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Fighting Terror

May 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: FBI Director Robert Mueller became the third senior administration official in less than 24 hours to warn of the ongoing terrorist threat to the nation.

Mueller, whose Bureau has borne the brunt of criticism for failing to act on warnings prior to September 11, said that walk-in suicide bombings like those plaguing Israel are “inevitable” in the United States.

ANNOUNCER: Condoleezza Rice on “Face the Nation.”

TERENCE SMITH: Yesterday the administration sent two of its most senior voices out on the Sunday talk show circuit to sound further warnings.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: The prospect of another attack against the United States is very, very real. It’s just as real, in my opinion, as it was September 12.

TIM RUSSERT, NBC News: Not a matter of if, but when?

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Not a matter of if, but when.

TERENCE SMITH: The Vice President and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice also sought to respond to criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of terror-related intelligence reports before September 11– in particular, one that reached the President while he vacationed in Texas last August.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: It was one more sort of rehash, if you will, of the material that was out there.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The fact is with intelligence, unless you have some sense as to when, where, or method, and that it’s… it’s pretty specific, it’s hard to react.

TERENCE SMITH: Senior democrats reacted sharply to the latest information about what was known and when.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: We need to look at who did what, who knew what, and what they did about it.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: We have to ask, “Why didn’t somebody put all that together and notify the President, as commander-in- chief, what was going on?”

TERENCE SMITH: Both Congressman Gephardt and Senator Lieberman reiterated bipartisan congressional appeals for an independent commission to investigate the intelligence failures leading up to September 11.

The Vice President said he was against it.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: It’s very hard for that kind of commission to do what needs to be done in terms of safeguarding the nation’s secrets. I think there’s a tradeoff here, frankly, between safeguarding that national interest, which is very much at stake here, and satisfying what sometimes becomes a search for headlines on Capitol Hill.

TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, a special joint investigation by members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees is already under way.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining us to discuss this now are four editorial page editors from around the country: Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal Constitution; Bruce Dold of the Chicago Tribune; Rachelle Cohen of the Boston Herald; and John Diaz of the San Francisco Chronicle. Welcome to you all.

Cynthia Tucker, we’ve heard a drumbeat of warnings over the weekend and today from administration figures. What’s the effect of that and what’s your reaction to it?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, I think it’s no great surprise, Terry, that the Bush administration is now sending out some of its highest ranking officials to tell us that it is inevitable that terrorists will strike the U.S. again.

It’s not surprising, given that they have been under the harshest criticism all last week for not letting us know all they knew and not doing enough to stop the attacks of September 11. Now I don’t fault President Bush himself for that. At the moment, there is absolutely nothing that we know that suggests the President had enough specific intelligence to know when and where and how the terrorists would strike.

But I think there were massive intelligence failures below him. And I hope that our intelligence organizations can do better in the future. On the other hand, I think us Americans will have to become a little more comfortable with living like Israelis do; knowing that an attack could come any minute, but we have to go about our normal everyday business anyway.

TERENCE SMITH: Bruce Dold, what’s your view of that — that both the criticism and the reports as of today, for example with the FBI Director describing another attack as inevitable?

BRUCE DOLD: I think this is what they should be doing and what they should have been doing all along. We have experience with this before September 11th. Everyone was told at the time of the millennium there might be terrorist attacks that could come anywhere. People prepared, they made decisions whether they wanted to go out or stay home. They went on with their lives. What we’re getting now is there may be some tremors but put the information out. Trust the public to understand that, you know, there is a risk here and let the public gauge it the way it wants to.

TERENCE SMITH: Rachelle Cohen, do you agree with that? Is that the right approach?

RACHELLE COHEN: I think it begins to be the right approach. I mean this whole sort of spate of reports smacks of — You want intelligence reports? We’ll give you intelligence reports. This is this the way it is when it comes into our offices. If that’s particularly useful to you, terrific. This was the way life is.

But on the down side of that, the Administration does run the risk of giving people too much information and therefore “crying wolf”. People don’t — won’t know what to respond to. There was an incident shortly after September 11 in Boston about a warning about shopping malls.

And of course this caused an enormous amount of dislocation. It turned out to be not terribly reliable. We need to ask ourselves, and certainly the administration needs to ask itself, how many warnings can it put out there before people stop behaving in a responsible manner and stop living their lives by warning and start ignoring them.

TERENCE SMITH: John Diaz, do you think the administration is handling it in the proper way with these warnings?

JOHN DIAZ: Well, I think it makes sense, Terry in that I think most Americans acknowledge there is some sort of threat out there and I think they want their government to be as credible and as candid as possible. We had a situation also in California shortly after September 11th, where the governor of the state went on television and said that four California bridges were in imminent danger of a terrorist threat.

A lot of criticism rained on Gray Davis for that; not because he came out and talked about it, but rather because it turned out that they didn’t really give the accurate context for that in talking that it was an uncorroborated information and that the FBI was still checking it out at that point.

So I think the American people really now are ready to get that kind of information. I think it’s in the Bush administration’s interest to get it out.

TERENCE SMITH: Cynthia Tucker, we also of course heard the Democratic responses and criticisms of the administration, its performance and the way it has been handling the information. What did you think of that over the weekend and today?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, I think the Democrats certainly don’t want to sound as if they are harshly criticizing the President in a time of war. However, I do think that the calls for an independent outside commission or task force or blue ribbon panel or whatever you want to call it, to investigate this massive intelligence failure, is absolutely necessary because otherwise we will only have partisan wrangling.

