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Transcript: President Bush, Part 1

CBS Evening News Anchor and Managing Editor Katie Couric sat down with President Bush at the White House to ask him about the state of the war on terror five years after the 9/11 attacks. This is Part I of the transcript of that interview.

KATIE COURIC First of all, thank you so much, Mr. President, for talking with us.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Glad to do it.

COURIC:We really, really appreciate it. As you well know, Monday is the fifth anniversary of– 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.

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BUSH: Well, you know, I – 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. 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 – a change of life.

COURIC: A major shift in your philosophy of the world.

BUSH: Yeah, it really has been, it–

COURIC: How so?

BUSH: Well, it reminded me that – that we're in– we're in a – a– a major struggle with extremists. You know, when you really think about why would somebody kill 3,000 Americans? And the – I – I thought that, the more I learned, the more I realized that this is an enemy that – is bound by ideology and has got desires. They wanna drive us out of the region. They wanna establish a caliphate, which is like a Muslim, you know, empire.

And I realized the struggle was more than just defeating an al-Qaeda. It is really an ideological war between extremism and moderation and reasonableness. And it's been a – it was a profound moment. It was – but – but I – I say that. But it was no more profound than the– the thousands of our citizens who lost a loved one. And so the – September the 11th is gonna be a sad moment, a day of remembrance and a day of commitment.

COURIC: You have said, Mr. President, that America is safer but we are not yet safe.

BUSH: Right.

COURIC: When you think about the threats out there, what is your biggest fear?

BUSH: 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.

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 – just a fact of life. The – the – we're facing an enemy, Katie, that just doesn't care about innocent life. I mean, they really are evil people.

They – they – they – they just don't care if somebody suffers in order for them to achieve a– a mean. And – and that makes an awfully ruthless enemy to deal with. And – and I say we're safer because we've done a lot to protect the country. I mean, the mentality has changed a lot.

I mean, you know, the – the matters we now recognized, we gotta talk better inter – interagency. That means the CIA and the FBI have gotta share data. And Congress passed some laws that enable them to do so without, you know, violating law. We gotta talk to – we gotta share intelligence with our friends.

That was one of the successes – because of the British operation is because they knew some things and we knew some things. And our people got together and just talked about it. One of the controversial programs has been this notion about listening to people who are from outside the country, calling in or inside the country, calling out, to determine their intentions. And I – that's a vital tool. I know it's created controversy, but nevertheless, it is a tool to make sure we get the intelligence necessary.

And then today I'm gonna give a speech talking about the need to be able to interrogate people – within the law and within our Constitution in order to get information to protect us. And so we're better. We really are. But nevertheless, the question is: Can you be perfect? And that's– that's what we're striving to be. But the enemy's gotta be right one time. And so we're working hard to protect the people.

COURIC:Can I tick down a – a laundry list, Mr. President–

BUSH: Sure.

COURIC:– of – of some of the areas? And we can do an assessment. Airlines.

BUSH: Yeah.

COURIC: We've spent something like $20 billion on airline security. And yet, as you mentioned, the London – the foiled London plot showed that we still can't really figure out when dangerous liquids are being brought on an airplane. I know that a House panel said that airline security has been haphazard and the technology is outdated. How would you grade what's been accomplished vis-à-vis airline security in this country?

BUSH: Improved. Much more improved. We've got hardened cockpit doors, you know? Pilots are able to carry guns if they want to. We got air marshals. We got better screening. We got better information about who's getting on airplanes. It's much improved.

Is there more work to be done? Of course. But there's more work to be done on every front. I mean, if what you're saying is: Can we find way– ways to improve? Yeah. We – we can and will.

COURIC: Let's talk about cargo.

BUSH: Yeah.

COURIC: Let's talk about ports in this country. I know that only ten percent – actually nine percent of the cargo that's coming into our ports is thoroughly checked. And when it comes to – to railway security, there are about a hundred federal inspectors dedicated to passenger and freight security on our railroads throughout the entire country. Does that concern you?

BUSH: If – if there's any – you know, weakness, it concerns me. And it should concern anybody. But let me talk about ports. You know, one of the things we've done is we got a new– way of inspecting cargo, and that is inspecting cargo before it leaves the port. Say like it's coming in from Singapore. We – we understand who's likely to ship materials. We understand cargo that needs to be inspected.

