I interviewed Kristen last week and talked about her new book Wake Up Call, Coulter and what she had to do to get the 9/11 Commission off the ground. I hope you enjoy. She's been through more than most and still keeps on fighting...
John: This is John Amato with crooksandliars.com, and now we're very fortunate and lucky to have Kristen Breitweiser, of the Jersey Girls - you may have heard of her before - and she's got a new book out called Wake Up Call. And I'm really happy to have you on Kristen, thank you so much for jumping into the blogosphere.
Kristen: Thanks for inviting me.
John: And you have a new book out. Just tell us briefly, what is the premise?
Kristen: Essentially, I wrote the book after spending four and a half years in Washington lobbying to get the 9/11 Commission created and the reforms from that final report enacted into law. And I wrote it because it was such an eye-opening experience to witness how Washington works, and how truly devastating it was to realize that many of our elected officials are simply not looking out for people like you and me. They're really looking out for their own self-interest and you know, the large individuals and corporations that give them the campaign funding to get re-elected. And I don't think that Washington should work that way, so I wrote a book to try and educate people about how the system works and why everyone needs to get involved, get educated, and engage in the political process.
John: Well, we're fortunate - you have a great voice, you do a great job with it, and it is important and people are starting to wake up to this. And out of this tragedy - obviously, you lost your husband - what's so important and inspiring is you just didn't lie down; you said "Wait a second, what's going on here? I want to know what happened", and that's basically how you fought for the 9/11 Commission. Is that right?
Kristen: That's absolutely correct. I think when we started to realize - when I say "we", I mean the other 9/11 families and myself - started to realize that we weren't going to have any other avenue to get access to information, to hold people accountable, to learn lessons, to enact change, we decided to shift gears and start asking for an independent commission. We wanted the commission to be removed from the political process, and you know, it was a very tough battle in the beginning. We were told over and over again that it wasn't our business to ask for such an investigation, that we should let the government investigate itself, and initially, Congress did its own investigation. But we frankly felt that there were many other areas that needed to be investigated and that Congress had frankly failed to carry out its oversight capabilities over the intel community prior to 9/11 and we didn't trust Congress to investigate its own self. So, we started fighting for the commission, and it was quite a battle.
John: Were you ever thrown under the bus by any officials, were they really upset (for you) to have the nerve to say "I want a commission"?
Kristen: Yeah, I mean, we faced enormous resistance, and I don't know why most of that resistance came from Republican officials, but for whatever reason that's a fact. It did. It's well documented in the media. That's not to say that the Democratic officials were any champions of our cause. I think what really got us the commission was that the 9/11 families just refused to relent. We would not yield; we would not give up until we got a commission because we knew that we needed to learn lessons, mainly to make the country safer. Because when you look at the record from 9/11, you see that there were so many failures and those failures contributed to the vast devastation of that day. There's no denying that 19 hijackers brought the country to its knees, but when you look at the record and you see the governmental failures leading up to 9/11 and on the day of 9/11 itself, lives were clearly lost because of the government incompetence and neglect, and we wanted to know that that would never happen again.
John: Have you seen now, after the 9/11 Commission--this new report--are they meeting the responsibility to that commission?
Kristen: No. I mean, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton put out a report card recently where they received all C's and some failing grades. It doesn't come as any surprise to me, mainly because the Commission while it was empanelled chose not to hold anyone accountable. And certainly, if you're not going to hold anyone accountable, if you're not going to name names, no one's going to really pay attention to you. You know, sadly, Washington only works when people are worried about their political backsides. And because the Commission failed to do that while it was in business, once it's closed its doors and it's two years later, you know, they're not getting paid the attention they deserve. And as a result, we have a national security apparatus that's still very vulnerable. I mean, we've got ports that are not secure, we've got chemical plants, we've got an aviation system that's still nowhere near where it should be. We're still reacting to bomb plots like the one that came out of London a month ago. You know, there's still a whole panoply of issues that are still unaddressed. And in my opinion, frankly, fighting terrorists does not just include going overseas and fighting in Iraq, a country that certainly had nothing to do with 9/11. My grievance with the judgment to do that on behalf of the Bush administration is that we're spending billions of dollars in Iraq and that money could be better used at home securing the homeland and hardening up the many soft targets that the 9/11 Commission brought to our attention.
