New York, New York
Thursday, September 8, 2011
Michael Medved (MM): I’m speaking with three people, all of whom were in very important and impactful positions on the day that whose anniversary we’re going to be celebrating just this Sunday on September 11, 2001. Ari Fleischer was with the president. You were press secretary to the president. Secretary Rumsfeld was at the Pentagon. Judge Mukasey was a judge here in New York City and already deeply aware of some of the terrorist threat. As briefly as possible, if we could go down the line starting with Ari Fleischer who was with President Bush: What was your experience of September 11th? How did you first become aware that our nation was under attack?
Ari Fleischer (AF): Well, I was with the president. We had our routine educational event scheduled at a school, an elementary school in Sarasota Florida, the Emma Booker Elementary School. And as I was used to at that point, nine months into the presidency, I drove in the motorcade up with the president. I was a few cars behind his. I got out of the car and I got a page and I looked at the page, and it said that the World Trade Center had been hit by an aircraft. And my first reaction, and I think is probably the reaction of many people, was: this must be some type of terrible accident. I wasn’t, I didn’t know what the weather was in New York, I didn’t know it was such a beautiful sky. And moments later I was in the classroom with the president, some 15 feet over his left ear, and I got a second page telling me that the second tower had been hit. And instantly I knew that it had to be terrorism. And just moments later Andy Card walked in the room and said to the president, whispered in his right ear in that now famous picture, “The second tower has been hit, America is under attack.” And it was, as I got that second page, I just knew everything was different, life had changed, and we were a nation under attack.
MM: Secretary Rumsfeld, were you already at work at the Pentagon when you got word?
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (DR): I was indeed, I was in my conference room having breakfast with nine or ten members of Congress, talking to them about the need to increase the defense budget and increase our intelligence budgets. And in the course of the discussion, I said there will be something happening in our country that is dangerous and harmful and we’re going to want to make sure we’ve got the proper investments and the proper capabilities so that we can deter and dissuade such acts, and in the event something happens, defend against them. And the senior military assistant, Admiral Ed Giambastiani, came in and said, “A plane has hit one of the World Trade Center towers.” And as Ari, I thought that must be an accident. And then they left and I went into my office to get my CIA briefing, and they came in and turned the television on and it said a second tower’s been hit and shortly thereafter our building was hit.
MM: What was the experience when the building was hit? Did you have advance warning that the Pentagon had been targeted?
DR: None. I was there, I was sitting at a small round desk with the CIA briefer and the senior military assistant, and the building literally shook, and I got up and knew that we’d been attacked. I didn’t know if it was a bomb or an airplane or what it might be. But I went, ran down the hall until the smoke was so bad that I had to go downstairs and outside. I turned the corner and there on the grass, the apron, were just hundreds of small pieces of metal. I mean that…I ran into a lieutenant colonel as I was going out of the door and he said he saw an airliner hit the Pentagon. So, I knew it was not a bomb by then, I took him at his word. And as I went out there they were bringing bodies out of the building and people were burned and injured and the flames were leaping up and as I say, the remains of that airplane were, were, there wasn’t a piece big enough that it couldn’t fit in a pickup truck. It was just totally demolished. And within a short period of time some first responders arrived and I went back to my office and talked to the president and briefed him on what we knew and began the process of figuring. He said, “Get your people thinking what the response should be and what we’re going to do about this attack on America.”
MM: Mr. Secretary, when you came out on the lawn and you saw the pieces of the shattered airplane, you must have know some of the people who died that day.
DR: Yes, I did. And fortunately the part of the building that plane hit had been renovated and it was much stronger and not all the offices had been re-opened. So the number of people that died in the Pentagon was probably half of what it would have been had they hit a different section of the building.
MM: Did you reach the conclusion, or did you know, did analysis suggest that same day and how soon—that this was the work of Islamo-Nazi fanatics?
DR: Well I got a phone call within a matter of hours from George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence, and he said they had intelligence information that confirmed it was al-Qaeda and it was Osama bin Laden.
MM: Judge Mukasey, you spent a great deal of time confronting this specter of Islamic terrorism right here in New York City. How did you find out? Where were you and how soon did you realize what we were up against here?
Judge Michael Mukasey (JMM): Well I was actually in a doctor’s office that morning and my wife and daughter came in which I hadn’t expected; I thought they were there to give me moral support. And it was quite obvious from the expression on their faces that they were not there for that. They told me that the Trade Center had been hit, by that time both planes had hit. And I at that time had a security detail, which was a legacy of the Abdel Rahman trial; I had a detail with the U.S. marshals with me. I asked the marshal in charge of the detail, “Is this our guys?” And he looked at me and nodded. They advised me not to go home, or rather go home, collect my stuff, and go somewhere else until they figured out exactly what was going on. I got in touch with the district executive down at the courthouse and found that the courthouse was being evacuated in an orderly way. Got in touch with the U.S. Attorney, Mary Jo White, and eventually made my way down to the command post that the Joint Terrorism Task Force had established in the 20’s so that orders that were necessary to be signed could be signed. I was the one judge that was labeled.
