Transcript of Bush/Cheney Testimony Before
the 9/11 Commission — [from JU off Topic]
Chairman Kean: The Commission will come to order. Welcome, Mr. President and Mr. Vice President. Although, per our agreement, you are not being placed under oath, we expect that your testimony will consist only of the truth. The Commission and the American people deserve no less, and we trust you are in full agreement with this expectation.
Cheney: Yes, of course.
Bush: Sure, OK.
Kean: I have a few preliminary questions. First, Mr. President, please tell us what pre-9/11 warnings you were receiving in the Summer of 2001 from various intelligence agencies and from other nations’ leaders about a possible coming Al Qaida attack.
Bush: It was all historical. You know, old stuff, very general, about Osama’s desire to hurt the United States. They hate us, you know, hate our freedoms. Nothing specific.
Kean: Did you receive warnings about the possibility of airplanes being hijacked and used as weapons?
Bush: Nobody would have ever thought of that. For example, there was the Genoa summit where–
Cheney: To complete that thought. There had been some information in the past, historical reports, about how Al Qaida might want to hijack an airplane and exchange the hostages for the release of the blind Muslim leader. But, of course, nothing about planes used as weapons.
Kean: But the President just mentioned the Genoa Summit meeting of world leaders, where there was intelligence that terrorists might want to fly a plane into the hotel where the heads of state were staying. I presume that is why President Bush chose to stay on a naval vessel offshore. Is that what you were referring to, Mr. President?
Cheney: I think the President was referring to the fact that the world leaders, assembled for an economic summit, were also going to be talking about how to combat terrorism.
Kean: Excuse me, Mr. Vice President, but I was addressing that question to the President.
Bush: The Vice President has explained my position.
Kean: Very well. Let’s move on to what, on the surface, appears to be inexplicable behavior at the Florida schoolhouse on the morning of 9/11. Mr. President, you were in the schoolroom listening to children read, your Chief of Staff Andrew Card walked in and told you that the second tower had been struck by another jet; America clearly was under attack from some nation or band of terrorists, yet you did not quickly leave, the Secret Service did not whisk you away to safety, your staff did not request that you depart to assume command as Commander in Chief. In short, your behavior was so casual as to leave one puzzled. Could you explain, please?
Bush: It was a very emotional, confusing time, so I’m not sure I can remember all the details of that morning. As to why I continued to sit there, I knew that the Vice President was on top of things in Washington and–
Cheney: We conferred on the phone, coordinating the approach the government should be taking. I took the President’s commands and implemented them while he made his way back to the capital.
Kean: Let’s ignore for a moment the whole phone-communication discussion — that is, how and when you two conferred when the President was sitting in the classroom for 20+ minutes; the key question is why he didn’t exit the classroom immediately, both for safety’s sake in case terrorists were out to get him as well, and in terms of assuming command and control of the government’s response. How can that be explained?
Cheney: If I may, Mr. Chairman. It was a chaotic time that morning. While the government responses were being prepared, and information gathered — by Dick Clarke, myself, and so on — it was all so confusing, there was no precedent for how to behave, etc.
Bush: Very confusing. Very historical.
Kean: Very well. One more question from me and then we’ll open it up to questions from the Commissioners. Would you explain, please, Mr. President, why during the summer of 2001, when the threat reports were spiking, you left Washington, D.C., for a month’s vacation in Texas, and therefore did not confer directly with CIA Director Tenet about those increasing reports; and why Attorney General Ashcroft, having received an FBI “threat assessment,” stopped flying on commercial aircraft? The implication certainly is that your Administration had received reliable reports that aircraft might be hijacked and used as weapons aimed at buildings in Washington and New York City. Certainly nobody would fault you for protecting yourselves and the ongoing governmental institutions, but what the victims’ families have requested me to ask you is this: If you took steps to protect yourselves from harm, why, when you realized a massive attack was in the works, why did you do little or nothing to help protect ordinary American citizens on commercial aircraft and in those skyscrapers and government buildings?
Bush: It was all historical information. No specifics. If we’d had specific information, we would have moved earth and the…earth and the…you know what I mean, to stop those Islam fanatics.
Cheney: None of the warnings ever provided enough to act on. Non-actionable intelligence. It was all vague. And historical.
Kean: Commissioner Ben Veniste?
Ben Veniste: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. President, let me read you key descriptions of the warnings in the Presidential Daily Briefing of 6 August 2001, and then you tell me whether you feel those words should have provoked some actionable moves on your part to protect the American people.
