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THE SITUATION ROOM
The Life and Legal Record of Sonia Sotomayor; New Book Exposes Truth From Watergate to 9/11; Global Time Bomb Moves: North Korea, Iran and Pakistan
Aired May 30, 2009 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, HOST: History in the nation's highest court. We're taking you inside the president's choice and what it would mean to have the first Hispanic justice. This hour, the life and legal record of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. More aggressive leadership by President Bush might have prevented the attacks on America. A new book claims to expose the truth from Watergate to 9/11.
And global time bombs. Our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour on threatening moves in North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After completing this exhaustive process, I have decided to nominate an inspiring woman who I believe will make a great justice, Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the great state of New York.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: She rose from the housing project to the Ivy League to the federal bench. Now she's the first Latina nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. And if she's confirmed, Sonia Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic justice ever. What was the thinking behind the president's Supreme Court pick? And what sort of battle may lie ahead?
BLITZER: Joining us now is the president's senior advisor David Axelrod. David, thanks very much for coming in.
DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: Hey, Wolf, good to be here.
BLITZER: Was it critically important for the president that he select a woman -- and an Hispanic woman -- in the process?
AXELROD: Well, I think the first thing that was critically important is that he -- that he select somebody who reflected his basic principles about what he wanted in a Supreme Court justice. And she's satisfied those in -- in a spectacular way.
She has broad experience -- in fact, more experience on the federal bench than any appointee in the last hundred years. She's been a big city prosecutor, a corporate litigator and she's been a trial court judge. So this array of experiences, combined with her great life story -- amazing life story -- was very attractive to him. And, obviously, broadening the court, adding new voices to the court is a very, very important thing.
BLITZER: All the -- all the final four -- all the final four, we're told, were women, is that correct?
BLITZER: Because you wanted more than just one woman out of the nine?
AXELROD: I think...
BLITZER: You wanted at least two, right?
AXELROD: I think it's fair to say -- well, I'm not going to put a number on it. I think the president thinks that there ought to be more women on the court.
BLITZER: All right. That controversial clip of what she said back in 2005 at Duke University, let me play it again, because I know you discussed this with her. The Republicans -- conservatives are already saying she's "an activist judge." She doesn't want to simply interpret, she wants to make policy.
Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY DUKE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW, 2005)
JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: The court of appeals is where policy is made. And I know -- and I know this is on tape and I should never say that, because we don't make law. I know.
SOTOMAYOR: OK. I know. I know. I'm not -- I'm not promoting it and I'm not advocating it. I'm, you know...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right. Go ahead and explain. I assume the president discussed this videotape with her.
AXELROD: Well, first of all, understand that that quote came in the context of a larger discourse in which she talked about judicial restraint and the need to be faithful to the law. She was talking to law clerks who were trying to decide between working in a district court setting or in a court of appeals setting. And what she was saying is that these complex Constitutional issues are the ones that come before the appeals court. And she was making the case for them that that would be a more interesting place for them to be.
But the bigger thing is if -- she's got a 17-year record. That record is very clear. She is someone who hasn't legislated from the bench. She's been very faithful to the law. And I think anybody who thinks that, on the basis of that 10 second clip of tape, they can make the case is going to find it very, very difficult when people get into the -- the details of her career.
BLITZER: And this other quote that "The New York Times" has, back in 2001, when she says this: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
Now, you know that the Republicans are going to pounce on that, as well.
AXELROD: They may. But I think, as the president has made clear, you know, creden -- legal credentials are essential. Understanding that you have to be faithful to the law is essential. And, so, too, is the life experience that you bring to these decisions. And I think that's all -- all that she was saying.
She brings -- her story, as I said, is a magnificent one -- raised in the South Bronx. She worked her way up, graduated with high honors from Princeton, "Yale Law Journal." She's excelled everywhere she went. And she's one of these great American bootstrap stories. And I think that that perspective on the court is going to be very important and very valuable.
BLITZER: There was a tough article that Jeffrey Rosen, who's a law professor at George Washington University, wrote in "The New Republic" not that long ago. Among other things, he quoted people who worked with her on the courts as saying this: "They express questions about her temperament, her judicial craftsmanship and, most of all, her ability to provide an intellectual counterweight to the conservative justices, as well as a clear liberal alternative."
