Will Dubya's September 11th photos be re-captioned with, "I was just trying to get out of harm's way?" or is that a more apt description of the recent White House terrorism warnings? Ari admits in the Washington Times that it was the latter. The Bush administration issued a spate of terror alerts in recent days to mute criticism that its national security team sat on intelligence warnings in the weeks before the September 11 attacks. The latests alerts were issued as a result of all the controversy that took place last week, said Bush spokesman Ari Fleicher.
[First aired May 22, 2002]
BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. It's time now for our quote of the day. When Republican Party fund raisers were selling a photo of President Bush on the phone during those terrible hours on September 11th they talked about the president's gritty determination. But President Bush himself painted a somewhat different picture during an interview with a German television reporter yesterday -- the first time Bush really opened up about what was going on, on that fateful day.
Bush told the reporter he thought about his family and about his determination to strike back but then he said this -- our quote of the day -- quote, "I was trying to get out of harm's way."
Bob, that's hardly gritty determination. Are they going to sell that caption with the photograph from the Republican Party?
NOVAK: Do you think with Memorial Day coming up you could take a brief holiday from Bush bashing?
BEGALA: Is this -- I'm quoting the President of the United States. What do you mean "bashing"? Is it bashing him to quote the president by his own words?
NOVAK: I guess the answer was no.
BEGALA: When you take a day off from bashing Clinton I'll take a day off from bashing Bush.
NOVAK: Have I said a word against President Clinton? He's history, man.
BEGALA: Well, be right back.
And last week the Bushs' were taking a lot of heat from their handling of terror hints. Now we're in a terror alert overkill some believe. Coming up -- is this all coincidence or is it scare tactics? But, first, a CNN news alert and a live update on the Chandra Levy investigation.
NOVAK: Are President Bush's critics trying to have things both ways? Last week, they were enraged that the Bush administration did not alert Americans to warnings of terrorist violence before September 11. Now after the administration has issued lots of warnings about vague nonspecific threats to New York landmarks and American interests overseas, some of those same critics are charging the administration is trying to scare us. Stepping into the crossfire are New York Democratic Congressmen Anthony Weiner and Arizona Republican Congressman J.D. Hayworth.
BEGALA: Congressman Hayworth, let me bring you to the topic we invited you to discuss tonight. It was good of you to join us in that breaking news analysis. But the topic that we wanted to talk about tonight is terror alerts. There is an astonishing front page story in "The Washington Times" today, a paper you will agree is certainly not liberal. It's the most conservative paper certainly in Washington, one of the most conservative in America.
The headline says this. "Terror alerts attributed to memo flap." And let me read you from "The Washington Times." "The Bush administration issued a spate of terror alerts in recent days to mute criticism that its national security team sat on intelligence warnings in the weeks before the September 11 attacks." The latest alerts were issued "as a result of all the controversy that took place last week," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. It seems to me an admission that they're issuing terror alerts for political reasons. Your response?
HAYWORTH: Oh, I don't agree with that, Paul. I think that as we look where we are on the calendar, the fact that the Memorial Day weekend is coming up, the fact that it will give way to Independence Day, the fact that we are seeing now increased chatter reminiscent of what we saw in the pre-September 11 days, I think all this comes together.
And I think you have to ask yourself, what political advantage would there be to suddenly announcing these things early and often? There's no political upside to any of this, because it's a situation where critics will try to have it both ways. And there is no political upside whatsoever, either to a lack of warnings or an abundance of them.
NOVAK: Mr. Weiner, there were warnings about New York City, about the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. Would you -- and I'm sure those are based on valid information. Would you have preferred that the government not issue those warnings?
WEINER: Listen, I think the administration's in a very difficult spot here. They have to calibrate what information they make public, what information they get into the hands of whom. I think thy misunderstood the criticism that was leveled of them in the last couple of weeks. The problem wasn't that the public told every shred of information. It's whether or not that information was making it into the hands of decisionmakers, so we can act accordingly.
I think we have to figure out a way to keep people on alert, but also not make a five-year-old concerned that they can't go out and play dodge ball in the school yard, because this is a high alert day. I think we have to find a way to make sure that when, you know, we aren't at such a constant state of alert, it's kind of like having a smoke detector that's constantly going off in your house, and you start ignoring it.
NOVAK: Well, Mr. Weiner, I don't think that was quite responsive of my question. Do you -- I just -- let me ask you again. Would you prefer that they did not issue those warnings and get people nervous? Do you think it would have been better if they kept that to themselves and just passed it on to the proper authorities who deal with terrorism?
WEINER: Well, I'm confident that police department in the city of New York, the mayor of the city of New York are notified of a that that may exist, that they can take appropriate steps. If it's appropriate to warn the public in a way that is helpful, something that they can do or not do to be safe, then that's appropriate. I'm not really exactly what it was that the -- that the average New Yorker was supposed to do, beyond stay away from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statute of Liberty.