MM: Just from a completely different perspective, we live in Seattle and it was very early in the morning when these events were happening. And for me the phone rang, and it was 6:15, 6:20—earlier than people usually call. And it was my brother calling from Israel. My brother has lived in Israel for more than 20 years, and his children are serving in the IDF now, but when he called ten years ago I was used to this pattern: Whenever there was a horrible terrorist incident in Jerusalem, and my brother lives in Jerusalem, he would call to reassure me and reassure everybody here state-side that everything was okay. So my immediate response was picking up the phone, “What terrible thing happened in Israel?” And Jonathan said, “No, no… it’s America this time. Turn on the radio and listen to what’s going on.” And it was a terrible irony, we were both like moved to tears that some of the poison and the evil that a lot of people had dealt with before had come home, very directly home in an undeniable way.
Ari, in terms of the attempts by the Bush administration to formulate a response, how did that work? The president’s in Florida…and I know from reading Vice President Cheney’s new book and from reading Secretary Rumsfeld’s excellent book, which will be on sale after the program and which the secretary will sign, how did it work—the president’s in Florida then he flew to the Midwest then he came back—in terms of trying to formulate some kind of coherent response when nobody even knew the specific details of what had happened?
AF: It’s remarkable because we left the school and the motorcade, I’ve never been in a presidential motorcade that drove so fast, got to the airport. And it was on the route with the motorcade when the president received word that the Pentagon had been hit. We get onto Air Force One and instead of going to my usual seat and my cabin on Air Force One, I spent the entire day in the president’s cabin and I took detailed verbatim notes on everything the president did and said. But one of the first things he said aboard Air Force one was, “We’re at war.” And I remember, Secretary [Rumsfeld], when he was on the phone with you, and I wrote this down in my notes. He said, “We’re going to be patient but it’s not going to be a little slap on the wrist crap. Pretty soon, Don, the ball will be in your court and in Dick Myers’ court,” chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “to clean this up.” My whole background had been in domestic issues: taxes, social security, welfare. And on September 11th, all of a sudden, to be aboard Air Force One, know our nation’s attacked, and hear the Commander in Chief say to the Secretary of Defense, “We’re at war.” And it was in that same conversation the president gave the authorization to go to Defcon3, which is a military alert status we have not been at since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. And he also gave the authorization to shoot down civilian aircraft. To hear all this in front of me—it just sent a chill down my spine because you knew the direction the country was heading.
I just want to add that in retrospect, while now it seems crystal clear that of course we’re a nation that should go to war we were struck, not everybody agreed. I remember meeting the next day with congressional leaders. One member of Congress urged the president to be cautious in his rhetoric and not use the word “war” because war was such an emotional term. And I don’t know if necessarily we would’ve gone to war. I think there was a tendency in this country to handle this as a legal justice matter and not to use the secretary’s resources [referring to Rumsfeld] but to use the attorney general’s resources [referring to Mukasey]. And the president’s instant reaction is we’re at war.
MM: One of the things that people look back on now with some surprise, Mr. Secretary, is that there was a sense, obviously, in the country and President Bush gave his eloquent address on September 20th, there was a sense that we were at war, that this was a serious commitment. And yet, we got what a lot of people thought was a contradictory message which is: do the patriotic thing, keep shopping, support the business cycle, let life go on as normal. Do you think that at that time of raw shock, in retrospect, that you and the Pentagon and the rest of the administration could have asked for more from the American people in terms of sacrifice or commitment?
DR: I know at the time—having been at an age that I remember World War II well and saving scrap metal, and rubber, and even the grease out of a frying pan, and newspapers, and buying war bonds for $18.75 hoping they’d end up as $25, and victory gardens all over—that my reaction, particularly my wife Joyce’s reaction when I got home, was that there has to be some way to ask the American people to be engaged and participate in this because this is going to take time, it’s big, it’s dangerous, and they want to be engaged. And no one could quite find exactly what that was that might’ve been asked of the American people.
I think that the president made some early on, some very important decisions. The natural reaction, as Ari said, was to treat the acts as criminal acts, and indict the people in absentia, and launch maybe a few cruise missiles on a training camp that probably cost $50 to erect. And instead, the president made a conscious decision that the task was really not to retaliate—it wasn’t to punish—it was to protect the American people. And the only way the American people could be protected would be to put pressure on terrorists on a sustained basis and make every single thing they do harder: Make it more difficult to talk on the phone, to move around, to raise money, more difficult to find a country that would be hospitable for them. I can remember him telling the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Shelton, “I’m not going to pound sand,” meaning launch a couple of cruise missiles. This is going to be a sustained effort. And it’s interesting that he was called a unilateralist president when in fact he put together a coalition of over 90 countries to share intelligence, to track bank accounts, to work together, to try to find a way to put pressure on terrorists all across the globe. And it was a notably different approach from anything the country had previously done with respect to terrorism.
