Truth, Lies and Conspiracy – Interview with Lee Hamilton
Image: CBC News: Sunday’s Evan Solomon interviews Lee Hamilton , 9/11 Commission co-chair and co-author of the book “Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission” .
Evan Solomon : Tell me why you felt the need, with Thomas Kean, to write this book “Without Precedent”?
Lee Hamilton : We felt we had an important story to tell, 9/11 was a traumatic event in our history, every adult in America will remember exactly where they were on that day when they heard the news. We felt that the Commission’s work gave a lot of insights into how government works, and particularly how government in the national security area works. We had hundreds of people tell us, or ask us, how the Commission did its work, and so we responded by writing the book and tried to let people know the story, the inside story of the 9/11 Commission.
Solomon : Do you consider the 9/11 Commission to have been a success, and if so, under what ways do you measure that success? How do you call it a success?
Hamilton : The 9/11 Commission was created by statute. We had two responsibilities – first, tell the story of 9/11; I think we’ve done that reasonably well. We worked very hard at it; I don’t know that we’ve told the definitive story of 9/11, but surely anybody in the future who tackles that job will begin with the 9/11 Commission Report. I think we’ve been reasonably successful in telling the story. It became a best seller in this country and people showed a lot of interest in it.
Our second task was to make recommendations; thus far, about half of our recommendations have been enacted into law, the other half have not been enacted. So we’ve got a ways to go. In a quantitative sense, we’ve had about 50% success there. In a qualitative sense, you could judge it many different ways. But we still have some very important recommendations that we think have not yet been enacted that should be.
Solomon : Now, one of the stipulations, you write in the book, one of the ways that you thought that this ought to be successful, this report, the Commission Report, is on page 23, you said if the American people would accept the results as authoritative, and the recommendations.
And when I measure that against a Zogby poll done in May, that says now 42% of Americans say that “the U.S. government, and its 9/11 Commission, concealed or refused to investigate critical evidence that contradicts the official explanation of September 11th, saying there’s a cover-up” – 42%, Mr. Hamilton – what does that say to you about the efficacy of the Commission’s report?
Hamilton : Well, it’s dispiriting, it’s an unusually high number, but if you look at polls judging government reports in the past – the Warren Commission, the reports on Kennedy assassination, even the reports on Abraham Lincoln’s assassination – you find a very high level of people who are skeptical. And you have that in this case.
When you conduct a major investigation, you cannot possibly answer every question, you just do the best you can. But for every question you leave unanswered, you create an opening to a conspiracy theory, and a good many of them have popped up here.
The only thing I ask in the future is that the conspiracy theory people do not apply a double standard. That is to say, they want us to make an airtight case for any assertion we make. On the other hand, when they make an assertion they do it often on very flimsy evidence.
But conspirators are always going to exist in this country. Tom Kean and I got a flavour of this everytime we’d walk through an audience – they would hand us notes, hand us papers, hand us books, hand us tapes, telling us to investigate this, that or the other. You cannot possibly answer all these questions, you just do the best you can.
Solomon : Some of the families have joined that chorus. We’ve talked to one father who says, ‘my son was killed by George W. Bush’, as if the government had foreknowledge of the attacks. What would you say to someone like him and other family members who have been dissatisfied with the explanation?
Hamilton : Many families supported the report – very strongly – and have been instrumental in helping us on the implementation stage. A lot of the people that have doubts about the report – not all of them – are strongly anti-Bush, for a variety of reasons. Many of them are just anti-government, in other words, they don’t believe anything the government says.
All I ask of these people is: give me your evidence. If you thought George Bush or Lee Hamilton or Tom Kean blew up those buildings, let’s see the evidence.
Solomon : I wouldn’t mind just.. there’s a few things, but I want to know, interestingly enough, if you’ve seen a film that’s so popular now on the internet, ten million people apparently have seen a film called Loose Change, which makes some startling allegations. It’s a film made by three very young students out of a New York University. Have you seen that movie, and if so, what are your thoughts on it?
Hamilton : I have not seen it.
