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Cover of AFTER
Politics and Economy:
Transcript: Bill Moyers talks with Steven Brill
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BILL MOYERS: The morning after September 11 America drew a collective breath and came to grips with a different order of things. September 12th is the starting point for this new book by Steve Brill: AFTER: HOW AMERICA CONFRONTED THE SEPTEMBER 12 ERA. Steve Brill is a man of many interests. He founded the American lawyer magazine as well as cable's COURT TVů..And he was the creative force behind BRILL'S CONTENT, a magazine that cast a sharp eye on the business and ethics of journalism. But for his new, and already best-selling book, Steve Brill put on the gumshoes of a reporter to chronicle America's response to the era we woke up to on the morning of September 12. Welcome to NOW.

STEVEN BRILL: Thank you, good to be here.

BILL MOYERS: You write in the closing pages of After "We need to remember where we were that morning." Meaning the morning of the 12th of September, the day after the event, right?


BILL MOYERS: Where were we?

STEVEN BRILL: I'll tell you where I was. I was sitting at-- the kitchen table with my son who's-- 14 years old. And I remember saying to him, "How are we gonna do this? How-- we're a country that-- you know, yesterday, you know, the-- biggest issue-- that we were thinking about-- the issue that dominated the television air waves was the sex life of a congressman that we'd never heard of-- Gary Condit."

Congress seemed to be deadlocked. Lobbyists seemed to have a strangle hold on everything. The President was reading to school children. The Attorney General was reading to school children. We didn't really care much about government. We didn't really mind the idea that government was grid locked.

And suddenly on September 12th we have to depend on government to make it safe for us to go over a bridge. We have to depend on government to get airplanes back up in the air so we can fly. We have to depend on government to reopen the stock market, to start commerce up again, to make us safe, to protect the freedoms that we've always held dear even while we try to make us safe.

And I was really curious and anxious. Can we do all this stuff? What are we gonna do. And that's what this book is about.

BILL MOYERS: You've come up with some small but telling facts that I find very informative. I mean, that-- when Attorney General Ashcroft directed the FBI and the INS soon after the attacks to question anyone they could find with a Muslim sounding name agents simply looked for names-- sometimes just looked for names in the phone book.

STEVEN BRILL: That's right. And on the one hand that sounds ridiculous. And it does sound ridiculous. On the other hand you could-- it was emblematic of where we were. They didn't have any informants in that community. They-- had-- you know, they didn't have the usual suspects to round up.

And they were also desperate and we were all scared. Remember 19 people who have lived-- you know, who had lived among us, who hadn't broken any laws had gotten onto airplanes and killed what we thought on that morning were 10,000 of our citizens.

And we knew that but for the fact of the fourth plane had left an hour late it would have crashed into the Capital of the White House. It would have been successful. It would have crashed into the Capital of the White House. These were scary times and they were especially scary times if you were in the center of the activity that the FBI was--

BILL MOYERS: They were just doing anything they could--

STEVEN BRILL: And it wasn't much.

BILL MOYERS: Something almost-- like the Marx Brothers in picking up the phone book and saying, "Let's see if we can find some Muslim-- "

STEVEN BRILL: Let's just go visit this guy and ask him if he knows something. And-- you know, it's-- it sounds comical but it was-- these were desperate times. And in desperate times people do silly things and they do things that also-- you know, that threaten our rights and threaten the Constitution.

BILL MOYERS: Another small insight. "We still don't know," you write, "how many foreigners have over stayed their visas and remained in the country illegally.

STEVEN BRILL: We have no idea. We have no idea.

BILL MOYERS: What do you guess? A million, two million, three million?

STEVEN BRILL: They think it's the INS-- Immigration Naturalization Service thinks it's three or four million a year. But it could be 300,000 a year, it could be 10 million.

BILL MOYERS: Then you report that fireman's widows may be entitled to collect an average of some $6 million each. I didn't know that.

STEVEN BRILL: They are. And in fact-- they've-- that's about the average they will collect. And that's the result of all the charities that sprung up on behalf of the fire-- of the fireman and their families.

I don't think that's wrong. But it raises a lot of-- it raises a lot of obvious questions. For example a fireman who ran into a burning building the next day or was killed would have been entitled to a death benefit of-- about $250,000 period. The soldiers who have been killed, you know, overseas in the Iraqi War entitled to benefits of about $9,000 plus, you know, a little more if they have life insurance.

You know, society very rarely confronts that terrible question of how much is a life worth. And what happened on September 11th in a variety of contexts, the charities to the fireman-- for example if you were a New York City police officer you got-- you ended up-- with more money than if you were a Port Authority Police officer's family because more people had heard of the charity for the New York City police officers.

