‘It transformed the country’
Richard Gephardt, House minority leader on September 11, 2001, reflects on the day and its aftermath
Richard Gephardt (D-MO) was elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 and served continuously until 2005. During his time in Congress, Gephardt served in several leadership roles, including majority leader (1989–95) and minority leader (1995–2003). He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party's nomination for president in the 1988 and 2004 campaigns
He recorded his oral history for the Miller Center on May 24, 2016, and was interviewed by the Center's Barbara Perry and Russell Riley.
It really, in my view, transformed his presidency and it transformed the country, and still is transforming the country.
Just to give you the anecdotal history: I’m in the Capitol early on 9/11, early in the morning, 8 o’clock. We had a meeting on the budget. I had my leadership team. We had 20 or 30 people in the room, just like this. TV was on. I’m sitting here looking at them, talking. I can see their eyes were going to the TV and they weren’t listening at all to what anybody was saying. So they said, “Looks like a small plane hit the World Trade Center.” Whatever, it’s another mess.
We’re exercising the survival of government plan in the case of a nuclear war or whatever.
Then soon after that the second plane hit and the police, the Capitol Police, came in and said, “We think there is a plane on the way to the Capitol; we have to get you out of here.” So they ran—I had Capitol Police with me. They took me down, put me in a car at 100 miles per hour. I had a condo over here near the river. They went there. My wife was there. We watched the TV together. An hour or so later they said, “We’re exercising the survival of government plan in the case of a nuclear war or whatever. You have to come to the Capitol right away; they’re going to take you and the other three leaders to an undisclosed location in Virginia. You have to leave right now.”
I said goodbye to my wife. She always says she felt like chopped liver: We’re going to have an A-bomb here and you’re going to be on a mountain somewhere and I’m going to be a piece of toast.
So I went to the Capitol grounds. They had an individual helicopter for each of us, because they didn’t know what was going to happen and they wanted to get as many people out as they could. I remember looking down at the Pentagon and seeing it in flames and smoke and thinking, The Germans and Japanese fought us for five years and if they could have done this, it would have been their fondest wish, and four people did this. It was a wake-up call of the first order.
So we go out there. Dick Cheney is on the phone with us. He says, “You can’t come back until we get all the planes on the ground.” They had four planes from Europe they didn’t have on the ground yet. They finally got them on the ground. Then we came back, met the Members on the Capitol steps, sang “God Bless America.”
The next day, maybe the day after—I think it was the next day, I’m not clear on that, but it was soon thereafter—we met in the White House: the leadership, and the president, the vice president. Everybody said their piece. When I got a chance to talk, I said something that I felt very strongly. I said, “Mr. President, the most important thing now is that we all trust one another. This is about life and death. Our first responsibility is to keep the people safe. We failed; we all failed and we have to do better. The only way—I know politics intrudes in everything that happens here, as it should, but with this we have to keep politics out. We cannot play politics with this. We have to do whatever we can to do the right things to keep the county safe and to avoid anything like this happening again.”
He took me over to the side after the meeting and said, “I really appreciate what you said.” We were all deeply moved, as you would expect, by what had happened, in part because—and I gave a speech on the floor a few days later. People were saying this was the FBI’s [Federal Bureau of Investigation] fault, this was the CIA’s [Central Intelligence Agency] fault, this was the president’s fault—this, that, and the other thing. I said, No. It is all of our fault. We are all to blame.
We had Khobar Towers, we had World Trade Center 1993, we had the embassies in Africa. We had the USS Cole. What didn’t we get about this? We had plenty of warnings. These people want to do great harm. They’re willing to kill themselves to do it, which is a new phenomenon, only seen with the kamikaze pilots in World War II. We didn’t get it; we didn’t take it seriously. So let’s stop blaming one another and let’s find the right answers. Let’s do the right things together to make sure this never happens again.
So that’s what we tried to do, and we pretty much did. The president then had a meeting every Tuesday morning at 7 a.m. in the White House with the four leaders and Vice President Cheney. He’d bring in the head of the CIA or Condoleezza Rice, others who had angles on different issues. We met for an hour, an hour and a half, just on this and what we could all do together to do better, what legislation needed to be passed, what initiatives needed to be taken.
We were worried about a nuclear attack in the United States. We still are. They found a scientist in Pakistan, [Abdul Qadeer] Khan I think, who had been allegedly giving out nuclear secrets to terrorists or whoever. We became very focused on that and any other cases where we thought weapons of mass destruction can wind up in the hands of terrorists. Again, because we felt very deeply we had to avoid—as I said at a number of meetings, “We cannot have a nuclear device in the United States; it can’t happen.” We spent a lot of time on all of that, going to Afghanistan and so on and so forth.
That was all September to January. About January, the president in these meetings started to talk about Iraq. My immediate reaction was yes, I understand what you’re saying. I was also aware that our Air Force and our armed forces had been maintaining the no-fly zone in Iraq 10 years after the first Persian Gulf war and that that was expensive and we were losing lives and that was a big problem. But I said to the president in one of the meetings, “If this is just about getting rid of Saddam Hussein, I am not for it. There are a lot of bad guys out there and we can’t go kill all of them; it’s impractical.”