I assume you read that article that Jeffrey Rosen wrote.
AXELROD: I saw -- I saw the article, yes. But I don't -- I think it flies in the face of -- of the evidence and the experience. In terms of her temperament, you just heard someone who has -- who practiced before her in your previous piece talking about her being -- being tough, but fair. And that's what she is.
She challenges lawyers who come in -- into her court to be prepared and make their case. And, of course, that is required on the United States Supreme Court.
Her colleagues talk about her intellectual rigor in arriving at these cases. And the president, who is, as you know, a Constitutional scholar in his own right, spent a great deal of time talking to her about case law and about legal theory and was -- was very, very impressed.
So, you know, I think that it is a shame that people would take someone with her history as -- of excelling at every level of the law and try and make that case. And I'm not going to ascribe motives to it, but I don't think it comports with the history of her life and her career.
BLITZER: When the president interviewed her -- and we're told he spent an hour with her -- did -- did he ask her where she stands on "Roe v. Wade," the Supreme Court decision authorizing abortion.
AXELROD: He didn't. I don't think he thought that was an appropriate question to ask. He didn't ask specifically about where she would rule on cases that might come before her. He talked more in terms of her philosophy of judging. They talked about -- about other matters, but not about that.
BLITZER: She's 54 years old. This sentence jumped out from "The New York Times" today. I'll read it to you and tell me if this was discusses with her: "Her diabetes, for which she takes insulin daily, has not proved to be a problem. But some have speculated as to whether her illness could or should be an issue in terms of her projected longevity on the court because of the potential for complications."
Was this a factor in the president's consideration?
AXELROD: Well, we -- we had communications with her doctor, who provided a letter analyzing her health situation. We talked to other doctors. We believe that she's going to -- her diabetes is well controlled. And we believe she's going to serve with distinction for many years to come.
BLITZER: Who helped the president make this decision?
Who -- in other words, who was in the room when he decided finally -- we're told last night that around 9:00 p.m. that she was -- she was the winner?
AXELROD: Well, it's been a rigorous process. The president and his -- his staff has provided reams of material that the president has read. He has consulted widely, including with every member of the Judiciary Committee.
But at the end of the day, the president made this judgment alone. He was in his study last night about 8:00. He made the final decision. He called up Judge Sotomayor and the other folks that he interviewed and let them know of his decision.
BLITZER: It's amazing it didn't leak out until this morning.
AXELROD: It was. Yes. This is an unusual Washington story, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, very unusual.
BLITZER: All right. David Axelrod, thanks very much for coming in.
AXELROD: Good to be with you.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: Born in the South Bronx, she was raised in a housing project not far from Yankee stadium, making her a lifelong Yankees fan, I hope this will not disqualify her in the eyes of the New Englanders in the Senate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Beyond her love of the Yankees, Sonia Sotomayor has an important connection to Major League baseball. She made the 1995 baseball season possible, effectively ending the longest strike in professional sports history. Then a federal district court judge, Sotomayor ruled in favor of players over owners in a walkout that had forced World Series to be canceled the previous fall.
One sports writer, by the way, hailed her as a baseball hero. In the league of legends, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. President Obama calls Sonia Sotomayor's life inspiring.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: It's an experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion, an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Will her experience help or hurt her in the confirmation process?
A senior Republican in the Judiciary Committee, Senator Orrin Hatch weighs in on her prospects.
Also ahead, former Bush attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who played a role in green lighting interrogation tactics that critics describe as torture. I'll ask him if he's worried about being prosecuted. And Iran's president rules out nuclear negotiations with other countries. Our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour will assess what's going on.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SONIA SOTOMAYOR, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: Mr. President, I greatly appreciate the honor you are giving me. And I look forward to working with the Senate in the confirmation process. (END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Judge Sonia Sotomayor begins making the rounds on Capitol Hill this week, urging senators to approve her Supreme Court nomination. I spoke with a senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee and its former chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: Let's talk about your 33 years sitting on the Judiciary Committee, so you'll review what she brings to the potentially -- to the United States Supreme Court. Let me ask you bluntly. Do you agree with Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, she's a racist?
SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: No, I don't agree with that. And frankly, I think it's a little premature and early because she has to have a chance to explain some of these comments that she's made. And they are -- some of her comments are very troubling. And some of them goose neck of potential, you know, judge who wants to make law from the bench.
But I think we have to be fair. I think we have to do what's normally done, and that is scrutinize the record, look at the opinions, the unwritten opinions, the articles, the speeches, the various comments that have been made and so forth, and do it fairly.
BLITZER: You voted for her confirmation twice before when she was nominated many years ago by the first President Bush to the federal bench, and then when she was nominated by former President Bill Clinton to the Court of Appeals. Both times you voted to confirm.
HATCH: Well, the first time it was by unanimous consent in the Senate because we didn't have a vote. We didn't do much of that back then.
BLITZER: But you could have opposed it.
HATCH: Yeah, but I wasn't going to oppose her. And frankly, she was Senator Moynihan's choice. He and Senator D'Amato had for one to one ratio, that one would pick one time and the other would pick one the next time. And President - then President George Herbert Walker Bush, of course, was going to put whoever Moynihan wanted on. And so he put on Sonia Sotomayor on then.
And the second time, she had 29 Republicans vote against her. There were some troubling aspects there. I was troubled by it, but I come from these things from an aspect that, you know, the president won the election and he deserves consideration and deference with regard to his or her judicial picks.
On the other hand, we're talking about the highest court in the land, the court of last resort, the Supreme Court of the United States of the America. And so naturally, there will be a thorough going...
HATCH: ...examination, much more so than the Circuit Court of Appeals. And I'm withholding judgment and of course come from a tendency to usually support whoever is president in their pick for the court.
BLITZER: Because I remember you voted to confirm Stephen Brier, who was Bill Clinton's nominee for the Supreme Court and Ruth Bader Ginsburg even though you may have disagreed with their judicial philosophy you voted to confirm. So I guess the question is the same standards you used then, are you going to use now or have the standards changed over these years?
HATCH: Well, most people voted for both Brier and Ginsburg. I was the one who recommended them. And to his credit, the president had other choices at that time but he decided that that's the way he should go.
And they're both eminently qualified people. If you look at Sonia Sotomayor, look, she has a very compelling life story. She's an interesting personality and certainly has spent 17 years in the federal courts. There's some things that are questionable, some things that are troubling about her. I believe she will be treated much better than Miguel Estrada, for instance, was treated. He was being picked just for a certain Court of Appeals, the D.C. Circuit. And they didn't so much as give him the time of day on the Democrat side. And I hope the people remember that. In the case of Sonia Sotomayor, I think she'll be given every deference, and certainly she will by me. But these are important positions. And we have to look at them. And it shouldn't be a question of race or ethnicity or any other number of things that really shouldn't be...
BLITZER: How -- I know we're almost out of time, senator, but how worried should Republicans be about going after her too hard because of the growing, it's the fastest growing voting block out there, Hispanic Americans? How worried should Republicans be in going after her as a result of Republicans already losing some of that Hispanic vote?
HATCH: Well, you're talking to the fellow who started the National Republican Hispanic Task Force, senatorial task force. (INAUDIBLE) throughout my whole Senate service. And I think they know that if I go against somebody, it's got to be for good reason. And I think they'll -- I think they realize this is a very important position. And I don't think that should even enter into it.
I think the members of Judiciary Committee ought to look at this objectively. They ought to look at it honestly. If they come to the conclusion that this is a person who will not obey the law, if it's a person who will not stand up for what the law ought to be, and who is going to substitute her own predilections or her personal values for what the law is, and act as an activist judge, usurping the powers of the other two branches of government, then I think anybody - I think Democrats should vote that person down.
So I think we'll have to see. I doubt that she fits that category, but the fact is there are some statements that are questionable, that are troubling, and they have to be gone into as Senator Sessions has indicated. And I certainly am going to treat her fairly. I intend to do that, always intend to do that, and will.
BLITZER: I know you will, Senator Hatch. As always, thank you very much.
HATCH: You bet.
