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Exploring Congressional Role in Air Travel Security

December 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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A new debate is growing in Congress over what role the legislative branch should take in preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Gwen Ifill speaks with members of the Homeland Security Committee to dissect the politics of national security.
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GWEN IFILL: And now to the politics of national security, especially the role Congress plays.

For that, we are joined by New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell Jr., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, who serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Congressman Chaffetz, I want to start with you, because you were the sponsor of the bill in Congress which forbade the use of these whole body scanners. You heard Governor Thompson, the former member of the 9/11 Commission, say that you and others in the media, he said, were “spooked by privacy extremists.”

Do agree with him on that? Obviously not, I’m thinking.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: Well, you have to understand the actual bill. The bill itself was not a ban on the use of the machines.

What it said, you couldn’t use it as a mandatory primary screening, but absolutely use it on secondary screening. And this case on the 25th, this guy was a poster child of who should have gone through the secondary screening.

Absolutely, these machines should be deployed nationwide. They should be deployed internationally — internationally. And when we have reason to use them, absolutely, use them.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Pascrell…

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: But the 99 percent of Americans, I don’t think you have to use it on every single person.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me for the interruption.

Congressman Pascrell, you voted for it as well. Would you vote for it again today?

REP. BILL PASCRELL JR., D-N.J.: Well, I voted for the amendment. I voted for the legislation that did pass. It was an authorization, not an appropriation.

And since the time we have had that vote in the Congress, I have learned a lot more about what machines we’re talking about, the very expensive machines. And I think we can find a way to protect people’s privacy, either by putting the observer in another room, number one, having gender-oriented machinery, and obviously destroying the image afterwards.

Whatever we need to do to protect American citizens I think is very critical, Gwen. So, I would revisit this particular amendment. And I think Mr. Chaffetz offered it in good faith. And I have every right to reexamine. It passed, by the way, with overwhelming support.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Chaffetz, as you know, in Washington, fingers are being pointed every which way in the wake of this attempted terrorist attack. Who would you say needs to be first up in terms of explaining what happened and what didn’t happen?

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: Well, I would like to bring in the secretary of homeland security. I think she needs to explain why, initially, she said everything worked and then suddenly changed her mind.

But, really, there are so many risk factors. You need to understand why this gentleman was even able to get to the airport. Why was he given a visa? Imagine the humility of the father coming in to the embassy and trying to explain to the case officer there the problems that he is having with his son and why that information wasn’t passed along.

I think the secretary, more — probably more than anybody, should really come before Congress sooner, rather than later, and explain what happened and where all this breakdown occurred.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Pascrell, there is also an outfit called the National Counterterrorism Center. Do you have questions for them?

REP. BILL PASCRELL: Yes, I have — what I responded to was the fact that everybody who is in homeland security should be under the glass. Nobody — nobody escapes here.

But, remember, Secretary — now — Napolitano doesn’t have control over all of the intelligence agencies. They are lucky if they talk to one another. And we have been trying to force the issue in Homeland Security. Now, I have been in this committee, on this committee, since its very inception.

And if you don’t have cooperation going, you don’t have anything. You can set up all the apparatus in the world. We don’t have control over the screening in other countries. And we need to remember this as well.

There is no question that this character from Nigeria should have never been allowed on an airplane. He should have been on the no-fly list. We’re trying to find out right now, as we speak, why he was allowed to get on a plane, what kind of visa he did have.

We are going to have a hearing in Homeland Security the last week of January. We will examine this, bring people before the committee. I think Chairman Thompson is — from Mississippi — is right on course to do this.

We have had bipartisan support of homeland security since 9/11. What I have heard in the last six days is reprehensible. You have a senator from South Carolina who stood in the way of the TSA director being appointed, and for political reasons. And I don’t think that is right at all.

We can start — there’s plenty of fingers to go around here and plenty of blame. But the point is, we should be on that, I mean trying together defending the American people together and support protecting the American people. That’s what I’m about. And Jason, he will speak for himself.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Chaffetz, I do want to ask you about that, but also speak for yourself. But I want to ask you about the degree to which you think that the intelligence piece of this is a problem, particularly we heard today that the Central Intelligence Agency may have been alerted as long ago as August about an unspecified Nigerian who they were keeping — they should keep an eye on.

And you put that together with all the other pieces we now know about, it seems that the CIA is under the — the magnifying glass as well.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: Well, we’re going to need to lower the bar in terms of who gets on that list to identify people who need secondary screening, because I think the secondary screening would have caught this guy.

There are whole body imaging machines both in Nigeria and in Amsterdam. We have got to question why those were not used. We’re going to have to demand more out of our international partners in terms of actual screening, and just make sure that they’re communicating. It seems easy enough to put them on the list.

And, then, of the 550,000 people that we know are on the watch list, who is watching the people on the watch list? It seems that we are maybe a little bit too politically correct along the way. And we are going to need to start targeting these terrorists and understand that we’re at war. They want to kill us.

GWEN IFILL: So, you think profiling is something that should be embraced?

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: Well, we have got to be very careful. I don’t want there to be profiling based solely or race or ethnicity or religion.

But I do think we can profile terrorists and potential terrorists and go through a much more rigorous screening. I don’t see any other way around it.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Pascrell, so far — and it’s only been a few days — do you think that this administration has been acting quickly enough and thoroughly enough to address what is now turning into a bigger and bigger problem?

REP. BILL PASCRELL: The president is on this case. There’s no question about it in my mind. I talked to those people in intelligence who are in Hawaii with the president right now. He doesn’t have to be in Washington to be on top of this.

The question is, we need quick answers. And the president is going to get his answers tomorrow as to who dropped the ball. I really support our intelligence agencies. But we haven’t yet gone over the bump, gone over the hurdle of getting them to talk with one another. Obviously, somebody dropped the ball here.

But to point fingers at the secretary, to point fingers at Secretary Napolitano, I think, is very shortchange. If she blew the — if she blew this, I will be the first one to ask for her resignation, because we can not have second chances right now.

But to simply be pointing fingers — and I’m glad that Jason said what he did about profiling. The only thing we should do with profiling is behavioral profiling. If there’s behavioral examples, then we have every right. And we should not concern ourselves with being politically correct.

I would — I would believe that behavioral profiling is accepted and should be followed in every sense of the term.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Chaffetz, I’m curious what you think about how the administration has been doing. You may be aware of former Vice President Cheney’s criticism today that he believes that the administration response was too slow.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: Well, they’re going to have to take some personal responsibility.

I guess what is so troubling is that, the day after the event, you had the — the homeland security director say that everything worked OK…

GWEN IFILL: How about now?

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: … and then come back just 24 hours — well, again, I have got questions.

And I — what I’m encouraging them to do — I don’t want to just take a cheap shot at them. I want them to come to Capitol Hill and answer the hard questions before Judiciary, before Homeland Security, and come before Oversight and Government Reform.

I think that’s the proper political way to do it, without just, you know, throwing — throwing political barbs at each other.

GWEN IFILL: Members of Congress Bill Pascrell and Jason Chaffetz, thank you very much for joining us.

REP. BILL PASCRELL: Thank you, Gwen.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: Oh, thank you.

REP. BILL PASCRELL: Thank you, Jason.