Jan. 3, 2010 -- TERRY MORAN, GUEST HOST: And we begin with the man who is leading the president's review of the intelligence failures that led to the Christmas Day attempted bombing of Flight 253, the president's top counterterrorism official, Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan.
Good morning, thanks for being with us.
JOHN BRENNAN, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Good morning, Terry.
MORAN: Well, this morning there is news out of Yemen that the United States embassy has been closed for security reasons and the British embassy closed as well. What can you tell us about the intelligence? What is it showing about the new threats to U.S. interests there?
BRENNAN: Well, I think it underscores the threat that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses to U.S. interests. I spoke with our ambassador in Sana'a, Steve Seche, early this morning and last night, looked at the intelligence that is available as far as the plans for al Qaeda to carry out attacks in Sana'a, possibly against our embassy, possibly against U.S. personnel.
Decided it was the prudent thing to do to shut the embassy. But we're working very closely with the Yemeni authorities to address the threat that is out there. But again, it just demonstrates that al Qaeda is determined to carry out these attacks and we're determined to thwart those attacks.
MORAN: There is a live threat, there is an active threat?
BRENNAN: There is. Al Qaeda has several hundred members, in fact, in Yemen, and they've grown in strength. That's why from the very first day of this administration, we've been focused on Yemen. I've traveled out to Yemen twice, talked with President Saleh, in fact, just this past week. We're continuing this dialogue. We've provided equipment, training. We're cooperating very closely.
So this is something that we've known about for a while. We're determined to destroy al Qaeda, whether it's in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or in Yemen. And we will get there.
MORAN: And there is a report that the British and the United States are now setting up a counterterrorism police force in Yemen. The efforts that you've described, counterterrorism police force, is this evidence that this is a new front, and does it require more American boots on the ground in Yemen?
BRENNAN: Well, we've been investing in Yemen for many, many months now. And we're working very closely not just with the Yemenis, but with our international partners, with the British, with the Saudis, and others, to make sure that we provide the Yemeni government the wherewithal to carry out this fight against al Qaeda.
So it's not a new front. It's one that we've known about. It's one that we've been able to make tremendous, I think, progress and gains. Just this past month, we and the Yemenis were able to identify the location of some of these al Qaeda operatives and commanders and leaders, successful strikes that were carried out, and there were several of the al Qaeda members, operatives and the senior leaders who are no longer with us today as a result of those actions.
MORAN: OK. Let's turn to Flight 253, the failed terror attack on Christmas Day. The president now has reports from the CIA, Department of Homeland Security, other agencies, and the basic questions the American people have are pretty straightforward, who dropped the ball here? Where did the system fail?
BRENNAN: Well, first of all, there was no single piece of intelligence, a smoking gun, if you will, that said that Mr. Abdulmutallab was going to carry out his attack against that aircraft. What we had, looking back at it now, were a number of streams of information.
We had the information that came from his father where he was concerned about his son going to Yemen, consorting with extremists, and that he was not going to go back. We also though had other streams of information coming from intelligence channels that were little snippets. We may have had a partial name, we might have had an indication of a Nigerian, but there was nothing that brought it all together.
What we need to do as a government, and as a system, is to bring those -- that information together so when a father comes in with information and we have intelligence, we can map that up so that we stop individuals like Abdulmutallab from getting on a plane.
MORAN: But that is exactly the conversation we had after 9/11, about connecting these disparate dots. You were one of the architects of the system put in place after that, the National Counterterrorism Center, that's where the failure occurred, right? The dots weren't connected.
BRENNAN: Well, in fact, prior to 9/11, I think there was reluctance on the part of a lot of agencies and departments for sharing information. There is no evidence whatsoever that any agency or department was reluctant to share.
MORAN: Including the NSA, where the NSA intercept shared with the National Counterterrorism Center?
BRENNAN: Absolutely. All of the information was shared, except that there are millions upon millions of bits of data that come in on a regular basis. What we need to do is make sure the system is robust enough that we can bring that information to the surface that really is a threat concern.
We need to make the system stronger. That's what the president is determined to do.
MORAN: You say millions upon millions of bits of data that -- Facebook has 350 million users who put out 3.5 billion pieces of content a week, and it's always drawing connections. In the era of Google, why does U.S. intelligence community not have the sophistication and power of Facebook?
BRENNAN: Well, in fact, we do have the sophistication and power of Facebook and well beyond that. That's why we're able to stop Mr. Najibullah Zazi, David Headley, other individuals from carrying out attacks, because we were able to do that on a regular basis.
