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Findings of Failure

September 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Joining me now to discuss the findings are the two top House members on this House-Senate inquiry: The House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Republican Porter Goss of Florida; and the committee’s ranking Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California.

Welcome to you both. Let’s start by asking you, and I’ll start with you, Congressman Goss, what is your conclusion after all of this testimony and all you’ve heard also in private behind closed doors, were the September 11 attacks preventable?

REP. PORTER GOSS: Well, I don’t think we’ve found a smoking gun. We haven’t pretended to. But we certainly found a lot of “what ifs” and missed opportunities. Margaret, perhaps the most interesting thing we’ve found in many ways is that more information is coming in. The more information we get from interrogations and documentation, exploitation and other sources, the more there is to try and piece the puzzle together so we have a clearer picture for the American public. And I think that is happening.

And I think we are going to also come out of this with some very positive recommendations of how we shape our intelligence our capabilities to give us better protection against the kinds of threats that we have to protect against now, terrorism being the obvious one, in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman, from what you’ve seen of all the many, many bits– and as the Congressman just said, more coming in all the time– was there enough known by different elements in the intelligence community that if it had been coordinated might have prevented the attacks?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, I certainly hope so. But what our intent in this inquiry is, is to find answers for the American people, to reduce risk to the American people and, of course, to be a comfort to the families who have been affected.

MARGARET WARNER: But I’m just asking you, you’ve been at this now for a few months. What is your conclusion on that? I mean….

REP. NANCY PELOSI: There is no… we’re still in the course of our investigation. And, as I’ve said many times to this question, the good news is the bad news. Yes, I think it should have been… it could have been prevented but that would be bad news to think that the opportunities were there and were missed. There’s no guarantee that we could have prevented this. But hopefully this inquiry will place us in a position where we can reduce the risk to American people from having something like this ever happen again. But there are no guarantees.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s go through a couple of the key findings. Congressman Goss, what is your conclusion about why the intelligence community as a whole– and I gather from some of the testimony, the FBI in particular– underestimated al-Qaida’s interest in and ability to mount major terrorist operations in the United States?

REP. PORTER GOSS: Well, as Ms. Pelosi said, we haven’t made all our final conclusions yet. We’re still getting information. But so far I think there’s a couple of things that stand out pretty well. First of all, nobody really was focused on the domestic threat, the idea that our oceans have protected us so well for so long and that we’ve got a pretty good control of what’s going on in our country even though it’s a free, fair democratic society, the envy of the world for those traits, that somehow or other, this terrorist stuff happens overseas. It doesn’t happen here. There’s a little bit of suspension of belief on that.

The second thing is it’s very clear that we treat our visitors, our guests in this country, to a lot of wonderful hospitality but we treat them with the same rights as we treat Americans for the most part. That means that somebody who wants to come in and do mischief and willfully take advantage of our system can do that. There is no question that did happen. The terrorists who were embedded here got here, knew some things about our society and where the law enforcement problems might be for them and basically went about their business in a law-abiding way until they did the dastardly deed that they did on September 11.

So there are many things like that that mean that we have to perhaps adjust our rules and redefine what an American person is, refocus the fact that the oceans no longer protect us the way they did, and understand that transnational threats of which terrorism, narcotics trafficking, those types of things are things that are not necessarily state sponsored but can come from any group of people anywhere who are going to take advantage of our freedom and the openness of our society.

MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Pelosi, another finding of criticism issued at least in the staff committee report was that George Tenet, the CIA Director, in late December of ’98 had quote, declared war on al-Qaida and yet there was not a shift in budget and in resources. I’m wondering if you think that’s a fair criticism, and if so, who do you think was… who do you think dropped the ball there or whose responsibility was it to see that the resources were there for a war on al-Qaida?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, when the Director declared war on al-Qaida it was not necessarily in the United States. And I think what we’re seeing… what we are seeing in the hearing is that the focus, as the chairman says, had been overseas. The resources issue is always an endless one. How much is enough in terms of resources? Who establishes the priorities?

Those are some of the questions that have to be answered but as we gain more information about how the al-Qaida or the cells functioned in the United States, we would develop better judgment about what we should have known or should not have known. But there was no question that the al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden were targets of the U.S. intelligence agencies. It just wasn’t suspected that it would be so pervasive in the United States. As you know, in August of last year, there was a report that Osama bin Laden was planning an attack in the U.S.