The Intelligence Committees from the House and Senate should have launched an investigation months back. But they haven’t really started, in part because they’ve been mired in partisan bickering.

I think there needs to be an independent investigation of what went wrong. We know that intelligence agencies didn’t do as well as they should have, in part because they refused to share information with each other. And if there is not a credible investigation, how in the world will we know how to prevent something this massive in the future?

TERENCE SMITH: Bruce Dold, is that the right move, an independent commission as opposed to a congressional inquiry?

BRUCE DOLD: I don’t think anybody is going to believe that an independent commission is independent any more than they believe that Ken Starr was an independent prosecutor. You’re talking about starting from scratch to ramp up a group with the intelligence panel that is in place now. You have people who are used to dealing with intelligence materials with very delicate materials. You know, bi-partisanship, they’ll go after each other, sure, but at least the Democrats and Republicans will be going after each other. They’re going to sort of being a check on each other.

I think in the end, where we’ve seen a lot of partisanship in the last couple of days. Nobody is going to be pure on this. If the Democrats want to start criticizing the Bush Administration and FBI, then they’re going to have to look back at the Clinton Administration FBI and Ruby Ridge and Robert Hanssen and Richard Jewell and Wen Ho Lee. The Bush team came in and said they were going to clean that up. I think it’s in everyone’s interest to show how they are going to learn some lessons from the last year and make the changes they need to make.

TERENCE SMITH: Rachelle Cohen, where do you come down on the question of an independent commission.

RACHELLE COHEN: I was going to say how true, the risk for the Democrats here is enormous. Don’t forget this was a President that was in office for a little over nine months, and we do have a former President who ignored all of the warnings out of 1993.

I’m inclined to think that the Intelligence Committees could do quite an adequate job if indeed they focus on the job of the intelligence community; what the FBI did or didn’t do, what the CIA did or didn’t know as opposed to what the White House knew and when it knew it.

I think if this devolves into partisan bickering, it is going to come back to haunt the Democrats. I think no one in this nation has the patience for politicizing that kind of thing.

And what really is needed here is an examination of the intelligence community and how to make it operate more efficiently in the future. It’s time to– we need to look perhaps a little bit at the past but that’s not nearly as important as making this a good working tool of this administration.

TERENCE SMITH: John Diaz, would you find a congressional inquiry persuasive and credible, or should it be independent?

JOHN DIAZ: No, here’s why it needs to be independent, Terry, is the Congress may as well be part of the problem here and is really not in a position to independently investigate this intelligence breakdown.

Look, I have not been terribly critical of the Bush Administration for what, at this point, appears to be the sketchy details that it knew before September 11. But I think we do need to be critical of the Bush Administration for taking eight months to disclose that it did have some of this information before September 11, because remember, one of the big questions, legitimate questions after the terrorist attack was how could this enormous intelligence system that we have that we spent billions of dollars a year on fail as it did?

Remember, since September 11, we’ve had– Americans have been asked to give up a lot of civil liberties because our Attorney General has said that they did not have the tools to track terrorists.

Well, it turns out they did have the tools. They had an FBI agent in Phoenix who was doing his job, who sent that information to headquarters. And the problem was not that law enforcement didn’t have the tools. The problem was that you had two agencies that were very secretive, very turf conscious that weren’t talking with each other.

TERENCE SMITH: Cynthia Tucker, we’ve heard both Vice President Cheney and Condoleezza Rice say the system is better now. There are protections in place, there’s better coordination from among the different agencies. Are you persuaded?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Absolutely not. And let me just say, I certainly hope the system is better now than it was. The system was enormously derelict prior to September 11th, but Ms. Rice and President Bush no doubt thought prior to September 11th that the system was working just fine then.

So I don’t think we should rest on their assurances that it’s fine now. I think we need to know much more than we know. Let me also respond to something my colleague from the Boston Herald said earlier. I think her remarks about Clinton’s alleged failures are one more reason why we need an independent commission. The simple fact of the matter is that President Clinton did respond in a limited fashion to the threat of terror. He launched attacks on Afghanistan, launched attacks on the Sudan.

But prior to September 11th, nobody took the threat as seriously as it needed to be taken. And until there is an independent investigation and that group makes its findings public, I think we have to worry about whether the system is as good as it ought to be.

TERENCE SMITH: Rachelle Cohen?

RACHELLE COHEN: I was just going to say, I think that was an aspirin factory we ended up bombing in Afghanistan. To say that we actually responded in Afghanistan would be a gross overstatement of the facts of the matter.

But what I do agree with Cynthia on is the fact that, well, Cynthia and John both raise the question of the role of Congress and Congress has fallen down on the job certainly in supporting the intelligence community.

One name one of us– none of us have mentioned here tonight, which probably bespeaks his position in all this, is Tom Ridge. Poor Tom Ridge is just– has a job without portfolio, it would appear. He hasn’t been on any of the Sunday morning talk shows. So I think if we are going to have a terrorism tsar, perhaps it’s time he were given some powers.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. I’m afraid we have to leave it there, but thank you all four of you very much.