Tue Apr 6 02:42:33 2004


MR. RUSSERT: Congressman, you think September 11th could have been prevented?

MR. HAMILTON: Well, there's a lot of ifs. You can string together a whole bunch of ifs. And if things had broken right in all kinds of different ways, as the governor has identified, and many more, and, frankly, if you'd had a little luck, it probably could have been prevented. But we'll make a final judgment on that, I believe, when the commission reports.

MR. RUSSERT: The widows and widowers of the victims of September 11 have been a driving force in the creation of this commission and its investigation. Kristen Breitweiser testified in September of 2002 and posed some questions. And I'd like to play her testimony and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape, September 18, 2002):

MS. KRISTEN BREITWEISER (9/11 Widow): One thing remains clear from this history. Our intelligence agencies were acutely aware of an impending domestic risk posed by al-Qaeda. A question that remains unclear is how many lives could have been saved had this information been made more public. How many victims may have taken notice of these Middle Eastern men while they were boarding their plane? Could these men have been stopped? Could the devastation of September 11 been diminished in any degree had the government's information been made public in the summer of 2001?

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: That was before the Congressional Joint Inquiry. Her question: Should the information that the government knew and heard in those July briefings, when the government was put on full alert, vacations being canceled--should that information have been shared with the American people?

MR. KEAN: Well, there was an awful lot of information there that was somewhere in the bureaucracy. It hadn't even reached the highest levels of the administration yet and didn't before September 11, and that's one of the problems: a lack of coordination both between intelligence agencies and actually a lack of coordination inside the FBI. That was one of the major problems. But I'll say about Kristen and the rest of those families, that those kind of questions and a number of other questions they've given the commission have been extraordinarily helpful. And we don't have a hearing that we don't get questions from the families that we as commissioners can pose to witnesses that are helpful to our work.

Mr. HAMILTON: There's a...

MR. RUSSERT: Should the American people have known more?

MR. HAMILTON: Well, of course they should have known, in retrospect; no doubt about it. But there's a huge gap between just saying to the American people, "We've got a big threat out there, al-Qaeda's coming after us," and saying, "It's coming after a certain airplane at a certain airport on a certain day." In other words, the officials constantly want, understandably, what they call actionable intelligence. That is intelligence on which you can act. So moving from a general threat to a very specific threat is the toughest part of intelligence. And what we got through the summer of 2001 was general intelligence, quite a bit of it. Clearly something was afoot. But moving then to specific targets is a huge jump in the intelligence business, and we have not yet perfected that.

MR. RUSSERT: And it should be said, those of us in the media did not focus on al-Qaeda in the summer of 2001. In fact, in the 2000 presidential election, I believe terrorism was mentioned twice in the presidential debates. So everyone had a much different mind-set pre-September 11.

MR. HAMILTON: And it's very important that the commission keep that in mind. That is to say, we have to try to put ourselves into the place of the policy-maker back then facing not one, but dozens of threats at that time, and try to understand whether or not they acted reasonably under those circumstances; not the circumstances now, when we're looking back, and it's so very clear.

MR. KEAN: One of the things, by the way, we're looking at is congressional oversight, and just to add to what you said, there were no hearings from the congressional intelligence committees on terrorism for a long time. I mean, it just--for the nation as a whole, we didn't have it on our plate. We weren't looking at it. We weren't looking at it the way we should.

MR. RUSSERT: When Mr. Osama bin Laden left Sudan, refueled in Qatar before he went to Afghanistan, there seem to have been several opportunities for us to snatch him at that time.

MR. KEAN: Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: But we seemed reluctant because we did not have the legal basis to do such. In hindsight, will you be asking former President Clinton, former Vice President Gore, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, about those opportunities?

MR. KEAN: Yeah. We'll be looking at all those opportunities. Not only those, but when we actually saw bin Laden on the ground, using the Predator or other means, did we have what they called, the congressman, actionable intelligence? Should we have sent a cruise missile into a site where he was at that point? I think those early opportunities are clear. We had him. We saw him. I think maybe we could have done something about it. Later on, it's a little bit fuzzier. I mean, the decision of whether to take--nobody wanted to invade Afghanistan at that point. American people probably wouldn't have stood for it. But could we have sent a team in? Could we have sent a cruise missile in? Could we have gotten him and his leadership at some point? That's a very important question the commission's going to be addressing.

MR. HAMILTON: And a very tough capability, I might say. It's very easy to see a television monitor showing a shadowy figure that looks like Osama bin Laden--not for sure, but looks like him--and say, "OK, we've got to knock that fellow out." You may even, if you have actionable intelligence, bringing the operational capabilities there quickly while he's still there, within a matter of hours, a lot harder than it looks when you're talking about a country 10,000 miles from here.

MR. RUSSERT: Some of the widows have raised a very sensitive issue. This was in Joe Conason's column. It's along--"The widows are watching." "What troubles them most at the
moment is the role of Philip Zelikow, the commission's executive director. During the first Bush administration he served on the National Security Council staff, happens to be a longtime confidant, collaborator and friend of Condoleezza Rice, with whom he authored a book on German reunification in '95 and whom he advised on the restructuring of the National Security Council during the Bush transition in 2000. Richard Clarke has testified that, as a member of the Bush transition team, Zelikow had been extensively brief on al-Qaeda terrorism by the outgoing Clinton national security officials. When the widows learned of that and of his presence at the terrorism briefings, they were `outraged.'

