MR. DAVID GREGORY: This Sunday, a new year and new fears about
terrorism. Questions mount after this man slips by U.S. intelligence and
airport security, nearly blowing up a U.S. airliner Christmas Day. What
more is known about the plot? How did U.S. intelligence miss so many red
flags? And is Yemen a new front in the battle against terrorists? The
president orders a review.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: I've directed my counterterrorism and homeland
security adviser at the White House, John Brennan, to lead these reviews
going forward and to present the final results and recommendations to me
in the days to come.
MR. GREGORY: With us live this morning, John Brennan. Then the politics
of fighting terror. Republicans accuse the Obama administration of
letting the country's guard down by failing to treat the fight against
terror as an all-out war. What more should be done to keep Americans
safe? Are extra security measures at the airports the answer? With us,
two members of the Bush administration's national security team: former
Director of the CIA Michael Hayden, and former Secretary of Homeland
Security Michael Chertoff.
Finally, in this new year, a crowded inbox for the president--terrorism,
unemployment, and the final mile on healthcare reform. Insights on
what's ahead for the Obama agenda with our roundtable: NBC News special
correspondent Tom Brokaw, New York Times columnist David Brooks,
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, and historian Doris Kearns
But first, some news this morning. The U.S. has closed its embassy in
the capital of Yemen because of what officials are calling an active
security threat posed by al-Qaeda there. The announcement one day after
the president specifically implicated the Yemen-based branch of al-Qaeda
for being behind the Christmas Day terror attempt.
PRES. OBAMA: It appears that he joined an affiliate of al-Qaeda, and
that this group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, trained him,
equipped him with those explosives, and directed him to attack that plane
headed for America.
MR. DAVID GREGORY: We are joined now live by the president's top
counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan.
Welcome to MEET THE PRESS.
MR. JOHN BRENNAN: Thank you, David.
MR. GREGORY: This security threat, the reason to close the embassy, is
it because of specific intelligence that says an attack is coming?
MR. BRENNAN: Yes, there are indications that al-Qaeda's planning to
carry out an attack in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. I spoke with our
ambassador down there, Ambassador Seche, this morning, as well as last
night. Both the U.S. and the British embassies have been closed to give
the Yemeni government an opportunity to thwart that threat and the plans
that are afoot right now from al-Qaeda.
MR. GREGORY: A threat against our embassy?
MR. BRENNAN: It's a threat--they--we know that they have been targeting
our embassy, our embassy personnel, and we want to make sure that we do
everything possible to safeguard our diplomats and others that are down
there. So that was the prudent step to take.
MR. GREGORY: The president talking about al-Qaeda in Yemen. Is Yemen a
new front in this battle against al-Qaeda?
MR. BRENNAN: No, it's not a new front. We've known about it for quite
some time; and that's why from the very first day of this administration,
and even in the last administration, there has been tremendous focus on
Yemen. I traveled out to Yemen twice over the past several months, I
spoke with President Saleh. I spoke with President Saleh this week. We
have been focused on this issue. We need to make sure that we continue
to provide the training, the support that Yemen needs to counter this
very serious threat. There are several hundred al-Qaeda members right now
inside of Yemen, and the fight is being taken to them. Events during the
last month demonstrated the Yemeni government resolve, and there are a
number of operatives and leaders of al-Qaeda in Yemen that are no longer
with us today because of those actions.
MR. GREGORY: Is the U.S. providing fire power to the, the Yemen
MR. BRENNAN: The U.S. is providing a range of support that includes
security, intelligence, and military support to the Yemeni government.
We're doing this in close cooperation with the Yemenis, we're doing it
the right way, and we've been able to make some progress.
MR. GREGORY: The president said that those behind the Christmas Day plot
will be held accountable, will be held accountable. Should the American
people expect military action by the United States in Yemen?
MR. BRENNAN: I think the American people should expect that its
government is going to do everything, in fact, to hold those individuals
accountable whether they're in Yemen, whether they're in other places.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses a serious threat. They have
attacked our embassy before, they've carried out attacks in Saudi Arabia
against Saudi targets, and now it's very clear that they're trying to
bring those attacks to the homeland. We're not going to let them do
that. We're going to take strong action against them.
MR. GREGORY: So military action is possible in Yemen?
MR. BRENNAN: Everything is possible as far as our cooperation with the
Yemeni government. We want to make sure that the Yemenis have what they
need to thwart these threats.
MR. GREGORY: Let me talk more about the Christmas Day plot. Last week
the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, said the system
worked. Do you agree?
MR. BRENNAN: Clearly the system didn't work on that day because
Abdulmutallab should never have gotten onto that plane with those
explosives. You know, every other day the system has worked so far this
year. We've been able to thwart attempts by Mr. Najibullah Zazi, David
Headley, and others. But clearly what the president is--wants to do is to
make sure that we strengthen the system. It's not that the system is
broken, but clearly there are ways to improve the system, strengthen it,
to make sure that we can put together the various bits and pieces of
information in a way that allows us to stop every single terrorist out
MR. GREGORY: Well, let me get to that, because this seems to be a big
issue in terms of how could certain things have happened. You know, a
lot of Americans remember the way the Unabomber was brought to justice
was the fact that his brother turned him in. When a family member says,
"I'm worried," that should be a big red flag. And, in fact,
Abdulmutallab's father, a Nigerian businessman, a prominent figure in
Nigeria, goes to the U.S. embassy and says, "My son went to Yemen. He's
become a radical. I'm worried." And yet somehow that doesn't shoot to
the top of warning signs for U.S. intelligence. Why not?
MR. BRENNAN: Well, you--well, you know, every day there are people who
bring to our attention concerns that they have about either family
members or others who are--have joined the ranks of extremists. The five
guys from northern Virginia, those that actually went out to Pakistan, it
was because their families brought it to the attention of the
authorities. We took very strong action and the Pakistanis were able to
put them into custody. In the case of Abdulmutallab, his father did
express concerns to us about that he was consorting with extremists in
Yemen. The failure within the system was that we didn't take that
information and connect it to the other bits and pieces of information
that came through the intelligence collection systems. It's a, a
requirement that we are able to bring to bear all those disparate bits
and pieces in a way that allows us to identify the individuals. We had
some information in intelligence channels that didn't give us the clarity
we needed to know who the individual was that al-Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula was using. What we need to do is to make sure that this never
MR. GREGORY: But, you're an experienced intelligence official here.