(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: Back in 1998, Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed to her current U.S. Appeals Court seat by a vote of 67 in favor to 29 opposed. All 29 senators who voted against her were Republican. 11 Republicans who voted against her still serve in the Senate today out of 29 who opposed her nomination in 1998. Eight current members of the Senate voted for Sotomayor's confirmation in 1998 out of 25 GOP yes votes in all.
One of those Republicans then, Arlen Specter is a Democrat now. He was the first Latino attorney general of the United States. Former attorney general Alberto Gonzales shares his thoughts about Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court and what it means for Hispanic Americans.
And the newest Democratic Senator is apparently getting a challenge from within his own party. Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestack tells why he wants to take on Senate veteran Arlen Specter.
BLITZER: A political bombshell with fallout in Washington and Pennsylvania. Veteran Senator and newly minted Democrat Arlen Specter is now facing a challenge from within his own party in his bid for re- election next year. Congressman Joe Sestak plans to take him on in a Democratic primary.
REP. JOE SESTAK (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Wolf, I personally have made a decision that I intend to get in this race with one other item. I haven't sat down and had the time to sit down with my 8-year-old daughter or my wife to make sure that we are all ready to get in.
And I say that, if you don't mind, because when I got in this after getting out of the military 31 years in the first race two years ago, my daughter had a brain tumor. And we needed to make sure we were getting in this to pay back for this great health care we have been given, together, as a unit. And so that's where the final decision will be made, with us as a nuclear family. BLITZER: And assuming they say yes, you're going forward, despite the fact that the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States have both said they support Arlen Specter in his bid for reelection?
SESTAK: Interesting point. As I said weeks ago, Wolf, I was disappointed that the Washington political establishment had decided to anoint someone for Pennsylvanians. And so I said I would wait and listen. And I've spent the last weeks going around Pennsylvania to see if others felt like me.
I heard two things. One is, Joe, we'll make the decision. You should get in. Number two is very similar to what you just said. Arlen's got a lot, after four or five decades, of connections and money, so don't get in. No.
BLITZER: Has anyone... SESTAK: That actually will be more to get in.
BLITZER: Has anyone from the White House urged you not to get in?
SESTAK: I haven't had a call from anyone, except Senator Menendez, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee called once or twice. We traded phone calls. But not in the last week. So I haven't ever connected with anyone, nor should they. I'm pretty low on the totem pole. And they're fighting two wars overseas and one here at home.
But this is about us Pennsylvanians. And we need health care, not just in this next year, but through 2016. And that next four to six years, for my Pennsylvanians and for my daughter and for me, are very important to make sure that whoever is carrying the mantle of leadership forward is someone who will be with us consistently in this fight for the right issues.
BLITZER: When you spoke to our John King on "STATE OF THE UNION" a few weeks ago, you weren't sure that Arlen Specter is a Democrat.
Are you convinced he's a Democrat now?
SESTAK: I don't think that a D next to your name makes you a Democrat. But I actually think there's something more important. Arlen has done some good things in the past. This is about the future, though, and not the status quo or the past. It's whether Arlen will fight for the right issues, Democrat or Republican. He derailed -- helped derail health care plans without an alternative in the '90s.
Maybe he's changed, but I'm not sure we can take that chance. And so that's why I'm not sure he's for, more importantly, the right issues, Wolf. And that is -- I haven't -- I haven't heard at all from him, out there in the public, that is. And I honestly believe that when you look someone in the eye to see the cut of their gib (ph), we have to ask the question -- will he be with the right policies that our president presently has put out there to retool our economy in health care and education through 2016?
There's too much doubt in my mind not to have the intent right now to get in this race, pending just a little bit of time with my family to make sure we're all together. Like the military, it's going to be a deployment for a period of time.
BLITZER: All right. Congressman Sestak is a retired U.S. admiral, so he knows something about the U.S. military.
Thanks very much, Congressman...
BLITZER: ...for joining us.
SESTAK: Wolf, thanks for having me.
(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: He's Latino and a Republican. And he once was seen as a possible nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ahead, is former Bush attorney general Alberto Gonzales proud of Sonia Sotomayor's nomination?
