Giuliani Offers Tough Defense to 9/11 Panel

By, May 20, 2004

By N. R. Kleinfield

It was perhaps the most pivotal moment for Rudolph W. Giuliani since the day that reconceptualized him as a national hero and shaped his public persona as the maestro of public safety.

The former mayor's appearance yesterday before the independent federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks was the first time that, under public inspection, the finely wrought legacy that he had acquired could be called into question.

But Mr. Giuliani's measured and courtly performance, unruffled by conspicuously gentle questioning from the commission, left his reputation essentially unscathed. In unscripted testimony, he led the panel through his personal Sept. 11, a poignant narrative that captivated the audience. Every question from the panel was framed with praise and expressions of gratitude.

Throughout his appearance, Mr. Giuliani steadfastly defended the city's emergency response, and while he admitted that mistakes were made under the stress of the day, he beseeched the commission to extend compassion rather than pin blame. At the same time, he refused to fault the federal government for not sharing intelligence about threats to the city.

The commission opted not to confront Mr. Giuliani directly with its critical findings. It is hard to say whether that was a retreat in the face of the Giuliani legend or whether the former mayor simply seized the day. The accuracy of his words is still to be judged, and hecklers who interrupted toward the end of his appearance made it clear that he did not persuade everyone that the city had indeed mustered an adequate response.

The atmosphere at the hearing differed markedly from the previous day's, when the commission rebuked the city for poor planning, faulty equipment and other inadequacies including poor communication between the Police and Fire Departments. Key members of Mr. Giuliani's administration had been subjected to some withering questioning in the same brightly lighted room. Some had lost their composure.

Mr. Giuliani was the first of a series of witnesses to appear on the second of two days of hearings in New York in the Tishman Auditorium at the New School University in Greenwich Village. The sloped room was packed with relatives of the 2,749 victims.

He entered the auditorium briskly from a side entrance, surrounded by a phalanx of aides. They dispersed as he settled alone at the rectangular table that faced the 10-member commission, receiving a friendly wave and smile from Thomas H. Kean, the commission's chairman and a former Republican governor of New Jersey. Mr. Giuliani wore a dark pin-striped suit, with an American flag pin in his lapel. Mr. Kean swore him in at 8:31 a.m.

In his half-hour opening remarks, Mr. Giuliani seemed to respond directly to the criticism that had been leveled at members of his administration by sending a polite but unmistakable message to the commission to back off.

"We're all hurt," he said. "We're all damaged. We're all very, very angry. And we're all feeling the loss of heroes that we love."

He acknowledged that "some terrible mistakes were made" and that "when human beings are put under this condition, that's what happens." He implored the commission to focus on preventing another attack, not on faulting anyone other than the terrorists for what had already happened. "The blame should be directed at one source and one source alone — the terrorists who killed our loved ones," he said. "For each other there really should be compassion, understanding and support, because we're all suffering."

The matter of whether he and his administration had indeed performed wisely and heroically is central to his reputation and to his seemingly bountiful business and political future. Since leaving office, he has positioned himself as the man for corporations, cities and even countries to consult in order to feel secure.

After the hearing, he said at a news conference that he had been annoyed by the remark made the previous day by John F. Lehman, a Republican commission member who was Navy secretary in the Reagan administration, that the city's disaster-response plans were "not worthy of the Boy Scouts." He said Mr. Lehman should apologize to the City Hall staff from that time, many of whom now work for Mr. Giuliani at his consulting firm. Mr. Lehman responded that he had nothing to apologize for.

In his testimony, the former mayor showed himself to be well-versed in the specifics of his movements and decisions on Sept. 11. He had prepared for this appearance for weeks, reviewing the fine details of what he has called the worst day of his life.

The most gripping part of his remarks came when he recounted his morning, starting with an uneventful breakfast at the Peninsula Hotel on 55th Street and then word of a two-engine plane striking one of the towers. He told of walking outside and, after seeing how clear the day was, concluding at once that it had been some sort of attack. He told of traveling downtown and passing St. Vincent's Hospital and seeing clusters of doctors and stretchers outside and thinking he was entering a war zone.

He told of the rumors he heard — that the Sears Tower in Chicago had been hit, that the stock exchange had been hit, that 12 more planes were unaccounted for. He told of looking up at one point and seeing a man hurl himself out of a window high in one of the towers and freezing in disbelief with the knowledge that he was somewhere no one had been. He told of the early estimates he got of the likely toll were a staggering 12,000 to 15,000, and how he didn't know how to comprehend that possibility.

