U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts was driving to work on Sept. 11, 2001, when he heard radio reports about the attack on the World Trade Center, then saw the burning Pentagon with his own eyes. The Kansas Republican raced to the Capitol.
"I found out later that exactly the same time I was driving behind the Capitol was exactly the same time that Flight 93 would have crashed into the Capitol," Roberts said. "So I owe my life to the heroes of Flight 93 who said, 'Let's roll.'"
Less than two years later, in March 2003, Roberts became chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee - and has spent most of his tenure riding a whirlwind of controversies and debates over the Patriot Act, "warrantless wiretapping," the use of torture and the mistaken evidence used to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Roberts spoke on Thursday to the Journal-World about his insider's view of the War on Terror - the 30-minute interview can be heard below. Some excerpts:
Q: You have spent most of the last half-decade as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. So let's start off with the bottom-line question: Do you think the United States is more or less safe than it was on 9/11?
A: We've achieved a lot more information sharing, we have better human intelligence, we have a better attitude within the intelligence community, no more risk aversion.
Interview with U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts regarding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and their aftermath
Americans cannot be complacent about the real threats that we face, and we get briefings on that virtually every week. More especially for the second-generation terrorists who may not be guided by Osama bin Laden, but certainly are inspired by him. It's the big problem that Great Britain faces, and certainly homegrown cells are a worry. Yes, we are safer, but are we yet safe to the degree we can say we're not going to have any future challenges? That's just not the case.
Q: After 9/11, your committee reported the intelligence community "did not effectively develop and use human sources to penetrate the Al Qaeda inner circle." Where does the United States now stand in its ability to penetrate terrorist cells with spies and thus see trouble coming before it gets here?
A: I think we're making progress. I can't be too specific about that because that gets into classified material, but I think we're making real progress. I think the agency is much more aggressive. When I go overseas and visit station chiefs, and then I always take time out to talk to personnel. They're young, they're bright, they're aggressive, so I think we're making some progress. Very difficult thing to do.
Q: I think you know the Lawrence City Commission a couple of years ago passed a resolution condemning the Patriot Act. And actually, a couple of months ago, you were quoted saying, basically, that "You have no civil liberties if you're dead." Did you mean to suggest that Americans are going to have to give up some civil liberties to be more secure?
A: No, no. I think you've got to be careful, whatever you do to protect America, that you do not tear at the fabric of what we're all about, and that's our individual freedoms and our privacy and what this country stands for. Nobody that's a fourth-generation Kansan and comes from a newspaper family is going to be anything but square for and very strong for our civil liberties.
It's just that facts are stubborn things, and I know people are concerned ... about the Patriot Act, but we really did not have any violation that appeared, or any egregious problem with the Patriot Act, despite all the criticism. We've come through again with the reauthorization. We've fixed or addressed some of those concerns. So I don't think that's the problem, at least in the minds of the critics, that it used to be.
Q: A few months ago, you were one of just nine senators who voted against the McCain bill that would essentially prohibit torture of terror suspects.
A: My problem was that the McCain field manual will be the first chapter in the Al Qaeda manual. The Al Qaeda terrorist will simply read that and say, "Well, this is what they can do and this is what they cannot do. ... I don't have to worry about anything egregious."
Nobody is for torture. We don't torture people. I think the nightmare of Abu Ghraib was a situation where it was people that were not trained, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But, on the McCain situation, to say "Here are three techniques, you are limited to that," you are sending a signal to Al Qaeda that they can just sit tight.
Q: We don't do torture, but the president said yesterday that "tough" questioning of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed helped uncover terror plots. We've also heard about the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" programs (under which terror suspects are handed over to countries that allow punishing interrogations). So perhaps coercive techniques have been used? And how useful and necessary are those kind of techniques?
A: I'll pull the Clinton deal and say, "What's the definition of is?" What's the definition of "coercive?" I don't know how we describe that.
But it's not so much the coercive action as: OK, you're a terrorist and all of a sudden in unfamiliar surroundings and you don't know who's doing the questioning and all of a sudden you realize they know more about you than you think they did. That line of questioning keeps going and we see where it takes us.
Q: The last couple of years have raised questions about our ability to collect and interpret intelligence competently. In the case of 9/11, it was that maybe warning signs were ignored. On the other end of the spectrum, a lot of questions remain about the intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Given all that, why do you think Americans should have any confidence in the intelligence process?
A: We haven't had any attacks in five years.
Q: Pretty simple answer.
A: We have detected and deterred many plots against the United States. And stopped them. But we can't talk about them. The successes far exceed the mistakes, or the terrible tragedies, as evidenced by the plot in London.
September 11: Five years later
- September 11 Reader Essays
- 6News video: Terrorist attacks still influence everyday life in Lawrence (09-11-06)
- Interview with U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts regarding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and their aftermath
- On the street: Where were you when you heard about 9-11?
- 'The image that sticks with me and won't ever leave' (09-11-06)
- Do Lawrence residents have a false sense of security? (09-11-06)
- Sept. 11 hovers in background of the 'new normal' (09-11-06)
- Timeline since Sept. 11 attacks (09-11-06)
- Bush: Anniversary a day to renew resolve (09-11-06)
- Bookshelf a tribute to former resident killed in attacks (09-11-06)
- Lawrence Journal-World 9-11 front page .pdf (09-11-06)
- Roberts delivers insider's view of the War on Terror
- Lawrence's support for arts rebounds five years after 9-11 (09-10-06)
- 9/11/2001: Read stories from The Journal-World's Extra Edition
- Postcards of Change: A look at a changed country
- Photo galleries: A chronicle of unfolding events