[Broadcast 17 May] The Politics of September 11

In 1994, there was a Christmas attempt in France to slam a civilian airliner into the Eiffel Tower. The French foiled that terrorist plot. In 1996 we discovered in Manila a hijacking plot from al Qaeda to simultaneously hijack 11 U.S. airliners and crash them into buildings including the CIA headquarters in Washington. There are several other examples of government reports of possible airline attacks associated with Ossama bin Laden the last several years. Some of the authors specifically cited al Qaeda involvement in a possible terror attacks in which a jet could crash into the Pentagon, headquarters of the CIA or the White House. Yet Condi Rice says "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the WTC..." Why is the administration telling us something that's factually false?

ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE, on the left, James Carville and Paul Begala. On the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson. In the "Crossfire" tonight, he didn't know before September 11th, but he does know Washington.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's the kind of place where second-guessing has become second nature.

ANNOUNCER: Today a second helping.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First we need to find out who knew what, and when they knew it.

ANNOUNCER: Could anyone have stopped September 11th? In the "Crossfire" the White House, the FBI, plus the spin or is it damage control?

Ahead on CROSSFIRE. From the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Robert Novak.

ROBERT NOVAK, HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. We're coming to you from the George Washington University. How much longer will it take for the conspiracy theorists and political hacks to realize this so- called hijacking story just doesn't have any wings. While the Democrats were noisily running their engines again today, President Bush calmly stated the obvious.

BUSH: The American people know this about me and my national security team and my administration. Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people.

NOVAK: In the "Crossfire" tonight, why an FBI agent's concerns about Arab flight students never got passed up the bureau's chain of command. We'll also take aim at Washington's spin game, but first the war of words. In the "Crossfire" Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler and Republican Congressman Peter King. Both are from New York and they're in New York tonight.

PAUL BEGALA, HOST: Congressman King, thank you very much for joining us. First, I don't know if I've done this. I want to congratulate you on your political novel here, "Deliver Us From Evil". It's terrific read and unfortunately tonight we're talking about real evil, not fictional evil. But you bring a unique perspective as a member of Congress, but also somebody's who had to dream up scenarios for your novels.

I want to play, if you'd listen carefully please, a piece of videotape from Dr. Condoleezza Rice, our National Security Adviser yesterday and then ask you to respond.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NAT'L SECURITY ADVISER: 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, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking.

BEGALA: Congressman, the problem with that is, with all due respect to Dr. Rice it's factually false. In 1994, there was a Christmas attempt in France to slam a civilian airliner into the Eiffel Tower. The French foiled that terrorist plot. In 1996 we discovered in Manila a hijacking plot from al Qaeda to simultaneously hijack 11 U.S. airliners and crash them into buildings including the CIA headquarters in Washington. In 1998 "Time" Magazine reported that bin Laden planned to strike Washington, D.C. and New York, and in 1999, a widely distributed government study said the following, let me read it to you.

The prospect of an attack involving planes crashing into buildings is raised in a 1999 interagency U.S. government study compiled by the Library of Congress and shared with various governmental agencies. The author specifically cited al Qaeda involvement in a terror attack in which a jet could crash into the Pentagon, headquarters of the CIA or the White House. Why is the administration telling us something that's factually false sir?

REP. PETER KING, (R), NEW YORK: No it's not factually false. Paul, what she's saying - what Dr. Rice is saying quite clearly is that nothing in the report that was submitted to the president on August 6th indicated that type of hijacking nor was there any real emphasis given on the question of hijacking. There was any number of things that al Qaeda could have done. There was no reason to think that between August 6th and September 11th that any hijacking of a plane, which would crash into a building would take place.

(UNINTELLIGIBLE) you mention a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) report back in 1999. I'm not aware of President Clinton or his administration taking any specific action to prevent planes from crashing into buildings at that time. This was one of many possibilities including the blowing up of subways, buildings you know, attacking dams, bridges, we go down the whole list. So I think what she's saying is that nothing that was told to the president on August 6th should have put him on notice that something was imminent involving specific hijacking.

And if I could just say, what - I think the real issues here, I think there was a failure in intelligence. I think the FBI and the CIA should both be criticized for not working with one another, and being more interested in protecting their own turf, I believe, especially the FBI rather than serving the national interests. But I think what's wrong about this is an implication that somehow President Bush knew something and didn't follow through, and I think what Mr. Gephardt said yesterday - Dick Gephardt, using Watergate type language in his reference to President Bush, which really intones criminality, that really went over the edge, and that's what's wrong.

