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Interviews with Secretary Solis and Senator Collins

Interviews with Secretary Solis and Senator Collins

By John King, USA - April 15, 2010

KING: Chairman Joe Lieberman and ranking Republican Susan Collins gave the White House four days, until Monday to produce the materials they want for their Fort Hood investigation. And they say they will issue subpoenas if the administration says no. Senator Collins joins us now to explore this showdown. Simple question at the beginning, do you think the White House has something to hide?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: You know I'm puzzled why the White House has been stonewalling our investigation. Right after the massacre at Fort Hood, the president said that he welcomed a congressional investigation, even said there should be one. We announced our investigation back in November. We have written and called and negotiated, and we just can't get access to the information we need.

KING: What's the answer -- is the answer -- is the answer wait, or is the answer none of your business? Is the answer this is executive privilege? What's the answer?

COLLINS: Well in some ways this reflects the usual tension between the congressional branch of government and the executive branch. But in this case it makes you wonder if the White House doesn't want to hear what we're going to find about inadequate information sharing between the FBI and DOD, information that had it been shared might have prevented this tragedy.

KING: And let's remind people who might have forgotten the details, you're talking about the Army psychiatrist blamed for this tragedy, Major Nidal Malik Hasan (ph) and whether agencies they did know about him, they did know about some communications with radicals overseas, and one of your questions, obviously, is did the government miss the evidence, did the government fail to connect the dots?

COLLINS: Exactly.

KING: And they won't give that to you.

COLLINS: The reason we want to know is we want to make sure that we can improve our procedures, strengthen our laws, so that we can ensure that we do everything possible to prevent such a case of home grown terrorism from happening in the future. Thirteen people lost their lives that day. And we have an obligation to find out could this have been prevented?

What's really frustrating to me is the White House has made available information to its hand-picked investigators. We're asking for that same kind of access, to people, to documents, so that we can put together what happened. We're not going to interfere with the prosecution. We can draw those lines, but we have a constitutional obligation to conduct oversight.

KING: Well without the materials, can you answer this question, could this happen again today or tomorrow?

COLLINS: Well, that's the whole point. Until we find out why essential information was not shared between the FBI and the Army, we can't ensure that it won't happen again. In this case, we know that the government had information that Major Hasan (ph) was communicating with a radical cleric in Yemen, that he was increasingly unhappy with the military, that he was becoming radicalized, but we don't know why the information wasn't shared, why the dots weren't connected. And it is imperative that we understand what went wrong so that we can help ensure that it doesn't happen again.

KING: And this is not an idle threat. If you don't have it by Monday, subpoenas will go to the White House.

COLLINS: That's correct, will go to DOD and the Department of Justice. We have been trying to get this information since last November. We have sent letter after letter. In March we sent the final letter, March 23rd, telling these two departments that we would issue subpoenas and we are going to follow through if we don't get the material.

KING: As you know, this was a source of considerable tension in the previous administration. George W. Bush was a governor before he became president. Bill Clinton was a governor before he became president. They tend to have a different view of executive power from the get-go. Senator Obama, before he became president, here is something he said to Wolf Blitzer.

"In an Obama presidency you will see there will be a sufficient respect for law and co-equal branches of government that I hope we won't find ourselves in a situation in which we would be having aides being subpoenaed for what I think everybody acknowledges is some troublesome information." This was a question of Bush administration aides back in those days. Senator Obama said co-equal branches of government, not going to happen under my watch. What is happening with President Obama?

COLLINS: Well he's clearly changed his approach and I think that's very unfortunate. Issuing a subpoena is the last resort. We don't want to do that. We want to have a cooperative arrangement with the administration, but after five months, we've reached the conclusion that we have no other choice if we're to carry out our obligation to exercise oversight.

KING: Let me ask you lastly -- you are always one of the Republicans that comes up when the Democrats are looking for votes. Relatively moderate column (ph) as you see, a senator from the state of Maine. Tonight you voted yes on the question of extending unemployment benefits. That was a debate, stalled over before the congressional recess. Tonight you voted yes and everybody in Washington will ask have we at least cracked the partisanship? Is there going to be more bipartisan cooperation from here, maybe for a month or two before we break for the nasty political season and the midterm election campaigns? Is there any hope of that?

COLLINS: There is a hope of that, and it certainly is something that I advocate all the time. I think the American people are really tired of the excessive partisanship that they're seeing in Washington. There are real problems with the economy, most of all, and they want us to get to work in a bipartisan way. So that's what I'm going to continue to advocate, and I hope that there are enough people of goodwill on both sides of the aisle to accomplish some of those goals.

KING: We'll watch as we move on from unemployment benefits to other issues down the road. Some of them, I bet, there won't be as much bipartisan spirit, but we'll watch. Senator Collins, thanks for coming in tonight. Thanks especially for your thoughts on the Fort Hood investigation. We'll keep track of that.

And coming up later, we'll look at the first family's tax returns, what happened to all that Nobel Peace Prize money?

And when we return immediately the president's had strong words for mine owners today, I'll go "One-on-One" with the nation's labor secretary. Her department is supposed to make sure that mines aren't death traps.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's time to go "One-on-One".

