FTN - 5/19/02

face the nation logo, 2009
JOHN ROBERTS, White House Correspondent: Today on Face the Nation, is Al Qaeda planning to hit the United States again?

American intelligence agencies say Al Qaeda is trying to carry out an attack as big as the attacks on September 11. How specific is this threat? How serious? And are the warnings similar to those the administration received prior to September 11? We'll ask the national security advisor to President Bush, Condoleezza Rice.

What has Congress been told about this threat? We'll talk with the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Bob Graham of Florida and Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama.

But first, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on Face the Nation.

Joining us now, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

Dr. Rice, good morning. Thanks for being with us.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, National Security Advisor: Good morning.

ROBERTS: So what can you tell us about this chatter that we're hearing today in the intelligence community. What's the nature of this threat?

RICE: Well, in fact, we get lots of information every day, and we have. And, in fact, the volume of information has gone up because we have a kind of worldwide mobilization of other intelligence agencies and cooperation to get information.

Governor Ridge and Attorney General Ashcroft and Bob Mueller look at this constantly. And we believe that we are at the right level of alert for what is out there in the information that we have.

Now, the point to make is that, prior to September 11, we would not have been on the level of alert that we are now. We have airport security measures in place, port security measures in place that would not have been there before September 11.

It's not -- there's no guarantee that we can avoid another attack. But there are major efforts now that were not there prior to 9/11, and we believe it's about the right level.

ROBERTS: The vice president went much further than that this morning, saying it's not a matter of if America will be attacked again, but a matter of when. Do you agree?

RICE: Well, I think there's always a possibility, because we are an open society and we can't shut down every attack. It makes even more important the work that we're trying to do in Afghanistan and worldwide to go on the offense.

In this case, the best defense is a good offense. We've got to go and rout out the terrorists. There are massive efforts under way to try to rout them out abroad, of course to defeat them at their home base in Afghanistan, and with other law enforcement efforts to disrupt activities that are taking place. So, yes, there's a very large effort, but there are no guarantees.

And it also speaks to the importance of vigilance on the part of the American public. After all, the shoe-bomber, Reid, was foiled by vigilance, and so vigilance can be a very important part of our defense. But ultimately, we've got to rout out the terrorists where they are.

ROBERTS: With this new chatter in the system, is this the highest level of alert that we have been on since September 11?

RICE: Well, we have been on this level of alert for some time. It's important to recognize that, with any information, specificity is awfully important -- time, place, date, against whom.

Back in July, June and July of 2001, we didn't have totally specific information, but for instance, concerning the G-8, we did know it was the G-8; that gave us a target. We knew that it was Genoa; that gave us a place. We knew the dates of the G-8 meeting; that gave us a time. And we were able to do things, the Italians were able to do things that are not possible when you don't have specificity.

But we believe that we are doing what is appropriate, given the levels of information that are out there.

ROBERTS: How long have you known about this chatter that we're talking about now?

RICE: We've been at this now for quite a long time, particularly since September 11.

ROBERTS: But the warnings that just came out in the last 24 hours?

RICE: Well, this is not a new set of warnings. What we have is a flow of information that has been continuing over a period of time. Sometimes the level or the volume of information will spike, but again, you have to always ask yourself, what is it tell you about when, where, against whom? You have to ask yourself what measures make sense in the context of the kind of information that you are getting.

And I just want to, again, tell the American public that the level of alert that we're on now is far higher than the level of alert that we were on 9/11, but it is a level that is appropriate to the character of the information that we're getting.

ROBERTS: So if there's nothing really new in what we're hearing about in the last 24 hours, why is everyone talking about it?

And would you have disclosed this if it weren't for the controversy that erupted last week?

RICE: What we do is we look at the information on an almost daily -- well, on a daily basis. And Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft and Bob Mueller and George Tenet and I are constantly assessing that information.

There is no doubt that there is a lot of activity, and you get, from time to time, spikes in activity. You still have to ask yourself, what is approach and what makes sense and what is appropriate. And sometimes, it's just that volume looks greater.

We have a lot of sources that have been developed, thanks to the mobilization of the world intelligence's network, thanks to the fact that we have people in custody. There are a lot of sources also that were not there before.

ROBERTS: Certainly, but one has to wonder if, after the controversy of last week, you wanted to make sure that you weren't accused of sitting on something that the public should know about.

RICE: No, John, we don't play games with this. As the president has said, when he has information that is specific, he's going to go to the American people and he's going to tell them.