`As executive director, he has pretty much the most important job on the commission,' said, Mindy Kleinberg," who's a widow of one of the victims of 9/11. "`He hires the staff, he sets the direction and focus, he chooses witnesses at the hearings.' She and her friends fear that even with the best of intentions, Zelikow's connections to the Bush White House will `taint the validity' of the commission's final report." Mr. Chairman?

MR. KEAN: He was part of the transition team for a month. Because he was one of the best
experts on terrorism in the whole area of intelligence in the entire country, the same--they asked him to help the same reason we asked him to help. We haven't found, I think, either Vice Chairman Hamilton or myself, any evidence to indicate in any way that he's partial to anybody or anything. In fact, he's been much tougher, I think, than a lot of people would have liked him to be. In addition, he's recused himself under the standards we all set for ourselves. Anything any commissioner or staff member has been involved in before, they've taken themselves out of that part of the investigation. He's taken himself out of the investigation involving the whole transition. I understand what they've said. Respectfully, I would disagree. I think Phil Zelikow is the best possible person we could have found for the job.

MR. HAMILTON: I fully agree with the governor. He's a very serious scholar. He knows this field. He's played it right down the line. I found no evidence of a conflict of interest of any kind, and I do not think his management of the staff will taint the report. Indeed, I think it'll let him prove the report.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Governor Kean, you on Tuesday said this: "The earlier we finish it," the report, "the earlier we're going to submit it to the White House. We believe that they will expedite the process for clearing it so we can get it out to the public."

I think many people are surprised that an independent commission has to submit your findings, your report, to the White House for vetting before it's released to the public. How can that be considered independent?

MR. KEAN: I was surprised, too. I come from outside of Washington. A lot of things have surprised me in this commission. But that did. But anytime you're dealing with any kind of intelligence, even if you write a memoir after you've served in government, you've got to submit that to the same process. And they go through it line by line to find out if there's anything in there which could harm American interests in the area of intelligence.

MR. RUSSERT: Who? Who goes through it?

MR. KEAN: I gather it's a team from--involving FBI, CIA people, but under the direction of the White House, because the president is, after all, in charge of all those areas.

MR. RUSSERT: Does that trouble you?

MR. HAMILTON: It's the law. It's troubled me for many years because I come from the legislative branch. But the fact of the matter is, under our system of government, the president of the United States controls classified information. There is a procedure in the Congress by which you can declassify, but I'm not sure it's ever been used. So we have to abide by the law. Now, we're not going to let them distort our report. We understand that this has to go through them and we already have in place a process by which this will be done. We're going to roll these chapters out and give them to the White House. But I don't think the White House here is going to make a judgment about the report. What they're going to make a judgment about is whether this line or that line may reveal sources and methods or something of that kind.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, you remember when the congressional joint inquiry report was submitted to the White House in December of 2002, it was not made public until July of '03. If you submit your report in July of 2002, can you guarantee the American people that they will see it and read it before the November election, 2004?

MR. KEAN: I have no guarantees, but everybody is planning on that, including the White House. They've set up a special team under Andy Card which is going to look at the report in an expedited manner and try to get it out just as fast as possible. Nobody has any interest in having the report sitting around Washington during the election period and pieces of it leaking out. Nobody has an interest in this thing coming out in September or October in the middle of the election. So I think it's in the White House's interest, our interest, everybody's interest, to get this out in July, and I believe they will.

MR. RUSSERT: But you're absolutely convinced the American people will have the benefit of your report before the election?

MR. KEAN: That's my belief, yes.

MR. RUSSERT: And to your point, Congressman, as you know, the White House did not allow information regarding Saudi Arabia in the congressional joint inquiry to be published. It was all redacted. Why was that?

MR. HAMILTON: Well, I can't tell you why it was. I wasn't part of that process. But I hope we've learned from that and I think we have. We do not want to put out a report with heavy
redactions in it. We think a lot can be improved here by the manner in which you write the report, by the manner of consultation with the White House before the report goes in. And I
think we can work through this, but the chairman and I are very concerned about this. This
is one of the big remaining obstacles for us to get the report declassified.

MR. RUSSERT: The hijackers sent messages to some clerics in Saudi Arabia. If the White House comes back and says, "We can't jeopardize our relations with Saudi Arabia, we really can't make that public," how do you respond? Do you have a counterdocument you would present to the American people?

MR. HAMILTON: Well, there may be other ways we can word it which will get our point across. At the end of the day, we want to fulfill our mandate--tell the story of 9/11, make recommendations to the American people. We think we can do that and we're going to try our level best to make just as much public as we possibly can.

MR. RUSSERT: Before we go, Chairman Kean, do you think the American people will be surprised by a lot of what you've found?

MR. KEAN: Some of it, yes. I've been surprised by some of what we found, and I think, yeah, we will have things in our report on two ends--first, the report itself; secondly, the recommendations. We've got some very serious recommendations to make, and I think they'll be something of great value to the American people, also to hopefully make the country safer. We thank you both for your time and joining us and sharing your views. And I hope you'll come back in July with the report...

MR. KEAN: Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: ...in its full form and share with the American people.

MR. KEAN: All right.

MR. RUSSERT: Tom Kean, Lee Hamilton, thanks very much.

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