Solomon : Yeah… 10 million people, I mean, some of them.. now, and it’s interesting that you write in one of your chapters, I think it’s Chapter 12, deals specifically with conspiracy theories. One of them, as you know – probably one of the most persistent – is that the buildings were brought down by controlled explosion, controlled demolition. One of the bits of evidence that is often cited is the collapse of World Trade Center Building Number 7, which was not hit by any plane. One question that people have is: why didn’t the Commission deal with the collapse Building 7, which some call the smoking gun? Why did this collapse at all?
Hamilton : Well, of course, we did deal with it. The charge that dynamite, or whatever, brought down the World Trade Towers, we of course looked at very carefully – we find no evidence of that. We find all kinds of evidence that it was the airplanes that did it.
Don’t take our word on that: the engineers and the architects have studied this thing in extraordinary detail, and they can tell you precisely what caused the collapse of those buildings. What caused the collapse of the buildings, to summarize it, was that the super-heated jet fuel melted the steel super-structure of these buildings and caused their collapse. There’s a powerful lot of evidence to sustain that point of view, including the pictures of the airplanes flying into the building.
Now, with regard to Building 7, we believe that it was the aftershocks of these two huge buildings in the very near vicinity collapsing. And in the Building 7 case, we think that it was a case of flames setting off a fuel container, which started the fire in Building 7, and that was our theory on Building 7.
Now we’re not the experts on this, we talked to the engineers and the architects about this at some length, and that’s the conclusion we reached.
Solomon : Let me just ask you one more question on that. One counter-argument – or there’s two, I guess – one is that that fire very rarely, and has never, forced buildings constructed like the World Trade Centers to ever collapse, because steel doesn’t melt at temperatures that can be reached through a hydro-carbon fire, and that there’s other.. in other words, there are countless cases of other buildings that have been on fire that have not collapsed.
Hamilton : – but not on fire through jet fuel, I don’t think you have any evidence of that. But here again, I’m not the expert on it. We relied on the experts, and they’re the engineers and the architects who examined this in very great detail.
Solomon : A question which has remained: Why did the debris of World Trade Center 7, of which nobody died there, so there was no real urgency to move the debris away, and that there have been questions: why wasn’t it examined closer? Why was essentially evidence from what could have been a crime scene – or was a crime scene – removed very quickly from there?
Hamilton : You can’t answer every question when you conduct an investigation. Look, you’ve to got to remember that on this day, chaos and confusion were the mark, and peoples’ overwhelming concern was to try to save as many lives as possible, not to explain why a particular building collapsed. So it’s not unusual to me that we, and the Commission – and anybody else, for that matter – cannot answer every question. I go back to what I say earlier: whenever you conduct an investigation, you cannot answer every question.
Solomon : But should the Commission have .. I guess the question some people keep asking, should the Commission have asked more questions about the removal of the debris?
Hamilton : Look, you can say that about almost every phase of our investigation, ‘you should have asked this, you should have asked that, you should have spent more time’ – you’re conducting an investigation, you have a time limit, you don’t have unlimited time, you have a budget limit, you cannot go down every track, you cannot answer conclusively every question.
The members of the families that you referred to a minute ago submitted 150 questions to us – we answered a good many of them, we didn’t answer them all. You come to a point in an investigation where you have to say to yourself, ‘what’s our responsibility, given the resources we have, how much can we do?’ And you end up with a lot of questions unanswered. Look, I ‘ve got a lot of unanswered questions in my mind.
Solomon : What are yours? What are your unanswered questions?
Hamilton : Well, at the top of my list happens to be a personal one, and that is, I could never figure out why these 19 fellas did what they did. We looked into their backgrounds. In one or two cases, they were apparently happy, well-adjusted, not particularly religious – in one case quite well-to-do, had a girlfriend. We just couldn’t figure out why he did it. I still don’t know. And I think one of the great unanswered questions – a good topic for investigative reporters – would be: why did these 19 do what they did? We speculated in the report about why the enemy hates us, but we simply weren’t able to answer the questions about the 19.
Solomon : You know, just on that point, and again, there are so many of these questions about the 19. There have been some questions about – and I’m talking about sources here like the London Times and Le Figaro, sort of major newspapers – that some of these guys, some of these hijackers were still alive after the day of the event, that there are reports of their whereabouts. What did the Commission make of those kind of reports?
