Sens. Lieberman, Collins, Reps. Harman & Hoekstra on "This Week"

Sens. Lieberman, Collins, Reps. Harman & Hoekstra on "This Week"

By This Week - January 3, 2010

MORAN: And we begin with the man who's leading the president's review of the intelligence failures that led to the Christmas Day attempted bombing of Flight 253, the president's top counterterrorism official, Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan.

Good morning. Thanks for being with us.

BRENNAN: Good morning, Terry.

MORAN: Well, this morning, there is news out of Yemen that the United States embassy has been closed for security reasons and the British embassy closed, as well. What can you tell us about the intelligence? What is it showing about the new threats to U.S. interests there?

BRENNAN: Well, I think it underscores the threat that Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula poses to U.S. interests. I spoke with our ambassador in Sana'a, Steve Seche, there earlier this morning and last night, looked at the intelligence that's available as far as the plans for Al Qaida to carry out attacks in Sana'a, possibly against our embassy, possibly against U.S. personnel, decide that it was the prudent thing to do to shut the embassy, but we're working very closely with the Yemeni authorities to address the threat that is out there. But, again, it just demonstrates that Al Qaida is determined to carry out these attacks and more determined to thwart those attacks.

MORAN: There's a live threat, there's an active threat?

BRENNAN: There is. Al Qaida has several hundred members, in fact, in Yemen, and they've grown in strength. That's why, from the very first day of this administration, we've been focused on Yemen. I've traveled out to Yemen twice, talked with President Salih, in fact, just this past week. We're continuing this dialogue. We've provided equipment, training. We're cooperating very closely.

So this is something that we've known about for a while. We're determined to destroy Al Qaida, whether it's in Pakistan, Afghanistan or in Yemen, and we will get there.

MORAN: And there's a report that the British and -- and the United States are now setting up a counterterrorism police force in Yemen. The efforts that you've described, counterterrorism police force, is this evidence that this is a new front? And does it require more American boots on the ground in Yemen?

BRENNAN: Well, we've been investing in Yemen for many, many months now, and we're working very closely not just with the Yemenis, but with our international partners, with the British, with the Saudis, and others to make sure that we provide the Yemeni government the wherewithal to carry out this fight against Al Qaida.

So it's not a new front. It's one that we've known about. It's one that we've been able to make tremendous, I think, progress and gains. Just this past month, we and the Yemenis were able to identify the location of some of these Al Qaida operatives and commanders and leaders, successful strikes that were carried out, and there are several of the Al Qaida members, operatives, and the senior leaders who are no longer with us today as a result of those actions.

MORAN: OK, let's turn to Flight 253, the failed terror attack on Christmas Day. The president now has reports from the CIA, Department of Homeland Security, other agencies. And the basic questions the American people have are pretty straightforward: Who dropped the ball here? Where did the system fail?

BRENNAN: Well, first of all, there was no single piece of intelligence -- a smoking gun, if you will -- that said that Mr. Abdulmutallab was going to carry out this attack against that aircraft. What we had, looking back at it now, were a number of streams of information. We had the information that came from his father, where he was concerned about his son going to Yemen, consorting with extremists, and that he was not going to go back.

We also, though, had other streams of information coming from intelligence channels that were little snippets. We might have had a partial name; we might have had indication of a Nigerian. But there was nothing that brought it all together.

What we need to do as a government and as a system is to bring those -- that information together, so when a father comes in with information and we have intelligence, we can map that up so that we stop individuals like Abdulmutallab from getting on a plane.

MORAN: But that is exactly the conversation we had after 9/11 about connecting these disparate dots. You were one of the architects of the system put in place after that, the National Counterterrorism Center. That's where the failure occurred, right, that the -- the dots weren't connected?

BRENNAN: Well, in fact, prior to 9/11, I think there was a reluctance on the part of a lot of agencies and departments of sharing information. There's no evidence whatsoever that any agency or department was reluctant to share...

