'The leaders should be there'


Geraldine Sealey
April 13, 2004 9:42PM (UTC)

Former Attorney General Janet Reno took some tough, albeit polite, questioning from the 9/11 panel this morning, including this jab from Democratic commissioner and former Sen. Bob Kerrey:

"We were just as relaxed as you were going out of office as we were on the 11th of September. I mean, this attack could have easily have happened on your watch. I mean, we were just as vulnerable while you were attorney general as we were when John Ashcroft was attorney general," Kerrey said.

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But Reno offered that in a period of high threat during her tenure as AG, the millennium period, she participated in principals meetings that brought Cabinet-level officials like herself together -- described further here --- and involved the principals shaking down their underlings for as much information as possible. The top officials met daily for about a month around the millennium. Attacks were thwarted. Such principals meetings were not held in the summer of 2001, despite an unprecedented level of threatening chatter. In the months before 9/11, despite urging from counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, the principals of the Bush administration did not meet to discuss al-Qaida -- not until Sept. 4, 2001.

Reno told the panel that the daily meetings around the millennium were worth it, and in fact, the nation's leaders owed the country so much: "Somebody said we couldn't have sustained the millennium pace. But if the situation is such that the reports that I've seen -- and I have not been briefed on them, it's, again, what I've read in the papers -- you have got to be prepared in the best of circumstances and with the best of strategy for the people to meet who are the principals and work together to get the job done. And if it takes night after night, our soldiers fight night after night and day after day, and we ought to be able to do it here."

Later, in response to a similar question, Reno discussed how the principals meetings helped thwart millennium attacks. "People have talked about data as they -- like water coming out of a fire hydrant. And sometimes it's just that one precious piece that can make the difference, but it all seemed to just open a door so that you can observe how something like this could happen. And it was based on trust and the fact that the principals were there. They were exchanging information. They were sharing. I think that made an important difference. The principals were saying, What about this? We need to get something translated. Well, get it to the Defense Department and they can get it translated. Cut through the red tape. Move it. I mean, we were in -- I put it to the equivalent of war. We do the best we can and the leaders should be there."


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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