Former Attorney General Recalls Sept. 11

In 2001, Alberto Gonzales was serving as White House Counsel to then President George W. Bush. He later stepped into the role of attorney general. He became a controversial figure for defending The Patriot Act and policies on questioning and detaining terror suspects. Gonzales looks back on Sept. 11 and its aftermath with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'd like to thank my colleague Jacki Lyden for sitting in for me earlier this week. This week, like many people we are thinking about the terrorist attacks on this country that took place on September 11, 2001. The 10th anniversary is this Sunday. Today we have a conversation with someone who was a key player in developing the policies that became known as the war on terror, Alberto Gonzales. He was serving as White House council on September 11th.

He later served as attorney general in the George W. Bush administration. Mr. Gonzales was and remains a controversial figure. He was a close confidant and advisor to President Bush at the time of the attacks. He's been sharply criticized by some for his role approving(ph) the harsh treatment of 911 terrorist suspects and for his handling of national security measures. He's now a visiting professor at Texas Tech University.

Tomorrow we'll get a different perspective on the attacks from the current attorney general, Eric Holder. But now we hear from Alberto Gonzales about his memories of 9/11 and what's transpired since. When I spoke with Mr. Gonzales earlier, I asked him to recall where he was and what he was doing on September 11. Well, I actually flew out of Dulles Airport about 7:20 on the morning of September 11, which is about 50 minutes before American Airlines 77 flew out of Dulles, which is the aircraft that was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. And Michel, I sometimes wonder whether or not my paths crossed with any of the hijackers that morning in the terminal or any of the 64 people, passengers and crew, that were killed later at the Pentagon. And I was going to give an ethics speech in Norfolk, Virginia, and I was about to give my speech, and the North Tower had been struck.

We weren't - no one was sure of the cause of the crash so I gave my speech, and when it was finished the South Tower had been hit and that began the process of me trying to get back to Washington. I was desperate to get back as quickly as I could because we knew immediately after the second plane had hit that this was a terrorist attack. And they rushed me to the airport in Norfolk and by the time I got there, of course the FA had grounded all traffic.

I remember distinctly, you know, running down the terminal and it was eerily quite because all the passengers were standing huddled around the television monitors, and fortunately I ran into a Naval officer and she gave me a ride to Norfolk Naval Station, and there I met with the base commander and asked for his help.

And eventually we got clearance to fly me back on a Navy helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base and they took me to an underground bunker where Vice President Cheney, other senior administration officials were huddled. I sat in on the video teleconference with the president around 3:00. He was at off at Air Force base. And then the rest of the afternoon, you know, I just ran between the underground bunker, the situation room, and my office on the second floor of the West Wing, and making sure that all of the legal issues were being evaluated as policymakers were making decisions.

And finally about 7:30 I stood outside the Oval Office with Karen Hughes, the communications director, and we watched as Marine One landed on the South Lawn and greeted the president as he returned home that historic day.

We followed him into the Oval Office and then back into his private dining room, and there with Ari Fleischer, the press secretary, Andy Card, the chief of staff, Condi Rice, the national security advisor, Karen and I and the president, we talked about what happened that morning. We talked about what were we going do in response to the attacks and we talked about what the president was going to say in his address to the nation that night.

MARTIN: Did you ever have time for a moment of reflection or prayer, if I might ask, or...

, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Probably the time that I really thought a lot about what had happened was on the helicopter ride from Norfolk to Andrews. You know, no one said a word to each other, and obviously it's very loud on those Navy helicopters, but you know, I think all of us on that helicopter were thinking about what had happened that morning and wondering what would we find when we arrived at Andrews and back at our nation's capital. But yeah, and I thought about, you know, as the White House counsel I was - I got to sit in on every national security meeting in the situation room, where we talked about threats to the United States.

And we knew that al-Qaida and Bin Laden were a serious threat to the U.S., but we didn't know how or when there was going to be an attack, and I tried to replay in my mind all those meetings and all those discussions to see - because I knew the president was going to ask, okay, what did we miss? Is there anything we could have done to prevent this from happening? So these are things that I was thinking about on that ride to Andrews.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you - I want, obviously - because you were White House Counsel at the time and you talked about the legal issues that you were beginning to address, but just one brief thing - you said you knew immediately what this was. When the plane went into the first tower, you weren't sure, but when the plane went into the second tower, you said I knew immediately what this was. Why do you say that?

, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Because again, we were aware that al-Qaida was a serious threat, had threatened to hurt the United States; in fact was responsible for many previous attacks, the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Towers, the bombings at our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S.S. Cole bombing, Khobar Towers. And so slowly but surely al-Qaida was ratcheting(ph) up the pressure and the harm and damage to the United States and I think there was a feeling that, you know, they were waiting for the right opportunity.

