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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Cohen Begins 9/11 Commission Testimony

Aired March 23, 2004 - 14:03   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We will dip in there, Barbara Starr live from the Pentagon. As soon as that happens -- actually, I'm told we're going to listen in right now. Perfect timing. Thanks, Barbara.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

THOMAS H. KEAN, COMMISSION CHAIRMAN: ... we'd like you, if you could, to raise your hand so we can place you under oath.

Do you swear or affirm to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Thank you very much.

Your prepared statement will be entered into the record in full. And so we'd ask you to summarize your remarks as you'd like.

COHEN: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

And I'd like I'd like to express my gratitude to the commission for the important work that you are undertaking. I've had the opportunity, I think, to meet with either the members and/or staff on three prior occasions. And I am happy to be here today to contribute whatever I can to the important analysis that you are undertaking.

September 11th was a life-transforming event I think for all of us. It was a barbaric attack, killing some 3,000 Americans by turning airliners into cruise missiles.

I think all of us have a solemn responsibility to the victims of September 11th, to the victims' families, many of whom may be here today and certainly are watching, and also to the brave men and women in our military who continue to carry the battle and suffer the wounds in this war against terrorism.

COHEN: Let me say on a personal note, my interest in the subject of terrorism began about a quarter of a century ago. I had attended an event -- conference in Bonn, Germany. A banker by the name of Hans-Martin Schleyer (ph), a businessman, had been assassinated by the Red Army faction, and the Europeans were eager to explore ways in which they could combat the scourge of international terrorism.

During the time I served as a member of the United States Senate and the Armed Services Committee, I saw the bombing of our embassy in Beirut, the bombing of our Marine barracks in Beirut, the bombing of Pan Am 103, the hijacking of TWA-847, the bombing of the West Berlin discotheque, the bombing of OPM-SANG and of Khobar Towers, among the many acts that were directed against the United States.

As a result, during that time, I became convinced that our military was not organized to act swiftly enough in the age of what Toffler described as that of "future shock."

I helped to write the Goldwater-Nichols Act, establishing the power and the leadership of the joint chiefs of staff as a result of being concerned about what's taken place. That came, by the way, over the objection of the Pentagon during that time.

In 1986, I authored the legislation to establish a Special Operation Command, once again, I would point out, over the objections of the Pentagon, because I felt it was important to enable us to be able to respond to the emerging threats.

I wrote and I spoke about the subject on numerous occasions convinced that the threat was growing, was becoming more organized, less sporadic, and when coupled with access of weapons of mass destruction, likely to pose an existential threat to the world.

I carried these convictions to the Pentagon when President Clinton asked me to serve as the secretary of defense. I found that he not only shared my views, but he was prepared to support efforts to counter these threats with dollars, with deeds, as well as with his presidential words.

In my experience, the threat of international terrorism remained a top priority for all members of his national security team throughout the years I served at the Pentagon.

COHEN: In my written statement, I outlined some of the major initiatives that I had the department undertake between January of '97 and 2001.

They included enhancing force protection; support for covert and special operations activity; designating and organizing a National Guard to serve as the first responders in the wake of attacks against our cities; organizing a joint task force for civil support to assist the cities and states against terrorist attacks that might take place; helping to train 100 major cities in consequence management against terrorist attacks; engaging in personal diplomacy and public appearances to alert the American people to the threat posed by anthrax, ricin, VX and radiological materials, the danger of them falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

These initiatives were undertaken as the department was engaged in waging war in Kosovo; we attacked Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Fox; as we destroyed a suspected WMD site in Sudan; as we coped with the dangers of cyber attacks against our critical infrastructure, including the unknown consequences of a critical massive cyber failure that was then known as Y2K. I believe that we devoted some $3 billion to $4 billion in defense spending at that time to cope with that for fear that the terrorists would try to exploit that millennium turnover.

We launched an attack upon al Qaeda's training camp in Afghanistan as has been discussed earlier today. We continued efforts to capture or kill Osama bin Laden after discovering his role in the bombing of the embassies in Africa and then later with the USS Cole.

And we developed new intelligence-gathering capabilities that could be directed against Osama bin Laden and others as, again, you have discussed here earlier this morning.

In addition, the department also worked closely with the CIA, the FBI and other agencies, and as a result, I believe we were able to thwart a number of terrorist activities directed here against Americans and abroad.

I know the commission is anxious to explore more specifically what happened or did not happen at the Defense Department.

But I'd like to try and paint in the few moments I have at least a broader perspective as well.

I think all of us who have held the public trust have to be accountable for what we did or did not do during our careers in the public service and holding the public trust.

