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MEET THE PRESS
Sunday, April 4, 2004
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Meet the Press (NBC News) - Sunday, April 4, 2004
MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: Bush and Cheney, Clinton and Gore, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will all now appear before the September 11 Commission. Could the attacks have been prevented? When will the commission issue its final report? With us, the chairman and vice chairman of the 9-11 Commission: former Republican Governor of New Jersey Tom Kean and former Indiana Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton.
Then, the Bush-Kerry presidential race with Karen Hughes, the former counselor to the president, who left the White House to return home to Texas. She now has a new book, "Ten Minutes from Normal."
Kean, Hamilton and Hughes: only on MEET THE PRESS.
And we are joined by the chairman, Tom Kean, the vice chairman, Lee Hamilton, of the September 11 Commission.
Gentlemen, welcome, both.
FMR. GOV. THOMAS KEAN, (R-NJ): Good morning.
FMR. REP. LEE HAMILTON, (D-IN): Hi, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Chairman, on Thursday, Dr. Condoleezza Rice will testify in public under oath. What do you expect?
MR. KEAN: Well, we expect it to be very exciting, because we want to know so much. We want to know about her work in the transition. We want to know about what happened and what the differences were between the Bush policies and the policies of the Clinton
administration. We want to know what she heard and what she knew and, of course, what differences there may be between her, Mr. Clarke, and a number of other people we've heard.
MR. RUSSERT: When she testified in private on February 7, only about half the commissioners showed up. Do you expect all of them to be in attendance on Thursday?
MR. KEAN: Absolutely. That was late on a Saturday afternoon. There may have been some other problem, but they all read the transcripts and they're all going to be on hand.
MR. RUSSERT: How long do you expect her to testify for?
MR. KEAN: I think we've got her scheduled for about two and a half hours, which would be, actually, the longest session--as long a session as we've had with any witness.
MR. RUSSERT: Also, before I talk a little bit more about that, Vice President Cheney and President Bush are scheduled to appear. Is there a date yet?
MR. KEAN: Yeah. We've got a date, but we haven't--we honestly haven't revealed the dates of any of our witnesses who testify in private, so we haven't talked about that one, either.
MR. RUSSERT: Will it be within the next few weeks?
MR. KEAN: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: But they will appear together. Why?
MR. KEAN: That's their request, and we didn't see any problem. We're going to ask the same questions, whether we get them together or apart. So that was a White House request and part of a package deal we put together to get the testimony and allow all 10 commissioners to come in, and we didn't see any problem with it.
MR. RUSSERT: Will President Clinton and Vice President Gore appear together?
MR. KEAN: No. No, they're appearing separately.
MR. RUSSERT: Why a different standard for them?
MR. KEAN: Because we had already scheduled our appearances with former President Clinton, and all our other witnesses have appeared separately. But this was the White House request, and we didn't have any problem with it.
MR. RUSSERT: Clinton-Gore in the next few weeks as well?
MR. KEAN: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: Isn't it better to have people separately so that you can judge them independently as to their veracity?
MR. KEAN: I think it's a matter of judgment. All things considered, maybe we would have rather had them one at a time, but we don't see any problem with it, really. We'll ask each of them individual questions. They've promised us to give us the time we needed to get our questions answered, and if we have any problems, as you do, we'll have follow-ups.
MR. RUSSERT: And one last question on this: Why won't President Bush, Vice President Cheney, former President Clinton, former Vice President Gore be put under oath?
MR. KEAN: It's, I gather, sort of a tradition, practice. No president, I gather, has ever been put under oath. And so, because of precedent in this town, we're not putting them under oath.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Hamilton, let me refer to a couple of the things that have been said by people before your commission or in the public domain. Richard Clarke, the chief of counterterrorism, testified on March 24 to your commission and said this: "All of the things that we recommended in the plan or strategy...back in January  were those things on the table in September ."