To go back to your question about go shopping, which he in effect said, the economic loss to America on 9/11 was enormous. The purpose of terrorism isn’t to kill people—it’s to terrorize people; it’s to alter their behavior. It’s to change them from the way they’re living, which is offensive to the radical Islamists, and have them do something more in keeping with their [the Islamists’] desires as to how we live. So at the root of the president’s comment, which has been criticized for saying, “going shopping,” it was that thought: The way terrorists win is if in fact they terrorize you, if they cause you to alter your behavior. And of course the essence of America is freedom and its free people. Free to get up in the morning and go out, and say what they want, and go where they wish, and not to change how they live and deny themselves that freedom. So it was simultaneously a plus and a minus. Because there wasn’t something we could figure out to ask of the American people.
MM: Judge Mukasey, you were very involved and aware with the previous World Trade Center bombing, something that was certainly in your [inaudible] more than the part of most people. After that occurred, after you saw some of the very serious dedicated efforts to damage this country by the terrorist cell that you had helped to break up right here in New York, were you totally surprised that they had struck again? And have you been surprised at all by the fact that we have been spared by the grace of G-d and our brave and valiant counterterror operators and fighting men around the world, that we’ve been spared another major attack on American soil for ten years now?
JMM: Well, the short answers to your questions are no and no. So far as being surprised, I recall a tape being played at the Abdel Rahman trial—luckily that conspiracy was infiltrated by an informant so we had taped conversations that were played. And one of them involved the informant walking with one of the conspirators on Delancey Street, I think, shopping for a detonator, shopping for a piece of electronics that he could use as a detonator. And this co-conspirator was saying: “Look around, look around us, look at this country. You can get anything here you can get these electronics,” and then he segwayed from that to pornography and so on. The message he was conveying with this was a combination of awe and contempt. Awe at the freedom, the range of stuff that anybody could buy or do, and the contempt, which was a belief that that made the society ripe for plucking. And so, the first thing I said in that doctor’s office on 9/11 was, “Is this our guys?” Actually, Abdel Rahman from jail issued the fatwa that not only supported the ’93 bombing, he issued the fatwa that authorized 9/11. So yes, I was not surprised.
So far as whether I’m surprised that we’ve been spared, no. Because the president put in place robust programs involving surveillance, involving information gathering, involving interrogation, and involving war. And that yielded results, fertile results, and we are the beneficiaries of those and we continue to be the beneficiaries of those because of programs that were put in place by Congress, signed by the president, and kept in place.
AF: At the risk of disagreeing with someone who’s name begins with “attorney general” and “judge,” which you should never do, I have been surprised because I agree with everything that’s been said about what’s been put into place to protect us and the good reasons for why it’s been put into place, but there are still people who are trying to strike us. And there are two incidents that took place that, frankly, we were lucky—one was Richard Reid the Shoe bomber, and the second was the Times Square Bomber, whose just didn’t detonate.
JMM: There was also Abdulmutallab over in Detroit.
MM: Right, the Underwear Bomber.
AF: That’s another one. So we still are a nation in which people are trying, and despite all the good things that have been done. And I think actually, to President Obama’s credit, he has continued many of the very tough anti-terrorist tactics that George Bush put into place that he criticized Bush during the campaign for. He continued them when he was in office and that’s what’s most important. But they’re still trying to get us.
MM: Mr. Secretary if you could address that. You have been right there as close to this as anyone, perhaps other than the president himself. Have you been at all surprised that our side has been as successful as it has so far?
DR: I am surprised. I would not have hoped and dreamt that we might have lasted a decade without a major successful attack in America. There have been a lot that have tried, and they’ve been thwarted. There have been successful terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world. But a terrorist has an enormous advantage. They can attack anywhere at any time using any technique. And it’s physically impossible to defend everywhere at every moment of the day or night against every conceivable technique. I was President Reagan’s Middle East envoy in 1983 and ’84 and that period, and we had the Marines killed at the Beirut Airport and a car bomb. Immediately after the car/truck went in and bombed they put concrete around the buildings so that the cars couldn’t break in and destroy and kill large numbers of Americans. So the terrorists didn’t stop driving trucks in, they started launching rocket-propelled grenades over the concrete. Then they started hanging wire mesh over the buildings to bounce off the rocket-propelled grenades. And once that worked they [the terrorists] started hitting soft targets and killing Americans going to and from the embassy and blew up the embassy.
But I think it was to Mrs. Thatcher after they attempted to kill her, and she happened to be in a different room, and they destroyed one room and someone left a note that said, look, “you have to be right every time, we only have to be right once.” I think that it is a credit, as the judge says, to the structures that were put in place and the coalition that was built and the things that, as Ari indicates, were campaigned against. I mean military commissions, Guantanamo Bay, indefinite detention, the Patriot Act—these things are all still there and the reason they’re there is the current administration got in office and couldn’t find a better solution, not withstanding the criticism of all of that. And I think, have concluded, that they have in fact served to protect the American people over an amazing number of years.
