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“The White House Has Played Cover-Up”–Former 9/11 Commission Member Max Cleland Blasts Bush

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The independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is holding public hearings today with testimony by top Bush administration officials. We speak with former commission member Max Cleland who was the chief critic of the White House’s lack of cooperation in the investigation. [includes rush transcript]

Today, the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is holding public hearings with testimony by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as their counterparts in the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright and William Cohen. Tomorrow testimony will be given by CIA Director George Tenet; Samuel Berger, former assistant to Clinton for national security affairs; and Richard Clarke. National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice has refused to testify publicly.

Yesterday, a group of Democratic senators released a letter sent to the White House, asking President Bush to compel Rice to testify at the hearing. Rice has met with the panel in private, but aides have said she believes it would set a bad precedent for her to testify publicly.

Meanwhile, a pair of public interest groups, The 9-11 Family Steering Committee and 9-11 Citizens Watch, have called for the resignation of the director of the independent 9-11 commission, Philip Zelikow.

The calls for resignation come after former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke revealed that Zelikow participated in Bush administration briefings on al Qaeda prior to Sept. 11.

To talk about the commission, we are joined by one of its former members, former Georgia senator Max Cleland. After his appointment to the commission in 2002, Cleland became the chief critic of the White House stonewalling over releasing documents and lack of cooperation.

In October last year, Cleland said the Bush administration was purposely stalling the investigation because of the 2004 election. Cleland said, “As each day goes by, we learn that this government knew a whole lot more about these terrorists before Sept. 11 than it has ever admitted.”

In November, after the White House set conditions for the examination of documents Cleland said, “If this decision stands, I, as a member of the commission, cannot look any American in the eye, especially family members of victims, and say the commission had full access. This investigation is now compromised.”

In December 2003, Cleland stepped down from the commission to become a member of the board of directors of the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

  • Max Cleland, former Georgia senator. In 2002, he was appointed to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. In December 2003, he stepped down from the commission to become a member of the board of directors of the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We welcome former senator Max Cleland to Democracy Now!

MAX CLELAND: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Good to have you with us. Can you talk about the hearings and why you feel that the 9-11 commission that you served on has been compromised?

MAX CLELAND: Well, first of all, let’s look at what Richard Clarke has said. That’s the man in the White House serving four Presidents, three Republicans and one Democrat, the man responsible for monitoring terrorist activity and threats to the United States. He has come out with a scathing indictment of President Bush, saying he has handled the problem terribly because he had an obsession, basically, he and his top advisers, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, with Iraq. Not an obsession with Osama bin Laden and the terrorist cadre that was increasingly being formed in the 1990’s that is responsible, we now know, for the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, killing 17 sailors, or an increasing number of attacks and then ultimately the attack on 9-11. And yet this administration has chosen to focus on Iraq, not al Qaeda. Why? I think that is why the 9-11 commission has been dissed because if you really go into it, you really go into 9-11. You realize that this government had more information at its disposal and, in many ways, failed to understand the threat from al Qaeda, or discounted people like George Tenet who, from 1998 on, said that we were at war with al Qaeda. So, what happens here is that the real information that we did have from the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. about al Qaeda was relatively dissed and then Cheney and others went to the C.I.A. and said, look, give us the information that we really want. Richard Clarke recounts in his book that the 12th of September, after Condoleezza Rice had put Richard Clarke in charge of the emergency response in the situation room. The next day Richard Clarke goes in the situation room and they’re all talking about Iraq, not al Qaeda. Why is that? Why would the President continue to insist without any shred of evidence to connect Saddam Hussein with this attack? And why would Rumsfeld, on the day of the attacks, September 11, as revealed by Bob Woodward’s book “Bush at War” published two years ago, in his handwritten notes, say put it all together, tie it all together? Because they had a predisposition back to 1992 to go to war with Iraq. Why? Because I think the Neocons, the Right-wing in America, felt that president Bush I got beaten primarily because he didn’t take out Saddam Hussein because — so that became the real litmus test for foreign policy for the Neocons and for the Right wing. And once Bush got elected and Cheney was Vice President and Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense and Wolfowitz was the number two in the Department of Defense, the Cheney-Wolfowitz plan dating from 1992, to take out Saddam Hussein became the operative foreign policy agenda. Item number one. We now know from secretary O’Neill, a Republican, who was Treasury Secretary under George Bush for a while, that within 10 days of the inauguration of President Bush, he was talking about invading Iraq. So, now if we really examine 9-11, we find that this administration, President Bush, has used 9-11 and the tragedy to this country and to the families in this country, the over 3,000 people who were lost, used that as an excuse to go after Saddam Hussein, not a reason to create the war in Iraq. So, they created a war that they were already predisposed to do and 9-11 gave them the excuse. That is why Osama bin Laden is still on the loose. That is why Osama bin Laden and his terrorist cadre are still blowing up people by the hundreds most recently in Spain, which changed that government and now Spain is withdrawing from Iraq.