And Dr. Rice wrote in The Washington Post last week, "No al Qaeda plan was turned over to the new administration."
We seem to have a discrepancy here.
MR. HAMILTON: Well, that...
MR. RUSSERT: What is your sense? Based on what you've heard and read and learned, was there a plan that was given by the Clinton administration to the Bush administration about al-Qaeda?
MR. HAMILTON: I don't think I'm going to try to make a judgment about that at this point. You get into a lot of word games here. There was an agenda, there was a plan, there were options, and an awful lot of this is subjective. What has been impressive up to this point, despite all of the media play, is that there's been a remarkable agreement with regard to the facts. Whether you call something a plan and how far along that plan was, you can get different judgments about, but the factual agreement through the Clinton administration, through the early months of the Bush administration, remarkable agreement on the facts, not complete but remarkable.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Clarke also said this: "I believe the Bush administration in the first eight months considered terrorism an important issue but not an urgent issue. ... There was a process underway to address al Qaeda. But although I continued to say it was an urgent problem, I don't think it was ever treated that way." Dr. Rice, "The seriousness of the threat was well understood by the president and his national security principals. ... The president wanted more than a laundry list of ideas simply to contain al Qaeda or `roll back' the threat. Once in office, we quickly began crafting a comprehensive new strategy to `eliminate' the al Qaeda network." There seems to be a difference of fact there.
MR. HAMILTON: Well, I'm not sure that it is. Let's take the question raised by Mr. Clarke's testimony. He said that the Bush administration put an important priority on al-Qaeda and terrorism but not an urgent one. Well, how do you draw that line between important and urgent? That's a very subjective kind of a judgment and it can easily be colored by your own biases, by your own position, if you would. That's very typical, it seems to me, of the kinds of differences we confront here.
MR. RUSSERT: Governor Kean, one of the things that your staff has released are staff reports, which I have read, and they're quite...
MR. KEAN: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: ...comprehensive...
MR. KEAN: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: ...and quite interesting and quite revealing. "Deputy Director of Central Intelligence [John] McLaughlin told us he felt a great tension -especially in June and July" --"between the new administration's need to understand these issues and his sense that this
was a matter of great urgency. Officials, including McLaughlin, were also frustrated when some policymakers, who had not lived through such threat surges before, questioned the validity of the intelligence or wondered if it was disinformation, though they were persuaded once they probed it." A sense that the new team was a bit skeptical of some of the threat assessments of al-Qaeda, is that fair?
MR. KEAN: I think that's probably fair and probably right, but I think they were skeptical about a number of things at that point. No question, there was a period in the summer when people refer to it as their hair being on fire, there were so many threats of one kind coming in, but most of them, in all honesty, were not threats to this country, they were threats to things abroad. And we put a barricades around our United States embassies. We tried to protect our American citizens over there. We did a number of actions in that area. Did we do enough at home? No, but I think to your question, there was some skepticism, no question about it.
MR. RUSSERT: The Washington Post wrote this in May of last year: "On July 5 of ...the White House summoned officials of a dozen federal agencies to the Situation Room." 'Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it's going to happen soon'," said "Richard Clark," the terrorism czar. "The group included the Federal Aviation Administration"--"the Coast Guard"--the--"FBI, Secret Service"--"Immigration and Naturalization Service."
"Clarke directed every counterterrorist office to cancel vacations, defer nonvital travel, put off
schedule exercises and place domestic rapid-response teams on much shorter alert. For six weeks [in the summer of 2001], at home and overseas, the U.S. government was at its highest possible state of readiness - and anxiety - against imminent terrorist attack."
Congressman Hamilton, it sounds like people in the White House really expected something big to happen and really did ring the alarm bell.
MR. HAMILTON: Yes. I think they did and especially Mr. Clarke at that. That's kind of a high watermark in the summer when the chatter on the intelligence lines was very high, a lot of reports coming in at that moment about possible terrorist activity. And there wasn't any question that there was a sense of urgency at that point and may have been the high watermark prior to, of course, September 11 in terms of the government being keyed up, ready to go and ready to act.
