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This Week: Unanswered Questions
9.12.03
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ANNOUNCER: Tonight on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS... Democrats fought hard for campaign finance reform. So why are they now trying to gut the new law?

THOMAS: I think that the democrats, of which I am a part, have relied way too much on this soft money, these big donations. It's like candy.

ANNOUNCER: And George Soros. He's made billions, given away billions, and now he's shelling out money to defeat George Bush.

SOROS: I do think that we have an extremist element in the government. I think that President Bush has been captured by these people as a result of September 11.

ANNOUNCER: And four New Jersey women making Washington nervous.

VAN AUKEN: That was an actual attack on September 11 and actual protocols weren't followed by the Secret Service. They weren't followed by NORAD. Whose job was it to follow the protocols and who did not follow them?

ANNOUNCER: The 9/11 widows who make the FBI director flinch and NORAD commanders run for cover.

All that tonight on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS, the weekly newsmagazine from PBS.


ANNOUNCER: From our studios in New York, David Brancaccio.

BRANCACCIO: Good evening. I'm David Brancaccio.

Is that autumn in the air or the first good, strong whiff of presidential politics? This week democratic candidates held their second debate in six days. And President Bush took to the airwaves to talk about Iraq and to try to convince the electorate that our presence there is worth an $87 billion price tag in emergency spending.

Yes, just four months before the first primary, the campaign season is heating up. But the real hot potato issue this week is money, and how all those candidates are going to pay for their race to the White House.

President Bush has already raised $62 million, nearly $5 million this week alone.

Campaign finance reform is an issue many of us thought had been put to bed ten months ago when the McCain-Feingold bill took effect.

It was the first real overhaul of the law since the Watergate years.

But now there's a concerted effort to yank the teeth from that law, and you may be surprised to find out who's behind it.


BRANCACCIO: Democrats forced the McCain-Feingold bill through Congress last year, hoping to stem the tide of cynicism among voters that the political process had been poisoned by big, special interest money.

Tom Daschle, leader of the Democrats in the Senate, was crucial to its passage.

DASCHLE: So this is an exciting day. It's a day that we have waited for a long period of time. I am thrilled with the prospect that at long last, after so many years, we've finally been able to claim victory here.

BRANCACCIO: The law is designed to stop the flow of what's called soft money: those large, unlimited contributions made by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to the Republican and Democratic parties.

Soft money was being raised by the bucketful from special-interest groups with special-interest agendas.

MCCAIN: We all recognized one very simple truth: that campaign contributions from a single source that run to hundred of thousands or millions of dollars are not healthy to a democracy.

BRANCACCIO: The law had barely been passed before the first lawsuit was filed.

And this week, in an extraordinary session, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments against it. The challengers argue that writing a check is a form of free speech, and the law infringes upon their first amendment right.

ABRAMS: We ought to have the same first amendment in this area that we have in other areas, which is to say a first amendment that allows people, organizations, political parties, the NRA, the ACLU, labor unions, management to have their say.

BRANCACCIO: The court is expected to rush out a ruling before the first primary in January.

The irony of the Democrats' position is that the new law has had a devastating impact on their ability to raise money.

Hard money, individual contributions to specific candidates, is the new currency and the Republicans are better at raising that kind of grassroots money.

In fact, in the first six months of this year, the Republican Party committees — National, Senatorial and Congressional — have raised more than twice as much hard money as the Democratic committees: $139 million to the Democrats' $56 million.

And that doesn't even include what President Bush and other candidates have raised on their own. And Democrats now realize that without soft money from special interest groups, they may not have a fighting chance in the 2004 elections.

The law's promoters claim that this summer, in the back corridors of Congress, the top congressional Democrats, Tom Daschle and Nancy Pelosi, took steps to quietly gut the law, the same law that the Democrats say they worked so hard to pass.

BRANCACCIO: They have moved to block the renomination of one of the law's staunchest supporters, who is himself a Democrat.

Scott Thomas has been a vigorous supporter of campaign laws while serving on the Federal Election Commission under four Presidents.

Daschle and Pelosi now want to replace Thomas with someone who opposes the campaign finance law.

BRANCACCIO: The Federal Election Commission has already been making rulings that could let's say, undermine McCain-Feingold. And with Scott Thomas gone, the FEC will be stacked strongly against reform. Scott Thomas was sitting in the Supreme Court listening to the arguments for and against the law on Monday. He joins us tonight on NOW, thank you for joining us.

THOMAS: My pleasure.

BRANCACCIO: What 'vibe', if any, were you picking up from the Justices sitting there this week?

THOMAS: Well, I think they're agonizing, quite a bit. And I think, in particular, two of the 'swing' Justices are agonizing over whether these new restrictions in some way overly restrict the ability of party committees to undertake their support of candidates. And perhaps, also overly restrict the ability of ideological, non-profit corporations and unions, to get out their message.

BRANCACCIO: One of the big arguments against that campaign finance law is that it may infringe on the First Amendment, on the right of free speech. Did you notice the Justices spending a lot of time on that issue?

