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The 9/11 Commission

March 24, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: [W]e turn to two members of the 9/11 Commission. John Lehman was navy secretary in the Reagan administration; Jamie Gorelick served as Defense Department general counsel and then deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. Welcome to you both. Let’s start with the basic indictment — the basic charge leveled by Richard Clarke which was that unlike in the Clinton administration, for the Bush administration terrorism was an important but not urgent matter. Ms. Gorelick, do you agree with that? Is that your conclusion?

JAMIE GORELICK: It seems to me that the objective evidence shows that the Bush administration had different priorities, but all of the witnesses who appeared before us from the Bush administration– and they were very, very able — essentially said that it was important to them and they couldn’t disaggregate their time or show or demonstrate where it fell in their priorities. So this is something we’re going to have to go back and counsel with each other on before we come to a conclusion.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Lehman, have you come to any conclusion about whether the Bush administration took the threat urgently or seriously enough?

JOHN LEHMAN: Well, I think the disappointment that was evident in hearing today certainly from me and from some others about Dick Clarke’s testimony was he was very eloquent in our interviews and the long time that we spent with him about the lack of effective intelligence provided in a timely basis to the decision-makers in both administrations. And I think that to the effect there was not a sense of urgency in the Bush administration, it’s because other than Dick Clarke who was for at least ten years telling people that it was an urgent problem, the official sources of intelligence coming to the president did not break this out from the other urgent problems in a sufficient form. And that’s what we’re really trying, all of us, to get at and to fix because this commission ultimately is not a blame game. We’re going to let the facts speak for themselves — but we owe the country a set of changes and reforms to fix those things that have really seriously gone wrong.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Gorelick, follow up on that. How much of a problem do you think it was, the nature of the intelligence the president was receiving?

JAMIE GORELICK: Well, John is certainly right that there wasn’t actionable intelligence. There was nothing to say they’re going to hit us at home. They’re going to hit us in New York. They’re going to hijack planes. There were hints of those, but there was an enormous sense of urgency between April and the actual attack. I think most intelligence experts would say that they had never seen such level of chatter, of reporting, as was coming at senior executives in the executive branch. And Tenet, I think, was running around the town with his hair on fire. It’s interesting to hear administration officials now play that back and say, well, there were always threats and so forth. And it appears to me that perhaps they did not know how to compare what they were hearing in that summer to what their predecessors had heard for eight years and realize how extraordinary it was. That I think is — comes down to the nature of the conversations between Tenet and the president.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Mr. Lehman, Dick Clarke’s big criticism is and his big piece of evidence that they didn’t take it urgently enough was that Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, essentially dismissed his request that the principals — the Cabinet officers — meet, that they, as he says shake their agencies for every bit of information, that if that had happened during the summer, during this spike threat in intelligence chatter that they might have learned what the FBI actually knew down in the bowels of the FBI that two of the 9/11 hijackers known al-Qaida operatives were in this country — do you find that persuasive?

JOHN LEHMAN: No, I don’t because, in fact, while it is true in the Clinton administration that Dick Clarke met with the president regularly and had regular access to him and George Tenet did not, in the Bush administration it was the other way around. George Tenet met every day to brief the president and give him his frank assessment of the entire– and don’t forget– he’s the DCI, speaks for the whole community and Dick Clarke did not. So I think there’s a certain– I hate to say this because in no way it takes away from the professionalism and the contributions Dick’s made– but I think there’s a certain amount of dog in the manger there that he lost his access to George Tenet and so we have to calibrate that.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Gorelick, what’s your view on that? You were in the Clinton administration. You were deputy attorney general. Do you think in the Bush administration having been at that level that it would have made a difference?

JAMIE GORELICK: Yes. Here I differ from John on this. While I don’t think a meeting for a meeting’s sake is very helpful at all, the fact of the matter is if you read any of the reports about what happened during the millennium, the government worked in ways that it normally does not. Information was shaken out and wrung out of the FBI, connections were made between departments using essentially the brute force of a meeting and bringing everyone together that generally doesn’t happen. Now, you can say, well, we should have fixed all the systemic problems, but knowing that they weren’t fixed it seems to me Clarke was saying to Rice, “You don’t understand. We have an urgent threat here and you have to bring people together to hear what they have to say,” not for the purpose just of meeting but for seeing whether there were fissures that could be broached, if you will, by such a meeting. I think there is an issue here– and that I tried to probe in my questions over these last two days — of whether the National Security Council is a policy-making enterprise only. Clearly it is a policy coordination entity. But in emergencies, it has to be very operational. And I think her style was to delegate that to Clarke. I think Clarke would have been happy to have it delegated to him if he could have run with it which he couldn’t. That is the frustration you heard in his testimony.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Lehman, you today — and we ran some of this in our excerpts — questioned Clarke’s very credibility. You told him he had to resolve some things. Are you saying you find his criticism today of the Bush administration’s conduct suspect?

