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Sharing Secrets

October 10, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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.JIM LEHRER: Now, on to the briefing story and other matters from four Senators: The Democratic chairman and senior Republican members of two key committees.

From Armed Services, Carl Levin of Michigan, and John Warner of Virginia; from Foreign Relations, Joe Biden of Delaware, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Senator Levin, are you all right now about today’s compromise?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: We were all right as of last night at 7:00 when we were told by the Defense Department that the order was not intended to apply even to the Armed Services Committees of either House.

So the order looked like it applied to us by its own language but we were assured last night that it didn’t. And that’s the way it should be. We cannot perform our authorizing function without having classified information because we have to know where the shortfalls of ammunition is, what systems aren’t working well and those kinds of things which we need to know in order to give the President the tools that he needs to win this war.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Biden, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, are you satisfied now you’re going to get the information you need to do your job?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Well, the same point I’ll make is I met with the President for an hour yesterday at 4:00. I got briefed that very moment — that very morning by secretaries and the like. It never stopped the information. I think Trent Lott had a point. You had a clip of him earlier.

I think this is over. I think the President got very, very angry, with good reason, in my view. I think that there was a bit of a spasm here. As he said to me yesterday in the Oval Office, he said, look, I don’t want to try to trump any law when Congressman Tom Lantos, the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House, said Mr. President the law says… He said I know, I know, we’re going to get this straight.

I really this was more almost an instinctive reaction and a spasm. It’s over. It’s done. I don’t think it’s a big deal.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Warner, do you think the President was justified in getting upset?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Clearly few people recognize the pressure on a President. If there were to be casualties in this or any other military operation, he’s the first one that has to tell the families. That’s his responsibility as commander in chief; it’s a heavy one.

And I remember when I was a young sailor in the closing months of World War II, we were told every day loose lips can sink ships. And that’s been a doctrine that I’ve followed these many years. So I think we’ve learned lessons from this past few days. We’re going forward with business here. We just left, some of us, a classified briefing being given by the senior civilian and military officials, and we’re going on about our business, but I think with a keen awareness of the heavy responsibilities on the President as commander in chief and the obligation that we have to those who are taking the risks and to their families.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Hagel, according to the reports, the President was particularly upset about a briefing last Friday in which somebody leaked, after a briefing, the fact that the FBI and the CIA were saying there was a 100 per cent chance of a terrorist attack on U.S. property if the United States… after the United States initiated military action in Afghanistan. Is he right to be upset about that?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, he is right to be upset about any leaking of top-secret information. That is irresponsible. It does jeopardize people whose lives are on the line here.

We need to make sure that we are held accountable, and as Senator Warner said, the pressure on the President of the United States is immense. This is a very combustible equation here. We have emotion and pressure and responsibility all coming together. There are occasional blips, and this was one of those blips. It has been resolved and we’ll move on.

JIM LEHRER: But Senator Hagel, what would you say to somebody who said, “Hey, wait a minute — classified information aside, why shouldn’t the American people know there was a 100 per cent chance of a retaliatory act against the United States”?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I would respond by saying in that specific incident– and I don’t know, by the way, if that, in fact, was the one incident and the one issue– but responding to your question, you’re correct. Most of us have been saying to the American public that we must be prepared for every possibility of an asymmetrical terrorist attack. It can come any time, anywhere.

Does that mean 100 per cent surety of a terrorist attack? I don’t know, but I’m not troubled by that, because there is a certain state of awareness that we must ensure the American public have but yet also responsibility not to needlessly panic the American public.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Biden, just to stay on this subject one more minute here — let’s just say when you talked to the President yesterday at 4:00 for an hour. You assumed it was classified and you weren’t supposed to talk about what the President was telling.

Let’s say the President said something to you that you really believed the American people should know, what would you have done about it?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: There’s a process in that. I’ve done it once before in my life. I was on the Intelligence Committee during the Reagan years. The CIA came up and briefed us on something they were going to do that I thought was wrong.

