TODAY   |  May 03, 2011

Bin Laden was ‘malignancy,’ 9/11 widower says

Former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who says he is still haunted by the death of his wife Barbara during the 9/11 attacks, tells TODAY he is relived that the “malignancy,”  whose only aim was to hurt maim and kill innocent people, has been removed.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> ton death of osama bin laden . on 9/11, theodore olson was the solicitor general. his wife barbara was a passenger on american airlines flight 77 which crashed into the pentagon. good morning to you.

>> good morning, meredith.

>> you have waited almost ten years for this news that osama bin laden is dead. what is your reaction to it?

>> a great sense of release and relief. a malignancy in the world has been removed, a malignancy that had no principles, no morals and whose only aim was to hurt, maim and kill innocent people, school buses , people attending church, people get an airplanes. it had to happen that this malignancy would be removed. it is a great relief that it finally happened.

>> it must churn up memories of 9/11 and your wife calling you from flight 77 right before it crashed into the pentagon. when you think about the final moments you shared in that conversation, what stays with you the most?

>> well, the shock. i had first been relieved when the call came in to the justice department that my late wife was on the phone because i knew then that planes had been hijacked and were being crashed into the world trade center . i had known her flight had taken off that morning. i was worried that one of those airplanes may have been her flight. when i heard her voice i was enormously relieved that she was alive, well and on an airplane in the air still. then, of course, my heart sank when she told me her plane had been hijacked. that's a feeling that i can never really fully describe. we had a brief conversation. the phone was interrupted. we had another conversation. she asked for help. she asked, what can i do? what can ile te tell the pilot? we had a brief conversation, but it will remain for all of my life a poignant memory.

>> september 11 was your 61st birthday. she left a note on your pillow you didn't find until that evening when you made it home. you coped by diving into work, including advocating for changes in the intelligence-gathering system in this country. you felt it was broken. what kinds of changes did you feel you helped make in the system?

>> i was doing what i could to help with the administration in the department of justice to encourage congress to change the laws that were obsolete. we did not have the tools to collect information. we had ability to deal with money laund rers or drug dealers but we didn't have the ability to deal with terrorists. the laws that were enacted with respect to electronic surveillance and the like were obsolete. they were created in the days when there were land lines, not cell phones. there was not that kind of communication. so all of these laws had to be brought up to date or we could never fight an international terrorist organization like al qaeda . it was essential that laws be changed. the changes that were made in the law are reflected in what happened on sunday. the great efforts to gather intelligence, the meticulous gather of information and the careful following of the information ultimately, as i understand it, led to the killing of bin laden .

>> ted, we have a woman coming on in a few minutes who feels she was groped by members of the t.s.a. she believes our civil rights are being chiselled away. that was a concern when you were trying to change the laws. do you feel we have lost of some of our civil rights in the effort to stay safe?

>> it's unfortunate that, indeed, when a terrorist threat like this can take the lives of thousands of people and bring down the largest buildings in new york and attack the pentagon itself and threaten the congress, the capitol of the united states and/or the white house , we have to take measures to protect ourselves, but we have to be extraordinarily sensitive to civil liberties . compromises have to be made, but i think our national intelligence agencies and our national security and our homeland security people are sensitive to this. of course, mistakes get made. things occur that make us uncomfortable and that we do not like. and i think that there is a constant effort to improve and refine the system so that we minimize the amount of intrusion on civil liberties . remember, that the greatest civil liberty is the right to live and the right to get on airplanes and the right to ride school buses on the way to school. we have to protect that civil liberty as well as other civil liberties that we have. compromises have to be made. i think our government, individuals working on this are doing everything they can to protect civil liberties at the same time protecting our lives.

>> thank you very much for joining us this morning. we appreciate it.

>> thank you.