JOHN LEHMAN: I did not and would not suggest that he was bending the facts or changing the facts as he testified under oath both in the private sessions and public. What I was saying is that he let the blame go evenly and directly where it should go in the bureaucratic screw-ups and the bad calls that were made in both administrations in his private testimony with us. Yet in his public testimony, he turned it into a fairly … well not his public testimony but his book and the promotion thereof — of a fairly rounding attack on only one administration. That was the administration that didn’t have eight years of responsibility but seven-and-a-half months. And I think, frankly, because it turns out we both have the same editor at Simon & Schuster that there’s a certain amount of bookselling going on here and fair and judicious does not sell a lot of books.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Gorelick, Dick Clarke not only at least in his public statements and so on — and I haven’t finished the book myself — directs at one administration — but in fact at a person in the administration, that is Condoleezza Rice and her handling of the whole process. My question is this: Do you think that she has addressed this with enough of a sense of urgency?

JAMIE GORELICK: It’s very hard to apply 20/20 hindsight to this event. Every witness we had cautioned us about that. On the other hand, I saw government not working. I saw what happened when everyone was summoned to the table. Now, I left the Clinton administration in very early ’97, so I didn’t see any of the events that we’ve been talking about. But in other analogous circumstances I saw the power of being brought together in that way. And I think her conception of the job might have been wrong for the moment. I also think — and this is a theme I think that runs throughout — is that a lot of what the Bush administration did at the beginning was to be not Clinton. And fair enough, they were in office and it was their administration. But there were certain practices that the Clinton administration had, certain ways that they had of operating that actually were quite good and should have been given due consideration. So again we haven’t formed final conclusions. We have impressions but that’s one of the impressions I come away from this set of hearings with. And frankly I would like to have Condi Rice come back to us in private session so that we can address those issues.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Lehman, what Condi Rice says that is in fact and she said publicly though not publicly in front of your commission that they were working on a long range plan because they didn’t think the Clinton plan was even aggressive enough. Given that, I mean, what is your take on or your impression — and I know you haven’t formed final conclusions yet — about whether in retrospect that was the right approach or whether it was too methodical and too slow as Dick Clarke’s suggests?

JOHN LEHMAN: Clearly in retrospect we now know that it was too slow, but again all of our witnesses pretty much agreed that by the time the administration came in by Jan. 20, the die was cast. The teams were largely here and even if we had killed bin Laden in the meantime the ability to stop it until the agencies that did screw up that we have pretty much established internally had done a better job, but I think one of the most important things that’s come out of this hearing, the important points and insights was by Don Rumsfeld yesterday. He said that we’ve got to reform the way that we do transitions. We can no longer in this world have the hiatus, the vacuum of six months or so that seems to take place every time an administration changes. And there’s got to be more of a handover and a faster confirmation and more of an institutionalized overlap between the serious experienced people of the outgoing administration and I’ve been through four transitions both incoming and outgoing and it happens every time. There is a hiatus when nothing can get done, where the new people are not even there — I mean, the old people are not even there when the new people come into the offices. This is a terrible kind of dysfunction that we’ve got to fix. And I can be sure that we’re going to address that in the final report.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both a very brief final question. A number of commissioners have said in these hearings they want Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly. She of course has declined and the White House has declined. Ms. Gorelick, why is it so important for her to testify publicly briefly?

JAMIE GORELICK: Well I think the American public needs to understand what happened. What we have now is Condoleezza Rice speaking on the airwaves or in editorials but not answering questions publicly. Look, we will do our report. We have had private sessions with her. And we will have an adequate explication of what happened. I just think we’re missing in terms of our public presentation of the facts the opportunity for the American people to hear her answer these questions as everyone else has.

MARGARET WARNER: And Mr. Lehman, in a sentence do you agree?

JOHN LEHMAN: I agree that I think the administration is making a political mistake. I think they’re correct in their strict legal interpretation. She does not have to testify. But we offered ways so that she would not technically be testifying. And she’s such a strong witness. She has nothing to hide. She’s very articulate. She’d be a very strong witness for the administration and to elucidate the entire problem. I’m sorry she’s not part of our hearings.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And I’m sorry to say we have to go. Thank you both.