Debate: Bush's handling of terror clues
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Questions about what the Bush administration knew before the September 11 terrorist attacks was a topic Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."
WOLF BLITZER: For some insight into the decisions presidents make at crucial times, we turn to three guests. Joining us from Manchester, New Hampshire, former Gov. John Sununu. He was the White House chief of staff during the first Bush administration. In San Francisco, the former Clinton chief of staff at the White House, Leon Panetta. And here in Washington, the presidential historian and American University professor Allan Lichtman.
Gentlemen, good to have all of you on the program.
Leon Panetta, let me begin with you. When you were the White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, you were no stranger to controversy, scandals, other kinds of press inquiries, congressional inquiries. How is President Bush handling this current issue?
LEON PANETTA, FORMER CLINTON CHIEF OF STAFF: I think the president is trying to do the best he can in responding, obviously, to the revelations that he was briefed on the issue of a possible terrorist attack.
I think, frankly, that I get a sense that they're being very defensive when, in fact, I don't think they have a lot to be defensive about. I mean, I think the issue is not what the president did; I think the president did the right thing based on the quality of information he had.
The real issue, again, as has been said time and time again, is whether or not the information that was out there was properly analyzed and properly presented to the president. That's the issue, and that's what we ought to focus on.
BLITZER: All right. John Sununu, as far as you're concerned, what is the issue right now?
JOHN SUNUNU, FORMER BUSH CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, I think the fundamental issue is actually the issue that's been there for a long, long time. And that is the issue that we gutted our intelligence structure a long time ago under the Church commissions, Democratic Sen. [Frank] Church. And we have never really made the commitment to rebuild it with the kind of on-the-ground support that would corroborate and give the details to fill in the kind of abstract information that was available before September 11.
I think the big issue right now is for the government, the legislative side and the executive side, to commit the resources and to change the political-correctness attitude that has made covert action almost impossible in many cases.
BLITZER: So, are you saying, Gov. Sununu, that it's time for a sort of full-scale, outside, independent commission to go backward, look what the mistakes were and come up with specific recommendations to make the system work better?
SUNUNU: I don't think you need an outside commission. I think everybody involved, both from the legislative intelligence committees to the people at the CIA and the National Security Agency and the White House, all understand that what we have done is gutted our physical component to intelligence. We have no people on the ground in any of the critical places to provide the specific details that allow us to deal effectively with the kind of abstract information that came in before September 11.
BLITZER: All right, let me bring in Allan Lichtman, who's a historian.
Sen. Frank Church -- he can't defend himself obviously -- it's all his fault that that Church committee hearing gutted the intelligence community?
ALLAN LICHTMAN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Not at all. Look, we've had this discussion about problems with the intelligence community time and again, long before the Church commission. We had it after Pearl Harbor. There was a whole commission headed by Justice [Owen] Roberts to ask how that could possibly happen. We had it time and again during the Vietnam War.
What I'd like to focus on, though, is not so much what happened before September 11, but the way the Bush administration is handling the situation now. And unfortunately, I think this administration is falling into the same trap that time and again presidential administrations have fallen into. And that is, not coming clean with the American people. Even after all this came out, they still withheld information. They didn't tell us exactly what was in those memos.
This has been the biggest mistake that administrations have made after the fact of a controversy. They seem to believe that they should control the information and keep it from the American people. It's a tragedy.
BLITZER: Gov. Sununu, go ahead.
SUNUNU: You know, it's really wonderful to find these folks that live in a pedestal trying to talk about how to deal with the reality inside.
What you have is information inside that might have an impact on our capacity to get the same kind of information in the future. There might be people who provided information whose lives are at risk. And I don't need, and this administration doesn't need, and the American public doesn't need, an academic who never had to make a tough decision on which lives depended, to sit there...
LICHTMAN: How do you know that?
SUNUNU: ... and say, all you got to do is put everything out on the table.
The fact is, is that you have to be responsible and you have to filter what goes on the table because there are other lives at risk in the process.
LICHTMAN: I'd like to respond to that.
