On Thursday, the 9/11 Commission is scheduled to release its final report on the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Thursday, July 22, at Noon ET to discuss the report and its findings.
The transcript follows.
Robert G. Kaiser
(The Washington Post)
_____About Your Host_____ Robert G. Kaiser is an associate editor at The Washington Post. Previously he was managing editor, second in command of The Post's newsroom, from 1991 until 1998. Earlier, he was a foreign correspondent in Vietnam and Moscow, and covered the Senate and the 1980 presidential campaign. He did a stint as editor of Outlook before becoming the assistant managing editor for National News in 1985 and later deputy managing editor. He is the author of six books including "The News About the News," which he co-authored with Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Robert G. Kaiser : Greetings. Like my colleague Steve Coll, who is just finishing a chat, I am called upon this morning to perform a miracle: lead a discussion of a 600-page document that none of us has read. I at least have had time to skim hurriedly through the executive summary, and read the Commission's very common-sensical recommendations. But we should all take some time in the days ahead to read the actual report, I think.
I hope many of you will post comments and questions. I am going to take on both the 9/11 Commission report, and the political implications of it, about which there are already some good questions.
Do you have any information or a personal opinion/assessment as to the impact of politics on the content and recommendations in the report? If so, would you please share them?
Robert G. Kaiser : I just saw a little of the press conference of Gov. Kean and Rep. Hamilton (both formers, of course) introducing their report. Their obvious mutual regard was impressive, I thought. It's something we now simply do not see in Washington, where all-out partisan warfare is the norm.
This Commission overcame that reality, or so it seems to me. The fact that it has produced a unanimous report is impressive. Sure it also means that the temptations of either Democratic or Republican members to take potshots at the Clinton or Bush administrations were restrained. So what? Would any of us really feel better if the commission said something like 9/11 was 53.4 percent Bush's fault, and 46.6 percent Clinton's? Only fools would enjoy such an outcome, in my opinion.
So to answer, I'd say this commission appears to me to have been remarkably free of partisan rancor and posturing, and to have done its work in a practical, pragmatic way -- the way Americans used to think we do everything.
It was my understanding the final 9/11 Commission report was to be vetted and, potentially, redacted by the White House. Instead, per Sunday's Post, the Commission negotiated with White House lawyers as to what to release. What, exactly, was the process, and how much do you suppose was censored/redacted?
Robert G. Kaiser : I don't know how much, but the editing had to do with classification and confidential presidential documents, as I understand it. I'm confident this is one question that will be answered in the days ahead. If significant deletions were made, I expect that news to get out, one way or another. We have no evidence yet that there were such deletions.
Both Democrats and Republicans are already spinning the Commission report, hoping to find some political advantage in it. Do you think either can succeed? Is their information here that actually might affect the outcome in November?
Robert G. Kaiser : This is a good question, which, having not yet read the report, I will not try to answer specifically.
But I offer this general thought: In my view the greatest peril for President Bush in this election season is the risk that the country could come to the conclusion that his administration has just been incompetent. There would be no escaping from such a judgment, were it to take hold. If this report contributes to that impression, it will be bad for Bush.
But such a broad conclusion won't be reached by people on the basis of one report, in my experience. Water cooler conversations, back yard gossip, reactions to the conventions and, most importantly probably, the debates this fall will lead Americans to their final voting conclusions.
Since we know President Bush does not like to read should we expect him to read the entire report?
Robert G. Kaiser : I was thinking about this earlier this morning. Not only Bush, but countless members of Congress have the reputation of asking their aides to do their reading for them. This has driven me nuts for years -- Bush is hardly the first president I've covered who sometimes avoids nuts-and-bolts hard work to absorb complicated material. Some politicians even defend the practice as "good leadership" -- delegate the details. This drives me nuts too.
Ask your Congressmen and Senators when you see them if they have actually read the report. It will do them good.
From today's Post: "On Iran, by contrast, the report concludes that al Qaeda's relationship with Tehran and its client, the Hezbollah militant group, was long-standing and included cooperation on operations, the officials said. It also details previously unknown links between the two, including the revelation that as many as 10 of the Sept. 11 hijackers may have passed through Iran in late 2000 and early 2001 because Iranian border guards were instructed to let al Qaeda associates travel freely, sources familiar with the report have said."