MORAN: Including the NSA, where the NSA intercept shared with the National Counterterrorism Center?

BRENNAN: Absolutely, all the information was shared, except that there are millions upon millions of bits of data that come in on a regular basis. What we need to do is to make sure the system is robust enough that we can bring that information to the surface that really is a threat -- threat concern. We need to make the system stronger; that's what the president is determined to do.

MORAN: You say millions upon millions of bits of data that -- Facebook has 350 million users who put out 3.5 billion pieces of content a week, and it's always drawing connections. In the era of Google, why does the U.S. intelligence community not have the sophistication and power of Facebook?

BRENNAN: Well, in fact, we do have the sophistication and power of Facebook, and well beyond that. That's why we were able to stop Mr. Najibullah Zazi, David Headley, other individuals from carrying out attacks, because we were able to do that on a regular basis.

In this one instance, the system didn't work. There were some human errors; there were some lapses. We need to strengthen it.

But day in and day out, the successes are there. We are continuing to make progress against Al Qaida. And we've been very fortunate that we've been able to take advantage of the systems in place and the tremendous dedication of American men and women throughout the intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement communities.

As Americans were able to enjoy their holidays watching football games, spending time with their families, these dedicated Americans were working around the clock to protect their fellow Americans.

MORAN: Let's talk about accountability for a moment, because President Obama said he will insist on accountability at every level. Last week, Janet Napolitano , the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, was on this program and others, and this is what she had to say about the Christmas Day attack.


NAPOLITANO: The traveling public is safe. We have instituted some additional screening and security measures in light of this incident. But, again, everybody reacted as they should. The system -- once the incident occurred, the system worked.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MORAN: Now, Secretary Napolitano also said that there was no information that would have put Abdulmutallab on a no-fly list, which we now know not to be the case. Was it mistake for her to say that or was she just out of the loop?

BRENNAN: I think Secretary Napolitano clarified her remarks about the system working or not. I have been able to work with Secretary Napolitano the last 11 months, and I consider that we as a -- as a nation are very fortunate to have somebody of Secretary Napolitano's caliber, experience and dedication. Day in and day out, she's working very hard to make sure that the American public is safe and will continue to be safe.

So what we're trying to do with Janet and with the other agencies and departments is to find out how we can strengthen the system. As I said, the system works very, very well every day, but there are instances when, for whatever reason, something didn't happen.

The president does consider that to be unacceptable. We're going to work to strengthen it. We're going to do everything possible to make sure that nobody again, like Abdulmutallab, gets on a plane with explosives.

MORAN: This has been a hard week for the CIA. There were seven CIA officers killed in a suicide bombing on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. What can you tell us about how that attack occurred? And how badly will it impact U.S. intelligence-gathering in Afghanistan?

BRENNAN: Well, first of all, I think the tragic death of those seven CIA officers just underscores the tremendous bravery and the risk that these men and women of the CIA put themselves at every day. I think this nation owes them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

The CIA is looking very carefully at the circumstances surrounding that attack and trying to make sure that it doesn't happen again. The CIA is on the front line, right along that border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As you point out, it is going to take a toll, as far as the people that are there, the expertise that we have.

But the CIA is a tremendously resilient organization. I had the privilege to serve there for 25 years. It has some of the most dedicated men and women in this United States. And so, therefore, we're confident that the CIA is going to be able to rebound from this and be able to continue to prosecute this war against Al Qaida.

MORAN: Should they be out on the front line like that?

BRENNAN: Yes. This is a very, very dangerous threat that Al Qaida poses to us. We have to take those risks. We have to do it prudently, and that's why we have to learn from the attack, just like the attempted attack on the 25th of December, the attack against the base in Khost.

But we need to take those risks, because we're -- we need to be able to find out sort of who these individuals are, what they're planning, and what their next steps are. MORAN: All right, good luck.

BRENNAN: Thank you very much, Terry.

MORAN: John Brennan, thanks very much for joining us.

BRENNAN: Thank you.