MM: A question for each of you, and I would guess that you would agree. Could we agree that the Islamic Republic of Iran is, today, the world’s most prominent state sponsor of terrorism? Do you agree Ari?
AF: I think there’s no question about that. Not only terrorism, but so much of it is virtually overt military action against the United States. When you look at what they did in Iraq and also evidence now of what they’re doing in Afghanistan. No question.
MM: Not to mention Lebanon.
AF: Yeah, sure.
MM: And Judge Mukasey, you would agree?
MM: The question would be for Secretary Rumsfeld. Late at night—and I know from your really substantive and very thoughtful book that you think deeply on all these issues—do you ever question the priority of going after Saddam Hussein rather than dealing with Iran as a priority in 2003?
DR: I think the president’s judgment at the time was not unreasonable; that it was logical. He was hopeful that the threat of a nuclear Iran with a handful of Ayatollahs governing that country and the violent statements against Israel, against the United States, ‘the Great Satan’, and the activity that they were engaged in supporting terrorist organizations and working with Syria—that the United Nations effort might produce something of value. And there wasn’t such an activity going on with respect…it clearly failed with respect to Iraq. Saddam Hussein had thumbed his nose as 17 UN resolutions, and in the case of Iran they hadn’t gotten to that point and I think he was…in retrospect, clearly the UN has not been effective in doing anything much more, with respect to Iran, other than once a year castigating Israel. That seems to be what they do the most successfully.
MM: Judge Mukasey?
JMM: Just one additional point, the history with Saddam did not begin in the 2000’s. We had a war in the Gulf and what our troops found when they went in, with respect to his atomic weapons program, surprised the hell out of them. And the degree to which he had advanced. The Israeli’s, remember, knocked out a reactor of Osirak in 1981. So this man had a long history of persistence in the acquisition of nuclear weapons. There were sanctions in place at the time to be sure, but those were degrading. Many other countries were eager to do business with Saddam, and when you combine all of those things—the fact that we had been there before, the fact that we had found evidence of an advanced program during the Kuwait engagement, and that there had been the history of the destruction of Osirak—I think that ratifies the wisdom…
DR: Plus he had used chemical weapons against his neighbors and against his own people, and was giving $25,000 dollars a year to the families of suicide bombers who went out and killed innocent men, women, and children.
MM: What’s your best guess as to the outcome in Iran? Does Iran become part of, well it wouldn’t be the “Arab Spring” because they’re Persians not Arabs, but does it become a target for a Middle Eastern Spring? Does it become an accepted and responsible nuclear-armed power? If you were to look ahead over the next five to ten years, whither Iran?
AF: Well I expected Iran in President Obama’s first term to actually be able to develop nuclear weapons. And I think the reason they haven’t has been the result of some incredibly successful, smart work we don’t know exactly by whom but I understand the name begins with an I and ends with a L, which is another reminder that the doctrine of preemption works and preserves peace and we should all remember that. But it remains, I think, a huge worry and I think, frankly, one of the things that’s missing in the Republican debate right now for the presidency is a conversation about Iran. It doesn’t seem as if the hosts of the debate are asking Iran questions and it’s a question we’ve got to get into more to hear where our candidates are.
MM: Judge Mukasey, I have a good friend from law school who has been talking about attempting to get some legal action, perhaps even involving the Justice Department, initiated against terrorists supporting interests in Iran. Do you think there’s any hope in legal strategies? What would be your best guess as to dealing with the very real threat to the United States of the mullahs in Tehran?
JMM: That problem isn’t going to be solved in any courtroom, certainly not in any courtroom in this country. My own belief is it’s going to be solved in either one of two ways. Either by the Iranians themselves, at enormous cost in bloodshed because the IRGC—the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps—is not only a terrorist organization but is financially very wealthy, they control large amounts of resources, and they have an interest in preserving that regime. The other alternative is to consider what [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Bibi Netanyahu would do if they approached having nuclear weapons. His father is a historian, he has a sense of history, I don’t think that he would want to be the Israeli Prime Minister who went down in history as the one who sat by and did nothing when the Iranians acquired nuclear weapons. That would be my guess as to that alternative.
DR: There was a period when a number of people in the United States thought to themselves something like this—that the Iranian people are a proud people in an important country in an important part of the world, that they are being isolated and separated from other countries because of their nuclear program, and they’ve got diverse elements within the country—Kurds in the South, Azeris in the North—and they travel in and out and people travel in and out to Iran. And that they would not want to have their country separated and therefore the population might oppose a nuclear program. That, I believe, has proven to be false. I think that they look around the world and they see Pakistan with nuclear weapons, and India with nuclear weapons, and Russia with nuclear weapons, and they’re an important country. I don’t think that that thought would prove to be the wedge where you can drive something between the leadership in Iran and the Iranian people. It will have to be something else, it will have to be, because I don’t sense that they are that strongly opposed to the Iranian nuclear program. I could be wrong but my recollection is that there’s indications that what I’ve just said is correct.
