What Did Bush Do About The Cole?

Yesterday former 9/11 commission member Richard Ben-Veniste was on the situation room to talk about what Bush did in the months leading up to 9/11.

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Yesterday former 9/11 commission member Richard Ben-Veniste was on the situation room to talk about what Bush did in the months leading up to 9/11.

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BLITZER: So you the asked the president in the Oval Office -- and the vice president -- why didn't you go after the Taliban in those eight months before 9/11 after he was president. What did he say?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, now that it was established that al Qaeda was responsible for the Cole bombing and the president was briefed in January of 2001, soon after he took office, by George Tenet, head of the CIA, telling him of the finding that al Qaeda was responsible, and I said, "Well, why wouldn't you go after the Taliban in order to get them to kick bin Laden out of Afghanistan?"

Maybe, just maybe, who knows -- we don't know the answer to that question -- but maybe that could have affected the 9/11 plot.

BLITZER: What did he say?

BEN-VENISTE: He said that no one had told him that we had made that threat. And I found that very discouraging and surprising.

Yeah - because every time Clinton brought up Osama, he was just "Wagging the Dog".

Full transcript available below the fold (via CNN)

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, FMR. 9/11 COMMISSION MEMBER: Good seeing you.

BLITZER: All right. You, in your questioning in your investigation, when you were a member of this commission, specifically asked President Bush about efforts after he was inaugurated on January 20, 2001, until 9/11, eight months later, what he and his administration were doing to kill bin Laden, because by then it was certified, it was authorized. It was, in fact, confirmed that al Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole in December of 2000.

BEN-VENISTE: It's true, Wolf, we had the opportunity to interview President Bush, along with the vice president, and we spent a few hours doing that in the Oval Office. And one of the questions we had and I specifically had was why President Bush did not respond to the Cole attack. And what he told me was that he did not want to launch a cruise missile attack against bin Laden for fear of missing him and bombing the rubble (ph).


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And then I asked him, "Well, what about the Taliban?" The United States had warned the Taliban, indeed threatened the Taliban on at least three occasions, all of which is set out in our 9/11 Commission final report, that if bin Laden, who had refuge in Afghanistan, were to strike against U.S. interests then we would respond against the Taliban.

BLITZER: Now, that was warnings during the Clinton administration...

BEN-VENISTE: That's correct.

BLITZER: ... the final years of the Clinton administration.

BEN-VENISTE: That's correct.

BLITZER: So you the asked the president in the Oval Office -- and the vice president -- why didn't you go after the Taliban in those eight months before 9/11 after he was president. What did he say?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, now that it was established that al Qaeda was responsible for the Cole bombing and the president was briefed in January of 2001, soon after he took office, by George Tenet, head of the CIA, telling him of the finding that al Qaeda was responsible, and I said, "Well, why wouldn't you go after the Taliban in order to get them to kick bin Laden out of Afghanistan?"

Maybe, just maybe, who knows -- we don't know the answer to that question -- but maybe that could have affected the 9/11 plot.

BLITZER: What did he say?

BEN-VENISTE: He said that no one had told him that we had made that threat. And I found that very discouraging and surprising.

BLITZER: Now, I read this report, the 9/11 Commission report. This is a big, thick book. I don't see anything and I don't remember seeing anything about this exchange that you had with the president in this report.

BEN-VENISTE: Well, I had hoped that we had -- we would have made both the Clinton interview and the Bush interview a part of our report, but that was not to be. I was outvoted on that question.

BLITZER: Why?

BEN-VENISTE: I didn't have the votes.

BLITZER: Well, was -- were the Republican members trying to protect the president and the vice president? Is that what your suspicion is?

BEN-VENISTE: I think the question was that there was a degree of confidentiality associated with that and that we would take from that the output that is reflected in the report, but go no further. And that until some five years' time after our work, we would keep that confidential. I thought we would be better to make all of the information that we had available to the public and make our report as transparent as possible so that the American public could have that.

BLITZER: Now, you haven't spoken publicly about this, your interview in the Oval Office, together with the other commissioners, the president and the vice president. Why are you doing that right now?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think it's an important subject. The issue of the Cole is an important subject, and there has been a lot of politicization over this issue, why didn't President Clinton respond?

Well, we set forth in the report the reasons, and that is because the CIA had not given the president the conclusion that al Qaeda was responsible. That did not occur until some point in December. It was reiterated in a briefing to the -- to the new president in January.

BLITZER: Well, let me stop you for a second. If former President Clinton knew in December...

BEN-VENISTE: Right.

BLITZER: ... that the CIA and the FBI had, in his words, certified that al Qaeda was responsible, he was still president until January 20, 2001. He had a month, let's say, or at least a few weeks to respond.

Why didn't he?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, I think that was a question of whether a president who would be soon leaving office would initiate an attack against a foreign country, Afghanistan. And I think that was left up to the new administration. But strangely, in the transition there did not seem to be any great interest by the Bush administration, at least none that we found, in pursuing the question of plans which were being drawn up to attack in Afghanistan as a response to the Cole.

BLITZER: Now, as best of my recollection, when you went to the Oval Office with your other commissioners, the president and the vice president did that together. That was a joint interview.

BEN-VENISTE: At the request of the president.

BLITZER: Did the vice president say anything to you? Did he know that this warning had been given to the Taliban, who were then ruling Afghanistan, if there's another attack on the United States, we're going to go after you because you harbor al Qaeda? And there was this attack on the USS Cole.

BEN-VENISTE: The vice president did not at that point volunteer any information about the Cole.

BLITZER: So what's your -- did the president say to you -- did the president say, you know, "I made a mistake, I wish we would have done something"? What did he say when you continually -- when you pressed him? And I know you're a former prosecutor, you know how to drill, try to press a point.

BEN-VENISTE: Well, the president made a humorous remark about the fact that -- asking me whether I had ever lost an argument, and I reminded him that -- or I informed him that I, too, had two daughters. And so we passed that.

He made his statement about the state of his knowledge, and I accepted that as a given, although I was surprised considering the number of people who continued on, including Richard Clarke. So that information was there and available, but the question of why we did not respond to the Cole, I think it was an important lapse, quite frankly.

I think that we would have sent a message to the Taliban and we would have sent a message to al Qaeda. It could have conceivably -- I don't know the answer to this, but conceivably it could have had an affect on whether Sheikh Mullah and -- Omar.

BLITZER: Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban.

BEN-VENISTE: Omar, right -- would have continued to harbor bin Laden and al Qaeda in their country.

BLITZER: It's such a fascinating aspect of this whole issue. It's surprising to me that none of this made it into the final report, but that's a question for another day.

BEN-VENISTE: Well, some of it did.

BLITZER: But the -- but the -- but the specific references to the interview in the Oval Office.

BEN-VENISTE: That's correct, but the threats that were conveyed to the Taliban government in Afghanistan are reflected in our report.

BLITZER: Well, thanks very much, Richard Ben-Veniste, for coming in.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Appreciate it.

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