John: You know, it's so on the mark. It's so simple almost, it's like "OK, we've been attacked. How do we approach that? OK, let's protect ourselves, let's tighten up our borders. Let's do a better job with the airport security." Let's do all these things you would imagine would be the crux of things to do, and yet we went to fight a war with a country that had nothing to do with it. And to me, that was a wake-up call when we went into Iraq because it made no sense to me. Because if we are vulnerable to terrorists, then what are we doing attacking a country? We need to make ourselves safer.
John: Do the Jersey Girls and the other 9/11 widows, are they pretty silent on the Iraq war, or have they been pretty outspoken?
Kristen: You know, I can only speak for myself. I have a couple of thoughts on the Iraq war. First of all, the way we handled that war - first of all, it was a war that we chose to enter. And the result of that war is, at least at this point in time, is that we've made the world more unstable and we've made us less safe from terrorists. It's become a major recruiting ground. I mean, if you look at Afghanistan - a place that actually had a direct nexus to 9/11 - we find that Afghanistan is falling apart at the seams. We find the opium production through the roof at an all-time high, the warlords are running the country, the Taliban is starting to reorganize. And that's not a success. Not to mention that Bin Laden got away there. But the disappointment to me is the judgment on behalf of our leaders in taking us to Iraq, leaving Afghanistan prematurely. One of the things that's sad is that had the 9/11 Commission been empanelled immediately after the attacks by President Bush, we might not have gone to Iraq because the public would have known what we found out from the 9/11 Commission which was there was no connection between Iraq and 9/11. And had the public been better informed about that, had they known that connection, I find it hard to believe there would have been support in Congress for the President to start the war in Iraq.
John: I heard you talk on Larry King about when there's an accident or a murder, people do an investigation. And that was so enlightening to me because why wasn't this commission brought up immediately after? Can you still answer that question?
Kristen: What I can tell you is I would have given anything in the world for the person I voted for, President Bush, to request an investigation immediately. I don't know why that didn't happen. I don't know why everyone didn't come together and say "Look, we tried our hearts out; we did the best that we could do. Here's what we did, throw it all on the table. Let's go over it, let's review it, let's take responsibility for it, and let's make sure it damn well never happens again." Why that didn't happen, I don't know, but it didn't happen. If anything there was a circling of the wagons, there was stonewalling, there was enormous resistance to examine the failures the occurred that day. And my grievance is - people say "You're blaming the government for 9/11" - I'm not blaming the government for 9/11. I know that it was the terrorists that flew planes into buildings that day. What I blame the government for is contributing towards the vast devastation of that day, costing lives. And then thereafter not being interested in fixing those failures that cost lives. Because that tells me that on the day of the next attack, when those problems have yet to be fixed, that's unconscionable. People are dying senselessly, and then we didn't learn any lessons from 9/11 when 3,000 people were killed. I mean, the thing that boggles my mind more then anything is that the excuse that we heard for 9/11 and the government failing to heed the warnings was that they couldn't "connect the dots." The intelligence community couldn't connect the dots. We spent $175 million on a computer system at the FBI that was supposedly going to connect those dots now. Well guess what? The computer system is wholly inoperable. The $175 million was completely wasted, and to this very day, they still do not have a computer system to allegedly "connect the dots." To me, that's unacceptable. Someone should be held accountable for that, and yet no one is held accountable. I mean, you've got a Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks, failed to connect the dots, failed to tell the FBI about two hijackers in the country, under surveillance. 9/11 happened, is he held accountable? No, he's turned to by the President to provide WMD intel that wrongly, dead wrongly, took us to a war in Iraq. And what is the response? We give George Tenet the Medal of Freedom. I mean, to me that's just not the judgment.
