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Homeland Security’s Frances Townsend

Wednesday, September 6, 2006
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HH: Pleased to welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show now Ms. Frances Townsend, assistant to the president for Homeland Security and counterterrorism. Ms. Townsend, welcome. Good to have you.

FT: Hi, Hugh.

HH: Let’s begin by focusing on what the President was talking about today, Ms. Townsend. Will the military tribunal legislation sought by the President provide for the death penalty for terrorists convicted pursuant to its procedures?

FT: Too soon to tell, Hugh. It’s really going to be a matter of…the President made clear, he’s transmitted up to Congress proposed legislation, and we need to work with our allies and members of Congress to get…make sure we have legislation so we can try them. But the details of it right now are not worked out.

HH: Do you and the President support the idea of the death penalty? Whether or not the Congress will agree to it, I understand. But is it part of what you would prefer to see?

FT: Well, as you know, even in our federal courts, and in the civilian court system here, we have a federal death penalty for acts and atrocities like have been committed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. And so of course, the President does support the death penalty.

HH: Of the 400-plus at Guantanamo Bay, how many are eligible for the military tribunals, in addition to the 14 referred by the President today?

FT: Well, as you know, Hugh, we go through…there’s a whole review process that involves both the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice to review sort of the…what our evidence, if you will, is against them, whether or not they’re appropriate. Those who are not are weeded out and sent back to their countries with assurances, frankly, that they’ll be treated humanely and not tortured. The others are held to face military commissions. This has been a laborious process, though, and so we continue, DOD and the Department of Justice, continue to work through it.

HH: Do you expect it will be, in fact, more than 14, but less than 400 that go before the tribunals?

FT: Absolutely.

HH: Now as to the secret interrogation techniques, and I understand why those are not being revealed. It would be giving a blueprint to al Qaeda to defense their members against them. Will those techniques be shared with members of Congress so that they can review them?

FT: Well, as you know, going back…as the President made clear today, going back to 2002, key members of Congress were briefed, including their staff directors, on all of the techniques that are a part of this program. And then again, when there was the Detainee Treatment Act, there were even additional members of Congress briefed. And so, we have briefed key members of Congress on the details of the procedures and the program.

HH: And that includes all interrogation techniques?

FT: Yes, sir.

HH: Now it is known that heresay will be allowed in those tribunals. That doesn’t bother me much as a lawyer and as a professor of Con law, but it bothers a lot of civilians who don’t understand it. Why is heresay going to be used, and why is it considered probative in the military tribunals?

FT: Well, it’s incredibly important, because when you’re talking about the plots and plans, the sorts of plans that the President talked about in some detail today, the way that you prove those, you will appreciate, is by the statements that the conspirators make to one another. And so, the other piece to this is, people need to fully appreciate, gathering information and intelligence on a battlefield is different than gathering it inside the United States, where you can apply stricter evidenciary standards. We don’t have that luxury, frankly, in the midst of a war, in the midst of a battlefield. And so, the rules need to be more flexible and different.

HH: Is Hambali among the 14 who’ve been transferred to Gitmo?

FT: Yes.

HH: And are all the bios that are up on the website, are all of those people been transferred to Gitmo?

FT: They’re all there right now.

HH: When did they arrive?

FT: I’m not sure…they’ve all arrived in the last 24 hours. I’m not sure, Hugh, that we’re giving the exact details of the time of their arrival.

HH: Of detainees around the world in other detention facilities, how many have not yet been brought here, but are in U.S. custody?

FT: The President has made clear in his speech that there is no one in the program now, outside the United States any longer.

HH: All right. And so have the facilities which occasioned so much controversy been closed?

FT: Yes, absolutely.

HH: How many people of interest, Frances Townsend, are there in the U.S., either suspected of plotting or of collaboration in terror?

FT: You know, this is the single greatest priority for the FBI and Director Mueller, who briefs the President on a regular basis. There are, at any given time, tens, dozens of individuals who are under investigation. But there are hundreds of suspects who are the subject of terrorism investigations at various stages. You know, I would say to you, some are further along than others. And some of them after investigation get closed. But at any given time, there are dozens of people who are the subject of FBI investigations.

HH: In the aftermath of the London bombing plot, authorities from Scotland Yard and British intelligence gave out that there were, in fact, thousands of people who could be considered terrorist threats. Were you surprised by that number, Frances Townsend?

FT: You know, I was, Hugh. They have an enormous capability. They have very capable intelligence and law enforcement services there. And I think, frankly, from our discussions with our colleagues in the British system, they’re surprised at the magnitude of the threat that they face.

HH: Is there a similar magnitude within the United States?

FT: No, I don’t think that we feel we have that same issue. You know, we have been very fortunate. As people have immigrated to this country, they’ve really adopted this sort of culture, and sort of values of our country, in many respects, and become productive members of our society. And so we don’t feel that we labor under the same sense of alienation in many of those communities that the U.K. has got a problem with.