Were these knowable red flags? Should they have been caught and put
MR. BRENNAN: Yes, they should have been. And that's what we need to do
is to make sure that this never happens again.
MR. GREGORY: Where's the accountability? Does somebody need to lose
MR. BRENNAN: As the president said, there's going to be accountability
at all levels, and he has to take a look at it. But let me say a couple
of things on this. First of all, Janet Napolitano has done a tremendous
job over the past year. I've worked very closely with her, and I know
there were a number of criticisms about her comments about "the system
worked." What she was referring to, and she's clarified her remarks, the
system worked after the incident. What the president wants to do is to
make sure that we're able to take the corrective steps necessary to
prevent this from happening again. But he needs to hold everybody
accountable, including me.
MR. GREGORY: Newsweek magazine has a cover story that's on newsstands
coming out this week about the children of bin Laden; that's the cover
story. And in it there's reporting about specific information that you
received before the Christmas Day plot, in terror warnings about the use
of explosives being hidden in underwear to get through airport security
and other specific information prior to the act about the, the potential
for a plot that would be based out of Yemen on a U.S. airliner. What did
you know prior to this incident?
MR. BRENNAN: I think what you're referring to is the attempted
assassination against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in Saudi Arabia by, in
fact, an individual who had concealed on his person PETN, the same
explosive used by Mr. Abdulmutallab. Right after that attack, I went
out, I met with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. I, in fact, saw the room
where the attempted assassination took place. That information was
provided to us by the Saudi government; we disseminated that information
broadly. There was no indication, though, that al-Qaeda was trying to
use that type of attack and that modus operandi against aircraft. We're
very concerned about it from an assassination standpoint, and we continue
to look at all the evidence that is out there so we can take the steps
necessary to prevent any types of attacks from taking place.
MR. GREGORY: Are we safer than we were in the immediate aftermath of
MR. BRENNAN: I think the U.S. government has done tremendous work over
the last eight years, nine years, to strengthen our system, strengthen
our security perimeters. We have now a system in place that the FBI and
CIA, NSA, Department of Homeland Security and others are working very
collaboratively together in;what we need to do is to make sure that
we're able to leverage that system every day, making sure that it's 1,000
percent perfect so that we don't have another person like Abdulmutallab
come in. So, yes, I think the American people can take comfort in
knowing that the government has worked hard since 9/11 and has made
steady progress not just in terms of helping to secure the country, but
also degrading, disrupting, and we're ultimately going to defeat
MR. GREGORY: But, but I guess what a lot of people should be concerned
about is that, that sense of, you know, how does this kind of thing
happen where you have multiple inpoints into the system, inputs into the
system, where there's information that looks a lot clearer in hindsight,
obviously, but nevertheless, for trained professionals to look at and
say, "Ah, this has to go--this have to--has to be blinking bright red.
It has to go to the top of the system." How do we get from where we
apparently are to that place?
MR. BRENNAN: Well, as I said, I think that we have been to that place
many times with the disruption of plots that are taking place sort of every day,
whether it's overseas or here. Mr. Zazi, Mr. Headley, others, those dots
did come to the surface. What we need to do, though, is to be able to do
that every day. But the system is working; it's just not working as well
as it needs to constantly.
MR. GREGORY: The, the question of airline travel, what needs to be done
to make airline travel safer?
MR. BRENNAN: Well, one of the reviews that President Obama has asked for
is for Secretary Napolitano to lead that review as far as looking at the
technologies that are in place at airports, screening practices, the
procedures, the criteria that are used right now for the different watch
lists, the no-fly and selectee. There's no single silver bullet that's
going to be able to allow us to have that type of assurance that we're
going to be able to stop individuals from coming aboard planes.
It's--has to be a package of things. It has to be technology, it has to
be expertise, it has to be intelligence, it has to be cooperation with
our international partners. And so all this has to come together
seamlessly, and it has to be done on a daily basis.
MR. GREGORY: But do we have to compromise some additional privacy, like
with full-body scanners at the airports, in order to keep up with the
MR. BRENNAN: I think there's a way to make sure that we maintain the
type of privacy that is expected by American public, but also provide the
security that is needed. What we're trying to do now is strike that
balance, looking at the technologies available, looking at the practices
that we use. But there has to be this very healthy balance. We maintain
that privacy standard but, at the same time, do everything possible to
MR. GREGORY: So body scanners, do you think they should be deployed more
widely at the airports?
MR. BRENNAN: I think it's, I think it's certainly something that needs
to be considered and looked at, and we're looking at it very carefully.
In fact, at the Amsterdam airport there were full-body scanners in place.
They had--they weren't used, in fact, for the airline that was going to
be coming here to the United States. But I think those full-body
scanners, as well as other things, needs to be part of this package.
MR. GREGORY: Would those scanners have detected the level of PETN that
Abdulmutallab was carrying?
MR. BRENNAN: I think it's unknown. But I think it would have enhanced
our, our potential for actually identifying it.
MR. GREGORY: Why isn't he be treat--being treated as an enemy combatant
instead of a criminal?
MR. BRENNAN: Well, because, first of all, we're a country of laws, and
what we're going to do is to make sure that we treat each individual case
appropriately. In the past Richard Reid, the former shoe bomber;
Zacarias Moussaoui; Jose Padilla; Iyman Faris; all of them were charged
in criminal court, were sentenced some in--in some cases to life
imprisonment. We have these tools available, whether it's an enemy
combatant avenue or to charge them criminally. We look at the cases, and
in this case we decided it was best, in fact, to charge him criminally.
MR. GREGORY: Would there be additional intelligence that could be
gleaned by making him an enemy combatant? And do you believe that
whatever you're learning from him, was the Christmas Day plot part of
something larger from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?
MR. BRENNAN: Well, first of all, we have different ways of obtaining
information from individuals according to that criminal process. A lot
of people, as they understand what they're facing and their lawyers
recognize that there is advantage to talking to us in terms of plea
agreements, we're going to pursue that. So--and we are continuing to
look at ways that we can extract that information from him.
