Guests: Michael Chertoff, Michael Isikoff, Con Coughlin, John Edwards, Peter King
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Danger in the air, the plot was for suicide terrorists to carry liquid explosives on nine planes heading from London to America. Let‘s play HARDBALL.
Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for having us here at your headquarters.
Can you give us a capsulization of what you know about this plot?
MICHAEL CHERTOFF, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Well, we know it was a sophisticated plot. We know that the plan was to smuggle explosives onto airplanes and detonate the explosives simultaneously in a number of different aircraft. We know that they relied upon kind of garden variety types of materials like beverage containers or things of that sort as the means of disguising the components or the explosive.
We know there were at least 20 people involved, 21 have been arrested now in Great Britain. And we know it was a sophisticated plan with international reach, so I would rate this, in terms of the complexity and strategic reach, up with the classic type of al Qaeda terror plot that we have seen over the last 10 years.
MATTHEWS: Not to be too graphic, but I guess we have to be. What would it be like if they had conducted these explosions over the Atlantic Ocean?
CHERTOFF: Well, what could have happened potentially is the loss of several airliners with hundreds of people on each of them. Now, I can‘t tell you that the particular explosives they had designed would have succeeded in bringing the planes down, but certainly you don‘t even want to come close to taking that kind of a risk.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the nature of your learning about this. How long have you had a beat on this?
CHERTOFF: Well, the British, of course, had been looking at networks like this and overlapping with this for some considerable period of time. But I would say within the last couple of weeks, it became clear that this particular network was focused on the United States as a target, not the country itself, but airliners going from Britain to the United States.
Once that became clear, the British really accelerated their investigative activities. They got us much more involved and so ...
MATTHEWS: When was that, Mr. Secretary, when they gave the OK, the heads up to you that they were looking at this dangerous plot?
CHERTOFF: I think this became something that we knew was exceptional and was accelerating within the last two weeks, maybe the last 10 days. And as we have been looking at it—and we have been spending quite a bit of time with it in the last few days—it appeared that it was picking up speed and the magnitude was perhaps greater than originally thought.
So we have known certainly for the past 10 days to two weeks that we are dealing with something that is a well advanced and well thought out, and is really resourced to succeed.
MATTHEWS: Can you confirm that they were planning a test flight two days from now?
CHERTOFF: You know, I have to be respectful of the British system. They have certain legal requirements. They are, frankly, stricter than we are. I don‘t want to get into specific evidence.
What I can tell you is if you look historically at these kinds of terror attacks, it is almost always the case there‘s a dry run or a couple of dry runs before the attack is carried out. So it wouldn‘t surprise me to see that in this case.
MATTHEWS: Let‘s talk about the scenario. You have seen a case back in ‘94, ‘95 of this, called the Bojinka plan. How does—tell us about that plot, and how this may have tracked that in terms of the methodology?
CHERTOFF: Well, I would say it‘s eerily similar. The Bojinka plan was the brainchild of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who eventually brought us 9/11, and the plan there was to detonate, I think, 11 -- bombs on 11 airliners crossing the Pacific. There was actually a dry run in that case, and I believe an individual, a businessman, was killed in the test run.
We became alerted to that—and this is before my time, obviously—because overseas investigators discovered the bombmaker, and through interrogation, the plot was ultimately unraveled and was frustrated. This plan appears, at least in general form, to be very similar to that. I can‘t tell you that the plotters here were thinking about that plot.
But here, again, we have simultaneous—the plan is simultaneous or near simultaneous, detonations on multiple airliners which really magnifies the impact of the plot, and here also a very sophisticated plan with a lot of thought given into how to smuggle explosives onto the airliners.
MATTHEWS: You have known since ‘94 or ‘95 that there was possibility of terrorists using liquid explosive materials aboard planes. What have we been able to do to detect those materials on an airplane with someone getting on?
CHERTOFF: Well, I don‘t know that the 1994 plot was liquid explosives, but it is true that we have been thinking for some time that about the fact that some explosives come in liquid form. And we are, obviously, working to advance the technology.
There are a lot of techniques we do use to distinguish between benign liquids and dangerous liquids, but I don‘t want to mislead you. It is a challenging thing to do, particularly when people are designing the packaging in a way that is very, very well-disguised.
Now, it is one thing if someone comes in with an obvious bottle of some liquid with duct tape and wires sticking out of it, but when someone, you know, separates the bomb into components, and each of the components is benign and appears to be very similar to an ordinary beverage someone might bring on an airplane, then you are really dealing with a very sophisticated challenge.
MATTHEWS: So if you see five guys getting on a plane, whether they look Arab or not—or Islamic or not—they are getting on a plane and they‘re drinking out of sports bottles all at the same time, that would be an indication you have got a problem.