And oftentimes, most the time, we're able to secure cargo and be comfortable about what's coming into the country before it comes to the ports. And that makes sense. That make– you know, basically– is able to– let us focus on, as you said, the ten percent. But that doesn't mean that we're not aware of what's coming into this country.

COURIC: Let me ask you about some of the 9/11 Commission recommendations.

BUSH: Okay.

COURIC: Because clearly, they're getting a lot of attention right now, Mr. President. Tom Kean, the chairman of the commission, recently wrote a book. And he still says that so many of the recommendations have not been implemented. For– and some that are being implemented are not being done quickly. For example, securing nuclear materials, particularly in the former Soviet Union. He says the administration plan is going to take something like 14 years. And it has to happen in a much more timely fashion. And he notes a lot of other recommendations that just have not been put in place. What is your response to– to those criticisms?

BUSH: My response is – is that – there were 37 recommendations. And we're – we're in the process of implementing 35. Two of them we're not gonna implement because it doesn't make any sense. One of them is to disclose the – intelligence agencies' budgets. That doesn't make any sense to me.

And the other one was something Congress needs to get done. But, no, we – we take these recommenda – these suggestions seriously, and we're implementing them. Look, Kate – this is a world where – (LAUGHTER) where, you know, back to your initial…

COURIC: Are we completely secure?

BUSH: The answer's no, but we're working to get there. And can we ever be? I hope so. Because our most important job is to protect the people.

And I – I believe the best way to do it, by the way, is not only secure the homeland and give our people the tools necessary to do so, but is to stay on the offense against these people and to bring them to justice before they come here to hurt us. And that's what we're doing.

COURIC: When it comes to sharing information, Mr. President, Tom Kean continues to give the administration a D. I know that one of the recommendations was to streamline all these agencies so they could share information more because that was a major criticism following 9/11, as you mentioned, that information wasn't being shared. There were all these turf battles. Some have said that the Bush administration has added to the bureaucracy rather than streamlined it.

BUSH: (LAUGHTER) Yeah. That's what happens. You get a lot of critics around.

COURIC: But – but what's your response to that?

BUSH: My response is, is that we're sharing information much better than prior to September the 11th. We've got a – a counterterrorism center where people from different agencies come and meet. And, you know, again, I repeat to you: We – we're working to improve as best as we possibly can. But this system of ours has improved dramatically since September the 11th.

COURIC: When you look back on the last five years, President Bush, is there anything that you wish you had done differently?

BUSH: 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?

COURIC: In – in terms of saying–

BUSH: "Bring it on," for example.


BUSH: I might – I – sometimes I try to explain myself in – in – in
plain terms. And sometimes the – the terms are too plain.

COURIC: You can take the boy out of Crawford, but you can't take Crawford out of the boy?

BUSH: One way to look at it. (LAUGHTER) But – I'm – I'm mindful that my words matter. And – you know, I'm – I've got a lot of constituents out there. We've got – our own people. And my job is to explain to the American people why I make decisions and how I make them.

We've got an enemy that's watching very carefully what I say and what we do. We've got– people in young democracies that are wondering whether or not the United States will keep its word. And we've got soldiers on– on the battlefield. And – I try to do my best, telling people what's on my mind and – and – why I'm optimistic we're going to succeed. And – the president –you know, all you can do is – is tell people what you're thinking.

COURIC: I know that Iraq – you can – you consider Iraq the – 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.

BUSH: Well, first of all, I do think Iraq is a central front in the war on terror and so does Osama bin Laden. That's what he says. So does the number two man in al-Qaeda, Zawahiri, who have clearly said that their objective is to run us out of Iraq before the job is done so they can have safe haven from which to launch attacks against moderate – moderate Muslim nations.

I'm concerned that these – radical extremists would use oil as an economic weapon against us. And so both of us see this as a central front. And that's why it's gonna be important for us to succeed. And we will succeed if we don't leave too early.

Now, there's been some good moments and some bad moments in Iraq. And there's been some highlights. Twelve million people – nearly 12 voting for a government under a modern constitution. The unity government of Maliki, Prime Minister Maliki is– is dedicated to– succeeding to defeating the extremists. And our job is to help them do so. What was the other part of your question?

