This is a partial transcript of "Special Report with Brit Hume," July 22, 2004 that has been edited for clarity.
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JIM ANGLE, GUEST HOST: The independent9/11 Commission (search) issued its final report today and pointed to deep institutional failings within our government. It also said no efforts by the U.S. government over several years had disturbed or even delayed al Qaeda's plotting.
We're joined by Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton.
Let me ask you first, Chairman Kean, the report says terrorism was not the overriding national concern for the U.S. government, under either the Clinton or Bush administrations. But you say each took it seriously and you don't blame either president for failing to prevent the attacks.
KEAN: Well, that's correct. What we did is we looked very carefully at the actions of both presidents. Both, we believe, understood the problem. Both had their own strategies for how to overcome it. Both were trying, and yet, neither one of them put it at the top of the heap. Neither one took it that seriously. And there were other things always on the agenda ahead.
And by the way, that's a reflection of what was happening in the Congress, which acted the same way. They didn't take it that seriously either and the American people. For instance, the best example is that in the 2000 political campaign, when terrorism was at its height. And they had attacked and killed a number of Americans already, the word "terrorism" as best as we can find searching through thousands and thousands of hot air campaign rhetoric. We couldn't find the word "terrorism" mentioned only once.
So it wasn't just the presidents and the administrations. It was a sense in this country of not taking terrorism as seriously as people ought to have.
ANGLE: Congressman Hamilton, you talked about — the commission talked about deep institutional failings; suggesting it was the system not the people in it. That makes it very hard to go back and suggest that this could have been prevented.
LEE HAMILTON (D), VICE CHAIRMAN, 9/11 COMMISSION: We don't make a judgment about whether this event could have been prevented. The causation of an event as complex as 9/11, I don't think you can say, OK, this official or that official did something and the whole event was — could have been prevented.
We're dealing with very resourceful people. If they didn't get into the country once, they'd get into the country the next time. If they didn't get the access to the airplane they needed once, they'd try again. You can't speculate about all of that. You cannot say that if we had stopped this particular person from coming into the country, because of an irregularity in his passport or even fraudulent — signs of fraudulent activity that, therefore, 9/11 would not have occurred. It's much too complicated for that.
So what we talk about is opportunities that we missed. Not could or could not 9/11 have been prevented. Anyone who argues that, I think, is speculating to some degree. And we try to stay away from that.
ANGLE: Now, you report in the commission that there were three separate occasions in 1980 — 1998 and 1999, when there was enough credible intelligence to plan strikes to kill bin Laden. Yet, none of those three went forward. Why not?
KEAN: Well, the word they always use is "actionable intense." That's a Washington word. And what it means for people like me and the public, is that they had everything there except it would take four hours for the Cruise missile to get to the place he was. And they weren't sure he'd be there in two hours. Or there was a mosque or a school next door, and they were afraid if they missed him, they would kill a lot of innocent people. Or that they had a bunch of tribesmen that said they thought they could get him, but they were unreliable. And therefore, they didn't want to go ahead.
Many things like that. They always had some reason why the intelligence was not what they called "actionable." And that's what happened in those occasions.
ANGLE: Now, everyone in Washington yesterday, on both sides of the aisle in Congress, talked about trying to keep this non-partisan. How much did you try to shape the conclusions of the commission report in order to keep it from becoming a political football?
HAMILTON: Oh, we worked very hard at that and Chairman Kean deserves a huge amount of credit for taking the partisan heat out of the commission activity.
All of us are former politicians, washed-up politicians if you will. We have some understanding of the political environment of this city and of this country. But we put it aside, and we took very seriously the obligation under the mandate that we had before us to try to lay out the facts with regard to 9/11. And to make some recommendations and to make the American people more secure.
And the more we focused on our responsibilities, the less partisanship there was. We did not have a single vote over the entire course of the commission that broke on partisan lines. And almost always we were able to talk through the issue, and I said almost always. I think in every case we did.
ANGLE: But you were able — you have some hope of keeping this from becoming partisan, even during a presidential election year?
HAMILTON: We actually did have that hope, and we succeeded in that hope, I believe. Now, this goes out into the political environment, and Chairman Kean and I don't control that. But we're going to do our level best, as commissioners to keep this focused on terrorism.
We've all said we're not going to participate in the political campaigns on the issue of the terrorism, because we want to show the unity that we reached in the commission. And want to carry that through in trying to get our recommendations implemented.
KEAN: Got to say a worth on that.
KEAN: You know, we were — I said originally and Congressman Hamilton too, that we would work to make this reach consensus and get a bipartisan report. People wrote we were naive. People wrote you can't do that because you are all appointed by political people in a very political atmosphere, in the most political year perhaps in this nation's history. And you can't do it.
Well, we weren't naive. We got it done because 10 good people forgot the R's and the D's on their chests and came together. And our last months, the meetings were like seminars. I mean we were arguing not on anything partisan at all, but as to what was right and what was wrong, and how to best do it. Now, we got it done.
Perhaps we're being naive again, but our conversations today with President Bush and Senator Kerry, and Senator Edwards and the leaders of Congress were very, very positive. I think, frankly, even in this election year, those who want to politicize this report are going to do so at their own risk. And the American people are sick of that. They don't want it. They want to be made safer. They want recommendations like ours implemented, and the sooner we can do it, the safer this country will be.
ANGLE: One last question for you. Gentlemen, you also in the process of the report, puncture a number of the theories floating around about September 11. Including one that the Saudi government had some role in it. And particularly that members of the bin Laden family were sort of secretly flown out of the U.S., without properly checking to see if they had terrorist connections.
KEAN: Yes. Well, these rumor have been floating around, the conspiracy theories, whatever you want to call them. That one is just dead wrong, because we researched these ones and nailed them to the ground. And what we have found, is unlike the speculation or unlike the rumor, or unlike the theory, first of all, the planes left with Saudi citizens, including members of bin Laden's family did not leave before airspace was opened.
Secondly, the FBI had a chance to check every single person on those planes who they wanted to check for any connection to 9/11, or to answer any questions they wanted. And thirdly, that — that they were — that authorization didn't go as far as the president or anybody on the staff — that level who was authorized by Mr. Clarke. And...
ANGLE: Richard Clarke?
KEAN: Yes. And he was the one who authorized those departures, after the FBI checks and after the airspace was open.
So that's one of those conspiracy theories that I guess floats out there for a while. But we thought our job as commissioners was to check the facts and nail it down.
ANGLE: Vice Chairman Hamilton, Chairman Kean, thank you for taking the time to be with us gentlemen.
HAMILTON: Thank you.
KEAN: Thank you.
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