CHERTOFF: Well, you know, I would have said a week or two ago that seeing a lot of people get on airplanes with sports bottles would be the most natural thing in the world.
CHERTOFF: And I think that is why we‘ve taken a pause here, we‘ve banned liquids on coming into the cabin on carry-on. We are, obviously, going to look at the devices now that we‘ve—this plot has been disrupted. We‘re going to analyze the approach that was being taken here.
We‘re going to reverse engineer it, so to speak, and then we‘re going to develop countermeasures. But until we are confident that we have got a reliable way to easily distinguish between dangerous liquids and benign liquids, we‘re going to have to be better safe than sorry.
MATTHEWS: When—I travel quite a bit by airplane, like a lot of people do in this business, and I have been told, as I‘m going through metal detectors, to take a sip out of a drink I‘m carrying, Starbucks or whatever. How does that help us if there‘s these invisible bottoms in these containers?
CHERTOFF: Well, I don‘t think that the issue was an invisible bottle
or an invisible bottom because the volume of liquid you would need to make a bomb is pretty substantial. It‘s not going to be concealed in a bottom. Obviously, if you sipped something that was an explosive substance, you are not likely to survive that encounter, so ...
MATTHEWS: So that was the precaution we were using?
CHERTOFF: Well, we have used that technique and we could use that again. But, again, without giving recipes out to terrorists which I have no intention of doing here, they were thinking of ways to get around that problem. And I think that‘s why we have to always be careful to match their advances in the tradecraft with our own advances in defense.
MATTHEWS: Every time I travel across the Atlantic—not that many times I‘ve done this—there‘s always the fear of the plane crashing just by nature, just things happen and you‘re out over the Atlantic Ocean, you know, all those thousands of miles you‘ve got to cross, pretty much with few opportunities for the plane to land somewhere.
If a plane were to get hit by one of these liquid explosive devices inside, what would be the potential of that plane to limp along to Greenland or Iceland Newfoundland or whatever else is along the way from here to England?
CHERTOFF: Well, again, I want to be careful because I‘m sure not going to get out here and specify how much explosive you need to take down a plane. What I will say is if you look back with the benefit of experience, I think there was an event in the Pacific some years ago where a 747 was flying over the Pacific.
Either a bomb detonated or there was some similar breach in the fuselage, and actually, the plane made it back safely to an airfield. But, you know, you don‘t want to play games with this and you don‘t want to take risks.
And rather than count on the robustness of the plane, which I think is at least certainly somewhat comforting, what you want to make sure is you don‘t even allow somebody to introduce explosive material into an aircraft.
MATTHEWS: Is it more dangerous to let people sit up near the front of the—near the cockpit? Will these explosives have more danger to them if they‘re blown up right near the cockpit?
CHERTOFF: Again ...
MATTHEWS: That‘s the first thing I thought of. First class is more dangerous for people that do something like this because you are up at that bathroom that‘s right behind the cockpit. Somebody goes in that bathroom, they blow it in there, and you are going right into the cockpit.
CHERTOFF: Well, you know, there are structural engineers who spend a lot of time studying airframe dynamics and can tell you where the most dangerous and where the most vulnerable places in the airplane are. I, however, am not one of them and even if I were, I sure wouldn‘t talk about it publicly.
But I will tell you that one of the things we constantly study with our Transportation Safety Administration and with the FAA, is what are the weaknesses in the planes? What are the kinds of explosives we have to watch out for? What are the quantities that pose a serious threat? And using those kinds of studies, we design our countermeasures and our detection tactics.
MATTHEWS: Let‘s talk about what the president has talked about oftentimes, and that is the proliferation of dangerous targets here, people that are coming from every—mainly Islamic, but that‘s a general term that captures, obviously, not just Arab people, Arab-Americans, Arabs who are living here short-term.
But in this case the suspects, I believe, are Pakistani—ethnically Pakistani, living in London for many years, several generations. Well, there are so many of those people, how big a net do we need to even know who to target in terms of this now? Is it everybody who is Islamic, whether they‘re from South Asia, or they‘re from the Far East, or they‘re from the Middle East? How do we know where it is coming from now?
CHERTOFF: Well, Chris, actually, I think it is a mistake to try to lump everybody who is Islamic or everybody who is Pakistani into the single bucket of saying these are potential terrorists. I think, first of all, it‘s wrong to do that. I also think it actually ...
MATTHEWS: But the president said today Islamic fascism. He nailed it ethnically.
