Investigating Sept. 11
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MARGARET WARNER: In naming Henry Kissinger to head the new commission today, President Bush said further investigation into what led to September 11 could help make America more secure.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In the war against terror, our goal is to take every measure that is necessary, to gather all information that is available, and gain every advantage that is possible. An aggressive investigation into September 11, with a responsible concern for sensitive information that will allow us to win the war on terror, will contribute to the security of this country.
MARGARET WARNER: Afterwards, Kissinger spoke briefly with reporters.
HENRY KISSINGER: The effort will be conducted on a nonpartisan basis to get at the circumstances that led to this tragedy. And to the extent that this commission can make recommendations, we… and we are free to make recommendations, and the president has said that he will take them very seriously. To that extent, we… it will contribute to the safety of America, to the future of America, and to the avoidance of any future tragedies.
MARGARET WARNER: He was asked what obligation he felt to the families of the 9/11 victims.
HENRY KISSINGER: We have a special responsibility to those who suffered such terrible and, of course, totally unexpected losses. I have had an opportunity to talk to many of those who were here. I have told them that I would designate a staff member to be in daily contact with them. I will meet with them monthly. I will have the first meeting with them, tentatively planned for December 12, together with any other commissioners that may have been appointed at that time. But the families are an integral part of our process.
REPORTER: Dr. Kissinger, do you have any concerns about, once the commission begins its work, if fingers point to valuable allies– say, Saudi Arabia, for example– the implications, the policy implications it could have for the United States, particularly at this delicate time?
HENRY KISSINGER: I have been given every assurance by the president that we should… that we should go where the facts lead us, and that we’re not restricted by any foreign policy considerations. I have had a conversation with the Secretary of State, who will designate a liaison person with us. And he has promised me, as one would expect, the fullest cooperation. We are under no restriction. And we would accept no restriction.
MARGARET WARNER: Separately, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, named by Democratic congressional leaders late today as the commission’s vice-chairman, said in a statement: “As the country mobilizes to avert terrorist attacks in the future, we need a full understanding of the circumstances that led up to September 11. I will do all I can to ensure that the Commission’s inquiry is thorough, fair, and non-partisan.”
MARGARET WARNER: For reaction to today’s news, we turn to Republican Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut, one of the chief backers of the legislation creating the commission; Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman of California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee and of the recently completed joint House-Senate inquiry into pre-9/11 intelligence failures; Stephen Push, cofounder of the Families of September 11, which represents the families of about 1,200 victims. His wife, Lisa Raines, died in the plane that struck the Pentagon. And David Aaron, who served on the National Security Council staff under Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s; he also was a staffer of the Church Committee, which investigated the CIA in 1975, and he was deputy national security advisor in the Carter Administration. Welcome to you all.
Stephen Push, your reaction to today’s announcement.
STEPHEN PUSH: Well, Dr. Kissinger was not on the list that we had supplied to the White House of candidates that we preferred. However, I think it’s a good appointment. I think it shows that the administration is taking this investigation very seriously, that they appointed someone of Dr. Kissinger’s caliber to lead it.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Shays, your view of both the Dr. Kissinger choice and also what the George Mitchell choice adds to the mix.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Well, the bill requires two… it requires prominent members be selected. He couldn’t have found… they couldn’t have found more prominent members than Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you want to expand on that a little?
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Well, they’re both so experienced. They’re very capable. They know the ins and outs of Washington, and they’re not going to accept any stonewalling. I mean, both of these gentlemen have their reputations on their line; they have their concern for their country. And if anybody is going to get at the facts, it’s going to be these two individuals with the other eight that will be appointed; a wonderful start — eight more to go, but a wonderful start.
MARGARET WARNER: David Aaron, you’ve worked with Henry Kissinger. Your view.
DAVID AARON: Well, I think his basic values are oriented towards American credibility, American power, American authority and legitimacy. Now he’s going to have to add to that a real concern for transparency and accountability. This is an important challenge for him. I think he is an excellent choice, but it’s going to be a growing experience for him.
MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Harman, you were on this joint inquiry that’s just concluded, and many of your members came to feel, as you did, that a further inquiry was needed, that you needed an independent commission. Why? What is the task before this independent commission that you felt you all couldn’t completely explore?
REP. JANE HARMAN: Well, let me start by saying I think we’re doing quite a good job. Our report is not yet out. In fact, the members haven’t reviewed it. We’ll review it on December 10. But I think it will show a good deal of the 9/11 plot, what went right, what went wrong, what we need to do. The commission is designed to build on our report, and only if it’s inadequate, to investigate.
I must say, though, having heard the other three answers, that I’m much more dubious about Dr. Kissinger to head this panel. I think he brings a lot of baggage. He has a penchant for secrecy, which is not what’s needed here. There are questions about his role in Vietnam, as well in the coup in Chile.
And I wish the White House had been less afraid of this commission and had reached for someone who would clearly demonstrate on day one that he is– he/she– unbiased, really nonpartisan, and will do whatever needs to be done at this point. I must say that Stephen Push, in my view, and the other families, are the reason this commission exists at all, and I think they probably had a list of candidates who would have been better choices than Dr. Kissinger.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me first go back to Congressman Shays. What about that point that Henry Kissinger brings a lot of baggage?
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Well, I think almost anybody who is prominent is going to bring some baggage. I mean, you have George Mitchell. I don’t know anyone more partisan in the Senate than George Mitchell. But when he’s asked to do a job and the kind of job he’s asked to do, I think he’ll rise to the occasion, as I do think Henry Kissinger will as well. I mean, you need people who know the system. You need people who know the intelligence community. You need people who know when they’re not getting the answers. And I don’t think you could find two stronger candidates for that, and I think they both balance each other quite well.
MARGARET WARNER: Stephen Push, back to you. So why did the families push so hard for this independent commission? What do you want this commission to do that the earlier inquiry hasn’t?
STEPHEN PUSH: Well, actually I’m kind of concerned about one statement that President Bush made at the signing this morning. He suggested that the main purpose of this commission is to help him understand the terrorists better, and that’s not how we see it at all. We think that the primary function of this commission is to investigate what the United States government did wrong prior to 9/11 that made our country so vulnerable, because we believe the only way the commission can make sound recommendations for preventing future terrorist attacks is to understand what went wrong prior to September 11.
MARGARET WARNER: And this commission, as I understand it, is going to have a broader scope than the previous Congressional inquiry did in terms of what branches of government it looks at, is that right?
STEPHEN PUSH: That’s correct. The initial inquiry only looked at intelligence, and it’s not even going to be able to finish that completely. We want this commission to take a much broader view, to not only look at intelligence, but look at aviation security, immigration, border control, diplomacy– all of the various elements that played a role in making us so vulnerable in 2001.
MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Harman…you probably didn’t hear the president speak, but would you share Steve Push’s concern, or do you agree with him that the focus of this commission should not… is not really about the terrorists and why they did what they did, but is about the failures of the U.S. Government?
REP. JANE HARMAN: I agree with that. I didn’t hear what the president said, but I think our goal is to look backward to look forward. What we can do to honor the memories of those who died is to prevent this from happening again, and the only way we do that is if we look back clinically and objectively and make certain that whatever clues were missed –. I don’t think there’s a smoking gun out there. I’ve studied this very carefully — but whatever clues were missed, whatever information wasn’t shared, whatever systems didn’t exist, are now built for the future.
And by the way, I was an early supporter of the Homeland Security Department legislation. I’m glad it’s finally enacted and the partisan games are over. And I hope that Governor Ridge takes his vitamins, has sharp elbows, and gets the job done for the future.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, David Aaron, you’ve been on this kind of a commission. What are the big hurdles as they tackle… I mean, as we just heard, it’s not just the FBI and the CIA they have to look at, but all these agencies of government.
DAVID AARON: The biggest thing is to get information. I mean, with all the best will in the world on the part of the cabinet or the president, there are lots of people in the woodwork who have to be able to… and have to be willing to turn over the information in a timely way.
