Transcript: Top Security Officials Talk With Diane Sawyer About the Nation's Safety

Top Officials discuss dangers facing U.S. and efforts to safeguard the homeland.

ByABC News
November 3, 2010, 7:22 PM

Nov. 3, 2010— -- DIANE SAWYER: Let's just start with today. Such an anxious day in a number of anxious days for American. First of all, London. How serious is it? Any implication that it was coming here? Any of the things that they've seen were coming here? Dr. Clapper?


JOHN BRENNAN: The arrest-- the arrest of the-- 12--

DIANE SAWYER: The arrest--

JOHN BRENNAN: --individuals--

DIANE SAWYER: --of the 12.

JOHN BRENNAN: --by the British this morning. It's something that the British informed us about early this morning when it was taking place. And--


JOHN BRENNAN: --it-- it clearly-- indicates that there is an active threat that is-- exists in many parts of the world. We are in constant contact with the British right now. There's no indication at this point that it was directed toward our homeland. But this is something that we'll continue to work the British on.

DIANE SAWYER: But, again, when we look around today, just today with Newark Airport and the false alarm there, but New York City we had several of them. When you go in and brief the President -- I'm trying to imagine the language you use for him? Is it today we're at an eight on 10? Today we are blinking red. What is it you use to signal him what this time period is?

JAMES CLAPPER: Well, we don't use the-- the color convention necessarily and-- I should point out firstly that of course the President stays very conversant of these issues, so it's more of-- a conversation that has continuity from-- from day-to-day rather than-- some shocking new revelation-- of-- of today's events, because the President is very fluent on-- on these events and on these threats. So he-- so it's more of a-- I think a business-like-- proposition. And there's not a lot of history on it-- because we do have extensive me-- mechanisms to-- respond to and thwart-- any potential threats and-- and what's occurred in London is a case in point.

DIANE SAWYER: But what do you say to the American people right now about the degree of-- anxiety that's just realistic right now as we head into the holidays?

JANET NAPOLITANO: What I say to the American people is that we are-- and thousands of people are working 24/seven, 364 days a year to keep the American people safe. What I say to the American people is that our security in the homeland is-- is something that we work at at many levels. It's-- it's the federal government. It's state and local law enforcement. It's the private sector. It's-- even individuals, when you see something like the See Something, Say Something-- campaign. It's a shared responsibility that we all have. And that-- every-- effort is made on-- behalf of the American people to keep them safe.

DIANE SAWYER: You all sleep well at night?

JAMES CLAPPER: When we get to sleep, yes, we do.

JANET NAPOLITANO: I call it sleeping fast. (LAUGHTER) We sleep fast.

JOHN BRENNAN: And you're always-- (COUGHING) trying to anticipate what the next threat is going to be. What we need to do. One of the things that the President has said to all of us is to make sure we take every step we can-- when we have indications that there might be a threat to the American people. Either at the-- in the homeland or abroad. And so that's one of the things 'cause as we each go home at night we wanna make sure that we have done all that we can do to identify these threats and to stop them.

DIANE SAWYER: As we know, Michael Rider (PH), who is at the National Counterterrorism Agency, has said, "We will not stop all the attacks. And it may well be tragic, innocent lives will be lost." Do you agree?

JOHN BRENNAN: I think what we have done as a counterterrorism/Homeland Security/intelligence community is to put the appropriate resources against the threats. And-- we work 24/seven-- constantly identifying where those threats are and what we can do to stop them. I think there's been a combination of some very, very good work-- at the federal/state/local levels. The international partnerships that have-- emerged over the past number of years. So I think we're better poised right now to identify these threats and stop them. But this is gonna be a constant effort. There are people out there that are trying to carry out attacks and-- we're gonna do our best to-- prevent them from doing so.

JANET NAPOLITANO: And-- and look-- I think-- Mike Rider was correct. You-- you can't put a hermet-- you know, you-- you cannot hermetically seal the United States. And we also--

DIANE SAWYER: So do you--


DIANE SAWYER: --all agree there will be pre-- and attack? We--


DIANE SAWYER: -cannot stop all--


JAMES CLAPPER: Well, I tell you anyway we-- we're not gonna bat 1,000 necessarily. We can't guarantee that. But we're certainly doing everything we can to ensure that we do thwart any-- any kind of an attack. but to guarantee publicly that we're gonna bat 1,000 every day-- and I think that's what Mike was getting to. Is this-- to sound a note of realism.

