FTN - 10/14/01 – Part 1

face the nation logo, 2009 CBS

BOB SCHIEFFER, Chief Washington Correspondent: Today on an expanded edition of Face the Nation, is the nation prepared for bioterrorism, and how great is the threat? We'll talk with the attorney general, John Ashcroft.

With reports of anthrax incidents from Reno to New York, the nation is on alert. Is there a connection between these incidents and September 11? We'll ask the attorney general.

Is the country prepared for this kind of threat? We'll talk with Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, who is also a doctor, and Dr. Mohammed Akhter, the head of the American Public Health Association.

We'll talk about the ongoing threat of terrorism with the two leading members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Bob Graham of Florida, and the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden.

Then we'll round out this expanded addition with analysis from former defense secretary James Schlesinger, New York Times reporter Judy Miller, author of the new book "Germs," and our own Gloria Borger.

I'll have a final word on America's big test. But first, the attorney general on Face the Nation .

Good morning again. And we thank the attorney general John Ashcroft for joining us here in the studio.

Mr. Attorney General, it's my understanding that you believe that some of those who may have been connected to the September attacks are still out there. Can you give us any idea of how many people you think are still at large?

JOHN ASHCOFT, Attorney General: Well, we have a couple hundred people, close to a couple hundred, that we have on a watch list that we are still seeking to find, to question, to be involved in one way or another, to interrogate.

I don't want to be more specific about whether they were--how they might have been involved. That's one of the things we're trying to ascertain.

As you probably know, we have arrested and/or detained close to 700 individuals. Now, all of those people that were detained are the subject of either material witness warrants, court-issued warrants indicating that they might have information that should be presented to a grand jury, or they're the subject of an adjudication of other kinds of violations, either state and local violations, immigration violations, violations of the law.

Frankly, we're very interested in preventing additional incidents. We're going to do everything we can to disrupt the networks, the individuals who are associated.

And we obviously, given the complexity and seriousness of the incidents on September 11, we believe there could well be other individuals that we're pursuing.

SCHIEFFER: Well, you said, I believe you used the number 200 that you have on a watch list.

ASHCROFT: We have a watch list of individuals that we want to apprehend and question and to ascertain with more specificity the extent to which they have knowledge of, or might be in some way elated to, either the groups or the actual incidents.

SCHIEFFER: In other words, you think there may be as many as 200 people out there who may have some information or some connection to those September 11 attacks?

ASHCROFT: We maintain a watch list that's maybe in the 190-person range, if I have the numbers right there, that we have not yet contacted.

As I indicated, we have 700 people that we had detained subsequent to the events. Some of those were specifically associated with the hijackers. Others were individuals that in the process we encountered. Those individuals, of course, are all individuals that we are detaining based on violations or material witness warrants.

SCHIEFFER: Now, in addition to the 200--I take it those are people you think that are at large. You're saying that some of the people that you have under arrest may also have had something to do with this. You just haven't come to a determination on that as yet.

ASHCROFT: I think it's fair to say that some of the individuals that we have in custody that we've detained and arrested, we believe have knowledge of one kind that would be relevant to our investigation or could have been in some way associated with by way of helping or assisting or participating.

SCHIEFFER: Well, this is the largest--I've never heard this described as a group that large. You're describing a very large organization.

ASHCROFT: Well, we're being very careful. And we are seeking to disrupt, interrupt, to prevent, and we're being aggressive in doing it.

I would emphasize we are going sensitive to the Constitution, to the rights of individuals. And no one is being held without judicial supervision as in a material witness warrant, or no one is being held who has not been charged with a violation.

GLORIA BORGER, U.S. News & World Report, CBS News Special Correspondent: Do you believe that you have been successful in disrupting potential terrorists attacks on this country? Do you have reason to believe that?

ASHCROFT: Well, you know, there's a sense in which the ones you prevent and delay, disrupt or avoid are the ones you don't hear about.

We felt that there was some pretty serious information--the president, I think, related this the other night--that there had been very significant interests expressed in crop-dusting experience and the dispersion of one kind of agent or another using crop-dusters. We took steps to alert the industry.

You know, in many agricultural areas, a crop-duster is like a tractor. People left them in the fields; the keys were either in them or they didn't need keys to start them. And our country needed to adjust its way of working in this setting, not to eliminate the use of crop-dusters, but to make sure that we provided a risk-reduction strategy.

This is going to be something we're going to be doing generally.

SCHIEFFER: So, in other words, you beliee you actually stopped an incident.