If you were-- a fireman you got more money as it turned out than the police officers because more people contributed to that charity and because the rules of some of the charities were different. That raises an awful lot of issues. And then there's the federal government which has this Victim's Compensation Fund that I write about that actually published a chart that valued human life. If you were a janitor and you were 63 years old your family might get $600,000 and if you were a stock broker and you were 31 years old your family might get $4 million.

There are reasons for that. They parallel how the courts deal with those kinds of quote "wrongful deaths." But for the government to publish a chart like that really puts those issues, you know, right in front of you. And it-- makes a lot of people pretty angry. The questions is-- you can bet that the victims of the next attack-- and there's gonna be one, are gonna get less money. And the third attack will get less money than the second. And the fourth attack will get less money than the third because it will be less dramatic, less unusual.

BILL MOYERS: You talk as if you seem to think another attack is inevitable. Why is that?

STEVEN BRILL: It's unrealistic of us to believe that-- we can prevent other attacks.

I think, and you know, that we've made a lot of progress and done a lot of things behind the scenes that Ashcroft and certainly Tom Ridge and more importantly the people that you've never heard of in the customs-- service-- there are lots of--

BILL MOYERS: law enforcement in here.

STEVEN BRILL: They had done a great job making us safer and they deserve a lot of credit. But safer doesn't mean safe.

BILL MOYERS: Do you feel safe coming through the Lincoln Tunnel? And you're going to leave the studio soon-- in fact--

STEVEN BRILL: I'm gonna go through the Lincoln--

STEVEN BRILL: -- Tunnel.

BILL MOYERS: You're gonna go through the Lincoln Tunnel to an airport. Do you--


BILL MOYERS: -- feel safer today going to through that Lincoln--

STEVEN BRILL: Yeah, because I know that they have radiation detectors, for example, at both ends. I know that they have better intelligence-- in terms of what they're-- what they might be looking for. But I know that -- I know unlike September 10th, when I didn't think about going through the Lincoln Tunnel I know that it is risky.

I know that-- I think the risk is less than it was on September 11th but the risk has not been eliminated and what I'm particularly concerned about are the so called soft targets-- mass transit, subway system-- office building-- shopping malls--

BILL MOYERS: Places where a lot of people congregate.

STEVEN BRILL: Yeah, because-- the-- it's a-- you don't need a terribly sophisticated attack wreak a lot of havoc.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, I didn't know until I read your book that there are, you say, as many entrances into the subways of New York as there are-- check points at airports around the country.

STEVEN BRILL: Exactly. It's one of those fun facts that conveniently has perfect symmetry to it. And the point I try to make by discussing that is that we're now spending $6 billion a year to protect the airports and the airplanes. And that's money well spent. We're doing a very good job. Everybody would agree that the people who are the checkpoints now look and are more competent.

But we can't spend $6 billion a year to-- do that in the New York City subway system. And if we do that we can't do it for the 18,000 entrances to all the office buildings in New York or the entrances to the subway system in San Francisco or Chicago. We have to get smarter about what the policy wonks call risk management. And that means s some difficult kinds of choices.

BILL MOYERS: Am I a greater risk a couple of hours from now when I get on the subway and go uptown than you are when you leave here, get in a car and drive through the Lincoln Tunnel and go to the airport.

STEVEN BRILL: Oh, without any question. I mean, the airports are the safest place probably to be in this country. Once you're inside the checkpoint-- the--

BILL MOYERS: That's stunning because you say in the book that the most devastating revelation of-- September 11th was how inadequate the airport security system was.

STEVEN BRILL: Oh, but the-- I mean, - it was clownishly stupid. For example, you could buy-- it now seems stupid. You could buy a pocket knife at the newsstand that was behind the checkpoint. You know, all those little-- you know, where they sell these little travel kits. The travel kits have knives of the kind that the hijackers used.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think the country knows right now that we have no-- secure system across the northern border with Canada?

STEVEN BRILL: No. I went and watched people walk over the border.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, that's one of the most interesting parts of the book.

STEVEN BRILL: And they-- are-- to Ridge's credit and-- the credit-- I don't want to make this-- you know, it's-- sound like I'm not giving these people the credit that they deserve. They have recently in the last three, four months acted on that. There are now some cameras posted in certain places, motion detectors. Ridge taking over-- the INS sounds like a bureaucratic shuffle but will-- it will actually matter because the INS historically has been so terrible that-- it's an excuse to just clean the whole place out and get new leadership in there.