MORAN: And now, as our congressional panel takes their seats, we'll have a listen to what the president had to say about stepping up pressure on Al Qaida in Yemen.


OBAMA: ... president, I've made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government, training and equipping their security forces, sharing intelligence, and working with them to strike Al Qaida terrorists.


MORAN: And I'm joined now by the two top senators on the Homeland Security Committee, independent and Chairman Joe Lieberman and Republican and Ranking Member Susan Collins , and from California, Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman , chair of the House Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee, and from Grand Rapids, Michigan, just back from his trip to Yemen, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Pete Hoekstra.

Welcome to all.

MORAN: And, Congresswoman Hoekstra, let me begin with you, since you've just returned from Yemen, what did you learn about specifically the plot against Flight 253, about Al Qaida, and about the Yemeni government's capacity to fight this fight?

HOEKSTRA: Well, I think we learned a number of things. As John Brennan just said, this is a real threat. This is an imminent threat that is coming from the Al Qaida Arabian Peninsula area.

The second thing that we've learned is that this is kind of a unique threat coming from this group. Why is it unique? It's unique because the core group of Al Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula is formed by former Gitmo detainees. These are people that were held in Gitmo, have been returned, and have now gone back to the battlefield.

The other element there is the influence of a charismatic, American radical imam. So you've put the Gitmo folks together. You put Awlaki together. These people have moved an attack on the U.S. homeland to their -- to the top of their priority list. So that is the root cause of why we saw the attack at Fort Hood, why we saw the attack on the flight, Flight 253.

The final thing is that, you know, the Yemeni government has limited capacity to deal with returning members from -- from Gitmo and the indigenous Al Qaida element in the country. I think that the increased assistance that we are providing to Yemen is absolutely essential. We need a -- we need this connection between Yemen and America and the Brits if we're going to contain this threat.

The good thing about what John Brennan said this morning, it appears that we are now all on the same page. We recognize the imminent threat. We are committed to enhancing our intelligence capabilities and our offensive capability to deal with this. I think the -- the pressing issue that's going to be coming up over the next few months is, how do we deal with Americans who have joined Al Qaida and are now part of the machine that wants to attack the United States?

MORAN: Homegrown terrorists, it's -- it's the new wave. You raised several issues there. Let me stay on Yemen for a moment.

Senator Lieberman, last week...


MORAN: ... you said that Yemen could be -- could turn into tomorrow's war. Expand on that a little bit. How hot a war are you talking about? Do you foresee American forces? Would you call for American forces in Yemen?

LIEBERMAN: Let -- let me explain the comment. Senator Collins and I, with a few colleagues, were in Yemen in August. And one of our American personnel there said to us -- and I thought quite wisely -- that Iraq is yesterday's war, Afghanistan is today's war, and if we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war.

We are acting preemptively now. We have an increasing presence there on the ground. We are supporting the Yemeni military and security forces. We've carried out some successful raids in the last couple of weeks against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

What I meant to say was that in part because we have put so much pressure on Al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Waziristan, they're moving to Yemen. And it's a big country, very sparsely populated, a government facing two different uprisings in different parts of the country. This is fertile ground for this -- this group to -- to fester in.

There have been three successful evasions of America's homeland defenses in the last year, the individual in Little Rock who walked in and shot a U.S. Army recruiter, Hasan at Fort Hood, and now Abdulmutallab in -- in Detroit, in the airplane. Every one of those three is connected in one way or another to Yemen, so we've got to focus there preemptively, and I'm confident we will.

MORAN: Well, let -- let's turn to Abdulmutallab and the Christmas Day terror attack and the administration's response. And let me ask you just straight up: Do you have confidence that Janet Napolitano , the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, is up to the job, can do this job?

COLLINS: I do, but I will say that her initial comments were bizarre and inappropriate. It baffled me that she said that the system worked very, very smoothly, when clearly it did not. It also surprised me when she implied that there was not information to indicate that this individual posed a threat when there was information.

