MS. IFILL: Three tangled tales: the latest New York terror plot, the growing oil spill disaster in the Gulf, and the political impasse in Great Britain, tonight on “Washington Week.”
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: This was an act that was designed to kill innocent civilians and strike fear into the hearts of Americans. And I’m happy to say that it failed on both counts.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): Yes, we’ve been lucky, but luck is not an effective strategy for fighting the terrorist threat.
MS. IFILL: Alert New Yorkers and law enforcement officers foiled yet another attempted terror plot. But was it chance or competence that stopped Faisal Shahzad from carrying out his deadly plans.
In the Gulf of Mexico, oil continues to gush into the sea, while the hunt continues for a cause and a solution.
DOUG SUTTLES: We stress that this has never been done before. We’ll likely encounter numerous challenges and – but we’ll remain committed to make it work.
SEC. JANET NAPOLITANO: The possibility remains that the BP oil spill could turn into an unprecedented environmental disaster.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: I want to emphasize from day one we have prepared and planned for the worst, even as we hoped for the best.
MS. IFILL: While in Great Britain, an unpredictable election yields an unexpected outcome.
PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN: People do not like the uncertainty or want it to be prolonged. We live, however, in a parliamentary democracy.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week: Pierre Thomas of ABC News, Peter Baker of the “New York Times,” Elizabeth Shogren of National Public Radio, and in London, Dan Balz of the “Washington Post.”
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. This was indeed a breathless week and at its end far more questioned remained asked than answer. We start with the foiled Times Square bomb plot. Officials are still trying to discover what drover terrorist suspect Faisal Shahzad to load an SUV with explosives, park it in the middle of Times Square, and try to create a Saturday night massacre. New York City Police Chief Ray Kelly said the move to apprehend him was relatively swift and efficient.
RAYMOND KELLY: From the time Faisal Shahzad drove into and across Broadway and parked that vehicle, to when he was apprehended last evening at the JFK Airport, it was 53 hours and 20 minutes. Now we know that Jack Bauer can do it in 24 minutes. But in the real world, 53 is a pretty good number.
MS. IFILL: He’s thinking 24 hours for Jack Bauer, but the real world, the questions are still not gone away, questions like who is Shahzad and how close did he get to – come to getting away, Pierre?
MR. THOMAS: Well, by my count, 20 minutes. The United States government figured out that he was on that plane 20 minutes before the plane was about to take off. It was 10:40 when an official working in Washington looked at the no-fly list and compared it to the flight manifest and found out, “Oh, my God, the guy is on the plane and they’re going to take off at eleven o’clock.” At 10:55, we learned that a man who was working at the airport for the Customs Service – Customs and Border Protection service, actually sent people to the plane to knock on the door of the plane, which was shut. And they informed the pilot. “We cannot let you leave.” They sent another team up there. The pilot got on the intercom and asked Mr. Shahzad to come to the front of the plane.
MS. IFILL: That’s funny because you think of people going on the plane, putting him in cuffs and hustling him off. That’s like what happened with Umar Mutallab. That’s not what happened here.
MR. THOMAS: Not here.
MS. IFILL: He just left.
MR. THOMAS: Guess what. He heard his name on the intercom. He got his backpack and walked up to the front.
MS. IFILL: So he expected to be caught.
MR. THOMAS: Well, in fact when we interviewed, again, the men who actually put him in handcuffs and I asked, “what did he say?” And he looked at them and first he asked them, he said, “Are you with the FBI or NYPD?” And he said, “I’m with Customs.” And he said, “I was expecting you. What took you so long?”
MS. IFILL: Elizabeth, sorry, go ahead.
MS. SHOGREN: How did he get on the plane if the government knew this guy and knew about his name by then?
MR. THOMAS: Well, it’s interesting. The dragnet was tightening in terms of looking for him, but sometime in the afternoon, he fell off the radar screen for a period of time. And so thankfully, in this case, the government has layers of security. And while the FBI was looking for him and he had fallen off the radar screen, again, you have these officials who do nothing but track people who’re on the no-fly list and look for people who are on the flight manifest of planes to make sure they’re not getting out of the country. And that’s what happened here.
