Skip to main content /TRANSCRIPTS



Homeland Security: How to Handle the Alert?

Aired October 30, 2001 - 19:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, on high alert. Is the attorney general's warning a necessary precaution, or is just causing panic? This is CROSSFIRE.

Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. Also, welcome to day two of the latest security alert proclaimed by the bush administration. Homeland security czar Tom Ridge tried today to explain the alert announced last time by Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Governor Ridge said it was just a reiteration of the last alert, issued back an October 10. But he added that Americans should continue to live their lives, to be Americans.

George W. Bush took that advice, going to the Bronx tonight for the World Series game. But the Federal Aviation Administration prohibited all traffic -- all air traffic within 30 miles of New York's JFK Airport for all series games at Yankee Stadium.

And Dick Cheney squirrelled away into one of his vice presidential hiding places. Does all this reassure Americans or make them very, nervous?

We are asking two members of Congress: Democrat Gary Ackerman of New York and Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, chairman of the Terrorism Subcommittee. Bill Press.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Congressman, good evening. We are told that there may be attacks. We don't know where, we don't know when, we don't know what. What good does this possibly do except instill panic among the American people?

REP. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), GEORGIA: Well, we are living in a different world today than what we were living in before September 11. And it's a world that we're going to be living in probably for...

PRESS: Excuse me, Congressman. As you are talking, we see the president here arriving at Yankee Stadium for the third game of the World Series tonight. He has said he would root for anybody but the Yankees. Let's see what kind of response he gets there.

NOVAK: Or Diamondbacks.

CHAMBLISS: I was hoping Ackerman would get me tickets to the ball game. REP. GARY ACKERMAN (D), NEW YORK: Any time.

CHAMBLISS: But is it -- we are living in a different world today from what we were living in prior to September 11. I think what the administration is doing is erring on the side of caution and letting people know that at least there is the potential for another attack that may be imminent. And I -- you know, I think that the American people deserve that.

NOVAK: Congressman Ackerman, would you prefer that the government does -- keeps this information -- credible information, they say -- secret from the American people?

ACKERMAN: Well, I think they are in a box. But the real problem is they are putting out a very mixed message. And the only thing they are accomplishing right now is creating a nation full of paranoid schizophrenic agoraphobic.

CHAMBLISS: What's agoraphobic?

ACKERMAN: Afraid to leave your house.

PRESS: Not to go to ball game, though. All right, Congressman.

NOVAK: That had nothing to do with Al Gore. Nothing at all.

ACKERMAN: Nothing to do with Gore.

CHAMBLISS: I'm not sure we got any of those in south Georgia.

PRESS: All right. Congressman, so if there was any confusion over what the attorney general said last the night, I thought that the homeland security czar today just cleared everything up. Now with full tongue in cheek, let's listen to what Tom Ridge had to say, how he explained it all.


TOM RIDGE, DIRECTOR OF HOMELAND SECURITY: All we are saying with the general alert is, continue to live your lives, continue to be America, but be aware. Be alert. Be on guard.


PRESS: Now, this is crazy. Continue on with your lives, but be on guard. I mean, you can't have it both ways, Congressman. You can't get back to normal and live in fear. Which is it?

CHAMBLISS: Well, what people -- what people have got to do is to understand that it is a different day. It is a different time where we are subject to terrorist attack like we have never been subject to it before. And those of us been involved in the world of terrorism for the last five or six years have been saying, day in and day out, you know, that there is a potential for this to happen. You ought to know about this. The profile of it was not raised until September 11. Because that profile was raised on September 11, people now, I think, need to expect to know when something is -- the potential for something is imminent. It may not happen -- probably isn't going to happen -- but folks need to be aware that it could happen.

PRESS: But here is the problem that I see. I don't know whether the attorney general or you know what kind of confusion you are sowing among the American people. I mean, people, I think -- we know now that we are vulnerable. We know the enormity of what happened. We know it can happen again. But at the same time, people are trying, you know, to get on. And every time they try to get on, Ashcroft comes out and says a terrorist could strike this weekend.

CHAMBLISS: The problem with it is, though, if the FBI, the CIA -- any law enforcement agency -- has some information -- direct information about the fact that there may be a terrorist attack that is imminent and they don't tell the American people and we have a tragic incident that then the press gets a hold of and says, "Hey, why didn't you tell us?" So I think they're erring on the side of caution.