(APPLAUSE)

But I want to put it into perspective as a former member of the Senate and a former member of the House of Representatives as well, because I think as the commission may find fault, indeed that's all -- in all probability, that might be the goal of the commission. I don't think so.

But I hope you'll find the fault lines as well in our society as a whole. And if you just permit me four or five minutes to outline some of the challenges I think that all of us face, certainly while I was in the Senate, also at the Department of Defense, I'd point out that on many occasions the administration was able to secure the cooperation of Congress in the pursuit of its goals.

There were a number of other occasions in which we did not.

COHEN: For example, some in Congress, the media and the policy community accused those of us who were focused on the terrorist threat of being alarmists, of exaggerating the threat in order to boost our budgets. And countering this threat of terrorism was, quote, "the latest gravy train," according to one expert who was quoted in U.S. News & World Report.

And the belief that we were somehow indulging in a cynical hyperbole I think resulted in a number of legislative reactions.

There were tens of millions of dollars cut out of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, in the so-called Nunn-Lugar program, which I believe was one of the most important programs we could have passed, and that was to help reduce the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear materials and others in the possession of the former Soviet Union.

Tens of millions of dollars were cut from that program, I think posing a greater risk to us. We had to spend a significant amount of time trying to lobby to restore funds in that regard.

Congress blocked the cooperation with countries whose support was critical to the counterterrorism efforts, such as banning military cooperation with Indonesia, by way of example, the world's largest Muslim country that is a key battleground in the campaign against Islamic extremists and banning any meaningful cooperation with Pakistan, the front line state in the global war on terrorism.

There were reasons for this, but nonetheless, that was the reality.

We had a program called IMET which was designed to put our military into contact with the militaries of other countries to help educate them in the way that a civilized country and democracy is able to subordinate the military civilian rule and to pursue democratic values. Well, the program was terminated based on activities that took place in that country and elsewhere.

We had congressional committees who rejected requests for legislative authority to the department to provide certain support to domestic activity or agencies to prevent or respond to terrorist actions in the United States.

It was with this in mind that I tried to combat this complacency and cynicism that I helped to create -- not to create, but I filled the membership of a commission that was led by former Senators Rudman and Hart, including the vice chairman of this commission and former Speaker Gingrich, along with senior retired military commanders and others.

In releasing the commission's first report long before September 11, Vice Chairman Hamilton stated the fundamental issue. He said, "What comes across to me in this report more than any other single fact is that the commission believes that Americans are going to be less secure than they believe themselves to be, and so I think what we're trying to say in this report is we've lived in a very secure time, we're very fortunate for that, but we're going to be confronted with a lot of challenges to our national security that Americans do not believe we're going to be subject to, and that's really what comes out of this report for me more than any other single thing."

Well, I'll tell you, his remarks really resonated with me, because I recall at my very first press conference as secretary of defense back in 1997, I was asked, "Mr. Secretary, what is your greatest concern as you look toward the future?"

COHEN: And I'd like to just read my response. My greatest concern is that we're able to persuade the American people that having a viable, sustainable national security policy is important even when there's no clearly identifiable enemy on the horizon.

We still live in a very dangerous, disorderly world. And in many cases, we face dangers that are comparable to those we've faced from the past, namely the proliferation of missile technology, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the spread of terrorism.

I believe that we have been complacent as a society. I think that we have failed to fully comprehend the gathering storm. Even now, after September 11th, I think it's far from clear that our society truly understands the gravity of a threat that we face or is yet willing to do what I believe is going to be necessary to counter it.

Even after September 11th, after the anthrax and the ricin attacks in the United States, I remain concerned that the controversy over not finding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction will lead to the erroneous assumption that all this talk about the dangers of WMD is just another exercise in the cynical exploitation of fear.

After all, it's commonly noted -- it was noted here again this morning -- there were no attacks since September 11th. I think this is a dangerous delusion. The enemy is not only coming, he has been here. He will continue to try to examine our weaknesses and exploit the crevices in our security and destroy our way of living as well as our lives.

Mr. Chairman, I'll conclude here. I think you can deduce from my written statement, I believe that the Clinton administration, far more than any previous administration prior to September 11th, understood the threat that terrorism poses to our country. I think it took far greater and more comprehensive action to counter it than previous administration did by virtue of the growing threat.

But in spite of all of this, the United States was hit in a devastating way. Even today, with the global war on terrorism being waged, I believe we need to do far more to prevent the spread of virulent Islamic extremism and to prevent terrorism from reaching our shores.

I don't pretend to hold the keys...

PHILLIPS: We'll continue to monitor the 9/11 hearings here. But real quickly, the president speaks before his cabinet about a minute ago. Let's listen to what he had to say.

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