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Robert Gibbs; Reps. King & Clyburn on "Face the Nation"

Robert Gibbs; Reps. King & Clyburn on "Face the Nation"

By Face the Nation - December 27, 2009

JOHN DICKERSON: Good morning and welcome to "Face the Nation." I'm here with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Welcome, Robert.

(AUDIO GAP)

GIBBS: ... foremost, the president has asked for two reviews to take place as a result of this potential terrorist attack. The first is a watch-listing review.

This individual was on a list, what's called a TIDE database list, based on the information that the government gathered from his father. That put him on a list of about 550,000 different people that different departments and agencies can log in.

The selectee list, which is for second screening and the no-fly list are far smaller. They encompass, in total, about 18,000. So we want to ensure that all of the information that needs to go to decision-makers gets to where it needs to go. The president has asked for a review of the procedures, which in some cases are several years old.

Secondly, the president has asked the Department of Homeland Security to review our detection capabilities to ensure that somebody that might be carrying explosives like this individual was can't get through a screening stage like they did in Amsterdam.

DICKERSON: Does the president think anybody dropped the ball in this process?

GIBBS: Well, obviously, there's a review that's going to take place and an investigation that's certainly ongoing. I think the president's posture on our war against those that seek to do us harm has been to focus not on Iraq but to draw down from Iraq and focus our resources on Afghanistan and Pakistan, to increase our cooperation with nations like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. And we've seen Al Qaida targeted there and many of their heads eliminated.

DICKERSON: But does he think, in this case, that even though the system may have been old, that mistakes were made?

GIBBS: Well, look, again, that's the part of the review that's going to take place. I think, first and foremost, John, the president wants to ensure the safety and security of the American people.

DICKERSON: Does he think this was a tiny little rip in the system or does this show there's a big hole here that needs to be fixed?

GIBBS: Well, again, look, we're going to go through the capabilities for detecting. And we're going to look through the watch-listing procedures again, some of which are older, and evaluate whether or not they're up to date for the types of threats and security concerns that we have.

I do think, though, that, in many ways, this system has worked. We just have to continue to keep refining it and stay ahead of what terrorists are trying to do.

 

DICKERSON: But the system, as you said, is, kind of -- it's a little bit crazy, 500,000 people on this larger list. In this case, the suspect's father went to the embassy and said he was worried about his son. That should, in some people's minds, at least get him an extra pat-down, which didn't happen in this case. That really seems like it's very much out of whack.

GIBBS: Well, his -- his entry into this database was because of that information. There was not enough information to bring him more forward to either the selectee or the no-fly database list. But, obviously, whether it is our detection capabilities; whether it is our listing procedures, the president wants to ensure every step and precaution is taken to ensure our safety and security.

DICKERSON: The president is not known for big outbursts of emotion. But on this case, when you talk about studies and reviews and all of that, it sounds a little antiseptic.

Give me a sense of the sense of urgency, here, from the president.

GIBBS: Well, obviously, the president was briefed on this almost as soon as it took place. He's been involved with national security aides and secure conference calls to and from the situation room in the White House to get information.

I think what's important -- I hope it doesn't sound too antiseptic because, obviously, we need to learn what happened in this instance and how anything like this can be prevented from happening in the future, John.

DICKERSON: Janet Napolitano , the homeland security director, said, right now, we have no indication that this is part of anything larger. Is that right?

GIBBS: I don't want to get into classified intelligence matters. I wouldn't disagree with the secretary of homeland security. I think what's important, though, is we saw what could happen. We've seen what can happen on September 11. The important thing is we take all steps to ensure that it never happens again.

DICKERSON: Is there going to be a new normal, here?

After Richard Reid tried this in 2001, we now all take our shoes off. Are we going to have full pat-downs now, and is image -- full- body scans -- is that in future, possibly?

GIBBS: Well, look, the secretary of homeland security raised what we do at each of our airports. The threat level was kept the same, but the procedures were enhanced. More air marshals were added onto flights. We obviously want to review and make sure that all the detection capabilities that are supposed to happen, whether it's a pat-down, whether it's additional security selection, that that happens in each instance.

DICKERSON: Any discussion of raising the threat level, the color of the threat level?

GIBBS: That was evaluated on Christmas Day, the day of the incident. Officials felt comfortable with where the threat level was but wanted to ensure that capabilities that are happening at airports, both foreign and domestic, are raised a little bit so we understand and work to prevent this from happening again.

DICKERSON: So does the president think it's safe for Americans to fly?

GIBBS: Absolutely.