MS. IFILL: Peter, this re-raises all the debates that never get resolved about government readiness.
MR. BAKER: Right, right, exactly.
MS. IFILL: Does it get resolved this time?
MR. BAKER: Well, it took 53 hours to catch the guy. It took about 53 minutes after he was in custody to begin the argument between Republicans and Democrats and everybody in between about what it all meant and should have questioned him before he was Mirandized, given his Miranda Rights under the Constitution. Should we had not given him those rights, should we find some way of trying him other than a normal civilian court, complicated by the fact that he’s an American citizen, naturalized last year, originally of Pakistan. But coming with that naturalization process comes a whole set of constitutional rights, among them that you have the right to remain silent and have a lawyer and to appear in court and to not be tried in a military commission at this point. All these issues now are on the table again here in Washington.
MS. IFILL: That’s what’s also different from Umar Abdulmutallab, which is he was not an American citizen. So all these questions about Mirandizing and whether his rights should have been read have to do with his lack of standing. But in this case, how do we – have we tracked anybody who before has chosen to become an American and then turned on his country.
MR. THOMAS: Well, there are cases like this and officials say these are the most difficult kind of cases. Just to give you an example, 200,000 Americans went to Pakistan in 2009. And the United States government is very interested in people going there. And if you go to the tribal regions of Pakistan, you get even more interest. So in this case, they actually interviewed Mr. Shahzad when he got back, asked him some additional questions in what’s called secondary screening. Why were you there? Who are you visiting? And he apparently answered the questions sufficiently. But absent a specific tip that he was directly involved with terrorists, the FBI sources are telling me they don’t have the resources to track everybody who makes trips to Pakistan.
MS. IFILL: We just heard John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, say this is more about luck than anything else. Is this the kind of argument that Republicans have developed or the president’s critics in general have developed that can stick?
MR. BAKER: Well, to some extent. Look, this was luck, not luck in catching him necessarily, although there was a matter – a great deal of luck involved as well as skill and that. The luck is that he didn’t know what he was doing in putting together a bomb in the middle of Times Square. Nothing would have stopped him otherwise. Had he competently put together a car bomb, even the street vendors seeing it might not have been enough to have prevented that attack. Had that had happened and had Abdulmutallab managed to bring down that passenger jet in Detroit and had Zazi managed to do what he wanted to do in New York, think about what different country this would be today.
So this politicking that is going on is touching on some real issues and some tough issues actually. And what are the limits? And it’s particularly tough now that we’re seeing more of these American citizens involved in these kinds of acts because the limits are different for them.
MR. THOMAS: And Gwen, if I could jump in for a second, a lot of officials, when you talk to them privately, are saying, “Are we in a new season.” After 9/11, there were long stretches, where we didn’t have these kinds of plots that were developing. Peter just mentioned, you have three plots in the last eight months that were in the final stages.
MS. IFILL: Pretty scary.
MR. THOMAS: Mutallab’s on the plane. It’s game, set, and match if that bomb goes off. It just didn’t go off. The guy is in Times Square. It didn’t go off. There is a certain amount of luck to that, but in Zazi’s case, he was in the process of travelling to New York to put together a team to wreck havoc on the subway. And again, plots in the final stages, so officials are very concerned because the issue now is that you have al Qaeda central involved in planning specific attacks. You have lone wolf type people. And now you have these people who are sort of in the middle.
MS. IFILL: That’s the thing. We don’t really know whether this was al Qaeda central, do we? Or do we know whether this was really Taliban, Pakistani Taliban directed? Or do we just think it doesn’t matter?
MR. BAKER: Well, we got – interesting because we got different answers on that, depending on the day, right? On Sunday, Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for it, said “this was our work.” On Thursday, they said, “no, it wasn’t us.” Now, he has told them he had training in a Pakistani camp, but we have not – I don’t think – definitively said which extremist group it is. Maybe it doesn’t matter in the sense that what it tells you is that along with the Yemeni connection to Abdulmutallab and to Major Hasan, who shot his fellow soldiers down in Fort Hood. It tells you that there are different groups now that are reaching out and projecting violence into American soil in a way that only al Qaeda had really done before.