MM: Two last questions here and then we will open it up, we have questions from the audience here and from around the country that we’re going to be dealing with.
One of the things that is often said by people who look back on the events of September 11th and the tremendous commitment that the United States has made to our own security and our own survival and the safety of our citizens, and again a commitment with remarkable success to it and surprising consistency. Neil Ferguson, a Harvard historian, just said that he believed that Barack Obama—the one chance that he has for being remembered as a successful president is that he’s been the most successful neo-conservative in the White House, ever. Which I don’t know how the late Irving Crystal would take to that, but what about the claim that Reverend Wright said that the chickens came home to roost. That because of America’s involvement all over the world, because of a needlessly aggressive foreign policy for a period of decades and generations, because of America’s overly profligate involvement in economies of various nations over the world, this kind of blow back—is the phrase that some critics like to use—was inevitable and in some sense or another we deserved what happened to us. Ari?
AF: Well, other than that we deserved what happened to us, there was an element of that in President Obama’s Cairo speech where he talked about America’s meddling around the world and it was almost an apology for what took place around the world. And I think it also led to one of the biggest missed opportunities for peace, which was the change in Iran from way before the Arab Spring. The Iranian people took to the streets to protest the sham re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [in 2009] and President Obama and the White House sat silent and didn’t say anything about that in part because I think that sentiment: That when America expresses its thoughts in this region of the world, we only make things worse. I remember thinking at the time, “No, when Ronald Reagan spoke out about what was happening in the Soviet Union the prisoners in the gulags heard what he said and according to Solzhenitsyn they knew then that they would win.” That’s what we missed in Iran.
MM: Mr. Secretary this actually relates…
DR: I want to say on that subject—you know, there have always been people who wanted to blame America and it is rubbish. Why do you think people are lined up in front of U.S. embassies all across the globe? Trying to come here!
JMM: Let’s consider the history of our “meddling” during the past 100 years. We sent hundreds of thousands of troops to Europe to rescue that continent from a mess that it had created. Tens of thousands of them didn’t come home. We didn’t keep any territory as a result; we simply went back about our business. We did the same thing during World War II. We extended a protective umbrella over Europe and the rest of the world for the entire duration of the Cold War, we are first at the scene of every emergency, every natural disaster, without expecting any thanks— which is a good thing because we don’t get any. The only territory we’ve conquered in any of those escapades has been the gravesites necessary to bury American troops who died in protecting freedom. That’s the history of our meddling over the last hundred years.
MM: We’ll come back to one final question at the very conclusion. These are questions that have come in. This is one that came in from a group that’s listening to us in Tampa, Florida. The question is: What do you say to people who essentially blame U.S. foreign policy, particularly towards Israel, for the 9/11 attacks? Would we have been, in other words, if the United States was more, I know the catch phrase is ‘even handed’ in the Middle East, would we have been spared from the violence of September 11?
AF: There’s no evidence to support that whatsoever. In fact, these are the same terrorists who attacked in Spain, who attacked in Bali, who attack around the world, and who attack Arabs. They are determined to kill anybody who does not share their sharia form of life. So it has absolutely zero to do with Israel. And keeping with America’s great moral tradition of doing what is right, we will always and should always stand at Israel’s side and not ask for anything in return because it’s just right to stand at Israel’s side.
MM: Mr. Secretary did you want to add something?
DR: No, except that’s exactly correct. I mean that is an excuse that people propound, that the source of all of America’s difficulty in that part of the world is our relationship with Israel. I’ve heard it over and over and over…
MM: There’s an old phrase, “Blame the Jews”—it has a certain ring to it. Its actually been used before.
This question from Hilton Head, South Carolina, is for you Secretary Rumsfeld: If President Obama were to pick up a phone and call you and reinstall you in the Pentagon for a third….
DR: I’ve been married 56 and a half years—my wife would leave me!
MM: So, if you were to be asked, what would you have done differently and the same about Libya?
DR: Well first of all, if you look at that part of the world I would make the case that Egypt is important, a big country. Saudi Arabia in the Gulf is important to our strategic interests in terms of, as Ari points out, the problems with Iran and Syria and their relationships supporting terrorists and damaging what we’re doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. And Libya does not rank there with those strategic interests in my view of the United States. Second, once you’re involved it becomes very important because the United States is the United States, and once we do something it’s noticed—not just there but elsewhere in the world. And people take note of it and they judge us, and they then begin like magnetic particles to behave off what we do. The case of Libya, I think, was badly handled in this sense: Once the president decided to create a coalition and went to the UN and went to NATO, before he decided what the mission was, I think that it was a formula for difficulty.
