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America Strikes Back: Limiting Intelligence Information

Aired October 10, 2001 - 19:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: The White House still wants to limit classified information for Congress. Is this a mistake?


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The importance of keeping classified information classified has been stressed. And the president hopes that it will be closely, exactly adhered to.


NOVAK: The White House asks TV networks to think twice before airing al Qaeda statements. Is this censorship?


FLEISCHER: It is not censorship. This is a request to the media. And the media makes their own decisions. I think a reasonable request.


NOVAK: As America strikes back, this is CROSSFIRE.

Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. As President Bush predicted, he gave members of Congress heartburn by denying secret briefings to all but eight lawmakers. In the resulting outrage on Capitol Hill, confirmation hearings on defense officials were canceled. The president then backed down somewhat, saying that more than the select eight will get briefed, on a case by case basis.

The Bush White House immediately set off a new firestorm by asking television networks, including this one, to exercise restraint in broadcasting statements by Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. Is the president just going all out to win the war against terrorism? Or is he restricting the rights of Congress and the American people?

We're asking retired General David Grange, former commander of the big red one, the First Infantry Division and Republican Congressman Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

Bill Press.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Congressman, welcome.


PRESS: The president's obviously upset. The rest of us are really trying to figure out what he's upset about. And most people, the best guess is he's upset about something that appeared in "The Washington Post" last Friday, which he considers a leak and he considers might jeopardize our American men and women who are right now active in Afghanistan.

Here's what "The Washington Post" said: "U.S. intelligence officials have told members of Congress there is a high probability that terrorists associated with Osama bin Laden will try to launch another major attack on American targets here or abroad in the near future," basically saying it's 100 percent certain that we're going to have another terrorist attack.

My question to you is, isn't that just common sense? And how does that possibly put our troop in harm's way?

CHAMBLISS: Well, Bill, what the president's upset about, and what I think he has a right to be upset about is not what was in "The Post," and what was in "The New York Times." It what wasn't in there -- because there was more information leaked to those newspapers and showed up in those newspapers. And very honestly, they exercised some very good discretion, in my opinion, in keeping that information out.

We've got to do something to stop leaks that jeopardize the lives of American men and women. And the president sent a strong message. I think the message was right. I do think the president has an obligation to deliver certain classified information to certain members of Congress, probably more so than (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And I think in the end, he'll do that.

But I do think that a strong message needed to be sent that by golly, when you get this information, you've got an obligation as a member of Congress not to divulge it to the media.

PRESS: Well, here's what struck me as funny about this, is when I saw that quote and heard what the raucous was all about, I thought to myself, "What's the big deal? I've heard John Ashcroft saying that over and over and over again, the Attorney General, on national television."

So we looked up in our CNN files today. And sure enough here's Attorney General Ashcroft just a few days ago. Let's listen up.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I believe that additional terrorist acts are possible. And I believe the kind of attack, which we endured, shows that the risks of such possibilities are substantial.

(END VIDEO CLIP) PRESS: So this vessel's leaking from the top, isn't it? Right? Not just -- we haven't seen actually any member of Congress still, but the Attorney General saying the same thing that members of Congress are alleged to have leaked. And what you're saying is, that's no problem with the -- for America. It poses no problem for American troops.

CHAMBLISS: Well, no. That information is not what the problem was about. The problem was about information the information that the newspapers did not print. And they should not have printed because it could have jeopardized American lives. And that's what the president was upset about.

Ashcroft said this the other day. There have been other members of Congress who have said the same thing. I think all of us agree that the probability for another attack is very, very high. We're on a very high alert. We've been a high alert for the last four weeks. It'll be a month tomorrow.

And we're going to stay on the high alert, until we take some consolation of the fact that there is not going be a terrorist attack. And we don't have to right now.

NOVAK: Just briefly, Congressman Chambliss, do you know what the information was that was leaked?

CHAMBLISS: No, I don't. Interestingly enough, I was to get the briefing after the Senate got the briefing, but it was canceled.

NOVAK: General Grange, well, maybe you can lead us out of this thicket, because I sure don't understand what's going on. I did talk to somebody in the administration. And they say that what Bill cited in "The Washington Post" was not what they were upset about. They won't tell me what they're upset about.

So we have had an extraordinary letter from the president of the United States, saying he's going to restrict Congress for information that was never made public. Does that make sense to you?

RET. GEN. DAVID GRANGE, U.S. ARMY: Well, I think the point is not the information that was just cited. But the fact that members of Congress received a classified briefing that involved some different information that was not to be put out. And if some of that was put out, regardless of where else it was heard, or what other media outlet produced that same information, it's irrelevant. The point is they received classified information that was not to be put out. And if it was, that's wrong.

NOVAK: Well, General, when I was in the Army a very long time ago -- I guess I was in the Army before you were.

GRANGE: A long time ago.


