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Homeland Security

July 16, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to reaction from four key members of Congress from the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee: The Democratic chairman and the ranking Republican member, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Fred Thompson of Tennessee. From the House Select Committee on Homeland Security: Deborah Pryce of Ohio, the Republican Conference vice chairman; and Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic whip.

Senator Lieberman, what do you think of the President’s strategy?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Jim, there’s not a lot new here, but nonetheless, it’s an important statement of the urgency of the threat that we faced from terrorism, of the continuation of the threat, and of the possibilities here for a comprehensive, strong response in which we reorganize our government to focus agencies on homeland security and to use our strength to meet this latest challenge, unprecedented challenge to our security.

So when I say there’s nothing new, I mean that the President and a lot of us have said a lot of this for a while. But nonetheless, it’s an important document and now the strategy needs to be connected to a department that can carry it out.

JIM LEHRER: Are you suggesting, Senator, that there should have been something new?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: No. I think this is an important first statement. In fact, the bill that our committee will consider next week would require such a strategy and an annual updating of it.

So it’s an important and very constructive statement. I think the spirit around the table at the White House today in the cabinet room was just as the President said. The President and the Congress of the United States, both parties, are going to show the world that we’re going to work together to protect the security of the American people at home.

JIM LEHRER: Congresswoman Pryce, what did you think of it?

REP. DEBORAH PRYCE: I think it’s a great step forward. The President gathered us all together in the cabinet room and later on as he addressed the nation. The elements are all in place and now it’s time for Congress to do its job.

We need to have our hearings. We’re in the process of doing that from morning till night here in the House. And tomorrow we’ll be willing to our committee chairman and women who have been doing the hard work of actually putting the language together. They have some differences with the Administration’s plan, and we intend to hear them out and then eventually put a bill together, take it to the floor, and have the House work its will.

I think that we all have something to add to this process. We have years and years of experienced chairman and staff members here on Capitol Hill that could probably help improve upon this product and that’s the process and then we will, obviously, have to pass it and send it on to the President.

But the good thing is that we’re all working together. There is a spirit of non-partisanship, and that’s sort of rare around here on Capitol Hill, but it’s a good feeling that we can all proceed down the same path with the best interests of the country at heart. We’re all going to have… we’re going to have some differences, but I think that we’re well on our way to producing a product that we can all be happy with and proud of.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have any fundamental differences with what the President outlined today?

REP. DEBORAH PRYCE: I do not. I think it’s a very, very solid plan. There are a few minor things that we have been discussing that probably can change and I think the Administration will buy into many of the minor things, but I think it’s a great proposal that he’s put forward.

But we have to pass a plan, and we would like to pass it with a large vote. And so we will probably take everyone’s ideas under consideration and try to make it as good as we can.

JIM LEHRER: Congresswoman Pelosi, do you see it as a great proposal?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, I was glad that we saw the strategy today, because we’re going into the end of writing a bill that will come to the floor next week. And it was very important for us to see what the strategy was, what the mission is, so that we know what the legislation should be to achieve mission success.

I have all along thought that the President’s original proposal created too much bureaucracy. I fully support the President. I think he did the right thing when he established the Office of Homeland Security in the White House by executive order. I would like to see that made into law. That was a good step. I’d like to see those powers expanded in the White House.

I think we should have an Office of Homeland Security. I think it could be much smaller than the bureaucracy that is proposed, which will have 170,000 employees. Of all the municipalities in our country, only about 125 of them are populated by more people than this Department of Homeland Security will be.

So I’m hoping that we can subject the President’s proposal to the scrutiny of what he has said is our mission, which is right, which is how can we best protect the American people? I think that some of these agencies may… should be coordinated by the Office of Homeland Security, but not necessarily have to be administered and managed by them. We have to do what is in the President’s strategy, which is to reduce risk to the American people and to use our resources judiciously to do that.

So I look forward to working in a bipartisan way to have something that is a department for the future that is lean, that is technologically advanced and that reduces risk to the American people while protecting their civil liberties.

JIM LEHRER: But, Congresswoman Pelosi, is it fair to say that’s a fundamental problem you have with the President, because he’s proposing this massive new Department of Homeland Security. You basically oppose that, is that correct?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: No. I support the Department of Homeland Security. I just hope that we will listen… I’m very pleased that the chairman of our committee, of which I am the ranking member that Chairman Armey has said he is not wedded chapter and verse to every provision in the President’s bill and that he will listen to the proposals of the chairman of his own party coming to our committee tomorrow.

So I hope that we would make our decisions in favor of a leaner department that gives the Secretary, whoever he or she may be, the ability to use time and energy coordinating and thinking in a smart way rather than getting bogged down in administration. I know at the end of the day we’ll agree to something that will protect the American people better.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Thompson, do you have any problems with what the President is proposing?

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: No, not really. I agree with what most of my colleagues have said. This is a big problem. This is a big step, and it’s complex and what you’re beginning to hear now are some of the details that we’ll have some disagreement over.

But I’m really impressed. We say around here all the time that we want to work together and this is going to be bipartisan and so forth. I think we really mean it this time. I think everybody wants to do what we can to make sure that this is a successful department.

But this is the first step in a mighty long road. We shouldn’t over promise. We should realize that we’re not going to get — in my opinion, anyway — any immediate additional security from passing this bill. It’s going to take a long time to put together; it’s going to cost an awful lot of money. But we need to get about it and I think at the end of the day we’ll be better off than before we started.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s be specific, back to Congresswoman Pelosi’s point, Senator Thompson. Do you share her concerns about the creation of this huge new agency?

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Well, there’s no question that we are creating a large new bureaucracy. Now, we’re reducing in some other areas, but we are doing that and of course I’m concerned any time we do that.