“But,” I said, “if it is about him having weapons of mass destruction that could end up in the hands of terrorists, then I am willing to listen and get serious.” He said, “Figure it out for yourself. Don’t take our word for it, go out to the CIA, talk to them, talk to anybody you want to talk to in the military. Make up your own mind.”
This is not about Saddam Hussein for me. This is not about trying to go change the Middle East forever
I went out to the CIA. I think I went three times at least and talked to everybody there, alone. I said to George Tenet, “This is not about Saddam Hussein for me. This is not about trying to go change the Middle East forever,” which some of the neocons [neoconservatives] thought this should be about. Even though that’s understandable to try to do, I said, “For me it boils down to one simple fact: Does he have weapons of mass destruction, especially components of nuclear weapons, or does he not? Do we worry that some components could wind up in the hands of terrorists?” Tenet and everybody else I talked to—they said the other world intelligence services agreed that he did. It was a real problem.
So I came back and told the president, “I’ll speak for and vote for and cosponsor the resolution.” I felt that was the right thing to do, given where we were and what I believed and what I had said since 9/11. You can imagine that this was not a popular decision in my caucus, and we had many raucous, difficult caucuses. In the end, a majority of my Members voted against that resolution, but I voted for it, obviously. It was a very difficult period. Always in the back of my mind I worried that the neocons within the Defense Department, [Paul] Wolfowitz and others, were maybe sliding over the real facts, but I reassured myself that I was talking to the right people in the intelligence service who were giving me unvarnished, objective facts and that’s all I could deal with.
Sure. There was no information coming to you at that time that might have led you to question whether the people at the Agency were feeling pressured by the administration to cook the books on the evidence?
I did not get that feeling. Maybe they did; I don’t know. I’ve known George Tenet a long time. He was in the Senate committee. I believed him; I trusted him. I said to him, “George, I have to answer to 600,000 people out in Missouri.
Don’t F around with me here; this is big stuff.
You don’t. If I put my word behind this, then it is what I believe to be right, so I want you to tell me your unvarnished opinion. Don’t F around with me here; this is big stuff.”
When you would talk to your caucus about this and express your fears about what could happen based on the intelligence that you had—first of all, were you able to share that with the caucus?
What was their best argument against your argument?
What you would expect? Some of them brought up the fact that if you go in there, Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn rule” applies—if you break it, you own it—and we’ll never get out of there. One of the lines—people would ask me, “How long do you think we’re going to be in Iraq?” I said, “Well, we’ve been in Japan and Germany for 70 years, so you tell me how long we’re going to be in Iraq.”
I knew what I was doing. I knew that I was also committing young men and women to an enterprise that would kill a lot of them and gravely injure many more, which has obviously been the case. I must tell you, as a side note, since all of this, I regret my vote. Not that I would have—knowing what I knew then, I wouldn’t have had a different vote, but you never get the ability to go forward and then look back. You have to deal with what you have. But if I knew then what I know now, I would have voted no; I would not have been for this. But you never have that ability and you never have that—but every time I read another story about how messed up Iraq is and how we did such a big favor to Iran and we’ve really in a way opened a Pandora’s box in the Middle East—Shi’a, Sunni, all the things you know—you can argue it from now until Sunday.
Others would say, “Well, we’ve started the process of modernization of government in the Middle East and it is going to take 50 years, whatever. It had to start somewhere. We couldn’t have this awful ferment of people living in horrible dictatorships forever and wanting to lash out.” You can go through all the arguments and counterarguments. Also in my mind, you always get back to personal anecdotes. In that period when we were deciding this, I was meeting with families of people who were killed on 9/11: husbands, wives, kids would come to my office. It’s really tough to look them in the eye and say, “We failed. We failed you. This was our responsibility and we failed and we’re going to do better.” So that’s in your head.
Then on the other side of the coin, now, I see these kids coming back with their legs blown off, their eyes blown out, their arms blown off. We ruined their lives. And then he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. So I really feel guilty, if you will, that I was inadequate. I should have dug harder. Maybe I should have gone to the intelligence services in Europe or wherever, gotten more opinion before I made that decision, but that’s water over the dam. That’s more than you needed to know.
This event—what I’m trying to say is this event was transformative for George W. Bush and for everybody in the government at that time.
We had really failed the people of the United States by not understanding all of it much better than we had.
Another thing that I felt very inadequate about was that we didn’t know enough about al-Qaeda. We had had all these events go on in the ’90s, but we never really investigated what was behind this, what was happening in Saudi Arabia, what was happening in the Middle East, that would cause people to commit this kind of violence with the willingness to die themselves. This was a very new phenomenon that we’re still dealing with, obviously, every day. But I felt that we had really failed the people of the United States by not understanding all of it much better than we had.