JIM LEHRER: Four views now on the president’s statement and the review. Richard Clarke was the White House point man on counterterrorism in the Clinton administration and in the early days of the George W. Bush administration. He’s now a consultant. Juan Zarate held a similar post later in the Bush administration. He’s now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and he’s a consultant for CBS News.
And, from Congress, California Democrat Anna Eshoo serves on the House Intelligence Committee. And we hope to be joined shortly by Republican Pete Olson of Texas. He is a member of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Mr. Clarke, first of all, did you hear anything today that surprised you or shocked you, a word that some people said they might be so inclined, with what came out today?
RICHARD CLARKE, former U.S. counterterrorism official: Well, a lot of little things shocked me.
I think the big thing that was shocking was that they said they didn’t have a system for following up threat reports and resolving them. You don’t just have threat reports come in, you say, isn’t that interesting, and then you move on, and the next day, you read more new ones.
You take the reports that come in every day, and you put them into a system to have resolution, to follow up, find out if they are true, do something about it. There used to be a system to do that. The fact that they don’t have one now and that they are instituting one now and that the president of United States has to order it, I did find a little shocking.
But, overall, what was shocking was how well the administration did in, frankly, openly and quickly examining its own shortcomings. From a public management perspective, this was really well done.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mr. Zarate?
JUAN CARLOS ZARATE, Center for Strategic and International Studies: To a certain extent, I think Dick is right.
But I think what I found most telling was the fact that the administration laid bare the fact that there was strategic warning that there was a threat growing from the al-Qaida group in Yemen, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and that that group not only was a threat to our interests in Yemen and to the Yemeni government, but was already talking about and aspiring to attack the homeland.
And this is something that we had been worried about for some time, that an al-Qaida regional affiliate wouldn’t only be a threat regionally or locally, but would in fact become a platform to attack the United States. That is why we had been worried about American Somalis moving into Somalia and getting training and perhaps coming back.
And, so, the fact that the intelligence community and the counterterrorism community was actually aware of that growing intent and perhaps capability and their search for operatives actually was surprising to me, because the failure then was to then say we have the strategic threat. What are the tactical pieces that we need to put together that may fit that intent and capability?
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mr. Clarke, that they had the information; they just didn’t put it together?
RICHARD CLARKE: Well, they had not only information about the individual bomber, but, as Juan says, they had strategic warning.
They sat with the president before Christmas and said, we have a new problem. It’s something called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP. It’s in Yemen. And they are planning attacks on the United States. So, they knew the strategic context. And they didn’t do — by their own admission, they didn’t do the follow-up to say, OK, if that’s true, what do we do tactically to find these guys?
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask Congresswoman Eshoo on this issue of the collection.
The president said it, Mr. Brennan said it, and these two gentlemen have also said it. They had the information, and that’s a good thing. But the problem was the gap in connecting them. Is that how you see it as well?
REP. ANNA ESHOO, D-Calif.: I do. And I think that that is what is so stunning to the American people, that our intelligence community actually had pieces of this. In other words, there were warning signs. The red flags were out. The bells were ringing. And, yet, they were not connected.
What I am struck by is how forthcoming the president has been, to put the information out there on the table, to acknowledge that we do have shortcomings, but, very importantly, how he has directed the executive branch, the intelligence community, in this instance, and the corrections that need to be made. And I think that they are spot-on.
But I am more than detected that the president is angry about this. We were lucky, because, once again, average citizens are the ones that stepped in. But we can’t rely on luck. And while there were reforms that were adopted after our country was attacked, you know, we do have to look for needles in a haystack.
But we can’t keep building haystacks where we can’t find things. And so the dots do have to be connected. I think the president was more than serious. And I also think that it was important when he said, this is not a time for partisanship, but for citizenship. We all can do something here.
And I hope that we will all make note of that. I think it’s a very important thing that he said. I was certainly struck by it.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Clarke, you do — you buy the idea that the president said, and the congresswoman just underlined it as well, that this wasn’t a problem involving individuals; this was a problem involving a system that didn’t work, rather than people who were incompetent or made the wrong judgments, et cetera?