And the Obama administration portrays North Korea as a nuclear bully seeking attention. Our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour takes a look at the threat behind the bluster.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: She has never forgotten where she began, never lost touch with the community that supported her. What Sonia will bring to the court then is not only the knowledge and experience acquired over a course of a brilliant legal career, but the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life story.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: President Obama hailing Sonia Sotomayor's background and how it helped get her where she is today.
Let's get to a former member of the Bush administration who has a unique perspective on Sotomayor's nomination to the United State Supreme Court. And that would be the former attorney general to the United States, Alberto Gonzales. He was once was seen as a possible contender himself to be the first Latino on the high court.
Attorney General, thanks very much for coming in.
ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: It's good to see you.
BLITZER: How close were you in your mind? Did you ever find out how close you were to being President Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court?
GONZALES: I didn't concern myself, Wolf, with respect to my status on that short list.
BLITZER: But do you know if you were you on the short list?
GONZALES: That's a question I think is better posed to President Bush.
BLITZER: But you know you were, right?
GONZALES: Listen, I know that people did consider me as a possible candidate to the Supreme Court.
BLITZER: All right, well now there's going to be a - well, there's a nominee already...
BLITZER: ...who's Hispanic...
BLITZER: ...a woman. How do you feel about that? You're the first Hispanic to serve as the attorney general of the United States. What do you think about her?
GONZALES: I think it's a proud day for the Sotomayor family. It's a historic day for the Hispanic community. I don't think that any gender group or ethnic group is entitled to representation on our courts. I don't think that the outcome of the case should depend upon the ethnicity or gender of the judge any more than the outcome of the case should depend on the ethnicity or gender of the prosecutor or defendant.
But having said that, Wolf, this is a powerful message, a powerful message of hope and opportunity through this appointment. Just like there's a powerful message sent when an African-American is elected president or an African-American or a Hispanic is appointed attorney general of the United States. It's a powerful message that a president listens to, and this president obviously did.
BLITZER: Because that picture that we saw earlier at the White House, the first African-American president now nominating the first Hispanic justice to become the United States Supreme Court justice. That says a lot about what's going on in our country right now.
GONZALES: Again, it says a lot about opportunities in our great country. And obviously, this judge still needs to go through a confirmation process. There are questions, some concerns raised in certain quarters about her judicial philosophy, but that's what the confirmation process is all about. And no nominee is entitled to a free confirmation process, an easy confirmation process. She will be fully vetted as she should be because this is a lifetime appointment to our nation's highest court.
BLITZER: Here's what she said back in 2001. And I'll put it up on the screen. "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." That's generating some commotion out there.
GONZALES: I'm not sure what that - what she was trying to say there. I think as - you know, I served on the Texas Supreme Court. And there were times - there were cases in which I had to interpret a statute. I didn't like the outcome based on that interpretation, as I read the statute, the intention of the state legislature. But I felt obliged by my oath of office to honor that intent of the legislature. I think it's dangerous when judges impose their own personal views with respect to the outcome of a particular case.
BLITZER: Did you -- when the president of the United States says he wants someone who's empathetic and has had real world - real life experiences, is that good or bad?
GONZALES: I think we'd like to think that all of our government officials are good people, compassionate people. And obviously someone with this kind of story makes a very attractive candidate in a confirmation process. But to say that you empathize with someone, I think it's very, very difficult to predict the outcome of a case based upon whether or not a judge feels good about a result. I think there ought to be predictability and certainty and interpretation of our laws. I think that's the number one requirement that a president should look for in the nomination of a Supreme Court justice.
Based on what you know, the fact that the first President Bush named her to the federal bench to begin with, she was confirmed, that President Clinton got her to the Court of Appeals, she was confirmed. Based on what you know about her, do you think she's qualified to be a United States Supreme Court justice?
GONZALES: I don't - I have no questions in my mind about her qualifications in terms of education, experience. A president's not required to nominate the most qualified person to the court. I think he's obliged to nominate someone who is well qualified. And I think by any measure, she is well qualified.
I think there are legitimate questions about her judicial philosophy. And again, that'll be something that will be examined in the confirmation process.