CHERTOFF: No, I think what he did is he nailed it ideologically and actually, look at Richard Reed. Richard Reed was West Indian. He was British born, I think. And he converted to Islam. There‘s a fellow now who broadcasts propaganda for the, for bin Laden, who was, I think, born in California and converted to Islam. We would actually be making a huge mistake if we narrowed our focus just to people of a single ethnic group. What we are focused on is an ideology, people with a belief system and a willingness to kill in order to advance that.
MATTHEWS: Are we seeing recruitment of non-ethnic Islamic people? In other words are they going in to northern Europeans, westerners and saying you would be helpful person on our crew because you would not be as detectable?
CHERTOFF: I don‘t have any doubt that those who are masterminding this kind of terrorist activity are particularly interested in finding converts who don‘t fit the, kind of, ordinary prejudiced profile and then getting them brainwashed or persuading them to become operatives and obviously you have got to have somebody who is receptive for doing that but that poses the danger. If we focus only on those who we think fit an obvious prejudice, what we are doing is we‘re opening the door for those who don‘t fit that obvious profile and what we have to do is be alert, not only to the threat that we have seen yesterday, but to the threat that we might see tomorrow.
MATTHEWS: Let‘s just go through this. I want to thank you for your time here at the headquarters here of Homeland Security. It is an amazing opportunity to look at the inside. Nine flights were targeted?
CHERTOFF: Again I‘m in the confident I can give you a definitive answer.
MATTHEWS: Twenty four people have been arrested?
CHERTOFF: I think over 21.
MATTHEWS: Were these flights all emanating from Heathrow to the United States, New York or Washington?
CHERTOFF: All emanating from the U.K. to the United States.
MATTHEWS: And they fit this general pattern of the Bojinka (ph) plan back from 10 years ago?
CHERTOFF: They resemble that plan although I would not want to say that this particular plot was modeled on the Bojinka plot.
MATTHEWS: I understand, you didn‘t tell me this, but I heard elsewhere there are going to be sequential explosives simultaneously, three at a time, over a three-hour period.
CHERTOFF: I can‘t confirm that. I think that‘s much more detailed than I‘m in a position to confirm.
MATTHEWS: Is the plot dead?
CHERTOFF: We believe it has been disrupted and the British have obviously done that with the arrests. On the other hand I have to tell you, both from my experience in general and the dimensions of this plot, which involves a lot of people, it suggests to me that we can‘t be sure about that. So what we have to do over the next days is we‘ve got to go through the material we seize in searches. We‘ve got to develop all our other evidence. We‘ve got to see whether there are other leads and we are going to do pretty much what we did after 9/11, which I was involved in doing at the criminal division, we are going to track every single lead to see whether there is a thread to this plot that we have not yet unraveled or picked up. And until we are confident we are going to have to be vigilant and we‘re going to have to be mindful of the fact that there is, at least, a potential threat out will.
MATTHEWS: This is brutal question but if you are sitting with your family at Kennedy Airport right now and trying to decide whether to get on the next flight to London do you go with the traffic when it goes or do you wait and make your own decision?
CHERTOFF: If you are asking me is flying safe the answer to that is yes and the reason it is safe is exactly because of the measures we are putting into effect. The very things that are frankly going to make it a little bit inconvenient in the next days and maybe weeks are the things that will make it safe for Americans to fly. So I don‘t have any hesitation saying it is safe to fly. I do have to ask people to be patient. I know it will be a pain to have to go through some of the delays that is going to be necessary to do this screening. But the screening is designed to save lives and the one thing I will tell you is this, we always put the balance on the side of caution and saving life, even if it means a little bit of extra trouble and inconvenience.
MATTHEWS: Have you heard anything about this flight that has been diverted from Canada to B.W.I. with a suspicious looking box was aboard?
CHERTOFF: I‘m aware of that. I know the authorities are looking at that. It is not uncommon to have this kind of incident. Almost it resolves as something that is innocuous but, you know, we can‘t take chances and we are going to treat it seriously until we‘ve cleared it.
MATTHEWS: Can you wait just a couple of minutes.
MATTHEWS: We will be right back with Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security from the headquarters here in the United States in Washington of Homeland Security.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back with Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security at the headquarters of Homeland Security here in Washington. Mr. secretary, why was decision made to publicize this very frightening threat to the United States and to Great Britain?
CHERTOFF: Well, first of all, of course, once you have the arrests, the very fact of an arrest is going to be public but we thought it was important for the public to understand why we were putting into effect the measures that you now see at the airport. It is obviously an imposition, it is slowing people up and people have to right to understand why we are doing it. So, you know, our general approach is to be as forthcoming as we can be, recognizing that we have to respect the British legal rules and that we also have to make sure we can continue the investigation without compromising sensitive information.
