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Hijack Threat

May 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the alert, and how the U.S. Intelligence community evaluates threats, we turn to Senator John Edwards, Democrat from North Carolina– he’s a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee; Representative Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia– he’s a member of the House Select Intelligence Committee; Bruce Hoffman, Vice President in the Washington office of RAND, a non-profit public policy think tank– he’s also the founding director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; and Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of Global Options, Inc., a Washington- based security firm– he’s written several books on terrorism.

Gentlemen, welcome to you all.

Senator Edwards, beginning with you, as you heard the White House said, White House aides said, they responded appropriately to this alert, braced on the nature of the information they had. Does it look that way to you?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Well, I think the focus of this should not just be the White House; the focus should be on what information the government had.

You know we know for example, that the FBI had a memo out of Phoenix saying that there were terrorist connected individuals signing up for flight training out there. This is after, by the way, the director of the CIA had said earlier in the year that the most serious and immediate threat to our country was bin Laden and al-Qaida. So that’s followed by the Phoenix memo.

Then we have Zacarias Moussaoui being arrested in Minnesota for engaging in very similar activity. And then we have a briefing to the president. I think the real focus of those of us who are on the Intelligence Committee and responsible for this is to find out what happened, what the facts are, what in fact, was the information that was available, did that information get in the hands of the people who were responsible for acting?

And was any action, any responsible and appropriate action taken as a result, because the whole focus of this should not be political, should not be Democrats and Republicans. The focus of this should be, why did this happen, could it have been prevented, and, most importantly, to take the steps necessary to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Chambliss, pick up on Senator Edwards’ formulation. We’re talking about the government here, the executive branch.

Does it look to you as if the government responded appropriately here?

REP. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: I think without question the White House responded properly, Margaret.

You know, these types of briefings are given to the president on a daily basis. The House Intelligence and Senate Intelligence Committees don’t get the same detailed briefing but we get briefings on a daily basis, and I’ll have to tell you going back several years we have had the same types of warnings issued with respect to the potential for UBL to carry out hijackings. They were directed more towards overseas operations and towards being utilized to secure the release of prisoners.

And I think without question the White House acted properly. What bothers me more than anything else is that Phoenix memo, because that memo got into the hands of the FBI at some level, and we don’t know what that level was, and Senator Edwards and I will be finding that out as we go to our hearings. But that particular memo should have gotten to somebody who would have been able to dissect that memo and determine whether or not the information in there was correct. That would have gone a long ways towards at least providing information about potential hijackings, much more so than the routine briefings that were given to the president.

MARGARET WARNER: So whose job, Senator Edwards, was it to connect the dots, connect all these dots here?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Well in general it’s the responsible of the intelligence committees and the Congress to oversee the activities of the CIA and the FBI.

But in terms of getting the information on a daily basis and acting on that information, that’s normally the responsibility of the executive branch, whoever, whoever the particular administration is.

Now, in fairness to the president, I don’t have any information that he knew about the Phoenix memo or about Zacarias Moussaoui. I don’t know what he knew about those sorts of things — or if he had other information. So I think, again, the focus of this should not be political. The focus should be to determine what the facts were, what should have been, what actions should have been taken and whether that action was taken.

And if I could just make one last point, I do think as we look at our responsibility as a government, and whether the government in fact, acted responsibly, that it is not a good argument to make, that we didn’t know that airplanes would be used as weapons. I don’t have any doubt that’s true before September 11.

But what is also true is, if this information collectively could have led to the prevention of a hijacking, that effectively would have stopped the attack from occurring.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you. What you’re saying is it didn’t matter whether or not they knew it might be used to fly it into a building, that just preventing a hijacking, a traditional hijacking should have been enough?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Well, if we knew that a hijacking may occur, and we knew that bin Laden and al-Qaida were focused on that possibility as a line of attack and some action should have been taken and as a result the hijacking had been stopped.

Of course by stopping the hijacking, the attack itself could have been stopped.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that point, Congressman, that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s traditional hijacking or this other kind of hijacking?

REP. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: I think Senator Edwards is right. We didn’t know what the purpose of the hijacking was. There was no specific information about that.

But the real problem here to me is that there was a lack of communication about that information contained in this — this Phoenix memo that was given to the FBI, and there was no sharing of information apparently between the FBI and the CIA at the right level — and I emphasize that, because I think if there had been, there might have been somebody who would have a light go off in their head and say, hey, this is pretty significant, we really need to follow-up on this and take action on it.

And, as Director Mueller said the other day, apparently that did not happen. That’s a much more significant incident than the briefing on the hijacking, which was not specific in nature. I was given the benefit of that same information that was given to the President several months ago, and it was not significant then. I don’t think that’s significant now, because it was routine. But the question of hijacking, we wanted to prevent any hijacking, irrespective of what the purpose of it is, certainly.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Edwards, I want to go to our two terrorism experts here but just a quick question to you. Were you also briefed, was the Senate Intelligence Committee also briefed on the possibility of hijacking and bin Laden being a perpetrator putting those two things together?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Well, generally speaking, the information and I think the Congressman mentioned this, the information that the president gets is usually significantly different than the information that members of Congress get and appropriately so. We’re just responsible for sort of broad oversight of these committees. And I think actually right now the staff — what the House and the Senate Intelligence Committees are going back to look specifically at what we were told and what we were not told.

MARGARET WARNER: So you don’t really remember?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: I don’t remember the specifics of what we were told about this. I believe the congressman said that he’s learned over the last few months since 9/11 about the information that the president received.

But the critical thing – and the congressman mentioned this – is this information, all of this information together shows a clear pattern, and it put up a lot of red flags, and was that information communicated to a central source that could act on it? That is the critical thing that as members of the Intelligence Committee we’re responsible for determining.