John: It's an awful judgment.
Kristen: No, you know what it is? Honestly, it's deadly judgment.
John: That's right. I mean, people are dying and nobody has ever been held accountable in this administration.
Kristen: Not only has nobody been held accountable, in the intelligence community, in the administration or in Congress for their failures that contributed to 9/11, but not even the terrorists - we've yet to hold the terrorists accountable. We have yet to prosecute successfully one terrorist linked to the 9/11 attacks. It's five years later. One of the main reasons we can't do that at this point is because of our torture policies. One of the reasons we couldn't hold people accountable in the German court system is because they would not accept evidence introduced by the United States because it was gathered through extreme means. It was taken out of the court. We have yet to hold one terrorist accountable for 9/11. I really, as a 9/11 victim family member, I find that wholly unconscionable given that we are a nation of laws and we have yet to show the world that we can successfully prosecute terrorists and bring them to justice.
John: Definitely. We're losing the moral high ground and this is what drives a lot of us off the roof. We have the Geneva Conventions; we have these laws that were not followed. Now we can't bring these people to judges, now they're trying to re-write Article III in the Conventions, it is unconscionable. And we are losing the moral high ground. I mean, that's why we are a nation against torture - it doesn't work.
Kristen: You know, it does not work, John. And the reality is no one has said to the President, has said to Donald Rumsfeld or the Vice President "Show me the money. Show me the proof - the proof is in the pudding. You show me that torturing people in the manner that you have condoned is actually making us safer, saving us from attack." They don't have the proof. Because what we know is when you torture people to that degree, they'll tell you anything. The intelligence is not anything to carry water. And the reality is it's ruined our reputation in the world, and it's inflamed hostilities within the terrorist groups. The people that we held in Gitmo that we now release after we treated them the way that we did, we release them back to their countries and they become poster children for why people should join Al-Qaeda and kill Americans.
John: Our reaction, just the Iraq war itself, has created so many more terrorists, and Al-Qaeda was a small group. Now people are just starting up their own cells, and it's really, really ridiculous. Even with this latest British plot which was nowhere near as far along as they'd like Americans to believe; now all the sudden liquids and gels aren't allowed on a plane because they just uncovered this? I mean, why didn't they do this stuff in the beginning? It really drives us - it's incompetence. I guess there's a lot of money to be lost, and it always seems to come back to the money instead of coming back to Americans. And when they have the money they don't put the resources into protecting ourselves, they fight wars. It's crazy.
Kristen: It's absolutely crazy and like I said earlier, to still be in a reactionary posture, particularly over an airline plot that was discussed in the mid-90's in my opinion is unacceptable. Not to mention I had read one media account that the explosive used is actually in the powder form, it's not even its most effective in a liquid form and yet we're banning liquids on planes. I don't know if that article is accurate but if it is accurate it's just another example of the incompetence on behalf of our nation in being anywhere in a better place to fight terrorists five years after 9/11.
John: I just can't stand the way they politicize 9/11 and "We'll keep you safer, we'll keep you safer" yet as we look at the scorecard they're not keeping us safer, they're not doing the things. That's one of the things that must really get you girls.
Kristen: Yeah, our attitude is if you're going to use 9/11, use it to make the nation safer. And actually do it. Secure our homeland by being smart. Dry up the money lines, secure our chemical plants. Start making some real headway with regard to alternative energy so that we can become less dependent on foreign oil. Secure the borders, fix the aviation system. All of these things, they're not that difficult for us to undertake. And yes, it's going to require some sacrifice on behalf of the American people, but we need to make that decision ourselves. And that's one of my other grievances - when you ensconce all this national security stuff in secrecy, when you don't allow it to be transparent and allow sunlight into it so that the American people can really see what's going on here - then we can become educated, then we can make a decision. An informed decision as to whether or not we want to give up our privacy rights for something like the Patriot Act. Whether or not we want to approve of something like the surveillance program being carried out by the NSA. But when we're not given the evidence, when we're shown no proof, we're left with simply trusting a government that for all intents and purposes at this point, five years after 9/11, has shown nothing but deadly judgment. And to me, as someone who has lost her husband because of that poor judgment, I find it really difficult to just close my eyes, hope for the best and trust my government.