In this one instance, the system didn't work. There were some human errors. There were some lapses. We need to strengthen it. But day in and day out, the successes are there. We are continuing to make progress against al Qaeda. And we've been very fortunate that we've been able to take advantage of the systems in place and the tremendous dedication of American men and women throughout the intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement communities.
As Americans were able to enjoy their holidays, watching football games, spending time with their families, these dedicated Americans were working around the clock to protect their fellow Americans.
MORAN: Let's talk about accountability for a moment, because President Obama said he will insist on accountability at every level. Last week Janet Napolitano, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, was on this program and others and this is what she had to say about the Christmas Day attack.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JANET NAPOLITANO, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: The traveling public is safe. We have instituted some additional screening and security measures in light of this incident. But again, everybody reacted as they should. The system -- once the incident occurred, the system worked.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MORAN: Now Secretary Napolitano also said that there was no information that would have put Abdulmutallab on a no-fly list, which we now know not to be the case. Was it mistake for her to say that or was she just out of the loop?
BRENNAN: I think Secretary Napolitano clarified her remarks about the system working or not. I have been able to work with Secretary Napolitano the last 11 months and I consider that we as a nation are very fortunate to have somebody of Secretary Napolitano's caliber, experience, and dedication. Day in and day out she is working very hard to make sure that the American public is safe and will continue to be safe.
So what we're trying to do with Janet and with the other agencies and departments is to find out how we can strengthen the system. As I said, the system works very, very well every day. But there are instances when, for whatever reason, something didn't happen. The president does consider that to be unacceptable. We're going to work to strengthen it. We're going to do everything possible to make sure that nobody again, like Abdulmutallab, gets on a plane with explosives.
MORAN: This has been a hard week for the CIA. There were seven CIA officers killed in a suicide bombing on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. What can you tell us about how that attack occurred, and how badly will it impact U.S. intelligence gathering in Afghanistan?
BRENNAN: Well, first of all, I think the tragic deaths of those seven CIA officers just underscores the tremendous bravery and the risk that these men and women of the CIA put themselves at every day. I think this nation owes them a tremendous debt of gratitude.
CIA is looking very carefully at the circumstances surrounding that attack and trying to make sure it doesn't happen again.
The CIA is on the front line, right along that border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As you point out, it is going to take a toll as far as the people that are there, the expertise that we have. But the CIA is a tremendously resilient organization. I had the privilege to serve there for 25 years. It has some of the most dedicated men and women in this United States, and so therefore we're confident that the CIA is going to be able to rebound from this and be able to continue to prosecute this war against Al Qaida.
MORAN: Should they be out on the front line like that?
BRENNAN: Yes. This is a very, very dangerous threat that Al Qaida poses to us. We have to take those risks. We have to do it prudently, and that's why we have to learn from the attack, just like the attack on the 25th of December, the attack against the base in Khost. But we need to take those risks, because we're -- we need to be able to find out sort of who these individuals are, what they're planning and what their next steps are.
MORAN: All right, good luck.
BRENNAN: Thank you very much.
MORAN: Thanks very much for joining us.
And now, as our congressional panel takes their seats, we'll have a listen to what the president had to say about stepping up pressure on Al Qaida in Yemen.
MORAN: And, Congresswoman Hoekstra, let me begin with you, since you've just returned from Yemen, what did you learn about specifically the plot against Flight 253, about Al Qaida, and about the Yemeni government's capacity to fight this fight?
HOEKSTRA: Well, I think we learned a number of things. As John Brennan just said, this is a real threat. This is an imminent threat that is coming from the Al Qaida Arabian Peninsula area.
The second thing that we've learned is that this is kind of a unique threat coming from this group. Why is it unique? It's unique because the core group of Al Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula is formed by former Gitmo detainees. These are people that were held in Gitmo, have been returned, and have now gone back to the battlefield.
The other element there is the influence of a charismatic, American radical imam. So you've put the Gitmo folks together. You put Awlaki together. These people have moved an attack on the U.S. homeland to their -- to the top of their priority list. So that is the root cause of why we saw the attack at Fort Hood, why we saw the attack on the flight, Flight 253.
The final thing is that, you know, the Yemeni government has limited capacity to deal with returning members from -- from Gitmo and the indigenous Al Qaida element in the country. I think that the increased assistance that we are providing to Yemen is absolutely essential. We need a -- we need this connection between Yemen and America and the Brits if we're going to contain this threat.
The good thing about what John Brennan said this morning, it appears that we are now all on the same page. We recognize the imminent threat. We are committed to enhancing our intelligence capabilities and our offensive capability to deal with this. I think the -- the pressing issue that's going to be coming up over the next few months is, how do we deal with Americans who have joined Al Qaida and are now part of the machine that wants to attack the United States?