Bush: Nothing specific, not enough to go on. I would have moved heaven and…heaven and…you know what I mean, to protect the American people.
Ben Veniste: Yes. Let’s look at that intelligence summary: The title of that PDB memo is “Bin Laden Determined To Attack In the United States” — not, as Ari Fleischer told the press originally, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack the United States.” In the PDB is a reference to the fact that al Qaeda was currently maintaining a “support structure” in the United States. And it cited information obtained in May 2001 suggesting “that a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.” It specifically refers to “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks,” and mentions that terrorist suspects were observed doing “recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” Do those quotes refresh your recollection about the dire warnings that something extraordinary was about to happen?
Bush: There were no flight numbers, no date, all very vague. Nobody could have imagined that planes–
Cheney: I think we’ve answered your question, Mr. Ben Veniste. Let us move on to another topic.
Ben Veniste: I don’t recall my asking you a question, sir. Now, Mr. President, following up on your answer, let me ask you this: Does it seem reasonable that a secretive terrorist organization would provide you with the actual flight numbers and date for their attack? The key question remains: With all the fairly specific warnings that you were made privy to, why you did not take actions that perhaps would have helped protect American citizens, as you swore to do when you took your oath of office as President?
Cheney: With all due respect, Mr. Ben Veniste, we have made time in our busy schedules to be here with you today, but going over and over the same point seems counter-productive. Might we move on, please?
Ben Veniste: May I remind the witness once again that the rules of this hearing are set by the Commission, not by the Vice President of the United States. Please be so good as to answer the question, Mr. President.
Bush: It’s all so complicated. You wouldn’t believe the amount of paper work and issues a President has to deal with. That was more than three years ago, and I can’t remember all the details. The Vice President has a better handle on those facts, and I would prefer that he speak on my behalf.
Kean: The witness will answer the question posed to him.
Cheney: This is not a court of law, Mr. Chairman. We appear here voluntarily to assist the Commission in its duties of trying to assess where our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies might have gone wrong, might have missed connecting the dots and so on. The FBI and the CIA were deficient–
Kean: The witness will answer the question posed to him. Mr. President, please proceed.
Cheney: There are important questions of separation of powers here, Mr. Chairman. The Executive cannot be compelled by the Legislative branch to answer questions that might compromise national security and the right of the President to assert Executive Privilege.
Kean: Mr. Vice President, please listen to me carefully. The question was not posed to you, but to the President. If you persist in interrupting, you will be asked to leave the room, and we will call you separately to testify later. Finally, this is not a legislative body; the President and Congress have established this independent Commission. You both have agreed to tell us the truth of what you know. Now, Mr. President, the Commissioners are waiting to hear your response to the question posed by Commissioner Ben Veniste.
Cheney: Mr. Chairman, please listen to me equally as carefully. The President and I didn’t agree to come here today to be badgered by the Commission, but rather to try to assist you in putting together an understanding of how and why our intelligence services might have fallen down on the job. If you persist in going over old grounds and into national security matters that are outside your purview, we will have no other recourse but to assume you are acting in bad faith and we will feel compelled to leave and return to our duties.
Vice Chairman Hamilton: If I may, Mr. Chairman, I’d like to respond to the Vice President. First, there is nothing “outside the purview” of this Commission’s mandate, including classified matters. Second, Mr. Vice President, we agreed to this odd arrangement of having the two of you appear together as a courtesy to you. You both are here, and we expect courtesy and cooperation from you. If you do not like the questions posed to you, you are free to record your objections on the record, but you have agreed to come here and tell the truth, which implies answering the questions posed. Should you choose not to cooperate and to leave the hearings after only about 15 minutes or so, the American people will have to make up their own minds as to why you might have done that.
Cheney: If you persist in turning this into an adversarial hearing, then we would like the White House Counsel, Mr. Gonzales, to be present.
Kean: Mr. Vice President, this is not an adversarial hearing. We are an informational body, trying to amass answers that will aid us in coming up with recommendations to the Congress and the Executive Branch to help prevent future 9/11 attacks. In order to do that job, we need to ask exploratory questions that help us fill in the blanks, that give us a fuller picture of what transpired in the weeks and months before 9/11. No disrespect is intended. In that light, The President once again is requested to answer the question posed. We will afford you, Mr. Vice President, the full opportunity to answer following the President’s response.
Cheney: I would appreciate the courtesy of answering first, if you don’t mind. This is all very complicated information — and perhaps I can set the context that will aid you in understanding the President’s response.
