June 3, 2002
The Press Club is a place that values candor. That’s one of the reasons why I look forward to this event each year. So I hope you won't mind if I speak to you today frankly, from my experience and from my heart. There is little I can add to the eloquent expressions of shock, followed by resolution and national unity, which have emanated from this Capitol in the days since September 11. On the other hand, whether or not age brings wisdom, it can at least afford perspective.
Before September 11, there was December 7. From the first terrible images of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon under attack, we have heard comparisons to Pearl Harbor. The parallels are obvious -- a surprise attack of unimaginable horror -- a nation rallying to defend itself, and rediscovering in the process its most cherished values. In the wake of such horror, questions have been raised about our preparedness. Some have gone beyond asking questions. A few, regrettably, have pointed fingers.
To this day, there are conspiracy theorists who believe that Franklin Roosevelt somehow knew specifically where and when the Japanese would attack on December 7, and that he did nothing to prevent the attack. In my opinion, this is an outrageous falsehood -- but no more so than the apparent willingness of some in Europe and elsewhere to ascribe responsibility for September II to Israeli intelligence, or even to our own government.
I mention this in light of the current debate over what we should investigate about September 11, and who should do the investigating. If I thought that a broadly based, independent commission would answer every question and silence every conspiracy theorist, I'd be all for it. However, because of my own experience, as the sole surviving member of the Warren Commission, I have no reservations about the Commission's basic conclusions. I firmly believe we did a good job, but there have been critics -- some credible, others totally irresponsible. Unfortunately, "official investigations" never seem to end the controversies.
More perspective. As a young Congressman in the 1950s I was asked to join the very small Congressional circle entrusted with oversight of this country's intelligence efforts. In fact, I was told to show up at a certain room in the Capitol at a certain time one day, without staff, and fully prepared to keep my mouth shut about whatever I heard. That doesn't sound like oversight to many of you. In fact, at the height of the Cold War, when our very survival seemed tenuous, it made sense -- as long as those who met behind closed doors were confident they could get straight answers to their tough questions -- and those whom they questioned knew there would be harsh consequences for anything less.
Half a century later, intelligence oversight is more formal, more visible, and, sometimes, more theatrical. Sometimes-and I emphasize sometimes -- it involves the hunt for headlines or scapegoats rather than thoughtful, practical correctives. In fact, I have enormous regard for the two Floridians -- one Republican, and one Democrat -- who co-chair the joint Intelligence Committee currently examining events leading up to September I 1. Porter Goss and Bob Graham are among the most responsible of this town's overseers. No doubt the questions they raise, and the answers they extract, will uncover systemic failures that need addressing. Nor will individuals within those systems escape responsibility.
In the meantime, we are a nation at war. Nothing -- least of all election year politics -- should divert our attention from the immediate, essential task before us. Because in carrying the fight to the enemy in Afghanistan and other terrorist refuges, we can do more than any Congressional investigation to avert another atrocity on American soil.
From time to time I'm asked to compare the foreign threats posed during my days in the White House, with those facing the Bush Administration. In truth, there are profound differences between then and now. Stop and think: for more than 40 years, Presidents of both parties lived with the unimaginable prospect that, by accident or design, a few men in Moscow might incinerate the globe. That is what I dealt with, what President Kennedy faced during the Cuban Missile Crisis, what Harry Truman confronted at the time of the Berlin Airlift.
Throughout the Cold War seven American Presidents faced one adversary, the Soviet Union, and their supreme leader -- Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev -- whom we knew, or thought we knew. We knew their strategic intentions. We knew the weapons they possessed, the missiles they pointed at us, and the warheads they carried. To a significant degree, they knew as much about us as we did about them. We played by the same rules, because we harbored the same nuclear nightmare visions of what could happen if those rules were broken.
It was the symmetry of terror -- yet for four decades it kept mankind balanced, however precariously, on the thin window ledge of nuclear annihilation. The Berlin Wall fell. The Soviets collapsed. Two superpowers gave way to one. Today the danger of war wears many faces. Instead of the grim, Soviet era of Gromyko, it is a suicide bomber bred in the squalor and hatreds of a Middle Eastern slum. It is the radical cleric who perverts faith in the name of fanaticism. It is a jungle warrior, an urban guerilla, or a computerized terrorist for whom cyberspace is the newest field of battle.
This is the new world President Bush must deal with. From the outset following September II, he told us that this would be a different kind of war. He was right. What hasn't changed is the heroism and sacrifice of young Americans, who have lent new distinction to their uniforms even as they establish new frontiers for freedom. They may be aided by the latest in technology, by satellite guided weapons, smart bombs and unmanned drones in Afghanistan in contrast to the Soviet Iron Curtain. But in the end, success in war depends on the oldest and staunchest of human qualities -- on individual bravery, leadership, and sacrifice.
These qualities have been abundantly displayed, beginning on September 11 itself, and continuing throughout Operation Enduring Freedom. They help to put our current debate into its own updated perspective. For now, I believe that we could all benefit from lowering our voices and refocusing on the horrible mission before us. If you're looking for perspective, you can't do better than prayer. So in conclusion, may I ask you to join me in a moment of remembrance for those who have lost their lives or their loved ones, and of gratitude for those who are defending all that makes life worth living ... America's freedom.