TOPICS > World

A 9/11 Commission Report Proposes Intelligence Reforms

July 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST


JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, welcome.

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Thank you.


JIM LEHRER: Governor, you concluded the 9/11 attacks were not preventable. Why did you say that?

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Well, we didn’t conclude that they were not preventable. What we said is there are a lot of things that happened in a lot of agencies where those people who got in because they weren’t checked properly at the borders or problems that occurred within the intelligence agencies, or problems that occurred getting people on planes, and to take any one of those – or even a combination of them – and say if they hadn’t happened that way, 9/11 wouldn’t have occurred, we think is speculation.

So we didn’t want to take that step. We got a very fact-based report. In fact, maybe if everything had gone another way in 16 different cases, maybe it would have been prevented, but who knows?

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Congressman, did you come across any of – I think there were several events that did happen as the Governor said, and as you said in the report, you all said in the report – these things could have gone this way or that way or whatever. Did you find any lapses in judgment, any people who did their jobs poorly along the course?

REP. LEE HAMILTON: Well, I think in looking back you can say sometimes in certain instances people may not have made the best judgment. After all, people came into this country, the hijackers came into this country, with passports that had a touch of fraudulent activity to them.

The information that some of the agencies did not share that should have been shared – you can point to things like that but you cannot say that had they been done another way, 9/11 would never have happened.

I think causation of 9/11 is a very complex matter. And a single event I don’t think can be singled out and say this was – this was – if it had occurred another way, it – it would have prevented the – the whole incident from taking place. Things are just much more complicated than that.

We come down on the side of saying rather than this was preventable, to say that we had some opportunities; we missed those opportunities; and you put them all together, there’s quite a list of them, but you cannot take the next jump, I don’t think it’s a logical jump, and say therefore 9/11 would have been prevented.

JIM LEHRER: Governor, is it also fair to say that you all are not saying that there is no government official or employee, past or present, who deserves to be censured or to be fired, in any way reprimanded for actions in and around 9/11?

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: No, what we’re basically saying is almost the opposite. What we’re basically saying there is almost nobody who served in the high levels of government in two administrations who can’t take some blame.

And we missed it; we missed it. And these were 19 people who beat every single system we’ve had in place and there were failures in our part along the way. These weren’t super people, they made mistakes themselves, but they beat every system along the way. And our government just wasn’t ready for that.

Our government – we call it a failure of imagination in some cases. But it just wasn’t ready for that. We had no ideas that they were going to try to do what they did, and we were caught napping.

JIM LEHRER: But, Governor, what do you say to those who say when you say everybody is to blame, then essentially nobody is to blame?

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Hey, look, you can single out people. We like to single out the other side of people. I mean, we single out for praise, for instance, an immigration agent in Orlando, Florida, who asked the right questions of a potential hijacker trying to get in and found out that he couldn’t answer those questions, couldn’t say who he was going to see in the United States, couldn’t say where he was going to stay, couldn’t answer any of those questions, and finally he said, I’m meeting somebody upstairs, the immigration agent said, who, and he said, I can’t tell you.

Well, it was Mohammed Atta, head hijacker, and that guy was not allowed in the country. And there would have been one more hijacker in the country if he had been. So we single out these people who did their job really well, and the point of the report really is, yes, to show a number of failures along the way, but then to show how these failures can be corrected in the future and make recommendations hopefully to make people safer based on what we’ve learned.

REP. LEE HAMILTON: The whole mindset of the Commission is very different from the one your question suggests. Our mindset was focused on the future, not on the past. We did look back; we had to look back to try to understand how we could improve things, but we really took most seriously the responsibility to try to figure out how to prevent this from happening in the future.

We believe that if we had looked back and said, okay, this figure, that figure was responsible for 9/11, it would just have created a firestorm, and we would have had no chance of putting forward recommendations that would be acceptable to the Congress and to the president and to the American people. We would have destroyed any chance of a bipartisan result here.

Our principal task, as we saw it, was to try to help make the country more secure and looking back, and assigning blame to a person or even an agency wasn’t the way to do it.

JIM LEHRER: And you made that decision, Congressman, right at the very beginning, you were not going to do that, the ten of you?

REP. LEE HAMILTON: We made the decision very early on that we were not going to play the blame game, that that was not what we wanted to do and that if we were going to make a constructive, positive contribution to the future, we had to approach this in a different way.

And as we looked into it, we more and more became persuaded that the failures here were not individual but systemic. And that was what we then began to focus on.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Governor, one more question on this and we’ll move to the future. If George Tenet had not already resigned as head of the CIA, based on what you found that he and his colleagues did or did not do, would you be recommending that he depart as head of the CIA?

