Twenty years ago, Rep. Barbara Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against war in the immediate aftermath of the devastating 9/11 attacks that killed about 3,000 people. “Let us not become the evil that we deplore,” she urged her colleagues in a dramatic address on the House floor. The final vote in the House was 420-1. This week, as the U.S. marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Rep. Lee spoke with Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman about her fateful vote in 2001 and how her worst fears about “forever wars” came true. “All it said was the president can use force forever, as long as that nation, individual or organization was connected to 9/11. I mean, it was just a total abdication of our responsibilities as members of Congress,” Rep. Lee says.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. In the days that followed, the nation reeled from the deaths of over 3,000 people, as President George W. Bush beat the drums for war. On September 14, 2001, three days after the devastating 9/11 attacks, members of Congress held a five-hour debate on whether to grant the president expansive powers to use military force in retaliation for the attacks, which the Senate had already passed by a vote of 98 to 0.
California Democratic Congressmember Barbara Lee, her voice trembling with emotion as she spoke from the House floor, would be the sole member of Congress to vote against the war in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The final vote was 420 to 1.
REP. BARBARA LEE: Mr. Speaker, members, I rise today really with a very heavy heart, one that is filled with sorrow for the families and the loved ones who were killed and injured this week. Only the most foolish and the most callous would not understand the grief that has really gripped our people and millions across the world.
This unspeakable act on the United States has really forced me, however, to rely on my moral compass, my conscience and my god for direction. September 11th changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. This is a very complex and complicated matter.
Now, this resolution will pass, although we all know that the president can wage a war even without it. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, “Let’s step back for a moment. Let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.”
Now, I have agonized over this vote, but I came to grips with it today, and I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful yet very beautiful memorial service. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Thank you, and I yield the balance of my time.
AMY GOODMAN: “Let us not become the evil we deplore.” And with those words, Oakland Congressmember Barbara Lee rocked the House, the Capitol, this country, the world, the lone voice of more than 400 congressmembers.
At the time, Barbara Lee was one of the newest members of Congress and one of the few African American women to hold office in either the House or the Senate. Now in her 12th term, she is the highest-ranking African American woman in Congress.
Yes, it’s 20 years later. And on Wednesday this week, I interviewed Congressmember Lee during a virtual event hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies, which was founded by Marcus Raskin, a former aide in the Kennedy administration who became a progressive activist and author. I asked Congressmember Lee how she decided to stand alone, what went into that decision, where she was when she decided she was going to give her speech, and then how people responded to it.
REP. BARBARA LEE: Thanks so much, Amy. And really, thanks to everyone, especially IPS for hosting this very important forum today. And let me just say to those from IPS, for historical context and also just in honor of Marcus Raskin, Marcus was the last person I talked to before I gave that speech — the very last person.
I had gone to the memorial and had come back. And I was on the committee of jurisdiction, which was the Foreign Affairs Committee with this, where the authorization was coming from. And, of course, it didn’t go through the committee. It was supposed to come up on Saturday. I got back to the office, and my staff said, “You’ve got to get to the floor. The authorization is coming up. The vote is coming up within another hour or two.”
So I had to race down to the floor. And I was trying to get my thoughts together. As you can see, I was kind of not — I won’t say “not prepared,” but I didn’t have what I wanted in terms of my sort of framework and talking points. I had to just scribble something on a piece of paper. And I called Marcus. And I said, “OK.” I said — and I had talked to him for the last three days. And I talked to my former boss, Ron Dellums, who was, for those of you who don’t know, a great warrior for peace and justice from my district. I worked for him 11 years, my predecessor. So I talked with Ron, and he’s a psychiatric social worker by profession. And I talked to several constitutional lawyers. I’ve talked to my pastor, of course, my mother and family.
And it was a very difficult time, but no one that I talked to, Amy, suggested how I should vote. And it was very interesting. Even Marcus didn’t. We talked about the pros and cons, what the Constitution required, what this was about, all the considerations. And it was very helpful for me to be able to talk to these individuals, because it seems like they didn’t want to tell me to vote no, because they knew all hell was going to break loose. But they really gave me kind of, you know, the pros and cons.
