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Family Members of 9/11 Victims Voice their Opinions

July 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: From the start, it was pressure from family members of the Sept. 11 victims that was most responsible for the creation of the 9/11 commission. Two of them join me now. Stephen Push is cofounder of a group called the Families of September 11. His wife died on the plane that struck the Pentagon.

Kristen Breitweiser is one of the so-called Jersey Girls, a group of women whose husbands died in the World Trade Center. She is also a member of the family steering committee, which has been monitoring the commission’s work.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. Push, you’ve had a chance to look at the report youth. Had a chance to listen to the commissioners, the chairman. Is it what you wanted?

STEPHEN PUSH: Absolutely. It gave a very clear picture of what happened, the facts leading up to Sept. 11, what happened that day and in the immediate aftermath. It laid out a plan for recommendations for making structural changes and institutional changes in the federal government to make us better prepared to prevent such an attack in the future.

That’s what I was hoping for from this commission.

JEFFREY BROWN: What of the findings jumped out at you as being most important?

STEPHEN PUSH: I think the creation of a director of national intelligence. We have 15 intelligence agencies now, and probably the largest single area of concern regarding what happened leading up to 9/11 was the failure of intelligence agencies to communicate with each other, even within agencies.

And the only way I see that we’re going to have this kind of institutionalized communication that will allow the government to connect in the future is to have someone in a position of authority over those agencies who can compel them to share information. Or else after a period of time, when 9/11 begins to fade in peoples’ memories, they’ll slip back into old behavior patterns.

JEFFREY BROWN: Miss Breitweiser, how did the report strike you?

KRISTEN BREITWEISER: I thought in particular the footnotes were extremely comprehensive. They were just a wealth of knowledge. We’ve all done an enormous amount of research into 9/11. And it was nice to see such an expansive set of footnotes that give specific details that helps give you a better overall picture.

I think what the commission contributed to the story of 9/11 it was a springboard for me. Congress only looked at the intel failures. The commission provided a broader picture– foreign policy, the military, the airline, border control– in addition to intelligence.

So it was able to sort of add to the picture and broaden it so we can see is these systematic problems as a whole in our country’s inability to better defend itself against terrorism.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about this question of accountability or personal responsibility? We heard Governor Kean say to Jim, there’s almost no one who can’t take some blame. We heard Condoleezza Rice, what she said to Margaret, are you satisfied with the way the report deals with this?

KRISTEN BREITWEISER: With regard to accountability, I think, you know, the staff director, Staff Director Zelikow has said before that because everyone was at fault, in fact no one was at fault. I think I am willing to accept the fact that we are not going to be able to hold anyone accountable for 9/11.

I think going forward, something that I find immensely reassuring is we’re going to know who to hold accountable in the next attack. If these recommendations are followed up on, followed through by members of Congress and the president, we will have a structure set up that we will be able to know who is accountable and who should be responsible.

I think that that’s enormously important because if you have no one being held accountable, there’s no incentive to fix the problem. There’s no incentive to learn from mistakes. So going forward I’m very hopeful that these recommendations will be implemented and we will have a system of accountability set up.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you see this question? Jim also put the question to the chairman, in a sense everyone is to blame and in some ways no one is to blame. How do you see it?

STEPHEN PUSH: Well, I think it’s a very politically sensitive issue. I think it’s probably no accident that George Tenet resigned his position recently. I think that some of the people who were most accountable probably have already quietly left government.

But I would like to see us move beyond that. Finger-pointing is not going to help us now. What’s going to help us is to figure out how we can prevent future attacks.

We can’t bring back the people who died on 9/11, but we can prevent other families from going through the same torment that we went through by making sure that we have an intelligence and security system and border control and aviation security and other areas that are really up to the task of protecting us from Islamic terrorists.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, now, as we look forward, do you sense this sense of urgency that Governor Kean talked about to Jim? Do you feel it in our leaders?

STEPHEN PUSH: I feel it in some. I think Senators Lieberman and McCain, Representative Chris Shays and the others who have stepped forward to introduce legislation to implement these regulations have that sense of urgency. I think many others don’t. I think there are many forces in Washington who have entrenched interests that will be harmed by this change in structure and will resist it.

I think we have to work together with our allies, and I think the American people have to speak up and urge their elected representatives, urge the candidates in the upcoming election to take a firm stand on supporting these recommendations, or if not these recommendations then, as several of the commissions have noted, show us something better.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we, in fact, heard Condoleezza Rice say to Margaret, she referred to institutional resistance to change. You are citizens who have become very informed, and part of the political process, do you see the potential for change?

KRISTEN BREITWEISER: I think the time is well past due. It is time to change. The time has come. I think one of the things that is disappointing is that the findings, the recommendations in this report, it took us a year to get this commission established and to read through this work product and see what a fine work product it is with solid recommendations in here, to think we could have had this a year ago, to think that the Congress did an investigation into 9/11 and came out in December 2002 and yet the recommendation still mostly sitting on the shelf collecting dust.

I think now that we have the 9/11 Families United, we have the drive, the motivation to make sure these recommendations are paid well attention to and that things are done. I think that was the American people engaging in the dialogue.

We will see change. We’re going to demand change. To wait until after the election, I think it’s a very dangerous idea. I think we’ve waited three years, and I think the American people as a whole need to see visible change, picking up the ball and moving it in the direction to prove to the American people that our ability to defend ourselves, our national security, is a number-one priority.

It transcends politics. It transcends personal interests, institutionalism, everything. You need to be an American first and be safe living in this nation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, now this has come in a political season. Should this debate be part of the presidential campaign?

STEPHEN PUSH: Absolutely. I don’t think… I mean, I’m disturbed when I see people playing got you and looking through the report and saying, oh, gee, Bill Clinton did something wrong here or George Bush did something wrong there. I think it should be part of the political debate in the sense that the American people should demand from the candidates who are running for them to take a stand on how they stand on these issues, how they stand on reforming intelligence and security.

This should be the No. 1 issue because everything else flows from that. The primary function of government is to protect its citizens. If they can’t do that, everything else is useless. So I think that this should be something that George Bush, John Kerry, all the congressmen running for election, the third of the Senate that’s running for election should be held accountable for in the upcoming election by those constituents.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lastly, a personal question. As I said at the top, you all were given credit for making this report happen. Do you accept that? Do you feel you have accomplished something today?

KRISTEN BREITWEISER: I think I’m glad it’s the end of the first step, and I think I’m enormously grateful to all the families and all the citizens across the country for supporting us. I think now is the time for us to carry the ball one step forward from here.

I’m proud of the 9/11 families because I think for the first time in this nation’s history, arguably, we will give independent commissions a good name — reports from independent commissions a solid name. They need to be paid attention to.

This commission has now set the bar for that. It’s shattered the ceiling on access to documents and transparency. That’s something in a democracy you need to have transparency. We need to have people involved. I think that this commission is a very positive step in that direction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, Kristen Breitweiser and Stephen Push, thank you both very much.

STEPHEN PUSH: Thank you, Jeffrey.