Photo courtesy Barbara Boxer

Barbara Boxer

Barbara served in the US House in California District 6 from 1983 to 1993 and then as a US Senator for California from 1993 to 2017. In her interview she discusses what it was like in Washington DC on September 11, visiting Iraq and her opposition to the war in Iraq.

Interview conducted on August 16, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California.

Present: Richard Hayden and Barbara Boxer

Transcribed by Richard Hayden

Richard Hayden: What is your full name?

Barbara Boxer: Barbara Boxer.

RH: You served in the US House in California District 6 from 1983 to 1993 and then as a US Senator for California from 1993 to 2017, is that correct?

BB: Correct.

RH: OK. What is your current role?

BB: My current role is I have my own little entrepreneurial self moving around. I have a podcast with my daughter, I volunteer to do a political action committee to help others who want to run for office and I am working on a fictional TV series with my daughter which is really exciting. A lot of different things. I speak all over the country. I have an agent and I do speeches on politics, foreign policy, health policy, domestic policy.

RH: Perfect. Alright. We’re going to jump right into it. Where were you on September 11th?

BB: I was in Washington DC in a meeting before it happened. When it happened I was sitting in a meeting with all the [Senate] leadership and there was a TV in the corner. We saw a plane go into a building. The first response we had was that this must have been a heart attack. Maybe the pilot had a heart attack. Then we saw the second plane and the aftermath of the second. Then the capital police came running in and they grabbed the leaders. They grabbed the top two leaders of the Senate and dragged them off and said, “Get out,” because they thought the next plane was coming to the Capitol. So I remember Jay Rockefeller, my colleague, grabbing my hand and we ran down the steps. I’ve written about this in my book The Art of Tough. If you want more details, it’s all in there.

RH: What are some of the notable events that you remember from that day that you were going through?

BB: Of course the complete fear and anxiety of out of the blue this happening to us. It was not explicable and I remember telling my staff to get out of the office and meet me at my apartment which was a few blocks away from the Capitol. I felt safer there than being in the office and they came over. Then the next thing I did was I called President Clinton who had just left office and I said, “Who did this?” He said, “Osama bin Laden,” without missing a beat. He was so sure that it was him. And, of course, you didn’t hear that from Cheney. You heard that it was Saddam Hussein. But he said it was Al Qaeda.

RH: What were some of the reactions of your fellow lawmakers?

BB: I think everyone felt the same way. We were shocked, stunned and we wanted to prove that they weren’t going to stop the country from governing because we all came back that very night to the Capitol and sang the national anthem together. There was a lot of unity. I don’t think there was any diverse reaction except utter shock and we were going to find who did it and we were going to retaliate. We were going to be unified.

RH: What were some of the reactions from some of your constituents in California?

BB: It was all similar. I think the whole country was feeling the same way. I don’t think the division started until Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld blamed Hussein, turned on a dime and went into Iraq about a year to a couple of years later. That’s when the division started. But I think when it came to responding to the Taliban, we knew that Afghanistan had made it possible for them to function there and had been an inviting, open place for bin Laden. It was pretty much unanimity to go into Afghanistan except, I think, one vote against it.

RH: Being from Brooklyn originally, how did the fact that it happened in New York affect you?

BB: It was horrifying. Plus, the vast majority of the planes were headed to California so I had California constituents who lost their lives. It was intense. It was intense because what they did was they targeted the planes that were going the longest distance because they would have the most bang for the buck, so to speak.

RH: Are there any stories of people that were affected by 9/11 at the time that you worked with that impacted you?

BB: Yes. I think the first responders. I’ll never forget. They were sick pretty soon after the cleanup. They weren’t getting the help they needed for years. We had to fight that. I remember Hillary Clinton took the lead, and then Kirsten Gillibrand, on that. They were a big source of concern for me because I was on the Environmental Committee and I knew the air quality was terrible and they were going down there. I remember the Bush EPA saying there was no air quality problem and I knew different because the materials in those buildings, the materials in the aircraft were poisonous toxins. All of that. So I would say my concern, one, was towards the first responders and the rebuilding of the area. Also, making sure that we had airport security because that was huge. I was on the committee that had jurisdiction over that. We set up the TSA and I also worked with John McCain to put air marshalls on the flights, long distance flights. We got that into law. So my passion was safety of the people, hardening our infrastructure at home, helping the firefighters and getting bin Laden. I would say those are the three ways I responded as a lawmaker.