But these are extraordinary circumstances and I think that we’ve got to take a chance. We’ve got to do some things differently. We clearly were not sufficiently prepared. Our intelligence community needs some additional coordination and additional reform. Our infrastructure protection has not been what it should be.

This is a big step, and I have some concerns about it. Now, I think that we’ll be probably modifying it for years to come. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. I think we’ve got to take the chance that we can be smart enough to do some things differently, that we can pare down in some other areas as we build up in this particular area. We can reprioritize some things and quit acting like this is not a big problem that’s going to cost a lot of money and maybe pare back on some other spending that we’re doing up here and really reform our processes.

So I think on balance it’s something that has to be done and we can have honest disagreements on the details of what agencies, for example, should be inside the new department and what should be outside of it. But I think on balance that we’ve got to move in this direction.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Lieberman, what does moving mean at this point? Give me a realistic feel for what happens next and all this talk that all of you have made and the President has made about bipartisanship and this time it’s going to be different. Okay. What does that mean?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Well, let me start by saying that our Senate Governmental Affairs Committee reported out a bill in May and it’s quite similar to the proposal that the President made, both of which recommend creating Departments of Homeland Security. So we’re building on experience that’s in common. And that’s bipartisan experience.

What this all means is that the House will take this proposal up from the special committee headed by Mr. Armey and Miss Pelosi next week. Senator Thompson and I and our committee are going to bark up our bill in the Senate next Wednesday, take it to the floor the following week, and if all goes well, these bills will pass both Houses before we leave here for the August summer recess and our conference committee will work together and I think as early in September as possible we’ll bring out a common bill to the floor of each House.

There’s a real will to make this happen. There are some disagreements. They’ll be argued out in the process, but I do think there’s a sense of urgency and a sense of history here that if we don’t get ourselves organized and we don’t act urgently to prevent another attack, that it will occur. And so I’m very optimistic that we’re going to seize the moment and make something good happen for the American people.

JIM LEHRER: Congresswoman Pryce, are you as optimistic as Senator Lieberman is that this all can be done by the fall?

REP. DEBORAH PRYCE: Well, it’s a major lift, I’ll tell you. It’s not going to be easy, but we are working around the clock. Our staff is working around the clock, and we’re on a timetable to do it.

But I think that we all have to be cautious not to sacrifice a good quality bill just to make an artificial deadline. We’d all like to have it done by September 11, there’s no question. That means something to every American and we’d like to have this signed into law by then.

But we don’t want to rush and sacrifice doing it right in order to make this artificial deadline. And so… but right now I think we’re on target and it’s very possible that we could do this, and it would be a great thing and I think American people would like to know that their government can move expeditiously and efficiently and we’re trying.

JIM LEHRER: Congresswoman Pelosi, what about Senator Thompson’s point that even if a bill does pass very quickly, that the American people shouldn’t be believed that suddenly the United States of America is going to be safe from terrorism just because this legislation passed. Do you agree with time there, that we need to be more realistic about timetables in terms of effectiveness?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, I don’t think there are any guarantees, but we certainly can reduce risk. And I associate myself with remarks of all of my colleague and the Senators when we say that Dick Gephardt, our Democratic leader, has said that we should have a bill signed into law by September 11. We hope to do that. We hope to send a message to those who watch us, both friend and foe alike, that we are better prepared. We hope to give some comfort to the families who were affected by September 11 that there is reduced risk and that we can hopefully take some of the fear out of their lives, because they have a heightened sense of fear after what they have been through.

So this will be not a guarantee but a giant step forward. And, yes, we will be working on it for a long time to come to perfect it as we see what works and what doesn’t. But as long as we have a fair and open process– which I anticipate that we will– in the few weeks ahead, I have no doubt that we will come forward with a bipartisan support for reducing risk to the American people, giving comfort to the families affected by September 11, protecting the civil liberties of the American people, and doing in the a way that judiciously makes use of our resources.

JIM LEHRER: But Senator Thompson, the idea that the President today offered a 90-page outline of strategy for homeland security and that in a very few weeks the Congress of the United States is going to have a bill on his desk that will implement all of that, that’s not we’re talking about here, is it?

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Well, it’s going to be… yes.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, it is what we’re talking about? It can be done? Laws can be passed. They can take that, what he outlined today and put it in a way that it will… the government of the United States will be reorganized and be functioning along the lines that he outlined?

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Well, first of all, it’s not all of government.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: I think it should be, but that’s a different subject. But this is not the first time that we’ve been apprised of these issues. We’ve been working on this, as Joe Lieberman said, we’ve been working on this for some time.

So we’re familiar with all of the issues involved and how best to… people’s ideas about how best to protect our infrastructure and our borders, how best to protect… integrate our intelligence system into this new department — all the things – things that we have been discussing for a long time. Frankly I think in a perfect world we’ll still have additional time, but….

JIM LEHRER: Additional time meaning before another attack?

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: No. Additional time for us to consider this. It’s a… you know, it’s a rare circumstance around here when Congress gets accused of moving too fast. And perhaps my concerns are misplaced.

But I would like to see a little bit more time to consider some of the details, but I think that you know, we’re devoting a lot of time and effort and concentration. Sometimes you can take calendar time and not really get much done. What we’re really doing, I think is really concentrating now in the House and the Senate on these remaining issues.

And I think we can wind up doing a good job, and I think the reality of the circumstances is that we’ve got to get it done and we need to get it done by the end of this year. I’m not wed to September 11 by any stretch of the imagination. I think it would be a mistake if we pushed ourselves too hard on that date. If we can do it, fine. If we can’t, it doesn’t hurt my sensibilities at all. But I do think there’s really no reason why we can’t finish it before we go out this year.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Thank you all four very much and good luck.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Jim.