John: No, we can't do that. That's why bloggers - myself, I got involved because I couldn't keep quiet, I didn't like what was happening to my country. How can you entrust people who have failed so miserably? Just say "just do what you want, don't use the courts, don't speak to Congress, just have your own little secret meetings and do what you want." I mean, it just doesn't fly. And then when they try to say that we're terrorist sympathizers because we disagree with what they're doing, it's just beyond the pale. It just drives me crazy when I turn on the TV and there's some talking head or some pundit calling me a terrorist sympathizer. It's ridiculous and also when it comes out of the House of Congress. These people should not be allowed to talk in public again. I mean, that's just my opinion.
Kristen: Listen, I think that we are a democratic nation. We are a democracy and what that means is that we all be able to participate in respectful debate. And if you have a dissenting opinion from someone you should be able to voice that opinion and it should be listened to. It shouldn't descend into some name-calling, brash screaming match. We need respectful debate. We are at a point in this country's history where it's life and death. And we all need to start getting more involved and having our voices heard. I think that certainly the blogosphere is one key way to do that. You can really make a difference, you can have an impact. I think going forward that's something that we all need to take advantage of.
John: I know you need to go soon, but I think we just need to mention quickly - touch on Ann Coulter. Like you, I'm a New Yorker, and I don't back down when people attack me, and so Ann Coulter came out and called you harpies and all this stuff I was probably the first one to post about this. I went after Ann Coulter hard. I didn't care about her book sales; I didn't care about how much publicity was shining on her. It was...what she said was egregious and she needed to be held accountable for it. I've seen you on Larry King, you've been very gracious. I wouldn't have been so gracious. But just tell me a little bit - and they like to make it sound like Ann Coulter was the first one to attack you but I've done some research and people were attacking you guys all along as you pushed forward for this commission.
Kristen: Listen, the reality is we faced enormous resistance all the way along with the fight. You can look at the Wall Street Journal and see some editorials there that named us by name, you can look at many web sites on the internet, and frankly closed-door meetings down in Washington were extremely hostile. This is not a situation where we were treated with kid gloves. The reality is that I would have given anything for any elected official in Washington to have taken up this cause and gotten the 9/11 Commission empanelled. It simply didn't happen. The reason why we had to go to the media, the reason why we were around for so long is because we wanted the Commission. We wanted to learn lessons; we wanted to make the nation safer. Had that resistance not been present the commission would have been empanelled, they would have gotten the access they needed: they would have had the extension of time, the funding, the clearances, subpoena power. All of those things would have happened had we not seen such resistance. And we wouldn't have needed to go to the media. The reality is we had to do what we did because we were given such a fight. I don't know why that is, but I said in the letter I wrote to Ann Coulter the people who are to blame for that are the people who gave us so much resistance which as it turns out happen to be many conservatives and Republicans in Congress and the White House. And I'd like to say, that's not me being political, that's me being factual. That is a fact. That's not my opinion, that's not being political, that is just the truth. And I don't know why that is. Perhaps people should go ask the people who gave so much resistance why they fought a commission. But that's the reality that we faced, and more than anything, we had a pure goal: we wanted the truth, we wanted a full accounting, we wanted a comprehensive report because we wanted to learn lessons, and we wanted to know that we were honoring our husbands by learning lessons and saving lives in the future.
John: Did you have anybody send that letter to Ann Coulter?
