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Gephardt on Reports of Bush Knowledge of Hijacking


Date: 5/16/02 Richard A. Gephardt

H-204, U.S. Capitol

Weekly Press Conference: Gephardt on Reports of Bush Knowledge of Al Qaeda Hijackings

Mr. Gephardt. Good morning.

First let me say something about the reports that we started seeing last night and saw this morning about what the Bush administration and the President and the White House knew or did not know about 9/11. First, the reports are disturbing that we are finding this out now. I think what we have to do now is to find out what the President, what the White House knew about the events leading up to 9/11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time.

The reason getting these facts is important for the American people and for the Congress is to be able to avoid further acts of terrorism from occurring. We have worked hard together to prevent further acts of terrorism, and we need to do our very best in providing that kind of activity and work in the future. So that's what I hope will happen in the days ahead. I hope that we'll get all the facts on the table and then be able to do a better job.

Q Given the fact that you are a congressional leader, should the President have intervened?

Mr. Gephardt. Well, I think it's early in the process to reach conclusions.

There are three -- as I understand it, three sets of facts out there that have been reported. I don't know whether they are true or not, and that's why the inquiry needs to go on.

There's one report that there were general warnings to the White House before 9/11 of hijackings. There's another report that I guess is said to come out of Phoenix that there was even specific information about flying planes into the World Trade Center. I don't know whether that is true or not. There were other reports that there were worries about Mr. Moussaoui and what he was doing in Minnesota and what he was likely to do.

I don't know the specifics of these reports. I don't know what reports there are. That's why we need an inquiry. We need to know what information was given to the White House and what they did with it, and we also need to know why it's taken until now to find this information out.

Again, we need to prevent further acts of terrorism; and it's going to take a lot of hard work to do that. We've had past instances where we think acts of terrorism were prevented. What immediately comes to mind is the Millennium celebration period where you had reports of people coming in through Canada to deliver explosives in, I guess, Los Angeles; and I think we were able to break that up and prevent it. That's precisely the kind of thing that we need to know about so that we can do better in the future.

Q Could this have been prevented, do you believe? Based on what you know and the direction this seems to be going, where we're getting more and more?

Mr. Gephardt. We don't know that. We don't know that.

But, again, this was a tragedy of major proportions in our country. Thousands of people were killed, and the Pentagon was attacked, and the World Trade Center was torn down, felled by this act of terrorism.

We obviously did not prevent it. And you would hope that if further acts of terrorism are planned, like the Millennium project, that we could be effective in keeping it from happening. That's the goal. That's what we've all been trying to figure out, how we can do better so that this doesn't happen again. And the way to do better is to understand what happened in the past. Was there a failure of intelligence? Did the right officials not act on the intelligence in the proper way? These are the things we need to find out.

Q Mr. Gephardt, sir, you have been involved in probably dozens of briefings, closed-door meetings going all the way back to September 11th; and you've been told a lot of stuff that we are not allowed to know about. Did the most recent news story surprise you? Were you surprised that this piece of information had been withheld from you?

Mr. Gephardt. Yes, I've been surprised at a number of stories that have been out there in recent days. The stories about the Phoenix warning or the Arizona warning, the stories about the individual in Minnesota, and then this report today which may or may not be different than those.

We had not received this information; and I think the Congress should have known this information, should know this information. Again, I think that's what we need to find out in the days ahead. We need to get all the information on the table again for the purpose of doing better in the future. We have a solemn obligation, all of us in public service and in the government, to try to prevent further acts of terrorism being put on the people of the United States.

Q When you say there should be an inquiry, can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that? What kind of inquiry? Is it now good enough to have the Intelligence Committees doing what they're doing or do you see something broader? What do you want?

Mr. Gephardt. I think this has to be something that is exposed to all the people. I don't think this can just be a closed-door, secret intelligence investigation. I think this has got to be something that everybody understands.

Again, if you're going to prevent terrorism, everybody's got to be involved in it. The reason the Millennium warning worked is that they gave warning to the right officials. A lot of people knew about it, and a lot of people were able to take actions to prevent that from happening.

I just don't think this is something that can be kept as top secret, and I think we've got to understand what happened, again, so we can do better in the future and understand if there were failures or lapses or voids in the information going out to people that it could have gone out to prevent this. We need to do better.