BLITZER: As a Hispanic American, how worried are you that if Republicans as conservatives go really hard against her, that would further alienate the Hispanic vote against the Republicans in the years to come?
GONZALES: Well, obviously, the Republicans are very desirous of the Hispanic vote. But they have an obligation, a duty. They took an oath as well to the constitution. And they have an obligation to vet every nominee carefully, whether or not that nominee is Hispanic and you know, white, African-American, male or female, they have an obligation. And I expect them to discharge that obligation.
BLITZER: How worried are you, switching gears for a moment, that the Justice Department lawyers who wrote those legal opinions authorizing enhanced interrogation, how worried are you that the system now will come down on them or disbarment or worse?
GONZALES: What I worry about, Wolf, is that good people, well intentioned people serving in a historically difficult time, dangerous time in our nation's history may be penalized for doing their best, simply providing the best legal advice that they can. I'm afraid of the chilling effect that that's going to have on future lawyers at the Department of Justice.
BLITZER: Because you were the White House counsel at that time. This was before you became attorney general?
GONZALES: That's correct.
BLITZER: And were you involved in some of those legal opinions early on? GONZALES: Well, what I can say is that I worked with the Department of Justice ensuring that legal advice was provided. But at the end of the day, it's the responsibility of the Department of Justice to provide the legal guys on behalf of the executive branch.
BLITZER: So are you in any - do you think, are you afraid that you could be in any legal jeopardy right now?
GONZALES: Wolf, I stood by my record. I did my best to defend our country during very difficult times. So I'm proud of my service.
BLITZER: All right, attorney general, thanks very much for coming in.
GONZALES: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Revisiting 9/11, did President Bush and his national security team miss key signals that could have prevented the attacks? Former 9/11 commission member Richard Ben-Venisti talks about what he learned from the investigation. And the Taliban retaliates against Pakistan with a series of attacks. We'll get insight into what's going on in one of the most volatile regions of the world. Our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour is standing by.
BLITZER: He's investigated scandals that have rocked the White House and Congress alike. And he served on the panel that probed al Qaeda's attack on America.
And joining us now, the well known Washington attorney, Richard Ben- Veniste. He's the author of a brand new book entitled "The Emperor's New Clothes: Exposing the Truth from Watergate to 9/11."
Richard, thanks very much for coming in. And congratulations on the book.
RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, AUTHOR, "THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES": Great to be here.
BLITZER: Let's talk about some of the current issues. You were a member of the president's 9/11 Commission. You investigated what happened, didn't happen. You used testimony that was obtained, at least part of that testimony through these enhanced interrogation techniques including water boarding. Did you know about water boarding and these enhancement interrogation techniques as a member of the 9/11 Commission?
BEN-VENISTE: Absolutely not. As a matter of fact we were told that we would be denied direct access to the detainees, which we had repeatedly asked for because they were being held in remote locations and that we could not disturb the process of interrogating them. That made sense to me because I had presumed that traditional methods of interrogation...
BLITZER: So you were just as shocked as all of us were when you heard about some of these techniques?
BEN-VENISTE: Absolutely. Counter productive since World War II to use torture and these kinds of means, water boarding, we had prosecuted it ourselves. It never, ever occurred to me that the reason we were being denied access to the detainees was because of these kind of techniques.
BLITZER: As an attorney, had you known that some of that testimony which you were basing your presidential report findings on was obtained through these techniques, would it have changed the bottom line?
BEN-VENISTE: I think we would have caveated it in a much more direct way.
BLITZER: What does that mean?
BEN-VENISTE: And we would have qualified what we were learning, as we did in the book because we didn't have direct access. So we corroborated as much as we could. We didn't rely on any one individual and any one individual source. But if we had known that this was being done, it would have been a different ball game.
BLITZER: In leading up to 9/11, and you write about this in the book, do you believe that the commission spent too much time or not -- too much time focusing in on the failures of President Bush and not enough time focusing in on the failures of President Clinton?
BEN-VENISTE: I think we what we did was try to be proportionate to deal with the facts in an unvarnished way, but yet not editorialize it, and let the public draw their conclusions. And so, since this happened during the Bush administration, obviously, we wanted to know what was done and what wasn't done. And we found a lot of facts that weren't known at the time we began our inquiry, which in turn informed our recommendations. We based our recommendations, most of which have been enacted into law now upon what we found in some intensive fact- finding efforts, including public hearings. We tried to be as transparent as possible.
