UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS SUBCOMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS
OPENING STATEMENT OF CHAIRMAN TERRY EVERETT
morning. As we begin this hearing, I want to recognize that in the Capitol
Statuary Hall a memorial service is beginning for our departed colleague,
Sonny Bono. I wrestled with the decision whether to reschedule the hearing.
But I decided that Sonny, who was member of the National Security Committee
and a great supporter of our armed forces and veterans, would probably
have wanted the hearing to go on. Some of our subcommittee members are
attending the service. I do ask that all here today observe a moment of
silence for Sonny Bono, who was so very special to us.
This hearing today by the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations is intended to provide an in-depth look at the Department of the Armys waiver process for Arlington National Cemetery, to include the case of Ambassador M. Larry Lawrence. We will also examine Presidential waivers to the extent that we can and the Presidential waiver for Dr. C. Everett Koop.
Arlington National Cemetery is hallowed ground dedicated to the high honor and eternal rest of Americas military heroes, many of whom gave their very lives in defense of our liberties. The Subcommittee's only objective is to ensure the integrity of Arlington, a historic place which has attained almost mystical connotations for many Americans.
This hearing may cause discomfort to some Republicans and Democrats, to this Administration and some past Administrations, and to the Army, which is responsible for Arlington. But it is time this business of Arlington waivers got a thorough airing and got straightened out. I believe this hearing will show that the Carter and Reagan, and Clinton Administrations were entirely too free with waivers. The Bush Administration's record was apparently better because the White House stayed out of the decisions.
The Army, in at least one instance the Subcommittee has learned about, treated Arlington as a private preserve, and not as a sacred trust. Arlington belongs to the American people. Too much secrecy has surrounded the Army's operation of Arlington. It isn't necessary, it isn't right, and it should stop.
I hope that no family of anyone buried at Arlington as the result of a waiver is embarrassed or apologetic that a loved one is there. Other than the Lawrence case, we have not found any situations of outright misrepresentation, fraud or illegality, none at all, regarding any person buried there.
I believe the serious problems are with the process and the government officials from Presidents on down, who have made the decisions to disregard eligibility and grant waivers for Arlington. I recognize how hard it is to say no to grieving family members who have just lost a loved one. It is very hard. Yet each time a waiver is granted for a new grave, an eligible veteran loses a place at Arlington, because space is limited. And unfortunately, in my opinion, in some cases there undoubtedly has been favoritism, overwhelming pressure, political influence, string pulling and arm twisting, as well as public relations considerations, even if no one will admit it.
Waivers for the ineligible and de facto reservations in violation of Arlington's regulations have been one of Washington's dirty little secrets. Those who are insiders and who are well connected have had a distinct advantage. I hope it is about to end. But what's done is done. We should allow all those who now rest at Arlington to rest in peace.
Chairman Stump is introducing bipartisan legislation to codify Arlington eligibility, to curb waivers, and to provide additional land for Arlington. Other Committee members and I will join him. I expect he will have more to say about this when he is recognized.
Representatives of the General Accounting Office will testify first regarding GAO's intensive and expedited review of Arlington waivers. It is unfortunate that someone in possession of the GAO's embargoed testimony decided to leak it to the press. This incident is a first in the history of this committee as far as I know. I regret somebody had to resort to such tactics.
The current and former superintendents of Arlington will testify.
The Secretary of the Army, the Honorable Togo D. West Jr., who is now Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs, will testif y about his waiver decisions and the administration of Arlington, and he will also be asked some questions about the Army's belated disclosure and production of an important file.
Next, representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard will testify regarding the Lawrence matter and records of Merchant Marine service.
Ms. Norma Nicolls, who was Ambassador Lawrence's long-time personal assistant prior to his nomination, will testify regarding her knowledge of the Lawrence matter.
Representatives of the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security will testify regarding the Lawrence background investigation and nomination. The reason the State Department is before a Veterans' Affairs subcommittee is because, when the Subcommittee traced back Ambassador Lawrence's fabricated Merchant Marine service, the trail went through the State Depa rtment. I have asked the State Department's Inspector General to investigate the State Department's background check on the Lawrence as it pertains to h= is assertions of Merchant Marine service. I also intend to ask the State Department's witness about a criminal referral which I have confirmed has been made to the Justice Department and which may relate to the Lawrence matter.
President Clinton was invited to designate a White House representative to testify regarding Presidential waivers during this Administration. The White House Counsel to the President, Mr. Charles Ruff, has responded with a letter dated January 23, 1998. The letter does not address whether the White House is sending a representative to answer questions. The letter is available to the public. The documents accompanying the letter are being reviewed and no decision has been made about their release.
The President's counsel has asserted executive privilege with respect to two documents dated January 9, and January 10, 1996, which pertain to Ambassador Lawrence or Arlington. Ambassador Lawrence died on January 9, 1996. Subcommittee counsel will have discussions with White House counsel regarding the two documents.
Dr C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General, was invited to testify regarding the waiver granted to him by President Clinton, but he declined. I ask unanimous consent that his letter of January 21, 1998, be made a part of the record. I have urged the President to withdraw the waiver granted to Dr. Koop, and the White House has not yet responded.
All witnesses are here voluntarily. On behalf of the Subcommittee, I thank them for their cooperation, and their willingness to testify under oath and to possibly face some hard questions.