Ron, for example, we kind of walked through our background in psychology and psychiatric social work. And we said, you know, the first thing you learn in Psychology 101 is that you don’t make critical, serious decisions when you’re grieving and when you’re mourning and when you’re anxious and when you’re angry. Those are moments where you have to live — you know, you have to get through that. You have to push through that. Then maybe you can begin to engage in a process that’s thoughtful. And so, Ron and I talked a lot about that.
I talked with other members of the clergy. And I don’t think I talked to him, but I mentioned him at that — because I was following a lot of his work and sermons, and he’s a friend of mine, Reverend James Forbes, who is the pastor of Riverside Church, Reverend William Sloane Coffin. And they in the past had talked about just wars, what just wars were about, what are the criteria for just wars. And so, you know, my faith was weighing in, but it was basically the constitutional requirement that members of Congress can’t give away our responsibility to any executive branch, to the president, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican president.
And so I came to the decision that — once I read the resolution, because we had one before, kicked it back, no one could support that. And when they brought back the second one, it was still too overly broad, 60 words, and all it said was the president can use force forever, as long as that nation, individual or organization was connected to 9/11. I mean, it was just a total abdication of our responsibilities as members of Congress. And I knew then that it was setting the stage for — and I’ve always called it — forever wars, in perpetuity.
And so, when I was at the cathedral, I heard Reverend Nathan Baxter when he said, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” I wrote that on the program, and I was pretty settled then that I — going into the memorial service, I knew that I was 95% voting no. But when I heard him, that was 100%. I knew that I had to vote no.
And actually, prior to going to the memorial service, I was not going to go. I talked to Elijah Cummings. We were talking in the back of the chambers. And something just motivated me and moved me to say, “No, Elijah, I’m going,” and I ran down the steps. I think I was the last person on the bus. It was a gloomy, rainy day, and I had a can of ginger ale in my hand. I’ll never forget that. And so, that’s kind of, you know, what led up to this. But it was a very grave moment for the country.
And, of course, I was sitting in the Capitol and had to evacuate that morning with a few members of the Black Caucus and the administrator of the Small Business Administration. And we had to evacuate at 8:15, 8:30. Little did I know why, except “Get out of here.” Looked back, saw the smoke, and that was the Pentagon that had been hit. But also on that plane, on Flight 93, which was coming into the Capitol, my chief of staff, Sandré Swanson, his cousin was Wanda Green, one of the flight attendants on Flight 93. And so, during this week, of course, I’ve been thinking about everyone who lost their lives, the communities that still haven’t recovered. And those heroes and sheroes on Flight 93, who took that plane down, could have saved my life and saved the lives of those in the Capitol.
So, it was, you know, a very sad moment. We were all grieving. We were angry. We were anxious. And everyone, of course, wanted to bring terrorists to justice, including myself. I’m not a pacifist. So, no, I’m the daughter of a military officer. But I do know — my dad was in World War II and Korea, and I know what getting on a war footing means. And so, I am not one to say let’s use the military option as the first option, because I know we can deal with issues around war and peace and terrorism in alternative ways.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened after you came off the floor of the House, giving that momentous two-minute speech and going back to your office? What was the reaction?
REP. BARBARA LEE: Well, I went back into the cloakroom, and everyone ran back to get me. And I remember. Most members — only 25% of members in 2001 are currently serving now, mind you, but there’s still many serving. And they came back to me and, out of friendship, said, “You have got to change your vote.” It wasn’t anything like, “What’s wrong with you?” or “Don’t you know you have to be united?” because this was the pitch: “You have to be united with the president. We can’t politicize this. It’s got to be Republicans and Democrats.” But they didn’t come at me like that. They said, “Barbara” — one member said, “You know, you’re doing such great work on HIV and AIDS.” This was when I was in the middle of working with Bush on the global PEPFAR and the Global Fund. “You’re not going to win your reelection. We need you here.” Another member said, “Don’t you know harm is going to come your way, Barbara? We don’t want you hurt. You know, you need to go back and change that vote.”
Several members came back to say, “Are you sure? You know, you voted no. Are you sure?” And then one of my good friends — and she said this publicly — Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, she and I talked, and she said, “You’ve got to change your vote, Barbara.” She says, “Even my son” — she told me her family said, “This is a hard time for the country. And even myself, you know, we’ve got to be unified, and we’re going to vote. You need to change your vote.” And it was only out of concern for me that members came to ask me to change my vote.