Hamilton : (Laughs) What’s the evidence? Look, I had a woman come up to me who said she was a lover of Mohammed Atta. And I said, ‘do you know that he’s dead?’ And she said, ‘I’m his lover.’ .. (raises eyebrows)
You get all kinds of comments like this, you can’t trace everything down.
Solomon : Where there any notion there was… The NTSB recently released the flight path of United Flight 93 in the past two weeks. One of the interesting things that that showed was, during the flight path, and I think the flight path of that, I think that plane crashed, according to the Report, at 10:03 am.
And one of the interesting things it showed – this is just recently declassified – that it flew well over 10,000 feet – 30,000, 40,000 feet – from about 9:30 onward. Now, a lot of the cell phone calls that were made from that plane, that ended up being in the movie, were from, you know, people phoning from the plane. And one allegation that’s recently come out since the release of that is: cell phones don’t work above 10,000 feet, so how could people get on their cell phone on a plane and phone their relatives?
Hamilton : I’m no expert on that. I’ve been told cell phones work – sometimes – above 10,000 feet, and as high as 30,000 feet. So it may have been that some of the calls went through and some didn’t, I just don’t know.
Solomon : Let me ask you another thing. I’m just asking because, you know, in the wake of this, there’s lots of these questions.
Hamilton : There surely are.
Solomon : The Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, which is about 20 odd miles away from New York, they released a report on seismic data coming from Manhattan on that day. And they released a spike in seismic data at 8:46:26, and they thought that was the moment of impact of the plane on the first World Trade Center, of American Airlines 11. But the plane didn’t hit until 8:46:40, and there are several of the same kind of early seismic spikes for the second flight. I guess the question is: how do we explain those discrepancies? When the public looks at that, how can we explain that kind of thing?
Hamilton : I haven’t seen that report. I don’t know the answer to your question. They didn’t come forward with that evidence while we were at the Commission – so far as I know. Now, staff filtered a lot of these things, so not necessarily would I know. I don’t know what happened with regard to the…. What did they conclude? I don’t know what they concluded.
Solomon : They had no conclusion; the evidence is sitting out there. You write about, in Chapter 12 of the book – and again it’s one of those allegations that have come up – about who had foreknowledge of it? One piece of evidence that many critics have said is: ‘well, there is lots of ‘puts’ – which is a form of financial stock trading. In other words, people are buying up stock, hoping that the airline stock would plunge, and there was an unusually large number of puts on American Airlines and United stock, and therefore people profited from this. What did you make of that theory?
Hamilton : That’s one we did investigate. We looked at that pretty carefully, and all I can indicate at this point is that we do not think anybody profited from manipulation of airline stock prior to 9/11, there’s no evidence of that, I don’t think.
Solomon : Even though there’s unusual, high…
Hamilton : That’s correct. It’s not unusual in the stock market to have a lot of activity in a given stock, or industry, as you did here. The question is: did any of them have foreknowledge and profit from it? We don’t think so; we looked at it pretty carefully.
Solomon : There’s also allegations that the Pakistani Secret Service, called the ISI, the head of which met here in the United States right before 9/11, and there’s some allegations and evidence to show that they paid Mohammed Atta $100,000. The reason this is important is: who funded the people who conducted the attacks, the terrorist attacks? What did the Commission make of payment from the ISI to Mohammed Atta of $100,000?
Hamilton : I don’t know anything about it.
Solomon : Was there any connection between.. Did the Commission investigate any connection between ISI, Pakistani intelligence, and..
Hamilton : They may have; I do not recall us writing anything about it in the report. We may have but I don’t recall it. We did estimate that Osama bin Laden spent about $500,000 for the 9/11 attacks. We did not identify all the sources of that money.
Solomon : And how it got to the …
Hamilton : That’s right, you simply can’t trace it, so far as I know, because $500,000 in international financial markets is not even a blip on the radar screen. So we do not know precisely where that money came from.