THOMAS: They did. And actually one of the primary arguments of the people challenging this law has been that somehow it encroaches on the ability of states to actually regulate the election process as it relates to non-federal elections. And several of the Justices kept bringing the lawyers back to the First Amendment analysis.

BRANCACCIO: But what do you think? I mean, how is money not a form of speech given the fact that if you want your speech to get out there you might have to pay for some ads on television or the radio.

THOMAS: Money is a part of speech. It takes money to get a message out. There's no question about that.

You know, these big organizations can amass huge sums. And these are monies that are given by investors or by members for commercial or non-political reasons. And so if these organizations can use that huge war chest of money to actually influence our elected officials, at a certain point they'll be able to freeze out of the political process the average citizen. So that's what these laws are about.

BRANCACCIO: Now, of course, you've been a commissioner at the Federal Election Commission since 1986, I think it was. Was that Reagan Administration? That's a long time in Washington terms. What's been your experience at the FEC? I mean, from the outside looking in, they don't strike me as a bunch of crusading reformers on this issue.

THOMAS: Well, I think it's fair to say that over the years there have been more and more people placed at the Commission who have some philosophical disagreement with some aspects of the law. And so I think certainly the Commission has become less tenacious than it was in its early days. And I think that you have seen some of that reflected in how the Commission responded to these McCain-Feingold provisions with the regulation process.

BRANCACCIO: Well, I get the picture of you sitting there at the FEC at recess all alone eating by yourself because you have no friends. I mean, not a lot of people are supporting your hard line trying to enforce this campaign finance reform law.

THOMAS: Well, first of all, I don't eat lunch all by myself. I have lots of friends and supporters. But I think that it's true. I think I come at these things from a slightly different reason. If these laws are gonna work, the Federal Election Commission has to make them work.

BRANCACCIO: I guess the real surprise here is just who is now standing against campaign finance reform. The Democratic Party is working to shoot this down it seems. Listen to this quotation. Joseph Sandler, who's counsel to the Democratic National Committee, said to an ATLANTIC MONTHLY writer, he's talking about campaign finance law.

Speaking as a private citizen he said, "It's a fascist monstrosity. It's grossly offensive. And on a fundamental level it's horrible public policy because," he says, "it emasculates the parties to the benefit of narrow focus special interest groups. And it's a disaster for the Democrats. Other than that, it's great." I mean, there are the Democrats talking. How do you explain that given the fact that they supported this bill by and large ten months ago?

THOMAS: Well, Joe is a good friend of mine. And I know he gets very exercised about the application of this law. The reality is the Democratic Party is somewhat schizophrenic about this. And there are many people within the Democratic Party ranks who feel like this new law is gonna somehow disadvantage the Democrats, vis-à-vis the Republicans.

I think Joe falls into that camp. I happen to take a different perspective. I tend to think that the Democratic Party, it's supposed to represent the average Joe out there. It seems to me that over time the Democrats should be able to work to build a huge small donor base of hard money contributors, small amounts. And they should be able to catch up and even pass the Republicans if they put their minds and their energy to it.

And you've seen some indications of that. Hard money receipts for the Democrats are up by 39 percent this election cycle compared to last.

BRANCACCIO: So you're giving them points for improvement. But the fact of the matter is with about a year to go before the election, the GOP is better at this than the Democrats in raising lots of contributions from smaller donors.

THOMAS: Well, they are now. That's what I'm saying. I think it will change over time. And you know I feel badly. I think that the Democrats, of which I am a part, have relied way too much on this soft money, these big donations.

It's like candy. It's hard to turn down. It makes fundraising a lot easier. But I think that a lot of Democrats are still willing to fight the good fight and make this work and to live with cleaner money, cleaner elections.

BRANCACCIO: Now, these nice Democrats, of which you say you're a part, want to get rid of you.

THOMAS: I have always been a big fan of Senator Daschle and of Mrs. Pelosi. And I think that their policies by and large are just fine. I think on this particular issue of the campaign finance reforms, frankly, I think they're getting some bad advice.

You know, there are lots of campaign consultants and lawyers out there who have lived off the soft money system. And I think maybe they're having a hard time parting with soft money. And they're giving some advice to the Democratic leadership in this area.

BRANCACCIO: But spell it out for me. What is the bad advice? Get rid of Scott Thomas 'cause you stand in the way of blocking this law.

THOMAS: I don't know if it gets down to the specifics like that.

I don't begrudge the Democratic leadership from giving someone else a chance. That's fine. I guess what I'm concerned about is that this movement of some people in the Democratic Party ranks who basically turn around and to stop supporting the McCain-Feingold concept is perhaps washing over even into this appointment process.

BRANCACCIO: By the way, how does it work in Washington? How did you learn, first, that your days were numbered?

THOMAS: How did I learn? Well, I received a visit from someone in labor community who is again, a friend of mine. And we've worked together on many issues over the years. And he came to give me the news that basically this other fellow had been given the nod by the Democratic leadership.

