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CNN CROSSFIRE

Is Another Terrorist Attack Imminent?

Aired May 20, 2003 - 16:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left: James Carville and Paul Begala. On the right: Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE, is another terrorist attack coming?

TOM RIDGE, SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY: We are significantly safer than we were 20 months ago.

ANNOUNCER: The Democrats sure don't think so.

DICK GEPHARDT (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are vulnerable.

ANNOUNCER: We'll ask two members of the Homeland Security Committee if the Bush administration is doing enough to keep us safe. Today on CROSSFIRE.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.

(APPLAUSE)

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Hello, everybody. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

The Bush administration has raised the national terrorism threat level from yellow, or elevated, orange, which is high. We will discuss the terrorist threat and debate whether the Bush administration is doing a good job on homeland Security with two members of Congress. But first, the best political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE Political Alert.

In a story first reported on CNN this afternoon, President Bush has decided to follow the recommendation of his homeland security secretary and raise the nation's terror alert to orange, which is high, a single notch higher than its previous yellow elevated status. Officials offered few specifics as to why Mr. Bush took this step, but CNN has learned that senior U.S. officials are saying that intelligence chatter suggests terrorists may be planning a major attack inside the U.S, with one official calling the intelligence "reasonably spooky stuff."

The State Department is temporarily closing America's embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as well as consulates in the Saudi cities of Jeddah and Dhahran. And I say good for them. They're being prudent and this is the right thing to do.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: I think the significance of the terror alerts sometimes alludes people. It is, of course, intended for the general public. In some general way, be alert, be more vigilant, but in the end there's not much you can do.

It's really intended, though, for high-risk industries. For instance, the chemical industry, nuclear facilities, and for local and municipal governments, county governments around the country to step up their security in tangible ways. So actually this does mean something. It's not just we all ought to feel more anxious.

BEGALA: It does. And some critics on the left and the right have made fun of it. I'm not one of them; I don't think you are, because we need to know. If anything, my criticism would be, give us more.

I know they can't give us raw data; they certainly don't want to help the terrorists. But more information is always good.

CARLSON: Well we will have more information on this in our guest segment. Two members of Congress will explain more.

In his stump speeches, Congressman Dick Gephardt promotes the fact that more people don't vote. Disengagement from the political process, says Mr. Gephardt, is a sign of "cynicism" and Mr. Gephardt should know. Since he began running for president the Missouri Democrat has missed 162 votes in the House of Representatives. That's about 85 percent of the total votes cast.

On the campaign trail, Gephardt says he cares deeply about energy policy, the war in Iraq and welfare reform. And yet he missed votes on all three of those issues, among many others. And not just National Secretary's Day issues that matter. Does all of this mean that Dick Gephardt isn't qualified to be president? Thankfully, we'll never know.

BEGALA: Well, let's draw the contract. This is something I really hope George W. Bush raises. Bush, of course, is a man who failed to show up for a year of his National Guard duty and works about three days a week as president. He's off at the ranch, he's off to Camp David. I mean he has no right to gripe about a congressman...

CARLSON: But truly, this is not about Bush.

BEGALA: Yes it is.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: It's Mr. Gephardt missed 85 percent of the votes. Address that directly. Is that acceptable or not?

BEGALA: It's absolutely acceptable. Bush misses 85 percent of his work. He's running in a campaign. You know this is what congressmen do when they run for president. It's not a problem.

CARLSON: He's a member of Congress paid by the taxpayers. He's supposed to be representing some district in Missouri.

BEGALA: He represents the third district in Missouri and they're thrilled with (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

CARLSON: The other candidates show up and he doesn't.

BEGALA: Well the other candidates ought to be out campaigning and making their case against Bush.

Back to homeland security news, though, the secretary of homeland security today would not commit to releasing tapes of conversations between Texas authorities and his agency. Homeland security officials were called in to search for Texas Democrats who had walked out of their legislature to protest the Republican redistricting plan.

The tapes, it is thought, could shed light on whether Republican politicians were trying to use the anti-terror agency to spy on Democrats. Ridge offered no defense of the cover-up, nor did he explain why parts of the tapes, but not all of them, have been released. After all, releasing parts of tapes didn't exactly work out for Richard Nixon, did it?

CARLSON: Well I hope -- no, no, and I do hope that once all the tapes are released, as Al Sharpton often says, we'll find out who was on the grassy knoll. But Paul, look, nobody has ever alleged that the federal government was used to "spy" on any Democrats in Texas. Apparently somebody in Texas -- in the state of Texas, not the federal level -- asked a company that works for the Department of Homeland Security to monitor a plane, to find where a plane went.