MORAN: Homegrown terrorists, it's -- it's the new wave. You raised several issues there. Let me stay on Yemen for a moment.
Senator Lieberman, last week...
MORAN: ... you said that Yemen could be -- could turn into tomorrow's war. Expand on that a little bit. How hot a war are you talking about? Do you foresee American forces? Would you call for American forces in Yemen?
LIEBERMAN: Let -- let me explain the comment. Senator Collins and I, with a few colleagues, were in Yemen in August. And one of our American personnel there said to us -- and I thought quite wisely -- that Iraq is yesterday's war, Afghanistan is today's war, and if we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war.
We are acting preemptively now. We have an increasing presence there on the ground. We are supporting the Yemeni military and security forces. We've carried out some successful raids in the last couple of weeks against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
What I meant to say was that in part because we have put so much pressure on Al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Waziristan, they're moving to Yemen. And it's a big country, very sparsely populated, a government facing two different uprisings in different parts of the country. This is fertile ground for this -- this group to -- to fester in.
There have been three successful evasions of America's homeland defenses in the last year, the individual in Little Rock who walked in and shot a U.S. Army recruiter, Hasan at Fort Hood, and now Abdulmutallab in -- in Detroit, in the airplane. Every one of those three is connected in one way or another to Yemen, so we've got to focus there preemptively, and I'm confident we will.
MORAN: Well, let -- let's turn to Abdulmutallab and the Christmas Day terror attack and the administration's response. And let me ask you just straight up: Do you have confidence that Janet Napolitano, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, is up to the job, can do this job?
COLLINS: I do, but I will say that her initial comments were bizarre and inappropriate. It baffled me that she said that the system worked very, very smoothly, when clearly it did not. It also surprised me when she implied that there was not information to indicate that this individual posed a threat when there was information.
Nevertheless, I believe that Secretary Napolitano is working very hard and that she will cooperate with our efforts to ensure that these breaches in our defenses cannot happen again.
MORAN: Is she the right person for the job?
LIEBERMAN: Yes, she -- she came to the job with tremendous experience, federal prosecutor, state attorney general, governor. She's done a good job. I agree with Senator Collins, and I'm sure Secretary Napolitano agrees with us, too. The choice of words -- some of the choice of words last Sunday were subject to misunderstanding, and they've been badly misunderstood.
Senator Collins and I are beginning a series of hearings when Congress and the Senate comes back into session in a couple of weeks to look not just at the Detroit bombing attempt, but at where we are five years after the 9/11 Commission reforms went into effect, seven years after the Department of Homeland Security went into effect. We're going to conduct these in the same bipartisan way that we've done everything in our committee.
We're not out to protect anybody or attack anybody. We're out to fix what went wrong on December 25th and to note that, in this year, last year, 2009, our homeland -- there were -- there were more than a dozen attempts to attack our homeland, and three of them broke through. The -- the Detroit bombing could have been the most devastating terrorist attack on the U.S. since 9/11 if the -- the -- the explosive had gone off.
So it's time to take a fresh, nonpartisan look, not to knock down the Department of Homeland Security or the 9/11 reforms, but, frankly, to fix and build them up so we learn from our mistakes and we're more secure in the future.
MORAN: All right. Well, there has been an Al Qaida surge, it seems. And, Congresswoman Harman, let me ask you about that and about what Congressman Hoekstra said about some of the origin of -- of this violence of these plots coming out of released detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Would you say to the administration that the time has come at least temporarily to stop the release of Yemeni prisoners -- of whom there are more than 90 in Guantanamo Bay -- back to the chaos and extremism of Yemen?
HARMAN: Well, I have been to Guantanamo Bay three times when I was a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I think with Pete Hoekstra on some of those visits. And I am planning a visit soon. I believe the prison should close, but I also believe we should review again where we're going to send the detainees. I think it is a bad time to send the 90 or so Yemenis back to Yemen.
I support the administration's actions to open a -- a new prison in Illinois. I hope that happens. I hope Congress will fund it. We do a good job of keeping prisoners, many convicted terrorists, including the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, behind bars in the supermax prison in Colorado. And if we are going to say we live by the rule of law, we have to apply it to those we detain, both abroad and in America.
Let me add a couple of other things. I think the Al Qaida threat is different from what it was on 9/11, but I think it is extremely strong, especially in Yemen. I agree with the comments that have already been made. I'm glad the president decided in the last few days to focus more assets on Yemen.