As far as a broader plot, that's one of the things that the intelligence
community is working 24/7 right now to see if we can uncover. Was he a
singleton? Are there other individuals out there? And we're doing
everything possible to identify somebody before they even get near an
MR. GREGORY: What does the intelligence tell you now? Can you draw
MR. BRENNAN: I think we have to assume that there are others out there.
But what we're doing is making sure that we are working with our
partners, working with others to stop that person before they actually
are able to get aboard an aircraft.
MR. GREGORY: What about the issue of Guantanamo Bay? So many of the
prisoners there come from Yemen, have been returned to Yemen in the
previous administration and in this administration as well. The Democrat
who runs the Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, says we should
stop, stop sending them back there. What's the president's position?
MR. BRENNAN: Well, first of all, we have undertaken a very methodical
process as far as looking at all the individuals at Guantanamo Bay. The
last administration transferred over 530 Guantanamo detainees abroad. In
this administration, we have transferred about 42. What we've tried to
do is look at each individual case, make decisions about whether they
should be prosecuted either under Article III court or military court, or
transfer them abroad, repatriate them to their countries of, of origin or
to another country. In the case of Yemen, we have, in fact, sent back
seven individuals. Previous administration sent back 13 to Yemen. Of the
recent batch that we sent back, about six, many of them are in custody
within the Yemeni system right now. We are looking at it every day.
We're not going to make any decisions that are going to put people at
risk. We will decide and determine when, when we should send additional
people back. But we're going to do it in the right way, because
Guantanamo should be closed. It was used as a propaganda tool by
al-Qaeda, and the president is still committed to it.
MR. GREGORY: Well, they use a lot of things as, as propaganda tools. Is
this really the way to keep America safe, by sending back prisoners to
Yemen who might turn around and become part of an organization that's
becoming more robust there?
MR. BRENNAN: We're just going to make sure that we don't do anything
that puts American security at risk, whether it's Americans who are in
Yemen or here in the United States. But we need to make sure that we are
a country of laws and we maintain that standard so that we are able to
treat these individuals the way they should be treated, prosecute them if
we have the information available to us, transfer them back. But make
sure that if they're transferred back, the countries that receive them
take the appropriate steps to safeguard us and them.
MR. GREGORY: Republicans have been very critical of this president and
accuse him of returning to a pre-9/11 mentality, of becoming lax in the
face of terror, of essentially letting America's guard down. Former Vice
President Dick Cheney said this to Politico this past week. Let me put
his comment up on the screen. "As I've watched the events of the last
few days it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend
we are not at war. He seems to think if he has a low-key response to an
attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won't be
at war. ... He seems to think if we bring the mastermind of September
11 to New York, give him a lawyer and trial in civilian court, we won't
be at war. He seems to think if he closes Guantanamo and releases the
hard-core al-Qaeda-trained terrorists still there, we won't be at war.
He seems to think if he gets rid of the words, `war on terror,' we won't
be at war. But we are at war and when President Obama pretends we
aren't, it makes us less safe." How do you respond to that?
MR. BRENNAN: I'm very disappointed in the vice president's comments.
I'm neither Republican nor Democrat. I've worked for the past five
administrations. And either the vice president is willfully
mischaracterizing this president's position, both in terms of the
language he uses and the actions he taken--he's taken, or he's ignorant
of the facts. And in either case, it doesn't speak well of what the vice
president's doing. The clear evidence is that this president has been
very, very strong. In his inaugural address, he said, "We're at war with
this international network of terrorists." We continue to say that we're
at war with al-Qaeda. We're trying to give it some clarity. And we have
taken the fight to them. We've continued, in fact, many of the, of the
activities of the previous administration. I would not have come back
into this government if I felt that this president was not committed to
prosecuting this war against al-Qaeda. And every day I see it in the
president's face, I see it in the actions he's taken, and so I'm
confident that this country is, in fact, protected by this president's
position on al-Qaeda and against terrorist activities. We're going to
continue to do this, we're going to do it hard, we're going to do it
MR. GREGORY: Is it anything less than a failure that eight years after
9/11 Osama bin Laden has still not been captured?
MR. BRENNAN: This is something that has bedeviled this government for
many, many years. We're going to continue to hunt him down. Ultimately,
we're going to get him. We're going to get bin Laden, we're going to get
Zawahiri, we're going to get the others. There's been a very strong
track record over this past year and, in fact, over the past number of
years in terms of finding these operatives, finding these commanders and
either capturing or killing them. It's going to happen with bin Laden.
Every day we get one day closer, and hopefully it's going to be very
MR. GREGORY: When's the last time he was pinned down by the U.S. or its
allies, or close to being killed?
MR. BRENNAN: Well, I think, you know, the, the evidence is that Tora
Bora we came very close, in fact, to finding him, getting him, and
capturing him. Intelligence is working every day on this, and I'm not
going to go into that. But there are some dedicated men and women, and I
think just the, the events this past week, the tragic death of seven CIA
officers, underscores just the bravery and the risks that these
courageous men and women who put their lives on the line every day on
behalf of their fellow Americans. And we have that throughout the
intelligence community. And I think we have to remember who the enemy
here is. The enemy is al-Qaeda. And as this finger-pointing is going on
in Washington here, these partisan politics and agendas, quite frankly, I
find it very disappointing that people would use this issue, issue of
tremendous import of national security and forget that it is al-Qaeda
that is killing our citizens.
MR. GREGORY: We'll leave it there. Mr. Brennan, thank you very much.
MR. BRENNAN: Thank you very much, David.
MR. GREGORY: Appreciate it.
MR. DAVID GREGORY: We're joined now by two members of the Bush
administration's national security team, former Secretary of Homeland
Security Michael Chertoff and former Director of the CIA Michael Hayden.
Welcome to both of you.
GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.): Thank you, David.
MR. GREGORY: General Hayden, let me begin with you. Reaction to what
you've heard here from Mr. Brennan, specifically on new threats being
posed by Yemen and al-Qaeda in Yemen?
