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Depty Homeland Security Secretary Michael Jackson

Thursday, August 10, 2006
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JB: Ladies and gentlemen, we’re very fortunate to be joined right now by Michael Jackson, who is the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He’s joining us to talk about the very dramatic arrests today, the breaking up of an apparently huge terror plot. Mr. Jackson, thanks very much for joining us.

MJ: Jed, glad to be here.

JB: Tell me what we can hear at this point, sir, about how broad this conspiracy was, how many people were involved, how many were arrested, and what do we have to worry about now? How many of these guys are still running loose?

MJ: Jed, it was a very serious and very determined, and very impressive cell or cells of individuals who were planning to take bombs onto an airplane, try to take bombs on an airplane, and to blow them up. So this was a considerable and focused effort. As of right now, there is at least 24 of these extremists who have been rounded up by the U.K. authorities. And there’s not a firm picture on exactly where the additional arrests might occur, if any.

JB: Tell me about the investigation, Mr. Secretary. It sounds like there was pretty good teamwork between us and the Brits and the Pakistanis, the Brits kind of pulling the laboring oar. How did that work together?

MJ: This really worked the way it’s supposed to. We had an incredibly good coordination and integration with the intelligence services of the two countries, with the law enforcement agencies in the two countries, with the Homeland Security officials. It was a very, very sensitive effort, and we obviously were trying to make sure that we could understand enough about this plot to be able to allow the British officials to be in a position to arrest individuals, and to be able to be in a good position for prosecution.

JB: How close do you think this was to coming to fruition? Were these guys ready to act? Were we in days, weeks, months of having these aircraft blow up?

MJ: I think that it’s not a question of whether it was a certainty that they would be able to pull their mission off effectively, because we were, in fact, watching, we were able to have protective measures in place that were trip wires before they got on airplanes. So it was close to the end. They certainly had the materials assembled in a significant way for trying this attack, but it was not completed. It was not in the execution phase, but it was close.

JB: Do we have evidence at this point whether this was another al Qaeda plot, was it Hezbollah trying to take something out on us for helping the Israelis, do we know any more about who really was behind it?

MJ: I really have to defer to the British authorities on this one, but I will say this, that it did have many elements that were symptomatic of, or consistent with al Qaeda methods and techniques. We will not know for a little bit more time, and until we’ve explored this further, ’til the authorities have had the chance to do their work, exactly all the connections…but it was not a simple or small idea.

JB: Mr. Jackson, it sounds like this was a fairly sophisticated weapon these guys had somehow evolved. Can you tell us anything about it? I mean, a liquid explosive? That’s pretty much out of the ordinary.

MJ: This is a method of explosives that had been used by terrorists. It’s something that we have studied and trained to for a number of years, and it was, however, moderately sophisticated, and it required some skill to be able to assemble in the right way.

JB: Do we have any inkling at this point of whether our technology, for example, in searching passengers at airports, is able to detect this sort of thing? How confident are you that if someone tried to sneak something like this on board now, we’d be able to find it?

MJ: There’s not one simple or easy way, Jed, to say that a single tool’s going to stop this kind of terrorist attack. It’ll be a layered system of systems. Ironically, it may not be the gizmo that’s the most important weapon in our arsenal. It may be behavior pattern recognition, of people who know how to search for behavioral abnormalities that point to concerns about individuals in an airport environment. That’s a very important part of our training. We’re using a layered system of systems to look for the bad guys.

JB: In terms of looking for the bad guys, I think you hit on something that a lot of people want to know more about. I mean, we’ve heard so many times that we don’t want to do racial profiling, ethnic profiling, whatever. I think you hit on the nub of it, really is the behavioral profiling. Now that’s what the Israelis have been doing for 30 some years, and they’ve been mightly successful in preventing this sort of an event. The profiling that you’re doing, is it really kind of that sort of thing? The emotional issues and so forth?

MJ: We’re increasingly finding behavior pattern recognition, which you’re right to say is a technique that Israelis have used, but it’s also a technique that Secret Service has as part of its training here in the Department of Homeland Security, and other established law enforcement agencies use. So this is a tool that we find to be helpful. It’s not the only tool, but it’s a meaningful part of the arsenal, and it’s something that we are doing more of.

JB: Obviously, this sort of an investigation is dependent on intelligence sharing and analysis. How good is the teamwork between not just us and the Brits, I’m assuming, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming that we and the Brits are working together as well as we’re working with anybody. How are other countries doing in terms of cooperating with us? I mean, the Pakistanis seem to be going out on a little bit of a limb.

MJ: Well, without speaking about specific countries other than the U.K. in this case, I can just say that we do have very, very close and collegial relations with many countries around the globe, who are committed to the War On Terror, who are joined with us in this battle, and who are able partners with us. We’re not without assets here, but again, the efforts of these determined and effective cells of individuals bent upon causing mass murder are substantial, and they’re a foe that is considerable.

JB: In terms of those cells, now we heard a couple of months ago, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced that there was an Hezbollah cell that had been caught coming in, I think across the Mexican border. Have we had more successes catching people coming across the border? I mean, I don’t want to know details that you’re not prepared to share. I mean, we’re not the New York Times here, sir.