But this is a global problem. The vice president, Joe Biden, is right that we need a global counterterrorism strategy. And as we fix the specific problem that allowed a 23-year-old Nigerian kid with well-hidden explosives and a U.S. visa to board a plane, let's not just fix the last problem. Let's be imaginative and have a layered system that anticipates new problems.
And, finally, there is a homegrown terror problem in the United States. We have to understand it. We have to work against it more adroitly. We've had a few successes recently with Zazi and Headley and others. Joe Lieberman just mentioned them.
But as we do that, I think it is past time for the president to stand up the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board that the four of us put in the 2004 Intelligence Reform Act, which is the cornerstone of our effort to fix our intelligence capability. That Civil Liberties Board is responsible for doing something we must do, which is to factor in the protection of our Constitution and law-abiding Americans as we develop new and harder-hitting policies against the bad guys who are trying to attack us, both domestically and internationally.
MORAN: Well, let me ask Congressman Hoekstra about something else Senator Lieberman said, and that is the pace of the Al Qaida operational tempo this year accelerating and some missed signals already in the Little Rock recruiting office, essentially. Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, also known as Carlos Bledsoe, he was the subject of an FBI investigation. At the Fort Hood military post, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, of course, also the subject of a federal inquiry. And on Northwest Flight 253, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was also the subject of FBI -- of the intelligence community's attention.
Congressman Hoekstra, what is happening here, eight years after 9/11, a failure to connect these dots? Or is it just as many terrorism experts say, time that we have to face the fact that maybe we won't be able to stop every potential attack?
HOEKSTRA: Well, I think it's a reality, it's very, very difficult to stop every single attack. It doesn't mean that we should stop trying to improve the mechanisms that we put in place.
Now, the four of us worked very closely together to put together the intelligence reform bill back in 2004 which enabled us to make very important strides in improving our defensive and offensive capabilities against Al Qaida. But Al Qaida continues to morph and to change.
And the really striking difference now is the emergence of more Americans as part of this process in Al Qaida. It means that they do have a higher priority placed on attacking the United States, and they don't need -- and they haven't set as a criteria that they want to do something as big as 9/11. They are satisfied with the kind of successes that they saw at Fort Hood and what they anticipated would happen on Christmas Day.
I think where we now need to go with intelligence reform -- and I think the four of us are probably in agreement -- in 2004, we -- we focused on making sure that we were collecting all of the information that we needed to collect. We wanted to make sure that that information would be shared among the community so that we could connect the dots, but that the challenge that we now face is that we are collecting so much information, we are sharing it, we now need to develop the capabilities to do a better job of analysis.
We had the dots here. And the problem was that we did -- that the systems aren't in place to connect the dots. This is the part of the transformation we still need to see in the intelligence community.
MORAN: So let me turn, actually, to the subject of passenger screening, which -- which has been raised. And is it time to profile passengers on the basis of religion or ethnicity? Or is that completely contrary to our ideals and our values as Americans?
COLLINS: The problem with profiling is, if you take that approach, you're going to miss the Richard Reids, who do not fit the profile. But what we have in this case was a failure to act on a very credible report from the terrorist's father that should, at the very least, have caused the State Department to revoke his visa.
To me, that is the biggest question. Why wasn't this individual's visa revoked once we had such a credible report that he posed a threat? That, to me, is an even bigger failure than the failure to screen him effectively.
It's also obvious that we need to employ technology better in the screening systems. It is -- it is unacceptable that nine years or eight years after Richard Reid used the exact same explosive that we still don't have a system in place that can detect that kind of explosive.
MORAN: And now that Abdulmutallab is in custody, Senator Lieberman...
MORAN: ... should he be brought to trial in -- in federal criminal court?
LIEBERMAN: No. I think that's a very serious mistake. Look, President Obama said yesterday, Abdulmutallab was trained by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, equipped by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and directed by them to get on that plane and attack the United States of America.
That was an act of war. He should be treated as a prisoner of war. He should be held in a military brig. And -- and, in fact, he should be questioned now and should have been ever since he was apprehended for intelligence that could help us stop the next attack or get the people in Yemen who directed him to do what he did, so, yes, we -- we should follow the rule of law, but the rule of law that is relevant here is the rule of the law of war.
And I agree with what Pete Hoekstra said before. I'm one who believes that Guantanamo should not be closed. It -- it is a -- I know it has a bad reputation. I know the president promised during the campaign that he would close it. But the president is in charge of what happens at Guantanamo now, so some of the abuses of the past are not going to happen.
You could not find a better, more humane facility when it comes to a detention center in the world. It seems like a waste to me to take these people to Illinois.