BLITZER: The House Speaker Nancy Pelosi caused a huge stir by saying she was repeatedly misled by the CIA. Was that your experience? Because you guys had a deal with the CIA n getting information for this report as well.
BEN-VENISTE: We don't conclude that we were misled. We did not get answers to some of the questions, particularly questions about President Bush's briefing from August 6 to 9/11. There were meetings, but no one seemed to be able to remember what those briefings were about.
BLITZER: Here's a quote from the book. Let me read it to you. It's on page 295. "The president then told us he was extremely disappointed in what had happened the day before at the Department of Justice. Without naming John Ashcroft, Bush was alluding to his combative attorney general's continuing offensive against Jamie Garella (ph), who was one of the 9/11 Commissioners. The president wanted us to know that the White House was not involved in the Justice Department's actions. Indeed he had made his displeasure known. Did that surprise you?
BEN-VENISTE: Well, it was a gratifying statement by the president to lead off our meeting with him, which lasted about three hours because John Ashcroft had launched this attack on Jamie Garella.
BLITZER: And he was then the attorney general?
BEN-VENISTE: He was during his appearance before the 9/11 commission in public hearing, making allegations essentially blaming Jamie for creating this wall between foreign and domestic intelligence, which had been in place for quite some time under several presidents and was in fact reinstituted and authorized by his own deputy.
BLITZER: Here's another question from the book. Let me read this one. "As for 9/11, there was no question in my mind that had the president and his national security advisor been aggressively attentive to the potential for a domestic terrorist attack, some of the information already within the possession of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies might have been utilized to disrupt the plot."
BEN-VENISTE: Well, that was part of the tragedy of 9/11 is that the dots weren't connected. There wasn't leadership at the top to knock heads together to make the agencies...
BLITZER: The president and Condi Rice, who was then his national security advisor.
BEN-VENISTE: And others, the attorney general, others did not convene the heads of the departments and agencies to find out exactly what was known, because they knew a fair amount. They knew that two of the hijackers were in the United States, were al Qaeda members, al Hasni an Midhar. And yet they were unable to find them despite the fact they were using their own names. They knew that Moussaoui had been arrested, learning to fly an airplane, a jumbo jet, which he had no business learning to do. And yet this information was not generally shared. It wasn't shared with the FAA and Mr. Silani of the FAA testified in hearing, the one thing that he didn't know that he would really have wanted to know pre 9/11, we never knew the hijackers could fly the planes.
BLITZER: Interesting stuff. It's a fascinating read, "The Emperor New Clothes: Exposing the Truth from Watergate to 9/11." You've seen a lot over these decades, Richard Ben-Veniste, thanks for coming in.
BEN-VENISTE: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: And North Korea boldly flexing its muscle this week with a nuclear weapons test and several missile launches. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: It continues to act in a provocative and belligerent matter toward its neighbors. There are consequences to such actions.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: North Korea warns it will act in "self-defense" if provoked by the United Nations. So what happens next? We'll put that question to CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs pose a great threat to the peace and security of the world. And I strongly condemn their reckless action.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: An underground nuclear test, a series of missile firings, along with in our face rhetoric aimed at its neighbors and the United Nations. What's the North Korean situation going on right now? How significant is this threat? Joining us, our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour. Christiane, how significant is it?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's significant because if they've tested a nuclear device that's as big as what the Russians are saying, 10 to 20 kilo tons, that means a big deal compared to what they tested back in 2006. And it means that one now has to deal with an emerging potential nuclear power.
It's significant because what are the options for dealing with it. And certainly it's significant also because inside North Korea, there most definitely is a split between the more pragmatic members who want better relations with the United States and the west, and the more hard line members, especially the military at this time of internal succession struggle.
BLITZER: The South Koreans understandably very nervous. Japan very nervous watching all this unfold. Are they likely to take their own steps right now to deal with this?