MJ: (laughing)

JB: We don’t want to really leak anything that shouldn’t be leaked. But can you tell us, is the intelligence being more effective along both borders?

MJ: I think it is, Jed. We’re safer today than we were a year ago. We’ll be safer next year than we are right now, because we’re putting a lot of energy, a lot of investment, into the tools that will help us gain control of the border, and manage the borders in a more disciplined and effective fashion. In the Southwest border, for example, we have seen the virtual elimination of our previous policy of catch and release, where we arrested people who were other than Mexican illegal immigrants, and had to set them free because we didn’t have the room to put them in a detention facility. In doing this work, we’re also coordinating with the intelligence agencies to the north and to the south of us, with law enforcement agencies to the north and south of us. I see some material progress on the borders, and I see cause for quite a bit of optimism about gaining control of the border.

JB: Mr. Jackson, these guys obviously are funded from somewhere. Can you give us an idea…I mean, are we suspecting that funding for this is coming from al Qaeda itself? Is it coming from, I don’t know, Iran or Syria or Lord only knows where. Do we have a good finger on the pulse of the funding of these terrorists?

MJ: Well, that’s an excellent question, Jed, and we do have multiple streams of funding issues that are being worked on a global basis. Some of it is funded by criminal activities, pure and simple. Some of the most despicable criminal activities that you can imagine. On the other hand, some of this is funded by fundraising among radicalized individuals who with to support violent extremism. So there are multiple different streams, there’s lots of different law enforcement tools that we have to master in order to be able to track the money, and to arrest the people who are supporting terrorists with their contributions or their criminal activity.

JB: I hate to ask this question, but I’m going to anyway. In terms of these missing Egyptian students, the ones that came in on July 29th through JFK…

MJ: Yes.

JB: I think three have been caught by the FBI. Is that something that we really ought to be looking at, maybe even tightening down on the way we grant these student visas?

MJ: We do have to be discliplined there, and on the other hand, there are an awful lot of students who have come to this country, and we’ve welcomed them, and found among them new citizens, and good visitors to this country, people who have contributed to our economy and our way of life. So I think we have to just be smart, and we have to be nimble, because the people who would like to abuse these sytems themselves are watching for openings, and we’ll just have to balance the real commitment of this country to facilitation, and our history of being a country open to immigration, with the new reality of this world of the War On Terror.

JB: I have to go to the other side of this, Mr. Jackson. Now most of us who travel on business have become used to, frankly, the misery of taking our shoes off and all the rest of that stuff. Is it going to get a lot more inconvenient and just burdensome for the average traveler? Or is there some way we can make the poor businessman get on and off planes in a minimum of misery?

MJ: I think that there’s opportunities to make the hassle factor diminished. Today, there’s a little bit of a bump up in the hassle factor, because we’re getting used to this new tool of banning liquids on planes. Our own screeners at TSA are having to find the ways to make this work well, and the public is having to understand how to manage through that process as well. But I will tell you that there are opportunities for programs like registered traveler, and our secure flight initiative, which will help us stop some of the random selectee work that we do now by replacing the old system with a way of focusing the people that we give this extra scrutiny to. So I see both a combination of technology, training, and programs that will make travel bearable, simple, efficient, and yet, safe.

JB: Well, good on you for doing that. I mean, at this point, to get my wife on a plane, I have to grab her by the hand and literally drag her, because she just doesn’t want to do it anymore. But let’s talk about the changing rules now. I know I’m not going to get on an airplane with my full cans of Red Bull anymore. Can I still take my cell phone, or my big digital wristwatch? What are the new rules if I’m going to the airport tomorrow, and I don’t want to have a nasty surprise. What should I be leaving home, or packing in my checked bag?

MJ: Good question. In the United States, and also in travel from the United States to overseas countries, you don’t have any changes on the rules related to the traveling with electronic items. What we are saying is you cannot bring liquids onto the plane. There’s exceptions here that are common sense. Medicines with a prescription, infant formula, when accompanied by a child who’s going to need the infant formula. There’s going to be some common sense flexibility here, but we are saying this mode of attack, using liquids that are explosives disguised as ordinary things that you might be tempted to bring on a plane, this is an area we’re going to have to close some of the risk, and so we’re going to make that prohibition for the time being, and we’ll look at the tools that we have in our kit to try and make this work as easily as possible.

JB: We’ve got to wrap it up. Let’s just go right to the bottom line question. Are we fairly safe? Very safe? Are you going to be getting on a plane anytime soon, and having the confidence…or better yet, would you send your wife on an airplane tomorrow?

MJ: I’m planning, with the cooperation of the type of demands that I have in this job, that we saw today, but with good luck, I plan to be on a plane with my wife and my daughter, on a vacation, a week from now, and I have no qualms at all about being on that plane. I know that we’re going to be safe, and I feel very confident that the security measures are solid.

JB: Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Jackson…you know what, Mr. Jackson? I feel a lot better having talked to you. Thank you very much for joining us.

End of interview.

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