MATTHEWS: We have watched over the years as al Qaeda has sort of hyped up the level of its effort. They go from a ship, they go to a set of embassies in East Africa, then the World Trade Center. Is this going to be seen as one of the big ones, they go after nine airliners across that Atlantic?
CHERTOFF: I think if you detonated multiple airliners it would be, maybe it wouldn‘t be quite the loss of life as 9/11, but it would certainly be in complexity and in the impact similar in character. This would be a grade A, first class terrorist plot, the kind that, I think, would certainly fit their image of the kind of message they want to send.
MATTHEWS: Did this come from al Qaeda.
CHERTOFF: We are looking at the evidence. There are some obvious similarities between the way this plot was put together and what we have seen with past al Qaeda plots, including the Bojinka plot you talked about. On the other hand, we haven‘t seen all the evidence yet and rather than jump to a conclusion, I want to reserve the final judgment until we really have all the facts.
MATTHEWS: Let‘s talk about the hard scenario here. There are going to be, I understand, nine explosions on nine planes traveling across the atlantic from Britain to here in the United States, New York and Washington. Three were going to be hit simultaneous in one hour, an hour later three others, another hour later three others. In other words people on those planes flying across the Atlantic from Europe to here would know for an hour that similar planes had blown up three at a time and then two hours later, after that, another set of three planes would know that their doom had been set. Do you think this was the kind of horrid drama that they were trying to put, so Americans and Britains and everybody in the world would know, not only are you on a plane that is blowing up, but you are going to be warned of it an hour or two ahead of time, when it is too late for the pilots or anyone else to stop it?
CHERTOFF: Well Chris, the first thing I have to say is I can‘t necessarily sign on to the scenario you‘ve put forth and there are some obvious defects with the scenario, which are that, if you know there are more bombs, it‘s going to make it much harder for someone to get up and go to the bathroom and finish that bomb assembly.
So, without getting in the details of that scenario, let me say this -
MATTHEWS: They could have already done it.
CHERTOFF: Without getting into the details of that particular scenario, I think in general—and this goes back to the Bojinka plot, the idea of multiple explosions on multiple airplanes is designed to strike fear not only into those who are flying that day, but to the whole worldwide aviation system. And that is really the point. These kinds of big terror plots are not merely about killing innocent people, although that is bad enough, but it‘s about striking at the foundations of our Western society. Travel, tourism, trade, that‘s what binds the world together, that‘s what promotes peace. And these people want to destroy those bonds.
MATTHEWS: Do they want to explode us as well? In other words, what you are saying is it is meant to have high drama, dark high drama. But the effect of 9/11 was to send us to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. They now know our MO. If they attack us, we hit them back . Do they want to escalate the East-West struggle with this kind of terrorism?
CHERTOFF: I‘m not sure they understand our MO. It‘s clear that bin Laden miscalculated with 9/11 because we came back and crushed them in Afghanistan. on the other hand, frankly, I think bin Laden still believes in his heart of hearts that Westerners cut and run, and that when enough pressure is put on and there are enough casualties, we‘re going to run away. Now I think that is a serious misjudgment of the American people. I think the American people are always interested in peace, but when provoked or with an attack, a cowardly attack, we always fight back very hard.
But I have to tell you, I‘m not sure that the fascists, the Islamic fascists, are convinced of that fact.
MATTHEWS: Why has that term now become—we have heard terms like insurgents in Iraq and terrorists of course—why is Islamic, of Islamo-fascists now the president‘s term today, and your term?
CHERTOFF: I think the reason I think of that—
MATTHEWS: It refers to World War II, to Mussolini and to Hitler. That‘s a European sort of form of right-wing militarism—and totalitarianism, obviously. Why is that appropriately used now as a tag for these terrorists?
CHERTOFF: Well, let‘s look at bin Laden‘s own writings and speakings, his sayings. He‘s talked about restoring the Caliphate, the empire that existed in the southern Mediterranean centuries ago. That is nothing—it‘s deranged, but essentially it is a vision of a totalitarian empire with him leading under some kind of perverted conception of religion. That comes very close to satisfying my definition of fascism. It might not be classic fascism that you had with Mussolini or Hitler, but it is a totalitarian intolerance—imperialism that has a vision that is totally at odds with Western society and our freedoms and rule of law.
MATTHEWS: So it is ideology as well as the actions of the terrorists.
It‘s a belief system.
CHERTOFF: And that‘s what makes terror different from crime and violence. It is crime and violence married to an ideology of hatred, and that‘s what makes it really an enemy of the West.
MATTHEWS: Mr. Chertoff, I can‘t thank you enough. This is a big day, a horrible day for the country, but it is so great to have you invite us over here today to interview you.