AMANPOUR: Well, they are trying to do it in a political and diplomatic way. Of course, there's always pressure on them to up the ante and to develop their own nuclear capability. And they could, of course, both could, according to the experts do that.
But they have made the strategic decision not to do that. And they're seeking ways in which to try to contain this issue politically and diplomatically. And most people are saying that while China has a lot of influence, their influence may be a bit limited. And what the ultimate goal should be is to get North Korea back to where it was just a year ago when we witnessed it in the six-party talks and shutting down Yongbyong, their plant, and indeed disarming and disabling.
BLITZER: Some had suggested this has more to do with succession. Kim Jong Il than it does with regional issues, if you will. Are you among those that buy that?
AMANPOUR: You know, I listen to the experts. I'm listening to all the different analysis and expert views on this is. And basically, there's a split. Some are saying it's the same old North Korea jumping up and down trying to get international attention and concessions. Others are saying, no, this is about trying to posture politically internally and perhaps even the military hard liners trying to make their positions felt and known during this succession struggle.
BLITZER: Let's move on to Pakistan right now. It looks like the Taliban and/or al Qaeda taking the fight into the cities, whether in Lahore or Islamabad or maybe even Karachi. This situation seems to be escalating and escalating quickly.
AMANPOUR: Well, it is very grave. And you know, I was in Iraq when this happened, in Afghanistan when this happened. It went from the Hinterlands into the cities. And it's a very similar targeting the security forces, as well as civilians of course. And this is a dramatic development in Pakistan.
On the other hand, the military is saying that it's made some inroads into the Swat area and trying to beat back the militants and the Taliban in those areas. But you know, we first reported when the Pakistan government made this deal in Swat, to essentially cede territory and influence to the Taliban there. That their ultimate aim was to strategically push towards the cities, particularly the capital of that area, Pashawar. And one of their aims was not just to overthrow or gain control (INAUDIBLE) the Pakistan government, but to disrupt America's military ability in its war in Afghanistan, because that is the logistical route for supplies into Afghanistan.
BLITZER: And in the Swat Valley, a million or a million and a half refugees have been created over the past month or so. Is that potentially a fertile ground for the Taliban?
AMANPOUR: Well, listen, this is huge. In any other media situation, in any other world situation, we would have been paying much more attention to this massive dislocation of population. We did that in Iraq, after the Gulf War, we saw in Rwanda, we saw it in Kosovo and Bosnia and Somalia. All these places. It's huge, this dislocation of people. And it can compound the issue, not least of all as you suggest making more recruits to the Taliban.
But by and large, what we're seeing is that this population is really terrified, is being extorted by the Taliban by and large. It is not pro Taliban by and large. But it's very important to say that both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, these unmanned or manned U.S. air strikes, going after militant targets who also create huge civilian casualties are turning the population away from the U.S. effort, and also from their own governments which support the U.S.
BLITZER: And quickly, Iran right now, they're getting ready for their elections. What should we be looking for right away?
AMANPOUR: Well, there's a struggle going on. And it's anybody's guess who's going to win. Whether it's the reformist, Mir Hussein Wasabi (ph), a former prime minister in the '80s, or whether President Ahmadinejad will get re-elected. There's a big struggle. Some polls are showing the race narrowing. But in terms of the nuclear debate, neither of the candidates, none of the candidates are giving any ground on that. And it's unlikely that they will in the future.
BLITZER: Christiane Amanpour, thanks very much.
In Prague, politicians step on broken eggs thrown at them by protesters, just one of our hot shots of the week, pictures worth 1,000 words.
BLITZER: Here's a look at some of this week's hot shots, pictures coming in from our friends at the Associated Press. At the Vatican, Pope Benedict wearing his red satin hat kisses a girl during his weekly audience. In South Korean, a woman uses binoculars to look toward the North near the border with North Korea. In Prague, politicians step on broken eggs thrown at them by protestors during a rally. And in Kenya, look at this, a girl plays on a bridge near a Nairobi slum. Those are some of this week's hot shots, pictures worth 1,000 words.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. Join us weekdays right here in THE SITUATION ROOM from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. Eastern and every Saturday at 6:00 p.m. Eastern on CNN, and at this time every weekend on CNN International.
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