STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A decade after the September 11 attacks, former Secretary of State Colin Powell is still thinking about what they mean.
Did 9-11 really change everything, as people have said thousands of times?
General COLIN POWELL (U.S. Army, Retired; Former Secretary of State): It has changed a lot. I hope it hasn't changed everything.
INSKEEP: Powell says he hopes it didn't change America's openness. General Powell is in the news this week. Former Vice President Dick Cheney criticized him in a new book, and Powell told CBS Cheney took cheap shots. In our talk, Powell turned aside questions about Cheney, though the episode recalls Powell's role after 9-11. He made the case against Iraq at the United Nations before the U.S. invasion. He later had to admit that intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was wrong.
He became known as a skeptic of the Bush administration's approach to that war. He also questioned terrorism policy, and later, this Republican leader endorsed Barack Obama for president.
You said in 2007 that you thought we as a country were taking too much counsel of our fears. How would you describe our approach to terrorism now?
Gen. POWELL: I think that the point I was making back in 2007 was that there is no question that terrorism is a continuing problem, but we were a lot safer in 2007 than we were before 9-11 in 2001. We've done a lot of excellent work with respect to the intelligence work we had ongoing, our law enforcement activity, and especially what we did in Afghanistan to put al-Qaida on the run.
But at the same time, in making ourselves safer, there was a period of time when we started to act as if we were afraid of everything, and so it made it hard to get visas. We made it harder to come here to the United States, to go our schools, to go to our hospitals for care. And my point then - and it's still my point today - is that terrorists have been dealt a serious blow. They're still there. They might get through again. But the one thing the terrorists cannot do - not one of them, not 10 of them, not 10,000 of them -they can't change who we are.
So we can't take such counsel of our fears that we change who we are, even though the terrorist aren't able to change who we are.
INSKEEP: Are we still doing that, in your view?
Gen. POWELL: There, I think, are some concerns that I still have with respect to some aspects of our immigration policy, with respect to some of the difficulty still associated with getting a visa. And so I think we're a lot better off, we're a little more comfortable, we're a little more at ease than we were in 2007 because we've done such a good job against al-Qaida. But we have to be on guard that we don't spend so much time worrying about terrorism and guarding ourselves that we start to lose the essence of who we are as an open, freedom-loving people, welcoming the rest of the world.
INSKEEP: Another thing you said in that 2007 interview is that you thought that Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, the prison there, should be closed.
Gen. POWELL: Well, I felt that way for years.
INSKEEP: And a president has come in, whom you endorsed, President Obama, it's not closed.
Gen. POWELL: Well, it isn't closed. Congress won't allow it to be closed. But I still think that it should be closed. That was my position when I was in the administration as Secretary of State. But I have seen no reason to believe that our regular civilian courts are not capable of dealing with these people.
And, in fact, our civilian courts have been throwing people in jail religiously. They have been very effective in putting terrorists in jail, whereas the military commissions and the activities of Guantanamo have not gotten up to speed to do that kind of thing.
INSKEEP: Although there have been some high-profile cases that have nearly gone wrong, and I think of issues like the effort of a terrorism trial in New York, where you discover where the security questions, the political questions, have become quite problematic.
Gen. POWELL: But that has nothing to do with the judicial process. Maybe it was a bad choice to do it in New York. Maybe you should have done it in Gaithersburg, Maryland or in Buffalo, New York or outside of Fort Drum, New York. But that was a political and public relations issue, not question about the ability or inability of our civilian courts to handle these kids of cases.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about the current president. You endorsed Barack Obama for president quite famously in 2008, and one of the reasons you gave seems quite relevant to this discussion of how the country has changed since 9-11. You specifically questioned his opponents, members of your own party, who had suggested that Obama was a Muslim, who had suggested that there was something wrong with being a Muslim. You felt that that was wrong in 2008. How's your party doing now in 2011?
Gen. POWELL: You don't hear that. It wasn't just party leaders that I had a problem with. It was the way in which the party members were responding to these kinds of charges. And I think that has died down significantly. There are still difficulties in the country with respect to tolerance of Muslim activity. We saw that in the mosque situation in New York and elsewhere.
But I don't think you'll find any of the current candidates - they talk about immigration, but immigration tends not to be a Muslim issue. And so they talk about immigration, but for the most part, the kind of ugly things that were starting to be said back in 2008, I think that was slammed down.
INSKEEP: Well, the president had to release his birth certificate to prove he was...
Gen. POWELL: I don't see it emerging. The president had to produce his birth certificate because there was still this coterie of people in the country who won't believe. And even after he produced his long-form birth certificate, and Mr. Trump decided he better find another thing to do besides run for president. There are still people who don't accept that. We spent enough time on this issue. The rest of this is just conspiratorial nonsense.
INSKEEP: You said you've been undecided about who to vote for in 2012.
Gen. POWELL: I'm always undecided, in every election. I've been very consistent. And some of your folks have said that I have somehow moved away from the president or abandoned him. But he would be the first to tell you, I think - I really shouldn't speak for the president, so let me speak for myself. I have always gone through public life and saying that with respect to political candidates, I always measure each candidate against what I think the country needs at that time. And I will vote for the person I think who is most qualified to serve the nation at that time.
And all I'm doing is voting. I'm not active in politics. I vote as a citizen. And if somebody cares to know what my opinion is at the time of the election, I might or might not share it publicly.
INSKEEP: As a citizen, what would the Republican nominee need to do to get your vote back from the Republican Party?
Gen. POWELL: I've voted for Republicans in the past. I voted for Republicans who were strong on defense, who believed in a free and open economy, but who also understood that there was a place for government in our lives, that government has a responsibility to those of our citizens who are in need, those of our citizens who are needy of health care.
And so I will look for a candidate, Republican or Democrat, who seems to be on the way or understands how to resolve the economic difficulties we're having, how to do something about unemployment - a whole range of issues. And I will be looking to those candidates who make the most sense with respect to resolving these issues, as opposed to some of the more far-out positions that I sometimes hear expressed by some of them.
INSKEEP: General Powell, thanks very much for your time.
Gen. POWELL: My pleasure. Thank you.
INSKEEP: We spoke at his office in Alexandria, Virginia. And you can't find the full interview with Colin Powell - a transcript of it - at npr.org.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.