CHERTOFF: Good to see you, Chris.
MATTHEWS: We‘ll be right back with more on this. We‘re going to talk to the experts covering this, the investigators—Michael Isikoff and others—who are trying to figure out what happened here. Journalists, experts, more leaders and of course John Edwards, who is probably running for president. He is going to have to answer some questions here if he wants to be president. We will be right back with more HARDBALL.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: We are going to talk right now to Con Coughlin, who‘s over with the Daily Telegraph in London. We‘re also going to bring in Michael Isikoff, who‘s chief investigative reporter for Newsweek magazine, and of course, Roger Cressey, our own terrorism analyst.
Let‘s go to Con Coughlin—tell me what you can about the politics of this. We Americans don‘t know much about this situation but you have got Pakistani people with a Pakistan origin living in London over several decades, perhaps. Why would they be disposed to blow up planes in this cause?
CON COUGHLIN, LONDON DAILY TELEGRAPH: Good evening. I think the main thing is that these people are traveling to Pakistan and attending madrassas. A lot of these madrassas are run by bin Laden‘s organization. And they come back here and then they get involved in terrorist acts. And last year, for example, when we had the London bombings on the tube system, the four people that carried them out were of Pakistani origin. Two of them had been to Pakistan for training. And the intelligence people here say that there are probably about a thousand people of Pakistani origin who are supporting this kind of activities.
MATTHEWS: Are they known by the police, by Scotland Yard, these thousand people who are involved with terrorist activities?
COUGHLIN: Well, some are and some aren‘t. Last year, for example, the four people who carried out the London bombings slipped through the net. Now, it turned out that the police had had them on their radar briefly but they didn‘t really appreciate just how radicalized they were.
Now, clearly with today‘s events, the security forces have had a serious upgrade in their capability to monitor these people and track their activities.
So, clearly things are getting better. But the fear is always that when you have a big operation like this, you basically crack a cell, that another cell that nobody knows about might suddenly break cover and try and do something pretty outrageous.
MATTHEWS: Con, I just want to ask you about this big part—we know that, from the whole question of Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, backing our efforts against terrorism and almost being a convert himself in the antiterrorism cause, anti-Taliban cause, that he has people all through his own security agency who are also—who are, of course, Islamists and don‘t like his policy. How does it relate to the fact that obviously the people in the Islamic fascist world, as the president calls it now, don‘t like Tony Blair either because of his alliance with us. How does it fit together?
COUGHLIN: First of all, I think President Musharraf is fighting a pretty difficult battle to try and keep the Islamic fascists, as the president calls them, under control in his own country. But over here in Britain, of course, the big question is, why is it they keep trying to target Britain? Well, I think most people here would say it is because of Tony Blair‘s chose allegiance to President Bush in the war on terror, going back to Iraq, going back to Afghanistan, and of course, more recently, Tony Blair has stood side-by-side with President Bush over the whole policy of dealing with southern Lebanon. Tony Blair doesn‘t want a cease-fire or rather has been very tardy in calling for a cease-fire and of course, this again has really upset a lot of Muslims of all persuasions here in Britain and Europe.
MATTHEWS: Let me go now to Roger Cressey, who is our analyst on this question. Is that how you see it, that it is logical to assume that people who are Pakistani in their origin, who are Islamic, known under the category of Islamic fascist, that they would target a British airliner, they would target airplanes coming out of London?
ROGER CRESSEY, MSNBC TERRORISM ANALYST: Chris, al Qaeda and whether or not this is inspired or directed by al Qaeda remains to be seen. They are always going for symbols. 9/11 was about striking symbols of American power. Striking these airliners and striking a BAA airliner is about symbolism as well. So I agree with Con that there‘s a relationship. But when you think of all the plots that have been conducted in western Europe and even those that have been disrupted, they are all keyed toward countries that support the broader fight against terrorism and the broader fight against al Qaeda.
MATTHEWS: And that would include the Spanish government before it was changed by election and of course the Blair government, in other words if you are siding with us you are a target?
CRESSEY: Oh, absolutely. And there were disrupted plots in Italy as well as in France. So, you are going to have more and more of these attempts, both from the home grown phenomenon as well as those that have ties back to the al Qaeda organization, such as it is in Pakistan right now.