In my view you must decide what the mission is before you form a coalition because every country is not going to agree with everything, and if you decide what you think is important. And the result of it was the ambiguity as to whether or not Qaddafi would be there when it was over. Once we left that open, and that is what the United States did, and there were differences within NATO and within the coalition as to whether it was a humanitarian effort, very modest, or whether when it was over Qaddafi would not be there. The people in Libya heard that; they have a 40 year dictator whose vicious and tough and they’re not going to risk their lives supporting the rebels unless they have a sense he’s not going to be there. He’s been there for 40 years. The odds are the way the coalition was behaving in the early weeks and months was that he may still be there when it’s over. And so they didn’t defect from his government at the rate that they would have, they didn’t support the rebels at the pace they might’ve, other countries didn’t come in and be supportive to the extent they might’ve, and as a result it’s going on a much longer time then otherwise would have been the case, I believe. I can’t prove it but that’s my conviction.
MM: Judge Mukasey, very quickly, if and when they apprehend Colonel Qaddafi, should he be tried in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, or should he be tried by the Libyan people and by their own court system, or should he receive some other fate?
AF: Miranda rights.
JMM: I think if you mean what I think you mean by some other fate, I vote for choice number three.
MM: You mean Ramsey Clark doesn’t get the chance to defend him? Your predecessor?
JMM: Sadly not. As between the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the Libyan people, my vote is with the Libyan people.
MM: In the aftermath, this is from Boca Raton Florida, it’s a moving question: In the aftermath of September 11th there was tremendous unity in the United States. I’m just thinking about it, all of the bumper stickers that said ‘United We Stand’ and the flag decals that were ubiquitous in this city and across the country. And he [the questioner] says, and we had the respect of the rest of the world. Now our country is very divided, says the questioner, and we have lost the esteem of much of the world. What do you think has changed?
AF: I’m not sure I agree with all that on two levels. One is the unity of September 11th, at least in Washington D.C., lasted 3 months. And as soon as the mission in Afghanistan was really known to be going well and it was, and then when ENRON collapsed, and I won’t forget this because I had to stand at the podium taking the questions. In January 2002, Washington turned right back to its usual blame games and the criticism right away came to George Bush—his ties to Ken Lay, the chairman of ENRON, and “why didn’t you stop it from collapsing” and your culpability. It was Washington as usual, people don’t remember this, but it was 3 months later.
As for the perception of the role of America around the world, you know, I’m with the secretary [Rumsfeld]. People still line up to come to this country, they want to go to school in this country, they seek freedom in this country. The reason we have an immigration problem in this country is ’cause our country is the place to be. And I will always choose the day when people want to come here and we have a problem with that rather than the day when no one ever wants to come here because there’s nothing left in America for people to come to. So we still are that shining beacon around the world.
MM: I would just offer a little bit of a demurral. I do think that when you speak to Europeans, particularly when you’re speaking to Canadians…Canadians have been blessed with, I think I can say this because we’re not talking about a domestic politician, but I’m personally enormously impressed with Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper, who by the way is one of Israel’s best friends in the whole world. What you hear from Canadians is once upon a time they looked at the United States, saw the direction that we were going and how our economy was different, how we were avoiding some of the welfare state mistakes that Europeans were making, we weren’t spending ourselves into oblivion the same way that some of the social democracies in Europe have done. And I think that when you talk about losing the esteem of much of the world, would you agree with me gentlemen that some of that is because America seems to have gone in a much more European direction in turning to the state overwhelmingly for solutions to everything?
AF: In that sense, on the domestic front and economic front I absolutely agree. I thought the question was more the foreign policy, but you’re reminding me of one of my most enjoyable days at the White House. It’s funny how fast information works, I think it was a nano-second after the secretary said ‘old Europe’ I was asked those questions about, “Well what’s he mean by old Europe?” and, “Is he attacking France?”
DR: It was a demographic comment!
AF: There was a lot to it! I instantly knew what you [speaking to Rumsfeld] meant. There was a difference and there is a difference between East Europe, which still relishes freedom and a sense of individualism in a way because it used to be part of the Soviet captive nations, and Western Europe, which has got a real sense of, to use a French word, laissez-faire to it. What’s always made America different was individual responsibility and opportunity as opposed to the collective, and we do have to be careful on that front. We should be proudly different, we should be proudly American.
MM: Yes, some of the biggest fans of the United States that I’ve ever met I met in Warsaw when I went over there in 1994. It is an amazingly different perspective than you get in Paris or even Berlin. Judge Mukasey did you have something?
JMM: I would only say that so far as the esteem of the rest of the world, I don’t know when we ever actually had the quote ‘esteem of the rest of the world.’ We had it after 9/11, the price we paid for that is something I don’t ever want to see us pay again. So, if we’re talking about purchasing esteem that way, we can do without it.
So far as the affection of the rest of the world, nobody likes the big power and even when our troops were mustering in England for the invasion of the continent the British were grumbling that we were over-sexed, over-paid, and over here. So I don’t know that we’ve always been held in great affection. I think we are respected when we act in accordance with our principles and speak in accordance with our principles as President Reagan did when he said, “Tear down that wall,” and then stood behind that policy by showing leadership. But even then when he wanted to put missiles in Western Europe there were demonstrations, people were out in the streets, so I don’t worry as much about the esteem of the rest of the world as I do about the respect of the rest of the world. And that I think we get in the way that I suggested.