You know, I think, you know, Gary's district and my district are two entirely situations. In my district, for example, we have had no phone calls as a result of the alert we went on yesterday. My guess is in his district he has had a bunch of them. And it's the nature of the beast, because he's -- represents the World Trade Center.

NOVAK: Gary Ackerman, let me try to de mystify some of this. My understanding is there was not a secret agent that came in and said there was going to be attack. The intelligence people working on the data found the same patterns -- maybe patterns of traffic, maybe the patterns of activity existing -- that preceded the previous terrorist incidents. Surely that is sufficient reason to alert the American people, isn't it?

ACKERMAN: Well, I don't -- I don't think we really know what happened. And what we have here is sort of a heterogeneous approach to spreading information. The message is mixed.

And -- the explanation is even more confusing. You've -- you have somebody appointed to be the domestic terrorism czar. He doesn't make the initial announcement. The attorney general instead makes the initial announcement, and he says there's reason to believe there's specific threat...

NOVAK: Is he the czarina?

ACKERMAN: The czar and the czarina...


NOVAK: Sorry.

ACKERMAN: He says -- good line. He says that specific information, there is going to be a specific attack. You have to be alert this week. So everybody -- is heightened for this and then all of a sudden you have the other head of the organization come out and say, "Well, this is really just a continuation of what happened on the 11th. It's the same general kind of..." Now which is it? We should be alert all the time or there's a specific alert for this week? The American people are very, confused by this and it's very frustrating.

NOVAK: But let me show you something else that Governor Ridge said. Let's just take a -- take a look at it please.


RIDGE: Well, we will never know if the country going on alert heightening security, thwarted or frustrated an attempt by somebody or some individuals within this country to bring harm or terror to a community or to a region.


NOVAK: What he is talking about is the alert of October 11th. He's saying that possibly going on alert prevented a terrorist incident. Are you ready to gainsay that and say that is a lot of baloney, John.

ACKERMAN: We don't know, and there is no information to back this up. And you know -- you are never going to know. It is -- it is basically self-inoculation to say, "Well, I'm making this announcement. And if nothing happens here I'm a hero, because I prevented it from happening." Or if something does happen, you are able to say, "See, I told you."

But nobody told us what we are supposed to do. And that's the problem. The administration is boxed in. I don't think they should keep this information from the American people, but there should be plan here. And there is no plan. We've always been prepared for a two-front war. Fighting a war on two fronts. Unfortunately, one of the fronts was not in the United States. And that is really our heavyweight problem.

PRESS: Well, I agree -- disagree, rather -- with my friend Gary Ackerman. But in fact President Bush did tell us what to do and he did tell us what to look for.

You'll remember this, Congressman. On October 11th, after the first warning at his prime time news conference, a reporter asked the president what should we be looking for. And here what's he told the American people.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, if you are a -- if you find a person that you have never seen before getting in a crop duster that doesn't belong to you, report it.


PRESS: Now, Congressman, I grew up in a rural part of Delaware. I have seen a lot of crop dusters. Probably one tenth of one percent of Americans have ever gotten close to crop duster. I mean, is this the best we can do? We're supposed to be out there now looking at people climbing in crop dusters?

ACKERMAN: Only if they are strange looking.

PRESS: And don't -- the crop duster doesn't belong to you.

CHAMBLISS: In my part of the world, crop dusters are a common thing. We see them every day. But, you know, I think his message was pretty obvious there. And that is that listen, because we are living in a different world today, the American people have to be more cognizant of what is going on around them than ever before.

If they see something strange, then by golly don't just drive on down the street. Pick up your phone and call the police and say, "Hey, there may be nothing to this, but..." And, you know, the law enforcement folks know how to filter that out and decide what is what and what is not what.

NOVAK: Well, I'll...

ACKERMAN: But this is -- this is -- this is a war against terrorism. And everybody in the war against terrorism is either a terrorist or a target. And we know what the terrorists do, but we don't know what the targets are supposed to do.

You know, we're told to go out and lead a normal life. What are we supposed to do? You know, my mother-in-law bought the thing hook line and sinker. Go out and go shopping. And God bless her, you know? This is the normal. But then we are told we have to be on heightened alert this week. What does that mean? I still don't know what that means.

PRESS: It means look for crop dusters. Bob, I want to -- in terms of getting back to normal, it looks like the president is getting back to normal. He used to own a ball team. He has gone to the World Series.

ACKERMAN: Good for him.