GEN. HAYDEN: No, I, I agree totally with what John pointed out. We've
been watching Yemen for some time. In fact, as pressure's increased on
al-Qaeda in the tribal region of Pakistan, we always look to Yemen and
Somalia as a place where the senior leadership could flee to. Now, the
senior leadership has not gone there, but we have seen a steady growth in
al-Qaeda in Yemen since about 2006. If you recall then, David, there was
a massive jailbreak in Yemen, about two dozen al-Qaeda members that were
incarcerated there escaped. And from that point on, where--we've seen a
steady growth of al-Qaeda and their use of Yemen as a safe haven.
MR. GREGORY: Should there be some accountability on the part of Bush
national security officials like yourself, at a time when there were
detainees from Guantanamo released back to Yemen, at a time when Yemen
and al-Qaeda there was becoming more robust, that the administration did
not do more to specifically target the al-Qaeda threat?
GEN. HAYDEN: Well, we worked very hard on it. As John pointed out,
there's a, there's a continuum of action between President Bush's
administration and President Obama's administration with regard to these
national security threats. Now, true to be said that we did release some
folks from Guantanamo, despite our best efforts making this threat
assessment, that actually returned to the battlefield, to, to return to
terrorism; and certainly we bear responsibility for that.
MR. GREGORY: Is this a new front in the war on terror, as you see it,
GEN. HAYDEN: It is a growing front. It is, it is, as John pointed out,
it's not all that new. We've seen it coming for some time. It's always
been unsettled. And since, again, since about 2006, we've seen it take a
more prominent role in al-Qaeda's safe havens in ungoverned areas in the
MR. GREGORY: Are you concerned if the administration decides to release
any additional prisoners from Guantanamo to Yemen?
GEN. HAYDEN: This is a very difficult question. Each of these have to
be decided individually. The only counsel I would offer, as we recognize
how difficult this is, we made some mistakes, and I would not be governed
by any artificial timeline. I'd take my time with this and be careful.
MR. GREGORY: The mistakes being the, the release of the prisoners, is
that what you're referring to?
GEN. HAYDEN: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
GEN. HAYDEN: That some people that we decided to release, with our best
judgment at the time, have returned to the fight. That should be a
cautionary tale for President Obama's administration.
MR. GREGORY: So don't close Guantanamo, is your point?
GEN. HAYDEN: I would not be in a rush to close Guantanamo. But, David,
to be fair, we were trying to reduce the population at Guantanamo as
quickly and as carefully as we could in the Bush administration.
MR. GREGORY: Secretary Chertoff, so much has been made of failures on
the part of this administration. Is the other way to look at this that
it has become enormously difficult to pull off an attack against the
United States, that what we're seeing are low-level, incompetent people
who can't quite pull it off? Is that not a positive sign for U.S.
intelligence, for U.S. security?
MR. CHERTOFF: Well, I, I think that's exactly right, David, and I think,
as John points out first, to put it in perspective, as troubling as this
incident is, we have seen occasion after occasion where we have disrupted
plots, and we've batted almost 100 percent. And I think this plot also
demonstrates, because of the complexity and the fact that they had to use
a new operative, that they are actually being forced to work under a
great deal of pressure and are handicapped in carrying out these plots,
precisely because we have made it difficult, although not impossible, to
smuggle explosives onto airplanes.
MR. GREGORY: What went wrong here?
MR. CHERTOFF: I think that the, the review that John's going to
undertake is going to be very specific about that. It strikes me that
what we're going to look at are two possible areas. One is was there a
failure not to connect the dots in the sense of bringing them together,
but to understand the significance of what those dots were. And I think
that's an important part of the inquiry. The second piece is, as John
pointed out, is there were scanners in the airport in Amsterdam that were
not used. Why were they not used? European--the European Union has
banned the use of these devices because of privacy issues. And I think
that's going to cause another debate about where we strike the balance
between privacy on the one hand and the right to life that every air
traveler has when they get on an airplane.
MR. GREGORY: I want to come back to this body scanner issue in just a
minute, but I want to, I want to press you on this point about both the
gathering of intelligence, the sharing of intelligence. Again, the
accountability question for Bush administration officials like yourself.
The Bush administration created these extra layers of intelligence
gathering and dissemination and yet left office before they were proven
to be effective, clearly. We have so many ways to gather intelligence
and to look at this intelligence, and yet the government's still not
talking to each other.
MR. CHERTOFF: Well, first, I have to say, David, I mean, it was
obviously effective during the seven years that we had after 2001 because
we did not have an attack or anything even approaching a successful
attack. And, frankly, it was successful through most of this year
because of the number of plots you've seen disrupted, including Headley,
Zazi, the five jihadis who went over to Pakistan who've been apprehended.
So, actually, the real story is the enormous amount of success we have
had. But it's not perfect, and I think that this is an occasion to look
and see what do we need to do to improve the system, even though I think
the architecture's basically sound and has served us well over eight
MR. GREGORY: Let me return to the, the body scanner issue. As you have
pointed out numerous times, and we've talked about before, you are a
consultant for a company that makes the type of body scanners that you
advocate, although it's something that you advocated as homeland security
secretary as well. Would they have done the job? Would they have
detected the amount of PT--PETN that he had on board?
MR. CHERTOFF: I believe the answer to that is yes. Of course, no
technology is perfect, but this would dramatically increase the ability
to detect things that are concealed underneath people's clothing, on
their bodies. We've known about this problem for years. In 2005 I
testified about this before Congress. I said, "We have got to deploy
these kinds of capabilities, otherwise people are gong to smuggle in
explosives or weapons hidden on parts of their body." I have been through
the machine myself; I have looked at the image. I think we have taken
steps in the deployments that we have undertaken to protect privacy. At
the end of the day, no one has come up with a better solution, and
keeping your fingers crossed that the enemy won't figure out this
vulnerability is a very foolish way to manage security.
MR. GREGORY: General Hayden, same question I asked John Brennan, which
is are we safer as a country since the immediate aftermath of 9/11?
GEN. HAYDEN: Absolutely. I mean, as John pointed out, it's not that--a
question that the system broke down, it's a--it's a question that the
system needs to be improved. We, we are facing a learning enemy. This
is an enemy that adapts, and we have to adapt with that, with that enemy.
One case in point. One of the--some of the early stories that came out
were--was that the information was not shared, which was the belief that
what happened prior to the attacks on September 11th, 2001. That is
simply not the case in this incident. This information was shared, it
was available. What it was not was, was, was not highlighted, it was not
connected. And that's a human activity, and that's a very difficult
task. And, as you pointed out, this becomes easier only in retrospect.