MR. RUSSERT: It says they were on high alert for six weeks, canceling vacations, the whole bit. And then, did we let our guard down before September 11th?
MR. KEAN: We did a bit, because the threat level went down. All these tremendous things that were coming over stopped coming over, and we weren't getting the level of threat that we got, and as that threat level went down and people had been sort of at the ready all along, they did let down their guard a bit. There's no question about it. We were not at the state of readiness on September 11th that we'd been back in August.
MR. RUSSERT: Why do you think that is?
MR. KEAN: I think when the chatter went down, when they didn't hear all these people talking to each other so much, there were other priorities out there. You can't keep people sort of at the ready constantly, day after day after day after day, and I think gradually they had a plan. They had a meeting, as you know, just before September 11th. They thought they were operating on some of these things, but the actual tension relaxed as the chatter relaxed.
MR. RUSSERT: In December, Governor, you said that you were surprised that some midlevel officials at the FBI and in the federal immigration agencies had not been removed from their jobs, given errors before September 11th attacks that may have allowed the hijacking plot to go undetected: "It surprises me that if there were serious mistakes, there haven't been any consequences of those mistakes."
Has anyone been let go yet?
MR. KEAN: Not to the best of my knowledge. What I was referring to was, you know, the fact we've now documented, I guess in the commission hearings, that people got into this country with improper travel documents, that there were people in the FBI who obviously sounded the alert and then got stuck somewhere midlevel in the bureaucracy, that there were people in the airlines who were not put on the watch list, so that there were two people we knew about, and those kinds of mistakes. No, I don't know of anybody who's been let go.
MR. RUSSERT: Are you surprised?
MR. HAMILTON: That no one has been let go?
MR. RUSSERT: Yeah.
MR. HAMILTON: Not really. First of all, government's not very good at that. not just this government but many governments, in holding people strictly accountable. Secondly, I think the problem is really more systemic in nature. The more I look at it, the more I see kind of systemwide problems rather than individual responsibility. That doesn't mean the commission will not make criticism. We may make criticisms--I don't know--of individual people. But what I'm quite sure is, we will find somewhere along the line that there were a lot of problems. A government has to manage huge amounts of data, not all of it in English. Millions and millions of bites of data come into the government all the time, and analyzing those, collecting them and disseminating--very, very tough job, and it takes systems analysis and management to an extraordinary degree.
MR. RUSSERT: There's a report in a British newspaper, The Independent, about a former translator for the FBI with top-secret security clearance, says she's provided information to the panel investigating the attacks which proves senior officials knew of al-Qaida's plan to attack the U.S. with aircraft months before the strike happened. Sibel Edmonds is her name. She said she spent more than three hours in a closed session with the commission and provided information that was circulating within the FBI in the spring and summer of 2001 suggesting an attack using aircraft was months away, that terrorists were in place. Is she credible?
MR. KEAN: We've had all her testimony. It's under investigation. I can't say--we're certainly not there that she's credible or uncredible yet.
MR. HAMILTON: We've talked to her.
MR. KEAN: Yeah.
MR. HAMILTON: We've talked to people she has identified. We've looked at documents. Look, the commission gets leads by the dozens, every day. I had a dozen of them last week. And we do our level best to follow up on all of them. In this case, and several others that have been prominent in the European press, we have been very, very careful in our research. We're not totally completed with it, as the governor has mentioned.
MR. RUSSERT: Governor, you also said this in December: "I do not believe it had to happen." Why? Why do you believe that?
MR. KEAN: Well, I got some criticism for that at the time, but what we've found now in the commission has not changed our belief. Because there were so many threads and so many things, individual things that happened, and if some of those things hadn't happened the way they happened--for instance, if we had been a little earlier in what we found out about Moussaoui, if we had...
MR. RUSSERT: Moussaoui being the so-called 20th hijacker...
