Transcript: 9/11 Commission Members on 'FNS'

The following is an excerpt from "FOX News Sunday," April 11, 2004.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, FOX NEWS SUNDAY: With the release of the PDB and the testimony last week of Condoleezza Rice, do we know any more about what happened in the months leading up to September 11th? And where is the commission turning next?

For answers, we're joined by two members of the panel: former Republican Senator Slade Gorton, who joins us from Seattle, and here in our studio, Democrat and former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben- Veniste.

Gentlemen, good to have you both with us. Welcome.



WALLACE: All right, let's start with the PDB, which has now been released. During her testimony, Condoleezza Rice was asked to describe the document, and here's what she said. Let's listen.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: ... information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information, and it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States.


WALLACE: Mr. Ben-Veniste, now that you've read it, do you think that Dr. Rice gave a fair characterization of the document?

BEN-VENISTE: I would characterize it differently. And I think Walter Pincus, who is perhaps the most experienced and savvy reporter in the United States on intelligence matters, put it best in today's Washington Post." And if I may, Chris...

WALLACE: Well, I'd be more interested, as a member of the commission, if you'd tell me what you think of it, not what Walter Pincus thinks of it.

BEN-VENISTE: Well, he adds something, because, with his experience -- he said, "The CIA author of the document wanted to make clear to the president that, despite the many threats being centered abroad, agency analysts believed that there was a real and continuing danger that bin Laden was determined to attack in the United States."

And that's the headline of the PDB, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in United States." So that is an important, new piece of information, and it has to be looked at in the context of the summer of threats. There were these incredible level of threats being accumulated by our intelligence agencies, indicating that a spectacular attack was imminent.

So you've got to look at that information within that context. And that then brings up the question of what happened next. We know that the FBI, two weeks later, got Moussaoui, training to fly an airplane, trained to steer the airplane. He had no prior experience. He had unexplained money in his account. He had jihadist connections.

And that, plus the Phoenix memo showing other Arabs in flight schools, perhaps -- perhaps -- if it had been utilized effectively, might have led to unraveling the plot.

WALLACE: Senator Gorton, we've all gotten the report. Here's a copy of the two pages. And, you know, it's difficult, I think, for the layman to read because there are such phrases as, "We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting." It talks about "investigating a call to our embassy in the United Arab Emirates." It does talk about these "patterns of suspicious activity consistent with preparations for hijacking," but it says they've been going on since 1998.

What do you make of the PDB?

GORTON: Three things. One, it seems to have been requested by the White House and was in response. It did talk about potential attacks in the United States. It didn't give the slightest clue as to what they would be or where they would be.

But I think the most important feature of that PDB is one you haven't discussed yet. And that is the line that the FBI is conducting 70 full field investigations. That would be sort of comforting to the person who read it the first time around. And I don't know where those 70 full field investigations were. That's what this week's hearings of the 9/11 Commission are going to be about.

Yes, there were those couple of ones about flight schools, but the FBI didn't put them anywhere. No one in Washington, D.C., knew about them.

GORTON: It seems to me, the FBI has more questions to answer than Condoleezza Rice or Dick Clarke or anyone we've had testify before us so far.

WALLACE: Well, you've taken me just where I wanted to go with this interview.

Mr. Ben-Veniste, you're going be hearing this week from Attorney General Ashcroft, also from FBI directors, current and past.

There's reporting that acting FBI director at the time, in the summer of 2001, Tom Pickard, has been very critical of John Ashcroft's response to the briefings he was getting at that time. What can you tell us?

BEN-VENISTE: We're going to look at how the Justice Department prioritized counterterrorism in its various activities since the transition, and how important it was to deal with the counterterrorist threat of Al Qaida and others.

WALLACE: Do you agree with Senator Gorton that there, in fact, are problems with the FBI and Justice Department response?

BEN-VENISTE: Oh, there have been many problems over the years. The FBI and the CIA did not talk to each other. Everyone knew that. The question was whether could you make them do that.

And the only way to make them do that was through leadership at the top to make sure they butted heads together, get them in the same room, and then pulse the agencies: "What do you know?" Get all of your agents out there with messages to say, "Tell us everything you know at this moment."

Now, the PDB refers to information as late as May of 2001 indicating the potential for the use of explosives and attacks in the United States. Now that perhaps should have alerted individuals to try to get this information up.

So we ask, what did the FBI do in this interim? We had over a month from the 6th to the 11th of September. What was done? Who did they meet with? What did they ask them to do?

WALLACE: I promise, Senator Gorton, I'll get back to you in just a moment.

But, Mr. Ben-Veniste, do you see your role in this commission as a fact-finder?

