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CNN Today

Is the United States Truly Safe from Terrorist Attacks?

Aired January 31, 2001 - 1:32 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Are you safe from terrorism?

Well, a bipartisan report released today warns that the government must make major changes to protect Americans against the threat of a catastrophic attack.

CNN national security correspondent David Ensor reports on the grim conclusions of a two-year study.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Move it out of here! Let's go!

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The U.S. is lucky, says the blue-ribbon panel report, that there have not already been more incidents on American soil, like the New York World Trade Center bombing of 1993. It says the U.S. homeland is vulnerable to "catastrophic attack."

WARREN RUDMAN, COMMITTEE ON NATIONAL SECURITY: If we have a disaster, and we think it's quite probable we will in the next 20, 25 years, we're not prepared to deal with it.

LEE HAMILTON, COMMITTEE ON NATIONAL SECURITY: For example, a very small device could be detonated in lower Manhattan, for example, in New York City, and wipe out a good portion of that area.

ENSOR: The bipartisan commission recommends sweeping changes in the way the U.S., from Washington to the states and local governments, tries to prevent and to respond to a terrorist attack using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Currently, dozens of federal agencies and departments are involved.

A new Cabinet-level national homeland security agency should be established, says the commission, including the Border Patrol from the Justice Department, Customs from Treasury, the Coast Guard from Transportation, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The commission also says the U.S. will lose the technological edge upon which its national security is based if dramatic steps are not taken soon to increase the number of Americans studying advanced science, math and engineering.

RUDMAN: You only have to look at the statistics of the Ph.D.s in the sciences and math and where they're from. Most of them are not from the United States. They are studying here and going back to their countries.

ENSOR: The commission recommends math and science college students be offered loans which would be forgiven entirely if the student was willing to work for the U.S. government for a few years after graduation.

(on camera): Bush administration officials say they will look closely at the recommendations from the commission. But the idea of forming a homeland security agency is a controversial one. For starters, it would take resources away from well-entrenched agencies.

And critics like James Steinberg, who was President Clinton's deputy national security adviser, say that what's needed is not another new agency, but better cooperation against terrorism between the agencies that already exist.

David Ensor, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: The full name of the panel that prepared today's report is the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. It is co-chaired by two former senators: Republican Warren Rudman of New Hampshire and Democrat Gary Hart of Colorado. Both of them join us to talk about this report.

And we thank you for being with us today, gentlemen.

Mr. Hart, I will start with you: Why the release of this information now?

GARY HART, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Well, the commission has completed 2 1/2 years of work, supported by 100 or more national security experts over the past couple of years. And the 14 members of the commission worked -- looked at these problems very, very carefully and, as your report has indicated, have concluded that some serious gaps presently exist.

And the reason, frankly, for coordination of existing assets is that these capabilities are spread over some 45 or 46 agencies. And they are not presently coordinated either to prevent or protect against or respond to a major terrorist attack.

ALLEN: So it's not enough for the FBI, say, to handle something like this right now?

HART: Well, we just had the Cole. I think you are carrying a story almost as we speak of the Cole bombing where FBI information went to the CIA. The CIA is saying it didn't get this information. One of the ways of preventing that from happening is putting all of the responsible people under one roof and under one command.

ALLEN: Mr. Rudman, I want to hear from you on why we need an additional agency. Some people say that we have enough bureaucracy, dollars allocated already to be able to handle something like this. RUDMAN: Well, that is a false argument, of course, because we are not talking about creating anything new. We're talking about consolidating what we have where it belongs. The Coast Guard, in our view, the law enforcement function of the Customs Department, the Federal Emergency Management Group, others in 43 or 44 other agencies should be consolidated for preparedness and for planning.

The National Guard will have a major role to play if there is a disaster. And, of course, the existing intelligence agencies as well as the FBI will coordinate with the new agency in terms of of intelligence. We're not talking about creating a new bureaucracy. We are taking about taking a number of bureaucracies and consolidating them into one streamlined organization.

Because right now, I can tell you from own experience, there is little coordination between these agencies. And if there was a major disaster in this country, we are unprepared to deal with it. And we're unprepared right now, frankly, to plan for it or to prepare for it or to prevent it.

ALLEN: What was the most frightening thing that you heard about after the study was completed, Mr. Rudman?

RUDMAN: Well, it's something I have known for a long time. And that is that, you know, we worry a great deal about international -- intercontinental ballistic missiles, and we worry about other kinds of threats from other governments -- like Iraq or from North Korea and in the Cold War with Russia -- but the fact is, to bring into this country a small device -- either chemical, biological nuclear -- and detonate it -- as Congressman Hamilton, a member of commission said in your prior piece -- is unfortunately, with our borders and our great oceans on both sides, far easier to do.

And with all of the people who don't like us around the world, it is something that most experts feel it is not a question necessarily of "if," it's a question of "when."

ALLEN: I thought it interesting -- back to Gary Hart -- in that piece by David Ensor, that you're advocating a holistic approach, including further study, education efforts in math and science. Tell us more about that.

HART: I think we concluded that the core of national security for this country, broadly defined, are our people, whether they're in uniform or in civilian life, in public service or in the private sector. The fact of the matter is that the basis of the new economy -- the technology and information economy -- is based upon human skills and human intelligence.

What we should be doing -- perhaps even of other nations -- we are importing that talent from other parts of the world. There's no reason in the world that a country of our size cannot have an education system with adequate incentives for young people to go into math and science and engineering and the other skills that are going to fuel this economy and make us stronger and more secure. And that's what we are advocating, is a national security science and technology education act.

And we have some assurance from congressional leaders that they agree with us on this and will introduce legislation or at least hold hearings to achieve this.

ALLEN: All right, that answers my final question on what's the next step. Thanks for joining us, Warren Rudman, Gary Hart. Thank you.

RUDMAN: Pleasure.

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