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Probably not, depending on the confidence the president had in him for the future. But, you know, the problem there was problems within the CIA and the agency itself, and problems of communication, both outside and within the agency.

In 1998, George Tenet got it. He said, this is the guy, bin Laden, who is trying to destroy Americans, kill Americans. He’d already done it abroad in a number of cases and wants to kill more Americans.

So he said the boldest statement made in government all those times is George Tenet who said, “we are now declaring war from this moment on, unceasing war on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.”

Guess what happened? Even people in the agency, even people at high levels didn’t hear anything about it. Their communication within the agency was so poor. And of course nobody in the FBI heard about it. Nobody outside of those agencies heard about it. It was a declaration of war that went off into the air and there was no result. So that’s when we started, one of the signs, a real lack of communication within the agencies as well as between the agencies.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hamilton, what would you say to the average American who is now focusing on what you’ve all just said and what the governor just said, why? How could something like that happen? The head of the CIA, the chief intelligence officer of the United States says, “this man…”– I won’t repeat what the governor just said– and nothing happens.

REP. LEE HAMILTON: Well, it is hard to explain. And I think it happened because high officials simply did not grasp the gravity of the situation. If you asked officials back in that period, they would all tell you that al-Qaida was a threat. They all recognized that Osama bin Laden didn’t like us. He wanted to kill us and to kill as many Americans as he could.

But there were also a lot of other threats out there, and we did not raise this threat level to the highest point, to the paramount threat to the national security of the United States. So it wasn’t just a president or even a Congress that did not recognize the threat. They all recognized it. They just didn’t recognize the gravity of it, by which I mean they did not recognize that within an hour’s time we could lose 3,000 people.

In that sense, we were not prepared, and it wasn’t, I think, just a failure of government officials. Look, this information about these threats coming to us were not just in presidential daily briefings, highly secret documents. They were in the daily newspaper over a period of years. And it was the American public, it was the American officials, it was the American media that simply did not grasp the gravity of the situation.

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: But, you know, nobody put it together, Jim. Nobody put it together. Nobody put it together, the President of the United States or people in the intelligence committee never had it put together for them. Nobody said, “look, this is a guy who is starting, he’s an Islamic terrorist starting with the first attack on the World Trade Center.” They were the ones involved in Black Hawk Down in Mogadishu. They were involved in Khobar Towers. They obviously attacked the Cole.

Attack after attack after attack, killing Americans in many cases, and then they stepped forward and say publicly, every Muslim has a duty to kill Americans — it doesn’t matter whether they’re military or civilians– as many Americans as you can kill as possible, you should do. And then they go on and kill some more.

And nobody took that record of incident after incident after incident: The plots to knock down ten American planes in the Philippines, the plots to blow up the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. I mean, there were all sorts of these things. Nobody put all that together and said, this is done by an organization with a command and control structure; there’s an organization that’s got the capability to do that, got the weapons to do that and got the will to do it.

If anybody had put that together for the American people, for the President, for the Congress or for the people as a whole, I happen to believe there would have been action, but nobody did. So all during the presidential campaign of 2000, we went through all that verbiage and all that hot air from the presidential candidates. We found terrorism mentioned only once. It was just not out there for the American people. We didn’t take it seriously.

JIM LEHRER: Now, congressman, you all have some ideas for how to fix this, and one of them is to create a new job called a national director of intelligence. Why? How will that help fix this?

REP. LEE HAMILTON: If you look back at 9/11, we think the major failure was that we did not share information; we did not put it all together. We’ve got a lot of very good people working for the American government. You’ve got human intelligence over here. You’ve got imagery intelligence over here. You’ve got signal intelligence over here. You’ve got all sorts of intelligence over here; very talented people putting it together.

But what we didn’t do is pool all of that, collect it all, analyze it all. The people that had responsibility didn’t see the big picture because they didn’t have all of the information that even the whole government had.

So we think that first of all, the CIA director today has an impossible task. He’s got three jobs: He advises the president of the United States as the principle intelligence adviser, he heads up the CIA– that’s a massive organization, billions and billions of dollars, tens of thousands of people employed there; and then he has a third job, and that third job is that he is supposed to manage the 15 agencies of the federal government that deal with intelligence. Nobody– nobody– can do that job properly.

And we say this has to be split up. You’ve got have a director of central intelligence, the CIA. But you also have to have a person up here at the top who can bring together all of this, analyze it, put their feet up on the table, look out the window and say and think and really think hard about how this intelligence fits together, and then put together an operational plan and begin to manage it.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now, governor, this person would be a presidential appointee, a member of the Cabinet?

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Not a member of the Cabinet. We don’t recommend that.

JIM LEHRER: Why not, why not?