But one thing we better learn from this case on -- on December 25th, it would be irresponsible to take any of the Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo and send them back to Yemen.
MORAN: You agree with that?
LIEBERMAN: We know from past experience that some of them will be back in the fight against us. The leader of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula broke out of a jail there until we killed him, apparently, in the raid Christmas week.
So we've -- we've got a lot to investigate. But I think we've learned a lot already about how to close some of the holes. I believe, incidentally, that we ought to take a look at taking that visa application and admission responsibility from the State Department. It doesn't really fit with foreign policy anymore. And in an age of terrorism, I think the Department of Homeland Security ought to be handling visas abroad.
I also think that we ought to be very much tougher about terrorism watch list. If somebody -- somebody's father comes in and -- and says he may be an extremist, he ought to go on a list that is -- is alerted any time he approaches, as Abdulmutallab did...
MORAN: That will be part of the (inaudible) if you know, no question about it. And I just want to turn, Congresswoman, to the -- to the political issue. These -- these disagreements about Guantanamo Bay and the response of the administration raised the political stakes undoubtedly and inevitably in Washington.
The former vice president, Dick Cheney, had this to say in a statement. He said, "We are at war, and when President Obama pretends we aren't, it makes us less safe. Why doesn't he want to admit we are at war? It doesn't fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn't fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency, social transformation, the restructuring of American society."
Do you think that's an appropriate comment from the former vice president?
HARMAN: No. I respectfully disagree, and I've been disagreeing with the vice president for years. I think the -- the -- the label "war on terror," which Pete Hoekstra himself has said was a kind of ridiculous label, is a war on a tactic.
We're at war with Al Qaida. And I think President Obama has been very clear about this from day one and has made a lot of progress against the Al Qaida target, as did the Bush administration.
The terrorists are not going to check our party registration before they blow us up. I don't think that this Abdulmutallab young man cared who he blew up on the airplane. I don't think that the Taliban cared who they blew up, sadly, on that volleyball field in west Pakistan recently. And I don't think anybody cared, sadly, that they were harming some wonderfully courageous intelligence agents in -- in the Khost province of Afghanistan recently.
MORAN: And once...
HARMAN: Our hearts go out to their families. But my point is that, unless we -- we understand who the enemy is, the enemy is Al Qaida, which is a -- a changed organization, a loose horizontal affiliation of bad guys that team with whoever is available -- they're very opportunistic, and they have the ability to learn what our vulnerabilities are -- unless we get that and are aggressive against it, and protect the civil liberties of Americans while we do it, we won't make progress.
MORAN: All right. And...
HARMAN: So I think the vice president is off -- off bounds, and I think he has been for a while here.
MORAN: One more note on politics, Congressman Hoekstra. Once upon a time, there was a tradition of solidarity in refraining from criticizing the president at the time the nation was under attack. Three days after this attempt to kill 300 people over the skies of Detroit, you sent out a fundraising letter, and I'd -- I'd like to read a portion of it so our audience gets the full flavor of it.
You said, "I have pledged that I will do everything possible to prevent these terrorists from coming to Michigan, but I need your help. If you agree that we need a governor who will stand up to the Obama-Pelosi efforts to weaken our security, please make a most generous contribution of $25, $50 or $100, or even $250, to my campaign."
Given that tradition, that once was part of this country, are you proud of that, of fundraising off of a national crisis like that?
HOEKSTRA: Well, I've been leading on national security for the last nine years that I've been on the Intelligence Committee. You know, over the last two to three months, I've been very concerned about where there administration has taken us on national security issues.
The refusal to acknowledge that the Fort Hood attack was a terrorist attack...
MORAN: But I'm asking about raising money off the attempted murder of 300 people three days after it occurred.
HOEKSTRA: I -- I am proud of the role that I have played in making sure that America is safe.
MORAN: And raising money off it?
HOEKSTRA: I've been right on the facts all along on this -- on the recent attacks, the connections with Yemen. The -- the differences between this administration and myself have been purely substantive. They have been policy. I've been trying to drive this administration in a policy direction that keeps America safe.
I think if you listen to the language that we have heard over this -- this morning, with the guests that you've had on the program, we are now at a point where we have come back. We've got -- we've got some political disagreements or policy -- excuse me -- we've got some policy agreements, but we also have a recognition that this threat is real, it is imminent, and that we need to come together in a bipartisan basis to fix it.
MORAN: All right.
HOEKSTRA: I am proud of the role that I have played in making sure that this country stays safe.