NOVAK: We used to give briefings on the way the government system worked. And the Congress was a co-equal branch of government, shared in the making of policy. And this was reiterated by the Senate majority leader the other day. And let's listen to him.


SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), MAJORITY LEADER: The Congress has a role, a constitutional role involving oversight, involving participation in the decision-making process. And I think, in part, that requires a sharing of information that may be required, at least, to make these decisions.


NOVAK: So based on that, sir, wouldn't you say the president make mistake, acted a little too quick off the trigger in closing off security information to the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. I guess he's backed off of that, but they have to have this information, don't they, General?

GRANGE: There's no argument that information needs to be given to the Congress. Congress serves the nation. And in that capacity, there's need to know at some echelon. And they have the responsibility to protect that information if told to do so.

In the military, Department of Defense information is given out in different levels of security to different people It's an echelon of information. And there probably should be echelon of information to the congressional armed forces committees, intelligence committees, the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate. That's appropriate, but it should be an echelon of information. That information is told to be protected, must be protected. It's their duty.

PRESS: Well, congressman, I want to follow up on that point, because I had -- my briefing wasn't in the Army about how the Constitution works. I mean, you've got the president for executive branch. Obviously, he has the constitutional responsibility to direct the activities of the federal government.

The Congress has a constitutional responsibility of oversight, to make sure they're doing their job. So I'm going to ask you. I mean, how serious this is, if the president is really keeping members of Congress in the dark. If he is denying members of Congress information, isn't he acting unconstitutionally?

CHAMBLISS: Well, in addition to having a constitutional authority to exercise decisions from a governmental perspective, we as members of Congress also have some ethical duties. And if we're not going to live up to our ethical duties, then there is a real problem with members of Congress.

There's a real problem in trust. How do you develop the -- how do you continue that trust relationship between the administration and members of Congress to help -- to allow members of Congress to help administration and participate in making these tough decisions. So, no, I don't think it's a constitutional violation for the White House to make a discretionary decision, that hey, we need to think this through a little bit more, before we give out all this classified information, if these guys are not going to live up to their ethical duty not to divulge it.

PRESS: But surely, your responsibilities of oversight are not something that you can put on the shelf during wartime. Isn't it even more necessary than ever that you know what's going on? How you can exercise your constitutional responsibilities, if you don't know was is going on?

CHAMBLISS: Well, that's why I think the president has come back today and he softened his stance a little bit. And I think there are some discussions going on now to try to make sure that we are given all of the information necessary to allow us make our decisions and do our oversight.

I think that'll happen. But by the same token, I think the president was right to send that strong message that by golly, if you're going to give out this classified information, then you're not going to get it. I think that was a message that needed to be sent.

NOVAK: One more point on this, General Grange. Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, as member of the Foreign Relations Committee, he served -- he wore the uniform in combat in Vietnam. And he's a pretty smart guy.

And I'd like to read to you what he said yesterday after this memo came out from the president. He said, "to put out a public document telling the world he doesn't trust the Congress and we leak everything, I'm not sure that helps develop unanimity and comradeship." What you do you think of that?

GRANGE: Well, you know, the questions you had asked me have nothing to do with the means of communication that the president used to transmit his message to members of Congress. I mean, that could be debated obviously.

NOVAK: Do you think he made a mistake in those means, sir?

GRANGE: Well, you know, what's very important in this whole effort, this war on terrorism or any other national emergency, is the trust and confidence between Congress, the executive branch, the military, the people of the United States of America. And if that trust seemed to violated, then there may an issue.

But I still hold strong that the information is a need to know, to do a particular job. And not every member of Congress probably needs to know every piece of information and there should be -- and I'm sure it's echeloned on who gets what information, to make the appropriate decisions Congress must make.

PRESS: OK, we're going to take a break here. When come back, we'll get into other area perhaps of information control. Is White House trying to control what you see on television? More CROSSFIRE coming up.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. As you may remember, no sooner did missiles start falling on Afghanistan last Sunday, than Osama bin Laden himself popped up on American television in a taped statement.

And yesterday, his spokesman was all over the networks again. Today, the White House cautioned TV executives about airing such statements, for fear they could contain code words that could trigger more terrorist attacks against the United States.

Is this a legitimate wartime concern? Or is the White House just trying to control what Americans see and hear about what's going on? Our debate on limiting access to information continues now with Congressman Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, who's Chairman of the House Terrorism Subcommittee; and in Chicago, former Army General David Grange, now a CNN military analyst -- Bob.

NOVAK: General Grange, the president's spokesman today, tried to explain to the press and to the nation what the White House is so worried about. And let's listen in.


FLEISCHER: ...Osama bin Laden's message is propaganda, calling on people to kill Americans. At worst, he could be issuing orders to his followers to initiate such attacks.


NOVAK: General, is this -- even vaguely credible that these terrorists ranting and raving are sending secret code messages to their followers on where to strike next? Or is that just a cover because the -- understandably, the president doesn't like the propaganda that's coming out?