In, in, in prospect, these are very difficult things to do.
MR. GREGORY: It's interesting. Secretary Chertoff, you were on this
program back in 2006, and you touted the government's ability at that
time to look for vulnerabilities, to come together as a group and try to
outthink the terrorists. And yet this is what the former inspector
general of homeland security had to say in an op/ed in The New York Times
this past week. He said, "Perhaps the biggest lesson for airline
security from the recent incident is that we must overcome our tendency
to be reactive. We always seem to be at least one step behind the
terrorists." Is that the case?
MR. CHERTOFF: Well, I don't think that's true, and I think, as I say,
this was a problem we anticipated, the notion of someone concealing
explosives. I also have to point out that the screening failure took
place overseas, and that, that does reflect some issues we have with
sharing of information, where the Europeans are reluctant because of
privacy. I think the problem has been not so much the recognition but
the implementation. There has been an enormous amount of resistance, and
not just in the issue of technology but in the issue of secure
documentation and other things that we've done, by groups that simply
don't believe that we ought to have these security measures. It took us
years to get the Western Hemisphere document requirements in place
because we had a tremendous amount of political resistance. So I think
this is an opportunity to reinvigorate the willpower.
MR. GREGORY: General Hayden, are we effectively ethnically profiling
potential suspects who want to hurt the United States?
GEN. HAYDEN: I, I, I'm not quite sure of the context in which you're
asking the question, David, about ethnically profiling. But with regard
MR. GREGORY: Well, isn't there a profile of who we think the terrorists
GEN. HAYDEN: Of, of, of, of, of course there is.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
GEN. HAYDEN: But it's based more on behavior. I mean, for example, the
individual in question here, Abdulmutallab. I mean, he would not have
automatically fit a profile if you were standing next to him in the visa
line at Dulles, for example. So it's the behavior that we're attempting
to profile. And it's the behavior, these little bits and pieces of
information that were in the databases, that we didn't quite stitch
together at this point in time. But it wasn't question of ethnicity or,
or religion. Those, those are contributing factors. But it's what
people do that we should be paying attention to.
MR. GREGORY: Well, but I, but I want to press Secretary Chertoff on this
point whether--because I've spoken to counterterror officials who'll say
it's more than a contributing factor. We know who 90 percent of these
terrorists are. There may be other examples of women being used and the
what--and whatnot. But Islamic males between the age of 20 and 30 make
up roughly 90 percent of that profile. Is that an inappropriate or
appropriate way for law enforcement to be targeting individuals?
MR. CHERTOFF: I think relying on, on preconceptions of stereotypes is,
is actually kind of misleading and arguably dangerous. Obviously, you
MR. GREGORY: So that's wrong? That profile's wrong?
MR. CHERTOFF: Correct.
MR. GREGORY: OK.
MR. CHERTOFF: While I--now, what I would say is you want to look at
things like where has a person traveled to, where have they spent time,
what has their behavior been. But recognize, one of the things
al-Qaeda's done is deliberately tried to recruit people who don't fit the
stereotype, who are Western in background or appearance. Look at a--like
a guy like an Adam Gadahn, who grew up in California, who's one of the
senior level al-Qaeda operatives but does not fit the normal prejudice
about what a--an extremist looks like.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about politics. I read the comments by the
former vice president, General Hayden. Do you think that it is
responsible for the vice president to criticize President Obama as
letting America's guard down by failing to treat this fight as a war on
GEN. HAYDEN: I'm, I'm not going to comment on, on the current president
or the former vice, vice, vice president, David. I do know that this is
an important national issue. It does become part of the political
debate. But I will offer you a professional's view on the current
atmosphere, the highly-charged atmosphere in Washington. I would ask, on
behalf of the community of which I used to be a part, for everyone to
kind of calm down a little bit, stop hyperventilating, let John take this
study, look at this in detail to learn what we can learn from it without
a sense of, of, of attribution or accusation. I mean, these are tough
MR. GREGORY: But that would apply, that would apply to Bush
administration officials as well. Because I seem to remember covering
the White House when Bush administration officials thought it was
counterproductive and, indeed, hurtful and harmful to the country to have
Democrats questioning, whether it was the patriotism or, or the overall
wisdom of some of these national security activities.
GEN. HAYDEN: David, there are broad policy issues here that deserve
intense political debate. We should let the American system handle that.
But the secretary brought up an interesting one. What's the balance the
American people want between their privacy and their security? You can't
just keep coming back to the intel guys after bad things happen and
expect them to perform miracles 100 percent of the time if we don't
address these more serious fundamental questions as a nation. That's
part of the political process. And the intel community needs to be a
customer of those decisions.
MR. GREGORY: But your message is, left or right, Republican, Democrat,
don't politicize this battle. Is that your point?
GEN. HAYDEN: There are policy questions that need to be resolved through
our political process.
MR. GREGORY: Do you believe the president is adequately confronting this
threat of terrorism?
GEN. HAYDEN: I, I, I am heartened by the fact that the president
consistently says, "We are at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliates."
MR. GREGORY: So my question is do you believe he's adequately
prosecuting this war against al-Qaeda and terrorists?
GEN. HAYDEN: There are honest differences. Clearly, this past summer
with regard to some CIA activity, interrogation memos from the office of
legal counsel, the CIAIG report, the question of a special prosecutor, I
actually think that's harmed our overall effort, all right? But that's a
personal view. That's the decision the president has to make. We should
not overly politicize things that are essentially security in nature.
But we do need political guidance that will be the product of our
MR. GREGORY: Secretary Chertoff, you told NBC's Pete Williams, our
justice correspondent, this past week, you were concerned that there was a
return in this government to a pre-9/11 mentality. Explain that.
MR. CHERTOFF: Well, I'm concerned that we don't use all the tools on the
table, and I--here I have to say I agree with Mike and I agree with John.
I think the president has repeatedly articulated his belief we're at
war. Nevertheless, there are elements of the strategy we have to ask
questions about. Is it sensible, for example, to bring Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed to New York out of a foreign area in order to try him there? I,
I think that's a fateful decision and one that I hope that, that the
attorney general has carefully thought through. There are other
elements, and some of which Mike Hayden's mentioned, which I think maybe
send a little bit of a conflicting message. So this is a great
opportunity for the administration to make sure that they are not leaving
anything on the table that could be used to defend the American people.