COURIC: I was saying it – are you frustrated? And you mentioned the – the positive developments. But certainly you would acknowledge there are a lot of negative things.

BUSH: Absolutely. Starting with the death of innocent people and our soldiers. That's the hardest thing for me. 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. And the inno – and – and – and the notion that freedom can defeat ideo – an ideology of hate will be– dismissed.

And I'm just not gonna let it happen, Katie. I understand the stakes. And– and – look, the key thing for the American people to understand is that we're learning. As the enemy adjusts, we're adjusting. And– that I've given the commanders on the ground the authority necessary to do what it– what it takes to achieve the objective, which is an Iraq that's an ally in the… that can defend itself, sustain itself, and govern itself.

COURIC: Does it concern you, as – 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."

BUSH: Yeah. 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.

COURIC: Conversely, I guess, Mr. President, while people admire so much your ability to adhere to your principles, there is also criticism, as you say, there will always be critics –

COURIC: – that – that you're inflexible and that your position doesn't change with changing circumstances.

BUSH: 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. But I – we're constantly changing the tactics necessary to achieve those strategic objectives. There's a difference between strategic thought and tactical action.

And, you know, if I – if I tried to respond to every critic or made decisions based upon every opinion poll – the decision-making process would be pathetic. And – look, I understand people don't agree with war. I didn't wanna be a wartime president. This war came to us. We didn't ask for it.

But the American people expect me to respond, and I'm going to and have and will continue to do. Our – our most important job is to – is to protect this country. And I think a – an important job is to see the world the way it is, as an ideological struggle and work to leave behind a– a better tomorrow for our children, your children.

Now, I would equate this ideological struggle as to the Cold War. And – the question is will we see the stakes clearly? And will we use our influence to help moderate folks defeat radical extremism? And I – my answer is, yeah, I bet the American people and the American governments that follow me will do that. I certainly hope so.

COURIC: Mr. President, you have recently compared Osama bin Laden to Hitler and Lenin. And some – some have said if the situation is so dire and the situation is so serious, why not mobilize the country, call for sacrifice by raising taxes to finance this effort, by reducing our reliance on foreign oil, and by bringing in more troops to Iraq, the overwhelming force necessary to get the job done?

BUSH: Yeah. First of all, I said that – I said that when Osama bin Laden speaks, we better listen carefully to his words. And – and I made it clear that – the intention of al-Qaeda is to drive us out of the Middle East so they can achieve– objectives. And one of the objectives is, you know, control the Middle East and control oil and threaten moderate people. That's what I said.

And I said the world had an opportunity to listen to Hitler and didn't and– had an opportunity to listen to Lenin and didn't. So I– my point was is that when somebody speaks, we'd better listen carefully. And he is a threat. The best way to defeat the man in a team is to have good intelligence, to stay on the offense to get them, dismantle their organizations, and defeat them in the long term by spreading freedom. Now, the – the– this is a ideological struggle that's gonna take a while. And the best way to achieve success is to have a strong economy.

The enemy hit us. They not only killed lives but they also hurt our economy. And I asked Congress to cut the taxes in order to create economic vitality so that we're prosperous, and we are prosperous. And I intend to keep us prosperous. The American people– it's an interesting question. Why don't you get people to sacrifice?

The American people are contributing. They're contributing their hard-earned dollars. They're supporting our troops. People are involved. People want us to win. Very few people want us to leave before the job is done. The question is: Why aren't we winning? I get asked all the time about troops. Remember, this battle is going – this series of battles is going to be fought by more than just American troops. We got NATO troops in Afghanistan. But – and the most important troops will be those in Iraq. We – we can't make Iraq – the Iraqi people say this is something we want. We can help them achieve the country that can govern itself.

And this government of Prime Minister Maliki needs to have an effective Iraqi fighting force to do that. And that's what we're doing. We're training Iraqis as well as going after, you know, targets that – that are threatening – Americans and/or Iraqis.

COURIC: I know that some military experts say that the Iraqi military is almost up to– to full strength, that it's almost been fully trained.

Click here for Part 2 of this transcript.
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