MORAN: All right. We will see how that effort at bipartisanship goes (inaudible) and thank you to you all for joining us this morning.
The roundtable is next. And we'll have George Will, Cynthia Tucker, David Sanger, and Ron Brownstein.
And later, the Sunday funnies.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: What's up, guys? How's everybody doing?
(UNKNOWN): We're great now. How are you doing?
OBAMA: Doing fine.
(UNKNOWN): Happy New Year!
(UNKNOWN): Happy New Year!
(UNKNOWN): I love you. Thank you so much.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MORAN: Aloha. President Obama, a native Hawaiian. There are some vignettes from his holidays out there. He'll be returning to Washington this week.
Of course, the presidency always follows the president. Let's talk about the kind of week he had here in Washington. Our roundtable, George Will, of course, of ABC News, Ron Brownstein of the National Journal, David Sanger of the New York Times, and Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Let's start with Flight 253, what we learned about it and what we learned about the president and his administration. What do you think, George?
WILL: There were three failures, one of which was -- and the least important, it seems to me, is the failure to connect the dots. When you have millions of dots, you cannot define as systemic failure, catastrophic failure anything short of perfection.
Our various intelligence agencies suggest 1,600 names a day to be put on the terrorist watch list. He is a known extremist, as the president said. There are millions of them out there. We can't have perfection here.
Second, as Senator Lieberman said, this man should be treated as an enemy combatant, not lawyered up under Miranda rights and -- and that interferes with interrogating him.
But, third, the most catastrophic failure here was that of Al Qaida. After 9/11, they're still targeting airplanes. They're down to explosives hidden in underwear, incompetently administered by operatives they have. We should look at -- at -- at them and think of what they're thinking about their own failures.
MORAN: So it's good news, David?
SANGER: Well, the Al Qaida inability to pull this off in a big way -- and, obviously, this was a -- a much smaller kind of plot than 9/11 -- is good news.
On the other hand, I think that the failure to connect the dots here is significant because we are eight years up the learning curve after 9/11. And think about the different elements we had here. There was a national security agency intercept of the many Al Qaida leader talking about a Nigerian who would be sent out, OK? There was the suspect's father, of course, visiting the embassy and reporting to the CIA in a cable that came back. And there was a visa that was issued.
And in talking to people in the administration this week, I was struck by the fact, even they acknowledge that there's nothing in the way our computer systems are put together now that actually would do the equivalent of a Google search that would connect all of these. And, in fact, if you apply for a visa, you're only checked against those computer systems at the moment you apply. It doesn't come back later on.
The second failure, I think, is a sort of post-Afghanistan decision failure, which is that we recognize that the war has moved to Afghanistan. The rationale the president gave for going into Afghanistan was to keep a weak state from turning into another Al Qaida haven. And yet Yemen -- clearly, the president has been quite aware -- is such a weak state, and there was very little public discussion of that, for some good reasons, through much of the year.
And so I think the result is Americans are not prepared for what Senator Lieberman called the coming conflict.
TUCKER: But, you know, I have to agree with George -- disagree with George, excuse me, on two of his points. The first is, yes, they have millions of dots to connect. There was a failure of common sense here. How many times has a father who is prominent, who is credible go into an embassy and say, "I'm worried about my son. He is too" -- magic words, extremism and Yemen.
That should have immediately moved Abdulmutallab onto the top of every watch list we have, the one with 500,000 people, the one with 100 people, if there's such a watch list.
The other thing I disagree about is this notion of not trying Abdulmutallab in a civilian court. President Obama is handling him just as President Bush handled Richard Reid. That's the right thing to do. We should follow the rule of law, because it helps us to get those intelligence tips.
Would this father have walked into an American embassy and given up his son if he thought he would be shipped off to some black site and tortured? I don't think so.
BROWNSTEIN: You know, it's -- if you look at this as kind of a follow-up on that point -- overall -- a kind of an overall trajectory here -- after 9/11, President Bush, I think, made the calculation, the decision that the threat was so unique and so pervasive that it required us to do a lot of things differently than we had ever done than before, kind of enhanced interrogation techniques, Guantanamo, preemptive invasion in Iraq, wireless -- warrantless wiretapping through the NSA.
And I think President Obama, if you kind of look across the board, without completely rejecting the -- the Bush approaches, is trying to recalibrate them and, wherever possible, move our responses into more traditional channels, abroad working with allies, here moving more -- without completely renouncing the military commissions, moving more of the -- of the cases into civilian court, closing Guantanamo, housing the -- the detainees in kind of conventional supermax security here.