Solomon : Questions about foreknowledge, especially as to when Vice President Dick Cheney knew when he went down to the protective bunker: there was some suggestion that the Secretary of Transport Mineta testified in front of the Commission that he in fact talked to Dick Cheney at 9:20 am. Cheney claims he hadn’t been there.. gotten down there until close to 10 am. That was eventually omitted from the final report,. Can you tell us a bit about about what Secretary of Transport Mineta told the Commission about where Dick Cheney was prior to 10 am?
Hamilton : I do not recall.
Solomon : And we don’t know exactly where that..
Hamilton : Well, we think that Vice President Cheney entered the bunker shortly before 10 o’clock. And there is a gap of several minutes there, where we do not really know what the Vice President really did. There is the famous phone call between the President and the Vice President. We could find no documentary evidence of that phone call. Both the President and the Vice President said that the phone call was made, and in that phone call, the order was supposedly was given, allegedly given, to shoot down an airliner – if necessary
Now, there are a lot of things not answered about that period of time. The order never got to the pilots and when it did get to the pilots, it didn’t get to them in time, and when it did get to them, they claimed it was not an order to shoot it down, but to identify and track an airliner, not to shoot it down.
What you had on this day, of course, was a lot of confusion, and a lot of confusion in communications, at the very highest levels. When the President went from the school in Sarasota to Air Force One, he was trying to get communications with the White House, he used a cell phone, in part. When he got to Air Force One, the communications didn’t work all that well. Well, this is all very disturbing, and I’m told has now been corrected.
Solomon : Disturbing in what way?
Hamilton : Well, disturbing that, at this particular time, the Commander in Chief lost communications with the White House, and with his chief aides there, right in the middle of a crisis – that’s very disturbing. I hope that’s been corrected, I’ve been told that it has been. But the fact of the matter is, if you look at 9/11, all the way through, FAA communications, NORAD communications, White House communications, there was just a lot of confusion, and a lot of gaps.
Solomon : So, just in terms of Mineta, just because I think that’s sort of interesting, when Secretary Mineta made at your Commission hearing, I think he did this May 23rd, that he arrived and talked to Dick Cheney at 9:20 – that would show that Mr. Cheney had had some earlier knowledge that planes had been hijacked and they wanted to take action. That was not –
Hamilton : What did the Secretary say at that time to the Vice President?
Solomon : They talked about a plane being hijacked, according to the testimony that I’ve seen, according to the Mineta report. But there’s another one, in Richard Clarke’s book, “Against All Enemies”, and I know Richard Clarke took the stand very famously – not the stand, but testified before the Commission very famously – he says he received authorization from Dick Cheney to shoot down Flight 93 at about 9:50 am. In the Commission’s Report, it said the authorization didn’t come from Dick Cheney until 10:25, and Richard Clarke’s testimony that he and his book, isn’t mentioned in the Commission’s .. Why didn’t you mention that?
Hamilton : Look, you’ve obviously gone through the report with a fine-toothed comb, you’re raising a lot of questions – I can do the same thing…
Solomon : Yeah..
Hamilton : ..all I want from you is evidence. You’re just citing a lot of things, without any evidence to back them up, as far as I can see.
Solomon : No, I’m just asking why they weren’t –
Hamilton : I don’t know the answer to your question.
Solomon : I guess part of the reason is..
Hamilton : I cannot answer every question with regard to 9/11. I can answer a good many of them, but I can’t answer them all.
Solomon : I guess, Mr. Hamilton, I don’t think anyone expects you to have all the answers…
Hamilton : Well, you apparently do, because you have asked me questions of enormous detail from a great variety of sources. You want me to answer them all – I can’t do it (laughs)
Solomon : I guess part of the reason is I want to know, not necessarily what the answer is, but if the Commission considered, you know, what made it into the report, in terms of the discussion. And of course, what we’re trying to understand is, if the commission simply said ‘you know, those kinds… there was huge amounts of data, and we couldn’t put everything in’.
So I guess, you know, in questions about what happened on 9/11 as we approach the fifth anniversary of that day, and this being the kind of most extensive document that the public has, there are questions as to what made it in and what you heard, and what you didn’t. And that, I think, those are the nature of the questions.
Hamilton : Yeah. A lot of things that came to the attention of staff did not come to the attention of the Commission. Some of the things did come to the attention of the Commission, and we didn’t put ’em in, or at least we put ’em in at a lower level. But many of the things did not come directly to my attention.
