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GWEN IFILL: Joining me to discuss airline and other security issues are James Kallstrom, former assistant director of the FBI and head of the bureau’s New York division. He led the FBI investigation into the TWA Flight 800 explosion, and Darryl Jenkins, head of the aviation institute at George Washington University.
Mr. Kallstrom, I guess the question everybody is asking themselves today is, how could this happen and how did it?
JAMES KALLSTROM: It’s a sad day, Gwen. And, you know, my heart goes out to all the victims of this tremendous series of tragedies and their families, all the people that don’t know the outcome of their loved ones and the World Trade Center at the Pentagon or on those airplanes. So how could it happen? I think that’s the question.
GWEN IFILL: Do we think it was in your experience would this be a breach of security, a breach of what?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Well, that’s what the investigators are going to be looking for obviously. The FBI, the intelligence community, are looking at their database, their intelligence base. They have up on the board the short list of people that would have the ability to do such a horrendous thing. They’re putting together what they know about that now. They’re bringing to the national command authority intelligence that will tell the national command authority, you know, who did this horrific act.
GWEN IFILL: At this stage, should that investigation be focusing on the air or on the ground?
JAMES KALLSTROM: It’s going to focus everywhere there’s evidence. It’s going to focus around the world. It’s going to be conducted by our allies in conjunction with us. It’s going to be a unified effort.
GWEN IFILL: Darryl Jenkins, what’s your take on this? How could this have happened?
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, what’s interesting on this is we have no details right now that would indicate that the horrible acts today were a result of any breach in airport security at all. We have no evidence right now that any of the terrorists who did this came on board with guns or anything. Most likely they had very small knives, under two inches, which you are allowed to take on board an airplane.
The terrorist in the 21st century is different than any terrorist we have ever worked with before. They’re more adaptive, they’re smarter; they’re brighter. When you think about all the logistics that went into planning this, carrying it off almost flawlessly and at the same time keeping any information away from the authorities, these are probably some of the brighter people that we’ve ever had to deal with. Simply having a screening device at an airport that picks up an explosive or a gun is really of little use against terrorists like this.
GWEN IFILL: When you say terrorists like this, you mean terrorists who are willing to die in the actual act?
DARRYL JENKINS: That’s correct. What it shows is how important it is in airport security that we have a very strong intelligence gathering capability in the United States, which obviously in the last 10 or 15 years since the, you know, the fall of the Berlin Wall, we haven’t had.
To have good airport security, a necessary condition is that we have good national intelligence about things like this, and the reason this has never happened before is in the past we’ve always been able to gather intelligence, find these things before they happen and stop them before they happen. Today our luck ran out.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Kallstrom, if Darryl Jenkins is right and in truth there is no breach that happened, there is nothing — that suggests there’s nothing that could have been done to protect against it.
JAMES KALLSTROM: Well, we don’t know the facts. I think I largely agree with what he said about that. It’s a difficult, difficult situation in a free society — people moving at will. All of us have been at airports. And we know the crowds. We know the necessity to get airlines out. We’ve all been in those lines.
We’ve all complained to people, you know, what’s holding up this? What’s holding up that? It’s a difficult situation when you have people that are that crazy to do something that they did today, I think it’s going to galvanize this country. I think we all need to get behind the President and the leadership in Washington. I think they made a big mistake today.
It’s sad, it’s horrendous but the United States will come back from this, we’ll find out who did it, we’ll take the necessary action and we’ll be a stronger country for it.
GWEN IFILL: How can the country be any more galvanized in many ways than it was? There are already extraordinary security precautions taken here in Washington around federal buildings, around landmarks, after the Oklahoma City bombing. What more was there to be done without shutting people’s lives down entirely?
JAMES KALLSTROM: Well, that’s the thing we don’t want to do. We don’t want to change our way of life. We don’t want to change our ability to go places and do things. You know, this will be the debate for the next months and the next years. It’s why we need a strong and competent and highly motivated intelligence agencies, why we need a strong and competent and highly motivated FBI. We have those people.
I was part of those organizations, you know, and nothing like this in their minds would ever happen. They don’t ever want this to happen. But the realism is that we live in a very tough situation today. We’ve seen that hatred played out in the World Trade Center back in ’93, and all the conspiracies and all the terrorists acts that have led up to today, that there are people that have that type of hatred and are willing to sacrifice their lives.
And that’s a tough, tough thing to combat. The free nations of the world, the free people of the world, democracies of the world, all peace-loving people of the world, need to unite against terrorism and those that harbor terrorism.
GWEN IFILL: Earlier in the program tonight Senator Shelby said he had spoken earlier with the CIA Director. And even though he wouldn’t tell us what he said, he did say that he felt there was a failure of the intelligence community on this point.