MR. KEAN: Yes. Yes, that's right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...in Minnesota who was actually arrested.
MR. KEAN: Absolutely right. If we had been able to put those people on the watch list for the airlines, the two who were in this country; again, if we'd stopped some of these people at the borders, if we had acted earlier on al-Qaeda when al-Qaeda was smaller and just getting started even before bin Laden went to Afghanistan, there were times we could have gotten him, there's no question. Had we gotten him and his leadership at that point, the whole story might have been different.
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?
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.
Coming next, one of President Bush's closest advisers, Karen Hughes, on the Bush-Kerry race and her new book, "Ten Minutes from Normal." She is next right here on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: The race for the White House and her new book, former counselor to the president, Karen Hughes, after this station break.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Former counselor to President Bush, author, Karen Hughes, welcome.
MS. KAREN HUGHES: Still surprises me when I hear that "author."
MR. RUSSERT: Before we get to the book, let me talk about some political and policy issues. You just heard our discussion with the chairman and vice chairman of the September 11th Commission. Many observers will point to the fact that the president and vice president resisted or discouraged the creation of the commission. They had to be threatened with subpoena in order to provide documents and Dr. Condoleezza Rice for weeks refused to testify in public under oath. Why such resistance and reluctance to cooperate fully with the commission?
MS. HUGHES: Well, Tim, I'm not sure that I characterize it that way, because what I've heard the president say is he wants all the facts to come out, he wants the commission to be able to report fully to the American people. After all, he and his national security team are responsible for preventing another attack. But I've been in the White House and I've seen the competing pressures there. There are a lot of factors at work when you're the president of the United States. He has to worry about protecting the lives of the confidential informants that we're relying on, sources and methods and human intelligence workers who are out there around the world. You know the consternation that was created when the name of Valerie Plume was leaked as being a CIA operative. Rightly so. That was wrong, that someone leaked her name and jeopardized her career. But the president has to worry about protecting those intelligence methods and sources.
The president also has to worry about important constitutional principles. I remember being there in the East Room of the White House and holding up my hand and taking that oath to defend the Constitution, which calls for a separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government. I'm very glad and I know the president is glad and so is Dr. Rice that they were able to find a way to balance that important principle of the Constitution with letting her testify in public under oath, because I think it's important for the American people to hear the facts. And actually, the debate about this has obscured the fact that the White House has given an unprecedented level of cooperation to this investigation.
MR. RUSSERT: But now in hindsight the president believes the commission's a good idea.
MS. HUGHES: Well, I think, Tim, I don't know if the president ever opposed the creation of the commission. What he did was try to balance and look at all those different things.
Remember, our first and foremost priority right now has to be to prevent the American people from another attack, and he wanted to make sure in a thoughtful way--you know, this process tends to value speed as opposed to thoughtfulness. If you're not for something the minute somebody asks about it, then you must not be for it, as opposed to taking a thoughtful look at it in a way to have a commission process that didn't jeopardize intelligence sources or methods, didn't jeopardize the ability of our team that we're relying on to prevent a -- to protect us every day from ongoing attack.
MR. RUSSERT: But the history is clear. Here's the headlines. "The 9-11 Commission could subpoena Oval Office files because the White House was resisting. Bush opposes independent commission to investigate September 11th." Vice President Cheney, on this program said, "I did actively discourage the notion, for example, of a national commission." There had been opposition; there's no doubt about it.
MS. HUGHES: There were concerns about what impact it might have on our ongoing foremost priority, which again, is to protect the American people from attack. But that said, Tim, once the commission has been created, I mean, unprecedented cooperation. The president has turned over thousands of documents; 800 administration officials have been interviewed. The presidential daily briefs, one of the most highly secret sensitive documents in all of government -- I never saw one and I'm viewed--I was there in the Oval Office almost every morning; I never saw a presidential daily brief. Six members of the Commission, four members and two staff members, have seen that, and tapes of the president's conversation with foreign leaders.