MR. THOMAS: And they think that the Taliban – he did train at a Taliban-like camp. The question is who gave him the money and were they specifically –
MS. IFILL: Paid cash for his ticket.
MR. THOMAS: – right. And did they give him enough training? The question is, if you’re a sophisticated terrorist organization and you get an American citizen, which is gold, it’s coveted by the terrorists, who can come into this country and move freely, you would think that they would give the person enough training and skill to execute the act.
MR. BAKER: Or possibly they didn’t trust them.
MS. SHOGREN: What do you think is behind this change of environment in the last few months? Is there something different abroad or is it something different here?
MR. THOMAS: I recently spoke with the Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and I asked her, are the terrorists now at a point where they simply want to get on the game board, they want to score something? It used to be that they thought that al Qaeda wanted to do a 9/11 scale attack, massive casualties, thousands of people dead. Now, the feeling is that if you can score a hit and kill a few dozen people or a couple of hundred people, the international coverage is going to be huge anyway. So the feeling now as if they’re willing to go for the smaller attacks.
MS. IFILL: One of the solutions floating around or at least proposals floating around on Capitol Hill, Peter, is this idea that Joe Lieberman has come up with that you can strip the citizenship from naturalized citizens who are linked to terror, even if they’re not – even if they’re just accused of it, rather than convicted.
MR. BAKER: Right, certified by secretary of state. Joe Lieberman came out with a proposal this week, signed on to by Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts and a couple of House members as well. And the idea is, look, current law says that if you are an American citizen and you enlist in a foreign military that we’re at war with, you lose your citizenship. You have in effect forfeited it, as long as they can make the case that you in effect know that’s your intent. He is saying, what’s the difference between joining up with the Pakistani Taliban to attack American territory, as opposed to Pakistan’s military, and therefore you ought to lose that.
Now, that has consequences. If he were not an American citizen, for instance, Shahzad could be in theory – in theory – tried in a military commission. Caught on American soil makes it a little different, but because he’s American citizen at the moment, he can’t be, same with this whole panoply of rights that we afford to ourselves, were not necessarily given to immigrants or non-Americans.
MS. IFILL: Well, as we try to figure that out, we also realize we’re no closer this week to understanding what sparked the explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well on April 20th, nor do we know when the incredibly damaging oil spill will be contained. We do know that the continuing disaster is changing business as usual in Washington. Just listen to top Senate Democrat Harry Reid.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV): It’s just staggeringly scary as to what this – has happened. And I think we’re all going to back off from offshore drilling until we get a better handle of how we can make it safe.
MS. IFILL: That translates into no new offshore oil drilling leases for the foreseeable future. It also means at least a temporary derailment of the administration’s energy bill. But first, what’s the latest that we know tonight about the chances that this spill can be curbed?
MS. SHOGREN: Well, there is a new piece of machinery, this huge container, steel container, that’s been lowered down now to about the level of the well head. And they’re going put that or they’re going to try in the next few days to put this over one of the leaks. There’ll still be another leak spewing oil into the water. And so it’s not a complete fix and nobody even knows if it’s going to work. It’s something very – untried technology. They’ve never done it at this step before. Again, we’re talking about 5,000 feet below the surface of the water, and so –
MS. IFILL: We have become so dependant on technology to aid us from this. I’ve never heard most of the terms that you’ve now become intimately familiar with about valve blow preventers or whatever, and now this dome and all of this. Did we become too complacent? Did we begin to think, oh, well, that machines can handle it?
MS. SHOGREN: I think there is no question that the American people, at least the majority of them, and the U.S. government had grown to accept offshore oil drilling as the way that we were going to get more and more of our domestic source of oil. That was seen as a good thing, so we wouldn’t have to rely on so much oil from overseas and have the kinds of problems you guys have been talking about. So that’s something that people have become more and more comfortable with. They weren’t always comfortable with this idea.
What people weren’t quite aware because I think we don’t pay that much attention is that the oil that is still available in the Gulf of Mexico is deeper and deeper and deeper. So you’re talking about drilling wells in very deep ocean and then drilling them 18,000 feet under the seabed. And so imagine how deep you’re talking about. So that changes everything. And it does make things very difficult and tricky. And I think that both the government – the government believed what industry believed, which was that our technology is so great it’s not going to fail. And it failed pretty dramatically here.