BRANCACCIO: I'm just trying to understand this. What was the pitch? That the Scott Thomas has to be sacrificed to the fundraising god, small g on the god.

THOMAS: No, there was no real clarification of specifics like that. I've never been told that I'm being replaced because of my views on campaign finance reform. And you know, that's the way the process works. The appointment process in Washington is fairly mysterious. You never really know where you stand, to be honest.

But that's the way I got the news. And I'm perfectly willing to move on. I can do something else with my life no problem.

BRANCACCIO: Tell me about the man who might replace you, Robert Lenhart, a senior service employees union official. I read his statement saying that he's confident he can, quote, "diligently enforce the law as written." Do you take him at his word?

THOMAS: He's a very nice guy. And I think he will try his best. You know, he's working right now for one of the unions that is basically fighting the battle against these McCain-Feingold reforms. I guess I'm most concerned with that battle than I am about whether Bob Lenhart will turn out to be a good commissioner or not.

BRANCACCIO: Let's say the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down most of that campaign law from last year. Is that the death of the overall movement toward campaign finance reform?

THOMAS: Well, hard to say. I know that the people that are supporting campaign finance reform are tenacious. They are determined to try to make this system cleaner.

I think that there are some interesting questions about how the Court might rule. I mean, it's possible that the Court would just want to strike down some of the sort of extraneous provisions, if you will. Some of the provisions that tightly prevent someone at the National Party Committee from actually helping a State Party Committee raise any non-federal contribution money.

Something like that might be separated out. And that wouldn't have such a dramatic impact as actually striking down the underlying restriction on the money that comes in. The 'soft money' prohibition.

BRANCACCIO: I suppose they could also uphold the law and if the Supreme Court does that, does that mean we shouldn't worry about this whole issue of 'big money' and its influence on politics?

THOMAS: Well, there's always the potential that the law, even if upheld, will somehow be undermined. And, I mean, this has been the pattern over the years. You have a new loophole tightening law passed like the McCain-Feingold Provision.

And then the lawyers and the accountants go to work. And they're very clever. They're very creative. And, over time, they will try a new approach, and over time they will get a Court to rule that that approach is permissible. And you see some sort of chipping away and erosion of the law. And that's a cyclical thing.

So, my perception is, that even if the Supreme Court upholds this law, over time, there will be some evasion methods developed, and Congress, if it wants to get those loopholes closed, will have to act. But that's natural. I think that that kind of process works. The bottom line is, I think Congress should be given the power to basically try to keep our election process clean. And to try to really allow the average person to really have a chance to have access to their elected officials, and feel a part of our government.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Scott Thomas, thank you very much.

THOMAS: My pleasure.


ANNOUNCER: There's more to come on NOW. Four New Jersey women determined to shake up the nation.

VAN AUKEN: This is not no-fault government. We don't just pay our taxes, throw it up into the air, and hope everybody does their jobs.

ANNOUNCER: The 9/11 widows who won't stop until they get some answers.


BRANCACCIO: When George Soros talks, people listen. He's near the top of FORBES' list of the richest people in the world with a net worth of $7 billion.

Just to put that into perspective, there was one year when he reportedly made more money than McDonald's. We're not talking about your local franchise here. More money than the entire McDonald's corporation.

Making money, however, is not what keeps George Soros busy these days. Instead, he works on giving it away. He is famous for zeroing in on developing nations.

But now his focus is shifting to this country. He says America is disastrously off-course. Checkbook in hand, he's vowing to defeat George Bush next fall.

SOROS: The Republican Party has been captured by a bunch of extremists… People who maintain that markets will take care of everything, that you leave it to the markets and the markets know best. Therefore, you need no government, no interference with business. Let everybody pursue his own interests. And that will serve the common interest. Now, there is a good foundation for this. But it's a half-truth.

BRANCACCIO: George Soros says he's convinced the Bush administration is pursuing policies both foreign and economic that in Soros's experience, will be catastrophic.

Soros has been hailed as a international financial genius: "the world's greatest money manager" said the INSTITUTIONAL INVESTOR; one of the most influential philanthropists, according to TIME.

So he's not the kind of man you'd expect to be arguing that when it comes to free market capitalism, it's possible to have "too much of a good thing," that unchecked capitalism fails to provide for certain fundamental needs.

SOROS: We need to maintain law and order. We need to maintain peace in the world. We need to protect the environment. We need to have some degree of social justice, equality of opportunity.

The markets are not designed to take care of those needs. That's a political process. And the market fundamentalists have managed to reduce providing those public goods.

BRANCACCIO: Providing those public goods has long been at the top of his agenda for making the world a better place.

He not only wants more regulation of the global economy but he's also been an outspoken advocate of democracy throughout the world. In fact, he's been described as the only American citizen with his own foreign policy.

SOROS: I give away something up to $500 million a year throughout the world promoting Open Society. My foundations support people in the country who care about an open society. It's their work that I'm supporting. So it's not me doing it. But I can empower them. I can support them, and I can help them.

