that President Ford, President Reagan, former President Bush and President Clinton all followed, and they worked very well.

In electronic age, we can spy a great deal on Americans, if that's what we want to do. I don't think most Americans do want that.

I said at the hearing this week, attorneys general come and go, FBI directors come and go, we senators come and go, but the Constitution remains. And the Constitution has been the greatest bulwark for freedom that we have in this country.

I would hate to see us go back to some of the dark days...

NOVAK: Are you going to do anything about...

LEAHY: We'll have hearings on this. I was disappointed that the attorney general just dumped these out and didn't talk with a lot of people, Republicans and Democrats, who are very concerned about it. We want a more secure America, but we don't want spying on people for the sake of spying on people.

HUNT: Senator, we only have about 30 seconds before we take a break, but this new homeland security has got far-flung jurisdiction, including some things from Agriculture -- mad cow disease and horse protection. It's got hurricane relief from FEMA under homeland security. It's got credit card fraud.

Was this too hastily assembled, do you think, for political reasons? What explanation...

LEAHY: Well, it seems like an awful lot of things thrown in there, and I'm just wondering how any one person could ever possibly keep in mind everything that's...

HUNT: Too much in there?

LEAHY: I don't know. That's one of the reasons we're going to have hearings. But I think that all of us say if the president wants us to really look at that, of course we will, and I'll look at it with an open mind.

HUNT: Senator, we're going to take a break right now.

But when we come back, we'll ask Chairman Leahy about FBI reforms and judicial nominations.


NOVAK: Chairman Leahy, the best comparison on the confirmation of judges, I think, for how George W. Bush has done is how the last Republican president did in the first two years of his presidency with a Democratic Senate, and that happened to be his father.

Now, his father -- and we're going to put these numbers up on the screen -- out of the circuit court nominations in the first two years -- first two years, Senator -- got 96 percent of them confirmed. So far, as we near the end of George W. Bush's first two years, only 29 percent. As far as district court nominations, the first President Bush had 92 percent of them confirmed; the second, George W. Bush, had only 67 percent.

As the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, where you have a lot of control over this process, are you establishing an ideological litmus test to prevent these from being confirmed?

LEAHY: No. In fact, let's go to what the actual numbers are -- I'm talking about the first 12 months. I've only been chairman for 11 months. But during the Reagan era, there were 42; the first one, of George -- former President Bush, 15 (UNINTELLIGIBLE); and Clinton, 28; 57 with this one.

NOVAK: Well, we have different numbers, don't we?


LEAHY: I'm moving for -- or you could take the circuit judges. I mean, the fact of the matter is, by any objective look at it -- and keeping in mind, I've only been there 10 months as chairman -- I have moved far more judges certainly than the Republicans ever did during any one of their six years with President Clinton.

Actually, even though there was nominations there, people tend to forget the first six months of last year there was a Republican majority. They didn't hold a single confirmation hearing.

NOVAK: That was the last two years, not the first two years.

LEAHY: I held one within -- we've only been there one year. And the first six months that they were there, they didn't hold a single hearing. I held them within 10 minutes after I became chairman.

I have moved -- the bottom line is this: By any objective standard, I have moved judges much faster for President Bush than in any comparable period during the Clinton years...

NOVAK: Well, there's some dispute. But I'd like to cite...

LEAHY: Well...

NOVAK: ... one of your colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, Democrat. I know you have a lot of respect for him. And he has said something like this many times, but I want to show you what he said last summer, and we'll put it up on the screen.

"If the president uses ideology in deciding whom to nominate to the federal bench, the Senate, as part of its responsibility to advise and consent, should do the same in deciding whom to confirm."

And the way I read that, Mr. Chairman, is that if a conservative Republican president names conservatives, Senator Schumer is saying that the Democratic Senate should reject them. Do you agree with that?

LEAHY: I've voted so far for about 99 percent of the judges that President Bush had come on the floor; most of them are conservative Republicans. No, that's not the test. But ideology is a major factor.

I'll give you an example. A very popular war-time president, Franklin Roosevelt, tried to pack the Supreme Court -- make an ideological pack in the Supreme Court. The U.S. Senate said no. Any historian today will agree the U.S. Senate was right.

I would not vote for judges that were put in there to be -- shift the court all to the ideological...

NOVAK: You're talking about the Supreme Court?

LEAHY: Any court. To the ideological left or the ideological right.

One of the real saviors of our country is, our federal judiciary is seen as independent. If you're going to walk into that courtroom and say, you know, unless I pit an ideological-right litmus test or an ideological-left litmus test I can't have a fair hearing, then we destroy the independence of our federal judiciary. And that's not going to happen.

We have moved, I think with one exception, the judges that we voted on. And we have voted on them a lot faster than we ever did under Republican-controlled Senate with President Bill Clinton. They have passed overwhelming.

HUNT: Senator Leahy, let me go back to the FBI. Director Mueller has promised sweeping reforms to make sure some of the mistakes in the past don't recur. But you heard this week from Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent from Minneapolis, who painted a pretty dreary picture of the FBI headquarters and bureaucracy. After hearing that, do you think the bureau can change its culture and, I guess, its capabilities enough to really do the changes that Mueller has promised?