That's it. This is not spying, it's not bugging, it's not surveillance. Come on.

BEGALA: Of course. The government's largest agency stands accused of being politicized while they can't catch Osama bin Laden and they couldn't even find the Texas Democrats, I think we have a right to know if they are spying on us. So investigate.

CARLSON: But the allegation does not even concern spying. Apparently some idiot in Texas called up and said, can you find this plane. We do know that.

BEGALA: Why won't he release it then?

CARLSON: Why won't Tom Ridge release the tapes?

BEGALA: Right.

CARLSON: Because he apparently has released all the tapes that are germane to that question.

BEGALA: No he hasn't.

CARLSON: There's no spying even being alleged here.

BEGALA: He spliced and diced the tapes, and he ought to just release the whole...

CARLSON: You wish. Run on that. That's a good campaign.

BEGALA: Yes, spying on Democrats.

CARLSON: Fifty-seven-year-old Robert Buche (ph) of Youngstown, Ohio is in federal custody tonight, having been arrested while trying to return to his new home in Cuba. Buche (ph), a paving contractor, fled to Cuba in 1998 after being indicted in a bribery and tax evasion scandal that later brought down Democratic Congressman Jim Traficant, an American folk hero.

Buche's (ph) arrest is sure to spark further inquiry into the allegation that he and his brother Anthony once paid Traficant $13,000 in return for federal contracts. Traficant was busy making license plates this afternoon and was unavailable for comment. But experts say the news could potentially, possibly, per chance, interfere with Traficant's expected entrance into the Democratic presidential campaign. Of course we'll keep you posted.

He is really the only Democrat not to enter the race. I think he has more credibility than some of those already in it. I think he ought to run.

BEGALA: Why are we stopping this guy from leaving here and going to Cuba? He's the only person in America that wants to go to Cuba. Let him go. The hell with him. Who needs him here?

I don't know the guy. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) leave our country to go to Cuba (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

CARLSON: He, like other prominent Democrats, has been accused of a federal crime.

BEGALA: Oh, would you stop...

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: I'm trying to be serious, too.

BEGALA: Jim Traficant didn't even vote for a Democrat to be the speaker. He's not anybody's kind of Democrat. He voted with George Bush all the time. He's a Bush Democrat. He's a Bush man.

CARLSON: Jim Traficant -- and I mean this because I like him -- as a compliment -- was a life-long Democrat. And good for him. He represents the values of...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: But he was a Bush Democrat.

CARLSON: Well now he's an incarcerated Democrat, but he's still a Democrat.

Next, as the White House raises the terror alert to orange, Democratic presidential candidates claim the Bush administration isn't doing enough to fight terrorism. In a minute we'll ask if anyone is buying that line.

And will the orange alert change your behavior? We'll find out. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back. This afternoon, the Bush administration raised our nation's terrorism threat level from yellow to orange. This is the fourth time the level has been raised to the orange level. The last time, of course, was on the eve of our war with Iraq.

Joining us from Capitol Hill to discuss this matter, New York Democratic Congresswoman Nita Lowey. She is a member of the Select Committee on Homeland Security. With her, New York Republican Congressman Peter King, a member of the International Relations Committee. Thank you all very much.

(APPLAUSE)

CARLSON: Congresswoman Lowey, thanks for joining us. Democrats in the past week have attempted to gain political advantage by attacking the administration's response to terrorism and its plans for homeland security. Let's get specific about this.

The administration today raised the terror alert level one notch. What would Democrats have done differently?

REP. NITA LOWEY (D), NEW YORK: I think it's important to say that homeland security is not a partisan issue. It's an American mission. And at our meeting today of the select Committee on Homeland Security, where Pete King serves as well, we were trying to ask very targeted questions of Secretary Ridge.

He's a decent person. He has an enormous job. But I think many of us on both sides of the aisle were asking very sharp questions.

Why is it that 22 percent of all passenger cargo in the holes of airplanes is still not inspected? Why is it that intelligence was not aware, didn't have a clue as to what happened in Saudi Arabia? They were particularly targeting Americans.

Why is it that there is an office within the homeland security office that is supposed to be providing assistance to our localities, our mayors, our towns and villages they still can't communicate? They still don't have interoperability of communication equipment and they are all going out and buying their own equipment.

