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President Bush and Sen. John Kerry Respond to 9/11 Commission Report

July 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: When the 9/11 Commission issued its report last Thursday, it first looked like its recommendations would be going on the shelf for a while, as the president and Congress headed off the next day to vacations and the Democratic National Convention.

But Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, on the campaign trail in Detroit, Michigan, endorsed the recommendations and pressed for quick action.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: The bottom line is that this is not a time for bickering. This is not a time for politics.

When it comes to protecting our security and the homeland, there are no Democrats, there are no Republicans; there are just Americans, and there is America, and there is the American interest.

And there are imperatives that we must move on rapidly.

SPENCER MICHELS: At first, members of the Bush administration said they wanted time to study the report. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said this on the NewsHour last week.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: This is not going to be easy, and it won’t… won’t happen overnight. Institutional change doesn’t happen overnight.

SPENCER MICHELS: But by the end of the week, both Houses of Congress announced they’d hold hearings. The Senate’s first will be Friday. In Texas, President Bush convened his national security advisors, and officials told reporters some recommendations might be adopted by executive order.

On Monday, at a fundraiser in Kennewick, Washington, Vice President Cheney praised the commission’s work, quoted from the report, and portrayed its findings as reasons to reelect President Bush.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: This is not an enemy you can reason with or negotiate with or appease. This is, to put it simply, an enemy that must be vanquished.

And under the determined leadership of President George W. Bush, that is exactly what we will do.

SPENCER MICHELS: But in Norfolk, Virginia, yesterday, Sen. Kerry upped the ante. He said the Commission’s tenure should be extended.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: If I were president today, if I’d been president last week, I would have immediately said to the Commission, “Yes, we’re going to implement those recommendations and we want you to stay on the job for at least another 18 months in order to help make sure we do the job.” (Cheers and applause)

SPENCER MICHELS: These comments put the Commission report back on the front page today, as Kerry arrived in Boston to accept his party’s nomination.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on why the 9/11 Commission’s work has become such a hot issue in the presidential campaign, we’re joined by Congresswoman Jane Harman — she’s the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and assisted John Kerry in developing his position on the 9/11 recommendations.

And Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate’s majority whip. He joins us from right here in the studio. We’re glad you could be here in the studio and not downtown Boston.

Welcome to you both. Congresswoman Harman, why has suddenly the 9/11 Commission Report become this big political issue in this campaign?

REP. JANE HARMAN: Well, let me first of all welcome my friend Sen. McConnell to the Democratic Convention.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Glad to be here. Hope to get out of alive.

REP. JANE HARMAN: And how proud I am of my friend Sen. Diane Feinstein who just put John Kerry’s name into nomination. Why has it become a big deal? It has always been a big deal.

Let’s remember the history here. This administration opposed adding the creation of a commission to the intelligence authorization bill a few years ago. It was in the middle of the night when the voice of the families couldn’t be drowned out that finally there was agreement to set up the Commission.

And they have been there every step of the way in the hearing rooms pushing the Commission to be honest and bold, and they’ve succeeded and they’re right around us now. And that is why it is such a big deal.

MARGARET WARNER: But you do have this almost like a bidding war between Sen. Kerry and at least the Bush White House about what to do with these recommendations in just less than a week.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, first of all, this Commission report has a lot of credibility because it was unanimous; there were no minority views. And as a result of their ability to cross party lines and produce a product that has been widely praised by both sides, I think quick action is what… is in order.

Both the House and the Senate are having hearings here in the August recess. I heard my good friend Condi Rice with whom I normally agree suggest that this would take a long time.

My view is the enemy of reform is delay — that the more time that passes after the 9/11 Commission is out, the less likely we are to reform particularly if it requires Congress itself to change the way we do business. And that was a major part of their recommendations.

MARGARET WARNER: But let me ask you just to follow up on something the congresswoman says because the Kerry campaign has also said this, which is essentially President Bush has flip-flopped on this. He opposed the commission initially.

Then he seemed sort of cool about the recommendation. Now he says he is going to move quickly.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, I think whether he was enthusiastic about this inquiry two and a half years ago is irrelevant. The question is we have got a solid product, a bipartisan product.

We ought to act quickly. Congress itself is a big part of this, not the administration, although there are administrative changes too and hopefully the president will do what he can by executive order.

But we need to tackle the changes that we need to make in Congress because we are part of the problem as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Now explain, Congresswoman Harman, this recommendation that Senator Kerry has made to actually extend this commission, which is supposed to come to an end I think it’s either today or tomorrow, extend its life by 18 months.

What is the rationale?

REP. JANE HARMAN: Well, I think his point is that that will keep our feet to the fire, it will keep us moving forward and it will measure how much we’ve done.

I think even without extending the life of the commission, the commissioners will do that and the families will keep the whole thing in the public eye.

Let me say something about the recommendations. I agree with Sen. McConnell that they’re excellent and they’re bipartisan and they build on a long history of other recommendations.

The Senate Intelligence Committee on a bipartisan basis had recommendations recently, the joint inquiry and so forth. But let me say this: If we are coming back in August, and I believe we are, I want to us move on these recommendations.