QUESTION: Is it not more than coincidental that the Iranian connection was leaked a few days ago, just as the case of an Iraqi collaborative relationship with AQ was falling apart? That is, a new distraction related to the "axis of evil" has been put before the public? In the same general time frame, news broke that the North Koreans have steadily proceeded with their nuclear weapons programs. On which front will the Bush Administration move next?
washingtonpost.com: New Links Between Iran, Al Qaeda Cited (Post, July 22)
Robert G. Kaiser : Geez, do you really think the Bush administration would now undertake a second "preemptive war" after all the trouble caused for it by the first? And all the loss of life, and money, and standing in the world? I don't see it myself. Nor do I see any evidence of the conspiracy you are hinting at.
West Palm Beach, Fla.:
Do you think there is a connection between the news reports of Sandy Berger's alleged taking of classified material and the release of the 9/11 report, vis a vis the timing of Berger's news?
Robert G. Kaiser : Good question, can't answer. Some news stories this morning quote unnamed Democrats as raising this possibility. I have no evidence.
In its coverage of the commission's final report, how much -- if at all -- will the national media recount the Bush Administration's resistance to this panel's very existence in the first place? Isn't that entirely apt to note in connection with the Administration's stated "appreciation" of receipt of the report today?
Robert G. Kaiser : I'm sure it will be mentioned, but what do you want news organizations to do? Isn't the real news today what the commission says, not what the administration did many months ago to block its creation, then to limit its mandate and such?
Is the final report online? Where can I read it?
Here are links to PDF files of both the Executive Summary and the report In Full.
Robert G. Kaiser : Here are the links. The site is busy at the moment!
New York, N.Y.:
One aspect of this report that I have not seen mentioned in the press as of late is the fact that President Bush didn't even want this commission to exist! Only after pressure from 9/11 families did the administration cave. How can the person who was President during the worst terrorist attack in out history not want to find out why it happened?
Robert G. Kaiser : See above.
I do think the lack of curiosity--on Capitol Hill, and in the administration--about what happened, who did it, etc., is striking. I attribute it to a kind of unspoken shame, felt by all government officials when they realized what had happened: A nasty enemy had launched a successful and cruel attack against the United States and gotten away with it ON OUR WATCH. I've long felt that Bush, Congress, the CIA and FBI and others have all shared this shame, and never found a way to really speak about it, for fear the country would turn on them and say, in effect, yeah, where the heck were YOU?
In my own view, negligence at the top reflected negligence, self-indulgence and indifference at the bottom. By which I mean, American society in the '80s and '90s became fat, rich, lazy and indifferent to the world in ways we can now see did us no good. The country got a leadership that reflected itself. Which meant no one really wanted to disrupt the party to face up to what Bin Laden et al represented, and were trying to do. Indeed, we didn't even let ourselves imagine (with a few poignant exceptions) what he might pull off.
As the Executive Summary says, "We are mindful of the danger of being unjust to men and women who made choices in conditions of uncertainty and in circumstances over which they often had little control," but isn't it ridiculous that not one government employee has been fired as a result of the 9/11 intelligence failure?
Robert G. Kaiser : Yes.
Cherry Hill, N.J.:
The "families" seem to have played a significant role in pressuring the administration to keep the process going, regardless of the politics. Do you see any hope that they will be able to continue to influence the way things are done in Washington?
Robert G. Kaiser : Good question. I think you're right, the families have been extraordinarily effective. They made the Commission happen, their pressure helped the Commission get unprecedented access to secret and confidential documents, etc etc. Not sure how they can extend that now, but I don't expect them to disappear either.
Most countries's foreign intelligence agencies are under their foreign ministries. Can the CIA be under State?
Robert G. Kaiser : That's not the Commission's proposal. It calls for a new national director of intelligence, confirmed by the Senate but situated in the White House, who will be the real boss of the CIA, DIA, NSA etc. At first blush, it looks like a sensible proposal to me.
Mr. Kaiser: In a recent online discussion you talked about an article which was to make a case for President Bush to either win the November election comfortably or lose by a good margin. (Not sure of the exact phrase you used, but I thought you implied the above.) Has this article been published? If yes, could you please provide a link to it? If no, any expected date for publication?
Robert G. Kaiser : This is a good example of why we have a rule against talking about articles that are upcoming in the paper--a rule I broke in that recent discussion. You caught me.