BRANCACCIO: Indeed, over the past 20 years, Soros has given away more than $4 billion of his personal fortune.

He's built a philanthropic network that spans more than fifty countries, promoting what he calls "open societies" with the goal of establishing democratically elected governments that respect human rights, the rule of law and market economies.

SOROS: And as long as there is enough support for it, then actually you can make a difference in the world. And I think we are succeeding in many of our efforts in making a difference.

BRANCACCIO: His foundations have sponsored thousands of development projects…everything from low-income housing construction in Africa to medical clinics in Russia to political movements worldwide.

As early as the 1970s, Soros gave money to dissident groups in the old eastern bloc, helping bring down those communist regimes.

Since 1987, he's pumped more than a billion dollars into Russia alone … including his donation of $500 million to fund health and education programs there.

And in 1993, when Sarajevo was under siege, his foundation built utilities to supply desperately needed water and electricity.

All that made possible by the staggering profits he earned directing his "Quantum" hedge fund. His personal fortune is estimated as high as $7 billion and he pledges to give most of it away.

But his success in business has not been without controversy.

SOROS: I've been called as the man who broke the Bank of England when I attacked the sterling.

BRANCACCIO: In 1992, Soros made a spectacular bet, taking in a billion dollars on a hunch that the British pound would be devalued. Many blamed Soros for forcing the pound's fall.

But it was in France that Soros got into trouble with the authorities. In 1988, he was asked to join a takeover attempt of a French bank. He declined, but he did buy the bank's stock. Last year, a French court ruled that that was insider trading.

BRANCACCIO: Why should I believe you, when I've read, you say you did not conduct insider trading, instead of a French judge?

SOROS: Well, that's up to you. I was found guilty. I think, in a miscarriage of justice, frankly. And I'm fighting it. I'm appealing it, and I'll continue fighting it.

BRANCACCIO: Soros denies any wrongdoing and says news of the takeover was public knowledge. Nevertheless, he was fined more than $2 million…roughly the amount French authorities say he made from the trades.

More than a dozen other people were investigated in the incident. All except Soros were either acquitted or pardoned.

SOROS: It is something that troubles me a great deal. And I'll fight it with all I've got. But the French judicial system is not perfect, either.

BRANCACCIO: Does it worry you, for instance, that maybe some of your actions in the past would have hurt some people, when you withdrew capital from certain countries?

SOROS: Yes. No, you see you can't… as a market participant, if you want to be successful, I think you just have to look out for your own interests.

BRANCACCIO: It sounds amoral.

SOROS: Pardon?

BRANCACCIO: It sounds amoral.

SOROS: It is amoral. Now, it's very often understood and understood as immoral. And that is a very different thing, being immoral. If you hurt people deliberately or you know, that's immoral. If you break the law, that's immoral. If you play by the rules, that is the market itself is amoral.

If you impose morality on it, it means that you are actually with your hands tied behind your back and you're not going to be successful. It's extremely hard to be successful.

BRANCACCIO: Do you think, on balance, that your philanthropic work counteracts the more ruthless decisions that you had to make when you were a financier?

SOROS: It is no connection whatsoever. I'm not doing my philanthropic work out of any kind of guilt or any need to create good public relations. I'm doing it because I can afford to do it, and I believe in it.

BRANCACCIO: Now retired from his job of making money, Soros is spending his time giving it away. And how he spends his money, he says, has a lot to do with his experiences growing up…surviving one of history's darkest periods.

George Soros was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Budapest. When the Nazis invaded, Soros's father hid the children with sympathetic families.

BRANCACCIO: Do you see a thread that links your childhood experience with your career as a financier, with your philanthropy, and now political activist?

SOROS: Oh, it's a very strong thread, that leads right through. You know, I learned at a very early age that what kind of social system or political system prevails is very important. Not just for your well-being, but for your very survival.

Because, you know, I could have been killed by the Nazis. I could have wasted my life under the Communists. So, that's what led me to this idea of an open society. And that is the idea that is motivating me.

BRANCACCIO: At the London School of Economics after the war, he was exposed to the philosophy of the "open society."

That's been the basis of his philanthropy throughout the world. But the political struggle for an open society, says Soros, now has to be fought right here in the United States.

SOROS: The people currently in charge have forgotten the first principle of an open society, namely that we may be wrong and that there has to be free discussion. That it's possible to be opposed to the policies without being unpatriotic.

BRANCACCIO: And says Soros, the biggest obstacle to an open society is the Bush administration's philosophy that on both the domestic and international fronts, either you're with us or against us.

SOROS: You know, it's a distortion of what this country stands for.

BRANCACCIO: And that offends you?

SOROS: It offends me because I think it's a misinterpretation of what America's role in the world ought to be. We are the dominant power. And that imposes on us a responsibility to be actually concerned with the well-being of the world. Because we set the agenda.