MR. GREGORY: Finally, do you have confidence in your successor...
MR. CHERTOFF: I do.
MR. GREGORY: ...Secretary Napolitano?
MR. CHERTOFF: I, I do. I've known, I've known her for a long time.
She's got a good skill set, she's got great experience, her heart's in
the right place, and I, I heartily endorse her.
MR. GREGORY: We'll leave it there. Thank you both very much for being
GEN. HAYDEN: Thank you.
MR. GREGORY: Up next, terror, unemployment, health care, all challenges
facing President Obama in the new year. Our roundtable weighs in on
what's ahead. Tom Brokaw, David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, and Doris Kearns
Goodwin, only here on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. GREGORY: Our political roundtable weighs in on the year ahead for
the Obama agenda after this brief commercial break.
MR. DAVID GREGORY: We are back, joined by presidential historian Doris
Kearns Goodwin; NBC News' Tom Brokaw; E.J. Dionne of The Washington
Post, of course; and David Brooks of The New York Times.
Welcome to all of you. Happy new year.
MS. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You, too.
MR. GREGORY: Tom Brokaw, this Christmas Day plot, if this was the 3 AM
wake-up call that Hillary Clinton talked about in the campaign, it
finally came. How has the president handled it?
MR. TOM BROKAW: Well, I think he was slow off the mark. I think that
they've been much more responsive since then. It demonstrates once
again, David, the vulnerability of even great powers like the United
States against an enemy that really is very nimble, very cunning, and
suicidal. And for all the technology that we have in the world, all the
coordination that goes on with security apparatus in Europe and around
the rest of the world, if one little piece is not in place, somebody can
slip through and have a devastating effect as that bomber might have had
on that Northwest flight that day. The administration certainly has now
been responding in a much more robust fashion since then.
MR. GREGORY: We certainly don't do a lot, David Brooks, to celebrate
successes in our security wall in the United States, but the breaches
get, get huge attention here. How did the administration do?
MR. DAVID BROOKS: Not so well. But the country didn't do so well.
We've got a lot of post-talk geniuses in this country; after the fact
they're brilliant at diagnosing what happened. We seem to be in a
position where, like teenagers, we expect perfection of our parents and
then we throw a temper tantrum when they don't achieve it. The fact is
we've got human institutions. I think they do probably a pretty fantastic
job by and large. I thought John Brennan today was tremendously
MR. BROKAW: Mm-hmm.
MR. BROOKS: And you saw a great agreement between the Bush officials and
the Obama admin officials. And I thought this is one of the areas of
government that actually generally works. But it's a human institution.
Human institutions are going to fail. They gather huge nets of
information; they're not always going to connect the dots. And if we
throw a temper tantrum or start pointing fingers every time they have a
failure, we're just not going to be a resilient country.
MR. GREGORY: E.J. Dionne, how, how much damage do we do as a country
with this blame game? How much comfort do al-Qaeda operatives around the
world take from the fact that Bush blames Clinton, Obama blames Bush,
Cheney seems to blame a lot of people, but, principally, President Obama.
And you heard John Brennan really lash out against the former vice
president for his criticism, and he's worked for both administrations.
MR. E.J. DIONNE: Right. Well, I think you pointed that out in the
question that there is a sort of lack of fit here between what
Republicans said when they were in power and what they said when they
were out of power. But we are a free country. Politics is always going
to be a factor, and that's something that I wouldn't want to get rid of,
even though some of it can be damaging and some of it is dishonest. I
think the initial administration response was an effort to be calm and
reassuring. Some people viewed that as complacency. As Tom pointed out,
they quickly corrected that and then turned it into urgency. But I think
the biggest favor that was done to President Obama was Dick Cheney coming
out and politicizing this the way he did. Dick Cheney is the gift who
keeps on giving to Democrats. When you saw--you saw a lot of Democrats
who've been critical of President Obama on health care or on Afghanistan,
suddenly they all rallied to him. I think by the end of the week they
had overplayed their hand, and the professionals gathered around this
table a moment ago showed that those folks involved in the fight just
don't want it to be politicized like that.
MR. GREGORY: Doris, you're familiar with writing long and wonderful
volumes of history. And if the war on terror, if chapter one was written
by President Bush, now it's chapter two and beyond; and it's still very,
very complicated, an entire decade really defined by, by terrorist acts
at the front end and at the back end, an attempted act at the back end.
So much different than the wars we have fought in our past.
MS. GOODWIN: True. But I think there are certain lessons, even though
the war on terror is a war about individuals, loose organizations, it's
not countries, there aren't going to be treaties. We've learned things
from other wars that I still think are valid here. Number one, you have
to have allies on your side, and I think that's what the Obama
administration has begun to do. I mean, after we made the announcement
about the Afghan escalation, NATO put in 7,000 troops. That showed that
some work had been done at that point. I also keep thinking that somehow
what we really missed in the beginning of this decade on the war on
terror, what would have happened right after September 11th if President
Bush had called for independent--a Manhattan Project for independence
from Middle Eastern oil? What if he'd called for a lot more people to
join the Army? We wouldn't have had these same soldiers going back three
and four times. What if we'd had a tax increase, as we've done in every
other war, to fight a war? We wouldn't be facing the deficits right now.
So I think even though it's a different war, the need to mobilize the
spirit and the energy of the American people, so it's not just our
soldiers fighting those wars alone over there, is still relevant in
MR. GREGORY: Tom, what is this leadership test now for President Obama?
And, and you've talked about the leadership test that faced President
Bush. Now this is a young presidency with a new chapter in, in the threat
matrix from terrorism.
MR. BROKAW: Well, I think that there has to be a new paradigm. I don't
think--I think that what we've learned is that you can't win the war
against Islamic rage wherever it exists just militarily or even with all
the technical capacity that we have around the world. We still have not
gotten at the root of this Islamic rage and how we're going to deal with
that. There's that phrase that I'm not very keen about called "soft
power." But we have to have some new way of dealing with these units that
can move, as they do, from Pakistan to Afghanistan to the Arabian
Peninsula and visit great, great harm or the possibility of great harm on
Western nations. I think Doris is right, I do think we need more help
from our allies in the Western world. But we also should expect more
from the Islamic world, from the established states in the Islamic world.