I'm not sure what value those warnings had. I'm sure they had value to the New York City police department, and that they responded accordingly. Going beyond that, we risk the chance that all the chatter that Mr. Hayworth talks about becomes the backdrop for a constant alert. And al Qaeda isn't running scared. Just we are.
BEGALA: Congressman Hayworth, let me rise to the challenge. When you answered my first question, you said well, there could be no political advantage in this. And let suggest one. Condoleezza Rice, the president's National Security adviser, briefed the press on Thursday of last week. You remember there was an enormous imbroglio about the fact that President Bush had received a briefing on August 5 that suggested that al Qaeda was capable of hijacking an American airliner here domestically.
There was a huge fallout from that. And Ms. Rice briefed the press for quite a long time and never, never mentioned any of these terrorist alerts. When did they hit the paper? The morning that Ms. Rice and Vice President Cheney wanted to change the story when they went on the Sunday news shows. And clearly, this is what "The Washington Times" is reporting today is true, and even the president's spokesman says yes, we issued it because we were getting pounded by the press. I think that's a poor reason to be issuing terror alerts. Don't you?
HAYWORTH: No, but again, Paul, it comes back to the notion of how does this create some political advantage? Because it gets us back to the same dilemma.
BEGALA: Because it gets the story with respect, sir, it gets the story off what Bush knew and when he knew it, whether he responded properly to the August 6 briefing or not. And onto quite rightly, whether our lives are at risk today. That's what I think the benefit to the Bush administration of this story is.
HAYWORTH: No, I think what has happened is actually you saw the change in focus, not so much from the administration, but from Democratic leader Gephardt, who certainly revised his statements drastically Sunday in the wake of overnight polling, which showed the accusations and the use of language, what did the president know, when did he know it, just was not flying with the American people.
So the political dimension was really on the other side. Now what we need to do with this challenge in the format...
BEGALA: Well, is Fleischer lying when he says we did it, because was Fleischer lying when he said it, that's why he did, as a result of the controversy last week?
NOVAK: Mr. Weiner, do you think Paul Begala is correct that this -- these alerts, alerting the whole great city of New York, all these things were done just to get Paul Begala and James Carville off the president's back, because they were the people that were making the most noise about it?
WEINER: Well, Bob, there was an element of this, oh, we didn't tell you enough. Now we're going to tell you every day the apocalyptic vision of the day. Look, I don't know. I think that this is a difficult line the administration has to walk. I know that if they believe that there are changes that we should make in our behavior, they should certainly let us know.
There's an intermediate level though. They can notify law enforcement. They can take precautionary steps. Just about every day, pre-9/11, when New York City was getting a visit from some foreign dignitary, the New York City police department had a plan that they put into effect to protect against terrorism. Were we notified every day of the week that we were under threat? No. I'm a little bit concerned that I don't want to be getting calls like the one I got today from a school principal saying, hey listen, is it OK for me to have kids play outside today? I don't think anyone is well served by that.
NOVAK: OK, we're going to have to take a break. And when we come back, we'll ask our guests whether George Bush has screwed up the war on terrorism. Later in our fireback e-mail, which CROSSFIRE host is the most obnoxious? You'll find out.
NOVAK: Welcome back. When it comes to terrorism alerts, the Bush administration seems to be damned if it does, and damned if it doesn't. In the crossfire, New York Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner and Arizona Republican Congressman J.D. Hayworth. Mr. Weiner, the question of whether the president is doing a good job on the war of terrorism, I give you the jury of the American people as questioned by the CBS News poll this past week. Bush job on the war on terrorism. approve, 74 percent, disapprove, 19 percent.
Congressman, even in your safe district, I don't think you get 74 percent of the vote. That's pretty good, isn't it?
WEINER: Take it easy, will you? I can tell you I'm in the camp that thinks that he's doing a good job prosecuting the war. I think that Congress has been unified in supporting the president. And I see no reason that that is going to change.
BEGALA: I want to ask Congressman Hayworth now about the -- why I'm curious. If you're doing such a bang up job, I select -- congressman Weiner support the president on the war effort, as do all Americans, but why are they so interested in stopping an investigation? Do you think it could be that, for example, "Newsweek" reported this week that Attorney General Ashcroft, enlisting all of his many priorities as Attorney General, did not list terrorism, but pornography, and drugs, and other serious offenses, but not terrorism. And that Secretary Rumsfeld and the Defense Department seemed to be, according to "Newsweek," more interested in national missile defense and a war against Iraq than he did against terrorism. Is that maybe why they don't want us looking back to see what actually was going on?
HAYWORTH: No, Paul. Those were very curious items from many, many months ago. And maybe as long as a year and half ago. I think that hindsight is important. Oversight is important. But what's most important, and we appreciate all American's support on the war, is keeping the terrorists and the enemy in our sights prosecuting this war to the greatest of our abilities, and making sure that in waging that offensive, we are able to put to rest the possible scourge of terrorism on these shores.