And there are a lot of problems, including terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, that can only be tackled by collective action. And we ought to be leading that collective action, instead of riding roughshod over other people's opinions and interests.

BRANCACCIO: It's just so hard, Mr. Soros. I mean two years ago, a few blocks from where we're speaking right now, the World Trade Center came down. The notion that we should have harnessed our response to make nice with the world may be too much to ask.

SOROS: Maybe. Certainly, being nice to the world won't stop terrorism. So, we've got to fight terrorism. But how do you fight it?

If the terrorists have the sympathy of people, it's much harder to find them. So we need people on our side, and that leads us to be responsible leaders of the world, show some concern with the problems.

BRANCACCIO: Problems in places like Iraq, where, says Soros, the Bush administration's actions have alienated traditional allies and fueled anti-American sentiment.

SOROS: Now that we did not find weapons and there was no known connection with al-Qaeda, they say, "Well, we came to liberate Iraq, to introduce democracy, nation-building." But that's exactly what President Bush was opposed to in the elections. And it's a business that I am engaged in.

BRANCACCIO: You have wide credentials in this whole field of nation-building.

SOROS: This is where, you know, with all my experience, Iraq would have been the last place on earth that I would have chosen for introducing democracy.

I mean, democracy has to be built painstakingly and very slowly. And, you know, I've been engaged in that now for the last 15 years.

BRANCACCIO: This is a place with bitter religious rivalries, with even recent history as terrible animosity between groups in society.

SOROS: Right. So, it was a horrendous naiveté, actually, to think that you can go into Iraq and you can introduce democracy by military force.

BRANCACCIO: Could you share with me concrete ideas of things we should be doing in Iraq now?

SOROS: I think just one. We've got to get the United Nations involved. We have to transfer enough authority to the United Nations, to internationalize the issue. Because we cannot do it, and we should not do it alone. It was a mistake to do it alone. We have made the mistake. And the sooner we correct it, the better.

BRANCACCIO: So, you argue certainly don't withdraw our military forces from Iraq. It's gonna require more money.

SOROS: That's right. We have made a terrible mistake. And we have to pay the price. But we have to recognize that we've been very badly misled.

BRANCACCIO: And says Soros, we've been badly misled by the Bush administration at home as well from its lack of regulation on Wall Street … to the curtailment of civil liberties under the Patriot Act.

SOROS: I mean, you know, you pass the USA Patriot Act without proper discussion. And anybody who opposed it was accused of giving aid and comfort to the terrorists. So I think we've gone off the rail in this country.

BRANCACCIO: Yet the Patriot Act was passed with a lot of democratic support. There was debate, but not proper discussion you don't believe?

SOROS: Yeah, I mean, it was done in six weeks. Lawmakers didn't even get a copy of the bill. They couldn't even read it before it was passed.

Now, the Democrats caved in. I'm very critical of the Democrats. But of course, it was a moment of, I suppose, national calamity. It was a tragedy and people were very emotional. It's a traumatic event.

But there was a group of people who took advantage of it and who's been leading us in the wrong direction.

BRANCACCIO: All this has led Soros to conclude the most important thing he can do is stop George Bush.

SOROS: I think he's a man of good intentions. I don't doubt it. But I think he's leading us in the wrong direction.

BRANCACCIO: So just last month, Soros put his money where his mouth is one more time. He gave $10 million to America Coming Together, a liberal coalition pledged to defeat the President in 2004.

SOROS: By putting up $10 million and getting other people engaged, there's enough there to get the show going. In other words, to get the organizing going. Half of it still needs funding.

BRANCACCIO: What is the show? It's a get out the vote effort.

SOROS: Get out the vote and get people engaged on issues.

This is the same kind of grassroots organizing that we did or we helped in Slovakia when Mechar was defeated, in Croatia when Tudjman was defeated and in Yugoslavia when Milosevic was defeated.

BRANCACCIO: But gee whiz, Tudjman, Milosevic, George Bush, almost in the same phrase? Those are fighting words.

SOROS: But I do think that our leaders… If you take John Ashcroft, I don't think he's an Open Society person, Donald Rumsfeld…I do think that we have an extremist element in the government. I think that President Bush has been captured by these people as a result of September 11.

BRANCACCIO: But you really think that if it's true that the current administration has been hijacked by extremists, that the American public, which by and large in history doesn't tolerate extremism all that well, resents extremism, that the American public by and large wouldn't notice?

SOROS: I think that they are noticing it. It think that it's happening. And this is exactly why I think that people are about, may I say that, coming to their senses.

And I think the moment of truth has come in Iraq. Because we really got into a terrible, terrible mess, into a quagmire. And our soldiers are at risk. But it's worse. Because our armed forces, the Army is at risk. In other words, our capacity to project power that it has greatly diminished because we have misused our power. And I think that people will wake up.

BRANCACCIO: Misuse of power, quagmire, a wake up call for reform: these are heavy assessments of the current state of American policy in Iraq. As for how it will turn out, even George Soros, who has gambled on the future so often and so well, ventures no specific prediction.