RH: OK. Good to go. We’re going jump ahead to Washington in 2002. What do you remember most about what was going on in Washington in 2002 regarding Iraq?

BB: Well you have to put it into context. What day did we declare war in Iraq?

RH: We invaded March 19, 2003.

BB: I was a little stunned when all of a sudden the administration starts looking to Hussein and Iraq as the perpetrators of 9/11 and trying to piece it together. I never believed it. I really did not believe it. It just was everything I read about and I knew they wanted an excuse to go into Iraq. It did not sit well with me. I was anti-Iraq war and I was very, very isolated. I had twenty-two other colleagues out of a hundred. My state was eighty percent for going into Iraq. It was a very hard time but I couldn’t possibly vote to go in. I did not believe any of the stuff they were peddling. I got into fights with Condi Rice. They said I had to resign because I was so tough on her, so tough on Rumsfeld. I was tough on them all – Cheney and all that. To this day, I think about it and I realized that, thank God, I was true to myself. Otherwise I couldn’t sleep at night, to be honest, because of what happened.

I’ll tell you a story. It’s in my book but I think it’s a real interesting story. I was a wreck because it didn’t seem to end. It was supposed to end in three months, weeks – mission accomplished. All that stuff – George Bush in his flight suit. I was just getting very nervous about the thing because I knew about Iraq’s history. I read a couple of books on the history and I knew the divisions between Sunnis, Shi’as and Kurds. And I said, “This is a nightmare.” I realized why George Bush’s father didn’t want to go in when we were in Kuwait because of this marching into what could turn into a civil war which did turn into a civil war. I decided I was going to take to the floor and read the names of the dead because I had so many. Californians made up about twenty-five percent. I would just go down there and it was very emotional. The Republicans who were mad at me said, “You’re just showboating.” I said, “No I’m not. I’m putting this in the record for history.”

This is also really interesting, I put up a memorial in my office to all of those lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was Californians. It was all on this big yellow and blue chart. I had it outside my office so when you walked in, you saw. They made me move it inside. They said, “You can’t have that outside.” It was a very horrible time, terrible time for me, because I had so many plans to do a lot of things for my people and all I wanted to do was end the war. It was like a mission. And it didn’t end. Barack [Obama] came in and changed the mission from combat to anti-terrorism. It was a very hard time for me.

RH: Did you have any notable interactions with service members from this time that stuck out?

BB: Oh yes. I did. Because of my interactions with wounded veterans I set up a comprehensive casualty care center in San Diego for the most seriously wounded because we had nothing in California for the very seriously wounded. That was one of the things about this war, as you well know. The wounds had never been seen before. So before that, our servicemen and women from California had to go to Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland] or maybe to Texas. So with McCain’s help and Danny Inouye’s help or Steven’s help – I can’t remember who, they all helped me – we got this comprehensive casualty care center in San Diego.

RH: Was it Balboa Hospital in San Diego?

BB: No. It was a care center near the Fisher House that was never a comprehensive casualty. It was just kind of a health clinic for the VA but they designated it as this comprehensive care center. They then took in the most gravely wounded people in Fisher House. If you’ve ever visited Fisher House, it’s a beautiful place. The families would stay in Fisher House with the servicemen and women while they were there. So I focused on that.

I couldn’t believe it. The rules were that men and women in uniform, when they were in the hospital, had to pay for their own meals. I went nuts and said, “What?” We passed a law and said no. It was crazy. I was pretty engaged and especially with those who were trying to end the war – the younger vets groups that were trying to end the war. I was very involved with them.

RH: So let me ask you this. What were the days prior to the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003 like in Washington?

BB: It was a fierce debate. Those of us who didn’t want to support the legislation that said we were going to go in were just made to feel very unpatriotic. We had meetings – Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, myself, Paul Wellstone, Dick Durbin. I remember who it was. We would meet just to bolster each other up. We said we were going to demand more information, proof that Saddam was involved in 9/11. It’s crazy stuff. We were under attack but we were strong in our feelings and we stood strong. But they were very tough and my constituents wanted to go war. They were writing me and the phones were ringing off the hook and I went against it. It was hard.