MR. BAKER: To put this in context or perspective historically, we all remember Exxon Valdez. We all remember the Iraq oil wells that were spewing forth, and the Persian Gulf four. How does this compare to those and is there a precedent for this?
MS. SHOGREN: Well, it’s something different than the Exxon Valdez spill because we knew how much oil was on that tanker, right? There wasn’t a question mark there. And so while it’s not as much now as Exxon Valdez spilled, we don’t know when this is going to end. So we don’t know whether it might equal or dwarf it in the end. It’s not what – it’s not the quantities that happened during the Gulf War. That was a lot more than what we’re talking about here. So it’s something in between there.
MR. THOMAS: And how many offshore oil drilling rigs are there like this? I’m just curious?
MS. SHOGREN: Well, one of the officials who was the head regulator for the offshore industry told me that there were 400 of these drilled already this deep, 5,000 feet, or deeper. So –
MS. IFILL: And who’s supposed to be regulating all those?
MS. SHOGREN: – so this is the Minerals Management Service, which has been regulating them, but it’s a very different kind of regulation than what we’re used to in other industries. For instance, there were some rules that were – there was concern from this agency that the cementing process, the process of finishing up this well, which is what had happened just 20 hours before this explosion happened – so they pour the cement in between the big pipe where the oil is going to flow and the wall of earth. So they pour the cement. And what happened is that – and we don’t know why the explosion happened, but it happened soon after that. Well, there were concerns about that cementing process brought up by Minerals Management Service just a few years ago because a lot of blowouts that have happened in recent years happened right after the cementing happened or in relation to that. And so – so that – but industry rewrote the rags and set of –
MS. IFILL: And industry we hope – we expect is going to be paying for all of this. Thank you, Liz.
If you thought we had a closely fought election on this side of the pond in 2000, just look at the confusion tonight in Great Britain. Each of the three candidates, current Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labor Party, David Cameron of the Conservatives, and Nicholas Clegg of the Liberal Democrats hold some measure of leverage over the future of what is currently a hung parliament. Dan Balz is in London covering the election and its fall and I spoke with him a short time ago.
Hello there, Dan. I’m certain I had never heard the term “hung parliament” before. No matter what happened, it seems like this was not a good day for Gordon Brown.
MR. BALZ: No, absolutely not a good day for Gordon Brown.
MS. IFILL: What does it mean?
MR. BALZ: Well, a hung parliament simply means that no party has a majority in the new House of Commons. And without that, it is difficult to form a government and to begin the governing, so that they have to figure out whether anybody can put together a coalition to try to commend the majority, and if not, whether they have the stability and the strength to govern as a minority party. And that’s where things are in Britain tonight.
MS. IFILL: A lot of the attention today seemed to focus in the British tabloids and elsewhere on David Cameron, the conservative leader, and whether he was going to be able to strike a deal with the liberal whose party came in the far third place to kind of form a government. Is that the best bet tonight?
MR. BALZ: Well, that is the best bet. Under the rules, Gordon Brown, the prime minister, actually has the right to try to form a government first. But Nicholas Clegg, Nick Clegg, the leader of the liberal democrats, said that because the Conservative Party, under David Cameron, won the most votes and the most seats, they should have the right to do it. And they’re discussing that as we speak tonight. There have been meetings in the late afternoon and into the night between David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and some of their aides to see whether there is a possibility of putting together, if not a coalition, an informal alliance that would allow David Cameron to become the next prime minister.
MS. IFILL: Now, help us understand this because in this country when you think of the conservatives and the liberals trying to come up with some sort of joint governing strategy, never the twain shall meet. How does this happen for the party that are the descendants of Margaret Thatcher? How do they find a way to cut a deal with Nicholas Clegg?
MR. BALZ: Well, this is one of the really big questions here, is to whether they can actually come together. They are very far apart on some issues, the role of Britain in Europe being one, the role of the nuclear deterrent and the trident system here, and also illegal immigration. They are far apart on those issues. And David Cameron made clear today when he put out his statement that he’s not prepared to give ground. But there is some common ground on some other domestic issues, some having to do with civil liberty, some having to do with education, some having to do with the budget. And I think it’s in those areas that they’re going to try to find common ground.