And we have to work harder at that to get at these people who have a
crazed idea about how the world should exist.
MR. BROOKS: But we do have an opportunity right now, I mean, at this
incredible, historic moment in time. This Islamic extreme--extremism
really got started in 1979 with the Iranian revolution, which is a world
historical event. Now, obviously Iran is not closely connected with
al-Qaeda, but it's part of the same movement of Islamic extremism. We
are now in a moment where that country, that regime which was the
birthplace of all this, is in--is tottering. The day Neda was shot was
the day that regime lost its legitimacy. A lot of us thought the people
out on the streets were going to be pushed back into their homes by the
terror crackdown against them, and yet this week they're out again. And
that shows that regime is incredibly fragile and dying. And so the
question becomes, what do we do? How do we push back against them? Do
we try to restrict gasoline imports into Iran? How aggressive should the
Obama administration be?
MR. GREGORY: Yeah. Well, your paper's reporting, this morning, in fact,
that a, a new set of sanctions are really being contemplated at a time
when the government appears to be distracted in Iran from pursuing its
MR. BROOKS: Right. And, and the question should be--and it's a tough
question, I don't know the answer to it. Some people will, you know,
really impose tough sanctions, that rallies people around the regime.
Other people say they can't, they can't get gasoline, they rebel against
the regime. To my mind, the Obama administration has not been tough
enough, especially on a moral level, in supporting the people on the
MR. DIONNE: But, you know, what's interesting about that report is that
it--the administration wants to impose the sanction against the
Revolutionary Guards. And that's a very interesting strategy because it
sends a message to the people of Iran, "We're not against you. We are
against the guys who are cracking your heads, the guys who are putting
the opposition in jail." And that could send both a political signal to
the Iranians and also have the effect of undermining the folks who are
oppressing the people of Iran.
MR. GREGORY: Let...
MS. GOODWIN: It also shows, I think, that the engagement that the
administration has made with China and Russia may be paying off, because
they're more willing to think about sanctions now than they would have
MR. GREGORY: Tom, the president doesn't have the luxury of focusing on
one issue at a time, and he comes back from vacation to a crowded inbox,
as I said at, at the, the top of the program. Healthcare reform is
within sight now, which we should point out would be a huge legislative
accomplishment for this president. How does he get it through this final
MR. BROKAW: Well, I talked to a very senior member of the Democratic
leadership in the House, getting ready for this weekend, and there is a
real determination to get this wrapped up as quickly as possible so the
president can have it in time for the State of the Union. Because the
Democrats, for the next nine months, want to have a new two-stroke
engine: jobs and fiscal responsibility. They believe that they really
have to shift the attention of the country to that on their terms or
they're not going to do well come the fall. When it comes to health
care, I do think that they have some serious issues before they get this
finally resolved. I don't think there's a person in America who
completely understands what exists in both these bills. There's a lot of
fear out there that it's going to have an adverse impact on the
healthcare plans that people already have. So I think they've got a lot
of work to make it less complex and make it much more transparent between
now and the State of the Union on January 20th.
MR. GREGORY: E.J., you can hear Republicans get ready in this, the
election year, the midterm election year...
MR. DIONNE: Hm.
MR. GREGORY: ...run against "Obamacare," and ask the question, "Are you
better off, is your job more secure than when Obama first came into
office?" That's how the Republicans are going to be coming at the White
House and at Democrats.
MR. DIONNE: Right. And I think that, look, if unemployment is 10
percent still in November, the Democrats are going to have a very tough
time in this election. That's why they want to turn to this jobs agenda.
But I think the Republicans are going to make a mistake if they say, "We
want you to vote for us because we are going to repeal this health plan."
Because when you look at what comes into effect right away as opposed to
the stuff that takes effect four years from now, it's things that are
very popular with people. You can put your kid on your family plan till
the kid is 26 years old. No more rules against--you know, the insurance
companies can't cut you off if you're sick. The whole plan got
discredited in the, in the minds of some people because the legislative
process looks really awful. And the more the focus was on the
legislative process, the more people said, "What's going on here?" Once
they pass a plan, you can actually talk about a plan.
MS. GOODWIN: I agree with you. I...
MR. DIONNE: And then we can have a real debate about what's in the plan.
MR. BROOKS: I'm not Einstein...
MS. GOODWIN: I, I, I agree with...
MR. BROOKS: ...but most people oppose the plan. I mean, the majority
want--don't want it to succeed. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked,
is it a good idea or bad idea? Thirty-two percent of Americans said it's
a good idea. And...
MS. GOODWIN: Except, you know what, David? When they ask you about
specific parts of it--this is why I agree with what E.J. said---is it a
good idea to be able to have pre-existing conditions and still have
insurance? Is it a good idea to have your kid protected in that way? Is
it a good idea to make sure that the insurance companies can't cap you?
They agree with those things. So I think the failure has been in not
making it clear what's in the plan. And my sense is that, once it
passes, it's an historic thing. You don't realize all these presidents,
ever since the guy I'm living with now, Teddy Roosevelt, tried in 1912,
haven't been able to get it through. It's what people go to Congress
for, to do something. You know, when LBJ was asked, "Why are you going
to do civil rights?" he said, "What's the presidency for?" Obama decided
to use his capital to get this huge thing done, and I think once it's
achieved then the messiness of the process is behind us. And then they
have to put out a campaign to tell everybody what's in this bill, just as
you were saying. They don't know what's in this bill. They're afraid of
this bill, but there's so many good things in it. If they can run a
campaign like they did to get the election, to tell people what's in this
bill, it's going to be hugely popular. That's my prediction as a
historian going backwards.
MR. BROOKS: Well, if, if it's a New Deal--if it's, if it's the New Deal,
it'll lead to a decade of, of Democratic reign. If it's the Great
Society, it'll lead to a couple decades of Republican reign. I mean,
the, the people like the good things in the bill. But if you, if you
MR. DIONNE: People still like Medicare, which came in the Great Society.