Otherwise, we have in place a system that constantly evaluates the information that we're getting, constantly evaluates the level of activity, constantly evaluates the credibility of the sources, and tries to assess what is appropriate to release publicly.

General alerts have been put forward by this administration. We've also, for instance, when financial institutions were mentioned by name, not specific financial institutions but as a category, there was an alert to law enforcement about financial institutions.

So this is a constant assessment. And general alerts can be helpful, but only when you can tell people what to do.

ROBERTS: Let's go back to the August 6 briefing, Dr. Rice. Why, in all of the questions that were asked of administration officials from the president on down, after September 11, did no one say, "We didn't know specifically what was going to happen, but we did have a briefing in which they talked about potential hijackings. We wish we had known more. We wish we had to been able to connect the dots"? Why was this kept quiet so long?

RICE: John, frankly, the piece that you're taking about came to light to all of us in the context of looking at documents and the like. But we have been very focused on trying to prevent another attack. We've been very focused on trying to fight a war in Afghanistan, on mobilizing the world and intelligence agencies and law enforcement around the world to try to prevent another attack and to try to rout out these people.

This particular document, the August 6 document, was something the president asked for. And it was an analytic piece that simply said, "Here's what we know historically about Al Qaeda's determination to attack the United States." There was no fresh information in it. There was no actionable intelligence in it. It had, for instance, a reference to concerns, the FBI's concerns about a federal building in New York, turns out the courthouse. And action had already been taken there.

ROBERTS: But if there was nothing specific, nothing actionable as you say, why, over the course of the summer, which was information that led up to this briefing, was security tightened at embassies around the world, security tightened at military installations, at least four maybe six FAA information circulars sent out? Sounds actionable to me.

RICE: There was nothing actionable in this August 6 report. Back in July -- June and July, when we were getting a heightened level of information and activity and concerns about attacks, there were some more specific things that were done in response to more specific information. I've mentioned the G-8, for instance.

Most of that intelligence information -- and you have to make a distinction between intelligence information and analysis of what somebody might do -- intelligence information pointed overseas. And that's why there were embassies that were locked down, as we call it. Military forces were put on higher states of alert. The actionable intelligence about what might happen overseas was done.

The volume was such, though, in June and July, that we also said to ourselves, "Well, let's at least think about what we might do in the United States." And that's why, after July 5, the FAA, the INS, the Customs Service were asked to take an assessment. But there was nothing specific as to time or place or against whom that could have geared that to more than a kind of general alert.

ROBERTS: Let me pick up on what you said about the G-8 threat. You said last week, "I don't anyone could have predicted that these people would use a hijacked aircraft as a missile."

Yet, the G-8 threat was specifically about that -- an aircraft packed with explosives. 1995, after the Manila Ramzi Yousef plot was uncovered, there was information that the FBI knew about somebody might be flying an aircraft into the CIA, the White House, the Pentagon. There was also a government report in 1999 that Al Qaeda might have used as a tactic -- and I know it was only an analytical informational report -- but might have used an aircraft as a weapon then.

How could you not connect the dots, given all of the prior information? And not to suggest that you might be able to uncover what happened on September 11, but why didn't somebody say, "There's a pattern here"?

RICE: There were people looking at the history of the tactics that Al Qaeda might use. This particular document that everybody has been referring to, the 1999 report, was an open-source document that said to smart people, all right, what might the terrorists do? There are lots of other things that the terrorists might do. Bombings, car bombings were other things that they might do. And so yes, people were trying to assess the broad range of tactics that Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups might use.

That particular report, by the way, was talking about with high explosives, not what happened on September 11, when it was not a matter of high explosives.

But it still comes down to, do you have something that is specific enough to act on? The G-8 is a good example, because we knew when, we knew the dates, we knew against whom, G-8 leadership, we knew where, Genoa. And as a result, the Italian government was able to shut down the airspace around the G-8 meeting for a period of time.

Can you imagine, though, on the basis of extremely general musings about what they might try to do or what they were interested in doing, that you could somehow shut down civil aviation? Not possible.

ROBERTS: Dr. Rice, we're very short on time. I just want to ask you, do you believe we're in a position now where we could prevent another Al Qaeda attack?

RICE: We're doing everything that we can, but no, I do not believe that we can have assurance that we're going to prevent another attack.

We are doing what we can inside the country to disrupt them. We're doing what we can to harden the country. But the most important thing that we're doing -- and it's what we need to stay focused on -- is fighting this war to try to get them at their source. We must be careful that the tools that we're using to try and prevent another attack not become somehow compromised, as we're trying to find out what happened.

