Transcript: Behind-the-Scenes With Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano at her desk.ABC News
Janet Napolitano at her desk.

ABC News' Pierre Thomas caught an exclusive interview with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of her day.

The 52-year-old former Arizona attorney, attorney general and governor begins her day at 7:30 a.m. with a daily threat briefing, and after that, it's non-stop conference calls, meetings, ceremonies and more briefings, all in the name of preventing the next big disaster, or mitigating its damage.

On Al Qaeda

THOMAS: How do you describe their capabilities now and what are the trends regarding them that you are concerned about at the moment?

NAPOLITANO: Well, I think in some respects, we've been very successful at either confining or eliminating their leadership. But they still have leadership. And there are al Qaeda or al Qaeda-related groups in -- in several places.

And, unfortunately, one of the things we've seen over the last year is the phenomenon of U.S. citizens traveling to the [federally administered tribal areas], traveling to Yemen, to learn the tactics used by al Qaeda and then coming back. And I'm talking about the whole of government. This is not DHS per se, while the whole of government has made progress against al Qaeda, they remain and they remain an ever present threat.

One thing we know they are constantly focused on is the threat to aviation, which is why we've been working so hard to accelerate some of the security measures that we had put in motion, but we have now accelerated.

But there are other things, as well. Surface transportation. Subsurface, meaning subways, but also surface transportation, the movement of things across the border. That could be used by them. So they are ever present. And we just assume them to be now part of a -- an ever present or ever changing threat environment within the United States.

THOMAS: You know, I've covered the department since its beginning. And really since 9/11, we've had a number of sophisticated plots develop. But what struck me in the latter part of 2009 is between September and December you had two fairly sophisticated plots that were sort of in their final stages. You had the Zazi plot. We just had a guilty plea today.

NAPOLITANO: And Headley.

THOMAS: And Headley. I mean you had the Christmas Day plot, where al Qaeda had executed or tried to execute fairly sophisticated plans in their latter stages. That sort of struck me. Did it strike you, as well, that their capabilities were still that, I guess, robust and also that they were still trying that hard?

NAPOLITANO: Yes, both of those things. And, obviously, with Zazi and Headley, it goes right to what I was talking about, which are plots that are designed take place within the United States. They're very different than 9/11 style plots. I mean 9/11 involved a very elaborate conspiracy with lots of people in it and very sophisticated methodology to get to the point where you could fly a commercial airliner into the World Trade Center, where you could fly one into the Pentagon, where you could try to fly one into the Capitol. And we know what happened. It was Flight 93...

THOMAS: Right.

NAPOLITANO: -- into a field in Pennsylvania. Now, what we're seeing are more, you know, send out an individual here, an individual there, maybe not the most sophisticated tradecraft, but in an effort to disrupt to kill, to maim, to disrupt maybe people who want to go shopping or go travel on a bus or a subway or, indeed, still get on an airliner.

And I think the important part to remember there is we are doing everything possible to minimize the risk they will succeed. And it's not just us. It's the FBI. It's other agencies of the federal government.

I mean there is a number of other entities involved. But the part that we should never forget is how strong and resilient we are as a people, as a nation, and that we are not powerless and we are not terrorized by this. We know it's a threat environment. You know, you deal with that, you minimize the risk and you're prepared to come back.

THOMAS: One official I spoke to described al Qaeda as, at 9/11, they were going for these massive sort of scale plots, where you could kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people. But he said the feeling now in the intelligence community is that they want to get on the scoreboard. They want to do something, particularly in the U.S. homeland. Do you share that belief that they are much more willing to do a mid-scale to smaller scale attack just to get on the scoreboard?

NAPOLITANO: Well, I think recent events, as demonstrated by Zazi and Headley would illustrate that again, you know, more smaller scale, individual using perhaps less sophisticated tactics but still the tactics designed to kill innocent people, women -- men, women and children, to interrupt the way of life that we have in the United States.

And that's why it's so important to say, look, we will, throughout the federal government, with state and local law enforcement, you cannot underestimate their activities here, and their importance –to do everything possible that we can to minimize the risk that one of these things is successful.

We'll never lose sight of the fact that we are a strong and resilient country and we will still prevail. I mean our way of life will not be changed.