NOVAK: Congressman Nadler, you're shaking your head. Do you want to say something? You want to respond to your colleague?

REP. JERROLD NADLER, (D), NEW YORK: Well I don't think that what Dick Gephardt said was intended to use Watergate type language and imply criminality, but those are key questions, and I don't know how to avoid using those terms. What did the president know? When did he know it? Forget Watergate, and what, if anything, did he do about it or should he have done about it? Those are our questions.


NOVAK: All right, Mr. Nadler ...


NADLER: Let me just say that we have seen a report that on August 6th he was told there might be hijacking. Now forget the question of hijacking into buildings. There might be hijackings. One would think that the administration should have alerted the airlines to be particularly alert. Did they? I don't know.

NOVAK: Now what's very interesting is that I saw -- you made a statement saying that if he didn't alert the airlines, he would be guilty of misfeasance, is that the word you used, in office?

NADLER: Nonfeasance ...

NOVAK: Nonfeasance in office.


NADLER: What I said was ...


NOVAK: Now just a minute ...


NOVAK: ... just a minute.


NOVAK: ... just a minute. Let me ask the question, please, Mr. Nadler. Now, as a matter of fact, that he did, that the government did alert the airlines, don't you think you ought to have your facts straight before you're accusing the president of these crimes, because the airlines were alerted.

NADLER: Fine I wasn't accusing the president of anything. I was asked the question, and I said specifically we don't know the facts.


NOVAK: Then why are you bringing up again tonight the question of not alerting the airlines when they were alerted.

NADLER: Well I don't know if they were. If they were, that's fine. All I said ...

NOVAK: Well they were.

NADLER: Well, I don't know that.


NADLER: If you're saying -- excuse me, if you're saying they were, fine. All I said yesterday, and I'll say it today gain, if the president was told there might be a hijacking, and then they certainly should have alerted the airlines, and if they did, fine, if they didn't, that would be a terrible failure.


NOVAK: I mean, I don't understand, you can say if the president was a an ax murderer, it would be a terrible thing. How can you bring up hypotheticals, which you know are not true when the fact of the matter is that the airlines have said they were alerted, that the Federal Aviation Agency alerted them. Why do you bring up a hypothetical like that?


NADLER: Well first of all, because I was asked this yesterday morning and I wasn't aware of any of those facts, and if you're saying that the airlines have said that, they said it today, because as of the papers I read this morning, I didn't see that. And all I said was, we have to get to the bottom and find out what the facts are.


NADLER: The facts are that they - that they did alert the airlines, then that's fine.

BEGALA: Well in fact, Congressman King, why not get to the bottom of the facts? I am perfectly open to the conclusion, in fact I think the president should be given every benefit of the doubt, having worked for a president, I know how hard that job is. I'm not ready to judge in a negative way his conduct before September 11th, let me be really clear about that. I think we should get all the facts and certainly I would expect the White House to cooperate in that.

But I have a big concern with how they've conducted themselves after September 11th. What reason could they possibly have for hiding from the American people for eight months the fact that Bush got this briefing, except for politics, to cover their posterior? KING: No first, I don't think they were hiding it at all. I mean there's nothing new in that memo. I mean last summer the Department of Transportation put on its Web site saying that al Qaeda and bin Laden could hijack planes. So this was not something that, you know, came out of nowhere. This was one of many possibilities that's always been discussed. To me there's probably thousands of documents, there's been many, many briefings, and it was based on those that the president did put a game plan into action, which was prepared. Now it was prepared on September 10th, but the ...


KING: ... the beauty of that was ...


KING: ... the president was ready to - was ready to respond and he wasn't caught short.

BEGALA: OK, we're going to have to take a quick break, but both of our congressmen stay put. We're going to come back to you with a lot more questions, believe me and I do providing answers, but we will be right back in just a minute.

In the headlines in today's "New York Post", thought is a great one, a classic, and it's got the White House crying bow (ph). The White House press secretary even went so far as to call the paper's editors, then he attacked Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for even mentioning the headline in a very moderate, respectful speech on the Senate floor. Is the White House perhaps, maybe getting a little bit touchy? Since when is it wrong for a New York senator to mention a New York newspaper. Our two New York congressmen will be back to debate that and much more.