Our intention and the president's direction all along was that he wanted to cooperate and to make sure that the commission had all the information it needed to do its important work.
MR. RUSSERT: David Broder, who works for The Washington Post, the columnist, wrote a very strong column on Thursday, which I want to read and share with our viewers and to you and give you a chance to react: "When the effort to shoot the messenger failed to halt the political erosion, Bush did what he never should have done: He threw Rice to the commission. And, worse, he failed to do what he could have done long before: Offer the American people and the world a clear, coherent and detailed account of his own activities and state of mind in the months leading up to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Instead of acting as the man in charge and saying to the commission, `No, you may not put my national security adviser on the mat, but I will answer to the public for what happened,' he did just the opposite. He gave up Rice and then turned on his heel and walked out of the briefing room even as reporters were trying to ask him questions. At a time when the American people--and the world--desperately need reassurance that the government was not asleep at the switch, Bush has clenched his jaw and said nothing that would ease" these "concerns."
MS. HUGHES: Well, Tim, I respect David Broder, but I think there's a lot of bitterness in that
column, and I remember being surprised when I read that because I just disagree with that.
Again, as we've discussed, the president has fully cooperated with this commission in an unprecedented way. The White House has given information to a commission that is set up by the legislative branch of government. He has been very forthcoming. Dr. Rice wanted to testify because she felt that some of the facts that were presented to the commission during testimony last week were somewhat distorted, a distorted picture. I mean, you just heard the chairman of the commission talk about the fact that the executive director of that commission, Mr. Zelikow, was recruited by the administration to brief us during the transition because he was the foremost, one of the foremost experts in the world on al-Qaeda.
I think that is a reputation of Mr. Clarke's assertions in itself. That we were concerned enough that we recruited one of the foremost experts to brief the new administration about the threat of al-Qaeda.
MR. RUSSERT: Richard Clarke testified on March 24, and this is the way he began his testimony to the commission. Let's watch:
(Videotape, Testimony to 9/11 Commission):
MR. RICHARD CLARKE: I also welcome the hearings because it is finally a forum where I can apologize to the loved ones of the victims of 9/11. To them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe President Bush failed the American people on September 11?
MS. HUGHES: I believe al-Qaeda committed an act of war against our country, Tim, and one
of the things--I remember sitting at my house in Austin, Texas, and I was watching that testimony on television, just like much of America was, and I remember thinking at the time this is wrong. And I understand, and all of us mourn and share the sense of sorrow felt by the victims. We all--I lost a friend. I'm sure you lost friends. We all share that sorrow. But I don't believe--and what I worry about what Mr. Clarke said is it creates a misplaced sense of responsibility.
I don't believe that anyone in the Bush administration--and I'm not an advocate of the Clinton administration but I'll even include them in this--I don't believe that anyone in the Clinton administration, either, could have put together the pieces before the horror of September 11. I don't think we could have envisioned it and done anything to have prevented it. If we could have in either administration, either in the eight years of the Clinton administration or the seven and a half months of the Bush administration, I'm convinced we would have done so. And I think that the problem with what Mr. Clarke did is it created a sense of misplaced responsibility, as if it's someone in our government was somehow responsible. I think it's very important that we understand al-Qaeda was responsible. Al-Qaeda declared war on our country and al-Qaeda continues to plot against our country.
MR. RUSSERT: You don't think any apology is necessary?
MS. HUGHES: I think that, obviously we need to--what we need to do is learn everything that we can, and that's why the work of the commission is so important and why the president has directed Dr. Rice to go before the commission this week and testify in public.
Because we need--our whole goal should be to try to prevent another attack, not to look backward and say, "Well, in hindsight had we known." I was thinking as I watched earlier, I don't agree with what the two gentlemen who were here previously have said. I just don't think, based on everything I know, and I was there, that there was anything that anyone in our government could have done to have put together the pieces before the horror of that day in a way that would have possibly prevented that day.