I mean, we have a killer and killer organization on the loose and this President has chosen another course to pursue because of his own predilections to I guess avenge his father or follow the Neocon path that Saddam Hussein was the real enemy. The real enemy is Al Qaeda and that’s what the 9-11 commission will increasingly find in testimony and they will increasingly find that this government had more information about Al Qaeda from the FBI, dating back to 1994 that planes were planned to be used to hit major targets like big buildings. And if you follow the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Al Qaeda in many ways was behind that and why — why — they didn’t take their eye off the ball.

But this administration took its eye off the ball and, with a war in Iraq, has got our cream of American forces now bogged down there. We’re losing two soldiers a day and I think it is a disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to former Senator Max Cleland of Georgia. Max Cleland also served on the 9-11 commission. A pair of public interest groups, the 9-11 Family Steering Committee and the 9-11 Citizens Watch have called for the resignation of the Director of the Independent 9-11 Commission, Phillip Zelikow. It turns out that in Richard Clarke’s book, he reveals how Zelikow participated in Bush administration briefings on Al Qaeda prior to 9-11-and they’re saying that this compromises him, since the mandate of the commission was to investigate the source of failures. It is now apparent why they said there has been so little effort to assign individual culpability. We can now see that trail would lead to the staff Director himself. Your response.

MAX CLELAND: That’s not the staff director’s fault, it is the White House’s fault. It’s president Bush’s fault. President Bush personally has nixed the effort of the 9-11 Commission to get all the documents in the White House, especially the Presidential daily briefs, which basically tell the Commission and the American people what the President knew and when he knew it in regards to the potential attack on 9-11 and the attack itself and the follow-up. He has personally nixed that information coming to 9-11. That means to me that all of the members of that commission will never get to see the real documents that I think are sensitive. The President, as I think John Kerry mentioned, had time to go to rodeo, but didn’t have time to appear fully before the 9-11 commission.

Truth of the matter is, the White House has played cover-up and a slow walk to this game from the beginning. Now after sewing to the wind, they’re reaping the whirl wind. Now what they’ve done is forced the Congress to extend the 9-11 Commission two more months, which kicks the final report in July right before the Democratic National Convention. That’s not the Democrats’ fault. That’s not the 9-11 Commission’s fault. That is the fault of the White House, to slow up this thing and it never even held any public hearing for six months.

AMY GOODMAN: Now Senator Cleland, we should say that you are actively campaigning for Senator Kerry.


AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of being a Commissioner, for the periods you served on the 9-11 Commission, what access to documents did you have?

MAX CLELAND: Well, first of all, not much. While I was there, through December of last year, and I was on the commission from December 15 of the previous year, 2002, to December of this past year, for a year. I was there for a whole year. I was ready to go to work December 15.

AMY GOODMAN: You have 10 seconds.

MAX CLELAND: The commission had to subpoena the F.A.A. for documents, had to subpoena NORAD for documents and they will never get the full story. That is one of the tragedies. One of these days we will have to get the full story because the 9-11 issue is so important to America. But this White House wants to cover it up.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, former Georgia Senator, and former member of the 9-11 Commission, Max Cleland. That does it for the show. Tomorrow, we bring you highlights of today’s 9-11 hearings.

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