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Kelly Wallace: White House security initiatives

Kelly Wallace is a White House correspondent for CNN. She joined the chat room from Washington, D.C.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Kelly Wallace, and welcome.

KELLY WALLACE: Great to be with you from the White House today.

CNN: Was there bipartisan support for the airline security initiatives?

WALLACE: There is universal agreement that something must be done to improve airline security after the attacks on September 11, and most of President Bush's initiatives have the support of Democrats and Republicans. Both parties want to see stronger cockpit doors, more armed marshals on planes and a greater federal involvement in airport screening and security operations. The only disagreement is likely to be over just how much of a role the federal government should play.

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Some Democrats believe the president did not go far enough, and that airport security workers, those screening baggage and luggage, should be federal employees. Another sticking point is that some Democrats want to include, in any airline security bill, some relief in the form of unemployment benefits and health care coverage for the tens of thousands of airline employees who are now out of a job. Most Republicans want to treat the two issues separately. So look for those issues to be resolved in the days ahead, as both sides try to work as quickly as possible to get tighter security measures signed into law.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: I am a bit worried about pilots in airlines carrying guns. Isn't it the case that that will ensure that then hijackers would already have a weapon there inside the aircraft?

WALLACE: You certainly touch on a point that those who oppose arming pilots raise. The president was asked about this very issue Wednesday, and he indicated while he was open-minded and wanted to listen to all recommendations from security officials, he thought there might be better ways to enhance security than allowing pilots to carry weapons. Sources have told CNN that the administration is pretty much against the idea. Mr. Bush didn't mention it all during his speech in Chicago on Thursday. Instead, he focused on the $500 million he wants to devote to strengthening cockpit doors. It appears the president prefers bolstering the doors as opposed to arming pilots to make passengers feel more secure on the nation's airlines.

CNN: How long will it take to put these measures into place?

WALLACE: The White House said on Thursday it believed it would take four to six months to implement all the president's proposals. Obviously, that is a long time for a nation filled with lots of people who are still worried about getting on an airplane. So the president announced some immediate actions. He's asking the governors in all states to call up National Guardsmen to staff security checkpoints at all airports around the country, and he is asking other agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Immigration and Naturalization Service, to provide agents to work as armed sky marshals while other marshals are trained.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: If airports and flying are safe, why haven't they reopened Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C.?

WALLACE: You guys have great questions today. White House officials say Reagan National Airport remains closed due to security concerns based on the airport's proximity to the White House, the Pentagon, the Capitol and other federal buildings. This is becoming a very controversial issue.

Lawmakers in the District of Columbia have been lobbying the administration to re-open the airport, charging the closure is having devastating impacts on the city's economy. Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, said Mr. Bush is concerned about the impact on the area economy, but that he is also aware of security concerns.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said on Thursday before leaving for his trip to Chicago that if all planes out of the airport had armed marshals on board, that might serve as a basis for re-opening the airport. So, this issue is getting lots of attention but it does not appear close to a resolution.

Those pushing for the airport to re-open also note that the plane which crashed into the Pentagon did not originate at Reagan National Airport, but started off at Dulles Airport about 15 miles outside the city. Still, what happened September 11 changed everything as far as the U.S. Secret Service is concerned, and so until officials are comfortable with the airport re-opening, it will remain closed.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the status of other D.C. sights of interest? Are the Washington monument and Smithsonian open? What security measures have been taken to protect these pieces of American history?

WALLACE: I'll answer that as best as I can. I believe most, if not all, Washington monuments and tourist destinations are open, and I do believe extra security measures are being taken, such as stricter searches of bags and closer attention to anything that might seem suspicious. But since I have been either at the White House or in New York every day since September 11, I don't know what is happening at every location. What I can say is that security is really tight everywhere and that is likely to be the case for the weeks and months ahead.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there also as much interest being directed to other avenues of terrorism besides commercial airlines ?

WALLACE: Another good question -- there definitely is a great deal of attention to other types of terrorism. You may have seen that the FBI has learned of a number of individuals who were trying to get licenses to transport hazardous materials, so that is one area law enforcement officials are honing in on. Also, we learned that one of the hijackers showed great interest in crop-dusting planes, so there is a big focus on those planes and whether there was a plane to spread any poison using such a plane. So, it is probably fair to say that U.S. officials are focusing on the airlines, but also on any possible or likely biological and chemical terrorist threats. This will also be a big focus for the president's director of the newly created Office of Homeland Security, Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, who is expected to formally take on the job in early October.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there any word from Bush on the effect on civil liberties of these proposals?

WALLACE: You guys are really touching on all the key issues today. This is another area of some controversy. The president and his aides are pushing a series of legislative proposals to give law enforcement officers more authority, such as expanded powers to tap and trace phones, to track down suspected terrorists, and expanded authority to detain potential suspects. While Democrats and Republicans both want to give law enforcement the tools it needs, there are concerns about whether some of these measures violate some civil liberties. That is the big debate right now.

Mr. Bush tried to answer some critics on Tuesday, during a visit to the FBI, when he said his ideas were "measured" and "constitutional," and said to win the war against terrorism, law enforcement officers need to have the tools "in line with the constitution" to do their jobs. The debate is just now underway in the Congress, so we'll have to watch to see how this plays out.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Kelly, How much sleep have you been getting since the attack on America?

WALLACE: That is my favorite question. Not much at all, thanks for asking. But I am not alone. Everyone at CNN, and especially everyone at the White House, has been working around the clock. The hardest shift happens to be the overnight drill. The brain just doesn't quite function at 2:00 a.m. But, we are doing what we need to do, very aware of the magnitude of the story and the importance of getting it right and presenting information in a sensitive and compassionate way.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

WALLACE: Well, it has been another incredible week at the White House, as the president continues what he calls this war against terrorism. In the days ahead, I would watch for more coalition building -- the president meets with King Abdullah of Jordan on Friday. It will also be interesting to watch and see if Rev. Jesse Jackson decides to make a trip to Afghanistan and meet with the ruling Taliban militia, a trip the White House prefers he not take. Of course, we continue to wait to see if any military action is imminent, but the sense is that the administration is continuing to build its coalition and gather much needed intelligence to determine where Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network might be. This is a story that changes every day so keep watching.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today.

WALLACE: Great to be with you, and thanks again for the terrific questions. We'll talk again next week.

Kelly Wallace joined the chat room by telephone and typed for herself. This is an edited transcript of the interview which took place on Thursday, September 27, 2001.


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