MR. RUSSERT: In your book you talk about September 11. You always traveled with the president. This time you didn't, because it was your wedding anniversary on September 10 and you stayed home and had dinner with your husband. Went to the White House the next day, tried to contact Air Force One, and the White House operator told you...
MS. HUGHES: "Ma'am, I'm sorry, we cannot reach Air Force One."
MR. RUSSERT: What did you think at that moment?
MS. HUGHES: You know, I remember saying a prayer that nothing had happened to the president, because in many ways that was one of the most chilling moments of the day for me. I'd been on Air Force One. I'd seen the elaborate communications equipment that is on that airplane. I couldn't imagine. And Mary Matalin had relayed to me that there had been a threat, we thought, at the time. It later turned out to have been a misunderstanding of the use of the code name for the plane. But we thought at the time there had been a threat against the plane. And so, you know, we--I didn't know what to imagine, and I just, you know, hoped and prayed that the president was all right.
MR. RUSSERT: Later that day you went to the FBI building and became the first major White House official to address the nation. Let's watch some of those words and come back and talk about it:
(Videotape, September 11, 2001):
MS. HUGHES: I'm Karen Hughes, counselor to President Bush, and I'm here to update you all on the activities of the federal government in response to this morning's attacks on our country.
MR. RUSSERT: What was going through your mind at that moment?
MS. HUGHES: I felt a very profound sense of duty, that I was obligated to be a reassuring presence. And it was really probably the hardest thing I think I've ever done in my career, Tim. I had been at the bunker in the White House. I was taken out under armed guard. The Secret Service agents surrounding me had their guns drawn. They took me to the Justice Department because they had determined that the White House was not safe for the press to come back in. But I was also very concerned about what I'd been--I'd been at home, as you said, because I'd stayed home for my wedding anniversary. And I'd seen the reports on the television of the White House being evacuated, and they thought there was a car bomb at the State Department. And I realized that it appeared to the public that the government was shutting down.
I had been at the emergency operations center seeing a very different picture, how efficiently and effectively the government was coordinating the response to these attacks. And so I felt an enormous sense of responsibility to try to convey that sense of calm and decisionmaking that I had witnessed to the American people.
MR. RUSSERT: You just heard the chairman and vice chairman say they will submit their
commission report to the White House in July. Can you guarantee to the American people
that the White House will release that commission report before the November election?
MS. HUGHES: Well, I no longer speak, as you know, on behalf of the White House, but I certainly believe it is their intention and hope to do so, and I would strongly urge that they
are able to do so, again, with the understanding that they are responsible for guarding America's national security and for making sure that there's no information disclosed that could risk the life of an intelligence operative somewhere or disclose methods that we're relying on to protect us from further attack. You know, all of us who work in government -- my book was reviewed for national security material, and that sort of gets the implication -- I've seen a couple of media reports that I somehow had it cleared. Well, they asked me to take out two phone numbers and an address. That was all that was changed. So I think it is important that experts review it to make sure that we protect sensitive sources of information. But I have no reason to believe that--I know the White House would share the commission's interest in getting the report out as quickly as is humanly possible.
MR. RUSSERT: And you think that's important that the American people have the benefit of it before they vote.
MS. HUGHES: I do think that's important. I think it's important that the American people see the report, yes.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think it's appropriate for the president's re-election campaign to use September 11? There was a lot of discussion about the flag-draped coffin being used in one of his campaign commercials.
MS. HUGHES: Tim, I think September 11 is not only a--you know, it's not an event that happened in the past. It is really a defining moment for the future of our country. It's one of the most defining moments of our lifetimes, and it will shape American policy for years to come. I remember Condoleezza Rice saying to me, "Karen, September 11 was an earthquake across the international security environment. If our oceans no longer protect us, it changes the way we have to look at everything." So, of course, I think it's one of the big issues, if not the biggest issue. I know for my own family and for families across America, the national security of this country is probably the biggest issue at stake in this election. The economy is very important, and job creation; those--the economy is always an important issue. But I think this time, in the aftermath of September 11, it's the most important issue. And I think the tasteful use of the image in the president's ad was perfectly appropriate. And it--that day is going to be a part of our national debate for many days and many years to come.
