Monday, September 25


A surprising and candid interview with Richard Ben-Veniste, 9/11 Commissioner, who went public with Wolf Blitzer about the Commission's questioning of Bush and Cheney in the Oval Office. My real-time blogging:

WB: Why didn't Bush respond to the Cole attack?

RBV: He said he didn't want to launch a cruise missile attack for fear of missing him.

WB: What about the Taliban?

RBV: The U.S. had threatened the Taliban on at least three occasions during the Clinton administration that if Bin Laden, who they gave refuge in Afghanistan, were to strike against U.S. interests, we'd attack the Taliban. Bush's people and George Tenet, head of the CIA, informed Bush that Al Qaeda was responsible for the Cole.

WB: What did Bush say about why he didn't he go after the Taliban then?

RBV: He said that no one had told him that we had made that threat. I found that very surprising and discouraging.

WB: Why weren't these conversations included in the 9/11 Report?

RBV: I had hoped that we would have made both the Clinton and Bush interviews a part of the report. I was outvoted. I think the question was that there was a degree of confidentiality that was associated with that and that we would would go no further until some five years after our work, we would keep that confidential.

WB: Why are you going public now?

RBV: I think the issue of the Cole is an important subject, and there has been a lot of politicization about it. Clinton didn't attack because the CIA hadn't given him the conclusion that Al Qaeda was responsible. That was decided in December, Bush was informed in January. Why didn't Clinton respond then? That was a question of whether a president who would soon be leaving office would initiate an attack against a foreign nation, Afghanistan, but strangely during the transition there seemed to be no interest by the Bush administration in plans that had been drawn up to respond to the Cole.

WB: Did the VP say anything to you? Did he know this warning had been given to the Taliban?

RBV: The VP did not volunteer any information.

WB: What did the president say when you pressed him about it?

RBV: The president made a humorous remark about, had I ever lost any argument? I reminded him I had two daughters. I was surprised given the number of people who said he had been informed, including Richard Clarke. I thought the non-response to the Cole was a surprising lapse, it would have sent a message to the Taliban and could conceivably have disrupted, maybe, the attacks on 9/11. The threats that were conveyed to the Taliban are reflected in our report.

Wolf ended the exchange with a response from Deputy White House spokesperson Dana Perrino: "The bombing [of the Cole] was on October 12, 2000. The president wasn't even in office."

UPDATE: The full transcript is here.

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