MM: Here’s an interesting question. I don’t know where it came in, maybe from the audience right here. Is there a concern that similar to the way that the United States and particularly President Reagan forced the USSR into militarily spending itself into oblivion, that our response to September 11th threatens in a similar way to cripple us today?
DR: No. When I went to Washington, the federal defense budget was 10% of the GDP. Today it’s 4%, plus or minus a half. Through Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, we were up at 10% of GDP, today it’s down to 4. The people who are running around saying you can balance the federal budget and solve the debt problem off the Pentagon just don’t know what they’re talking about. It isn’t there. As Willie Sutton said, “you’ve gotta go where the money is!” The money is in entitlements. That’s what’s ballooned in our country. And we have, in this country, taken a sigh of relief after World War II and dropped the budget, the intelligence budget, the defense budget. We did it after Vietnam, we did it after Korea, we did it after the end of the Cold War, and every time we’ve had to make a correction and do it in the least efficient way. And if we do it now because of the debt crisis at a time when weapons are vastly more lethal than they were in earlier periods, we will be doing this country an enormous disservice. We simply can’t try to balance that budget off the Pentagon.
MM: Following up on that question, this is also for you Secretary Rumsfeld…
DR: I don’t like it… I can see the smile on his face! There’s something wrong with this question.
MM: No, I actually think you will like it, Mr. Secretary. I’ll read it exactly as it’s written: There are several people outside and in the audience who call you a “war criminal.” But if you ask these same people if dictators like Asad, Chavez, Castro, or the President of Iran—as I refer to as Ahmadine-whack job—are also war criminals, they will say no. And then the questioner says, what do you say to these liberal losers?
DR: I think I’ll count them as undecided.
MM: Here’s a question: I spent 6 years in the marines, served in Operation Enduring Freedom. Do you think ten years later our combat readiness is better, worse, or about the same. Where can we improve?
DR: We’ve done a lot of things that have improved our combat readiness and capabilities. We’ve increased the budgets, the equipment is considerably better than it was, the numbers are larger than they were, we’ve rebalanced our forces around the world, we’ve conducted the biggest base closing internationally and domestically in bases we didn’t need and moved that money into things that were appropriate. We have increased our special forces dramatically in terms of their equipment, their numbers, brought the marines in and increased their authority. The changes from going from a division army down to a brigade combat team army has enabled us to do things we never had been capable of doing before. So the United States military is an all-volunteer military, every single person serving raised their hand and said I want to serve the country. They’re there because they want to be there and they’re good at what they do, they’re experienced, they have experienced things that previous armies did not, and I think we unquestionably got the finest military we’ve ever had and unquestionably the finest military on the face of the earth.
MM: I have this right, don’t I Mr. Secretary, that you had the great experience of meeting young men and women during your second tenure as Defense Secretary whose fathers had served under your first tenure?
This question is directly for Judge Mukasey and then we will have a wrap up question and some suggested questions for discussion. Judge Mukasey this is a two part question about sharia law. The first part of the question is: What right do they have to impose this law in our communities? And then secondly, will Muslim communities submit to America’s laws and customs or will they grow as they have in some parts of Europe in hostility and isolation?
JMM: Well, let me start with the second one. I think that that second one is a real danger and we cannot fragment ourselves into a series of self-contained, self-ruling communities and still remain a united country. Sharia law has its place in contracts in which people agree to be bound in certain ways, it may have its place in contracts that have international contacts that require the application of that law to decide the outcome of a contract. But that’s as far as it goes. That as not as far as it goes doctrinally, regrettably, and so we have to remain aware and alert to that and resist the tendency to impose it initially in Islamic communities, and later on elsewhere. I think we have to be alert to the claim by any group that they can live within this country and not be governed by its laws. I subscribe to a religion that has some very strict rules, but it also has a Talmudic principle that says in Aramaic, “dina d’malchuta dina”—the law of the kingdom, the kingdom in which you live, is the law. And that has to remain so here for all legal systems.
MM: Alright, last audience question and then just a general summing up. What do we do about President Obama’s, and this is the questioners words, “crazy ultimatum” that Israel go back to its 1967 indefensible borders that return the Golan Heights, and in effect the Sea of Galilee, to Syria, and will result in staging areas for terrorist attacks and for ultimate invasion?
DR: Vote our conscience.