Kean: Mr. Vice President, we appreciate your desire to set the context for us — and for the President. But, if memory serves, I believe Commissioner Ben Veniste’s question was asked of the President. Commissioner, would you object if the Vice President answered the question first?
Ben Veniste: I would be most delighted to hear the Vice President’s remarks — following the President’s response to my question.
[The President and the Vice President confer.]
Bush: Let me say again that the intelligence information that was coming into the White House–
Cheney: That was coming into the FBI and CIA–
Vice Chairman Hamilton: Mr. Cheney, I warn you again not to int–
Kean: Please proceed, Mr. President, without further interruptions, please.
Bush: Yes, I was trying to say that the intelligence that we got — the intelligence we got from the FBI and CIA — was all very vague, very non-specific. We knew Al Qaida didn’t like the U.S., hated us for our freedoms, you know, so the intelligence reporting that he wanted to attack us was nothing new. And there was nothing specific about when or where such an attack might take place, so there was nothing I could have done, or should have done, when there were no specific details.
Ben Veniste: So, if I understand you correctly, Mr. President, you’re saying that if you had received exact details, you would have, in your words — sort of — moved heaven and earth to protect and defend American citizens and interests.
Bush: Yes, that’s it. Exactly. I would have moved…I would have done just like you said.
Ben Veniste: So in the PDB of 6 August 2001, when it refers to suspicious activities of terror suspects in several areas of the country, and in hijackings, and their possible interest in attacks in those locations, you didn’t find that to be actionable intelligence?
Bush: Right. No specifics. What could I have done? Made an announcement based on vague threat information and panicked millions of people in New York and Washington? Can you imagine what the traffic jams would have looked like as people fled those cities? Can you imagine the federal government basically closed down because of these vague warnings?
Ben Veniste: Well, let’s just take one for-instance, if we may. Mr. President, when you were alerted that a “spectacular” attack was being planned by Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaida operatives, through bombings and something to do with hijacking airplanes, wouldn’t it have made sense, given that a catastrophic attack was on its way, to call together all the principals in your Cabinet and get them to do everything in their power to heighten security at the airlines, have the photos of suspected terrorists (which were released the following day to the press) at the check-in counters, increase security around airports, at government buildings, at large skyscrapers, alert NORAD to be on special call, and so on? Why did you not do any of this?
Bush: Dick Clarke was in charge of our counter-terrorism program. He alerted the FAA. If there were any slip-ups, it wasn’t my fault. The FBI and the CIA didn’t connect the d–
Ben Veniste: My time is running out, Mr. President. So let me just try to parse your answer and follow-up. Despite all the warnings, you, as President of the United States, took no special measures, you ordered no special heightened security warnings, you did not even call your principal advisers together to seek their wisdom on what could be done to batten down the hatches and protect the lives of American citizens. And when the 9/11 attacks did come, the fighter jets at NORAD remained on the ground until more than an hour after the damage was done, even though this was contrary to their quick-response protocols. So my final question to you, Mr. President, is one that a great many Americans want to have presented and answered openly: Did you perhaps do nothing that might have interfered with the 9/11 attacks in order to use the fright and terror that followed to further your own political agenda in–
Cheney: Mr. Chairman, this is outrageous! I object strenuously to this partisan attack on our President, our Administration. He is suggesting treasonous behavior on our part and I will not be a party–
Kean: Your objection is registered, Mr. Vice President. Commissioner Ben Veniste, please rephrase your question in a less confrontational tone and permit the President to answer it.
Cheney: I will NOT answer it. This line of questioning, impugning my motives, cannot be permitted to stand!
Hamilton: That was a most intriguing reaction, Mr. Vice President. Nobody asked you about your actions or your motives. Commissioner Ben Veniste’s question was directed at the President — Mr. George W. Bush, the fellow sitting on your right. Are you suggesting to us that you are the architect of the Administration’s policies with regard to pre-9/11 behavior?
Cheney: It was a mere slip of the tongue, Mr. Vice Chairman, expressed in the heat of the moment. I serve to aid the President in his policy decisions. He was always in charge of Executive policy, and he is now.
Bush: That’s right. I am now. And was then. And always shall be. Just ask Dick.
Cheney: That’s right, Mr. President. You are the man who is in charge.
Bush: But I do count on you, Dick, for your advice and suggestions. I’ve always found them most useful.
Kean: Um, this might be a good point at which to take our morning break. We still stand in recess for 20 minutes, and then we’ll resume the questioning from the other Commissioners. Thank you, Mr. President; thank you, Mr. Vice President.