PRESS: Dick Cheney is back in his bunker. Now, Congressmen, seriously. How can we say it's OK to get back to normal when they won't even let the vice president work in his office? That's a message that things are not normal, right?

CHAMBLISS: I think that's one of those things that they have to make a calculated decision on, based on whatever facts they have got with respect to the seriousness of the incident that might or might not happen. And it...

PRESS: Don't you think it sends a wrong message?

CHAMBLISS: Well, you know, it really isn't, because what he is saying is get back to normal but there is reason to think that the possibility of attack is higher than normal. So, you know, the vice president -- in the event that something happens to the president, we know that he succeeds him -- and he has got to be protected, he has got to be in place.

We have got to -- we have got to be prepared for that just like the American people have to be prepared for an attack. The president of the United States and the vice president have to be prepared in the event something may happen.

NOVAK: Congressman Ackerman, there is a 61-year-old woman in New York City -- your city -- who is very ill tonight with the bad -- the serious kind of anthrax. She was a -- in a hospital, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) hospital. We are talking about life and death now. Isn't it a little better to err on the side of caution and say "be careful" rather than say, "Go out and live your life and no restrictions?"

ACKERMAN: You are right. There's no question about that. But the message that is being presented to the American people is -- is two sided: one, the president goes to Yankee Stadium to the World Series. The vice president goes into a bunker. What am I, Joe Citizen, supposed to do? I'm supposed to go out and go into a bunker, or do I go out and go shopping? I can go shopping if they don't allow airplanes to fly within 90 miles of my shopping mall. I mean...

NOVAK: Let me -- let me...

ACKERMAN: There is a confusion here.

NOVAK: Let me fantasize. Let's say that you are not Congressman Ackerman anymore. You are President Ackerman.

ACKERMAN: Oh, God forbid.

NOVAK: What would you do?

CHAMBLISS: Sounds good to me.

ACKERMAN: I don't know what I would do. That's why I'm not running for president. But one thing that I would be sure that I would do, I would make sure that the administration speaks with one voice.

I would make sure if I appoint a guy with the caliber of Tom Ridge to be the spokesman for this -- for this operation, I would make sure that number one, he would have a budget. You don't give a guy budget, he has no power in this -- in this city of ours. Number one. And I would make sure that he makes the announcements and doesn't have to clean up after somebody else and explain something away. This leads to more confusion.

PRESS: OK, members, hold on there just a second. We're going to take a break. When we come back, we will dig deeper into last night's alert. Was it all an effort on the part of the federal government to cover its big posterior? We'll be right back.


RIDGE: Certainly the story that a lot of live through that you tell your children from time to time is the little boy who cried wolf. And that's one I've told my kids over the years. And I can appreciate the concern.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Tom Ridge is right. If you cry wolf too often, after a while, nobody will believe you. On the other hand, if you warn about new terrorist attacks often enough and something does happen, you can always say, "I told you so."

Well, when Attorney General John Ashcroft issued his new general warning last night, which was it? Was he responding to a specific threat or was he just covering his basis? Arguing that Ashcroft did little more than sow panic is Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman of New York, member of the House International Relations Committee. Arguing that he acted appropriately is Republican Congressman Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism. Bob.

NOVAK: Chairman Chambliss, I want you to listen to your vice chairman, Democrat Jane Harman of California and her analysis of this alert that was issued last night. Let's listen to her.


REP. JANE HARMAN (D), CALIFORNIA: The message should be reassuring and we should get specific information about what we are supposed to do. Everyone is already on. It makes no sense except for a bureaucratic cover-your-posterior reason to do this.


NOVAK: We used to call that CYA, and I won't tell you what it stands for. But that's what everybody is talking about in Washington, isn't it, Mr. Chambliss? That this was effort -- "Gee, what if something bad happens in the next week? We don't have all the information. Let's get ourselves on the record so we can say I told you so."

CHAMBLISS: Well, I usually don't disagree with my vice chairman. We have got a great working relationship. But in this particular case, you know, I know some of facts that this warning was based upon and...

NOVAK: What were they?

CHAMBLISS: They -- there was sufficient reason to issue the warning. And, you know, it's -- the administration is in a situation where they do need to look at covering themselves from time to time. Because there are certain people in the American -- certain Americans that do want to know is there something imminent out there or should we just go on. And if something happens, it happens. There are other people who, frankly, probably have a much more laissez faire attitude. You know, if it happens, ain't nothing I can do about it anyway. But...

