Former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean chairs the 9/11 Commission, and former U.S. Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana is the vice chairman. They joined Chris Matthews, on Wednesday, to talk about their 9/11 report, the lack of an Iraq connection, as well as the roots of extremism.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: This is a development a lot of people will find clarifying is that there was no direct connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11.
THOMAS KEAN, 9/11 COMMISSION CHAIRMAN: Well, that's what our staff has found. Now, it doesn't mean there weren't al Qaeda connections with Iraq over the years. They're somewhat shadowy, but I think they were there. But with 9/11, no, our staff has found no evidence of that.
MATTHEWS: Mr. Hamilton, so many polls have been taken that shows the American people, almost three-quarters of the people, believe there was a connection. How do we rectify that? Is your commission going to clarify that to the extent that people won't still be singing country music that says “remember how you felt?”
LEE HAMILTON, 9/11 COMMISSION VICE CHAIRMAN: All we can do is state as clearly as we can what the evidence is that we have found. We have found no operational collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden with regard to attacks on the United States. That conclusion is a very firm one that we have reached.
What the governor referred to is also true. There are all kinds of ties. There are all kinds of connections. And it may very well have been that Osama bin Laden or some of his lieutenants met at some time with Saddam Hussein lieutenants.
They had contacts, but what we did not find was any operational tie with respect to attacks on the United States.
MATTHEWS: Governor, what about that long talk about meeting in Prague between Mohammed Atta, who was the main character and the main bad guy in this attack on the United States, the lead pilot, you might say, and the Iraqi intelligence official in Prague? Did that occur five months before 9/11?
KEAN: We have no evidence that that occurred. In fact, we have some evidence that we think Mohammed Atta was actually in this country at that time.
MATTHEWS: That's the paper trail evidence, right?
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the other thing. And the other thing that's talked a lot about in this city is where that fourth plane was headed, Congressman. Was it headed toward the Capitol, the one that crashed in Pennsylvania because of the passengers overtaking the hijackers?
HAMILTON: We don't know for sure, but we do know that in the discussions leading up to September 11, the Capitol was a target.
HAMILTON: Because it was a great symbol of freedom in this country. And the al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, specifically, wanted to hit a target, very high profile that would be recognized not only in this country as a high-profile symbol, but would be recognized across the world. So the White House, the Pentagon, the Capitol, we think, were all targets at one time or another. One of the interesting things is that, evidently, Osama bin Laden really wanted to hit the White House. And Mohammed Atta said it's a difficult target. You know, the Capitol is easier, it's bigger, it's sitting up there, and we can't get the White House.
So in all probability, they were heading maybe for the White House.
If they couldn't hit it, then on to the Capitol.
MATTHEWS: What about the idea that this was really smart sort of political invective? If they wanted to hit the Capitol because they said it was “responsible for U.S. policy in the Mideast,” the pro-Israeli policy? Do you make anything of that? Do you give any credence to that?
KEAN: Well, what we have on the evidence so far is that they really wanted the great symbols of America. Obviously, the twin towers were a symbol, the Capitol a symbol, the White House is a symbol. Anything that was a symbol of the United States might empower around the world and to show that those symbols could be destroyed.
MATTHEWS: But you also have in your report that they wanted to hit us when the Israeli prime minister was visiting us in the spring. I mean, it seems like a very targeted attack on our policy.
The people that say there's no connection between al Qaeda and our policy towards Israel, of course is an absurd proposition. Everything is related in the Middle East. But isn't it true—it seems like they sat around and read the papers and said, “Well, we're going to send a real particular message here, don't be pro Israeli.”
HAMILTON: Look, there's no question that there's an awful lot of speculation in this country about the motivation of these folks. I don't know that we can sort all of that out.
MATTHEWS: But it says here, and I'm reading the wire copy coming out of the report., I'm not guessing this— the report says bin Laden believed the Capitol was most responsible for U.S. policy on Israel. It also says that bin Laden wanted to go after us in May of 2001 because the Israeli prime minister would be visiting Washington at that point. Are these in your report or not, these two points?
HAMILTON: What is in our report, I think, is that the motivation for Osama bin Laden and a lot of the hijackers is mixed, partly-religious, partly-political. And American foreign policy has consequences. And they're not always consequences that we can predict.
For example, we put troops in Saudi Arabia. I supported that. I think the Congress supported it without objection back in the early 90s. That was the thing that apparently triggered Osama bin Laden, putting American forces on sacred soil...
MATTHEWS: And keeping them there for 10 years.