MR. RUSSERT: You just heard the chairman suggest that he would prefer that the president and vice president testify separately before the commission. Why did the White House insist that they appear together?
MS. HUGHES: I'm not sure what the rationale specifically was, but I think the White House believes that it is an effective use of their time. This is really quite extraordinary for a sitting president to go before a commission of this nature. The most famous other commission I can remember in my lifetime was the Warren Commission, investigating the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy. And President Johnson, my understanding is, did not appear before that commission. He said, "Presidents just don't do that." Well, in this case, this president is doing this because he feels, again, this is such an extraordinary circumstance.
Many times, President Bush and Vice President Cheney were in the room together during much of the events, much of the briefings, much of the lead-up that the commission is looking at. And so I think it's appropriate that they appear together and discuss how they saw the events leading up to September 11.
MR. RUSSERT: We're going to take a quick break and come back and talk more to Karen Hughes, counselor to the president, wife, mother, the woman who left the White House to
put family first and moved back to Texas. "Ten Minutes from Normal"--that's her new book--
right after this.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.
Iraq--still a lot of discussion in our country about that. A year ago May, this was the scene
when the president landed on the USS Lincoln and you'll see the banner: Mission
Accomplished. At that time, there were 138 deaths in Iraq. There are now 602. There were
685 injured and wounded; there are now 3,466. John McCain said on Friday that the president--or he criticized the president "for failing to prepare Americans for a long involvement in Iraq, saying, `You can't fly in on an aircraft carrier and declare victory and have the deaths continue. You can't do that.'" McCain, feeling very strongly for some time, "We need more troops in Iraq." Was the president premature by landing on that carrier deck and do you regret it now politically?
MS. HUGHES: Well, Tim, I think you have to look at what the president said when he landed there, and what he said was major combat operations. And I think it was important for him to acknowledge the extraordinary work that members of our military and that the sailors on that carrier had performed in a swift and a very successful initial operation.
Now, you probably remember the reports before we went into Baghdad; there was going to be a lengthy, bloody battle that lasted for months over Baghdad, that the Republican Guard were these elite troops. And actually, the United States military, the men and women of our military, performed their duties in an extraordinary way, very successfully. And that's what the president was celebrating. I hired the person who worked with the crew on that shop in developing that banner, and I worked with the White House speech writers on the text of that speech. And in the text of that speech, he said, "We still have very difficult days ahead."
And so I would disagree with the characterization that he did not acknowledge that, because he clearly said that there would still be many difficult days ahead, as there have been.
MR. RUSSERT: And will continue to be.
MS. HUGHES: And will continue to be. It's hard. The work of building a democracy is never easy. It was not easy in our own country, but it's absolutely right. I remember having a conversation with Condoleezza Rice as we prepared to challenge the world to face up to the threat that was posed by Saddam Hussein, and she told me, she said, "Karen, this is going to be really hard and a lot of people aren't going to agree with us," and I said, "But is it right?"
And she said, "Absolutely."
MR. RUSSERT: The fact that we have not found weapons of mass destruction, will that be an issue directed toward the president's credibility in this campaign?
MS. HUGHES: Well, I think it's an issue for all of us, and it's an issue, it's the reason the president set up a commission to look into the whole issue. It's important, whoever the next president is--it's important that we know why. And it wasn't just we, the Bush administration, who felt there were weapons there. Let me say a few words about that.