Solomon : Part of what you write in the book is that one of the key goals here was to be as transparent and as open as possible, because you say ‘without light, the conspiracy theorists jump in.’
Hamilton : That’s right.
Solomon : Now, one place that you shed a lot of light on – and you write about it in this book [“Without Precedent”] as well – is a place where conspiracy theorists, as you call them, have jumped in, which is the plane that hit the Pentagon. As you and I both know, there’s a number of publications that [say] the hole in the Pentagon was too small to accomodate a plane of that, you know, 125 foot wingspan, 40 feet high, and that it was a missile. What did you make – what did the Commission, when it heard all those kind of ideas, how did you consider those, and what investigation went on around those?
Hamilton : Well, we said an airplane went into the Pentagon. And we said that jet fuel there too caused an awful lot of the damage and the injury. We had one member of the staff who had been badly, badly burned by jet fuel, and as you know, jet fuel causes specific kinds of burns, and these burns were from jet fuel. So all of our evidence indicated a plane went in, and that’s what the eyewitnesses said that we saw.
Solomon : And you know, this notion – and this is maybe one of the most popular theories, and you see it all over – is that reports initially came back from the Pentagon that there was no debris at all, that the plane simply disintegrated inside the Pentagon. To those people, those of us who have seen aviation accidents, that sounded in some ways difficult to believe, because there was such a huge plane, and the maneuvre that it would require the pilot to make would have been, you know, to fly into it seemed so astonishing. What did the commission make of the debate, such as it is, that surrounds that?
Hamilton : We thought it was an airplane
Solomon : Straight up?
Hamilton : Straight up.
Solomon : Was there any debris?
Hamilton : My recollection is, the answer’s yes. Was there a lot of debris? I don’t think so. To say that there was no debris strains my recollection, I didn’t remember it that way, I thought there was some debris. But you know, you have relatively little experience with planes highly loaded with jet fuel crashing, (chuckles) and reconstructing exactly what happened on the basis of the crash. We did the best we could on it. We thought it was an airplane.
There were a number of eyewitnesses, of course, who saw the plane go into the Pentagon, a number of people, for example, who were driving on the roadway – I forget the number of it right now – who had the airplane fly over their cars into the building, and they stopped their car, and saw the plane going into the Pentagon – that was not one, that was a number of eyewitnesses. We relied upon that, of course.
Solomon : And you know, when you.. You’ve spoken with many of the witnesses, your Commission heard testimony from all sorts of different people. So when you hear these kind of ongoing allegations that there was conflicting reports of the witnesses; that the FBI confiscated tapes from the gas station across the road, that supposedly saw it within a day of it; that some of those witnesses disappeared.. what do you make of those kind of…
Hamilton : I don’t believe for a minute that we got everything right. We wrote a first draft of history. We wrote it under a lot of time pressure, and we sorted through the evidence as best we could.
Now, it would be really rather remarkable if we got everything right. So far, of the things that have been brought up challenging the report, to my knowledge, we have more credibility than the challenger. But I would not for a moment want to suggest that that’s always true, either in the past or in the future. People will be investigating 9/11 for the next hundred years in this country, and they’re going to find out some things that we missed here.
So I don’t automatically reject all the evidence you cite. It may be we missed it, it may be we ignored it when we shouldn’t have – I don’t think we did, but it’s possible.
Solomon : You write.. the first chapter of the book is ‘the Commission was set up to fail.’ – my goodness, for the critics – who suggest that it was indeed set up to fail as some kind of obfuscation – you certainly dangled a juicy piece of bait out there in the river. Why do you think you were set up to fail?
Hamilton : Well, for a number of reasons: Tom Kean and I were substitutes – Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell were the first choices; we got started late; we had a very short time frame – indeed, we had to get it extended; we did not have enough money – 3 million dollars to conduct an extensive investigation. We needed more, we got more, but it took us a while to get it.