But there are a lot of people in the Labor Party who believe that in the end the conservatives and the liberal democrats will not be able to strike a deal. And that’s certainly Gordon Brown’s hope. His hope is that those talks will collapse, that the liberal democrats will come to talk to him, and that they might be able to form a coalition, but that’s some time off.
MS. IFILL: One of the big issues we’re following on the global front is this economic crisis, this debt crisis which brought down Greece and is troubling Spain and Portugal, and also is dogging the footsteps of the politicians there in the U.K. and we assume could have an effect here, some sort of effect. So is that something which is going to drive the outcome? Do they have to come up with some sort of an agreement about who’s going to lead in order to begin to tackle these other issues?
MR. BALZ: I think it’s a major factor that will force these parties to try to figure this out as quickly as they possibly can. The markets here fell sharply today. The pound sterling fell sharply against the dollar today. They have a major – they don’t have a Greek-like crisis at this point, but they have a huge debt and deficit problem in this country, particularly deficit, which the next government is going to have to do things about and going to have to take some tough steps.
The head of the Bank of England was quoted from a private conversation as saying whichever party won this election and became the new ruling party would have to take such drastic measures that they were likely to end up being out of power for another 20 years after the next election. So there is a lot at stake here and everybody knows that the economic issues are the most pressing. They didn’t get the kind of attention or at least discussion among the leaders of the three parties during the campaign, but everybody knows that’s what the real problem is going to be for whoever is prime minister and the party in power.
MS. IFILL: You talk about the campaign. It’s important to remember how different it is from what we’re used to hear. People weren’t voting for these individuals. They were voting for their parties. And it was, what, four weeks long? How different is it now?
MR. BALZ: Yes.
MS. IFILL: From the kind of campaigns that you – how different is it from the kind of campaigns that you covered here?
MR. BALZ: Well, they’re actually quite different. This campaign got a lot of attention as being much more American style because for the first time ever in this country they had candidate debates among the leaders of the three parties that were nationally televised. They were done a week apart. And so that created a sense of the campaign that was much more American in style, focused a lot more attention on the individual party leaders and less on the rest of their cabinets and their top advisors, and really in many ways less on the issues that separate the parties. So there was a focus in this campaign unlike any other.
And for a time, it seemed to benefit tremendously Nick Clegg and the liberal democrats, although toward the end, they faded. But there’re a lot of differences. I was down at one of Nick Clegg last rallies, the day before the campaign. There were only a couple of hundred people there. If you think back to the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama was drawing 10,000-20,000 in Denver. He had 100,000 people a week or so before the election. The other big difference here is that there is no television advertising. There are not 20-30 seconds spots. And so it’s a totally different feel to the campaign, even though there are some American touches.
MS. IFILL: And when this is all set and done, they’re going to decide this in days rather than weeks, which is what happened here.
MR. BALZ: That’s the expectation – that by early next week, they will need to try to get some kind of an agreement that allows one party or the other to claim to be the ruling party. I think if it goes beyond that, there will be a greater sense of urgency in the markets. The markets will begin to send signals. Technically nothing has to happen until May 25th. There’s a deadline there that they would have to meet. So there is some time that it could draw out, but in a 24/7 environment like we’re in, and given the problems that we’ve seen this week in Europe with the Greek crisis, there is a sense that they need to move as quickly as they possibly can.
MS. IFILL: Dan Balz, thanks for bringing your American sensibilities to a British political story.
MR. BALZ: Thank you, Gwen.
MS. IFILL: And thanks to everybody here as well. Before we go tonight, we want to extend a warm welcome to our new Friday night neighbor. Stay tuned to most of your local PBS stations for the debut of “Need to Know,” a new public affairs news magazine. Also tonight, we send out our condolences to the family of Nancy Duffy of Columbus, Ohio. We thank her for watching all those years. As always, keep track of daily developments all week on the PBS “NewsHour,” and we’ll see you right here again, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.