But we had no knowledge of time and place. As we gain, as I say, more knowledge, more judgment, we may see that there was a connection that should not have been missed. I would hope that all of this takes us to a place where we can protect the American people better. I have always thought though that this should not be confined to the intelligence agencies alone. We are assessing their performance. We are documenting the activities of the terrorists in the United States.

But I think that the broader look that an independent commission will take that I’ve always supported at all of the agencies of government that had any responsibility for protecting the American people from a terrorist attack, whether it’s the INS, the FAA, you name it, that there has to be an assessment of those… the performance of those agencies. The terrorists knew something that we didn’t know. They knew that our airports were wide open. How could it be that four for four terrorists could hijack four planes and in every case kill Americans, kill people in our country?

So there are other areas where we should have had the intelligence, yes. But we should have been protected and had less exposure and less vulnerability than we had. And I think an independent commission bringing fresh eyes and innovative thinking to it and not just with traditional membership but some fresh thinking on the subject will be very, very helpful.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Goss, pick up on that point of the use of airplanes in our airports being wide open because that was another finding that Ms. Hill presented; that is, there have been warnings going back to ’94 of various terrorist plots, al-Qaida plots that involved using airplanes, not just hijacking them but using them as weapons or missiles. There were at least two or three. What was your assessment of those reports? Do you think they should have been taken more seriously. In hindsight, anyway, I’ll let you answer.

REP. PORTER GOSS: In hindsight it’s easy to say, my gosh, why didn’t we spend more time on this and figure this out? And I think that the little bit of thought that went into that was, well, how would anybody fly an airplane from overseas into our country — I mean, we have NORAD and we have our defenses. I don’t think anybody was thinking of the fuel load of a major-sized aircraft taking off from a domestic airport and being directed immediately into a target like the Pentagon or the Trade Towers. I just don’t think that kind of thinking had been taken seriously. It’s such a brutal thought anyway. You know, we don’t think that way normally.

And one of the problems going back to your earlier question of dealing with the terrorist threat is that these are people who do not play by any organized rules or by any civilized thought process or culture. These are people who are well beyond the pale of decency. They’re into brutality and injuring and maiming and harming to the greatest degree possible innocent people.

We play by the Marquis of Queensbury rules. We have due process; we have a judicial system. It’s just so completely different and such a foreign thought. Now, of course, as we look back, we find that, yes, there was maybe a little hint there and a hint there. If somebody had connected those dots, please, why didn’t they connect those dots? We should have spent more time on this.

MARGARET WARNER: Particularly on that point the idea that all these al-Qaida or at least Middle Easterners some with al-Qaida and terrorist connections were taking flight training – I mean, that does suggest a civilian airliner doesn’t it or not?

REP. PORTER GOSS: Well, I think it surely does. There were a lot of stories about why they were taking that flight training. One of them that made sort of sense before September 11 and that was they were… needed pilots to fly around the people that they were using in Afghanistan to support the Taliban and the troops and so forth. I suppose if you look at it from that perspective, sure, they need pilots. They weren’t breaking any laws. They hadn’t done anything wrong. And we have a lot of protections in our country, civil rights protections. And these people were being treated the way we would treat an American who went to a school.

And it wasn’t until the suspicions started to come in and people said, you know, maybe we’d better connect some of this. Frankly I think if we had had another several months, probably some of the dots would have been connected because things were beginning to come to a head. But that’s just a speculation. I mean that’s my view. It may or may not be worth anything. But the fact is they did their deed before we got on ‘em.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Pelosi, I’ll have to ask you to be brief here because we’re just about out of time, the other threat in a lot of this testimony, as you know, is that the FBI in particular felt it couldn’t breach… that they had all kinds of legal restrictions about sharing information. Were they right? Were those restrictions that firm or was there some misunderstanding within the Bureau about how much they could share and what they could do?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, I think some of the misunderstanding is a cultural thing, not a legal restriction. I also think that they misread FISA as Eleanor Hill, our staff director, pointed out in her testimony. But I would like to say in that regard that as we go forward and taking heed of what they have said, as we protect the American people, we have to protect our civil liberties at the same time. So we can’t go overboard and overcompensating in that. We have to have better intelligence, better vigilance to protect the American people certainly have the laws be such that it isn’t… we don’t have a Moussaoui situation again because of lack of understanding. But certainly not to restrict the freedoms of the American people.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Congresswoman Pelosi and Congressman Goss, thank you both.