And so as soon as the second plane hit, you know, again, I was in contact with my deputy, who was in the situation room in the White House and he relayed to me very quickly that consensus within the situation room, the folks down there, was that this was al-Qaida and this was a terrorist attack.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Alberto Gonzales. He's currently a professor at Texas Tech University but at the time of the 9/11 attacks he was White House counsel. He later became attorney general of the United States. Going back to the initial hours after the attacks, what was your primary concern from a legal perspective?

, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: What I was focused on was what authorities did the President of United States, the commander in chief, have in this kind of situation, and what authorities would the president need to respond to this kind of threat to the United States. I was also grappling with poor communications. It was one of the frustrating things about 9/11, is we learned how poor our communication systems were. But when I could talk to my deputy, I kept trying to emphasize to him, make sure that we had lawyers, and not just White House lawyers but DOJ lawyers, CIA lawyers, State lawyers, Defense lawyers, in the room when decision makers were evaluating policies, because I knew that people were looking at taking steps that were extraordinary and that we had to be sure that we were on a sound legal footing.

MARTIN: Did you know immediately in the wake of the attacks or in the days following the attacks that the use of so called enhanced interrogation techniques, which of course you know many people consider to be torture, would be a part of the future of what was going to happen next, that this is something that this administration, this country was going to have to grapple with? Did you know right then?

, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: No, I'd have to say - I'd have to say that I didn't think about that. We knew immediately that we would have to do a better job of collecting information. It wasn't just a question of not being able to connect the dots. We couldn't even collect the dots sufficiently, and so we knew that we would have to be - do a better job in gathering up intelligence, but in my own mind I didn't think about what that would mean in terms of interrogating prisoners.

That's not something that I thought about, certainly in those initial days.

MARTIN: Now, you've been interviewed on this question before, and you've told other people - most recently, for example you had an interview with TPM, the Talking Points Memo, where you said that you were aware that waterboarding was used against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but I don't remember your saying whether you agreed with it. Do you mind if I ask you, do you agree with the use of those techniques?

, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, when I say aware, I was certainly aware of the fact that the CIA intended to use enhanced techniques. And in terms of whether or not, do I agree with the use of these kind of techniques, as a general matter I agree with using measures that are deemed lawful by the Department of Justice and are deemed effective by, say, the CIA, if in fact it's the agency using these techniques.

MARTIN: Okay, but that's the question. The lawyers were the ones who decided that it was deemed lawful, lawyers working under your supervision and also at the Justice Department, so that's why it's a relevant question, whether you agree with it or not.

Or do you disagree with my framework, that your lawyers were the ones who deemed it lawful?

ALBERTO GONZALES: Well, I wouldn't say - you know, when I was in the White House, it wouldn't - I wouldn't say it's an accurate description to say, you know, my lawyers. You know, at the Department of Justice, it is the attorney general who's charged by statute, to give the definitive legal advice for the executive branch and that power's been delegated to the Office of Legal Counsel. And when the Office of Legal Counsel gives its advice as something that's lawful, as the White House counsel, I never considered it my job to second guess it.

Now, I would certainly contribute to the discussion. I would offer my opinion, but at the end of the day, the attorney general gives a definitive legal position and then I then convey that to the President of the United States. Now, I may tell him, Mr. President, you know, this is the position of the lawyers at the executive branch. There has been disagreement. This is a very tough issue. The courts may disagree with us, but this is our best judgment.

But at the end of the day, I can't go to the president and say, Mr. President, here are 33 different legal opinions about what you should do in this situation. That's not the role of the counsel. The role of the counsel is to ensure that the president gets the very best legal advice after very careful and deliberate discussion and sounding out of different opinions.

MARTIN: But if you disagreed as a matter of principle, both as an officer of the court, as the country's top - the president's top legal advisor - if you did disagree, wouldn't you have a duty to tell him?

GONZALES: If I disagreed, I would tell the president that I had a problem with it. But there's a difference between disagreeing as to the legal position of the department and disagreeing as a matter of morality, as a matter of values or principle.

The president was very clear with me, in directing me to tell him what the law was. That was my job as a lawyer, both in the White House and at the Department of Justice as the attorney general, is to tell the president what the law is. And then the policymakers would decide, within the frameworks of that legal advice, what the policy should be.

Now, there were instances where he might ask me: OK, you tell me what the law is. What do you think? Do you think this is a good idea to do this? And so, when the president asked that question, he's not asking me as a lawyer. He's asking me as a confidante and he wants to know my views on policy. And so, in those instances, I would give him my advice as to whether or not something might not be a good idea, even though the lawyers say, this is something that can be done under the Constitution.

MARTIN: At the end of the day, are you comfortable with the legal framework that allowed the use of these techniques?

GONZALES: At the end of the day, I have to say that I am comfortable, given the time in which the decisions were made and the circumstances in which these judgments were made. Absolutely. I stand behind them and, you know, over time, the Department of Justice - the legal advice changes depending on changes in personnel, depending on changes in circumstances.