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Because a Cabinet is a policy-making body. This isn’t anything to do with policy. This is an operational head. It would be the quarterback. I mean, you’ve got a great team out there, but a team without a quarterback is not a very successful team.

JIM LEHRER: But confirmed by the Senate?

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Confirmed by the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: And appointed by the president.

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Appointed by the president.

JIM LEHRER: Serves for a fixed term or at the pleasure… in other words, he would just be an assistant to the president?

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Yeah, he would serve at the pleasure of the president. He would… the other part of this– because it’s a two-part fix, and without both parts it doesn’t work– we’d not only have that quarterback, that central figure who’d be controlling the intelligence, we’d also have an intelligence center underneath in which we’d have a number of centers where information would flow in.

So there would be an organization forcing these organizations to get outside their own cultures and share information. We believe if you put the two together that you’re going to solve a lot of the problems that were so serious in the day of 9/11.

REP. LEE HAMILTON: Jim, the model here is Goldwater-Nichols and the Defense Department, and the key to that is joint operations. You have J-2 intelligence. You have J-3 in the military, which is operational; not policy making, but operational.

And we want to take the model that we think has been very successful in the defense side of things in the Department of Defense, and apply that model to the intelligence community. So you have jointness; so you can take all of these areas where you stovepipe information, you can join them all together, and you can put together an operational plan.

Now, all of this is subject to the policy direction of the president and of the National Security Council. This is a new concept, we believe, for intelligence. It’s not an easy concept to get a hold of, but it is essential, because you have to integrate a lot of strands when you’re putting together counterterrorism policy.

JIM LEHRER: Now, governor, at your press briefing today with you and your eight sister and fellow commission members, the question came up about, okay, how do you get all this done? We’ve just touched the surface here, we scratched the surface of the recommendations, there’s a lot involving Congress and a lot of things that you think should be done.

And former Senator Kerrey of Nebraska, one of the commissioners, said he wasn’t optimistic that this will ever get done. There’s just too much power that people have to give up in Congress and in these various intelligence agencies and various cabinet officers. What do you think?

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Well, you know, maybe it’s because I come from outside of this town. I’m from New Jersey. And when I came to this town to do this commission, everybody told Vice Chairman Hamilton and I you couldn’t do it; that when you’ve got five Republicans and five Democrats appointed in a partisan town in an election year, you could never get anything done, you’re never going to be able to come together on serious recommendations or a serious report.

Well, they were wrong. They thought I was naive then, and maybe I’m naive now, but we met today with Senator McCain and Senator Lieberman, who were ready to introduce joint legislation, bipartisan stuff, with a couple of other senators.

We have Chris Shays and a group of Republicans and Democrats in the House who are doing the same thing.

People get the sense of urgency. People understand the need for unity. People understand that we have to re-get the kind of unity we all felt that day on 9/11 and reestablish it in this country, try keep this issue from becoming partisan in the campaign and unite together. We talked with Senator Kerry. We talked with President Bush. We talked with any number of people. And they all welcomed our ideas. So I’m maybe naive, but I’m optimistic.

REP. LEE HAMILTON: It’s hard for me to see how anybody that can argue the present system works. It flatly did not work, and it meant 3,000 Americans lost their lives. Now, something has to change. And everybody agrees it was a failure of the intelligence community in large part because they didn’t put all of the information we had together.

How can you possibly argue today that the system worked? I don’t think you can. And if that’s the case, then it means that change has to be seriously considered. We don’t know that we’ve got the silver bullet here. This is complicated stuff, putting the intelligence community of the United States together.

We think we have put forward a very, very sound proposal. But it may not be the beginning and end of all things. But it does seem to me that the official who opposes this cannot take the position that the status quo is working. And he should take the position that something else is better.

And what we want to see is what that something else may be. We want to work with them.


Finally, governor, picking up on one point that Commissioner Jim Thompson made today, that any public official who does not act urgently on this issue deservedly will get the– I don’t remember his exact phrase– but will suffer politically from the American people and deservedly so. Do you agree with that, this is that big a deal and it’s urgent?

GOV. THOMAS KEAN: Yeah, I do. I agree it’s a big deal and I agree it’s urgent because, look, every single expert that we talked to said that we are in danger of another attack. The attack may be even more serious than the attack on 9/11; that they’re trying to do it, maybe even in this election period to disrupt our elections.

And to allow a system that doesn’t work to exist when there’s a possibility of changing it or, God forbid, to try politicize recommendations to try and change it, I don’t think the American people are going to stand for that.

And I believe we need to reestablish two things: A sense of urgency and a sense of unity in this country on this issue. And if we do, I think we’ll move ahead and the American people will be safer.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Governor, congressman, thank you both very much.