We had a lot of skeptics out there, who really did not want the Commission formed. Politicians don’t like somebody looking back to see if they made a mistake. The Commission had to report right, just a few days before the Democratic National Convention met, in other words, right in the middle of a political campaign. We had a lot of people strongly opposed to what we did. We had a lot of trouble getting access to documents and to people. We knew the history of commissions; the history of commissions were they.. nobody paid much attention to ’em.
So there were all kinds of reasons we thought we were set up to fail. We decided that if we were going to have any success, we had to have a unanimous report, otherwise the Commission report would simply be filed.
Solomon : I guess the question is, you know, if forty odd million dollars were spent investigating President Bill Clinton’s sexual infidelities, why did the American people and the world have to wait 441 days for a commission that was originally budgeted for 3 million dollars and given barely a year, and as you write in the book and document so well, was… had to fight to get access to even use its subpoena power very judiciously, for fear that there’d be a backlash against the Commission. I mean, an event as cataclysmic as 9/11, it begs the question: why was the administration so unwilling to budget this thing, and then Congress so unwilling to give money and let you guys go whole hog to do more?
Hamilton : (Laughs) I think basically it’s because they were afraid we were going to hang somebody, that we would point the finger, right in the middle of a presidential campaign – ‘Mr. Bush, this was your fault’ – or even Mr. Clinton. President Clinton was wary about this report too.
Now I want to say, eventurally both presidents cooperated, but it took a while. And it’s not too unusual for me to understand that they were skeptical. A commission that is created does not have automatic credibility – we had to work at that, we had to produce a lot of reports which were recognized, fortunately, to be professionally done, seriously done – and not out to hang anybody.
Solomon : Sorry, but why not out to hang anybody? This idea, ‘they didn’t want to point fingers’, that you weren’t out to ‘hang anybody’.. Good God, I thought the families were saying, ‘let’s find out not just what happened, but who is accountable’ – you know, that famous testimony of Richard Clarke, in front of your commission, when he said, “I failed you.” Weren’t people wanting you to point fingers and make someone accountable?
Hamilton : Yes I think they were. And we say, in the book, that there was a thirst for accountability. Now, part of that thirst was just to tell the story. This traumatic event occurs and they wanted to understand why it occurred, and we tried to tell that as best we could.
Government’s not very good at looking back and criticizing itself, and one of the things that impressed us over and over again, as we talked to one agency after the other, is: they had not really met and turned this over in their mind; government is always operating on the Inbox, and we were critical of almost every agency, in not looking back and asking what went wrong. So I think that’s a powerful factor in government, and…
Solomon : It does also suggest – I mean, there is that factor – but you know, what the public often.. now, and again, I talk about the 9/11 families, who were so instrumental in getting the Commission going..
Hamilton : That’s correct.
Solomon : They said, ‘listen, is one of the reasons they’re not getting funded, and it’s so late, is that someone’s got something to hide.
Hamilton : There is… well, a lot of people have things to hide.
Solomon : Well who in this case?
Hamilton : Look, you can go down the list and probably identify a hundred people who made mistakes that day: t he ticket-taker at the Boston Logan airport; the customs official who let these fellows in, not one but many times, right up to Bill Clinton or George Bush.
Solomon : What were their errors?
Hamilton : They didn’t pay enough attention to terrorism. They didn’t treat it with enough urgency. They didn’t really anticipate this, even though there were many voices, you mentioned Richard Clarke a few times, who were clearly urging them ‘do it’ – he served both presidents.
What we decided was two things: the mandate did not ask us to identify people or even did not use the word ‘accountability’. We did not want to go beyond our mandate.
Secondly, what we thought was really important in all of this was not so much that a particular person failed in their responsibility, whatever that responsibility might be, but that there were systemic problems in the government that we really thought need to be identified and corrected.
We believe that, had we gone into the question of identifying a hundred people here who goofed up on 9/11, or prior to 9/11, and did not do their job responsibly, we would have gone outside the mandate of the Commission, we would absolutely have destroyed any opportunity for unanimity of view, because the Commission would have bogged down with whether Jim Smith or Sally Jones had done their job right, and that’s an unending task.