And when an event like this happens, when you have a failure like this, you see the political challenge involved in trying to bring it back into those channels (inaudible) something Joe Lieberman said within three minutes here today. Don't send anyone back to Yemen. Don't close Guantanamo. Don't try him in civilian court. And take away visas from the State Department.
When there are threats to security, the instinct of the country is do whatever it takes. Even now, we have polling showing that most Americans oppose closing Guantanamo at -- even before this incident, most have -- have opposed trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court even before this.
So this is going to compound the challenge that he faces in trying to build what he thinks is a more stable and sustainable legal basis for prosecuting this war on terror.
WILL: ... Senator Lieberman also said it's the fallacy of a false alternative to assume that you have -- either you treat someone like this in a criminal court or you don't have the rule of law. There is a substantial body of law of war, and that's the -- that's the paradigm that he is suggesting that we use in cases like this.
BROWNSTEIN: And to be clear, Obama has not completely renounced that. He has not said that he will not use military commissions. But clearly, he wants to shift the balance more towards civilian court than the Bush administration...
SANGER: He's -- he's also said that there are moments when he would keep people without charges.
MORAN: And -- and as you point out, an attack like this is an acid test politically, so now the -- the country gets a sense of who President Obama is as commander-in-chief in a time of terror. Has he been politically damaged at all? Has Secretary Napolitano been politically damaged?
TUCKER: Well, I -- I don't think -- certainly, President Obama has not sustained any long-term political damage. Janet Napolitano, we'll see. We'll see how Congress treats her coming up in these investigations.
I, for one, was pleased to see a president who had a measured response, who didn't immediately come back to the White House. The purpose of terrorism, after all, is to terrorize. So why allow Al Qaida to terrorize us?
He had all the instruments of state at his disposal in Hawaii. He reacted appropriately. I don't think there was any need for a "the sky is falling" response where the president immediately comes back.
MORAN: Should Secretary Napolitano have come back from San Francisco?
TUCKER: Well, I think she -- wherever she was, she should not have ever used awkward phrases such as "man-caused disasters" or whatever she said. There is nothing wrong with the word "terrorism." This was a terrorist act. There's nothing wrong with that word.
BROWNSTEIN: You asked if he is damaged. I mean, I think they have a strong case to make that they have narrowed the focus of our efforts on Al Qaida and they've been aggressive and part of what we're seeing here is Al Qaida trying to adapt to the increased pressure they put on them.
But if you say -- if you count as being damaged this making it more difficult for him to do some of the things he wants to do, in that sense, I think he has been damaged. I mean, they will argue, look, the people who have been sent back to Yemen are in prison today, the ones that were -- that were sent back in December.
But when you listen to Jane Harman and Joe Lieberman -- not to mention the Republicans -- say hold off on sending more people back, you can -- you can imagine how this is going to progress and why Congress may make closing Guantanamo more difficult in the months to come.
WILL: On -- on the matter of tonality, I think you're absolutely right that the president should not have dashed back to Washington. When American planes shot down some Libyan planes during the Reagan administration and Reagan was not awakened, I asked Reagan about that, he said, "No, they wake me up when they shoot down our planes."
MORAN: All right, well, it -- had it not been for -- for this terrorist act -- and perhaps in the long run, too, David -- the most important thing that had happened in the world, perhaps, is what was going on in Iran. We had another massive uprising, unrest on the streets of Iran over the past couple of weeks. And the Iranian government now going directly after one of the leaders of the opposition, Mir Hossein Mousavi. His nephew was killed; his wife was arrested. How significant is what's happening in Iran? Or is this just another, as we've seen over the past few months, bubbling up of this opposition and -- and the government being able to tamp it down?
SANGER: Well, you know, it's very significant. The question is, is it Tiananmen all over again, in other words, a government that will be able over time to contain this? I think a few months ago, we all would have said, yeah, they'll be able to do that. But every time this cycle happens, the Iranian opposition seems to come back stronger and stronger.
And that leaves President Obama with this fascinating game of sort of three levels of chess that he's got to play on Iran in this coming year. The first American priority, of course, is the nuclear program. And we reported in the Times this morning that the administration thinks they have a little bit more time on that, in part because the Iranians have run into more technical troubles with their enrichment -- nuclear enrichment program than people thought they had.
Those troubles may, in part, be because they have a bad system and bad and old equipment and may, in part, be because there's been a fairly lengthy American and Israeli sabotage effort underway.
MORAN: We've sabotaged the Iranian nuclear program?
SANGER: In the past, we have been successful -- the United States has been successful and the Israelis and to some degree the Europeans have in getting into the supply network that the Iranians have used to take equipment into Iran for enrichment.