There’s a process. I asked for a secret session of the United States Senate. I demanded it. We had a secret session of the United States Senate. I stood up before my colleagues and I said, “I just learned this is what the administration is going to do. It’s against the interest of the United States of America in my view and you should all know about it.”

There is a legislative process by which to do that. That’s the way to do it. If you don’t want to go that route, at least be man enough to turn to the President and say, Mr. President, I’m walking out of here and telling them that.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Warner, what’s your view of that, if you heard something that you thought should be shared with the American people, what would you do?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Well, first I would draw on experience. Some 30 years ago I was Secretary of the Navy during Vietnam and daily we had briefings on intelligence. Every hour on the hour we had problems.

Yet I was obligated to give many speeches, daily press conferences, and you learn by experience how to distill from those briefings what the public and indeed especially the military families should learn. And only once in that 30 years have I ever been challenged. I still I was right on that one occasion. So you learn by experience.

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. What did you do? You revealed something to the public that….

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Well, someone felt that I had a… A cabinet officer felt that I had used one word in a briefing. I still feel that that was owing to the families. It did not cause jeopardy, but I’m just pointing out of thousands of instances, I’ve been challenged once. Now the point is that we do…

We represent the public as does the President, of course. But we’re the closest. The public looks to us — and particularly those of us on the military committees — the men and women of the armed forces and their families look to us. They rely on us to interpret situations and to do our very best to take care of those that are on the front lines taking the risks. And we do it.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Levin, do you feel that same… you have a responsibility as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee that goes beyond maintaining a classified piece of information at any given time?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, we’d try to exercise that responsibility if we felt that keenly. But we can’t unilaterally declassify information which is given to us under strict conditions.

We either have to make an appeal, as Senator Biden said. We can do it legislatively with a secret session, talk to our colleagues about it but we can also declassify it through a process which does exist to declassify information which has been improperly classified.

But we just can’t unilaterally on our own say, well, wait a minute, I don’t think that should be declassified. Frankly if there were something so critically important to the American people that was classified and we couldn’t persuade the folks that do declassify information that it should be or we didn’t use the legislative process that Senator Biden mentioned, we should then share it with a few of our colleagues who have clearance and try to figure out what to do collegially. We just can’t though go about declassifying information because we think it ought to be declassified.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Jim, can I make an important point here?

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Yes, sir.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: One of the reasons I got upset when I read that on Monday or I guess it was Saturday — I wasn’t at that briefing — was that I’ve not attended any briefings so far where the President or anyone on his team has briefed us on something that the American public needed to know that they didn’t know. There’s a big distinction.

If in the briefing they said, for example, there’s 100 per cent certainty there’s going to be an attack on Ninth and Vine Street in such-and-such a place, they would tell people. The Administration would tell people.

But to generically say to the American people that there’s a 100 per cent certainty there’s going to be attack, what every American thinks when that’s said is that we know of some specific attack that’s about to take place. And that’s simply not the case.

In those circumstances where we knew or the President or the CIA had reason to believe a specific attack was going to take place in a specific area, I am certain they would warn the American public. So this is… Part of this is the way it inflames the fears of the American people. And last point, a lot of the intelligence community is going to cover their rear end right now. They get thousands of these threats.

JIM LEHRER: When in doubt say 100 per cent you mean?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Exactly right, bingo, bingo.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Moving on here to where we are on the military action in Afghanistan, starting with you, Senator Hagel, without revealing any classified information, what is, of course, what is your feeling about how well it’s going over there for us?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: I think the objectives that the President laid out a few days ago are being completed and fulfilled. You noted the briefing that the House and Senate had today. Part of those briefings consisted of the results and the status of where we are.

So based on what I know, I think at least this initial phase of our military action has been successful, 100 per cent. I don’t know if anything is ever 100 per cent in this business, but certainly they’ve done very well.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Warner, is the Taliban still running things in Afghanistan?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Again, that is covered by intelligence. I’ll have to withhold what we’ve been told on that subject.