First of all, there were some in Washington who would disagree with David Kay's assessment, wrong about the weapons. They say we don't know yet, that we may still find them. But I think it's important that the American people hear the second part of what David Kay said. I worry that they only heard the first part. He said he felt we were wrong about the weapons but that we were absolutely right about the war because the situation in Iraq was even more dangerous, even more unstable than we had felt going in there. And, again, 15 years of accumulated American intelligence, not just the Bush administration, but President Clinton, former Vice President Gore, U.N. Security Council, every credible intelligence agency in the world, after all, felt that Saddam Hussein had those weapons. He'd used them in the past, and we knew that he had used them against his own people.
MR. RUSSERT: You know the president well. He's been in the White House now for a thousand days. What do you think his biggest mistake has been and how has he learned from it?
MS. HUGHES: Tim, I don't know that I think in those terms. What I think in terms of is the
extraordinary leadership that he provided our country in the aftermath of September 11. I remember standing with him in New York, the Friday after September 11 and watching him
grab that bullhorn and speak to those rescue workers who couldn't hear him and he said, "Well, I hear you, and the world hears you. And the people who knocked down those buildings are going to hear from all of us soon." I think he is--you know, I'm his friend and I'm his advocate, and I don't look at him that way. What I look at is the extraordinary leadership he provided our country in a very, very difficult time.
MR. RUSSERT: You do write that you are surprised that he has not been able to change the tone in Washington.
MS. HUGHES: I am disappointed by that. That's true, and I think that he worked hard to do so. I remember when we moved here and he had Democrats come to the White House and meet with him. He worked with Senator Ted Kennedy on the education bill. He invited the leadership to come to meetings. But I had seen in Texas, where he worked very effectively with the Democratic lieutenant governor and Democratic speaker in an atmosphere of trust, and unfortunately, it seems to be very hard to create that atmosphere of trust in Washington.
MR. RUSSERT: Both sides are at fault?
MS. HUGHES: On both sides. The special interests pushed both parties to the extreme. I think the competitive nature of the news cycle tends to make the debate even more strident, you know, that the most strident quote is the one that ends up on the evening news or in the next morning's newspaper. And so there are a lot of pressures forcing stridency and division here in Washington, and it is polarized and I think that's unfortunate. We all have to work on that.
MR. RUSSERT: You left Washington 22 months ago. Any regrets?
MS. HUGHES: No, none at all. I really feel very privileged to have done what's right for my
family in moving home to Texas, and we enjoy being there, and I've enjoyed being there. I
had time to teach my son to drive last year, which was a wonderful experience. I would have never have been able to do it had I worked at the White House, because I, you know, I didn't get home till late at night and it was dark and you do not want to teach a teenager to drive in the dark.
MR. RUSSERT: This is Robert the great baseball player?
MS. HUGHES: This is Robert the great baseball player, that's right.
MR. RUSSERT: August 15th you're going to come back and travel with the president through the November election?
MS. HUGHES: I promised the president when I left the White House that I would travel with him for the last few months of his re-election campaign as I always have during his campaigns, because I think it's important for my family and for all the families of America, that he be re-elected. The stakes in this election are huge right now, and I think we need...
MR. RUSSERT: If he's re-elected, will you come back to the White House?
MS. HUGHES: I don't expect to, Tim. I've remodeled my house in Austin, Texas. Jerry Hughes is very happy in Austin, Texas. So is Karen Hughes and you know, I--if the president of the United States ever asks you to do something, you always have to consider it, but I'm very happy in Austin, Texas.
MR. RUSSERT: Karen Hughes, we thank you for joining us. The book, "Ten Minutes from Normal." The title comes from?
MS. HUGHES: The campaign trail. We were on a train coming into a little town in Illinois, and the conductor came over and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are 10 minutes from Normal," and I said, "If I ever write a book, that's the title," because that's how I feel, being a normal person whose boss ran for president and then became the president of the United States, and that's thrilling, but it's still pretty surprising for a pretty normal person.
MR. RUSSERT: We thank you for sharing your views.
MS. HUGHES: Thank you so much.
MR. RUSSERT: And we'll be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: That's all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.
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