HH: Returning back to the new procedures announced today, as proposed to Congress, how does the President’s proposal provide for lawyers for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay?

FT: Well, the President has made clear they will have access to lawyers. They will have access, in fact, they will have the same religious freedoms, and freedom of speech and movement, that any other Guantanamo detainee has. And so, they will have lawyers who will represent them, and no doubt make motions, and advocate vociferously on their behalf.

HH: Will they be military lawyers or civilian attorneys?

FT: You know, to be honest with you, Hugh, I’d have to go back and look. I’m not sure. I can’t answer you off the top of my head.

HH: Again, realizing you haven’t looked at it specifically, do they have the choice of counsel, or will counsel be assigned to them?

FT: Again, as I say to you, Hugh, this is all unfolding as we speak, and so I’d have to go back and look at it.

HH: All right. Looking back at a couple of big stories, did we help the authorities in Great Britain, assist in their detention and capture of the London bombing plotters?

FT: We did. I will tell you, as you know, this began as a U.K…not only investigation, but we believed, as they did, that they were the principal targets of this threat. And it was only over time that it developed that we actually were also potential targets. We worked with them. They’d pass us lead information, we’d pass it back to them. What we would find out from that lead information…and then we worked with not only the British, but our Pakistani colleagues to affect the full disruption.

HH: I’m talking with Frances Townsend, assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Terrorism. Did the NSA provide any information to the London authorities in the breakup of that?

FT: This was, as you’ve heard the President say, we apply all instruments of national power…well, it was not just one form in intelligence. We had electronic intelligence, we had technical intelligence, we had human intelligence. And it all worked together, and we were fully transparent with the British government.

HH: There have been a couple of stories, high profile stories, Frances Townsend, over the last year in the newspapers, the stories about the NSA program to conduct surveillance of al Qaeda contacting their operatives here, of the SWIFT program. Have those revelations hurt our counterterrorism efforts?

FT: They are positively devastating. Whenever we reveal our techniques, and the tools we use to combat terrorism, we find that ultimately, what happens is the bad guys adapt their own methods to evade us, and to get around our investigations. And so, these are irresponsible, not to mention illegal disclosures.

HH: Are you aware of any investigation as to the source of those leaks?

FT: I will say to you, I know that there have been referrals to the Justice Department. And what the status of any investigative efforts, really, I have to refer you to them.

HH: Frances Townsend, just a few more questions. I know your time is short. Yesterday, the President spoke bluntly, using blunt terms about the Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran. As far as you know, is that regime providing arms and training to the insurgents in Iraq attempting to kill Americans?

FT: We know from Secretary Rumsfeld’s analysis and statements that we do believe that there is Iranian support particularly to components of improvised explosive devices, and elements of the insurgent activity inside Iraq, and it’s very disturbing.

HH: Given that, and given just the understanding we have of Iran as a terrorist regime, the invitation to the Ayatollah Khatami to visit this country has surprised, and actually outraged a lot of people. Were you personally consulted on whether or not to issue a visa to Khatami?

FT: I was not, although I will tell you, regardless of Khatami’s statements, when you look at the statements of Ahamadinejead, you have to wonder whether or not, and how important Khatami’s statements are at all.

HH: Who made the decision to issue him a visa, Ms. Townsend?

FT: It was…my understanding is that it was part of…there was a national security review, and that the President’s National Security team made that judgment.

HH: Would that have included White House personnel?

FT: You know, to be honest, Hugh, I was not a part of the process, and so I’m not really the right person to ask who specifically was part of that decision.

HH: Have you been tracking the fallout from that decision, Ms. Townsend?

FT: Well, certainly, I have read with interest, as have others here, Khatami’s statements since he’s been there, and it causes us to really question whether or not there are fissures inside the Iranian government.

HH: Oh, so you suspect that there might be fissures?

FT: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, Ahmadinejead is talking about wiping Israel off the face of the map, and confronting the United States. And Khatami is suggesting, on the other hand, that having peace in Iraq is in Iran’s interest. So I think you’ve got to assume that there is some fissures within the leadership of Iran, and that’s a good thing as far as the United States is concerned.

HH: Last question. He will be speaking on September 10th, the eve of the 5th anniversary of the attack on America, Khatami will, at Harvard. And the address that he is giving is the ethics of tolerance in an age of violence. Is that ironic or simply disgusting?

FT: Well, it…certainly, it’s at a minimum ironic. Iran, which is a recognized and established state sponsor of the terrorist group Hezbollah, which has killed, prior to 9/11, more Americans than al Qaeda. I find it ironic at its best.

HH: Frances Townsend, assistant to the president, thanks for taking time with us. We look forward to visiting with you again in the future.

FT: Hugh, take care.

HH: Thank you.

FT: Bye bye.

End of interview.

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