And then later, speaking of missed clues, why did an FBI agent's warning get buried in the FBI bureaucracy? Stay with us.


NOVAK: Welcome back to the George Washington University campus. We're looking at the sanctimonious second-guessing about the Bush administration's handling of last year's vague, general threats of possible terrorism.

In the "Crossfire" two congressmen from New York, Democrat Jerrold Nadler and Republican Peter King. Congressman Nadler you have been up front in supporting and coming out as a spokesman for national security policy in the Democratic party and we're very glad that you're with us tonight.

But I'm going to play a little game called, remember the old show, "This Is Your Life", we're going to play, "This Is Your Record" Jerrold Nadler for cutting defense spending four times, against increased defense spending, seven times, for cutting military equipment, three times. That's 14 votes against defense, for cutting the intelligence budget, six times, for disclosing military intelligence, three times, against health care benefit increases for servicemen, one time, against an increased border patrol, two times.

In all due respect, sir, haven't you disqualified yourself to speak on national security when you're voting that way?

NADLER: Well, two things, first, I'm not a major Democratic Party spokesman on national defense. But second of all, no, I don't think so, and I think those are distortions of the votes. I voted against having the army control the border. I voted in favor of having increased border patrol, for example, and I have voted against the fact that our military budget still has huge numbers of tanks and troops in Europe to prevent - to fight against nonexistent Soviet tank invasions of western Europe. I think we should be spending more on other kinds of defense and less on that kind of waste.

And I don't think it has anything to do with what we're talking about here. For example, here it wasn't the question if there was a failure of intelligence. It wasn't that we didn't have enough resources. It was that we didn't analyze properly or understand the importance of the information we had.

BEGALA: Congressman King, I don't know if you saw Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary's briefing today, but he did a rather astonishing thing. From the podium at the White House he publicly attacked a Democratic Senator, Dianne Feinstein. He -- in fact, suggested, he implied that Senator Feinstein, who had for many months before September 11th raised questions about our preparation against a terrorist attack.

He suggested that perhaps maybe she knew and didn't do proper diligence to warn the government. I want to read you Senator Feinstein's response. She said, "despite repeated efforts by myself and staff, the White House did not address my request. The request is to do more against terrorism. I followed this up in September 2001 and was told my "Scooter" Libby, the chief of staff for the vice president, that it might be another six months before he would be able to review this material. I told him I did not believe we had to wait six months". Why in the world is the White House attacking Dianne Feinstein?

KING: I think part of it was response to what Dick Gephardt said yesterday, you know, using the Watergate analogy. I happen to think Senator Feinstein is a good senator, but also the fact is that the White House was acting in the war against terrorism. The fact that there was a plan on the president's desk, which he was able to implement and go ...


BEGALA: But they did tell Dianne Feinstein to wait six months and now they're attacking her.


KING: I would just say, listen there were attacks by Democrats yesterday, the Republicans are firing back today. And I just wish we could get away from that because I think the real issue here ... NOVAK: I just want to say one thing, in all candor Ari Fleischer did not attack Dianne Feinstein. All he said, he was praising her, that -- said that three months before the attack on September 11th, she knew that there was going to be a terrorist attack, and just ...


BEGALA: He also implied that she should have done something. And she did -- she went down to the White House ...


BEGALA: ...and they told her to sit still for six months.


NOVAK: What you're interested in, and what your people are interested in...

DEE DEE MYERS: Tell me Bob, what am I interested in?

NOVAK: And tell me if I'm wrong. You're interesting in cutting down George W. Bush, who has these high ratings, and having some effect on the 2002 election.

MYERS: No, I think what I'm actually interested in, and what my Democratic friends that I've been talking to, and even my Republican friends that I've been talking to today, are interested in is understanding how this happened, who knew what when, why this information didn't get shared? Many of the same things you claim to be interested in.

What the White House does in these situations, though, is they say oh, you can't ask these questions. If you ask these questions, you're unpatriotic. And they try to push back the questioners. This has worked really well on domestic issues up to this point. It is not going to work on this. The American public wants and deserves answers to this. What the administration should be doing is saying you're right, these are good questions, let's get to the bottom of them. They should get out in front of this parade.