SUNUNU: I certainly hope you do.
LICHTMAN: Indeed I will. I think by withholding information, by not coming clean with the American people, they have delayed by at least eight months the needed inquiries that indeed Mr. Sununu thinks is necessary.
Look, after Pearl Harbor, who was it that was calling for a complete investigation? It was Mr. Conservative in the Congress, Sen. Robert Taft. There's no politics on this. This isn't a matter of left or right, Republicans and Democrats.
SUNUNU: But there are intelligence committees reviewing right now, there are bipartisan intelligence committees reviewing from right after September 11 that whole process. But they are doing it the right way; they're doing it in secret.
BLITZER: Let me bring on Leon Panetta.
Mr. Panetta, you well know that one of the first rules of an administration, when there is a mistake that was made, the best way to get that information out is to release it yourself and not allow your enemies or political opponents to release it.
Is this administration following that damage-control rule?
PANETTA: No, I think my friend John Sununu is being equally defensive about what took place here.
I mean, look, the first lesson that is never learned in Washington is that when something like this happens, the better course is to basically indicate what took place. I don't think the administration, frankly, has anything, as I said, to be defensive about.
The quality of information that was presented to the president at the time -- in my view, the president did the right thing, based on that information. I think the same thing is true for President Clinton, based on information that was presented to him.
PANETTA: The issue has to be, what is that information that was out there? We're just now finding out the dribbles and drabs from Phoenix memo, to what happened with Moussaoui, to what happened with briefing to president.
I think that's information that, very frankly, the White House can be very aggressive in presenting that information to the committees in the Congress. They've already indicated what happened to the public. I think they have done a pretty good job in presenting that case to the public.
There is nothing really to hide here. And the public has every right to know how an administration is approaching this kind of crisis, because if we are going avoid future September 11s, we've got to find out what went wrong before this September 11.
SUNUNU: But, Leon, that information has been made available to the intelligence committees, and I hope they keep looking for whatever else they can find.
But all I'm suggesting, is that to feel that the only way to examine every piece of intelligence information that might apply to this is to do it in public, in my opinion, is part of the problem of exposing your assets on the intelligence side, in a foolish way. And the distinction I'm trying to make is that we have felt for too long that everything that we do on the intelligence side should be made public. And that's exactly how you lose the capacity to get the kind of quality information from people who are on the inside, as to -- in a way that helps you deal specifically with issues. That's the point I'm trying to make.
LICHTMAN: This is chilling. This is truly chilling.
BLITZER: Go ahead.
LICHTMAN: This is what we heard all those years during the Vietnam War: "We know what is best, we should operate in secret, we should withhold and keep things from the American people." Well, it turned out, all those years, both Republicans and Democrats from the Kennedy administration to the Johnson administration, were wrong. It was the American people who were right about Vietnam.
SUNUNU: You know, you guys run to the Vietnam War every time want you to make a dumb point.
BLITZER: Go ahead, governor.
SUNUNU: Every time we start talking about exposing problems on intelligence, everybody runs to the Vietnam War to try and cast some pall on the discussion.
The important question is, how do you get people on the inside of the other side to give us the specific information that deals with needs? And you will never, never get it if, every time there is a problem, you put on the table every piece of information that you had and put their lives at risk. That is exactly what we are talking about.
LICHTMAN: And you will continue to make bad decisions and great mistakes when you withhold things from the American people.
BLITZER: We have to take a quick break.
But, Allan Lichtman, isn't there some information that's sensitive, so important...
LICHTMAN: Of course.
BLITZER: ... that could jeopardize sources and methods, how the U.S. government...
LICHTMAN: Of course.
BLITZER: ... could collect that information that could prevent future terrorist operations, that you want to keep secret?
LICHTMAN: Of course. We're not talking about exposing assets on the ground or top military secrets at all. That's not what's at stake here.
What was really concealed was these kinds of things that have come out now and in no way are exposing us to any great dangers. You make terrible decisions when you do it in an insular, secret way. That's what history teaches us, and I'm afraid we're about to repeat that again.
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