Nevertheless, I believe that Secretary Napolitano is working very hard and that she will cooperate with our efforts to ensure that these breaches in our defenses cannot happen again.

MORAN: Is she the right person for the job?

LIEBERMAN: Yes, she -- she came to the job with tremendous experience, federal prosecutor, state attorney general, governor. She's done a good job. I agree with Senator Collins, and I'm sure Secretary Napolitano agrees with us, too. The choice of words -- some of the choice of words last Sunday were subject to misunderstanding, and they've been badly misunderstood.

Senator Collins and I are beginning a series of hearings when Congress and the Senate comes back into session in a couple of weeks to look not just at the Detroit bombing attempt, but at where we are five years after the 9/11 Commission reforms went into effect, seven years after the Department of Homeland Security went into effect. We're going to conduct these in the same bipartisan way that we've done everything in our committee.

We're not out to protect anybody or attack anybody. We're out to fix what went wrong on December 25th and to note that, in this year, last year, 2009, our homeland -- there were -- there were more than a dozen attempts to attack our homeland, and three of them broke through. The -- the Detroit bombing could have been the most devastating terrorist attack on the U.S. since 9/11 if the -- the -- the explosive had gone off.

So it's time to take a fresh, nonpartisan look, not to knock down the Department of Homeland Security or the 9/11 reforms, but, frankly, to fix and build them up so we learn from our mistakes and we're more secure in the future.

MORAN: All right. Well, there has been an Al Qaida surge, it seems. And, Congresswoman Harman, let me ask you about that and about what Congressman Hoekstra said about some of the origin of -- of this violence of these plots coming out of released detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Would you say to the administration that the time has come at least temporarily to stop the release of Yemeni prisoners -- of whom there are more than 90 in Guantanamo Bay -- back to the chaos and extremism of Yemen?

HARMAN: Well, I have been to Guantanamo Bay three times when I was a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I think with Pete Hoekstra on some of those visits. And I am planning a visit soon. I believe the prison should close, but I also believe we should review again where we're going to send the detainees. I think it is a bad time to send the 90 or so Yemenis back to Yemen.

I support the administration's actions to open a -- a new prison in Illinois. I hope that happens. I hope Congress will fund it. We do a good job of keeping prisoners, many convicted terrorists, including the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, behind bars in the supermax prison in Colorado. And if we are going to say we live by the rule of law, we have to apply it to those we detain, both abroad and in America.

Let me add a couple of other things. I think the Al Qaida threat is different from what it was on 9/11, but I think it is extremely strong, especially in Yemen. I agree with the comments that have already been made. I'm glad the president decided in the last few days to focus more assets on Yemen.

But this is a global problem. The vice president, Joe Biden, is right that we need a global counterterrorism strategy. And as we fix the specific problem that allowed a 23-year-old Nigerian kid with well-hidden explosives and a U.S. visa to board a plane, let's not just fix the last problem. Let's be imaginative and have a layered system that anticipates new problems.

And, finally, there is a homegrown terror problem in the United States. We have to understand it. We have to work against it more adroitly. We've had a few successes recently with Zazi and Headley and others. Joe Lieberman just mentioned them.

But as we do that, I think it is past time for the president to stand up the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board that the four of us put in the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act, which is the cornerstone of our effort to fix our intelligence capability. That Civil Liberties Board is responsible for doing something we must do, which is to factor in the protection of our Constitution and law-abiding Americans as we develop new and harder-hitting policies against the bad guys who are trying to attack us, both domestically and internationally.

MORAN: Well, let me ask Congressman Hoekstra about something else Senator Lieberman said, and that is the pace of the Al Qaida operational tempo this year accelerating and some missed signals already in the Little Rock recruiting office, essentially. Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, also known as Carlos Bledsoe, he was the subject of an FBI investigation. At the Fort Hood military post, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, of course, also the subject of a federal inquiry. And on Northwest Flight 253, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was also the subject of FBI -- of the intelligence community's attention.