AF: One of the best parts of my old job was I got to sit on all the president’s summit meetings with heads of state. And at least when I was there from 2001 to ’03, the head of state that visited the most often was Ariel Sharon who was most welcome of all in the White House. It’s inconceivable to me that on the eve of a visit of an important ally, or even if it’s not an ally, that the president of the United States would go out the night before a visitor arrives to give a speech that lays down a proposal that is a anathema to that visitor. That’s not how you treat people. That’s not diplomatic. And from both an American who cares about my conservative foreign policy point of view and also as a Jew, I have never been more morally proud than when Bibi Netanyahu gave that speech to Congress and talked about the moral connection that exists because of right and wrong that ties the United States to Israel. That’s what we should always remember, that moral good reason that will prevail and will ultimately affect the American people and what the American people decide, and it’ll be tested in Queens very shortly as well. And so I have infinite faith that we are a self-correcting democracy, and we need a little correction.
MM: Finally, if each of you gentlemen can sum up. The topic tonight was lessons learned, what the lessons we have learned in the ten years since September 11, what those most important lessons would be. And lets start with Judge Mukasey and go down the line.
JMM: Well, I guess the most important lesson is, on tall ships up on the top there is a brass plate with the words ‘hold fast’ just in case the people up there forget that that’s what they have to do. I think the most important lesson that we’ve learned is the lesson on that plate, which is hold fast, and I think we are by-and-large in the process of doing that.
MM: Mr. Secretary?
DR: The thing that comes to my mind is the importance of having good intelligence. It’s a dangerous world; the weapons are enormously powerful. The Johns Hopkins study that they sponsored called Dark Winter theorized small pox in three locations in America. And it wasn’t 3,000 people that were killed as a result of that but a million within a year. It would alter our country and how we live with quarantines and martial law, and it is not that difficult. Chemical and biological weapons are enormously dangerous and the prevention for that is to have good intelligence. And we simply have to know how important that is, we have to cooperate with countries all across the globe, we have to be willing to invest in it, and we have to do it with a persistence and a perseverance. I think that ‘hold fast’ is exactly right but do it intelligently and do it with the appropriate investments, and do it with the recognition of the complexity of the task of continuously knowing what’s happening around that is posing a danger to our country.
MM: Ari Fleischer?
AF: I’m not surprised I’m in a similar vein. I think, one, domestically, it is terribly important, as the secretary said, for the American people to enjoy life, to enjoy our freedoms, to enjoy our liberties, to enjoy what makes us American and that also leads to hopefully strong economies, which we need. But two, to remain on the offense against terrorists and that’s the government’s job. It’s the job of our intelligence agencies, it’s the job of our embassies abroad, it’s the job of the treasury department and going after terrorist financing, and ultimately it’s the job, especially now, of the special forces in the military and many others. God forbid the day where the government says we don’t need to be on the offense any longer. As long as the Cold War lasted, we’ll be in the War against Terrorism for equally a long time if not longer. We must always have that offensive mindset for the operators in government to keep us free.
MM: I can just add a few words in conclusion. I always grew up with a notion that the United States was special, was different, was separated from the rest of the world by a huge gulf of experience and, frankly, providence. My grandparents were all immigrants, all four, and I used to talk to my grandfather about this who was a barrel maker, came from the Ukraine, left revolutionary Russia, which had become the charnel house that it was to become in an even worse way after he came here. And he arrived in Philadelphia, and he thought it was heaven. It’s really, had been a long time, I think, since most people sort of looked at Philadelphia as heavenly. In baseball terms, maybe, this year.
My sense, and I was raised this way like I think a lot of Americans in the baby boom generation, was to believe that America was different and special. There were crazy wars that went on in the rest of the world, Europe had basically tried to commit suicide and murder twice in the twentieth century with tens of millions of casualties, but we were different. We were isolated from, number one, some of the evil that existed in the rest of the world, we had big oceans on both sides; and number two, we were isolated from some of the craziness. For me, the biggest lesson of September 11th is that’s no longer true in this world. The evil comes right here, right here. Fort Hood showed that. Nidal Hasan showed that. As far as the craziness is concerned, the revolting craziness of people who spin out conspiracy theories about the events of September 11th, the revolting craziness of people who hate their own country who feel ingratitude to this bizarrely benevolent experiment in human goodness called the United States of America, we can no longer take for granted that we will be protected, and isolated, and safe from that kind of evil and that kind of craziness. It takes, as Judge Mukasey said, the determination to hold fast, constant vigilance, constant involvement, and I thank each of you three gentlemen for your heroic efforts—and they were—on behalf of the greatest nation on earth.
Before we adjourn to the very important business of book signing and meeting with members of the audience: Two questions to put for discussion to the groups that are meeting around the country, apparently they like to have questions for discussion. One would be the major ways that America has changed for the better and for the worse since September 11, 2001, and question number two would be to consider some of the phenomenal spirit of unity. I mean we even had members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats together, on the steps of the Capitol building singing God Bless America and no one from the ACLU came up and arrested them. It was a beautiful thing, they sang out of key, but they were singing together. What can we do as Americans, not just as leaders but as ordinary Americans, to bring back some of that spirit of: we’re all in this together, united we stand, and God bless America?
God Bless America, thank you for coming, and thanks to the 92nd street Y.