RH: What were you doing on the night of the invasion?

BB: I was watching it like everybody. I don’t know if I was home. I don’t know if I was with my husband or not because he was in California but I was watching it – the shock and awe. And it was going to be over in days, not months.

So the story I was going to share with you is after about six months I was a wreck because all I wanted to do was end it. I just knew it was going to be a disaster. I just did. If you read history and you knew that the lines that made Iraq were drawn by the colonialists because they wanted to keep people fighting with each other so they wouldn’t fight with Europe over the oil, you knew it was going to be a disaster and I just knew it.

So you’re asking me what it was like? It was terrible times. I don’t know how else to tell you. It was awful. No one agreed with me. I did a lot of interviews. I got spit on – not really but verbally. It was very, very hard and over the years it started to change dramatically.

Oh! The story. So McCain came up to me one day – he knew me very well – he said, “What’s wrong? You don’t look good. Something’s bothering you.” And I said, “I don’t think this war is going to end.” He said, “Oh! It’s going to be over. Six months at the most.” He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t you worry. It’s going to be over.” Meanwhile they were looking for weapons of mass destruction that he had hidden which he never had. The comics were starting to say, “But where are these weapons?”

And then the other thing I remember is going up to the classified room to see the photos of Abu Ghraib and I got sick. I actually almost fainted. A colleague came up to me and said, “Are you OK?” I said, “I’m not OK. I have to leave.” I couldn’t believe this was happening. I couldn’t believe what happened to our people because they were just fighting for their lives and scared to death. It was terrible. So I really, truly have to say the reason I wanted to do this interview is that I so respect what you are doing and I do want you to know – and I don’t know how you felt about the war, I have no clue – but from my perspective it was eight years of my life that all I did was focus on trying to end it. People say, “What’s your biggest failure?” It’s that I couldn’t end it. I couldn’t do it. I did everything in my power. I read the names. I did interviews. I made speeches. I was so focused on ending it, you know? And of course I did work for Barack Obama and he did change the mission. That day I remember praying and saying, “Thank God.” I couldn’t take it anymore. I was feeling so powerless.

RH: Did you ever have a chance to visit Iraq?

BB: Yes, I did.

RH: What was that like?

BB: I write about that too. I went to Iraq with a bipartisan delegation at the time when Petraeus was there. He was training the Iraqi forces to take over the fight. It must have been a couple of years in. So I get there and Petraeus comes with the happiest voice, “We are training thousands of [Iraqis].”

“So why are our guys dying every day?”

“Well, it’s going to take time.”

Meanwhile they had spent into the billions on this training and they was quote/unquote friendly fire and all kinds of problems. So I went there. Petraeus was, I felt, over the top optimistic. When I got back I said, “If it’s all so great then let’s bring our troops home. Or let’s put them in an advisory capacity.” I just felt he was hyping the whole thing. He showed me an exercise where the Iraqis were protecting diplomats. But I knew things were bad when we landed and they said, “Run!” [RH laughs] I swear to God. “Run to that office over there!” So we ran.

Then we get to the Iraqi parliament. It was very intriguing because a CBS reporter came over to me and said, “Don’t use my name but it’s a nightmare here. Don’t believe anything. It’s a nightmare. I can’t say it.” Then Patty and I – Patty Murray, my colleague, a senator – said we have to go to the ladies room. And before we go in they yell, “Don’t go in there!” What do you mean? A private Blackwater guard kicks in the door, kicks every door open, and I said to Patty, “We need to leave here as soon as possible. [laughs] It’s awful.” And this was in the Green Zone.

Then we met the Sunnis separately, the Kurds separately, the Shi’as separately and everyone’s up against each other. When our helicopter took off, I’ll never forget this, I said “It’s so safe in the Green Zone! Let’s go home.” So, yeah. It was quite a day.

RH: Are there any other notable stories about being over there that stick out?

BB: I met with a lot of military people when I was there and had lunch with them. We would call it “mess” with them. We took pictures with them. I was proud of the women who were there. Look, I was proud of our troops but I was not happy with the mission. I didn’t feel that way about Afghanistan.