It's why we believe that, as we review this, we have to be careful to protect the information. It's why we think the intelligence committees are the proper place to do this review. And we all want to know how to do this better, but we do need to stay about the business of fighting this war.

ROBERTS: Sounds like no blue-ribbon panel to me.

Dr. Rice, we're going to have to leave it there. Thanks very much for your time.

RICE: Thank you very much.

ROBERTS: Appreciate it.

When we come back, we'll talk with the chairman and ranking Republican of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. Stay with us.


ROBERTS: With us now from Miami, Florida, Senator Bob Graham, and joining us from New York City, Senator Richard Shelby.

Gentlemen, thanks for being with us this morning.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY, R-Alabama: Thank you.

ROBERTS: You were both briefed on this new intelligence traffic that the vice president said this morning demonstrates, almost with certainty, that the United States will face another terrorist attack.

Senator Graham, were alarmed by what you heard?

SEN. BOB GRAHAM, D-Florida: I was alarmed, but again, it's like a lot of the information that we've gotten over the past 12 months. It was non-specific, didn't lead to you a particular course of action that could you take, other than a general increase in our level of sensitivity to possible terrorist activities.

I think that one of the things we've got to do is start connecting our homeland security more closely with what is happening in the war against terrorism overseas.

In my judgment, we're going to win this war on terrorists more by taking the terrorists out where they are than we are by trying to change the fundamental nature of the American society, as open and free as it is.

ROBERTS: Senator Shelby, do you believe that we are at a greater level of threat than we had on September 11?

SHELBY: I think you could interpret the signals that we've been getting -- that is, the signal traffic -- in that regard. But we also have to think about, this could be disinformation. So that's part of the analysts' job in dealing with this type of traffic.

We're on more alert, we're on heightened alert, but we have been there before. We get information, and we try to act upon it. But we do not have the specifics yet as to time, as to place.

ROBERTS: Senator Graham, you said it, and National Security Advisor Rice said it before you, that this is not a new set of warnings. She added that we're already at an appropriate level of alert.

So my question to you is, why make anything of this information publicly?

GRAHAM: I think there are some reasons to make this public. I believe that the American people have a right to know and should be treated as mature adults in the way they'll handle information about threats.

I would slightly disagree with Dr. Rice relative to whether we have done everything we need to do. Let me just cite two recent examples. The Coast Guard reported recently, within the last 15 days, that there were a number -- 25, more or less -- what they described as extremists who came into the United States on container vessels. They entered in a foreign country, hid out in a container, and then entered the United States at the first port of entry, two of which happened be in the state of Florida.

I don't believe that we've done anywhere near what we need to do in terms of increasing our seaport and, particularly, our container cargo security.

And second, recently, within the last couple of weeks, a high official in the State Department reported an increased level of threat from Cuba, based on bio-weapons. For the first time, there was a declarative statement made that we had information that Cuba was developing offensive research and development for bio-weapons and maybe sharing it with other countries.

I have been asking the administration what additional security they are going to provide, whether it's diplomatic intelligence or even military, to protect America against that possible additional threat. Haven't gotten a response yet.

ROBERTS: Senator Shelby, one of the areas that the administration has really focused on, post-9/11, is an increased synthesis of intelligence-gathering and sharing between the FBI and CIA which seemed, at the best of times, prior to the attacks on America, didn't talk to each other a whole lot. But it wasn't until just recently that the FBI informed both the CIA and the National Security Council about this Phoenix memo.

So, given that, do have you a high degree of confidence that anything has changed?

SHELBY: I'm really concerned, as you pointed out, that a lot of things substantive have changed. We've been told that they're cooperating a lot more with the FBI, CIA operatives and, maybe they are, but they had a long way to go.

But the fact that the FBI had this explosive memo that was sent from Phoenix, where you had diligent agents send it to headquarters and it just sat there for months and months and months -- it was not even transmitted to the CIA, not to our intelligence committees, not to the National Security Council -- I think it shows that we've got a long way to go, as far as sharing information.

ROBERTS: Do you believe that these attacks could have been prevented, Senator Shelby? And if not, where does the blame, if there is any, lie?

SHELBY: Well, I don't know, at the end of the day, could they have been prevented in some way? Perhaps, perhaps not.

