David Gergen Goes 'On the Record'

This is a partial transcript from On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, March 23, 2004 that has been edited for clarity.

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GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Why was America caught off guard by the attacks of 9/11? Joining us from Boston is four-time presidential adviser David Gergen, now the director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Nice to see you, David.


VAN SUSTEREN: David, is it fair to try to blame someone for 9/11, or is it grossly unfair and impossible?

GERGEN: I think, based on what we heard today in these hearings, it would be unfair to blame either the Clinton administration or the Bush administration for September 11. In retrospect, could they have acted more aggressively against al Qaeda? Yes. I think that is clear. But were they guilty of gross negligence? No.

Had we -- even if we had acted as Secretary Powell argued, it's not clear we could have stopped 9/11. The people were already here. They were ready with their plans. Had we gotten Usama, we might -- just as we're seeing now in Iraq, just because we've gotten Saddam, the terror goes on in Iraq. Had we gotten Usama, Secretary Powell was arguing, the terror probably would have happened here anyway. And I think that is a sound and persuasive argument.

It does not answer the Iraq argument, but I think that the appearances today by the various people did put to rest some of the fears that somehow, the U.S. government, whether one administration or the other, should be held accountable for 9/11. I just don't think that's fair. That's not a fair charge.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, it's funny, David, but if you think of -- like, if Britain were going to invade us and started bringing ships up to our coast, I mean, very easy to see and we can fight it off. But when you think about it, this took 19 hijackers with very open borders, and all they had to do was board airplanes. So it almost seems like such a malignancy, with so many terrorists all around the world, it almost seems like the impossible war.

GERGEN: Well, I think the problem we now face, as Bill Cohen was saying, the former defense secretary -- we have a largely dismantled al Qaeda, but in place of al Qaeda the organization, we now have a movement. We have just a ton of small, little, tiny, little terrorist organizations. They're very hard to keep up with. It appears we're going to be dealing with homeland security for a long time. And just as we've had national security on the agenda for more than 50 years now, since the end of the Second World War, it appears homeland security is going to be with us as a concern and preoccupation for a long, long time.

VAN SUSTEREN: And what about the question you raised, the other question of Iraq? I mean, you know, it seems to me that leading up to 9/11, it really caught everyone by surprise, and maybe our intelligence was very poor until then and very tragic for the loss of lives. But the Iraq issue -- how does that play into this?

GERGEN: Well, I think that the -- that Dick Clarke in his book has raised some very substantive and significant charges against the administration, that it diverted its attention from al Qaeda over to Iraq, that it was -- that it wanted to pull the trigger on Iraq right from the beginning. Of course, there's other supporting evidence for that charge.

But I have to say, Greta, one of the -- as a political matter -- I think those charges deserve a lot of consideration. But as a political matter, I think a lot of us started this week thinking Bush was going to be in for a bloodbath this week in these hearings. And somehow, today's hearings, I think, have blunted some of the Clarke criticism. Now, he'll be talking tomorrow mostly about 9/11 and not Iraq. I'm beginning to think maybe the Bush administration is going to come out of this week politically a lot stronger than some of us thought perhaps only two days ago.

The testimony today was very even-handed, very calm, very sophisticated testimony. I think, as Bill Gertz just said, we've learned a lot about the policy-making process. I hope we've also learned a lot about how uncertain and how difficult it is to make tough decisions inside, when you're operating on, you know, sketchy information. And the country before 9/11 did not want to go into Afghanistan. I think it would have been hard to get the Congress to go along with that, as Madeleine Albright said. And I think we are learning that this policy-making process is not a clear-cut thing, that there's a lot of murkiness in it, and people need to be given a certain amount of slack.

VAN SUSTEREN: And what I thought is that we saw the respect that each one of four who testified today, had for each other, knowing the difficulty of the job and the problems that each -- you know, each faced in the job.

GERGEN: Yes. Greta, wouldn't it be wonderful if the presidential campaign were conducted on this kind of lofty level? We could actually talk about issues instead of just personalities and slinging mud. I mean, I think it was -- I think we had some -- four very good -- you said it a while ago. These are patriotic people who tried to serve their country well. Did they do everything they might have, in retrospect? No. But did they do what was reasonable, under the circumstances? I think they acted pretty reasonably and honorably.

VAN SUSTEREN: And indeed, I agree with you on that. David, thank you.

GERGEN: Thank you, Greta.

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