MATTHEWS: Let me go to Mike Isikoff. Mike, thanks for joining us tonight. The president made a very strong statement. He used the term Islamic fascist. That‘s a term, I mean, we are always coming up with new terms for the enemy here and maybe it is a state of the art phrasing for using against them but the president also said in this country there‘s a debate between those who say we face no threat from terrorism and those like him who say we do. Is that a fair assessment of the American debate?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NEWSWEEK INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I don‘t know of anybody credible in the political world who says that we don‘t face any threat from terrorism. It is a question of what is the nature of the threat and how effective the government‘s responses to it have been. I mean, one sobering aspect of this plot, at least attempted plot, what we have learned is that these guys were close to, supposedly close to doing this, to boarding aircraft headed to the United States and then using these explosives.
Well, in order to get on those aircraft they had to get through security without triggering any security alert, without, their names couldn‘t have been on any U.S. watch list. Now we have spent enormous resources over the last five years since 9/11 building up those data base of watch lists, trying to put as many names as possible on those and yet here is a whole major plot that at least, in the eyes of the plotters, they could have implemented without triggering that. That does say something about how effective or ineffective some of our responses have been.
MATTHEWS: Could that be explained by the fact that some of these figures and suspects now were only 17 years old. I was just doing the math, the president, rather, Tony Snow yesterday said this kind of terrorism we‘re facing today results from our failure to invade Baghdad back in 1991. This kid was only two-years-old then. Are these kids just too young to appear on the radar screen?
ISIKOFF: Well, I mean, that could well be the case. They had to have somewhere along the way been indoctrinated to the point where they were willing to be suicide bombers, to give up their lives for this plot. But that only sort of reinforces the point of how elusive the enemy is here. Because the resources that we have been trying to build up, such as this watch list, apparently is ineffective against a plot like this.
MATTHEWS: Thank you very much Mike Isikoff of Newsweek, their chief investigator. Thank you Roger Cressey, our MSNBC terrorism expert. And Con Coughlin, thank you for joining us from London with the “Daily Telegraph.” We are going to come back here and talk to Peter King, who is the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Then we have the big guy coming here, John Edwards, who clearly is running for president, for commander in chief. This may be his first chance to answer some tough questions about how he would handle a horrific plot like this one. We will be right back with HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: We are here at the headquarters of Homeland Security, Department of Homeland Security. We had Michael Chertoff, the secretary on just a few minutes ago with a very extensive, I think, debrief of what is going on right now. Let‘s go to another expert, Congressman Peter King, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Congressman thank you for joining us tonight. It‘s a stressful time. How big a danger was this before they cracked it?
REP. PETER KING ®, NEW YORK: Chris, this was very real. The death toll would have been as high as, if not higher than, September 11 and from all I have seen and been told this plot could have been carried out today. That is how far long it was. It probably would not have been carried out for another short period of time but it was ready to go as of today.
MATTHEWS: Can you confirm any of these details we‘re getting from various sources such as the horrific dynamic behind this? They were going to have three planes, obviously big airlines with several hundred people on them, blow up at the same time. An hour later three more planes blow up on the way across the Atlantic and then an hour after that, the third hour, three more planes, up to nine planes altogether, blowing up over the Atlantic, with everyone dead. Is that true? Is that what was coming here?
KING: Chris, my understanding is—I can‘t say whether it was three, three, and three, but I know it was going to be nine planes, all pretty much one after the other, and within a period of time they all would have been in the air. There wouldn‘t have been, obviously, any opportunity to land it the United States or back to Britain, so nine planes would have blown up over the Atlantic in between Britain and the United States, yes.
MATTHEWS: OK, let‘s go to the weapon that was going to be used. You know, you and I—you travel a lot as a member of Congress back and forth to Washington. You have gone through a million metal detectors. It seems like they are of no help in detecting liquid explosives?
KING: Yes, and this actually was a liquid explosive—I can‘t give you the details—but it was taken from household products and even though it was household products, it also shows a real level of sophistication on behalf of the terrorists. So this is a cause of concern. I mean, thank God we were able to stop it in time, but it is cause for concern, no doubt about it. This would have been absolutely horrific.
MATTHEWS: You mean, it is like fertilizer trucks blowing up in front of a federal building? You mean, in other words, each one of these explosive elements that goes into the compound were legal and ordinary enough to go undetectable and unremarked upon if somebody were to enter an airplane carrying them?
KING: Yes, basically, they would have put it together on the plane and there was nothing that would have stood out. These are all common household items, and then there was a detonation device which—I‘m not sure. I know I‘ve heard some people say it would have been a discarded camera. I don‘t know.
There would have been some type of detonation device, which is why the British have now banned cell phones on planes, iPods, laptops. Any type of electronic device at all is being banned from British planes for now.
MATTHEWS: Well, you are our oversight person for the United States government, for everybody. You‘re chairman of the committee that‘s got to oversee Homeland Security and the other agencies. Are they doing the job they need to do here?