Kristen: Uh, no. I wrote it because I wanted to set the record straight, mostly because some of the things she said in her book were inaccurate. She said we were supportive of a whitewash, which is just wholly wrong. You can go to our web site; you can see the press releases that we put out. We were at times, yes, the Commission's biggest advocates and at other times, we were their biggest adversaries. There were clearly some very contentious times with the families versus the Commission. And for anyone to try to portend that we wanted the Commission to be a whitewash is absolutely ridiculous. I mean, if anything, we're dissatisfied with the Commission's final report. We think in many ways it is a cover-up and a whitewash, and that's why I wanted to write the letter. Because the main things that Ann Coulter said were just clearly false. I'm not even interested in addressing the name-calling and the more brash statements that she made because I don't really feel that it needs attention. It's ridiculous to give attention to something like that. I think that it's not productive; in fact, it's counterproductive. Frankly, I think it's shameful at this point in time when we have people dying on the battlefield in Iraq and in Afghanistan, to be talking about such ridiculous things as name calling. You know what? I'm more than happy to talk with people, but I want to talk about some ways that we can make this country better and save lives going forward.
John: I hear you. What do you feel the 9/11 Commission did not do?
Kristen: Listen, there's a whole laundry list of issues. They left a lot of unfinished business on the table. Whether you want to talk about Project Able Danger, whether you want to talk about the failure to fully address the whistleblowers that we brought in there. There's a whole laundry list of things. Questions remain lingering, matters remain highly classified. Again, we tried our best, and there's only so much we could do. And perhaps if someone like Ann Coulter was as loud and impassioned as she was in June of 2006 back in 2003, maybe the Commission would have been forced to more substantive hearings, more meaningful hearings. And the reality is we were out there alone, and we did the best that we could do.
John: Well, you did a great job. What are you guys doing now, moving forward?
Kristen: Personally I'm working on some chemical plant legislation issues and also some detainee interrogation stuff. My biggest priority right now is my daughter and just trying to navigate my future and our future together, you know? Take it one day at a time.
John: That's all you can do. You let me handle the Ann Coulters, and you go about your business, doing what you're doing. Because really, this is not a Republican/Democrat issue. This is about getting answers to a terrorist attack. And you were stonewalled, and you guys stood up - all of the family members - you stood up to the bureaucracy and you didn't take it. And that's the American Dream.
Kristen: In fact, I think you're right. We made democracy work to some small degree when it came to the 9/11 Commission and fighting for it. And I think that is a success story. I don't know that you could say that the 9/11 Commission final report is a success, but certainly the fact that the 9/11 family members were able to take their sadness and band together and achieve at a bare minimum an investigation into the attacks so that we could learn some lessons and have some sunlight shed upon it, is definitely somewhat of a success.
John: No, it was. We can't minimize that. It was a success. Yes, there are problems with it, but without your outspokenness, we would not know anything. So I want to thank you for that, and all the readers of Crooks and Liars and the blogosphere really appreciate and admire what you've done.
Kristen: Thank you guys for your support, because I'm telling you, the internet is a very powerful tool for democracy. And there were many, many times that we relied on the internet to not only gather research information but also to gain support. To make phone calls to Washington, to put out action alerts. And the internet is undoubtedly an extremely, extremely powerful tool in trying to get Washington to work for people like you and me. Just regular people who want to affect change and make the country a better place.
John: You know, that's really what we are. The blogosphere is that - there are a lot of people like us that do want to become active but feel that they do not have any say in their government. And that's one of the greatest things: that people are becoming active because of the blogosphere and we hope to keep putting their feet to the fire.
Kristen: And that's exactly it. You guys are an enormous check and balance and you do hold people's feet to the fire. And you educate people. You get the information out, which is a huge piece of the puzzle. Because you can really only have an intelligent voice when that voice is educated and armed with information. I think that when you have the blogosphere the way it is, with people sharing opinions and ideas; to me, it's a no-brainier. It's a very essential tool going forward, I think.
John: I don't want to keep you any longer. Thank you so much for jumping in and we will speak again soon, and hopefully this book will sell well. And your new legislation, whatever you're working on, will become successful.
Kristen: Thanks, John. And it's nice to hear a New Yorker out in L.A.
She is an American hero. Please pick up her book