The sad images imprinted in so many minds of firefighters trudging up the steps of the towers as occupants passed them on the way down was given a different twist by Mr. Giuliani. He said many people who escaped had told him that the sight of the firefighters going up "made me calmer. That made me confident. That made me continue to walk in the right direction."

He said that New York didn't get a story of "an Andrea Doria," when officers abandoned the passengers on a sinking liner, but "we got a story of heroes, we got a story of pride."

Richard Ben-Veniste, the first commissioner to question Mr. Giuliani, set a tone echoed by the others when he told Mr. Giuliani that his leadership on Sept. 11 showed the world New York's "indomitable spirit and the humanity," adding, "For that I salute you."

None of the commissioners asked Mr. Giuliani about the placement of the city's multimillion-dollar emergency command center in 7 World Trade Center, an established terrorist target that the commission staff has identified as a mistake.

James R. Thompson, a commissioner and former governor of Illinois, praised Mr. Giuliani for "extraordinary leadership" and "setting an example for all of us," then raised the matter of what information about threats of terrorist attacks against the city Mr. Giuliani had received from federal authorities in the months preceding Sept. 11. It was a ticklish area that could have opened the door for Mr. Giuliani to fault the Bush administration for failing to pass on warnings.

He went in a different direction, though. He said the information he received in 2001 was similar to what he had gotten in the previous four or five years and pointed out that the city had been on high alert since 1997. Then he said, "When you go back over a report and you know the end of the story, which is a horrible one, but you know the end of the story, the reports that are relevant become much more obvious than before you knew the end of it."

Timothy Roemer, another commissioner, thanked Mr. Giuliani for his "brave and courageous leadership," and then specifically asked about the Aug. 6, 2001, briefing document for President Bush that mentioned New York and the World Trade Center as objects of terrorist threats several times.

"If we had gotten those warnings," Mr. Giuliani said, "I can't honestly tell you we would have done anything differently. We were doing everything we could think of."

When Mr. Lehman, who had been so critical the previous day, got his chance to address Mr. Giuliani and ask about an system that would dictate who would take charge if the mayor was unavailable or incapacitated, he flattered Mr. Giuliani by telling him that on Sept. 11, "There was no question to the world that the captain was on the bridge."

Over time, the agreeable questioning seemed to stimulate unrest in the audience, which began to murmur its displeasure.

Then Slade Gorton, a commissioner who the previous day had uttered some of the more caustic remarks about the city's response, told Mr. Giuliani that his own arithmetic suggested that more than 99.5 percent of the people in the towers who could possibly have been saved, the ones below the fires, were saved, and invited Mr. Giuliani to confirm that "overwhelmingly remarkable" performance.

As Mr. Giuliani began to answer, some members of the audience, angry about the communication problems between the uniformed services, called out:

"No, talk about the radios. Talk about the radios. The radios."

Mr. Kean said, "You are simply wasting time at this point that could be used for questions."

"You're wasting time," someone replied.

That triggered more outbursts. Roughly a dozen people began yelling out, some of them relatives of victims and others from the general public:

"It's lies. Lies."

"My son was murdered. He never got a Mayday."

"Let us rebut him."

"One-sided. One-sided."

"Put one of us on the panel."

Some jeering had broken out the previous day, though nothing like yesterday's level of discontent.

Mr. Giuliani tried to talk over the interruptions, and then stopped, saying, "It's understandable." Mr. Kean tried to quiet the room. After some police officers and staff members entered, the outbursts ceased.

Mr. Giuliani answered two more questions, and as he finished, another round of heckling erupted. One persistent agitator and his girlfriend were removed by the police.

Outside, beneath softly falling rain, Mr. Giuliani took questions from journalists. He said he was not angry at the taunters. "I knew it would happen," he said. "They have to place their anger someplace."

He was asked if it was painful to be called a liar.

"The anger of the families is not painful," he said. "Going over this is painful."

Elsewhere, some of the family members lingered and spoke of how they had not heard the questions and answers they had come to hear. Some had lost faith in the commission, saying it seemed to be committed to a sanitized history of that day.

"We fought like crazy to get this commission established," said Lorie Van Auken, whose husband, Kenneth, died in the north tower. "We want the truth. If we're not being told the truth, if we are only being told one side of the story, the commission is not doing its job properly."

Betsy Parks, who lost her brother, Robert Emmett Parks Jr., on Sept. 11, had yelled out in the room for a family member and a first responder to be on the panel. Now she said, "I wanted to hear why everybody above the fire in both buildings was simply forgotten about." She said, "I was disappointed by Giuliani's testimony. I was bored by it."

One young woman shook her head and smiled: "He's a legend. No one takes on a legend."

Rain continued to fall from the sky. Rudolph Giuliani was long gone.

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© 2004 by Neil Mishalov