KING: Chris, yes. The answer is yes. Certainly in this case, this was a success. It was a tremendous effort by the British, by MI-5 and Scotland Yard, but also, especially over the last several weeks, by American intelligence operations, by counterterrorism. This was a real partnership between us and the Brits.
This plot really took off in the last two to two-and-a-half weeks. It had been out there for awhile but it really—it was very recently that it started to come to fruition, and it moved very quickly, and America played a leading role in wrapping this up.
MATTHEWS: What does it tell you as a political leader the fact that it seems to be that every time a country allies with us in the coalition of the willing, as the president calls it, whether it‘s the U.K., Tony Blair‘s government, or the previous Spanish government, or the previous Italian government, they get hit?
KING: Well, it would make sense that al Qaeda would attack their enemies. And Tony Blair, he was the first over in New York after September 11th. He was there when the president spoke to a joint session of Congress the week after September 11th, and obviously Aznar in Spain has been with us. And it would make sense, Chris.
This is a battle for civilization. Not all the world leaders get it, but certainly Tony Blair gets it, certainly John Howard in Australia gets it, certainly Merkel in Germany gets it, Aznar got it, and I strongly believe that President Bush does and that‘s the price you pay for standing up to tyranny.
But you can only appease for so long so those countries who are sort of hiding out right now, maybe they are not getting attacked now, but, again, they‘re just putting off the inevitable. What they should do is line up with the causes of right.
MATTHEWS: Do you believe the Democratic Party has joined the causes of right?
KING: I certainly think people like Joe Lieberman have, but no, in all seriousness, Chris, listen. Democrats, obviously, mean well and a good majority of them are solid on this issue, but, Chris, on key issues like the Patriot Act, on the electronic surveillance by NSA, on the SWIFT program where we were going through the bank accounts of terrorists, on the interrogation of terrorists by the CIA, too many Democrats have this initial reaction to—there‘s such a hatred of President Bush that they lash out against these programs.
But it is the electronic surveillance that is working and without going into all the details, a lot of it was because of our signal intelligence that this plot was broken in Britain. So I think too many Democrats have a tendency to apply civil liberties restrictions when it comes to a war on terrorism and this war, I think, is beyond that.
And that is really a political difference or a philosophical difference. But, no, they are obviously committed Americans and they love their country, but there is a difference as to how tough and how hard we have to get.
MATTHEWS: OK, Congressman. Chairman of Homeland Security, Peter King of New York. Thanks for joining us from New York tonight.
KING: Thank you, Chris.
MATTHEWS: We‘re going to come right back and talk to a man who many people believe wants to be president of the United States, who wants to accept the mantle of commander in chief to protect all of us. His name is John Edwards. Of course, we know him as the former senator from North Carolina, the former Democratic candidate for vice president.
He‘s coming to talk to us right now about this very scary day here in America and across the world. We will be right back with John Edwards of North Carolina.
MATTHEWS: We are back with Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who served for a term as United States from that state, ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket and is traveling the country right now.
Senator, this is tough one, but when days like this come, do you feel more or less inclined to accept the mantle of commander in chief?
JOHN EDWARDS (D), FMR. V.P. NOMINEE: You know, I hope this is one of those things where all of us—Democrats, Republicans, all Americans—can celebrate what happened today. I mean, it was a great victory for security, for the security of the American people and we ought to applaud those who were successful.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you for your context. We just had Peter King on, who is a tough Republican. He says this is about willing to do the tough things, making decisions about surveillance that are tough, fighting those who say civil liberties shouldn‘t be changed at all or challenged at all, making it tough. We need surveillance, we need to be tough guys. He talked about Islamic fascists on the other side. We have got to hit them with everything we have got.
Then there are people like Senator Kennedy today saying, no, this results from the hatred of the United States for its manner in the world, the way we treat other countries. We‘re going to get more and more terrorists the more we get tough. Where do you stand on that fight?
EDWARDS: That there are things we have to do and be very tough about. We need to monitor al Qaeda and al Qaeda‘s operations in order to keep this country safe. My view is that, as an American, we do not need to violate the law, the laws that have been passed by the Congress and our constitution, in order to accomplish that and be effective at it. But I think what is equally important is to put this in the context of what is happening in the world at large. Because what is happening in the world at large is we are engaged in a failed policy in Iraq that is creating enormous problems for America.
We have huge hostility going on now in the Middle East in Lebanon and Israel. We have a Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, trying to get a nuclear weapon, a huge threat to not only the Middle East, but to America. And we step back from this, America is in a position where it is difficult, more difficult in fact, every day for us to bring other people with us in addressing these problems and we have seen that recently in the effort to deal with Iran and the effort to deal with this conflict in Lebanon and Israel. And that is all, go ahead.