MS. GOODWIN: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. BROOKS: Well, if you say that you want health care to take up 20
percent of GDP, 25 percent of GDP, strangle education, infrastructure,
and everything else, well, those are the parts they don't like.
MR. GREGORY: Tom?
MR. BROKAW: I was going to say that in the, in the healthcare delivery
systems--and a lot of physicians in the country have been writing about
this--think that there's not enough reform in it. And they begin with
Medicare, that trying to pay for a lot of this by cutting Medicare is not
the solution. You've got to rearrange Medicare. There was just a story
in The New York Times this past week about what happens at UCLA, where
they extend life no matter what the cost is, and it becomes well beyond
what is reasonable medically...
MS. GOODWIN: Except as we get older.
MR. BROKAW: ...and financially. If we get older. But in, for example,
at UCLA Medical Center, they spend $92,000, I think is the number, on the
last two years of a life. At Portland, Oregon, just north of there, they
spend like $52,000, because they've got better controls on Medicare. So
until you begin to pay for value and pay for performance, then healthcare
reform is not going to work, despite all these pieces of it.
MR. GREGORY: Here we are at the dawn of a new decade, and there's a lot
of talk about the old decade. And there was a cartoon that, that caught
my eye that shows Uncle Sam trying to return the first decade of this
century to the returns and exchanges bureau, and the lady says, "I'm
sorry, sir, we have rules against returning entire decades."
But, Doris, a lot made about the notion of this being a lost decade--lost
opportunities, lost wealth not just for the rich, but for Americans all
over the country with the stock market going down so far.
MS. GOODWIN: Well, you know, if you ask people Ronald Reagan's
question--"Are you better off now than you were at the beginning of the
decade?"--on so many levels the answer would be no. We have fewer jobs,
fewer money in the stock market, we feel less safe. There's a whole
series of markers. And yet, on the other hand, as always happens, the
potential for renewal is in this decade. We've looked about the global
warming thing, we're taking that seriously. We have the first
African-American president who's been elected to the presidency. There's
a sense of knowing we've got to get--capture leadership in green
revolution, we've got to get our country manufacturing base back so that
we can lead the world in the green. There's a lot of good stuff, just as
bad stuff comes from a previous decade. You know, one of the interesting
things JFK said when he first took office, he said, "I thought that all
the world's problems were Eisenhower's fault"...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. GOODWIN: ..."until I got in there and I realized, `Oh, my God, some
of them are mine,' and I'm going to leave some for my people behind us."
So there's always a continuum, as was said earlier on the show.
MR. BROKAW: Think of that first year of John Kennedy, for example. I
mean, he has his head handed to him by Khrushchev, we get much more
deeply involved in Vietnam, we have the Bay of Pigs going on, the Freedom
Riders are in the South beginning the rise to the civil rights movement.
And then that decade is the introduction of the assassination of the
president, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of
Robert Kennedy, the turmoil in the streets of Chicago, a war that cost us
almost 60,000 lives before the end of it. So that is not in the distant
past, that's in my own lifetime. Maybe not yours, David, but it was in
MR. GREGORY: I wasn't going to say it. But, but, David Brooks, then
what then becomes the narrative of this new decade, given what we've just
MR. BROOKS: I always look at passionate outsiders. Who are the
passionate outsiders who are going to come into the mainstream? Because
the people with passion really can control the decade--the feminists in
the 1970s, the evangelicals in the 1980s. And so when I look around the
world at who are the real passionate outsiders, one, the people that
we've already talked about, which are the, the democracy protesters in
Iran. But two, and I have to say that I'm not a huge fan of them, but
the tea party people. They have real passion. They're now at the
outside. If they can merge with responsible leadership and become a real
movement--there's real disgust at government, there's real disgust about
fiscal issues--they could become maybe a destructive force in the
Republican Party, maybe a positive force. But, to me, those are the
people with real passion who may play a much larger role in the coming
decade and so forth.
MR. GREGORY: E.J., your column this week talked about the "squandered
decade" and how, politically, the fights in this first year of the Obama
presidency were carryovers from the previous decade and, and Bush
administration. How do we get government to work better?
MR. DIONNE: Well, I think that is a core question. You know, Tom
mentioned the '60s. And there were certain decades that loomed for
decades afterward where how you come to terms with what happened in that
decade affects politics for years to come. And I think that there's a
whole swath of the country that decided--majority of the country--decided
in 2008, that what had come before had failed. We were very unhappy with
the economy; we did not like, in the end, the course that President Bush
took in Iraq, that didn't look like an effective way to fight terror.
And so now the fight over Obama is really a fight among those who said we
need to turn away from the strategy of that decade vs. those who were
defending it and who have an interest in seeing President Obama fail. I
agree with David about passionate movements, but I think the, the
question he raised about can government work, Obama's got to show that it
can because that is what will turn this kind of empty anti-government
feeling--it's just a general "I hate government," it's not about
particular programs. He's got to show government can work. That's the
way those movements go away. You had the same kind of opposition to FDR,
and it eventually went away.
MS. GOODWIN: You know, I think...
MR. BROKAW: David, I really...
MS. GOODWIN: OK, you go first.
MR. BROKAW: I was just going to say, I think that the rules of this
decade really began on 9/11 when all the old rules and all the old
expectations were shattered that day, and ever since then, we have been
living with the consequences of everything we grew up believing going
away. We thought General Motors would be there forever, for example, and
the American car industry would do well. We thought owning a home was
the American dream, and it is for a lot of people, but there are a lot of
people, it turns out, who couldn't own an American home. We thought that
the lessening of financial regulations would make Wall Street more
effective. Guess what we ended up with. So I think that, going forward,
there will be much more attention to the government being flexible and
being--and addressing the real issues that are there. And also there is
going to be a lot more emphasis on proportion and authenticity.
MR. GREGORY: I got, I got to make that the last word. Thank you all
One other note here. Tom has spent the past year traveling across
America along the famed Highway 50, talking with Americans all along the
way. And his program on all that premieres Monday, January 18th, at 8 PM
Eastern on the USA Network. We'll preview some of those stories about
the American characters that Tom spoke to in our Take Two Web Extra with
Tom. It will be up on our Web site this afternoon at mtp.msnbc.com.
And we'll be right back.
MR. DAVID GREGORY: That's all for today. We'll be back next week. If
it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.