Abdulmutallab – the "Underwear Bomber"

THOMAS: And the darkest or scariest moment?

NAPOLITANO: We've had several of those, as well. And the more we learn about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day, that was a very serious moment.

We have used that as a catalyst to really accelerate the strengthening of airport security in the United States and aviation around the world. But as you know, you peel like an onion and you peel away the facts of what somebody was trying to do, that was a moment.

There have been moments where, you know, we thought we were on the cusp of a major natural disaster and that did not actually happen, but, you know, something we were all leaning forward on.

In this job, you're always leaning forward. You never can kind of sit back in this one.

THOMAS: Going back to Christmas, the one moment where you received a fair amount of criticism was about the comment that "the system works as it should". Any lessons learned from that or was that just a moment where, you know, words were flying and you didn't think it all the way through? Was there any moment learned from that particular incident?

NAPOLITANO: Well, it was a situation where there were three interviews and in two of them it was very clear I was talking about after the fact. The third one I wasn't clear. And a lesson learned was in this job, one must always be clear. And that's just the way it is.

But you also can't sit and cry about it. There was work to be done -- work to be done to identify what happened here.

How did this man get on a plane with PETN and the capacity to possibly detonate it?

What do we need to do to prevent a successful attack of that sort?

How do we now raise the level of global aviation security and security awareness as a result of his failed attempt?

So, yes, it was definitely a lesson learned, but it also was a catalyst for one of the major initiatives now of this department, which is to participate in and help, perhaps, lead an entire global initiative to increase aviation security.

THOMAS: And what's been the response so far?

NAPOLITANO: Very good. Very strong. You know, I remind people that there were passengers from 17 nations, in addition to the United States, on Flight 253. This was an attack against the world. And remember, the aviation system is a world system. It's a global system. It has been an engine for economic progress for the last 50 years. It's an opportunity for families to get together, tourism and all sorts of other activities.

So if the global aviation system can't work, that impacts lots of lives. The global aviation system works, we can make it stronger and more secure. We need to work in a global fashion to do that.

Homegrown Terrorism

THOMAS: This week, you started the week in Oklahoma City. The homegrown threat -- how real does that remain and how concerned are you about that?

NAPOLITANO: It remains real. It remains something that seems to cycle in and cycle out or pendulum in and pendulum back over time. But we saw the militia taken down in Michigan just recently. And I remember, as the former U.S. Attorney for Arizona and then the attorney general of Arizona, we had quite a bit of militia activity there in the early '90s.

And so going to Oklahoma City was a key reminder and, yes, we do have concerns now.

THOMAS: How about the situation where, just starting with the health care debate for a moment, the rhetoric that we saw in terms of people talking about this being a socialist country, that freedoms were being sucked away. You saw pictures of the president with the Hitler mustache, dressed as The Joker. We saw people showing up at health care rallies with guns on their side. In terms of similarities to pre-Oklahoma City and now, do you have some concerns? And you oversee the Secret Service, for example.


THOMAS: That people should be careful about their rhetoric these days, because it can wash over to people who are unstable?

NAPOLITANO: Look, with live in a country that has had overheated rhetoric or a rhetoric of vociferous disagreement. It's part of our past, it's part of our history. It is protected First Amendment activity. So while I may not like it and I may not think it contributes to public knowledge about what the issues are, it is part and parcel of the tapestry that is the United States. And where I believe our department should be concerned is when rhetoric starts to spill over into actual planning of violence or violent acts.

We're about protecting the security of the country. We're obviously not the police for the country. There's 800,000 police officers out there in cities and towns and sheriffs' deputies in counties throughout the United States. So -- making sure that they're kept apprised of actual threats or tactics that we're seeing is where I think we are value-added.

Violence on the Southern Border

THOMAS: The southern border -- guns flowing there, lots of violence there. Is the U.S. doing enough to help Mexico deal with this problem?

NAPOLITANO: I think that this is a key issue for the United States and that we should do all we can to assist President Calderon in his effort to break up the cartels that inhabit Mexico. Those cartels have fingers that reach well into the United States, into hundreds of our communities, distributing drugs, and, of course, as your question says, they're fueled by bulk cash and arms coming south of the border.