Why is it that Secretary Ridge can't give clear direction to this office to provide state of the art advice to our localities? I could go on. We have to do a lot more, and I'm hoping through the oversight of our committee we'll be able to push this department to move faster to provide the assistance the intelligence assistance, the security assistance. BEGALA: Let me bring Congressman King into this. Perhaps one of the reasons the department has been so slow is because the buck stops at the top. Our president two weeks ago gave a speech in Little Rock, Arkansas. I'm going to ask you to listen to a piece of it and then ask you a question about it. Here's the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly, but surely being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they are not a problem anymore.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BEGALA: Not a problem anymore. Congressman King, is our president ignorant or is he misleading us?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: No, he's entirely accurate. The fact is, those who were dead are in jail and no longer a threat to us. That's the reality. And the fact is, al Qaeda...

BEGALA: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Are they on the run?

LONG: Al Qaeda is definitely on the run and they are definitely disrupted. They are still capable, obviously, of retaliatory actions. But again, there have been no actions against the United States. The ones they took in Saudi Arabia -- I disagree with Nita on this -- we had very good intelligence on that. In fact, we went and advised the Saudi government that an attack was imminent and unfortunately the Saudis didn't react.

They are picking soft targets in Arab nations, which to me is a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) showing that we do have them on the run. But the president has also said time and again this is a war that's going to go on for 5, 10, 15 years. So I really think that people are trying to take advantage of every time al Qaeda responds that somehow we're losing this war.

We have many of their top operatives all jail, they are dead and they are on the run. But they are still very, very lethal.

CARLSON: Congresswoman Lowey, you just said a moment ago that homeland security is not a partisan issue. But of course, as you well know, it absolutely is a partisan issue being leveraged by Democrats. I'll give you one example: Dick Gephardt, Democratic leader, now apparently running for president, said this in "The New York Times" this morning.

"We are vulnerable to future attacks because this administration has not done its job and has not increased our ability to have homeland security," blaming, in other words, future terrorist attacks on the president and his administration. Will you distance yourself from that appalling charge? LOWEY: I think it's important that Democrat or Republican can talk honestly and openly about what's right about the homeland security effort and what's wrong about the homeland security effort.

CARLSON: But that's a blanket accusation accusing the president of not protecting our country. How do you respond to this?

LOWEY: I just want to make this clear. I met with first responders, the firefighters, the police, the EMS, the hospitals, the superintendent of schools. They are not getting the technical assistance from the federal government they need.

In fact, Pete and I went to meet with Ray Kelly (ph) in New York City. He's established his own counterintelligence unit. He has agents all over the world because obviously he didn't feel they were moving fast enough.

And I want to say, as a member of the committee, we are willing to work together to appropriate the dollars. But they have to be spent well, and we need clear direction. And I think after 20 months, certainly the firefighters, the EMS, the police should be able to communicate with each other, and there's no state of the art recommendation from the Department of Homeland Security.

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: Congressman King, let me come back to this point that you mentioned before about soft targets in Arab countries. Our president promised us -- as he led us into this war in Iraq, first he promised us that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program, which we now know was false. He also said if we waged a war there it would help decimate terrorism in the Middle East.

In the last eight days there have been 14 terrorist attacks. The four bombings in Saudi Arabia, where Americans were killed, which we all know about, the bombing in the Philippines, two bombings in Chechnya, a suicide bombing in Morocco, five attacks in Israel and one in Ankara, Turkey today. Fourteen attacks in eight days. The president was clearly plainly wrong when he said this war on Iraq would lessen terrorism in the Middle East, wasn't he?

KING: No, he's not at all. The fact is, there's no doubt our position is stronger. And if you're going to allow yourself to be distracted by every individual attack, then that's the type of mentality which would prevent us from winning the war. The fact is, to me, that al Qaeda is reacting the way they are shows they are on the run, and there's no doubt...

BEGALA: The fact that they are murdering Americans in Saudi Arabia proves that we're winning the war. Help me with that.

KING: Because this a large-scale war we're talking about. The fact is, we have the intelligence. We told the Saudis about it and the Saudis didn't take proper action.

Listen, Americans can be killed anywhere in the world, as can any nationality. When you're up a group of terrorists -- for instance, with the Israelis and Palestinians, this has been going on 30 years. The Palestinians can still attack.

The fact is, there's no doubt that al Qaeda is weaker today than it was 20 months ago. There's no doubt that it is on the run.

And the fact is, we are going to win this war. And I disagree with Nita. I think Tom Ridge is doing an outstanding job.

The fact is, we can't expect overnight to have thousands of fire departments and police departments all with interoperability. The fact is, the New York City (UNINTELLIGIBLE) New York City fire department can. And the reason Ray Kelly (ph) went out on his own is he's always proactive.

CARLSON: OK. Mr. King, I'm going to have to cut you off right there. We will be back.