But Soros is very clear on what he believes should happen next.

SOROS: If we re-elect Bush, we are endorsing the Bush doctrine. And then we are off to a vicious circle of escalating violence in the world. And I think, you know, terrorism, counter-terrorism, it's a very scary spectacle to me.

If we reject him, then we are effectively rejecting the Bush doctrine. Because he was elected on a platform of a more humble foreign policy. Then we can go back to a more humble foreign policy. And treat this episode as an aberration. We have to pay a heavy price. You know, 100 billion dollars a year in Iraq. We can't get out of that. We mustn't get out of it.

But still, we can then regain the confidence of the world, and our rightful place as leaders of the world, working to make the world a better place.


ANNOUNCER: Once again, David Brancaccio.

BRANCACCIO: In the two years since September 11, there's been no shortage of wild conspiracy theories about what happened that day.

It's all out there on the Internet: it was Israeli fanatics, the big oil companies, the U.S. military using remote controlled planes in some attempted coup.

Our researchers found hundreds of conspiracy Web sites, some sickening, some just plain dumb.

It brings to mind the dark days after the assassination of J.F.K. when grand conspiracy theories were also spawned in an atmosphere of confusion and secrecy about the government investigation.

Since 9/11, the FBI alone has conducted 180,000 interviews. But we still haven't heard and may never know the whole truth. In the absence of fact, rumor takes over.

Four New Jersey women are determined to change that. Before 9/11, these women's lives revolved around family and children. But, when their husbands died that day, they were transformed into political activists on a mission.

And leaders in Washington are listening.

Our story is reported by NPR correspondent Daniel Zwerdling with NOW producers William Brangham and Andrew Fredericks.

KLEINBERG: Whenever there's a tragedy, you think, "How could this have happened?"

CASAZZA: I had faith in all of my leaders on September 10th that they were doing the best jobs that they could to protect the lives of my loved ones, my friends, my countrymen.

VAN AUKEN: I didn't understand that I needed to look at the bigger picture.

BREITWEISER: I've turned into a very disenchanted, fully awake, no longer naïve person, who's extremely driven.

ZWERDLING: Mindy Kleinberg, Patty Casazza, Lori van Auken, Kristen Breitweiser. These women banded together after their husbands were killed, and now they're leading a campaign to find out exactly how did 9-11 happen? And exactly what's the government doing to prevent another attack?

A lot of people think, we already know what happened on 9-11. It's been all over the news, and beside, Congress just released this investigative report about it couple months ago.

But this country has barely begun to learn the truth about 9-11… that's what the women say. And they want to make sure we eventually hear it.

BREITWEISER: We have no expertise. But what we have is a passion, and a drive to right the wrongs. And to fix the problems. And to find the truth.

ZWERDLING: Mindy Kleinberg remembers the moment when she realized some people don't want the truth.

KLEINBERG: On September 12th, when I was still looking for my husband, thinking that he was gonna somehow come home, 100 airline lobbyists went to Washington, okay, and lobbied for them to be protected...against us.

ZWERDLING: Congress was about to pass a law that compensated victims' families … but it also severely restricted their rights to sue the airlines. People like Mindy Kleinberg worried that they might never be able to force the airlines to go to court, to disclose everything they knew about 9/11.

Leaders in Congress said, "Don't worry, we're going to investigate 9-11." So the women were stunned when President Bush convinced Congress to back off. He reportedly told congressional leaders that a sweeping investigation might distract from the government's war on terrorism.

As a result, the congressional investigation focused mainly on the FBI and CIA. They never examined what the airlines, or the immigration service, or the White House did or didn't do. Then the women heard that some frustrated legislators were trying to launch another, broader investigation. But the President and his allies in Congress were trying to block that. That's when the women got together and said, "Let's organize a protest in Washington."

BREITWEISER: We went to Home Depot because we knew we needed signs. And we are in the line, you know, the aisle of Home Depot handsawing slat of wood, which was very comical because we had all the people in Home Depot looking at us like we were maniacs because we were slicing up, you know, 50 slats of wood and really didn't know how to do it and no one was helping us.

ZWERDLING: Eventually they figured it out, and they held their rally in Washington. Hundreds of people showed up, including some U.S. Senators.

Kristin Breitweiser asked the whole country for support.

BREITWEISER: We need a full independent investigation. We must ask the tough questions and seek out the difficult answers. We must as a country grow and be made stronger and safer by the bitter lessons learned on September 11.

ZWERDLING: Mindy Kleinberg took to the podium too.

KLEINBERG: We are asking you America to stand behind us. Please, pick up the phone. Call your senators. Call your congressman. Tell them that you want to be safe. Tell them that you want an independent investigation.

ZWERDLING: Not long after that, the White House called. And the President's aides said they wanted to talk. In fact, the New Jersey women and a handful of other survivors had a series of meetings at the White House. Some were reportedly rather heated.