Now later, my mother said — my late mother said, “They should have called me,” she said, “because I would have told them that after you deliberated in your head and talked to people, if you’ve come to a decision, that you’re pretty bullheaded and pretty stubborn. It’s going to take a lot to get you to change your mind. But you don’t make these decisions easily.” She said, “You’re always open.” My mother told me that. She said, “They should have called me. I would have told them.”
So, then I walked back to the office. And my phone started ringing. Of course, I looked up at the television, and there was the, you know, little ticker saying, “One no vote.” And I think one reporter was saying, “I wonder who that was.” And then my name showed up.
And so, well, so I started walking back to my office. Phone started blowing up. The first call was from my dad, Lieutenant — in fact, in his latter years, he wanted me to call him Colonel Tutt. He was so proud of being in the military. Again, World War II, he was in the 92nd Battalion, which was the only African American battalion in Italy, supporting the Normandy invasion, OK? And then he later went to Korea. And he was the first person who called me. And he said, “Do not change your vote. That was the right vote” — because I had not talked to him beforehand. I wasn’t sure. I said, “Nah, I ain’t gonna call dad yet. I’m going to talk to my mother.” He says, “You do not send our troops in harm’s way.” He said, “I know what wars are like. I know what it does to families.” He said, “You don’t have — you don’t know where they’re going. What are you doing? How’s the Congress going to just put them out there without any strategy, without a plan, without Congress knowing at least what the heck is going on?” So, he said, “That’s the right vote. You stick with it.” And he was really — and so I felt really happy about that. I felt really proud.
But the death threats came. You know, I can’t even tell you the details of how horrible it is. People did some awful things during that time to me. But, as Maya Angelou said, “And still I rise,” and we just keep going. And the letters and the emails and the phone calls that were very hostile and hateful and calling me a traitor and said I committed an act of treason, they’re all at Mills College, my alma mater.
But also, there were — actually, 40% of those communications — there’s 60,000 — 40% are very positive. Bishop Tutu, Coretta Scott King, I mean, people from all around the world sent some very positive messages to me.
And since then — and I’ll close by just sharing this one story, because this is after the fact, just a couple years ago. As many of you know, I supported Kamala Harris for president, so I was in South Carolina, as a surrogate, at a big rally, security everywhere. And this tall, big white guy with a little kid comes through the crowd — right? — with tears in his eyes. What in the world is this? He came up to me, and he said to me — he said, “I was one of those who sent you a threatening letter. I was one of those.” And he went down all what he said to me. I said, “I hope the cops don’t hear you saying that.” But he was one who threatened me. He said, “And I came here to apologize. And I brought my son here, because I wanted him to see me tell you how sorry I am and how right you were, and just know that this is a day for me that I’ve been waiting for.”
And so, I’ve had — over the years, many, many people have come, in different ways, to say that. And so, that’s what kept me going, in a lot of ways, knowing that — you know, because of Win Without War, because of the Friends Committee, because of IPS, because of our Veterans for Peace and all the groups that have been working around the country, organizing, mobilizing, educating the public, people really have begun to understand what this was about and what it means. And so, I just have to thank everybody for circling the wagons, because it was not easy, but because all of you were out there, people come up to me now and say nice things and support me with a lot of — really, a lot of love.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Congressmember Lee, now it is 20 years later, and President Biden has pulled the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. He’s being fiercely attacked by both Democrats and Republicans for the chaos of the last few weeks. And there’s been — Congress is calling an inquiry into what happened. But do you think that inquiry should extend to the whole 20 years of the longest war in U.S. history?
REP. BARBARA LEE: I think we need an inquiry. I don’t know if it’s the same one. But, first of all, let me say I was one of the few members who got out there early, supporting the president: “You’ve made the absolute correct decision.” And, in fact, I know that if we stayed there militarily for another five, 10, 15, 20 years, we’d be probably in a worse place, because there’s no military solution in Afghanistan, and we can’t nation build. That’s a given.