DICKERSON: Finally, last question, which is, the president, in his speech at West Point, when he made his decision about sending more troops to Afghanistan, suggested that, maybe, people had forgotten that people are out here trying to do this.

Does he think the American public has become complacent about these kinds of threats?

GIBBS: Well, look, John, we understand, and the president has dedicated a lot more resources to the region of the world where people sit in caves and in houses planning to do us harm. They didn't sit in Iraq. They sat in Afghanistan and they sat in Pakistan. That's where the president has directed his resources. And he thinks it's important that the American people understand why he's dedicated our brave young men and women to fight in that area and draw down in Iraq.

DICKERSON: OK, Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary, thanks very much.

GIBBS: Thanks, John.

DICKERSON: Joining us now from New York is Congressman Peter King, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee.

Congressman, how close did this suspect come to taking this plane down?

KING: Well, by all accounts, he came very close. And, you know, earlier today, Secretary Napolitano said the system worked. The fact is the system did not work. And we have to find a bipartisan way to fix it. He made it on the plane with explosives and he detonated the explosives.

If that had been successful, the plane would have come down and we would have had a Christmas Day massacre with almost 300 people murdered. So this came within probably seconds or inches of working. And thank God there were brave people on board, and thank God that the terrorist was not able to successfully carry out the detonation. But he got right to the one-yard line.

DICKERSON: The former director of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff , suggested that, at airports, that the screening procedures basically to stop this kind of attack are going to have to go to either a full-body pat-down or a full X-ray. Is that where you see things heading?

KING: I think we have to head in that direction. In fact, I would say, right now, we do need the full-body scan, especially when you have countries like Nigeria, which have inadequate security to begin with; then you have passengers transiting in Amsterdam and coming here.

Yes, I think we have to face up to this reality, that we live in a dangerous world where Islamic terrorists want to kill us. And, yes, there is some brief violation of privacy with a full body scan. But on the other hand, if we can save thousands of lives, to me, we have to make that decision and we have to come down on the side of saving thousands of lives.

And that's why I think it's important for the president or the secretary to be more out there and reminding the people just how real this threat was and how deadly it is. You know, for the first three months of this administration, they refused to use the word terrorism. And even at a speech at West Point, the president did not use the word "terrorism."

This is a teaching moment, to use the president's term. And I believe that he or the secretary or the vice president or the attorney general should be out there reminding the American people, saying this shows how deadly this enemy is. This shows how real this threat is and why we have to do whatever we possibly can to protect the American people.

DICKERSON: In that instance, though, Congressman, could you buy the argument, or what do you think of the argument that, if the president rushes out to the microphones, that it in fact gives the terrorists more power, that he's so shaken the entire administration into this big public display?

KING: There's no need to rush to a microphone, but this is a president who has been on television, made more television appearances, more news conferences than any president in history. And to me, it would be very important to, in a very calm reassuring way, tell the American people, this is what we're doing; we're on top of this; we're going to win, but this is a reminder of why we always have to be alert to the evils of Islamic terrorism.

KING: Instead, there has been a virtual vacuum for the last day- and-a-half. And I'm not making this partisan. I mean, nobody was better than Bill Clinton at addressing the American people and explaining to them what we were facing. And that's really all I'm saying.

By the way, let me make this clear, I am confident that the president of the United States, as commander-in-chief, is doing all that he possibly can in this instance to protect the American people. I'm not getting into that.

I'm just saying I would think that an administration which is so quick to talk about global warming and health care reform and the latest deal that's being made in the Senate, somebody in the last almost 48 hours should have been out there speaking to the American people and the world to let them know that we are on top of this and we are winning this.

DICKERSON: You heard my conversation with Robert Gibbs about the specific measures the president has called for, these two reviews both about the list and then also about the detection devices at airports. Are you satisfied with that response, that portion of the response from the administration?

KING: Yes. To me the administration is going to follow through on that. I'm confident they will. I mean, the Congress is also going to hold its investigation, the Homeland Security Committee to make sure that all is being done to ensure that, for instance, the person who was on a watch list, for instance, in this case Abdulmutallab, is coming out of Nigeria, which is a suspect country anyway as far as al Qaeda, his father comes to the American embassy.

On November 23rd the State Department raises concerns about him. When you consider the country, when you consider, you know, information that was given on him, at least he should have gotten a secondary screening in Nigeria.

Now that could have been a failure of the system. So let's honestly address that and admit the system did not work and find ways that we can move people off that 500,000 list on to at least a secondary screening list.