ASHCROFT: We can't say with any certainty that we've stopped incidents. We simply think that there were risks that required us to notify people to adjust their behavior, and we haven't had an incident. We can't say that we caught someone red-handed getting into a crop-duster and shouldn't say that. I don't mean--but I'm saying that when we take specific action that helps us reduce the risks, we're doing the right things. And the ones you really disrupt and avoid, you'll probably, we may not even know.

BORGER: There are confirmed cases of anthrax in this country right now. Do you believe that there could be some connection between Osama bin Laden and these cases of anthrax?

ASHCROFT: We certainly cannot rule that out. And I think the vice president, in speaking recently, talked about a suspicion.

And the truth of the matter is we are approaching these things with sort of a dual philosophy. The first is the prosecution philosophy. We try to investigate these cases.

And there are two cases of anthrax: One's the cutaneous cut-on-the-finger-type anthrax that infects the flesh. The other was the case of the death in Florida.

But we, when we encounter information in that setting, we do everything we can to use that information to prevent additional, to try to inform the public--and this process of all of us learning something about how to be a little more careful with our mail, how to take the right steps.

The other effort we make is prosecutorial, and we want to ascertain to the extent we can who's responsible and prosecute them.

Both of these tracks are going forward. In a prosecutorial sense, we basically will not rule out and have not ruled out, but in the policy sense we've got to wonder and suspicion, as the vice president said, this could be related.

And we should, in that sense, and from a prevention point of view, think about the potential that it could be related.

BORGER: Well, don't you think there is some sort of pattern here? You talk about a major news outlet--two news outlets, NBC and the one in Florida, and--oh no, three, and the New York Times, and then a major corporation, a major American technology corporation, Microsoft. Do you see some sort of pattern here?

ASHCROFT: Well, I think it's undeniable that there are three attacks against prominent news organizations. And, frankly, they're not the only news organizations that have been the recipient of sort of threats or the recipients of--I don't want to say anthrax, because it's very difficult to confirm in some of the instances whether there was actually anthrax delivered in the envelope.

So I think, you know, the press may be the defining symbol of freedom in the United States. If people hate freedom, they ought to hate information that allows free people to make good decisions. And if there is a targeting, it may be based on that understanding. That wuld be a sophisticated understanding by an enemy.

But if I were a terrorist, I would want to engender fear that was irrational, and I would want to curtail the availability of information in a free press that was good information.

So, this is a serious problem. We take it seriously. We're concerned, though, that not all of the threatening letters, for instance, obviously are--I think some of them are just hoaxes.

SCHIEFFER: Let me just ask you about this, because, I mean, in fact, as you well know, we got a suspicious letter here at CBS News in our Washington bureau just yesterday. The FBI has now told us that they believe that there is no anthrax there, that it tested negative. At least that's the preliminary report.

The New York Times got one of these letters. It turns out that it proved negative for anthrax.

But do you now believe that these letters that are showing up where it proves negative for anthrax, is it because they were a hoax, or could it be that someone sent these letters and the germs, as it were, died?

ASHCROFT: Well, I don't believe it's the germs dying. They might have been unsuccessful.

SCHIEFFER: Well, that's what I'm driving at.

ASHCROFT: But I think in most of those settings, I think you can consider people decided to take advantage of an environment where several anthrax cases, two nationally, have been detected--one death, and the other with symptoms that appear to be totally remitting and very excellent prognosis.

And it's in that setting that I really want to make it clear that to send a threat of anthrax through the mail or to communicate a threat with anthrax is against the law, a threat regarding chemical or biological warfare; and that the authorities, the federal authorities, the Justice Department will prosecute vigorously and aggressively.

This is not a time for individuals to think they can get back at other individuals that they don't like. This is not a joking matter. This is a matter of seriousness. And our resources should not be disrupted and diverted because individuals think this is an opportunity to do something that is, well, very damaging and shouldn't be done.

SCHIEFFER: Has the FBI been strained beyond their capability? Because, frankly, I'm a little amazed at what I have read about and learned about what happened at NBC. Because apparently the FBI, after NBC reported the suspicious packages, the FBI just took it back to the office and sort of left it there. They really didn't take any action for a while. I don't understand how that could have happened.

ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, I think the FBI has been doing a great job, particularly in New York under very difficult circumstances.

There is a coordinator in each FBI office for this kind of terrorist weapons of mass destruction threat, and the biochemical weapons are seen as weapons of mass destruction.

That coordinator was at grond zero, doing things there, and when the original letter came in--this has all been explained thoroughly in New York. And there was about a two-to-three-day lapse before it was sent to the lab.