Just ahead, Wolf Blitzer has an update on the headlines, including today's breaking news on the terror threat level. Then it's time for "Rapid Fire." Think of it as our changing debate speed from yellow to orange. We'll be right back.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Time now for CROSSFIRE's quickest question-and-answer segment, "Rapid Fire." We are talking about the increase in the terror threat level. Our guests are on Capitol Hill. They are Democratic Congressman Nita Lowey and Republican Congressman Peter King, both of them from New York, both of them members of the select Committee on Homeland Security.

CARLSON: Congresswoman Lowey, a brand new "New York Times" poll shows that Democrats are losing by 40 points to Republicans on the question, which party does better on terrorism. The public has a deep insight into this, doesn't it?

LOWEY: Well, all I can tell you if you, if you talk to my firefighters and my police and the EMS workers and the hospital workers, they are saying we haven't gotten anything to improve our facilities. We don't have the radios. We don't get the advice.

I think we have a lot to do in PR. But in terms of substance, it's real. They're not getting the assistance they need.

BEGALA: Congressman King, should the Department of Homeland Security release all the records about allegations that the department spied on Democrats?

KING: Yes.

BEGALA: God bless you.

CARLSON: Congresswoman Lowey, is the United States winning the war on terrorism?

LOWEY: I don't know. We have to win it. I see a lot of movement, but I'm very concerned that we now went up to an orange level, and we know there's a lot more we have to do.

BEGALA: Congressman King, are you troubled at all that the top two officials in the Homeland Security Department are both career politicians with no prior experience in terrorism?

KING: Tom Ridge was an outstanding member of Congress. I served with him. He was a great governor. He's a war veteran. He is absolutely qualified.

He will do a great job. He is doing a great job. We couldn't be in better hands.

CARLSON: Congresswoman, 68 percent of the public says that the Bush administration is handling world affairs well. Democrats haven't convinced them otherwise, have they?

I'm afraid that we have lost the audio, but we appreciated you and Mr. King joining us anyway. I'll answer the question I asked you. Thanks very much. Joining us from Capitol Hill, Congresswoman Nita Lowey of New York and Congressman Pete King of New York.

KING: Thank you.

LOWEY: Good to be with you.

CARLSON: A new segment here on CROSSFIRE: the Ask the Audience, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) by audiencevoting.com. The question: will the orange alert change your behavior? Press one for yes and press two for no.

We'll return with the results in a moment. Our viewers at home are weighing in on the terror threat level also. Find out what an orange alert may have to do with the weather next in "Fireback." We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. It's time for our "Fireback" segment. But first, the results from our audience question. We asked, will the orange alert change your behavior? Fifteen percent of the audience said yes, and a resounding 85 percent of the audience unmoved by the terror alert.

BEGALA: That's probably the 15 percent that don't want to go to their mother-in-law's Memorial Day picnic anyway. So they just -- sorry, mom, I can't go. The orange alert is on. Just kidding, mom (UNINTELLIGIBLE), if you're watching.

Time now for "Fireback." Cheryl Henninger has written in on this very topic from (UNINTELLIGIBLE), PA. She says "To me, this color code system is ludicrous. Why don't they include it in the morning paper weather section? 'Today will be cool and sunny with a security level of yellow; however, afternoon clouds may roll in, thus raising the code to orange."

CARLSON: All right. And next up is Dave Gilders from Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, a foreign country to the north. "Tucker, all these Democrats who are critical of what your president has done on the war on terror, I'm curious what would they have done to protect you."

Glad you asked, Dave. The answer would be, as it is always to the Democrats, follow the lead of France. I know (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BEGALA: In fact, the Democrats -- I mean you know this. The Democrats had an amendment to significantly boost our homeland security and the Republicans voted it down. The Republicans spent $600 billion for tax cuts, $40 billion for homeland security. And I think that's crazy.

CARLSON: And that's all true, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, a question from the audience?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I seem to remember September 12, 2001, a bipartisan pledge to avoid politicizing the efforts to combat terrorism. Has the recent fearmongering by Democrats really bought them that much -- that many votes for the next election cycle?

CARLSON: Well, it's interesting. It hasn't closed that critical, all important, in my opinion, 40-point gap. When you ask people who does a better job protecting you, by 40 points people favor the Republicans. That's a big deal, and Democrats I think have to face it at some point.

BEGALA: Well I think they do. But there's also honest disagreement. Democrats think that $600 billion for tax cuts and $40 billion for homeland security is stupid. That's a difficult concept, but it's stupid. It's moronic.

The tax cut ain't going to do you any good if there's a terrorist attack here in America. We should protect our country first, and that's what Democrats want to do. It's an honest disagreement.

From the left, I am Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: And from the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow for yet more CROSSFIRE.

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