President Bush spoke exclusively with CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Katie Couric on Wednesday, sharing his thoughts on the upcoming anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the war on terror, and Iraq. The president also shared some information about previously undisclosed terrorist plots that had been uncovered.
"As you well know, Monday is the fifth anniversary of 9/11. And so many Americans are thinking about that day. And I'm just wondering what your thoughts are as we approach that anniversary," Couric asked the president.
"Well, you know, I make a — I approach it with mixed emotions. I remember the horror. And I remember the, you know, the loss of life. I also remember the lessons. And September the 11th affected my thinking," Mr. Bush replied. "It basically changed my attitude about the world. And I resolved around that time that I would do everything to protect the American people. And it, frankly, has defined much of how I think as the president. And, so, for me, it's not just a moment. You know, it's really been a change of life."
The president also acknowledged that the attacks caused a major shift of his philosophy of the world.
"Well, it reminded me that we're in a major struggle with extremists. You know, when you really think about why would somebody kill 3,000 Americans? And I realized the struggle was more than just defeating an al Qaeda," Mr. Bush said. "It is really an ideological war between extremism and moderation and reasonableness. And it's been a — it was a profound moment. … But it was no more profound than the — the thousands of our citizens who lost a loved one. And so September the 11th is gonna be a sad moment, a day of remembrance and a day of commitment."
"You have said, Mr. President, that America is safer but we are not yet safe," Couric remarked. "When you think about the threats out there, what is your biggest fear?"
"Well, my biggest fear is somebody will come in and slip in this country and kill Americans. And I can't tell you how. Obviously there would be the spectacular. That would be the use of some kind of biological weapon or weapon of mass destruction. But as we learned recently from the British plots, people were, you know, gonna get on airplanes and blow up airplanes with innocent people flying to America," Mr. Bush replied. "And, you know, one way to look at it is we have to be right 100 percent of the time in order to protect this country, and they gotta be right once. And it's just a fact of life. We're facing an enemy, Katie, that just doesn't care about innocent life. I mean, they really are evil people."
Speaking about Iraq, Couric noted that the president considers Iraq the central front in the war against terrorism.
"And I'm wondering, Mr. President, if sometimes in your private moments you feel incredible frustration that this war is not going better. And frustration that public support for it has eroded pretty significantly in recent months," Couric asked.
"Well, first of all, I do think Iraq is a central front in the war on terror and so does Osama bin Laden," Mr. Bush replied. "Now, there's been some good moments and some bad moments in Iraq. And there's been some highlights. Twelve million people voting for a government under a modern constitution."
After speaking about the positive developments in Iraq, the president acknowledged that there are negative things that frustrate him in the conflict.
"Starting with the death of innocent people and our soldiers. That's the hardest thing for me," the president said. "I meet with a lot of the families. And I do the best I can to cry with them or, you know, laugh with them if they wanna laugh and hug them. One thing most have said to me is 'Don't leave before this job gets done.' They understand the stakes and so do our soldiers. And the stakes are these: That if we leave before the job is done, an enemy that has attacked us will be emboldened. Allies and moderate people will wonder where America's soul is."
"Does it concern you," Couric asked, "as we walk this corridor and see portraits of people like President Reagan, for whom your dad worked as vice president, some of your father's close colleagues have criticized the war in Iraq or efforts, particularly Brent Scowcroft, his former national security advisor, very publicly saying in 2004, 'Iraq is a failing venture'?"
"Yeah," Mr. Bush said. "Does it bother me? Nah, not really. When you do hard things, people are gonna criticize you. The American people expect me to make decisions based upon principle, to deal with the threats that face our nation — not to worry about criticism. Of course I listen to it. That's part of the job."
"I am inflexible when it comes to making sure we don't get hit again. And you bet I'm gonna remain strong about making sure that the world we leave behind is a more peaceful world," the president said.
"You have said we can't cut and run on more than one occasion. We have to stay until we win. Otherwise, we'll be fighting the terrorists here at home, on our own streets. So what do you mean exactly by that, Mr. President?" Couric asked.
"Well, I mean that a defeat in Iraq will embolden the enemy and will provide the enemy — more opportunity to train, plan, to attack us. That's what I mean," Mr. Bush said. "You know, one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror. I believe it. As I told you, Osama bin Laden believes it. But the American people — have gotta understand that a defeat in Iraq — in other words, if this government there fails, the terrorists will be emboldened, the radicals will topple moderate governments. I truly believe this is the ideological struggle of the 21st century. And the consequences for not achieving success are — are dire."
During Couric's interview Tuesday morning, the president revealed information about previously undisclosed terror plots. Fourteen suspected top al Qaeda terrorists, captured after 9/11, revealed important information during interrogations. Now, the president is pushing Congress to approve military tribunals to put them on trial.
"Can you give us any indication about what kind of information you were able to glean from these, quote-unquote, high value targets?" Couric asked.
"Right. Well, for example, we uncovered a potential anthrax attack on the United States. Or the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad had got somebody to line up people to fly airlines, to crash airlines on, I think, the West Coast or somewhere in America. And these would be Southeast Asians. In other words, we've uncovered cells," the president said.
"When you look back on the last five years, President Bush, is there anything that you wish you had done differently?" Couric asked.
"Yeah. I mean, I wish, for example, Abu Ghraib didn't happen. That was a stain on our nation's character, and it sent a signal about who we're not to a lot of people around the world. I probably could have watched my language a little better, you know?" Mr. Bush replied.
" 'Bring it on,' for example," the president said. "Sometimes I try to explain myself in plain terms. And sometimes the terms are too plain."
to read Part II of the Couric interview with President Bush.