But in the end, President Bush changed his position. And Congress agreed to launch a new, independent commission to investigate 9-11. The commission is supposed to probe every corner of government and then recommend how it needs to change.

Tim Roemer is a member of this commission. He's a former democratic congressman. Roemer says the commission wouldn't exist if it weren't for the four New Jersey widows.

ROEMER: One of most influential things that they did for me was not only dig into facts and give me knowledge, but really inspire me. Both with their effort to move forward and say, "We're not giving up. We will never give up. We are going to make government be accountable and we are going to get answers."

ZWERDLING: Roemer was also part of the earlier congressional investigation.

ROEMER: One of the women, Kristen Breitweiser, was in my office. And she said to me, "Tim, we need you to be our prosecutor. We need you to not just ask the tough questions, but to knock down the doors." And she said, "I have a wedding ring," and she took it off her finger. And she handed it to me.

She said, "You hold this. Where do you think I got this?" And I said, "Maybe Ron gave that to you," and fumbled. I didn't know. And she said, "A couple months after 9/11 they found that ring that's in your hand. That's all I have left of my husband. And they found that ring on a finger. And I have a three year old. And I want to be able to tell her someday what happened to her father and what happened to the country."

That's what we're trying to do on this 9/11 commission.

ZWERDLING: But the New Jersey women figured they couldn't just trust that the commission would dig up the truth… so they started digging on their own.

They gathered mountains of information from the Internet and old newspapers. They took their binders to Washington. They met with members of Congress and spent days in hearings. They compared what different officials said, and began to find discrepancies and contradictions.

For instance: government officials say they can't establish an exact timeline for the events on 9-11. They can't even confirm exactly what time each plane was hijacked… or exactly what time they learned that the planes were hijacked.

KLEINBERG: I sat in that hearing, and a Lieutenant Colonel at NORAD is saying that, "You know, the times in the log book that we have written down might not be the exact time that the event happened. It could have just been when the person went and logged it in."

And I'm thinking, This is the military. Aren't these the guys that say "0-eight-hundred," and you know, have everything to the second? And you know, is that not what we know about them?

And now you have this catastrophic event, and you got a call in about a hijacking, and it didn't get logged at the exact time? I mean, it doesn't make common sense.

ZWERDLING: The women found government documents that spell out exactly what officials are supposed to do the moment that a plane goes off course or cuts off its signals to ground control… or does anything unexpected. And they read that NORAD sent up fighter jets dozens of times in the year before the attack to check out erratic aircraft. So the women wondered, what happened on 9-11?

BREITWEISER: On the morning of September 11th we had four planes drastically off their flight path transponders disconnected and the FAA procedure and protocol to notify NORAD and for NORAD to scramble fighter jets were not followed. And it wasn't like they all happened in the course of an hour. What I think is very frustrating is looking back when I speak to people they say, "Well it happened in such a short span of time."

It did not happen. It happened over the course of two hours. You're telling me over the course of two hours Andrews Air Force Base in the Washington, DC area which houses F-16s which fly cover for Air Force One could not get a plane up in the air to cover the Pentagon?

ZWERDLING: The more the women searched for answers, the more they learned how the system works. For instance, the more you appear in the media, the more the world comes to you.

BREITWEISER: Because of our work being reported in the papers we had people reaching out to us. We met with an air traffic controller from Newark who flat out said to us, "Look, you know. I don't know what happened. All he could tell us is that the FBI showed up, took all of their files, all of their recordings, and walked out.

ZWERDLING: So the women decided to go to the top. They and other survivors met with the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller.

The way Breitweiser tells the story, Mueller started showing them a PowerPoint presentation. She cut to the chase.

BREITWEISER: And we said, "Director Mueller, you are our chief investigator. We have information that you have come in, and taken these files, taken these recordings. We'd like to know what you learned from them, we'd like to know where you are in your investigation."

ZWERDLING: So all four of you and other family members are meeting with the Director of the FBI?

WOMEN: Right.

ZWERDLING: And were you… I mean you're sounding very tough and forceful right now. Were you really talking to the FBI Director like this?

WOMEN: Yes.

ZWERDLING: Of course, the whole country's learned since 9-11 about those FBI agents in Phoenix and Minneapolis. They warned months before 9-11 that suspicious Middle Eastern men were taking flight training, including Zacarias Moussaoui, and the agents warned that maybe they were terrorists planning an attack.

Kristen Breitweiser says she wanted the FBI to clearly explain: how could you have failed to put the pieces together?

BREITWEISER: I'm sitting there with a FBI agent who is very high up. Not the director, but nonetheless very high up in the FBI.

And I said to him, "I don't understand. You have the Phoenix memo. You have Zacarias Moussaoui in custody.

"You had actually been to the flight school that you picked up Zacarias Moussaoui at four or five times before to investigate other individuals. One of those individuals who happened to be a pilot for Osama bin Laden himself. And you had the Phoenix memo alerting you to the interest that these Middle Eastern men had in flight schools. How is it that you didn't find them prior to 9/11?"