But if you take the general warnings that we've had for months and months, you know, prior to September 11, you take the July the 10th memo from Phoenix to the FBI headquarters that I just said was dynamite, then you take the August 17 situation in Minneapolis dealing with the FBI into the Moussaoui case, investigation there -- I believe those were lost opportunities. I believe that the FBI did not serve us well on those two occasions.

If you put that together, and this is a post mortem, perhaps we would have a different outcome. Mmaybe not. But we won't ever know that.

ROBERTS: Senator Graham, do you believe that all of this is being viewed through a post-9/11 prism and makes it all seem pretty obvious in retrospect but, given the data that was available at the time, it would be difficult to connect the dots?

GRAHAM: It's always easier to look at something through the rearview mirror than from through the front window pane.

But in this case, as Senator Shelby said, there were so many pieces of information which tended to point in the same direction that you have to hope that, if those had come to the same group of persons or persons and they'd seen it all and been able to see the pattern, that then they might have been able to have initiated some intelligence, such as checking on the backgrounds of people who were reported at these aviation schools that could have then caused a chain of events that would have avoided September the 11th.

Those are exactly the kind of questions that we're going to be asking in our joint Senate-House Intelligence Committee investigations. We've got a professional group of two dozen intelligence officers, lawyers, accountants, who are combing through thousands of pages of records and witnesses.

We're going to do this on a bipartisan, very professional basis. We need the full cooperation of the administration.

We've had some problems. In fact, Senator Shelby and I are going to be meeting on Tuesday with Attorney General John Ashcroft in order to see that the Department of Justice becomes fully cooperative in our needs to carry out the investigation that the American people expect us to do.

ROBERTS: Senator Shelby, Dr. Rice said just a little while ago that she believed that the Intelligence Committee was the appropriate place to be investigating all of this. But there has been some call for striking a blue-ribbon panel, an independent commission, to look at this. Would you support that?

SHELBY: I wouldn't support it at this juncture. If the administration cooperates with us, I agree with Senator Graham that we can do a tremendous job, a credible job, a thorough job, and we are the committees to do it.

I do want to say one thing, John. You know, it's been said recently, what did the president know, to use the phrase, and when did he know it? I don't believe that's the question. The question that I would pose is, why didn't the president know these things? And I'll tell you what he didn't know -- he didn't know a lot of things because the FBI and the CIA and other people have not done their job, at least not shared information, not done it properly.

ROBERTS: Senator Graham, the president the other day, when he was up on Capitol Hill, said that all of this had the sniff of politics about it.

Is that a fair statement?

GRAHAM: I'm afraid almost anything that happens inside the Beltway has a sniff of politics. But one of the things that I believe is going to be a strength of our investigation is that we're putting together Republicans and Democrats, House members, Senate members, people who've had many years of experience in dealing with classified information, with a very professional staff and a clear mission, which is to investigate and to report and make recommendations for changes within the intelligence community that will give the American people some greater confidence that they are less susceptible to another September the 11th.

Nobody can issue an insurance policy, but we can reduce the chances.

ROBERTS: Let me put this first to Senator Shelby, and then, Senator Graham, maybe you can pick up on that.

Senator Shelby, do you want to see the entire contents of the president's August 6 intelligence briefing?

SHELBY: Well, I would like to see it if they want to show it to us. I have confidence in the national security advisor, the vice president and, of course, the president of the United States, as to what they've told us.

I have reason to believe, after the staff had been read the contents, as we were told Friday, that they incorporated our briefing on August 7, the daily briefing into that August 6 briefing. I believe that it was a recapitulation, a summary of past events going back to the '90s, as Dr. Rice has said. I believe any other charge is a bogus charge, that the president knew something and didn't act on it.

ROBERTS: We've got to get Senator Graham in here, because we've only got about 30 seconds left.

Senator Graham, will you insist on seeing that briefing?

GRAHAM: I would agree with what Senator Shelby said. I think the administration would be wise to make that available, just so that they don't have to deal with the question of, you know, what are you denying to the American people? If it's what we were read, there isn't much there.

I would like to say that I think there has been some significant progress made. I spent Friday night with the FBI in Tampa with the counter-terrorism squad, and they're doing some really excellent work. And I think that's true all over the country.

ROBERTS: Senator Graham, I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude. Hate to interrupt, but we've got to go.

Thank you, gentlemen, for being with us.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

SHELBY: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Appreciate it.

We will be back in a moment.


ROBERTS: And that's our broadcast for this morning. Thanks for watching. I'm John Roberts.

Bob Schiefferwill be back again next week with another edition of Face the Nation.

E-mail your questions and comments to Face the Nation