So what we have done over the last year is really increased our efforts looking at southbound vehicles for cash, for guns and also inspecting southbound rail, which had never been done before. Those operations continue even as we work in an unprecedented way with the federal government of Mexico on joint law enforcement initiatives that cross the border.

THOMAS: Any need for the National Guard at this moment or is that something being considered? I think I saw Senator McCain asking for that as something that's needed for the state that you were the governor of.

NAPOLITANO: Well, when I was the governor of Arizona, we did have the National Guard at the border. And that is something that is under consideration at the White House. But obviously, your first choice is to make sure that you have adequate civilian law enforcement right at the border and that you have interior law enforcement at the work site level, because, of course, the big draw is illegal immigration.

So we have now really record numbers of Border Patrol agents at the border. We have moved a lot of technology down to the border and provided monies to local sheriffs departments along the border.

A lot of those counties are fairly sparsely populated and so they don't have the tax base to support the overtime and equipment and other expenses that they incur because they are at the border. So we're trying to do everything we can and -- and have been able to -- to get some more money to them.

THOMAS: Going back to the violence on the other side, is there any real prospect that that could spill over to this side of the country?

NAPOLITANO: Oh, there's always a prospect, so we're watching it very carefully. And there are occasional horrendous crimes. There was a recent just horrendous murder of a rancher near Douglas, Arizona. We have been putting resources to participate in that investigation, including offering a reward. We're working that with the government of Mexico. We would love nothing more than to identify the shooter.

But is it a wave of spillover violence? We have not yet seen that. We never want to see that. And so that's why moving the kinds of resources we moved down to the border makes sense.

THOMAS: OK. Let's talk about the good and the bad for a second. I know that on the virtual fence, there have been some overruns and some delays. And I understand you're not particularly happy about that.

NAPOLITANO: I am unhappy. We'll complete the phase that's already underway.

THOMAS: Do you want it fixed?

NAPOLITANO: I either want it fixed or I want those technology dollars going elsewhere. And I think one of my responsibilities is to be a good steward for the taxpayers' dollars. And on this one, I do not believe that the promises made to us have been kept. So we're going to keep at it.


THOMAS: You were talking to me earlier about the perception of illegal immigration and the facts. Why don't you put it in -- put that in perspective. What are the facts? The perception is it's exploding, but what are the facts?

NAPOLITANO: Well, you know, first of all, I'd put it in context, you know, as someone who has worked on border and border-related issues directly as a U.S. attorney, attorney general, governor, now in this office. So going back to '93, I have walked that border. I've walked it. I've written it on horseback. I have flown it. I've driven it. I really know that area of the country quite well. And based on that experience -- and then you look at the actual numbers, the actual numbers show that illegal immigration is at its lowest ebb, really, in recent time. Seizures of narcotics have increased. Manpower at the border is at a record high level. Technology at the border is at a record high level. So those are the facts.

Is illegal immigration or illegal drug trafficking at a zero level? Unfortunately, no. You know, you have to ask a question, what more should we be doing? What more makes sense?

Well, let's get this SBI Net thing worked out. In the meantime, we're doing a lot by way of different kinds of technology, more mobile, less expensive, more usable by our actual agents on the ground. You know, those sorts of things -- those kinds of tactical things.

The real thing that needs to happen, I have to say, is for the Congress, in a bipartisan way now, to take up the subject of immigration. You know, the president has said that he will work with them. He has been speaking with and calling Republican senators and holding out, again, opening the door, saying this is something that we need to do. We need to improve this immigration system for the 21st century.

THOMAS: But given the hyper partisan nature of Washington right now, is it possible?

NAPOLITANO: You know, I always think anything is possible. And this affects everybody. This doesn't just affect Democrats or Republicans or Independents or whatever. This affects everybody. And I actually view it now as a security issue. We need to know who's in the country. And we need to know, for those who are in the country illegally, there needs to be a period under which they are given the opportunity to register so we get their biometrics, we get their criminal history and we know who they are. They pay a fine. They learn English. They get right with the law.

And so our law enforcement efforts, at that point, can be concentrated on violent felons and on gang members andon others. And so there's a security issue here that I think people have not fully appreciated yet.