Q Can you be a little more specific about that? Are you suggesting a bicameral commission take a look at this? Are you suggesting a bipartisan committee? What form should this inquiry take?

Mr. Gephardt. I'm not sure. I don't know yet. I don't know exactly the right form this should take in the Congress. Obviously, the Congress has got to be involved in this. It may be that the investigation or the inquiry that's going on can be adapted to deal with this. It may be that there needs to be a new entity created. I don't know the answers to all of that. What I do know is that we need the facts on the table, and we need everybody to know what happened, again, so that we can do better. People count on their government first for safety and security. That is our most important obligation.

We have just got to do the best we possibly can. There are still terrorists out there, unfortunately. They still probably want to do harm to the United States. They still probably have the capacity to do it. We've got to do everything in our power to prevent, to break up, to defeat terrorists from doing what they want to do.

Q Mr. Gephardt, I've had some Republicans within the last 24 hours tell me or suggest that with the Phoenix letter and now this most recent story that they are suspicious that the folks on the other side of the aisle, your side of the aisle, are up to some politicking here and getting this story out in dribs and drabs. Are you aware of any effort on that level?

Mr. Gephardt. I sure haven't known these facts, so we hardly could have been in any way involved in getting the story out. I'm sure that, in a free society, the media and the press which you all represent are doing your job. That's what you ought to do. That's why you're in these positions. You're the fourth estate. You keep all of us honest and keep all of the facts on the table, and that's what you ought to do. But we shouldn't yet jump to conclusions. Let's again carefully find what the facts are, get the facts out in front of the American people and then make use of the facts to try to do better.

Q Do you feel that the flying public was adequately protected if this information was given to the highest levels in the administration last August? First question.

And, second question, do you feel that people in the administration and all the intelligence agencies should have connected information that they received prior to September 11th in August with previous plots, the first bombing of the World Trade Center, et cetera?

Mr. Gephardt. Well, I don't know the answer to all those questions. Again, what I do believe is that we ought to get all the facts out so that we, again, can do better. We do know that we had a situation with the Millennium. We had lots of apparent warnings about a Millennium attack. We got the information out to the proper officials, and we were able in that case to defeat the terrorists.

Now, we have report -- I don't know the facts yet, but we have reports that there were similar kinds of reports through various intelligence networks about what happened on 9/11. We need to find those facts so that, again -- we obviously did not succeed in defeating the terrorists on that day, and the flying public, a number of them were unfortunately harmed and killed as a result of those terrorist acts, so you can't say that we probably did everything that we could do.

Again, let's prevent the next attack. Let's do better on the next possible attack by terrorists, and let's get all the facts out. This is a free society. We have to have the information in order to make the right decisions, and we ought to get the information out and, again, do the best we can do prevent this from happening.

Q I just saw Porter Goss who told me that Members of Congress, at least in the Intelligence Committees, received the same information last August that the President received. This is information that was never run by you? A generic report about possibility of hijackings, not specific about going into buildings, not targeting the Trade Center but just something about hijacking? This is not something that you knew about last August?

Mr. Gephardt. No, but this is the reason we need to get the facts out. I don't know what information was there in front of the White House, the President, the Intelligence Committees, or anybody else. That's why we need to know this.

Again, this is the pursuit of knowledge for the purpose of preventing further attacks. That's what this is.

And, you know, what Mr. Goss may have said -- I don't know what he said, but to what he may have said, I don't know how many reports there were, I don't know what were in the reports, I don't know who got the reports, and I don't know what the information was, and I don't know what anybody did to deal with the information. That's precisely what we need to do.

Q Mr. Gephardt, there was a panel this morning to discuss the possibility of what would happen to Congress if Members -- a large number of Members were killed or incapacitated, and I know that leadership has sort of given the green light to say go ahead and discuss these questions. What do you think should happen here? Do you think a constitutional amendment might be necessary or rules changes? Or what are your thoughts on this subject?

Mr. Gephardt. Well, this is a question that needs to be examined. We set up a group of Members on a bipartisan basis to look at it and to bring back recommendations. I don't know the right answer. There is no really good answer, because it is a big problem if you lose lots of Members in a terrorist attack. But we've got to prepare for every eventuality. If it takes a change in the law, we ought to look at that; and if it takes a change in the Constitution, we ought to look at that. I think people want to be doing the right thing, given every eventuality. The White House certainly has done some planning for its own perpetuation, and we need to look at the same thing for Congress.