So this agent says to me, "Do you know how many flight schools there are in America? Thousands. Do you know how many ground instructors there are? Thousands. And you expected us to go to every single flight school to find these handful of men?"

And I'm like, "Well, honestly, yes." So then I'm like, "Okay, fine. I'll give you that. I'll give you that you couldn't have hit every flight school." I'm like, "Okay, fine."

"Well, how is it that if there's thousands of flight schools and you could never have found them, how is it that you went to Embry Riddle flight school in Daytona Beach, Florida, hours after the attacks? If there's thousands of flight schools, how did you just happen to go to that one exact, perfect school that some of the hijackers went to. How'd you know to go to that school?

And he just looked at me and goes, "We got lucky."

ZWERDLING: Breitweiser suspects that the FBI was actually following the terrorists before 9-11. FBI officials deny that. But the congressional investigation discovered that some U.S. intelligence officials did have crucial information about Al-Qaeda and its plots years before 9/11. They even knew that terrorists might be plotting to use airplanes as weapons.

For instance, in 1995, intelligence officials learned that Al-Qaeda planned to crash a plane into CIA headquarters. In 1998, they got warnings that terrorists planned to crash a plane into the World Trade Center. In the spring of 2000, the CIA knew that an Al-Qaeda operative had moved from Malaysia to California, and that another had a visa to come to the United States. Those two would later hijack the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. And just a month before the 9-11 attacks, President Bush himself learned at a briefing that Al-Qaeda might have plans to hijack commercial airliners.

CASAZZA: If you watch these televised press reports — and this is something that also angered us early on — is you have Condoleeza Rice saying, "We could never have anticipated planes being used as bombs."

RICE: I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center. Take another one and slam it into the Pentagon.

BREITWEISER: If you reach a certain level in the government or in private industry or anywhere, incompetence should not fly. If you are incompetent in any facet of your job, you should no longer be there.

And I don't understand why that feeling is not passed on in Washington. I don't understand how George Tenet could still have his job. I don't understand how Robert Mueller could still have his job. I don't understand how Condoleeza Rice could still have her job.

ZWERDLING: Why?

BREITWEISER: Why? Because they completely and utterly failed.

ZWERDLING: The New Jersey women say they're getting skeptical that the 9-11 commission can do its job. The commission is supposed to dig up all the facts but the commission's chairman has complained publicly that Bush administration officials aren't cooperating. They're not turning over key documents. The White House won't let the commission interview government employees unless there's a "minder" in the room.

Meanwhile, the women keep asking more questions that they want the commission to resolve.

ZWERDLING: Can you think of any moments when the women said to you, "We've just researched something, and look at this. Look at this, Congressman Roemer." And you said to yourself, "Wow, I didn't know that."

ROEMER: That happens on pretty much a weekly basis. They're always telling me, "We need you to kick down the doors. To be responsible. To be our prosecutor. And get at the facts."

ZWERDLING: These women are a little bit direct.

ROEMER: They are aggressive. They are knowledgeable. They are well-informed. And you need to be to get the kind of answers that we must have to make this country a safer place.

ZWERDLING: The women's crusade began in the aisles of home depot. And it moved to the White House. They started by examining the past, but now they're also looking to the future. When will the Bush administration give ports the money they need, for inspections? When will the White House and Congress reorganize the intelligence agencies? And what about America's relationships with the rest of the world?

BREITWEISER: Before 9/11, you know, my husband and I had the Wall Street Journal, Barron's and the New York Times delivered to the house. And I would open the New York Times, and I would skip the first… I'd read the front page. And I'd skip the next three pages.

And those three pages were about the Middle East. And, or you know, the Soviet bloc, or you know? I never read them. And I never read them because I never thought it mattered. And ironically enough, my husband was killed by Middle Eastern terrorists. And I think to myself, my God, I should have read those stupid pages. I should have known who Osama Bin Laden was. I should have known the name Al-Qaeda.

And I think that really for me, that's a wake up call.

VAN AUKEN: I thought democracy just worked. And I learned that it doesn't go like that. That if you want to live in this great country of ours, with our fabulous democracy, and our Constitution, and, you know, our different rights. Freedom of speech, and all the things that we take for granted, you have to fight for those things.


ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS:

GROUP: Heavenly Father, we just thank you for this day, Lord…

ANNOUNCER: Religious groups are getting your tax dollars to run government programs for the needy.

JARAMILLO: We don't want to drag them to church. We don't want to win them to Christ. We just want them to have the tools they need.

ANNOUNCER: But do vulnerable people, who need help the most, feel pressured to join in? The price of help, next week on NOW.


ANNOUNCER: And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online at pbs.org.

Join the debate about big money in politics. Is it drowning out your voice in Washington?

More on the world according to George Soros.

15 critical questions the 9/11 widows say the FBI and CIA have yet to answer.

Connect to NOW at pbs.org.


BRANCACCIO: That's it for NOW. Bill Moyers will be here next week. I'm David Brancaccio. Good night.


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