NOVAK: Well, the argument against this being a CYA operation is that there has been some really specific preparations taken across the country since -- what time that was last night? -- 6:30 last night.

PRESS: 5:30.

NOVAK: 5:30 last night. Do you really thing anything has been done since 5:30 that is much different than it was before this alert came out?

CHAMBLISS: No, I don't think so. I don't have any knowledge about anything that was done at 5:30 last night.

NOVAK: I mean that's -- so it is a cover-your-posterior operation.

CHAMBLISS: Well, I mean, you could argue that surely, because it is a situation where the administration is saying okay, we have got information that indicates that there is more likelihood that an attack may take place than there was yesterday. And the American people have a right to know.

The question is, I guess, do the American people have the right to know the specifics. And I would have to argue that they don't. There is no reason to disclose that kind of information.

PRESS: Just -- I'm curious. Do you know the specifics?

ACKERMAN: I don't know the specifics.

PRESS: You are a member of Congress and no one told you?

ACKERMAN: I'm a member of Congress.

PRESS: All right. Well, you know, I very, very seldom ever agree with anything that Ari Fleischer says down at White House. But as they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. OK. So once in a while he comes out with a valid point. And this happens to be one of those rare days that he did. I would like to you listen to Mr. Fleischer, with pride. Here he is.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: Any time the government is going to send an alert to 18,000 law enforcement personnel communities across nation, it's going to become public. And once it does, everybody in this room is going to say, "Why didn't you tell us?"


PRESS: Now, I mean, that's a point. If all -- suddenly there's all this law enforcement activity and we see all heightened alert and all, you see cops on every corner -- or National Guard like you had today directing traffic in New York -- people are going to wonder what is going on. Isn't it better to tell them ahead of time?

ACKERMAN: Well, what he just said is he had to tell them ahead of time, because if he didn't it was going to leak out and it would look like they were holding back. So they may believe they were telling people, but they haven't told anybody anything.

I mean, if there is something specific -- and my good friend here the chairman, you know, has access to that information, and he says there was something specific -- and I believed that as soon as the announcement was made. There was something specific.

But you're not told what to do. I don't believe they told any of those 18,000 law enforcement agencies what to do. You know, they didn't say, "Just watch for strange guys jumping into crop dusters." You know, we don't have a lot of those in my district, anyway. But what are we supposed to do? Should we fly? Should we not fly? Should we go east? Should we go west? Should we stay home? Should go out in the mall? Nobody knows.

PRESS: But we don't know the specifics. But we do know -- we would be crazy if we thought there were no more terrorists left in this country, no more of the Al Qaeda network.

We know that there -- that some of them are -- are still here. There were signs last time that were ignored, looking back. There are signs in the last week or so that what the attorney general is saying, it seems to me, is you can't ignore. So, as Saxby said earlier, isn't it better to err on the side of caution and say...

ACKERMAN: Yes, but nobody is telling us what to look out for. That's -- that's really the -- the crux of the problem. I believe the administration had to make the announcements to the American people.

PRESS: You just don't think they told us enough. Is that it?

ACKERMAN: They haven't given us a sense of direction and there is no plan. If they told us what to look out for, or told even told the law enforcement agencies what to be prepared for, it would be a lot easier.

The American people are grownups. We are entitled to make decisions for ourselves as well as our government doing that, but we can't make those decisions unless we have the information. To go out and lead your life and go to the mall and spend money to help the economy is a very mixed message than be on the alert, somebody is going to attack us within the next week.

CHAMBLISS: The problem is, the bad guys don't tell you what they are going to do and when they are going to do it, where they're going to do it. They are good about keeping that secret.

So if the specific information was there, there wouldn't be any need to tell the public. Law enforcement officials would be out there disrupting whatever. Let me make one other point. This came out in the hearing that we had yesterday in New York City. Mayor Giuliani made the point that one problem we have between federal, state and local law enforcement officers is the fact that we don't have enough information sharing. Some of it is prohibited by statute. But this goes a little bit beyond that. But this does illustrate the fact that there needs to be sharing of information between federal, state and local folks. And I think that's what we have done here to a certain extent.

ACKERMAN: Saxby, you are absolutely right. And that is just what I was complaining about, exactly what the mayor was complaining about. You are telling New York City's police department -- in a city that feels very vulnerable, for obvious reasons -- that they should be on the alert. And they don't have a clue. They don't have any more of a clue than the average person in your district or somebody else in Middle America as to what they are supposed to be on the alert for.