But if I can say one thing. We’ll never know if this is true or not but I felt when we went into Iraq we took our eye off of Afghanistan and screwed it up. Therefore we lost everything. When I say lost, we didn’t have the victories we wanted because we didn’t focus on Afghanistan. We could have done such a better job. It’s still unstable. We could have done better.

RH: Last question and this is kind of a big question. Since 9/11 is there something that happened that sticks out to you that defines or establishes how America has changed since then?

BB: Since 9/11 was a ferocious attack on our soil, it brought fear to our people. Our response to it, to go into Afghanistan was, in my mind, one hundred percent justified. Going after bin Laden and getting him, a hundred percent justified. Going into Iraq was horrible. So my defining moment was that huge mistake that we made. Literally, it has brought pain on our country, terrible loss of life, injuries, people scarred for life, people never being the same. They paid the price for stupid mistakes. I can’t call it a mistake. It was a stupid decision where they knew that they were making up reasons to go in there.

The other thing is it really hurt us in the world because the whole world was with us after 9/11. The whole world! Even Saddam Hussein. [laughs] That’s the irony. In France, in French they said, “We are all one.” Everyone. And we blew it when we went into Iraq. What I learned is don’t use a tragedy to settle a score that maybe you had with Saddam Hussein – who was an evil bastard, that’s not the issue – but don’t use a tragedy to payback, to wrongly accuse someone else even if he was a demon. It was a terrible mistake. The attack itself by the terrorists – I hate them every day I live. It’s attacking innocent people on purpose. What is that? That’s not what humanity should do. So when they did that – terrorists do that all the time, every day – it just demeans life. It demeans humanity. So there’s so many pieces to the puzzle. What happened was tragic.

Also, there were warnings that it would happen. Condi Rice actually got a warning from the CIA that said Osama bin Laden is going to use some crazy thing to attack us which includes airplanes. What did she do? Nada. Nothing. So be on your guard. It’s a tough world out there. Yes retribution, for sure, but make sure you’re going against the people that cause the problem and don’t walk into a civil war and send our young people in there to die and get injured. It’s ridiculous. It’s wrong. And we became the most unpopular pariah on the planet. It’s terrible.

The other thing I’d say is don’t go to war over oil. One of my colleagues from Montana told me that George W. Bush, before the war, was trying to get his vote to go into Iraq, brought him into the – and I write about this – brought him into a room right off of the Oval Office and showed him all the oil rigs and all the oil, exactly where it was. They wanted the oil. Once we went in there and it was awful, we didn’t get any oil. But don’t go to war for oil.

I think that’s it. You’re hearing from someone that was in the minority.

RH: Is there anything I left out that you would like to address?

BB: I want to again get the point across that for those of us who opposed this war, we thought about it 24/7. I don’t think that a lot of people think that about politicians. But for those of us, we talked about it, we met, we tried to strategize almost every day. It was weighing on us very heavily.

RH: Alright. My last question is, what accomplishment of yours related to Iraq and/or Afghanistan are you most proud of?

BB: I think that comprehensive casualty care center that I got in San Diego because that made a big difference. Then there are a couple of other things I did – making sure the military don’t have to pay for their own lunches when they’re wounded in the hospital. And I also worked with Senator Lieberman who was a big supporter of the war to make sure that there was more focus on mental health because all these deployments kept going on and on. People were getting four deployments, five, six, seven. And they weren’t really tested for their mental health so we put some more stringent rules around testing for mental health, PTSD and all the other things.

I did a lot of work with PTSD. I went to the hospital up in San Francisco. I made sure that there were grants given for more studies on PTSD. They found fascinating things about PTSD. One of which is it has a physical reaction in the brain just as if you’ve had an automobile accident and were hit. This is real, physical trauma related to a mental trauma. You had physical impacts. I was involved in all that stuff. I had a military family caucus that I headed in the Senate. I did a lot of things but I couldn’t do what I wanted to do so I’m glad I did those things. Everyone says one person can’t. But we were all of us, twenty-three of us, in concert and then we grew to fifty of us finally. So that’s it.

RH: Well thank you very much!