Exclusive: 'We Were Not Told To Lie' About 9/11 And Health

After stepping down this summer as the head of the EPA, the embattled Christine Todd Whitman is once again in the hot seat. This time it's over her role in the downplaying of health hazards for New York City residents after 9/11. A report by the EPA inspector general says that Whitman assured the public that the air was safe before testing was conclusive. She's also under fire for allowing EPA statements to be filtered through the White House and screened by the Council on Environmental Quality, which is chaired by James Connaughton, a lawyer who formerly represented the asbestos industry.

The long-term effects of inhaling contaminated air is unknown. But New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler accuses the administration of covering up a potential health danger in order to get the economy up and running. "Many people will die early because of this," says Nadler.

In her first interview since the release of the report, Whitman tells NEWSWEEK that she did not object when the White House edited out cautionary notes by EPA scientists. "We didn't want to scare people," she said, explaining that spikes in asbestos readings tended to return quickly to acceptable levels. She believes that much of the data were open to interpretation, and that the public wasn't harmed by the White House's decision to adopt the more reassuring analysis. But New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is calling for an investigation, saying she knows how the White House works and that somebody surely leaned on the EPA to lie. "We were not told to lie," says Whitman.

Firefighters and other rescue workers suffering health problems continue to blame the EPA for failing to make them aware of the risks. The EPA advised wearing protective clothing and masks, Whitman says, but many working on the site rejected the gear as too cumbersome. "We couldn't force them to do it," says Whitman. In addition, residents returning to the area say they weren't told to have their homes professionally cleaned. "Maybe there was one press release where we didn't say that, but then we said it over and over," says Whitman.

EPA's former ombudsman said soon after 9/11 that Whitman had a conflict of interest because of her husband's connection to Citigroup, which owns Travelers Insurance. By pronouncing lower Manhattan safe, critics say, Whitman saved the insurance giant millions in cleanup costs. Whitman was cleared of the conflict by the EPA inspector general. "There's no way in hell--excuse my language--that I would ever, ever play games with this kind of information."

In a Sept. 8 Periscope item (" 'We were Not Told to Lie' About 9/11 and Health"), we incorrectly stated that James Connaughton, chairman of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, is a lawyer who formerly represented the asbestos industry. While Connaughton represented mining and chemical interests in environmental cases, he has never worked on behalf of the asbestos industry.