The more interesting program is the one that President Bush began, to try to go in after the electrical systems, the computer systems, of the Iranians, and it's unclear to me how successful the U.S. has been...
MORAN: Well, do these protests open the opportunity -- as -- as David wrote in the New York Times this morning -- for sanctions to take a bigger bite?
WILL: Sure, and sanctions targeted at the investments overseas of the Republican Guard. Somewhere between Tiananmen, where there are demonstrations that are successfully put down by the regime, and Romania, where you have demonstrations and, poof, the regime goes away, this probably falls.
I think we're witnessing slow motion -- and perhaps not so slow, after all -- regime change. Now, this regime is much more ruthless in dealing with its own people than the shah was, it's pretty clear now. But the question is, does its oppression deepen the resistance? And I think yes.
BROWNSTEIN: And, certainly, the president's tone has changed. In the Oslo speech, in the -- in the statement this week, we're clearly identifying with support for the -- the protestors and -- and kind of affirming our traditional role as kind of, you know, a voice in -- in support of individual liberty.
I think the question, though, that I think they're asking is, in the long run, does this internal pressure on the -- on the Iranian government make them more or less likely to want a deal with the West on -- on their nuclear program?
In the short run, clearly, it's strengthening the hard-liners, but in the long run, it may -- as -- as George is saying -- provide some opportunities for additional leverage and pressure.
SANGER: That was a good point here, which is that the more pressure the U.S. puts on, it's conceivable that the Iranian government could -- could determine that a confrontation with the U.S. might be a way of unifying the...
SANGER: ... and distracting from the issue.
MORAN: All right. Let's -- let's come back home for a moment. On December the 24th, probably the most important issue was the health care bill. And Congress is coming back for a conference on that bill.
There was already some political talk out in Hawaii about this. Rush Limbaugh went to the hospital. And as he left, he had this to say about the health care he received.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LIMBAUGH: The treatment I received here was the best that the world has to offer. And I -- I -- I -- based on what happened to me here, I don't think there's one thing wrong with the American health care system. It is working just fine, just dandy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MORAN: Now, the delightful irony about that is that Hawaii mandates that employers provide health insurance to their employees. But do there -- is there going to be a deal done here by the State of the Union, as President Obama wants?
TUCKER: I believe that there will be. I believe that Democrats desperately want a bill. I believe that they will keep their fractious 60 people in place, although there is increasing pressure on people like Ben Nelson.
Ben Nelson was one of the last people to come to the table for the Democrats. He has felt the need to put up an ad defending his decision. He's getting all kind of pressure at home in Nebraska, including, ironically, he cut a last-minute deal. There's a little pork barrel in the bill -- in the Senate bill for Nebraska. They don't have to pay the increased Medicaid costs. Interestingly, a lot of Nebraskans are saying, "Well, we don't want that. It looks -- makes us look like we're greedy."
But I think even Nelson is going to stay in place, and I think they'll keep their 60 votes.
MORAN: What do you think, Ron?
BROWNSTEIN: What Rush was saying -- Limbaugh was saying was -- was great, except for the 47 million people who don't have health insurance.
TUCKER: And as wealthy as he is.
BROWNSTEIN: And -- and -- and don't have access. I do think in the end they do have to make a deal and -- and reach a bill. The Democrats have -- you know, this has been a very difficult hill to take. The -- the political costs of it are obvious. The approval rating of the president, the kind of ideological polarization around the size of government, there have been a lot of costs to get to this point.
It is further, we should point out, that any president has ever gotten. No universal coverage bill has ever passed either chamber. To be at this point and not get to the finish line would be almost unimaginable.
One quick point. One thing that's interesting here is that, in the Senate, there is essentially no margin for error. There's no give. The -- the 60 people who voted for this bill are almost certainly going to be the 60 who vote for it the next time around, maybe Olympia Snowe, conceivably. In the House, there could be people moving in and out of voting yes and no, so there may be -- they're going to have to give more to maybe produce a majority...
WILL: Except, Ron, it's not a universal health care bill.
BROWNSTEIN: Well, it's close.
WILL: When this campaign started a year ago, 87 percent of the American people had some form of health insurance. If this is signed into law, 94 percent will. So a 7 percent increase is what this war is about. And we read this morning in the paper that, in 2018, there will still be 23 million uninsured people.
BROWNSTEIN: Some of them illegal.
MORAN: And we're going to have to leave it there on health care and the coming battle in this election year, but the roundtable will continue in the green room on abcnews.com. You can get political updates all week long by signing up for our newsletter, also on abc.com.