Q Congressman, you keep saying that we successfully prevented terrorism during the Millennium, and it seems to me that you are implying that we also could have prevented 9/11.

Mr. Gephardt. No, I don't know that at all. I don't know what the facts are.

Q But it seems that you are suggesting -- using that as an example of here's another case where we had warnings and we were able to prevent something from happening. Can you say --

Mr. Gephardt. Look, our job is to prevent terrorists from being able to kill Americans. That's our first and most important job. There are times in our past when we have succeeded at that. There obviously was a time when we did not succeed at that.

All we need to do now is to know everything we can know about all these cases and certainly where we failed so that we can do better. We've got to learn from our failures, just like any of us would. Any of us in our lives, if you have a failure and you don't get something done that was really important for you to do, you try to look back on the experience, say how can I do better? That's what we need to do here. But you can't do that if you are not getting all the facts out on the table. We need the facts on the table.

Q Can I ask you about the inquiry? When you leave this press conference, will be you calling the Speaker about this or Majority Leader Daschle? How will you proceed in pursuing an inquiry?

Mr. Gephardt. We will try to talk with the other leaders and figure out the best way to proceed. Right now, we have an inquiry that is going on in the Intelligence Committees. It may or may not be sufficient to get all of this done. We will talk to other leaders about ways to get this done.

Q Over the years there have been bicameral or special select committees. Does this rise to that level yet? Could it? What would bring it to that?

Mr. Gephardt. It might, but I don't know the answer to that.

Q Back on the point of what Congress may have known, what is your understanding of when Congress became aware of this?

Mr. Gephardt. As far as I know, Congress in general became aware of these facts at 8 or 9 o'clock last night. Obviously, there were prior newspaper and television and radio reports in the last couple of weeks about the Phoenix facts and about the Minnesota facts. But these were just articles about what various parts of our intelligence apparatus knew or did not know.

Q Let me pursue that for a moment. I'm not talking about Congress in general, but have you spoken with your ranking member on the Intelligence Committee about what she may have known?

Mr. Gephardt. I have not had an extensive conversation. I had a quick conversation with morning, and you'd have to ask Nancy herself. I don't want to speak for her. But I don't think there was any general knowledge in the Congress about these reports. We've been learning about it, as we all have, through the media.

Q I'm sorry, do you mean general knowledge? Most Members?

Mr. Gephardt. Most Members. And I don't want to speak for Nancy -- I don't want to give an answer that only Nancy can give. You'll need to talk to her about that. But I do not think that there was knowledge in the Congress about these reports.

Q Do you think that the President in any of these meetings you have had with him over 8 or 9 months should have told you?

Mr. Gephardt. I don't know yet. I mean, I don't know, again, what he knew and what the White House knew and when they knew it and what they did about it. I guess, in part, the answer to your question would depend upon the earlier questions. But, obviously, if we had prior information, warnings, certainly specific warnings or even general warnings about the use of airplanes to commit acts of terrorism, we need to know what was done about it, and we need to know why this wasn't out there at a prior time so that we could deal with this.

Again, we're trying to prevent further acts of terrorism. That is our responsibility, and we need to do as well as we can at that.

Q Do you think this news just leaked out now because someone in the administration or other Republicans generally were trying to protect the President politically from any damage?

Mr. Gephardt. I don't know. I have no idea. I just don't know.

Q Yesterday, a report was released suggesting that the FEC should be eliminated and replaced with some other entity. Have you given any thoughts as to that?

Mr. Gephardt. No, I haven't. I haven't looked at that. We shouldn't just eliminate it and think that people are going to comply with the rules on their own. We've got to have some regulatory body that tries to deal with the Federal election laws. I know there is criticism of the way they've acted. I think, you know, we ought to look at that suggestion, but I don't have a conclusion on it.

Q Given the importance that you have given to the campaign finance reform bill, do you think that there is a pressing need for it to be reformed or changed?

Mr. Gephardt. I don't think our problem has been so much with the way the commission has worked. I think the problem has been with the rules, and we corrected one of the big omissions in the rules a few weeks back when we passed campaign finance reform. There was nothing illegal about massive contributions from special interests. We've now cut that out as of the day after the next election, and I think that will be a big step forward. But if we can improve the way the FEC works, we ought to look at it.

Thank you very much.

[Whereupon, at 11:10 a.m., the press conference was concluded.]

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