WEINER: But you know, one of the things that President Bush has done is unified us. Rudolph Giuliani of New York did the same thing, around the notion that we should not be bowed by the terrorists. You know, we've been in this environment the last 48 hours. People have been looking over their shoulders, having trouble sleeping. You know, we have to remember we should have the terrorists on the run, not the other way around. We should be concerned and we should be vigilant, but we also have to be careful to remember we're going after getting them. It should not be the other way around.
NOVAK: Well, Mr. Weiner, I just wanted to pin you down then, because I thought you didn't really -- I asked you the question twice. I never like to answer -- ask a distinguished congressman the same question three times. But now you seem to be saying, and I think I may even agree with you, that maybe it would have been a better idea if all of these terrorist warnings weren't issued? If he didn't say boy, oh boy, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, and all the other public buildings in New York and other places are in danger. Maybe it would have been better to just give that to the police authorities. Without being so political, without be so careful about it, is that what you are trying to say?
WEINGER: Well, Bob, let me give this a third try. There is a middle ground between telling the people of the United States every piece of shred of information and telling them nothing. There is a middle ground between making a warning every 12 hours when we hear some chatter in the intelligence community, and not giving the president important memo about the existence of a threat from the Phoenix office.
We are capable of calibrating that a little better than we are. And if you don't agree with that, you may be the only one in America who thinks that we've been doing this just right. I give the Bush administration a pass in that this is a difficult thing that they have to work out. But I believe we've been swinging pillar to post in a way that is not helpful.
BEGALA: Well, you know, you'll be surprised to learn, Congressman Hayworth, I give him a pass, too. I think more information is better than too little, and I know it's a tough call to make. But what I don't give them a pass on is the unity you talked about, how we all seek it. It's very important, and I'm glad to hear you say that. You're a partisan Republican. I'm a partisan Democrat. But I think it does not serve the purposes of national unity when the vice president of the United States, who serves us all, stood up last week and said that Democrats, who are asking legitimate questions about what the president knew and when he knew it, were somehow -- he questioned their patriotism. I don't -- do you think it helps unity when a man, Dick Cheney who traded with Iran, Iraq and Libya, three terrorist states, are questioning the patriotism of his fellow Americans?
HAYWORTH: No, I don't believe he was questioning the patriotism of fellow Americans, Paul. I think he was turning political strategists, quite frankly, giving you some friendly advice. And you know what? That advice was validated. Because look at the transition of -- on the part of Minority Leader Gephardt from the statement, what did the president know, and when he did know it, to his reversal on the Sunday morning talk shows, reaffirming the very positive moves.
And what we've seen is, in fact, the prophecy of the vice president coming true. It has nothing to do with patriotism. It has everything to do with political judgment. And the last thing...
BEGALA: That's not what he said, though, with all due respect.
NOVAK: Mr. Weiner, when you say what did the president -- when you ask what the president knew and when did he do it, you know, we all live in a world where we remember at least some of us old-timers, Watergate, where you had a president who was accused of and indeed engaged in criminal activities. And to use that formulation has connotations that are unfortunate. Don't you believe so?
WEINER: Well, I got to tell you. .I don't think I've run into a single member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, a single constituent over the break that thought that the way the information was handled within the intelligence community was right. And that President Bush, who I believe was the person who was betrayed worse by this whole process, had all the information at his disposal that he needed.
It was not handled well, and it ought to be investigated. And I got to tell you. It's a straw man that Dick Cheney set up. No one was Monday quarterbacking. They were asking the same questions here in Congress, Democrats and Republicans. I don't think Richard Shelby is any kind of a partisan Democrat.
NOVAK: Don't you think it's an unfortunate formulation, what did the president know and when did he know it? Don't you think that's unfortunate?
WEINER: I believe the fundamental question, however you phrase it, is why it is that awe had so much information, and we weren't able to put it to better use? And the answer to that question is real problems in the chain of command at the FBI, communication within the different agencies, and also getting the president the information he needed in a timely fashion simply didn't happen.
Democrats and Republicans agree upon that. And I was very surprised that Dick Cheney came out guns blazing so early in this, rather than saying, what I would have said if I were vice president, which is yes, we were let down. We, the vice president, and president of the United States didn't have this information. We're going to find out why.
BEGALA: Mr. Hayworth, we only have a few seconds left. Where does the buck stop? With the FBI or the CIA or the president?
HAYWORTH: Well, of course, our president is commander in chief. But I agree with Anthony's assessment that he was poorly served in terms of coordination of the information. But of course, if we wanted to go back in administrations ahead of time, we've seen plenty of incidents where people received advanced information, and failed to take proper measures.
NOVAK: OK, that will have to be the last word. Thank you very much, J.D. Hayworth. Thank you very much, Congressman Weiner.