Congressman Hoekstra, what is happening here, eight years after 9/11, a failure to connect these dots? Or is it just as many terrorism experts say, time that we have to face the fact that maybe we won't be able to stop every potential attack?

HOEKSTRA: Well, I think it's a reality, it's very, very difficult to stop every single attack. It doesn't mean that we should stop trying to improve the mechanisms that we put in place.

Now, the four of us worked very closely together to put together the intelligence reform bill back in 2004 which enabled us to make very important strides in improving our defensive and offensive capabilities against Al Qaida. But Al Qaida continues to morph and to change.

And the really striking difference now is the emergence of more Americans as part of this process in Al Qaida. It means that they do have a higher priority placed on attacking the United States, and they don't need -- and they haven't set as a criteria that they want to do something as big as 9/11. They are satisfied with the kind of successes that they saw at Fort Hood and what they anticipated would happen on Christmas Day.

I think where we now need to go with intelligence reform -- and I think the four of us are probably in agreement -- in 2004, we -- we focused on making sure that we were collecting all of the information that we needed to collect. We wanted to make sure that that information would be shared among the community so that we could connect the dots, but that the challenge that we now face is that we are collecting so much information, we are sharing it, we now need to develop the capabilities to do a better job of analysis.

We had the dots here. And the problem was that we did -- that the systems aren't in place to connect the dots. This is the part of the transformation we still need to see in the intelligence community.

MORAN: So let me turn, actually, to the subject of passenger screening, which -- which has been raised. And is it time to profile passengers on the basis of religion or ethnicity? Or is that completely contrary to our ideals and our values as Americans?

COLLINS: The problem with profiling is, if you take that approach, you're going to miss the Richard Reids, who do not fit the profile. But what we have in this case was a failure to act on a very credible report from the terrorist's father that should, at the very least, have caused the State Department to revoke his visa.

To me, that is the biggest question. Why wasn't this individual's visa revoked once we had such a credible report that he posed a threat? That, to me, is an even bigger failure than the failure to screen him effectively. It's also obvious that we need to employ technology better in the screening systems. It is -- it is unacceptable that nine years or eight years after Richard Reid used the exact same explosive that we still don't have a system in place that can detect that kind of explosive.

MORAN: And now that Abdulmutallab is in custody, Senator Lieberman...


MORAN: ... should he be brought to trial in -- in federal criminal court?

LIEBERMAN: No. I think that's a very serious mistake. Look, President Obama said yesterday, Abdulmutallab was trained by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, equipped by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and directed by them to get on that plane and attack the United States of America.

That was an act of war. He should be treated as a prisoner of war. He should be held in a military brig. And -- and, in fact, he should be questioned now and should have been ever since he was apprehended for intelligence that could help us stop the next attack or get the people in Yemen who directed him to do what he did, so, yes, we -- we should follow the rule of law, but the rule of law that is relevant here is the rule of the law of war.

And I agree with what Pete Hoekstra said before. I'm one who believes that Guantanamo should not be closed. It -- it is a -- I know it has a bad reputation. I know the president promised during the campaign that he would close it. But the president is in charge of what happens at Guantanamo now, so some of the abuses of the past are not going to happen.

You could not find a better, more humane facility when it comes to a detention center in the world. It seems like a waste to me to take these people to Illinois.

But one thing we better learn from this case on -- on December 25th, it would be irresponsible to take any of the Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo and send them back to Yemen.

MORAN: You agree with that?

LIEBERMAN: We know from past experience that some of them will be back in the fight against us. The leader of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula broke out of a jail there until we killed him, apparently, in the raid Christmas week.

So we've -- we've got a lot to investigate. But I think we've learned a lot already about how to close some of the holes. I believe, incidentally, that we ought to take a look at taking that visa application and admission responsibility from the State Department. It doesn't really fit with foreign policy anymore. And in an age of terrorism, I think the Department of Homeland Security ought to be handling visas abroad.