Now, this is a letter which was found not to contain anthrax very conclusively, but that's something we need to learn from. We need to learn that when you are diverted in one emergency, you can't allow things to not be taken care of.

Bob Mueller, the director of the FBI, instructed very clearly the explanation of this which was made by the FBI. I like that culture that Bob's developing at the FBI: When you find a mistake, tell people about it, and make it clear how we're going to use what we learn in settings to avoid additional problems.

Fortunately this is a mistake without a consequence, but you wouldn't want to have a mistake that had a consequence in this arena.

BORGER: General, Time magazine is reporting this morning that 25 to 35 Arab men in Denver may have received licenses to drive hazardous materials trucks without even speaking English. What can you tell us this?

ASHCROFT: Well, I'm not able to comment on that specific case. I can tell you that across the country we have been sensitive to individuals receiving HAZMAT licenses, if they, for any number of reasons, were suspicious individuals.

You'll remember the case about which now prosecutions, I think, and indictments have been rendered regarding a dozen or more, I guess it's close to two-dozen cases, in Pennsylvania.

Trucks have played a big part in terrorist activity in a variety of settings, not only in the Middle East, but Timothy McVeigh used a truck as a bomb container, so to speak, in the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma. We are sensitive to those issues. We are alert to them.

And obviously we would take action appropriately when we have the right evidence to both contain and curtail the activity of individuals whose licensing is inappropriate, and to prosecute those who provide licenses inappropriately.

SCHIEFFER: Mr. Attorney General, you bring up an interesting point, when you bring up Timothy McVeigh, and that makes me wonder. When we see these cases, these anthrax things that are popping up from place to place, could this be the work of another organization that's trying to hook on to this situation now?

ASHCROFT: We're not able to rule out or rule in at this time. The investigation is ongoing. It could well be that there are look-alikes or opportunists who would seek to exploit the situation in the country. We will pursue each of these cases. And when we have the capacity and the information necessary for prosecutions, they will be vigorous and swift.

SCHIEFFER: Mr. Attorney General, thank you very much.

Thank you so much.

When we return, we'll talk more about the bioterrorist threats with some experts in that area, in a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCHIEFFE: And joining us now, Senator Bill Frist. He is the ranking Republican on the public health subcommittee in the Senate. And Dr. Mohammed Akhter, who heads the American Public Health Association.

Dr. Akhter, you appeared before the Health Subcommittee today. So I will ask both of you the same question. Is this country prepared to handle a bioterrorist attack, Doctor?

DR. MOHAMMED AKHTER, American Public Health Association: I think we are fully prepared to handle a small attack like this anthrax-type things. We are on top of it.

But when it comes to a larger attack, then we are not prepared, we are short on many, many places, because we do not have an early-warning system in place that will let us know that attack has taken place and that we should take prompt action. We don't have the capacity at the local level to deal with this. The CDC, our central place where people go to help could be very much thinly stretched and so they will not have the resources.

And I'm very pleased that Senator Frist has shown the leadership in the Senate to move this forward before the Congress, to have adequate resources allocated so we could be prepared as quickly as possible to deal with the bigger threat.

SCHIEFFER: Well to kind of underline that, Senator Frist, what I was struck by--and I don't remember if it was Dr. Akhter or someone else, one of the other witnesses that was before your committee--but they said that 500 cases of anthrax, that if that happened, there is no hospital or contiguous group of hospitals that could handle 500 cases at once.

SEN. BILL FRIST, R-TN: No, I think the points that need to be made...

SCHIEFFER: Is that true? I mean, do you agree with that?

FRIST: There's no question, if you were to use anthrax as a weapon of mass destruction--which Osama bin Laden and the terrorists have the capability to do, to my mind. If were you to use it, our system is underprepared, not unprepared because we can respond. We've made huge progress in the last two years.

That's not what we're seeing now in New York or the threat you were talking about earlier here, or in Florida. The other response has been beautiful. It's been like a symphony. It's been the FBI working with the public health system the way they haven't had to in the past, with good surveillance, good communication, good laboratory response.

The problem would be is if that occurred all over the country or if an airplane flew over and exposed hundreds of thousands of people, you couldn't handle it in our public health infrastructure. You couldn't handle it at the local emergency room. I'm not sure we would have--we don't know, if it happened in several different spots, enough vaccine or antibiotics.

That's what we can do, is build that public health infrastructure, and we're doing that rapidly. We're much better prepared now than we were a year ago or two years ago. Five years ago we weren't prpared at all.

SCHIEFFER: Gloria?