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We owe them more than prayers. We owe them action. We owe them accountability. We owe them an assurance that when they go to work every day, when they enter that dark mine, they are not alone.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Tonight we go "One-on-One" with the cabinet secretary who was at the president's side when he made that statement in the Rose Garden this morning. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis is not only looking into whether the company that owned that West Virginia mine was negligent in the deaths of those 29 miners, she also needs to find out whether agencies in her department including the Mine Safety and Health Administration perhaps failed in their mission.

Madam Secretary to that point, the very question of accountability, there are people in that community, you've met with the families, as they look at the safety violations and they look at the big jump over the past year, a lot of them think this never should have happened. That everybody failed them, not only Massey Energy (ph), but their government, your department as well.

HILDA SOLIS, LABOR SECRETARY: Our rescue team was on the ground in record time. We have more enforcement officers on the ground. And in fact this one operator here was cited in 2009 over 515 times.

KING: But if cited so many times, and, yes, I know they appealed, they stretch out the process --

SOLIS: Yes.

KING: -- why isn't there, in the law, or is there in the law and it was never used, just an emergency provision where you can say you know what, this alarm has gone off too many times, we need to stop this?

SOLIS: You have to meet a certain measure to be able to do that. And in the last few years we have never utilized that, at least in the time that I've been there. We know, however, that we have to make some changes and today my meeting with the president, he and I spoke as well as the two most important folks on my team, Joe Maine (ph), who was a miner, who spent 30 years in the mines and has lived through these catastrophes, as well as Mr. Kevin Strickland (ph), who is our administrator, and they tell me that explosions are preventable.

KING: But you mentioned your agency did cite them a huge jump in citations.

SOLIS: Right and it depends on the severity, John. And it also depends in terms of what the company does to get off the list of those serious violations. And they have been able to, how can I say, manipulate the system and we have to close those loopholes. The way I see it right now, you can drive a truck through the loopholes that exist.

KING: Senator Rockefeller, a Democrat from that state, one of his concerns is he says there was this computer glitch, which you have acknowledged that did not count some of these violations. And he says that perhaps Massey Energy (ph) would have been put on the list of pattern violation status. Had it been on that list, had there not been that glitch, would that have given you a brighter warning light to go in and do something and the power to go in and at least call a temporary stop? SOLIS: I would tell you that they have been able to skirt the requirements that are put in place right now that would give us the ability to do that because they have been able to game (ph) the system. They have powerful attorneys. They're powerful in terms of their influence in this town. They have been able to skirt the law. We need to close those loopholes. We need to have more ability to bring people in through criminal action. We want to work with Department of Justice on this.

KING: You mention that. I want to bring the president's voice in on this. Because when you were standing in the Rose Garden today, the president obviously expressed his condolences, he promised accountability to look at the company. He said something that caught my ear. Listen to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Owners responsible for conditions in the Upper Big Branch Mine (ph) should be held accountable for decisions they made and preventive measures they failed to take. And I've asked Secretary Solis to work with the Justice Department to ensure that every tool in the federal government is available in this investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The Justice Department. Do you believe this company committed crimes, that it should be investigated for criminal violations that led to these 29 sad deaths?

SOLIS: I can tell you that we are undergoing that investigation right now. And our first attempt was to bring out the bodies, get our rescue team in place to make sure everything in the evidence is kept whole, so we won't be going in for a while. But once we get there, we have to accumulate that, we have to interview people, we have to make sure that there is clear evidence.

And our whole course of action is not to put people out of work. No, what we want to do is say why are there other operators who have similar facilities, but have managed to reduce their violations and injuries and death? Nobody should have to go into a mine knowing that for Pete's sake, you may not come out alive on your shift and that's exactly what happened.

KING: As you look for changes in the law, to make it so they can't just delay with appeals and use the loopholes, what about the mindset in your own department, in the context -- I first came to Washington 21 years ago and my first job was to cover your department, the Labor Department. Back then and through the years in administrations Democratic and Republican, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been viewed as not having enough people, not having the best training, not having enough resources and often of having too cozy relationship with the industry you mentioned, the directors now they come from the industry.

But they've been with you now, your administration has been in power for 15 months, almost 15 months. At any point did they come to you at the beginning and say we have been there. These laws aren't tough enough. We've been there.

SOLIS: Yes.

KING: We have to erase these loopholes and if they did, if the answer is yes, why does there have to be blood before we rewrite mining laws? Every time people die there's bloodshed and only then do we go back and rewrite the laws --

SOLIS: John, what I could tell you is that my assistant secretary has only been on for six months and as I said earlier, he spent 30 years in the mines. And he was out there advocating also, beating up on MSHA (ph) in the past because of previous explosions. He knows what has to be done. I take very seriously this job as well as he does.

KING: Let me ask you lastly, today, for a mine family out there in West Virginia or anywhere else in this country, could it happen again tomorrow, because you're going to have this investigation and then you're going to ask Congress to make some changes, are there any emergency powers you need today so that if there is another one of these, and someone shows you a list and says here is a long list of violations but they're appealing, we don't have the power to stop them, but we think this mine is a ticking time bomb, can you do anything about it today?

SOLIS: I think what I can tell you is that we're going to have our field staff out there in the mines. And we're going to do the very best we can to shoulder this responsibility and to make sure we bring in every tool out of our tool kit to see that this doesn't happen. But, again, you know the process here in Washington, you have to work the legislative path, the regulatory path, and also with any criminal investigation or any investigation that goes on is going to take some time.

KING: Madam Secretary, thank you for your time.

 

John King, USA

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