I was very disappointed today to be told that the Senate… that the House Intelligence Committee is going to hold one hearing a week during the month of August on fairly general topics, not one of those hearings is to mark up legislation which is already pending in our committee which would implement a major part of the commission’s recommendation.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I think the Republican leadership actually now has announced an accelerated schedule.

But I’d like to get back to the Bush-Kerry battle if I could here rather than — even though you are both members — do you think President Bush should endorse Sen. Kerry’s idea to keep this commission going as a sort of watchdog, or as she said to hold their feet to the fire?

REP. MITCH McCONNELL: I think I heard Jane suggest that maybe that’s not a good idea. The commission has finished its job. They did a great job. Now it’s our turn.

We need to implement the recommendations so I don’t think we — with all due respect to Sen. Kerry, I don’t think we need the commission for 18 more months. They did their job, they reported. Now the ball is in our court and we should act.

MARGARET WARNER: So if a viewer or voter… I hope we have viewers… if voters were watching this and say what’s the difference between Sen. Kerry and President Bush and what to do with 9/11 commission recommendations, listening to the two of you, wouldn’t sound like a lot.

What is the difference?

REP. JANE HARMAN: President Bush isn’t sitting at this table. I heard Sen. McConnell say that Congress needs to act. I totally and enthusiastically agree with that, but what are we acting on?

There are some good bills pending. Sen. Feinstein has one in the Senate. The one that nine of us have offered in the House is virtually identical to the 9/11 commission’s recommendations. No hearings have been scheduled that I’m aware of to mark up the bills.

MARGARET WARNER: But is it not the case that Sen. Kerry has, in fact, also endorsed the central recommendations of the commission in terms of creating this national intelligence director and a counter terror task force?

REP. JANE HARMAN: That’s right. And President Bush has not yet endorsed those recommendations and there are still some comments about it will take time. It won’t take time.

These issues have been thoroughly explored. I know that I explained in detail one of these concepts at a conference a few months ago that Sen. McConnell and the vice president intended.

I’m just saying I may not be perfect but I am telling you there is a huge body of history over a number of years about how our intelligence architecture developed in 1947 is outmoded.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you say to a voter about the difference between Sen. Kerry and President Bush on what to do with the 9/11 commission?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I think Sen. Kerry’s biggest problem going into the fall election is the perceived stature gap on this issue. And he, understandably, is trying to make that up, make up that gap by coming up with some creative recommendation.

I don’t blame him for trying, but the point is the job is finished. It’s time for us to act. What I’m hoping is that the president will do… will take a number of the steps that were recommended for the executive branch that he can take without legislation.

I agree with Jane. I think we ought to tackle this in both the House and the Senate in September and use this report as leverage to get the kind of reforms that are not likely to be achieved if we wait.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, but do you think the White House should endorse this rather sweeping concept of creating a national intelligence director that would have authority over the 15 disparate intelligence agencies?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Look, I don’t think I should give the president advice about what he ought to do. My suspicion is that he is going to endorse most of the recommendations.

I would be surprised if he didn’t, but I think he can speak for himself and I think we are going to hear from him shortly on this issue.

MARGARET WARNER: And how much can he do by executive order because that’s what they’re telling reporters covering him down in Texas – that what they’re looking at first is what they can do by executive order.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: I think we are all examining the report to see what can be done by executive order.

REP. JANE HARMAN: A great deal of it can be done by executive order or even without executive order. For example, we’ve identified the problems with the collection of intelligence and the analysis of intelligence by the CIA.

The president can reform that by directive, not even an executive order. He can ask that agency to change its practices right now. He can also integrate the more than 12 watch lists that we have so that we have one watch list so that we can stop hijackers from getting on airplanes when we’ve identified that they’re potential terrorists which is not our capability yet even now three years later.

I think as far as Congress goes, in this central idea of one commander, unified commander, over the intelligence agencies, we’ve learned from the way we do this in the military, the Goldwater-Nichols Act which is what is being suggestion here by the 9/11 commission, that it works. All four services work together.

We have 20 years of history. Most of the military thinks it is a great idea. That’s what we are talking about here, not a new bureaucracy and not a czar.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, a final, quick political question, Senator, beginning with you.

How does this question of what to do with this 9/11 commission report play to or affect this political issue, which is the gap between, and you alluded to it earlier, the president and Sen. Kerry among the public on who would best manage the war on terror?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, the president’s strongest asset is his leadership in the war on terror. And I think Sen. Kerry you could expect to try to make advances on that issue.

And he will use the 9/11 report in whatever way he thinks benefits him politically. The president is president, has the responsibility to be responsible and I think he will be in following whatever recommendations he can, as soon as he can.

REP. JANE HARMAN: The 9/11 commission recommendations are bipartisan recommendations building on a long bipartisan history. They are the right thing to do.

The issue now is whether this White House will step up and recommend the right thing to do and whether Congress will act. I suggest that if this administration doesn’t step up, it should step aside and John Kerry has been very clear in endorsing these recommendations. He is a member of the Senate.

And I’m sure he will support a strong bipartisan package as I will and I would hope that Sen. McConnell will, too.

MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Jane Harman and Sen. Mitch McConnell, thank you both.