LEAHY: They have to do it. And it's not just Mueller. I mean, he became director a few days before September 11. The effort has begun by Attorney General Ashcroft to turn this around. It has to be done by Director Mueller and everybody else.

When you have a situation where there --- I have a 4-year-old grandson who has availability to far better computers than most of the people in the FBI do. I mean, they're dealing back in the old Bonnie and Clyde days. They're spending time on things that the local law enforcement should handle, when the real threat, people like the hijackers -- the ball was dropped and the focus was different.

I mean, last year at this time the Department of Justice was saying, we don't need more money for counterterrorism. After September 11, they said of course we need more money for counterterrorism. Well, learn from the mistakes. What I worry about is that they don't learn from the mistakes. When you can't bring up simple computer matches -- I mean, this is something that any one of your reporters is able to do with far more efficiency than the FBI.

NOVAK: Mr. Chairman, the Senate and House Intelligence Committees are conducting a very deep investigation over the intelligence failures, and they're moving very methodically, slowly, behind closed doors.

Some of their members have taken issue with you having an open hearing on Thursday, tying up Mr. Mueller for four and a half hours. He was tied up in open hearings the previous week for 11 hours. And they say that this looks a lot like just trying to get in some publicity.

LEAHY: No. In fact, I think that the Intelligence Committees are doing a great job.

NOVAK: Well, why would you have to go in, then?

LEAHY: I have enormous -- well, we're doing something entirely different than they are.

I have enormous respect for Porter Goss and Nancy Pelosi in the House, and Bob Graham and Dick Shelby in the Senate. And we have several members of the Judiciary Committee on the Intelligence Committee to observe that. But they don't have to deal with the reorganization of the FBI.

Director Mueller wanted to come up and testify, because he has a major reorganization plan that we have to vote on, and so of course he had to come to testify.

HUNT: Mr. Chairman, let me...

LEAHY: And Coleen Rowley, I think everybody agrees that that was testimony that had to be in the open. I think that it is helpful.

You know, one of the problems we have in this town -- when mistakes are made, everybody wants to hide it. And it's awfully easy to go off in a closed hearing and...

HUNT: Well, let me ask you about that. Let me ask you a quick assessment. There has been a lot of talk about George Tenet and Bob Mueller. Could you give us your assessment of Attorney General John Ashcroft? Just grade him. What kind of job has he done?

LEAHY: Well...

HUNT: Quickly.

LEAHY: Well, the attorney general, even though we're a lot different philosophically, I've always considered my friend. I would have a different direction. For example, I use the New Orleans example. I would be out there trying to investigate what's coming into the port of New Orleans. Let the local police worry about basic small-time crime.

HUNT: All right, sir.

We're going to take a break. But when we come back, we'll have the Big Question for Chairman Patrick Leahy.


HUNT: The Big Question for Pat Leahy:

Senator, Judge Scalia, as you know, was confirmed unanimously some years ago for the Supreme Court. If there should be a vacancy and he were nominated to be chief justice, would you vote for him?

LEAHY: I'd hold a hearing. We'd have a completely fair hearing. Justice Scalia is a longtime personal friend. We'd have that hearing, and I'd determine after the hearing.

What I am concerned about is, on a very evenly split Supreme Court, one that has been increasingly aggressively political in their new federalism, very activist, what direction is the court going?

NOVAK: What would you even need a hearing for with Justice Scalia? He's been on the court. There's no scandal connected with him. He's a legal scholar. Just worried about his ideology?

LEAHY: We had a major hearing when Chief Justice Rehnquist became chief justice. As I recall, everybody wanted to have that hearing, Republican and Democrat. I think we would be doing the same thing here.

The Supreme Court is a coequal branch of government. The founders -- I mean, I'm a traditionalist. I go back to the founding fathers. They were very clear on the kind of questions that should be asked. They would be asked.

NOVAK: Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, thank you very much.

LEAHY: Always a pleasure.

NOVAK: Al Hunt and I will be back with a comment after these messages.


HUNT: Pat Leahy was generally supportive of the proposed new Homeland Security, but noncommittal in details. I think, however, the more Congress gets into some of those specifics, they're going to want to reshape a rather hastily assembled plan.

NOVAK: I was a little surprised when you asked him whether Tom Ridge would be a good choice. He was very noncommittal, but he said, gee, Bob Mueller would be a good choice. Mueller's been under all this criticism, but I do really believe that on the Hill he is more highly regarded for the job he's doing than is Tom Ridge, their old colleague.

HUNT: Yes, I agree. And just like the duelling leaks from the CIA and FBI, I think the Novak-Leahy dueling numbers was a blur to all of America.


NOVAK: Let me try to explain it to you. I think he is -- Pat Leahy is a much smoother operator than Chuck Schumer, but he's saying, the way I read him, there is an ideological test when it comes to somebody like Antonin Scalia.

I'm Robert Novak.

HUNT: And I'm Al Hunt.

NOVAK: Coming up at 7:00 p.m. Eastern on "CAPITAL GANG," we'll talk about the president's call for a new department of homeland security at the Cabinet level, and we'll question Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa about whistle-blowers.

HUNT: That's all. Thanks for joining us.




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