JAMES KALLSTROM: Well, I’d be very cautious about talking about failures. I mean, obviously nobody in that business, no citizen, nobody in the world that would want this to happen other than those people that are supposedly dancing in the streets somewhere. But failure is a strong word to put out at this point.
Yes, it happened. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s not start talking about failure and the lack of people’s professionalism and their ability to do things. It happened. Let’s move ahead. Let’s do whatever we can to make the situation better. Let’s have realistic tools for law enforcement and for the intelligence community in this new age that we live in.
GWEN IFILL: Darryl Jenkins, what is it about these two particular kinds of planes, 757’s and 767’s? What would have lent them to such a horrendous attack?
DARRYL JENKINS: They’re very large planes. They carry an awful lot of fuel. They’re both common in that if you can fly a 757, you can also fly a 767. So they have the same cockpit. So basically what they did is they found the biggest bomb that probably the people that they had available to them to fly and they picked those off and flew them into buildings and they performed just exactly like they predicted.
GWEN IFILL: Another thing that was said earlier on the program tonight, Strobe Talbott, the former Deputy Secretary of State, said that basically such a coordinated attack would have had to have been carried out perhaps by a nation state. Does that kind of level of coordination ring true with you especially with these types of aircraft?
DARRYL JENKINS: Well, these are trained pilots. If you look at the videos of the plane going in, it was a flawless approach. The wings were not jiggling up and down. The plane was not porpoising. The people who were flying that knew what they were doing.
GWEN IFILL: James Kallstrom, do we routinely get warnings about these kinds of terrorist attacks? Is it that we get a lot of warnings and perhaps we only pay attention to a few? You never know it’s going to be real. How does that work?
JAMES KALLSTROM: We get a lot of warnings. Obviously we pay attention to all of them. We have to assess which ones are more important than others. That’s a tough thing to do. We stopped the Blind Sheik and his co-conspiracies to blow up the Holland Tunnel and the Lincoln Tunnel many years ago. We stopped another act through the good word of the Philippine police in a conspiracy to blow up nine or ten major American-flag jumbo jets not that long ago. Yes, we do an awful lot to stop terrorism.
GWEN IFILL: You were very involved in the TWA 800 investigation. How does this compare in your mind? Does it ring familiar to you?
JAMES KALLSTROM: The grief is certainly rings to me — the sadness of the event and the impact on our society. What the families are going through at this minute rings to me. I can understand that. All of us fly on airplanes. We all picture ourselves on one of these airplanes. We all picture the terror that must have went through the folks on these airplanes, the small children, the teenagers, the people like you and I before that plane crashed into the Trade Center. It’s just one of the worst things that I can ever remember.
GWEN IFILL: Darryl Jenkins, if we are as vulnerable as you say we are, what should we be doing, if anything, to guard against this sort of action in the future?
DARRYL JENKINS: I think the thing that we need to do to really make airports as tight as they possibly can be. Certainly there’s some changes in terms of screening and things like that which we need to do. There are holes there, no doubt. But the necessary element for airport security and to ensure the safety of all flying public is to have very good national security and intelligence gathering capabilities.
If Shelby wants to point fingers at anyone, the Senators in Congress might have cut back budgets in the last ten years in these things. That’s why we don’t have the intelligence gathering capabilities that we used to have. I assume in the next year that probably as in the 1990s the dot-coms were the place to go get jobs, intelligence gathering in the next ten years.
The graphics which we saw today were so horrific that they will last with us for decades to come. I doubt the United States will ever make the mistake of cutting back its intelligence gathering capabilities as much as we have during the last decade.
GWEN IFILL: One question about the flight that, the direction that these planes flew when you were hijacked. They were off course for a very long time. Is that something that should have been picked up on, should have been noticed?
DARRYL JENKINS: Obviously when a plane takes off, in it’s nose it has what’s called a transponder. And it’s signaling to the air traffic control the flight number of that plane plus other information as well. I assume what happened is the terrorists got on, turned the transponder off. So you have a beep out there but you don’t know which beep that is, what type of a plane. Obviously the airlines, which have system operations controls, which is the nerve center of the airline, knew right away and was in coordination with the FAA what was going on.
GWEN IFILL: And James Kallstrom, what should we be doing if anything to prepare, to guard against this in the future?
JAMES KALLSTROM: I guess I would just add to your previous question, what do you do about it in the 15 minutes that… Before this event happens? You don’t know where that plane is going? Do you shoot it down with innocent civilians on board? What do you do? These are not easy decisions.
These are very sobering events. I mean, every day of my life and those of us that have had the proud service in law enforcement and in intelligence, you know, those are the issues we went to bed with at night and those are the issues we woke up with in the morning. This is serious stuff.
GWEN IFILL: James Kallstrom, Darryl Jenkins, thank you very much for joining us.