JANET NAPOLITANO: Right. And-- and that's why-- one of the other missions we have is to make sure that we are ready to respond should an attack-- actually get through all the-- the various-- efforts that we have underway. So part of this is the resilience of the country and the American people, should an attack succeed.

JAMES CLAPPER: We have a (UNINTEL) track record, though, in terms of stopping attacks. Preventing them from happening. People sometimes point to luck. You know, that-- something didn't happen because--

JANET NAPOLITANO: We just got lucky.

JAMES CLAPPER: --the operative wasn't able to carry out the attack. Well, it's because we've been able to degrade the capabilities, prevent them from training appropriately, so they lack a lot of the skills and sophistication precisely because we are keeping this constant pressure on them. So, you know, it-- it-- people may attribute it to luck but I think it's because of the pressure that we as the U.S. government has put on the terrorist groups over the past decade. And particularly since 9/11.

DIANE SAWYER: You really think that the Christmas Day Bomber and with the Times Square bomber as close as they were with that level of explosives available to them, that it was because we had just degraded their capability?

JAMES CLAPPER: Neither one of those attempts were successful. And-- it's because the constant pressure we're keeping on this groups that they're not able to develop I think the capabilities, the sophistication, the skills and the training to carry out those attacks. I'm not saying that-- you know, we're-- we're not concerned about the ability to penetrate our defenses. Like-- Abdulmutallab in terms of getting on that plane. And that's why-- Secretary Napolitano and Homeland Security have done a lot of work since last Christmas to make it-- much more difficult for an individual like that with something in their underwear to get on board a plane and get to the United States.


JOHN BRENNAN: I think it also illustrates the importance of-- of a-- of a well informed citizenry, too, which also forms-- one of those-- a very important layer of that lay-- multi-layer defense.

JANET NAPOLITANO: But I think it's fair to say that-- let's take-- we're almost at the one year anniversary of-- Abdulmutallab-- otherwise known as the Underwear Bomber. And he had-- PETN explosive material in-- in his under-- undergarments.

DIANE SAWYER: Powerfully--

JANET NAPOLITANO: And-- and he--

DIANE SAWYER: --explosive.

JANET NAPOLITANO: --got-- should-- should you be able to detonate it, absolutely. And he got it onto a plane. That should not have happened. But what we did is-- step back and said, "Well, how did he get that on the plane?" Recognizing at that point that this is really a global issue. And so we addressed it internationally.

DIANE SAWYER: So are you saying, as we know, his father had gone to the embassy to let the embassy-- he was paying cash. He had no bags. He was on the greater list. He was not on the smaller and the-- not on the no fly list. But he was on the greater list. There was no trigger to revoke his visa. Even with everything that had happened, are you saying this could never happen again because of what's been done in this past year?

JANET NAPOLITANO: I'm saying that-- what we have done in this past year-- I would-- say would pick him up. We would prevent him from getting on that plane from Amsterdam to Detroit. That's more international-- protocols put in place. It's-- IKEO (PH) the-- the-- U.N.'s aviation branch-- working with us, internationally and around the world, to adopt 190 nations'-- new international aviation-- requirements. It's the United States-- putting more intel-- that we have-- here-- and shipping it abroad so that-- those who are allowing individuals to board planes abroad have it before a boarding pass is issued. It's more information collection and sharing at the international level. So there are-- a number of steps-- as we go back and look at what happened last Christmas, to say, "How did this individual get on the plane and how do we prevent that from happening again?"

DIANE SAWYER: We remember-- Mr. Brennan, your coming out and saying-- standing up and saying, "I told the President I let him down."


DIANE SAWYER: Will you ever have to say that again?

JAMES CLAPPER: I certainly work every day to try to avoid having to deal with a situation like that where someone's able to get here into the United States on a plane. But as Secretary Napolitano said-- we have taken an-- a number of steps since last December. We did the after action review. (CLUNKING) We identified deficiencies in the system. Why was he able to get on a plane? Why wasn't there action taken once his father came in and saw U.S. officials? What can we do to strengthen the system? And after every incident-- whether we're talking about-- last December, whether we're talking about Fort Hood, whether we're talking about other things, we have learned lessons from those examples of-- attempted attacks. And we now I think are-- have a much stronger system as a result.