MATTHEWS: I just want to get back to what Ted Kennedy, I know you trust and respect him. Ted Kennedy said today that our policies over sees have led to a lot of hatred and of course common sense tells you if a person is willing to commit suicide on airplane to get at us, they hate us and that is a contributing factor, if not the factor. Do you think our policies in Middle East, our policies of siding with a dictator Musharraf in Pakistan, our policy of going in to Iraq and basically occupying that country basically, of keeping troops in Saudi Arabia for all of those years after the first Gulf War. Do you believe that those, in each case, have contributed to the anger level, the hatred level that leads to all this suicide terrorism?
EDWARDS: Well, I would say in response to that I think you are mixing apples and oranges. I think there are people, Islamic extremists, who would hate us just because of who we are and any policy by the United States would have little impact on those people. But the policies that we have seen over the course of the last several years, I think, have inflamed that anger, made it easier for those groups to recruit, made it easier for them to sell their extreme ideology to those who otherwise might not be inclined to accept it. My concern is I don‘t think the rest of the world sees what I would call the goodness of the American people. They don‘t see our character. They don‘t know what we are made of. As a result, it makes it easier for these extremists to be able to recruit people to their cause and cause more and more people to have antagonism toward us. It makes it more difficult for us to help lead and solve the world‘s problems.
MATTHEWS: But doesn‘t it worry that you these people who are suspects in this case, the 24 that have been rounded up, are people who have spent many years living in London, living in England. They are British subjects. They know the west. They know a free society and with all of that knowledge and with all that familiarity they say let‘s kill these people by the thousands?
EDWARDS: Of course it does. I mean there are dangerous people in the world, including those who were just arrested. Those people hate the United States. They hate what we stand for. Our policies have not had a great deal of effect on them. They are going to continue to feel that way. There is a slice of radical Islam that just believes that and views us that way. But, but, in our effort to fight radical Islam and our effort to fight terrorism our policies matter, because it affects how the rest of the world treats us, whether they will follow our leadership, whether they will join us in acting together to address terrorism, to address the spread of weapons of mass destruction, to address the spread of AIDs and how America is viewed in the world is enormously important in that respect. So these two things don‘t operate completely independently of one another. They are, in fact, connected but I do think it is important to recognize there is a slice of radical Islam that hates us and probably always will.
MATTHEWS: Was our decision to invade and occupy Iraq a recruitment poster for terrorists?
EDWARDS: It made it much easier for them. There‘s no question about that and I would also, excuse me, Chris, I‘m sorry. I would also say that the ongoing problems that exist in Iraq today have aided that effort and it has helped with recruitment, it‘s helped them to bring terrorists. Iraq has been in some ways a place that terrorists can gather. So, I think there‘s to question it has aided the effort to recruit.
MATTHEWS: Great to have you on Senator John Edwards. He is going to come right back in a moment. We are here by the way still over here at the Department of Homeland Security talking about that, Homeland Security. We will be back with Senator John Edwards in a minute.
MATTHEWS: We are back with Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who ran as a Democratic candidate, the Democratic candidate for vice president just a couple of years ago. Senator, it must be amazing to be in your shoes right now. You are a private citizen and you watch these events of such enormous caliber take place and you probably wish you had a hand in it. How would you, over the last couple of years, have been a different vice president than Dick Cheney?
EDWARDS: I think I would be dramatically different for a lot of obvious reasons. Number one, I think we would be telling the American people the truth about what is happening in Iraq. I would be doing everything in my power to influence the policy that exists there today. I think we have to start getting out of Iraq. The best way to show that we are going to get out of Iraq is to actually start withdrawing troops. I think that we ought to have at least 40,000 out immediately.
There are safe regions of the country that are secure where that could be accomplished and I think we need to be in the process of getting our combat troops out of Iraq. I would, I hope, help lead an effort to address the huge issues that face us here at home, not just abroad. We have a health care crisis in America. We have 37 million people who wake up in poverty every day, worried about feeding and clothing their children. We are a better country than that. America is a better country than that. We need to be strong. We need to be secure but we can‘t just act out of fear. We have to show our strength. We have to inspire this country. Americans ought to be proud of who they are and what our country represents and I hope that I would be helping lead that effort.
MATTHEWS: It‘s great to have you on Senator John Edwards who I think is running for president. In fact all the polls show you, sir, at number two behind Hillary. We‘re going to have a big show coming back at 7:00. George Pataki, the Republican governor of New York, is going to be on. Brian Williams, the anchor the NBC Nightly News is going to be on. We got a big show live coming back at Seven from NBC studios. Thank you for joining us. Tucker is coming up right now.
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