I do believe, however, the President and particularly his national security advisor today took a very wise step in talking to your profession, Jim, about withholding wide publication of this propaganda emanating from bin Laden and Taliban and others because they could be sending codes by means of simple words or I remember again during the Vietnam period, we used to watch the POWs, and they’d blink their eyes and send a code.

So I think our Administration, our President, our team that we’re working with are doing a fine job with a most difficult situation. Believe me, there was no book on any shelf in the Pentagon that wrote the scenario that we’re now having to follow to stamp out this type of terrorism.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Levin, what’s your overview of how it’s going?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I think it’s going well. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs says we now basically have control of the skies. That’s going to be essential when ground action begins.

I think it’s very important though that the American people understand what the President and the Secretary of Defense have said, is that this is going to be a long, difficult process. This is really, in my judgment, going to be a war of attrition where we are strengthening the opposition over time militarily, but we hope that they would be the point of the spear when the time comes to really catch bin Laden and his operatives so that bin Laden cannot possibly argue if this works out well that this is the West versus Islam because I believe that the people of Afghanistan are the right ones, if possible and if practical, to be the ones to destroy bin laden and his terrorist gang.

And that will be possible over time. I believe the American people understand that this is going to be a fairly protracted effort here that we’re going to be weakening the bin Laden folks and forces over time militarily while we strengthen the opposition and hopefully put together a government which can sustain operations over time against bin Laden.

JIM LEHRER: But Senator Biden, is it your impression that Osama bin Laden is still in business as we talk here tonight?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: It’s my impression… I didn’t go to the briefing, so I can speak.

JIM LEHRER: Okay.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: It’s my impression that he is still in business but let’s focus on what the administration’s objectives were.

The easy part is the first part. Take control of the skies; take control of the airways, allow other operations now to be undertaken with a considerably increased prospect of success.

So when you say, has this been a success? I think based on what I know, it has been an overwhelming success so far, but it’s only one small piece of a great big strategy here. Senator Levin spoke to some of it.

Is bin Laden still alive? Probably. Is Al-Qaida still around? Yes. Are they in control in the way they were before? No, they’ve gone underground. Is there progress being made by the Northern Alliance? Yes. In other words, everything is better proportioned in our direction than it was three days ago.

But it’s like the first step in about a five, six, seven-step process as it read it.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Hagel, do you believe that the American people have been prepared for the next step? This may be considered the easy one: Dropping bombs and Cruise missiles.

Now it may move to real Americans with real guns on the ground. Are we ready for that do you think?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I’m not sure we are partly because we need to define or the President needs to define what that next step is. And that has not been clearly defined. That’s okay because part of that definition of the next step is going to be the result of how successful the first step was, what the objectives are short-term, long-term. You’ve heard my colleagues talk about the long-term dynamic here, and that’s right.

So also something I think that factors into your question, what Senator Warner said, there’s no blueprint here. There’s no textbook. There’s no road map. This is unprecedented. This is a black galaxy that we have never traversed before.

That means that we have got to work this through as we’re moving forward, and that requires some definition as we go. And I think that’s what America needs to understand.

JIM LEHRER: Now… Does anyone of the four of you believed based on what your jobs are as the chairman and ranking member of these two crucial committees that you’re not getting the information that you need now to function? Are you okay?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: We’re okay. We’re all right.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: We’re okay in Armed Services.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: We’re satisfied.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: We’re four veterans. Let me close out one observation. Congress is a co-equal branch with the Executive Branch of the President.

We should work in partnership in times of crisis like this, a sharing, a sharing of confidence in one another. I think that is present now. It has been present. And, sure, we learned a little from this incident but we’re going forward.

Mind you, in Vietnam it was the Congress pulling away from the President that began to undo that conflict in ways that it shouldn’t have ended on. My view is that we’ll work together with this President as solid partners. And I know he has respect for us and that we can do our job and protect any revelation of facts that would endanger the men and women or jeopardize the operation.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Our unity has not been affected at all by this blip today. We’re very strong, we’re very unified; we’re together.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: As they say, it ain’t Vietnam though.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Senators four, thank you all very much.