BEGALA: In fact, Ron, I think there's two very different inquiries. First, the inquiries into what was or was not done before September 11. We don't have the facts yet. And I do think it's wrong for anybody in either party to prejudge the president. He should be given the benefit of every doubt on this. But after September 11, I think his conduct is obviously wrong. And it's a strategy we've seen before from them.

In the campaign, Governor Bush was asked if he'd ever been arrested, except for a college prank. He said no. Turned out yes, he'd been convicted of drunk driving. He then, after September 11, sent his minions out to spin falsehood about Air Force One under being attack. This is not a good strategy, is it, to hide, deny and lie?

RON KAUFMAN, FMR. ADVISER TO PRES. GOERGE H.W. BUSH: Well, first of all, Dee Dee is an expert at spinning these things. She had to do it so many times when she was in the White House.

BEGALA: As did you for your president. That's why you're here. You're an expert.

KAUFMAN: Well, we're not in trouble. That's the whole thing. Listen I tell you what...

BEGALA: But they are...

KAUFMAN: I'd love, Paul, for this issue to be talked about every day from now until November 5, and let's let the American people decide whether the president is right on this issue, and whether you know, whether he's not. And as long as the Democrats want to keep berating the president, and denigrating Condi Rice, and denigrating Colin Powell, and denigrating Dick Cheney, it's fine. And we'll do it every single day. And I'd love to come back tomorrow and do the same thing, the day after, the day after...

BEGALA: You and I have a community of interest, Ron. You and I agree. No, but let me ask you this...

KAUFMAN: By November, let me finish, right, by November, after the election, when the new Senate majority leader Trent Lott, and newly elected -- re-elected Speaker Hastert, and new Governor Romney from Massachusetts, and new Governor Simon from California, when they're all re-elected because of this issue, I'll be very happy.

BEGALA: Well, let me ask you this. What reason, after September 11 again, not before, after September 11, the White House gave voluminous leaks to "The Washington Post" about how strong and brave and wise and kind they'd all been. Somehow they left this fact out. Why would they tell us the fact that Bush had been briefed on August 6 about potential hijacking? What reason could they have to hide it from the American people, except politics, Ron?


NOVAK: I don't know if you know what you're talking about, Dee Dee. Did you know that they were relying on material from 1999 and 2000, that talked about the hijacking? That was what this information was.

MYERS: Yes, of course I do. But the fact that it was in response to a request from the president by what al Qaeda was up to, I do happen, Bob, to know what I'm talking about. I think it's relevant. And I think the press and the American public think it's relevant. One point I want to make. Where are the Democrats attacking the president? I haven't seen one single Democrat or Republican attack the president or Condoleezza Rice, for that matter.

NOVAK: That's extremely clever, Dee Dee.

MYERS: It's not. You got the board...

NOVAK: Now what you're saying is what did he know and when did he know it, going back to Watergate days.

MYERS: And then they're saying not one person...

NOVAK: Just a minute, wait a minute. You're implying that the president knew something that happened that didn't happen.

MYERS: I don't think -- no.

NOVAK: I've used the word three times. I'll use it a fourth time. That's reprehensible, isn't it?

MYERS: Well, it would be reprehensible. What they're saying is, there's not one person who said they don't believe that had George Bush known specifically something like 9/11 was going to happen, he would have done everything in his power to stop it. Every single Democrat has made that point. Every single Democrat I've spoken to believes that in his or her heart. So to try to make this into Democrats attacking the president is nonsense. It's a non sequitur and it's not going to play.

KAUFMAN: That's not true.

MYERS: It is true, Ron.

...BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. The White House is in full damage control mode. Today, they pulled out their biggest gun, the president himself, in attempt to spin away the growing controversy surrounding the blockbuster revelation this week that George W. Bush had been briefed about possible al Qaeda hijackings before September 11. But he never told the American people about that briefing for eight long months. Indeed, never acknowledged it until it was leaked this week.

But has the White House damage control done more harm than good? In the crossfire, Ron Kaufman, Republican National Committeeman and a political adviser to President Bush's father, and former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers.

Mr. Kaufman, in addition to the president, they brought out another big gun last night, Dick Cheney, who gave a speech that I want to show you a clip of. And I hope the whole country sees it, because it's Cheney at his worst. Take a look.


DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Basically what I want to say to my Democratic friends in the Congress is that they need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions, as were made by some today that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9/11.

Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war.


BEGALA: Ron, do we really need lectures about patriotism from a man who two years ago was trading with Iran, Iraq and Libya?

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