I also think that we ought to be very much tougher about terrorism watch list. If somebody -- somebody's father comes in and -- and says he may be an extremist, he ought to go on a list that is -- is alerted any time he approaches, as Abdulmutallab did...


MORAN: That will be part of the (inaudible) if you know, no question about it. And I just want to turn, Congresswoman, to the -- to the political issue. These -- these disagreements about Guantanamo Bay and the response of the administration raised the political stakes undoubtedly and inevitably in Washington.

The former vice president, Dick Cheney , had this to say in a statement. He said, "We are at war, and when President Obama pretends we aren't, it makes us less safe. Why doesn't he want to admit we are at war? It doesn't fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn't fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency, social transformation, the restructuring of American society."

Do you think that's an appropriate comment from the former vice president?

HARMAN: No. I respectfully disagree, and I've been disagreeing with the vice president for years. I think the -- the -- the label "war on terror," which Pete Hoekstra himself has said was a kind of ridiculous label, is a war on a tactic.

We're at war with Al Qaida. And I think President Obama has been very clear about this from day one and has made a lot of progress against the Al Qaida target, as did the Bush administration.

The terrorists are not going to check our party registration before they blow us up. I don't think that this Abdulmutallab young man cared who he blew up on the airplane. I don't think that the Taliban cared who they blew up, sadly, on that volleyball field in west Pakistan recently. And I don't think anybody cared, sadly, that they were harming some wonderfully courageous intelligence agents in -- in the Khost province of Afghanistan recently.


MORAN: And once...

HARMAN: Our hearts go out to their families. But my point is that, unless we -- we understand who the enemy is, the enemy is Al Qaida, which is a -- a changed organization, a loose horizontal affiliation of bad guys that team with whoever is available -- they're very opportunistic, and they have the ability to learn what our vulnerabilities are -- unless we get that and are aggressive against it, and protect the civil liberties of Americans while we do it, we won't make progress.

MORAN: All right. And...

HARMAN: So I think the vice president is off -- off bounds, and I think he has been for a while here.

MORAN: One more note on politics, Congressman Hoekstra. Once upon a time, there was a tradition of solidarity in refraining from criticizing the president at the time the nation was under attack. Three days after this attempt to kill 300 people over the skies of Detroit, you sent out a fundraising letter, and I'd -- I'd like to read a portion of it so our audience gets the full flavor of it.

You said, "I have pledged that I will do everything possible to prevent these terrorists from coming to Michigan, but I need your help. If you agree that we need a governor who will stand up to the Obama-Pelosi efforts to weaken our security, please make a most generous contribution of $25, $50 or $100, or even $250, to my campaign."

Given that tradition, that once was part of this country, are you proud of that, of fundraising off of a national crisis like that?

HOEKSTRA: Well, I've been leading on national security for the last nine years that I've been on the Intelligence Committee. You know, over the last two to three months, I've been very concerned about where there administration has taken us on national security issues.

The refusal to acknowledge that the Fort Hood attack was a terrorist attack...

MORAN: But I'm asking about raising money off the attempted murder of 300 people three days after it occurred.

HOEKSTRA: I -- I am proud of the role that I have played in making sure that America is safe.

MORAN: And raising money off it?

HOEKSTRA: I've been right on the facts all along on this -- on the recent attacks, the connections with Yemen. The -- the differences between this administration and myself have been purely substantive. They have been policy. I've been trying to drive this administration in a policy direction that keeps America safe.

I think if you listen to the language that we have heard over this -- this morning, with the guests that you've had on the program, we are now at a point where we have come back. We've got -- we've got some political disagreements or policy -- excuse me -- we've got some policy agreements, but we also have a recognition that this threat is real, it is imminent, and that we need to come together in a bipartisan basis to fix it.

MORAN: All right.

HOEKSTRA: I am proud of the role that I have played in making sure that this country stays safe.

MORAN: All right. We will see how that effort at bipartisanship goes (inaudible) and thank you to you all for joining us this morning.


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