Solomon : In retrospect, one of the criticisms that you level in this book “Without Precedent” is aimed at both the FAA and NORAD, both of whom representatives testified before the Commission, and both of whom gave what to me – and I’m allowed to be much more impolite than you – sounded to me like lies. They told you testimony that simply… the tapes that were subsequently.. that have subsequently been revealed, were simply not true.
Hamilton : That’s correct.
Solomon : And it wasn’t just lies by ommission, in some senses lies of commission, they told you things that basically didn’t happen. What do you make of that?
Hamilton : Well, I think you’re right. They gave us inaccurate information. We asked for a lot of material and a lot of documentation. They did not supply it all. They gave us a few things. We sent some staff into their headquarters. We identified a lot more documents and tapes, they eventually gave them to us, we had to issue a subpoena to get them.
Eventually they told us we had the story right, they had it wrong, it took a while to get to that point, but we eventually got here. Did they lie to us or was it inadvertent? We are not a law enforcement agency, we did not have that kind of authority, going back to the mandate again. All of us had our suspicions here, but we simply did not have the staff and we were right up against the deadline when this came out, that we didn’t have the time to say that these officials had willfully and intentionally lied.
So we punted – and we said, ‘we can’t do this, we don’t have the statutory authority, we don’t have the staff’, we don’t have the time’. We will tell the story as we understood it – they did mislead us. Was it wilful? We don’t know. We’ll turn it over to the authorities, and that’s what we did.
Solomon : And they’re investigating?
Hamilton : They are now still investigating.
Solomon : The recently released transcripts of what happened at NEADS, which is the Northeast Air Defence, paints a startling picture of confusion.
Hamilton : I think that’s the right word: enormous confusion, two of these airplanes that crashed were never identified. At one point, they had the American military jets chasing a phantom jet out in the Atlantic Ocean – in other words, going in the wrong direction.
The military had very little warning, I think, 2 minutes on one plane and 11 minutes on the other, if my recollection serves me right, and the disappointing thing here is that our, in a sense, first line of defense didn’t work.
Solomon : So is the story – and again, and I talk about those polls, 42% of Americans – your report very much… and subsequent things that have been released, subsequent tapes from places like NORAD, the air defence systems, suggest a mass failure of the first line of defense, which is incompetence and confusion which led to the lack of prevention of this.
Hamilton : Yeah.
Solomon : Now what happens when you get on to these [talk radio] shows, and you talk about that, and you get every – because you understand that the landscape is now littered with that stuff. What do you say to all these reports that are coming in – constantly?
Hamilton : I think people do not sufficiently understand how complicated conducting a major investigation is, and how difficult it is, in an event of this kind, to chase down every answer to every question, and… Look, I can go before any audience in America today and I can raise so many questions about 9/11 – raise questions, not answer questions, raise questions – about the investigation. And everbody in the audience will walk out saying ‘the government misled us or lied to us.’ It’s a very easy thing to do! I can raise questions about our own report!
Solomon : Like what? What would you raise?
Hamilton : Well, like I just said, about the 19 hijackers, we didn’t answer that question.
We had to tell that story as best we could, and we did, and we made a lot of judgments about the credibility of evidence. Were we right in every case? I suspect not. Were we right in most cases? I think so.
I do not know at this point of any factual error in our report, that I would absolutely say ‘we just plain missed it.’ Now, maybe I need to review it more carefully, but I cannot recall right now at this instance any fact that we just plain missed.
Solomon : Not that you got wrong, but the fact that was omitted?
Hamilton : Well, I know there were a lot of questions that we could not answer, with regard to FAA and NORAD and White House activity, and a lot of other things, we just can’t answer ’em.
Solomon : Is there anything in retrospect.. I mean, your deadline was so tight, and you say that forced you to make some very tough decisions as to how far ranging the investigation could be. In retrospect, if you’d had more time, what would you have investigated more thoroughly?
Hamilton : I would have, I think we spent – if I were critiquing the work of the Commission – I think we spent too much time on the question of access. And I would have liked to have gotten that over with, say, in the first half of the Commission’s work, so that we could have spent more time in putting the story together, maybe trying to answer some of the questions you raise that I can’t answer – and polishing the recommendations.
But you don’t… everything doesn’t go like you want it to go, and we were fighting the question of access right up to the end of the Commission’s work.