BEN-VENISTE: Yes, absolutely. Let me tell you something...

WALLACE: No, no. I'm now going to play Richard Ben-Veniste with you.


I want to play a clip...

BEN-VENISTE: I appreciate that.

WALLACE: I want to play a clip from your hearing with Dr. Rice. Let's take a look.


BEN-VENISTE: Isn't it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6th PDB warned of against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB.

RICE: I believe the title was "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States." Now, the PDB...

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

RICE: No, Mr. Ben-Veniste, I would like to finish my point here.

BEN-VENISTE: I didn't know there was a point.


WALLACE: As you know, this has gotten a lot of attention. If, in fact, you were interested in fact-finding, why didn't you let Dr. Rice finish her answer?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, I had 10 minutes. And I think she answered the question, which I think was the title of the PDB, which was important....

WALLACE: But you asked her two questions. One was...

BEN-VENISTE: Yes, I did. And I think that's a fair analysis, Chris.

But our job is to find the facts. And we do it with our own styles. We have 10 members on the commission. Slade Gorton is a brilliant analyst, and he has played an extraordinary role in getting our commission centered. And he acts in a way that people look toward him for leadership on this commission.

WALLACE: But some people have questioned, have suggested, that perhaps you were going after her more like a prosecutor going after a suspect than a commissioner going after the national security advisor.

BEN-VENISTE: Well, let me say this. The week before 9/11, I took my family to New York to the Statue of Liberty and to the World Trade Center. Like tens of thousands of others, we have said, "There but for the grace of God, go we."

When I accepted this job on the commission, I determined that I would try to find the facts as best I could.

BEN-VENISTE: Now, the White House has put certain roadblocks in our way, such as the release of this information. I'm very pleased that it's released, so that you and others can make your own determination about what it says and what its import is.

We've tried to do that. And that's my only objective. I have no political aspirations, as you know. I've never held any office, and I don't seek office.

WALLACE: All right. Let's bring in Senator Gorton, and I'm sorry, sir, that we went away from you for a while.

But, you know, some of the criticism is that you didn't need a program to know who were the commissioners. That the Democrats were generally pretty tough on Condoleezza Rice, and you and the Republican commissioners, some people say, were pretty easy on her.

Has this commission gotten too partisan, and will that jeopardize the credibility of your final report?

GORTON: No, I'm convinced that it is not too partisan at all, and I have not the slightest objection to Richard's questioning. He's one of America's great trial lawyers. He's a very fine cross- examiner. But he was limited in time, you know, this time around, and Condoleezza Rice said exactly what she wanted to say in response to him.

But we have gotten along together very, very well. At our very first meeting, more than a year ago, we made the determination that, if we were not unanimous on the facts, if we didn't write an objective history, it wasn't going to be worth very much. And at our last meeting, we made exactly the same point to one another.

And the fact that some of us are tougher or lead questions in one direction or another has nothing to do with our final report. It's going to be factual, and I have every hope that it's going to be unanimous.

WALLACE: Senator, do you know when you'll be speaking with the president and Vice President Cheney?

GORTON: Well, you'll learn about that after it's taken place.

WALLACE: Can you give me any time frame?

GORTON: No, I can't give you any time frame at this point. We have, of course, talked to President Clinton and to Vice President Gore, and in the relatively near future we'll talk to the present president and vice president. But it's going to be out of the sight of the press, and we certainly will be willing to talk about it afterwards.

WALLACE: And, Mr. Ben-Veniste, do you plan to question the president and vice president in the same fashion that you approached Dr. Rice?

BEN-VENISTE: We won't have the kind of limitations that we had in time there, according to spokespeople for the president. And I don't think we'll have anything other than a cordial meeting with the president and vice president.

WALLACE: And finally, Senator Gorton, you mentioned the fact that you talked this week with former President Clinton. Did he satisfy your concerns about the decisions that he made during his eight years in office not to hit Al Qaida harder?

GORTON: President Clinton, you know, was totally frank and forthcoming. He stayed an hour longer than he said he would take. It was a most interesting time.

But, in connection with this whole FBI thing, I guess the greatest surprise to me was that President Clinton said how limited the White House is in dealing with the FBI. You know, after all of the scandals of J. Edgar Hoover and some in the Nixon years, the White House has felt that it couldn't give direct directions to the FBI.

And I think that was a great inhibiting factor, and it's the reason I'm so interested in these so-called 70 field investigations. I don't know what they were. I don't know what they did. I don't think they got to a point where anyone could take action on them.

WALLACE: All right, gentlemen, we're going to have to leave it there. We want to thank you both so much for talking with us today, and a Happy Easter to both of you.

BEN-VENISTE: Same to you, Chris.

GORTON: Thank you.