THOMAS: And you said earlier that the system right now really can't sustain it.

NAPOLITANO: Well, the system is decades old. And talk about how much has occurred in the last few decades. It's time to be updated. It's time to be reformed. It's time -- for example, some of the things we would like to do on the enforcement side, we don't have the ability to do because we don't have the statutory authority to do it.

So there are enforcement things that need to be done. The issue about those already illegally in the country needs to be addressed. The issue about young people who have grown up in the United States, who were brought here by their parents who are illegal. And the president is asking the Congress to take that up in a bipartisan way. And we are here to provide whatever support to the president and to the Congress that they need.

Arizona Immigration Bill

THOMAS: The governor of Arizona did sign this immigration measure. Good policy? Good legislation?

NAPOLITANO: Well, you know, I think the Justice Department will look at some of the civil rights and other aspects of that law. I think it's a great illustration of what I just said. You get pressure on the criminal justice system. And when it gets to a certain point, states will be compelled to adopt laws, some of which are very misguided, as the president said.

THOMAS: You agree with that assessment?

NAPOLITANO: I do. That one is a misguided law. It's not a good law enforcement law. It's not a good law in any number of reasons. But beyond that, what it illustrates is that other states now will feel compelled to do things. And you will have this patchwork of laws where we need a federal immigration system that meets our security needs, that recognizes where we need to go in this 21st century and gives us a better framework on which to stand.

Supreme Court Nominee?

THOMAS: If [the president] asked you to sit on the Supreme court, would you do it?

NAPOLITANO: Oh, you know, obviously I'm not going to answer that question, but it's flattered, I'm flattered to have it asked. We'll just leave it at that.

THOMAS: I can tell you from our reporting that our sources say you are on the list of people he's considering so – as a lawyer, you obviously, like you said, it's flattering. I know you have a lot on your plate now. You seem to be enjoying the job that you're doing. That is a very important job that makes a huge impact on the country as well.

NAPOLITANO: Yes, you know, like I said, it's flattering to be considered. You know, I began my career as a lawyer. I'm someone who has been a private lawyer and public lawyer, both – as a commercial lawyer and a prosecutor. So it is flattering as a member of the profession to be on that list with some people who have amazing credentials.

Pressures of the Job

THOMAS: I just want to ask one final question about the homeland security. Twenty-two agencies, a huge department. Can it be managed properly? Are you getting the things you need to do your job the way you think you need to do it? I've seen you today deal with everything from hurricanes to the oil rig explosion. It's a lot on the plate. Your assessment?

NAPOLITANO: It's a big plate. But it make sense. I mean when you actually boil it down, we have five major missions. One is to work on counter-terrorism and to minimize the risk of a successful terrorist attack on the United States. The second is to secure the borders -- land borders, but also air and sea.

The third is effective, smart immigration enforcement, strong immigration enforcement, even as we work with the president and with the Congress to reform the immigration law.

The fourth is the protection of cyberspace. We're beginning to do a lot of work in that area.

THOMAS: Is that a real threat? How big a threat?

NAPOLITANO: I think there's a real and significant threat. And it's something that we'll be quickly and is quickly evolving, even as we -- as we speak.

And then lastly is the preparation for and the ability to respond and to support local communities in responding to natural disasters.

So when you take it all -- and I know it's 22 agencies. And there are other missions and things in it. But when you look at it, those are the five major missions. Almost everything we do fits within those. Then you can see how you begin to create organization out of this, mission space out of this and -- and how the department as a whole moves forward.

We call it moving forward as one DHS, one out of many, but great progress has been made. We know there's progress yet to come.

THOMAS: I'm thinking, the Secretary has to worry about hurricanes, she's got to worry about potential earthquakes, she's got to worry about this, she's got to worry about that – it's just a hell of a job, there's no way to describe it other than it's just a hell of a job.

NAPOLITANO: Yeah, it has many aspects to it and you just got to deal with it as a person. You've got to then organize and lead and make sure that everybody in this huge vast department which is the third largest department of the United States and it covers almost everything as you're seeing is leaning forward taking every action that they can and really thinking thoughtfully about what needs to be done.

THOMAS: Madam Secretary, thank you.

NAPOLITANO: Thank you a lot.