We give our best advice, based upon the information we have at the time and then, over time, you know, that advice may change and that's the way it should happen and that's what did happen in this case.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break and when we come back, we'll hear more of my conversation with former Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, including his response to the debate over whether terrorist suspects should be tried through the criminal courts or the military justice system.

Please stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we will hear another perspective on 9/11 from fashion designer, Liz Lange. Her very first runway show was that morning. We'll hear her memories of that day and we'll hear her thoughts on how she thinks the events of the day changed her and the world of fashion.

But first, we continue our conversation with Alberto Gonzales. He served as attorney general in the administration of President George W. Bush, but at the time of the September 11th attacks of 2001, he was serving as White House Counsel.

We were talking about his memories of the day and we were also talking about his role in the decision to use so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which many people consider torture, when questioning terrorist suspects.

The other issue that was controversial and remains controversial is, of course, the whole question of how detainees who are captured in the course of the so-called war on terror - and the reason I use that term is not to be dismissive of it, but because some people just disagree that there is such a thing as a war on terror. So I hope you understand why I use that term. But one of the other issues that remains controversial is the use of military tribunals and the use of Guantanamo Bay to house these detainees.

Now, former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, told my colleague, Steve Inskeep, earlier this week that he believes that the civilian courts are more than capable of trying terrorist suspects. And he, of course, is also the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Now, you're a former military man yourself, as well as an attorney, and I'd like to ask your response to his comments.

GONZALES: Well, I am on record in saying that, under the appropriate circumstances, absolutely, our criminal justice system is more than capable of bringing a terrorist to justice. From my perspective in the White House and as the attorney general, you know, the disposition of someone we capture involved in terrorism, whether it be in our criminal justice system or through military commissions or we simply hold them indefinitely without charges, which we're allowed to do under the laws of war, that that would depend upon the circumstances and then what was the best interests of our country. And it may be that the best place is to try someone in our criminal courts, but it may be that, for various national security reasons, we don't bring them to justice at this time. We simply hold them indefinitely without charges.

And, you know, I strongly take issue with those individuals who are uncomfortable with the term, war on terror. You know, after the attacks, there was no question in the UN, no question in NATO, both passing resolutions about what this was and the authority of the United States to act in self-defense in response to this act of aggression.

MARTIN: Well, not to debate over that point, but those who take issue with the term, that you can't make war on a tactic.

GONZALES: I'll tell you this story. I think this was the day after the attacks, or maybe two days after the attacks, but I was in a series of meetings in the White House and I was listening to all these discussions and everyone kept talking about framing what had happened the previous day as an attack, a war. We were at war.

And after one of the meetings, between the meetings, I took the president aside and I expressed some concern about using the phrase, being at war. And I did so because of these reasons: one is, when the United States is at war, it triggers diplomatic relations, treaties, with other countries and we had to be careful with that. Also, when the United States is at war, it triggers various domestic statutes, so there might be unintended consequences.

And so I cautioned the president about using that phrase and he kind of looked at me like, you know - he said, listen, you lawyers can debate what you want to call it. We're at war.

MARTIN: Well, there's so many things to talk about that we don't have time for today. But before I let you go, you know, many people are now reflecting in this week leading up to the 10th anniversary, on how they feel the country has changed.

I wanted to ask you that question. How do you feel the country has changed since 9/11 and is there any way in which you've changed?

GONZALES: Well, I think it was a transformative event. We see it every time we go to the airport, for example. The world that my sons are growing up in is much different than the world that I grew up in.

But still, the United States, even though we have some serious challenges and there's no question about that, it's still, by far, the greatest country on the face of the earth and I still have great faith in our ability to deal with this threat and with other threats that are surely to come in the future.

MARTIN: Well, how have you changed?

GONZALES: Well, I think that, personally, when I hear President Bush talk about how it's affected him in terms of - you know, it made him a wartime president and I guess, correlated to that, it sort of made me a wartime lawyer. It's not something that I'd ever studied.

You know, I had to deal with some very tough issues. I had to make some very controversial decisions. Some people don't like those decisions that were made, and some people hold it, for them, it's very personal.

In truth, I think only history will tell us. I am proud of the fact that, in 10 years, there's not been another successful 9/11 type attack against the United States. Now, we've done a lot to prevent that from happening. We've also been a little bit lucky. But you know, in law enforcement, particularly in an open society like ours, sometimes, you have to be lucky.

But in any event, I think history will tell that we did a pretty good job in defending our country and we made the best decisions under those very trying circumstances.

MARTIN: Alberto Gonzales was White House Counsel to President George W. Bush during 9/11 in 2001. Later, he became the Attorney General of the United States and he served in that position from 2005 to 2007. He's currently a visiting professor at Texas Tech University and he was kind enough to join us from member station KOHM in Lubbock.

Former Attorney General from the White House Counsel, Professor Gonzales, thank you so much for joining us once again.

GONZALES: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Tomorrow, as I mentioned earlier, we plan to speak with the current Attorney General, Eric Holder, about many of the same issues.

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