To give you an example the INS actually told a committee of the House-- of the House that the reason they hadn't put cameras and motion detectors up on the northern border-- as of last summer was it takes them seven to eight months to an environmental impact statement of putting the pole up.

This is an administration that we have previously thought of as being, you know, that sensitive to the environment. And the environments we're talking about were these poles that would be going up-- you know, the Detroit River-- which is-- you know, not exactly a wild life preserve. And so-- there's a whole bureaucracy that's just ludicrous and-- they have had no sense of urgency. It's a little different now.

BILL MOYERS: What is the role of journalists? To make sure that the government does the right thing in this difficult time?

STEVEN BRILL: The role of journalists really has to be to get people to focus on problems before they happen. That's a big part of their role.

Now there are so many issues in what I call the September 12th era that are complicated, that are difficult and that people need to focus on. For example, dirty bombs. The biggest threat of a dirty bomb--

BILL MOYERS: A dirty bomb is a--

STEVEN BRILL: --is that-- a dirty bomb is basically you can-- you know you can steal some radioactive material for a dentist's office and put it with some dynamite. And you set it off somewhere. When the first responders show up and they do a radiation check, which they now do anywhere, they're gonna get a signal that this is a radioactive bomb.

And the first time that happens in New York or Washington or Kansas City, there's gonna be total panic. The fact is that bomb won't be terribly dangerous. Probably it won't be dangerous at all. It's just gonna panic people.

And one of the reasons it's gonna panic people is that we haven't talked about that enough. We need to talk about that. People need to be educated.

BILL MOYERS: But if we do a piece on dirty bombs, people say, "Well, you're rubbing our noses in it. You're ma-- you're panicking us. You're making us go around--"

STEVEN BRILL: The whole point of the piece would be not to get panicked. And that-- the-- terror-- that weapon, that terrorist weapon is a pure panic weapon. It really doesn't cause damage. It's pure pan-- it's the ultimate psychological weapon.

BILL MOYERS: You report in the book that right after the attacks, President Bush pulled-- the Attorney General aside and said to John Ashcroft, "John, don't let this happen again." Is that possible?

STEVEN BRILL: It's not possible. And more important it is a totally different job that the President has just given the Attorney General with a zillion ramifications. The Attorney General's job heretofore had been to prosecute crimes that had been committed. Therefore he's gotta worry about evidence and trials and, you know, treating defendants in a way that preserves their rights.

If your new job is preventing crime, what you become is basically the domestic general that's, you know, the equivalent-- you know, you become the Tommy Franks of the United States. And that in fact is the way Ashcroft has seen his job, which is, "I'm part of a war. I'm the Commander in Chief-- I have powers delegated to me by the Commander in Chief in the war theater called the United States."

And he's basically said that to Congress. And said that to a bunch of judges which is-- questioning me about how I'm dealing wit these people is almost the equivalent of trying to haul Tommy Franks into court and say, you know, "What did you do with that guy that you know that you caught in Baghdad yesterday."

Or you know, "You pushed him around or you questioned him. How come you did that." Well, he sees himself that way and that creates a lot of issues, to say the least.

BILL MOYERS: And isn't that a threat to democracy? Doesn't it make all of us conscripts in a kind of quasi-military society?

STEVEN BRILL: It's a significant threat. And it's a threat that Republicans in the Congress have recognized. And Republican judges have recognized. And in fact members of the President's own cabinet, who frankly don't get along with John Ashcroft, have recognized.

BILL MOYERS: The point I guess I'm getting at is that we have 7500 miles of border in this company-- country. We have tens of thousands of facilities storing or shipping chemical-- chemical supplies. We have countless points where food and water supplies could be interrupted. We have an infinite number, as you say, of public places where people gather. I mean, this is a porous, large, complex society. Can we be both free and safe in America in a time of terror?

STEVEN BRILL: You know, you can make two choices. You can look at all those numbers and think about that and say, "Well, you know, what the heck. Let's not even try 'cause we can never achieve full safety without becoming a police state. And even if we became a police state you still can't put barbed wire around 7500 miles of border. So, let's not even try."

Or we can say, "You know what? We're not gonna be victims. We're not gonna be victims of either our circumstance or our geography or of the terrorists. And we are gonna be smart about this. And we're gonna get safer. We're gonna be-- we're not-- we're never gonna be completely safe but we're gonna get safer." If we get smarter, we'd be freer, we'd be safer.

BILL MOYERS: The back is After: How America Confronted the September 12th Era. I learned a lot from it. Thank you for being with us, Steven Brill.

STEVEN BRILL: Thank you.

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