NOVAK: Now, some of them -- didn't get the message last night. Let's hear -- let me -- let me read you something that was said by somebody we haven't heard from nationally since Gary Condit was in the news. And that's the assistant D.C. police chief, Terrance Gainer. You remember him?

He said, quote, "Being told to turn on CNN or CNBC doesn't seem to be the best way to communicate what law enforcement ought to know. Having one more breathless announcement with absolutely no or little substance is not terribly helpful." End quote.

And this isn't a silly pundit. This is a cop in a city where I think they would -- they should be in on the know. If he has to watch us on CNN -- or watch CNN to find out what the alert is, something is not working. Isn't that right, Mr. Chairman?

CHAMBLISS: Bob, you have always told me to keep up with you, that you did know everything. But no, that is a problem. It's a problem sharing that information with 18,000 law enforcement agencies. And to go little bit further, what Giuliani said yesterday -- and he is right -- there has got to be a level at which that information sharing stops.

The question is, where should it stop and how much should be told? And I think that is the problem here. I mean, I think certainly if there more specifics known -- New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, wherever -- they would have known about it, obviously.

NOVAK: Let me -- let me pursue that. I was on phone calling -- since I was going to be on this program -- and I was calling a few other police chiefs I know. And I found that some of them also got the word after it was announced to the nation and none of them had any details at all. They didn't say, "Guard the bridge" or "Guard the power station." They just said be on your alert, be prepared. That's a Boy Scout motto, too. But it isn't adequate for cops. As chairman, is this the way to do that?

CHAMBLISS: Well, what has happened since September 11th, there have been certain specific entities, certain national treasures and other specific places that have been identified. The local law enforcement officials know where they are. They know where the power plants are. They know where the dams, the key bridges or whatever. And they have -- they know where they are.

PRESS: Just one final point of why this might have been good idea last night. You know there's this show "America's Most Wanted." John Walsh, right? They've got tons of crimes that are never solved by law enforcement officials no matter how many years they investigate it, but they are solved because some citizen sees something weird -- somebody at a 7/11 or something, or a nearby refinery or -- and -- and calls it in.

Now, why -- so why doesn't it make sense by this kind of warning to enlist the American people to keep your eyes open and report anything suspicious?

ACKERMAN: It's a great idea and it works when you hold the poster up. But nobody is going to turn Bin Laden in because he is not running around in any American city that we know. The problem is, they're telling us, "Turn somebody in." And you're going to turn in the owner of your local 7/11 because more than likely he comes from the Middle East, because that's who buys the franchise.

But we don't know what we are looking for. That's going to cause a major panic. We are all going to -- we are all going to become paranoid and look at each other and get suspicious. We should know what we are looking for or not told to start looking.

NOVAK: I have -- I have been paranoid for a long time.

ACKERMAN: Yes, I heard.

PRESS: But I think he is safe. I don't think anyone is going to turn him in.

ACKERMAN: I want to be where vice president is.

NOVAK: Gary Ackerman, thank you very much. Saxby Chambliss, thank you very much. And the honorable Mr. Press and I will alert each other with final closing comments after these messages.


PRESS: Bob, I think Jane Harman had it absolutely right. This is a huge CYA operation. So many agencies were caught asleep at the switch on September 11. They don't want it to happen again, so they are just warning everybody so if anything happens they could be right, you know? And Attorney General John Ashcroft is leading the pack.

Bob, you have got to agree. It makes you yearn for the good old days. It makes you yearn for the good old days...

NOVAK: For Janet Reno?.

PRESS: ... of Janet Reno.

NOVAK: I think she is in the right place, losing a race for governor.

PRESS: Governor Reno.

NOVAK: But I will say this, that I think that Saxby Chambliss had it right. Rudy Giuliani had it right, that the FBI has to change its habits of a lifetime and share information with the local police.

And it's less important for the people in this administration to give these press conferences and these interviews than to go to the local police authorities and tell them what they know. They're still not doing it because it's hard to break these questions of secrecy ,because the local cops don't know any more about it than you do.

PRESS: They should. They should be the first ones to know what's going on.

NOVAK: And they should know more than we know.

PRESS: Absolutely. From the left, I'm Bill Press. Be alert, and good night for CROSSFIRE.

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




Back to the top