BORGER: But we're talking about anthrax right now which is something that, as you both have said, is sort of controllable. What about if there is some kind of bioterrorist attack that involves a plague, that involves smallpox?

Is that something, Dr. Ahkter that really worries you?

AHKTER: Absolutely. There are times that you can't go to sleep because you know the weaknesses in the system.

Unlike anthrax, these other diseases can spread from one person to another, and so--and we have large numbers of people. In fact, all of us in this country are not protected against smallpox. And we know from our intelligence reports that many of the terrorists could get this, have access to it through the Soviet Union through other places.

And so, the best thing we can do is to really prepare ourselves, build our capacity, educate our people, so that we could act as promptly as we can to really contain the very first case and then provide the treatment.

SCHIEFFER: If both of you would just hold it for a second, we have to take a commercial break here. We'll come back and continue this conversation in just a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCHIEFFER: Back again with Senator Frist and Dr. Akhter.

Senator Frist, we were just talking about the possibility of someone trying to infect the nation with smallpox. Is that possible or likely?

FRIST: You know, it is. And when we look at the various agents, you can say anthrax, smallpox, tularemia, pneumonic plague, you can go down a long list. And that's what's important for us in public health, in public policy to be addressing.

Smallpox has huge consequence, much more than an atomic bomb if it were released, to my mind, much more today. Why? Because unlike anthrax, it's contagious.

There was an exercise called Dark Winter planned for actually 2001 using preparedness today. And we know by introduction on that model in three different states that within three months it spread to 25 states, spread overseas. There are no boundaries there. About 2 million people would be dead, 5 million people sick at the end of three months.

That makes it alarmist.

The good news is that smallpox has been eradicated from the face of the earth. The flip side of that is that we know there is some smallpox in this country, in Russia and possibly in other countries.

SCHIEFFER: Well, people my age, we still have our vaccination scar, because when we were little kids we got vaccinated. They don't do that anymore. Should we start doing that again, Doctor?

AKHTER: No, I don't think we're ready right now. But this is one area where we need to be working together with the intelligence community, the public health community to see the level of threat. If the level of threat ever rises, if there is one case of smallpox, I would be the first one sitting here advocating, saying lets prepare our nation and protect our people.

FRIST: Let me say to that that we are prepared with that first step. There is no treatment. Smallpox is a virus. It's contagious. It takes about 10 days. So, right now if I had smallpox, you would be infected and we'd all be going around the country infecting other people.

We have to identify those cases. We have to have better surveillance. We have insufficient surveillance. As a doctor, I've never seen a case. First responders don't even know how to recognize the rash. We have to have better communication so if it's picked up in New Orleans or down in Florida or in California, they can communicate. We have inadequate communication today. And we need better laboratories.

I say all that because anthrax we're doing a great job with. The FBI is, the public health infrastructure is. But if we have another agent that is a contagious agent, we are underprepared today.

AKHTER: Absolutely.

BORGER: What do we do, though? Here we are talking about things like a possible smallpox, bubonic plague or whatever. What can we say to people, not to panic people, but to tell them, OK, there are ways you can prepare for this, there are ways you can recognize this, these are the prudent things to do?

AKHTER: I think what we need to tell people is not to worry. We are looking at all possible options. We are getting ready. We are getting prepared. There is very little that an individual can do until we find the first case.

And then we are setting up communications systems. We are working all together. We will let the public know. We are gathering the vaccines. We are putting our people together. We are educating the medical community. We are strengthening public health departments. That's what people need to know.

They shouldn't be worried about it. It's us, the folks in public health community and the government, who should be worrying and building and working hard to make sure that we are ready in case the unthinkable happens.

FRIST: And, Gloria, Secretary Thompson has said he has taken criticism being too optimistic. But he's exactly right. When we started addressing this issue two or three years ago, we were unprepared. Today, anywhere in the country we can get 10 million doses of smallpox vaccine, which is plenty sufficient, I believe, for right now. Within a year we'll be able to get 40 million doses. Now, we may need to go higher than that, but our government is working very, very quickly.

Same thing with anthrax today. It is treatable. And it is treatable with antibiotics today, and we can get 2 million doses anywhere in the United States of America within hours.

So people don't need to be stockpiling. They don't need to be buying gas masks today. Our federal government is fulfilling its responsibility. Now we need to fill these gaps that are in there at the level of public health infrastructure.

CHIEFFER: Well, gentlemen, I want to thank you both of you very much. It's a very sobering message that you bring to us today, but I think it's one we all need to hear.

We'll be back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

- continued -


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