GRANGE: Well, obviously, it's propaganda. There's a lot of disinformation coming out of al Qaeda, just like any terrorist organization will produce, just like communists used to do constantly all the time.

You know, non-tech militaries, non-tech paramilitary organizations use these means to transmit messages. I mean, it's in open source documents. It's in several publications. They use anything from sight and sound, signal shots of an AK-47 or drums beating in Somalia.

I mean, it's a technique. And the way someone wears clothes, some words are used in a message could be, not necessarily is, but could be a message to people to do something because they have no other outlet. So it's a possibility.

NOVAK: But isn't the president giving a signal? And I can understand anybody, any leader in a war gives a signal, that he wants total control of the media. He doesn't want the media to put out adverse opinions. He wouldn't like the United States World War II broadcasting speeches by Adolph Hitler, I guess. However, they were broadcast. But isn't that what this is really about that he doesn't want the propaganda message mixed on CNN and the other networks?

GRANGE: Well, the president as the commander in chief has the same concern of any military leader. He's concerned with the operational security and protection of his force. The media, on the other hand, has a responsibility to let the public know information.

And they both have a higher order of responsibility in their mind. And they conflict at times. Now, I don't believe that anybody's trying to hide anything, keep the media down from releasing any kind of information that the American people may have a right to know.

The issue is, and the issue's not only television. I mean, these organizations can transmit threw Arabic newspapers. They can transmit over the radio. And then again, how do you control it in other places outside of United States? So it's not -- it's also a practical issue. Could you even control it if you wanted to?

PRESS: Right. Congressman, I'd like your reaction to that, because like millions of Americans, I'm glued to the tube on Sunday. This action has finally started. And then suddenly, I mean here's the voice and the face of the enemy on national televisions, which I thought was fascinating, but also pretty transparent. Maybe not everybody heard or saw Osama bin Laden on Sunday. Here's just a little clip of perhaps his most outrageous statement. Let's remind ourselves.


OSAMA BIN LADEN (through translator): America will never be free, nor those who live in America will never taste security and safety unless we feel security and safety in our land and in Palestine.


PRESS: Now don't you really think that the American people are smart enough to recognize that, as Bob said, as pure propaganda and pure garbage?

CHAMBLISS: Well, there are two things about that statement that frankly bother me. No. 1, we know it was pre-taped. It had to be taped prior to the bombings started.

PRESS: Right.

CHAMBLISS: Now if you were a member of al Qaeda, and you knew there were cells in the United States that were geared up to carry out a terrorist attack, what's the quickest way to get a message to them? Quickest way to get a message to them is over the news media.

You know, you're telephones are being monitored. Now I don't know, that may be far-fetched. It may be wild eyed to think about that, but these are very, very sophisticated, very, very smart people. And they may have been sending some sort of a message there.

And I don't think it was really irresponsible on the president's part, even from the standpoint of trying to give any credibility to those folks, even though it sound very ridiculous to us. And I agree with you. But you just don't know. And with the situation that we're in right now, it's an entirely different crisis than we've ever been in.

PRESS: But here's what's concerns me about this. Bob saw a signal. And I see a different signal, which is, that if something else happens, that the White House is going to be all set to blame the networks on what happens because we've shown these terrorists on television. Aren't they setting us up for being responsible for anymore terrorist attacks?

CHAMBLISS: I've always said you guys are the most responsible media out there. Some of those other folks...


NOVAK: But General, one quick question before we wind up. In every war, starting with the Civil War, there have been American journalists right down with the troops. I was with the troops in Vietnam. Do you think there should be American journalists with the special forces, special operations commandos in Afghanistan right now?

GRANGE: No, I don't think that -- I think as general purpose forces I think is fine. I personally, as a veteran, when I operated in the Balkans and other places, I worked with the media. They can help you out.

Usually, they want to tell good things about the armed forces. And they tell more good stories than do bad. Sometimes there's some dirty laundry exposed, but no, I think the special forces organizations cannot have media with them.

NOVAK: General Grange, thank you very much. Congressman Chambliss, thank you very much. And Bill Press, crusader for press freedom, and I will be back with closing comments.


NOVAK: Bill, I've been in the Army and on the other side with journalists. And I can tell you generals don't want reporters around. But the problem is, when they're not around, as they weren't around in World War I, and we don't get the truth that the people need.

PRESS: No, I agree. And I think the White House has insulted the members of Congress and insulted the American people. I mean, the answer is let it all out. Let the reporters in with the troops. Put them all on television. I think the American people can sort it out. They always have and they always will.

NOVAK: I didn't think Osama bin Laden won many converts in this country.


NOVAK: And I don't buy this code message thing.


I think that is ludicrous.

PRESS: No, I was not afraid of seeing him on television, but I was glad to hear the congressman say that the White House was going to reconsider. I hope they do. And I hope the networks make their own decisions about what goes on the air.

For freedom of the press, I'm Bill Press. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: On the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.




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