DICKERSON: But if you look at 500,000 people, you know, one of the reasons that the lists have shrunk in the past is that it just became untenable. Just too expensive, delays at airports crippled the airline industry. Isn't what you're suggesting going to create delays and financial ruin for airlines?

KING: John, we have to find a way to take the more obvious cases. Here you have a leading banker in Nigeria coming to the American embassy on his own. We're not talking about a name that was found in a Blackberry somewhere, we're talking about a leading banker coming to the American embassy and giving a warning or raising concerns about his son.

It's in a country where there's a strong al Qaeda presence which does have, unfortunately, lax airport security. It would seem to me in that particular case alone, for instance, that that should have gone to a -- onto some list where he would have been at least screened in Nigeria or screened in Amsterdam when he got there and the American government should have been behind that.

DICKERSON: Thank you. Congressman, we're going to have to leave it there. Thanks very much. We'll be back in a minute.

KING: Thank you, John.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DICKERSON: Congressman James Clyburn, the number three Democrat in the House, joins us now from Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Congressman, welcome. I wanted to ask you about what Congressman King said. He suggested the president and the administration was not fast enough in responding to this. What's your reaction to that?

CLYBURN: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. You know, Peter King is a good buddy. He is given to a little bit of hyperbole sometimes.

I think that the president, in his response, is doing exactly as he should do. I think that in so many instances these terrorists get more benefit from the reaction they cause than from the action they take. And so I believe that for the president to be very measured in reactions -- in his reactions, not elevating this thing to the point that it would be satisfactory to terrorists, is exactly the way to do it.

I think Secretary Napolitano is out there today talking about this issue. I have been in touch with the situation room of the White House. I've been briefed. I have talked with Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee. And I am very satisfied that everybody is doing what they ought to do with this instance.

DICKERSON: Based on your briefings, Congressman, how big of a deal is this? I mean, was this a narrow incident or do you think this represents a much bigger problem?

CLYBURN: Well, from all that I have heard, I think that this is a very narrow incident. Now, the fact of the matter is we see something taking place here that disturbs me a little bit. I remember the incident of the shoe bomber. I think Mr. Reid, if I might call him mister, the same flammable material, explosive that he used seems to have been used in this instance. So it would seem to me that some kind of secondary screening may need to be -- take place in certain instances, and hopefully in order to detect that kind of substance.

DICKERSON: Quickly, Congressman...

CLYBURN: That, to me...

DICKERSON: Does that mean for you a full body pat-down, just quickly?

CLYBURN: Well, I'm saying secondary. How you describe that secondary, I think, would be based upon where the airplane is originating from and what kind of security measures they have on-site.

DICKERSON: All right. Let me now switch to the topic of health care, which was the other big story we were going to talk about until this breaking news. The Senate has passed its bill. Can you sign on to what the Senate has passed?

CLYBURN: I think that our process calls for us to now meet in conference. I believe that both the House and Senate bills make tremendous contributions toward bending the cost curve. I think they do a great deal to bring more people into the system. I think though that the House bringing the 36 million additional people, the Senate bringing 31 million additional people, I think that the more the merrier in this instance.

So I do believe that the Senate has done a very good bill. But I think that the House has done a very good bill as well. We need to look...

DICKERSON: Congressman, we need to -- you were a strong advocate for the public option, sent a letter to the president, said, don't waiver on this. It's not included in the Senate bill. Can you vote for a final health care bill that does not include a public option?

CLYBURN: Yes, sir, I can. Because why do we want a public option? We want a public option to do basically three things: create more choice for insurers; create more competition for insurance companies; and to contain costs.

So if we can come up with a process by which these three things can be done, then I'm all for it. Whether or not we label it a public option or not is of no consequence. What we want to do is get good, effective results from whatever we put in place.

DICKERSON: A number of other public option supporters who shared your passion for the issue feel that the president let them down a little bit on this. That he didn't fight very hard for it. That he was kind of stringing them along through the process. Did he let you down?

CLYBURN: No, he did not. If you may recall, I said way back before we went out on our August break that we ought to take a hard look at this so-called robust public option that a lot of people had bought into.

I never quite bought into that. I was one of those people saying, we ought to come up with a hybrid. Part of which was to bring more people into Medicaid. And that's what we did on the House side. We did a blended plan. We didn't do what you might call a robust public option plan on the House side.

What we're saying is, on the House side, let's increase eligibility for Medicare to more than 33 percent of...

DICKERSON: All right. Congressman...

CLYBURN: Yes.

DICKERSON: I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there on the details.

 

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