Solomon : One last thing before we go: you had, of course, Vice President Dick Cheney and President George Bush testify together – not under oath, with no transcript that would be made to the public. For a lot of the family members, and a lot of the public, they thought ‘so many other people testified under oath, so many other people had public testimony – why not the President and the Vice President?’ That again looked as though they were trying to obfuscate or hide something – what’s your view on that?
Hamilton : I don’t remember any time that a President of the United States, on a non-criminal matter, testified under oath. I do recall when President Johnson was asked to testify to the Warren Commission, he just flat out told him, ‘I am not going to do it. Presidents of the United States don’t do that sort of thing.’
Solomon : He wrote a 3 page letter.
Hamilton : He wrote a letter. Now, we asked President Bush and Vice President Cheney to testify, they said no. We went back to it, we said, ‘look, we will have no credibility as a commission if we do not hear from you.’
They considered that. They came back to us and said, ‘we will talk to you – Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton – but not the other commissioners.’ We said that was not satisfactory, ‘you had to talk to all ten of the Commission.’ I go into this detail just to tell you there was a long course of negotiation here.
Eventually they said they would both testify – not testify but meet with us – all ten commissioners – in the White House. There would be note takers, but no transcript taken. Tom and I asked the question, ‘can we get the information we need under this arrangement? We answered that ‘yes’.
In the actual appearance with the President and the Vice President, they were exceedingly co-operative. The president sat there for four hours and responded to questions.
At one point, Tom Kean interrupted one of the Commissioners, Richard Ben-Veniste, as I think we tell in the book, and said, ‘Richard, we have got to respect the President’s time.’ And the President said, ‘look, I’m in charge here, I’ll take the time, and let Richard ask his questions.’
We felt like we got a very extended long period of time with the president. He was completely candid. He did almost all the talking. Vice President Cheney talked only with reference to what happened at the White House on 9/11, because the President was not in the White House then, and took any question we had, and we had a lot of questions.
Solomon : Do you wish there was a public transcript of that?
Hamilton : If we had our preference, would there be a public transcript? It’s fine with me. But it was a White House call.
Solomon : I just want to clarify something that you said earlier. You said that the Commission Report did mention World Trade Center Building 7 in it, what happened. It did mention it or it didn’t?
Hamilton : The Commission reviewed the question of the Building 7 collapse. I don’t know specifically if it’s in the Report, I can’t recall that it is, but it, uh..
Solomon : I don’t think it was in the report.
Hamilton : OK, then I’ll accept your word for that.
Solomon : There was a decision not to put it in the report?
Hamilton : I do not recall that was a specific discussion in the Commission and we rejected the idea of putting Building 7 in, I don’t recall that. So I presume that the report was written without reference to Building 7 at all, because all of the attention, of course, was on the Trade tower buildings.
Solomon : And the black boxes on the planes: one bit of evidence I just got asked about, if it came up, was: the last 3 minutes of the black box on Flight 93 has not been made public or is missing, or I don’t know what’s happening. Was there any discussion as to what happened to those last three minutes?
Hamilton : I do not recall any reference to the black box.
Solomon : Were they all found?
Hamilton : I do not know, off hand, I do not know.
Solomon : Mr. Hamilton, I want to thank you so much for taking the time..
Hamilton : Yes, sir.
Solomon : ..and for discussing the book. What’s the reaction, by the way, from the families to this book?
Hamilton : Well, the families are a lot of different people. And many of them have been very enthusiastic. I understand there is a book coming out which will be quite critical of the work of the 9/11 Commission.
You had all kinds of reactions among the families: some people would just want to forget the whole thing and move on with their lives – people react differently to tragedy. Others, as you know, were enormously supportive of the Commission. Some began very supportive of the Commission, and became critical of what we did, and and they ended up not liking our recommendations – I don’t know that they criticized the report itself so much. But everybody has a… When you say ‘the families’, it includes a lot of different attitudes and viewpoints.
Solomon : What keeps you up at night about 9/11 still?
Hamilton : Not very much, I’ve turned my attention now to homeland security, and a lot of things bother me there.
Solomon : Thanks a lot.
Hamilton : Yup.
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