One of the very good things about Dr. Kissinger in this regard is that he has a rather deep skepticism of the bureaucracy. And I think this is going to stand him in very good stead as he presses for information. You notice the president, one of the things he said right off the bat was, “Well, we’re going to have to be very careful about this information.” Well, if you can’t share the information with Dr. Kissinger and form Senator Mitchell, I don’t know who you can share it with.
MARGARET WARNER: So Congressman Shays, how broad are the powers of this commission to get at the information?
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: The powers are broad. This legislation was written so well. The purposes of the commission are well delineated. The president, I think, was very clear. He said, “Follow all the facts wherever they lead.” But this commission is going to be guided by the mandate of the law, and the law is clear.
It can look at any facts, uncover any information. It has subpoena power. The commission… just the chairman and the vice chairman can issue subpoenas. A majority of six can issue subpoenas. This is a powerful commission; prominent people will be on it. And it has the ability to look at September 11 before, after, and, you know, clearly what we’re doing now.
MARGARET WARNER: But doesn’t David Aaron raise a point about it still depends on the willingness of the keepers of the information to surrender that? I mean, didn’t the prior committee complain that they felt there was a little foot- dragging?
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Right, but that’s the key. I mean, you know, are you going to say no to George Mitchell and Henry Kissinger? If you do, you do it at your own peril. I mean, the key to this commission, besides how well it’s written, and the pushing that’s gone by the families and the fact they’re going to oversee this, the key is who is appointed to it? And we already have two outstanding individuals, and we got eight to go. And when you bring them all together as a group, I think this is going to be powerful.
MARGARET WARNER: What else are you looking for, Stephen Push, in terms of appointees?
STEPHEN PUSH: Appointees? Well, we have some specific recommendations in mind. We would like to see Warren Rudman and Tim Rohmer be on the commission.
MARGARET WARNER: Former Senator and a Congressman.
STEPHEN PUSH: Congressman Tim Rohmer, this is his last year in Congress, so he will be a former Congressman soon, and he was one of the chief proponents of the commission.
MARGARET WARNER: Why were you all, though, the families, so insistent that it be an independent commission? That is, as I understand in the legislation, it can’t be anybody who is now in government.
STEPHEN PUSH: That’s correct, because we believe that this should take a hard look at the current administration, prior administrations, congressional oversight, so anyone who is currently serving in government would have a conflict in one of those areas.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, David Aaron, that the fact that it is an independent commission has an added benefit somehow, I mean, either in their own willingness to push or in the willingness of the bureaucracy to cooperate, or does it make it harder?
DAVID AARON: Well, I think it’s… it doesn’t make it any harder. I think it may actually make it a little easier in the sense that clearly this commission is not playing to the grandstands. This is not a political exercise really. And so I think in that sense there’s perhaps a little less anxiety in the administration, in the bureaucracy, about this.
But one of their real tough jobs is we’re looking at something that didn’t happen. We’re looking at perhaps errors of omission, not errors of commission. And those are the hardest. You can only get at that when people really come forth and tell you what the problem is.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, Congresswoman Harman and Congressman Shays, before we go, both Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell in his statement said they wanted this to be nonpartisan– not bipartisan, nonpartisan. What does that mean to you, and do you think it’s possible, Congresswoman?
REP. JANE HARMAN: I hope it means that it is above politics. This is what we do need. It’s important to remember, Margaret, that while this will be going on and while the joint inquiry is going on– it’s still not concluded, as I said– hardworking patriots are in our intelligence agencies trying to prevent the next attack, which may well come. And we can’t be undermining them while we do this exercise.
What we have to do is find out precisely what happened so we can learn from it. We can’t undo what happened and prevent the next attack. That’s how we honor the memory of those who died. And that’s what I’m going to be urging, as I hope… suggest people who can fill the other eight slots. They have to be excellent people, and they have to be nonpartisan, too, if this is going to work.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Congressman Shays, briefly, your view of what it means to be nonpartisan.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Well, I think Jane answered it. In a way, this commission has to be a family of ten people who don’t think of themselves as Democrats or Republicans, but think of themselves as Americans first.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you all four very much.