RICHARD CLARKE: Well, I think what the White House said today was, there may have been a few people that made a few mistakes at low levels.
But the system should have caught those mistakes. And there should have been — I thought we had invested in software that would have caught these mistakes, and software, knowledge management software, that would have said, oh, there’s a piece of information over here and there’s a piece over there.
JIM LEHRER: Well, literally, go through that. How might that — if it had worked, what — I don’t mean in minute detail, but what would happen?
RICHARD CLARKE: Right. Sure.
So, basically, the new software is supposed to do something like this. It gets a piece of information. And it doesn’t have to go out and find a human being to do this, an analyst.
JIM LEHRER: Let’s say they found something about al-Qaida in the — in Yemen, yes.
RICHARD CLARKE: In this case, they find the name of this fellow from his father. And they say, well, he might be in Yemen. The software should, by itself, go out and see, is there any mention of a Nigerian in Yemen, number one? Is there any mention of anybody with a name like this, number two?
And, if the software had done that, they would have found him, because there was previous reporting. And the two pieces of information, if you looked at them alone, they weren’t shocking. But, if you put the two pieces of information together, you would say, aha, this guy is the terrorist who is about to do something.
I thought we had software that would do that, that could go into multiple databases, without a human in the loop. Apparently, we didn’t.
JIM LEHRER: Did you think there — that kind of software existed, Mr. Zarate?
JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: That kind of software does exist in parts. But there are still databases that are segmented and where information is kept separate, where you rely on human analysts to go through and pick out data that may be relevant.
This underscores what the president was saying, which is that you need a system that has analysts and the system writ large prioritizing with respect to the volumes of information that come in.
Now, people need to realize we get thousands of threats a day. The National Counterterrorism Center, since the Bush administration established it, has three times a day threat — interagency processes to review these threats. It has matrices.
And, so, to Dick’s earlier point, there is, to a certain extent, a prioritization. But, at the end of the day, there’s a human factor here. Human analysts have to look at the information. There has to be a sense of priority and urgency, to a certain extent.
And what is shocking here, I think, in what was revealed — and I do commend the administration for laying bare what they have found — is the fact that you had the strategic threat, and you had all of these bits and pieces. You had needles in the haystack, not just a needle. And those needles weren’t gathered in the context of this growing strategic threat.
JIM LEHRER: Congresswoman Eshoo, from your perspective, member of the House Intelligence Committee, with oversight of all of this we have been talking about, did you think, until Christmas Day, that this kind of information, these kinds of dots would have been connected, either the combination of human input and human evaluation, plus the software that Richard Clarke says he thought existed, and maybe didn’t?
REP. ANNA ESHOO: Most frankly, I wouldn’t have been able to guarantee that they would be, because it is a very large, complex system.
We have a — an enemy that is limber, that is entrepreneurial. They have franchises in different parts of the world. They don’t deal with lists of $550,000 names or an NCTC. They use the Internet.
Now, here at home, my congressional district is the home of Silicon Valley. So, we have technologies and are continuing to produce technologies that are able to take very large quantities of information and bring about what is needed.
And I think that we are not where we need to be in terms of the technologies inside our system.
And I think that that is something that is going to be needed. And, of course, that always has to be coupled with human intelligence. Nothing takes the place of that.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of systemic failures, we have had one, up until now, with Congress Olson, who is in Texas.
And I understand now you have not been able to hear this entire discussion, but you have heard — did you hear the last answer, and this whole idea? From your perspective, as a member of Congress, were you surprised by what — the story that was told today about what actually happened and what led to this near disaster?
REP. PETE OLSON, R-Texas: Yes, Jim. Sorry for the technical difficulties.
But I was surprised by the information which led to — which led to this, basically, attack upon our country. Again, it’s indicative of kind of a 9/10, for lack of a better term, mentality, where we did — had the information in the intelligence community, but, again, didn’t connect the dots, and let an individual who wanted to harm our country with a bomb get on an aircraft.
And the only response we had at that moment was to have people waiting to greet him when he landed in Detroit. And that’s simply unacceptable. And I look forward to working with the administration and my colleagues to make sure something like this never happens again.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman, let me ask you this. You didn’t hear them, but both Mr. Clarke and Mr. — Mr…
JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Zarate.