The piece I had in mind has, as so often happens, taken quite a different shape as it got written and edited. It will be in the Outlook section Sunday. It won't satisfy the description I have it in that discussion, which you accurately summarize here.
Lucian Perkins, a great Post photographer with whom I traveled across Siberia in the summer of 2001, will join me in Boston next week and in New York next month to help produce a Convention Diary. We'll have daily chats during the conventions, during which there will be plenty of opportunity for political questions and discussion. Please join us!
Thanks for taking questions this afternoon. I've been very annoyed at the notion the hijackers were clever, the plot was ingenious, and highly coordinated. I watched the Hardball special last night which chronicled 12 missed opportunities that could have thwarted the terrorist attacks. It seems to me that the Hijackers were lucky and not terribly clever as some used their real names and even registered in local phone books. It also seems to me that the commission's attempt to label the Hijackers as being smarter than they really were only works to soften the blow of criticism due many government agencies for failing to protect the country from terrorists who weren't very sophisticated, weren't very secretive, and a plot that wasn't very complicated. It almost seems like the terrorists plot was something of picking teams for an 8th grade dodge ball team. "You, you, you, and you on this plane, you, you and you over there on that plane, etc... Ok everyone show up on this day at this time, last one to paradise is a rotten egg."
Do you agree or am I over simplifying?
Thanks for your comments!
Robert G. Kaiser : Hmmm. I think you're oversimplifying. These guys all managed to overpower the crews of four planes, take control of them, fly three of them accurately to pinpoint targets, and achieve three of their four objectives. Sure they had some luck, but they also had incredible skill and discipline, don't you think? And they managed to figure out just which flights to take, and so on. They figured out some things that remain a mystery to us--why did Atta go to Logan in Boston via Maine?
Why do you want us to think they were dumb? What is the good of that? You want comfort that we don't have such a nasty, formidable enemy after all? That doesn't sound sensible to me.
San Diego, Calif.:
The fact that the report seems to shift the blame to "infrastructure" instead of George Bush will certainly disappoint most in the media and the Kerry campaign who were counting on this report to "do Bush in." Your thoughts?
Robert G. Kaiser : I feel sorry for you, that you see the world in such a stilted way.
Based on what you know of the report thus far, to what extent did the panel look into the reasons the terrorists launched the 9/11 attacks? Are there any recommendations regarding foreign policy -- perhaps doing more to address and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example?
Robert G. Kaiser : You'll find a lot on these subjects in the report. I don't know if Israel-Palestine gets specifically addressed, but there is a very sensible set of proposals in the recommendations at the end of the Executive Summary about how to improve American foreign policy and public diplomacy.
I'm wondering to what degree the press agrees not to cover subjects at the request of the government?
For instance, as I understand it the Senate Intelligence Committee found blame not only with CIA organizational functioning regarding WMDs but also with the White House, and did not include this in the public report.
Aside from a passing comment on a talking heads show I haven't seen any serious coverage of this, while the CIA is roundly criticized.
There must be similar understandings regarding national security secrets also?
Robert G. Kaiser : To no degree whatsoever. The only exception I know about is when government officials ask us not to reveal the identity of an intelligence agent, or the advance planning for a military operation that could be compromised if disclosed. On the extremely rare occasions when we agree not to print something, the reasons have -- in my four decades at The Post -- always made perfect sense to me. And we have never deprived our readers of important information for more than a brief period of time.
Your info about the Senate committee isn't quite right. That panel will submit a second report on how the executive branch handled intelligence. It will come after the election. This was a politically-motivated compromise between Republican and Democratic members of the committee.
But why is the Senate Committee's action on that point a "for instance" to your question about the press not covering issues at the request of the government? It's not an instance of that at all.
Can you comment on the possible impact of the political appointment process upon an office that needs to be free from any political agenda? This is especially important given today's headlines:
Looking only at the headlines of the report, how would a new intel chief have affected the lapses at Dulles, lapses that enabled hijackers to board the Pentagon-bound airplane? How would a politically appointed chief have affected Department of State lapses in visa issuance or the admission of at least one hijacker without a visa?
In other words, are we looking for an administrative fix that will do nothing more than consolidate power and make us feel better?