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

Let me bring the two of you in here. Neil Livingstone, what you know about how the intelligence and law enforcement community operates? How do you explain the dots weren’t connected?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: Well people like myself and Bruce have been complaining for years that we have not given adequate resources or adequate oversight to the intelligence community, particularly when it came to terrorism.

You have to remember that not that many years ago terrorism was a 13th priority at the FBI behind interstate auto theft, and we saw, of course, the ramifications of what’s happened as a result of 9/11. It can bring you to war; it can virtually impoverish the society.

And so we have plenty of blame to go around here. And I think we realize that there were catastrophic intelligence failures at 9/11. I’m not sure there is much to be gained having the so-called Pearl Harbor inquiries. We know that the system failed. The issue right now is how do we make it better, and you make it better by essentially, I think, taking major steps both at CIA and FBI to get the kinds of people in the kind of positions that where they can be useful to get them the kinds of resources they need to do this and to have essentially an administration that’s going to use the tools that the Congress and others are going to give them right now — use it effectively to combat terrorism when we see a problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Bruce Hoffman, was part of the problem also the lack of coordination at the time at least between the CIA and the FBI? I mean would it surprise you if the CIA never had heard about the Moussaoui arrest or this Phoenix memo for instance?

BRUCE HOFFMAN: Well, certainly the coordination has improved since September 11, and, in fact, one of the daily responsibilities for example of the counter terrorist center at the CIA working with the FBI and other agencies is to put together precisely something that we would have needed before September 11 — a daily threat maker — that takes all the data points and matches them to see where there is the convergence and then to identify what would be a much more credible threat.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain the assertion today or the statements today, that it hadn’t occur to anyone that a plane might be used as a sort of suicide bomb weapon?

Given particularly, testimony that had come out about the arrest until the Philippines and what they had been told there about a plan to fly a plane to the CIA building — I mean, was it just that all these dribs and drabs of information come in but, as I think Senator Edwards said, maybe it never got to any one central place or one person?

BRUCE HOFFMAN: Well, I think it’s more than that. Don’t forget we’re focusing on four or five data points that look very clear now in hindsight but on a daily basis the intelligence and law enforcement authorities in the United States get hundreds if not thousands of threats that are on various levels of credibility and specificity.

And part of challenge is matching up comparing what they have been also separating the wheat from the chaff. This is something akin to reading the last five pages of a John LeCarrie thriller then going to the front. You know who the mole or trader is but it’s all clear, exactly.

MARGARET WARNER: Your thought on that, how hard it was to put all this together?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: It wasn’t that hard if we had put the resources to this a long time ago. I mean I wrote in a book over 20 years ago that a plane loaded with Jet A is nothing more than a flying bomb if you want to send it toward a target. We have done scenarios in this area for literally decades, and we have looked at all kinds of threats.

The problem was that the government has been asleep and it may be because we as Americans are very reactive and it takes something like 9/11 to wake us up, but for a long time as we talked about chemical and biological use by terrorists, as we talked about all sorts of catastrophic things that could happen, the government basically said, well we have other problems, we have other issues. And the Congress, too, was in many cases very unresponsive.

Every time I’m sure that Bruce and I went to testify we gave a whole long litany of things we ought to do, including improving aviation security. And it didn’t happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Edwards, back to you. How now does Congress know go about trying to answer some of the questions you have posed, that we have both posed but that you posed?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Well we’re going to have a joint bicameral investigative committee composed of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee.

We’re going to be conducting an investigation over the next few months and the focus of that investigation, among other things, is to determine what the facts are, what happened, what information was available, was that information in fact, communicated, for example, the Phoenix memo, which others mentioned — did it ever go to the CIA? Was it transmitted to other people that needed to be aware of it?

And, equally important, what systematic structural changes need to be made in order to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, and making sure those changes are implemented?

That’s what our investigation is about, is not aimed at placing blame, it’s aimed at determining why this happened and how we can make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

MARGARET WARNER: Representative Chambliss?

REP. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, I agree with everything everybody said there. I think John is right, that our idea is to move forward and it’s not to look back and point to a finger. There is a lot of that going around right now and it really serves no purpose.

I think what Director Mueller is doing is a step in the right direction. He’s taking the initiative to reorganize the FBI and to make sure that he’s got the people close by who should have received this memo, for example, and he’s going to make sure that there is a direct line of communication and ongoing cooperation between the FBI, the CIA, and other federal agencies, and I emphasize that.

There is also one other problem. The other problem is, that we collect information at the federal level and we do a poor job of disseminating that information down to the state and local level. Jane Harman, my ranking member and I, have a bill out there right now that will require the administration to develop a plan of sharing information between federal agencies as well as down to the state and local level so that the American public, when you have an increased threat warning level issued, will not know themselves maybe what that threat is but they can take some comfort in knowing that their police officers or their sheriff’s department does have some information about what caused that increase threat level.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Congressman briefly, the Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) suggested today that the inquiry that your two committees, the Senate and House Committee are working on now I gather behind closed doors pretty much, that that should be done publicly now or maybe other committees brought in or maybe even an independent commission of some sort, what’s your view on that?

REP. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: I think it’s the oversight job of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee to do this work. I think that’s our charge and I think we need to carry out our responsibility.

Some of it can be done in public, some of it will have to be done in a classified setting — where you have classified information you don’t have any choice. But we held a series of public hearings in my subcommittee back in the fall following September 11, and we got a lot of information out to the public, which needed to get in the hands of the public.

So if there is an opportunity to have some of it made public, I think we should.

MARGARET WARNER: Very briefly Senator, public or private?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: As much as possible should be public without threatening national security because the American people are entitled to know what happened here.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you, all four, very much.