JIM LEHRER: Zarate, right — sorry — and Congresswoman Eshoo said — gave — gave compliments to the president and the administration for coming out forthrightly now and saying what went wrong.
As a Republican, do you agree with him on that?
REP. PETE OLSON: I mean, I was happy that the president came out and stepped up to the plate and said that the buck stops with him. That’s critically important, that we get leadership from the top. And I applaud him for doing that.
But, again, we need to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. We had all the information out there to connect these dots together. We had a father calling from his home in Africa, calling on our ambassador, letting them know that: My son is going someplace where I don’t think he wants to go, and I’m afraid of what he is going to do.
And that is just one example of the information we had. But, still, this individual, Mr. Abdulmutallab, got on an aircraft with a bomb. And just God bless our country, again, that he didn’t set it off when he tried to.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Zarate — see, I got it right then — are you — about the fixes, about what everybody says, all right, now let’s fix it, are you — do you have a feeling that it can be fixed, and what the president outlined and what Secretary Napolitano and Mr. Brennan talked about will, in fact, fix it?
JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: I think they’re the right direction and certainly the right steps, in light of the current case and the current case study and the things that were discovered that went wrong.
I worry, though, that we not delude ourselves that we have a perfect system.
JIM LEHRER: There is no such thing?
JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: There no such thing as a perfect system. And, in particular, when are you talking about watch lists and no-fly lists, we are still dealing with a name-based system, largely reliant on the fact that people use their real name when they check in, use their real passport.
But we know that the bad guys are constantly innovating, constantly finding ways around our screening, may use aliases, false passports. And, so, we have to have a dual system of intense intelligence gathering, with the types of screening that will allow us to find the hidden explosives. And no system is perfect, unfortunately.
JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about the fixes, Mr. Clarke?
RICHARD CLARKE: We have got a good system. It can be made better. The great news here is that the president of the United States is down in the weeds trying to make it better. I wish I had that when I was serving.
But I think the scary news today is, this al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has other people like this guy.
JIM LEHRER: A lone guy who we really haven’t heard that much about, you mean?
RICHARD CLARKE: Yes, they have other what we call clean skins, people who we have no idea that they are involved, so their names are not in the database.
AQAP, apparently, has more of these people. They are not necessarily Arabs. And they are still trying to attack the West outside of Yemen. That’s the big news, is that this is an ongoing threat. So, we have to make the system better very quickly.
JIM LEHRER: In a word, Congresswoman Eshoo and Congressman Olson, do you share Mr. Clarke’s scariness here?
REP. PETE OLSON: Well, Jim, it’s…
REP. ANNA ESHOO: Well, this is the most serious of situations, because we’re talking about our national security.
But, whatever needs to be done, I believe that we have not only the capacity. We have the intelligence, we have the genius, and we have the will. It will never be perfect, but we can certainly improve upon it. It will never be perfect, but we can certainly improve upon it. And I think what the president has called for, when implemented, will go a long way toward that.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman…
REP. ANNA ESHOO: But we can’t rest, because the enemy is very smart.
JIM LEHRER: OK. I think that is a yes then.
REP. PETE OLSON: Jim…
JIM LEHRER: Did what Richard Clarke just highlighted, is that the scary part to you as well, that these people are still out there and they are going to try and try and try again?
REP. PETE OLSON: Yes.
And al-Qaida Yemen is a growing problem. I was in Afghanistan last month. And meeting with our troops there, talking with our personnel, they have done a good job beating back the al-Qaida threat in that area. But it has moved. And it’s moved to Yemen. And that is critically important, becoming a strategic place that we need to be involved in.
Again, the scary thing, from my perspective, is, we had all the information, very eerily reminiscent of 9/11, and we didn’t put it together, and we almost had a terrible tragedy that killed hundreds of Americans.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you, all four, very much.
Again, our apologies to you, Congressman Olson, that we got to you so late. Thank you.
REP. PETE OLSON: Well, that’s not — that’s my apology back to you, Jim. Thanks.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you.