Robert G. Kaiser : We live in a republic. It's president is "politically appointed"--by all of us, in quadrennial elections in which all citizens over 18 have the right to vote. Is this a bad thing? Should we give up politics altogether? Ask King George to come back?
I read the Commission's recommendation as an attempt to get some accountability into our intelligence system. Imagine a Martian coming to town to discover that the United States has suffered the first modrn attack on its soil, then led a unique kind of preemptive war partly as a result, and that both turned out badly, and in both cases a principal reason was...lousy intelligence. Then explain to the Martian that no American was held accountable for the failures in either case. How are you going to explain that?
A national intelligence director who has budgetary power over the agencies, and the power to hire and fire their bosses, would be accountable for their failures and successes, I hope.
If the report suggests creating a National Director of Intelligence, then what happens to the National Security Advisor? Wouldn't that position (and maybe aspects of the Secretary of Homeland Security) become redundant?
Robert G. Kaiser : No. Read the report.
One of the noteworthy things I saw in the report was a recommendation to take another look at our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Especially noteworthy given the debate that has already occurred concerning the Saudi relationship with our government and specifically with the Bush administration. Do you see any change in our diplomatic stance with the Saudis happening in the near future?
Robert G. Kaiser : Hard to say. This is a hugely complicated problem, and every answer to it that involves changing the nature of the relationship will look scary to many officials.
Folks should read the Committee reports-- they are well done, and outright chilling. Al Quaeda/bin Laden decided to start killing Americans last decade and they are going to continue. Each library should have a copy. This information is vital. Every American should read the reports and call for our leaders to take immediate action. The actions can/should be debated, but we can't bury our heads in the sand and expect Al Quaeda to go away.
Robert G. Kaiser : I couldn't agree more.
Orange County, Calif.:
Since the Commission is recommending a new Spy Chief of sorts do, you feel that it duplicates existing positions such as the National Security Advisor or the head of Homeland Security. It just seems to me that what the Homeland Security director does should fall under the Attorney Generals responsibilities? It just seems like creating a new bureaucracy is the current theme in D.C. vs. fixing the existing agencies.
Robert G. Kaiser : see answer above
An article appears in todays Post "9/11 Commission Offers Critiques On Many Fronts." One front the commission chose to ignore was how well the press carried out its "duty to inform" prior to 9/11. You sometimes exit these discussion sessions by stating, "I must now go do my constitutional duty".
Are you insulted that the commission apparently felt that the press is little more than a sideshow in our democracy not even worthy of honorable mention in a critique of what the duties are of our various branches of government, and who failed to do what? They didn't even suggest that the press had a role to play, in beating the drum and warning the public about the dangers of terrorism.
Robert G. Kaiser : Interesting comment. I think traditionally, government commissions shy away from criticizing the "fourth estate." We have a tradition in this country that the news media are totally free, independent and apart from government. I like that arrangement. But I take your point. Lousy coverage of important events is an increasingly serious societal problem in my view. I will even take this opportunity to plug the book Len Downie and I have written on this subject: THE NEWS ABOUT THE NEWS, American Journalism In Peril. Highly recommended. At least by me.
Stone Mountain, Ga.:
There were obvious lapses in the intelligence community. Why hasn't anyone been demoted or fired? If your full time job is to evaluate terrorists' trends and track people on a list, how can you permit people on a watch list to freely move about the country? I'm sure things have changed since 9/11 but those in position to prevent 9/11 but did nothing should be fired.
Robert G. Kaiser : thanks for posting
Concerning your comment on the current state of affairs in government:
Every nation has the government it deserves.
Robert G. Kaiser : You think? North Korea? China? Zimbabwe? No, many nations don't have the privelege we do of actually selecting our own government. WE certainly get what we deserve, but others are victims of tyrannies or cabals they cannot control.
Hate to say it this way, but some good did
come out of 9-11. Flyer is safer than ever. We are now aware that some powerful enemies
are at war with us. Anything else in your opinion?
Robert G. Kaiser : I agree, and I think there is a longer list. Young people have been more interested in public service of various kinds sine 9/11. Journalism, at least in some places, improved because of 9/11, though sometimes only temporarily. We have at least begun a serious national discussion about how to play our role as Sole Superpower, something we avoided for all of the '90s. But we've barely begun.
Hi, thanks for doing this.