And so, while it was difficult for him, we talked a lot about this during the campaign. And I was on the drafting committee of the platform, and you can go back and kind of look at what both Bernie and the Biden advisers on the platform came up with. So, it was promises made, promises kept. And he knew that this was a hard decision. He did the right thing.
But having said that, yes, the evacuation was really rocky in the beginning, and there was no plan. I mean, I don’t guess; it didn’t appear to me to be a plan. We did not know — even, I don’t think, the Intelligence Committee. At least, it was faulty or not — or inconclusive intelligence, I assume, about the Taliban. And so, there were a lot of holes and gaps that we’re going to have to learn about.
We have an oversight responsibility to find out, first of all, what happened as it relates to the evacuation, even though it was remarkable that so many — what? — over 120,000 people were evacuated. I mean, come on, in a few weeks? I think that that is an unbelievable evacuation that took place. Still people are left there, women and girls. We’ve got to secure, make sure they’re secure, and make sure there’s a way to help with their education and get every American out, every Afghan ally out. So there’s still more work to do, which is going to require a lot of diplomatic — many diplomatic initiatives to really accomplish that.
But finally, let me just say, you know, the special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction, he’s come out with reports over and over and over again. And the last one, I just want to read a little bit about what the last one — just came out a couple weeks ago. He said, “We were not equipped to be in Afghanistan.” He said, “This was a report that will outline the lessons learned and aim to pose questions to policymakers rather than making new recommendations.” The report also found that the United States government — and this is in the report — “did not understand the Afghan context, including socially, culturally and politically.” Additionally — and this is the SIGAR, the special inspector general — he said that the “U.S. officials rarely even had a mediocre understanding of the Afghan environment,” — I’m reading this from the report — and “much less how it was responding to U.S. interventions,” and that this ignorance often came from a “willful disregard for information that may have been available.”
And he’s been — these reports have been coming out for the last 20 years. And we’ve been having hearings and forums and trying to make them public, because they are public. And so, yes, we need to go back and do a deep dive and a drill-down. But we also need to do our oversight responsibilities in terms of what just recently happened, so that it’ll never happen again, but also so that the last 20 years, when we conduct our oversight of what happened, will never happen again, either.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, in this part of the evening, especially for young people, what gave you the courage to stand alone against war?
REP. BARBARA LEE: Oh gosh. Well, I’m a person of faith. First of all, I prayed. Secondly, I’m a Black woman in America. And I’ve been through a heck of a lot in this country, like all Black women.
My mother — and I have to share this story, because it started at birth. I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. And my mother went to — she needed a C-section and went to the hospital. They wouldn’t admit her because she was Black. And it took a heck of a lot for her finally to be admitted into the hospital. A lot. And by the time she got in, it was too late for a C-section. And they just left her there. And someone saw her. She was unconscious. And then they, you know, just saw her laying on the hall. They just put her on, she said, a gurney and left her there. And so, finally, they didn’t know what to do. And so they took her into — and she told me it was an emergency room, wasn’t even the delivery room. And they ended up trying to figure out how in the world they were going to save her life, because by then she was unconscious. And so they had to pull me out of my mother’s womb using forceps, you hear me? Using forceps. So I almost didn’t get here. I almost couldn’t breathe. I almost died in childbirth. My mother almost died having me. So, you know, as a child, I mean, what can I say? If I had the courage to get here, and my mother had the courage to birth me, I guess everything else is like no problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Congressmember Lee, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, a member of the House Democratic leadership, the highest-ranking —
AMY GOODMAN: California Congressmember Barbara Lee, yes, now in her 12th term. She is the highest-ranking African American woman in Congress. In 2001, September 14th, just three days after the 9/11 attacks, she was the sole member of Congress to vote against military authorization — the final vote, 420 to 1.
When I interviewed her Wednesday evening, she was in California campaigning in support of Governor Gavin Newsom ahead of this Tuesday’s recall election, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, who was born in Oakland. Barbara Lee represents Oakland. On Monday, Newsom will campaign with President Joe Biden. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” by Charles Mingus. The Attica prison uprising began 50 years ago. Then, on September 13th, 1971, then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered armed state troopers to raid the prison. They killed 39 people, including prisoners and guards. On Monday, we’ll look at the Attica uprising on the 50th anniversary.