HAMILTON: That's correct, if we are to believe what Osama bin Laden has said. So here's a policy, unanimously agreed upon in the United States government, one that I still think was correct. But nonetheless, had the unexpected consequence that it triggered Osama bin Laden.
MATTHEWS: Is your staff report conclusive on the question of whether the Mideast issue was part of the triggering of this attack?
KEAN: Israel?Yes, I don't think there's any question about it, because when Osama bin Laden issued his fatwah and said this is why we have to kill Americans, he mentioned two things: One was our policy toward the Palestinians and Israel, the other was putting American troops on holy soil in Saudi Arabia. Those are the two main reasons that he said now you have to go out and kill Americans.
MATTHEWS: But didn't we know, Congressman, back when the United States went to war the first time in the Persian Gulf, that we knew there was a high price we were paying in terms of violating their sacred belief in their land in Saudi Arabia? And that's one of the reasons why the Saudi government was so hesitant to let us put our troops in there. Didn't we know it then, and how come we forgot it for 10 years, that this was a sore point with these people?
HAMILTON: Well, we understood that. But what triggered the war in 1991 was when Saddam Hussein moved across into international boundary. That's what really brought American power into play there, I believe. An international boundary, he crossed it, and tried to take over the oil resources of Kuwait.
MATTHEWS: Does that mean that we should have been more sensitive to the people and the beliefs and culture of Saudi Arabia than their own monarchy was? Because the monarchy didn't seem to be as disturbed about this as the people were.
KEAN: Well, I don't know how disturbed the people were. Bin Laden was very disturbed about it. and his followers obviously. But I don't know. We haven't done any polls. I don't really know how seriously the rest of them felt about it. But I think the answer to your question is basically, yes, we've got to be a lot more sensitive to people in the Middle East.
We've got to understand them better. We've got to understand their beliefs, their culture, and where they're coming from. And we have to do a much better job the United States government has ever done before.
MATTHEWS: Let's talk about what their capabilities have been, because it seems like they were grander even than they executed on 9/11.
One of the things in your report today which is going to grab all the headlines tomorrow is the grandiosity of their original plan for 9/11. Describe the dimensions of that, Mr. Chairman.
KEAN: Well, they were going after both coasts. I mean, they were trying to train pilots. This was the original plan. Actually, it was cut down. But originally, they were going after the tallest building in Seattle, the tallest building in California, plus buildings in the capital, plus the World Trade Center.
MATTHEWS: In one hour. In one hour.
KEAN: Yes, in one hour. And they were to land a plane, kill all the males on board his plane and say this is because of your policy in the Middle East. And announce that to the news media.
MATTHEWS: And who was going to say that?
KEAN: I think it was the fellow who planned the whole thing.
MATTHEWS: Do you think it's possible that Khalid Shaik Mohammed, the guy who you're hearing from now, apparently the source of all this...
MATTHEWS: ... isn't making an after-the-fact case to screw Israel? That basically the original goal was to go after their concern about Saudi and the holy land, but now they figured here's a great plot for them to start spilling their guts in a way that's dishonest? I mean, how well do we know that this guy who is squealing right now is telling the truth?
HAMILTON: Well, we don't know for sure.
MATTHEWS: Notice that none of that stuff about Israel came out in the beginning and now it's all over the place, and this stuff?
HAMILTON: Well, you could be right. I just don't know. The fact of the matter is we've interviewed a lot of these detainees. And there are ways of cross-checking stories and all the rest. But you're dealing with people, you don't know whether they're telling you the truth or not.
MATTHEWS: Is this under torture? Do we know what kind of circumstances we got this info?
HAMILTON: We do not know the circumstances.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you—and this is the big question, I guess, for this September in New York. The Republicans are meeting, your party is meeting in New York right there at Madison Square Garden and Penn Station. Anybody that's ever been there at 5:00 at night on a rainy night, everybody's getting on that subway there. Do we think they have the capability to hit us in the Big Apple again?
KEAN: Well, you know, whenever they've hit us in the past, it's been unexpected. Everybody is going to be prepared for that. Everybody is looking at that. Everybody looking at New York. Everybody is looking at Boston. Somebody said in the hearing today, the biggest opportunity they've ever had was at Reagan's funeral. Not only United States leaders, and the whole Congress, but world leaders. So there are unfortunately in a free society a great number of opportunities.
MATTHEWS: Yes. The Reagan funeral luckily wasn't scheduled.
MATTHEWS: This baby is in New York. OK. Thank you very much. We would like to have you on for a year here, you have so much information. Thank you very much, Chairman Tom Kean, former governor of New Jersey, and one of the great U.S. congressmen ever from Indiana, Lee Hamilton. He's here now as vice chairman of the committee.