You say, "we didn't even let ourselves imagine (with a
few poignant exceptions) what [bin Laden] might pull
off. " Could you please specify the exceptions you
have in mind. This seems important, since many
people have claimed that there were no such
poignant exceptions, and the headline so far on the
Commission's report is that there was a failure of
imagination. Who did not fail? Thanks again.
Robert G. Kaiser : Tom Clancy imagined the use of a plane as a missile. Some intelligence analysts saw the danger of hijackings (it's in the report). And some Al Qaeda specialists, like Richard Clarke, realized how relentlessly determined they were do to us ill.
"society in the '80s and '90s became fat, rich, lazy and indifferent"
Blaming society for the failures of individuals who are paid and paid again in order to do a job.
Are you related to George Will?
Robert G. Kaiser : I am not related to Mr. Will. But you perhaps ought to give his relations a break; not all of them agree with him all the time, do you think?
Nor did I blame society for mistakes made by officials. What I said was, we were not vigilant, we did not pressure our leaders to be vigilant, the whole society was in a happy-go-lucky mood (except perhaps the partisan warriors in Washington), and we got whacked.
Regarding how hard it was to imagine planes used as weapons, there was a plot in the Philippines that was uncovered a year or two
earlier, was there not?
Robert G. Kaiser : As I recall, that was a plot to blow up a lot of U.S. aircraft over the Pacific, not to use them as weapons. I could be wrong in this memory.
This relates to whether the media is doing an adequate job of informing us of potential threats.
About two weeks ago, there was a frightening post by a woman who related her experience on a flight from Detroit to the West Coast. It involved several Syrian passengers and the horror she and other passengers experienced as they felt they were about to become another flying bomb. The plane was met at the gate by a swarm of police. The report scared the hell out of me.
Why did the Post not report this story? You frequently report stories of drunken passengers.
Robert G. Kaiser : This is an interesting question, about an account that has gotten wide circulation on the Web, I know, because my daughter sent it to me. The Post is looking into it. It is not easily confirmed. It may not be true, as many of the "urban myths" that circulated on the Web prove not to be true. But we are not dismissing it.
Easy question -- Was my $13.95 purchase of the 9-11 Commission Report worth buying for my own interest or will it become a coffee table book? I tend to think the former, but I'm not sure.
Robert G. Kaiser : My first impression is that the report is actually interesting reading, well written, and in sections quite compelling. But I am not going to write a review of a book I haven't written!
It seems that government no longer works for the people and has instead evolved into something of a corporate arm. The Washington Post today ran an article about the widening divide between the haves and the have-nots. When lobbyists and money have more influence over the direction of our nation than the average citizen's wants or needs, does a report like this really stand a chance of resulting in some positive, long-term changes?
washingtonpost.com: D.C. Gap In Wealth Growing (Post, July 22)
Robert G. Kaiser : Not sure I follow your logic here. Rich people are influential in America (is this a news bulletin?), so a report like this one can't lead to any real changes? What exactly is the connection you see? Do you think rich people are less interested in being protected against future terrorist attacks than poor people?
Regarding the Administrations blocking of the Commission's original creation and mandate, this is not mentioned at all thus far in initial wire reports out today. While this may not be "today's news," it is unfathomable not to include this as Mr. Bush thanks the Commission for a "really good job" and says the panel makes "very solid, sound recommendations about how to move forward."
Robert G. Kaiser : thanks for your comment.
You said "why did Atta go through Portland.." and I keep hearing this question. I think it is obvious. When I fly home from my parents house in Melbourne, Fla. I go through a security check that entails two retired people who look about 90. When I land in Atlanta to change planes, I don't have to go through their more rigorous screening process. Get it now?
Robert G. Kaiser : Not good enough. Atta's companions on the flight he piloted got on directly in Boston; they didn't go through Portland. And BEFORE 9/11, the relevant period, was the difference you describe so noticeable? Was Atlanta that much more rigorous than Melbourne--or Portland? OF course not, which is why most of the hijackers got on planes in Neward, Washington, New York and Boston without difficulty.
Robert G. Kaiser : That's all for today. Thanks to all for posting. We will not make it a habit to discuss reports neither you nor I have been able to read! But this turned out to be a better discussion than I feared, because washingtonpost.com readers are such interesting people.