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America Under Attack: Former National Security Adviser Richard Holbrooke and former U.N. Ambassador Discuss Terrorist Situation

Aired September 11, 2001 - 13:10   ET



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to reassure the American people that the full resources of the federal government are working to assist local authorities to save lives and to help the victims of these attacks.

Make no mistake: The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.

I've been in regular contact with the vice president, the secretary of defense, the national security team and my Cabinet. We have taken all appropriate security precautions to protect the American people. Our military at home and around the world is on high alert status, and we have taken the necessary security precautions to continue the functions of your government.

We have been in touch with the leaders of Congress and with world leaders to assure them that we will do whatever is necessary to protect America and Americans.

BUSH: I ask the American people to join me in saying a thanks for all the folks who have been fighting hard to rescue our fellow citizens and to join me in saying a prayer for the victims and their families.

The resolve of our great nation is being tested. But make no mistake, we will show the world that we will pass this test.

God bless.


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush a short time ago in his second remarks of the day. The president initially was headed back to the White House and a decision was made, a security decision was made to divert the flight, and so the president will not go back to Washington, at least not yet. When he will return, perhaps John King can tell us, our senior White House correspondent joins us now - John.

John, are you there?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I am, Aaron, can you hear me?

BROWN: Yes, I do, I hear you fine. Do you have any word on when the president will come back?

KING: No, we do not. As you reported, we were told early in the day the number one priority was the president's safety. The number two priority was to get him back to the White House because they believe that would send a powerful political statement. But as the president was on his way back from Florida, we were told by sources a security decision was made that at this time not to bring him back to Washington.

So he was brought and we won't disclose his exact location for security reasons, he was brought to one of several military installations in the United States that is equipped, we were told, with a very sophisticated command and control bunker, very much like the equipment that would be available to the president here at the White House, in the White House Situation Room.

We are also told that national security team members are still in the White House Situation Room. And earlier today, at least, as of a little more than an hour ago, Vice President Cheney, as well, directing operations and monitoring things from there. But the president obviously deciding not to come directly back to Washington. We are told that is for security reasons, delivering the statement you just heard. He has been in touch with Congressional leaders, and we are told leadership members of the U.S. Congress are also being taken to undisclosed location for their security. So we're trying to get more information on that. And we will bring that to you as soon as we have it - Aaron.

BROWN: John, thanks, senior White House correspondent John King. To Peter Bergen - CNN's Peter Bergen has been tracking the government of Afghanistan for some time and he was listening in a few moments ago when the Taliban spokesman was speaking. Peter, first of all, what did you hear, was there anything that perhaps the rest of us might not have heard any nuance in what you heard, why don't you start there?

PETER BERGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we just heard from the foreign minister Wakil Mutawakel who's, relatively speaking, a moderate of the Taliban movement. He basically repeated what I think is a standard Taliban line. We've heard it for the past, at least, couple of years, which is that Osama bin Laden isn't a terrorist and that he's being contained by the Taliban and that he's not able to conduct political or military missions. This unfortunately, is really a false statement since Osama bin Laden has been fingered by both Yemeni and U.S. authorities for the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. There isn't an indictment is there yet. The FBI continues to investigate.

But senior Yemeni officials and senior U.S. officials have said that he is the primary suspect. So we've seen that bin Laden was able to bomb two U.S. embassies in Africa in '98 within nine minutes of each other. We've seen that bin Laden was able to blow a huge hole in the side of one of the most sophisticated warships in the U.S. Navy, the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in October of last year. And unfortunately, he must be the top of the list of the persons sophisticated enough in terms of operations to bring off these kinds of terrible disasters we've seen today.

If you're looking for who is the most likely suspect, he has to be it. You've got operation which several people appear to commit suicide. You've also got an operation in which people have obviously had some skill in piloting planes. These are clearly attributes of his organization. We know that he has pilots in his organization. We've seen in several instances that his members of his organization commit suicide in attacks. We've also seen a pattern of warnings in previous bin Laden attacks in which this fits.

Nine weeks before the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, in August of '98, bin Laden held a press conference in Afghanistan, talking about quote, "good news in coming weeks." A few months before the U.S.S. Cole was bombed in Yemen, a videotape circulated around the Middle East in which bin Laden was wearing a Yemeni dagger, which he's never done in previous photographs. And one of his number two call for attacks U.S. targets in Yemen, just recently there's been a videotape floating around the Middle East in which bin Laden, a very confident bin Laden, calls for attacks on the United States. Says that the victory of Yemen, referring to the U.S.S. Cole attack, will continue.

People that I've talked to are familiar with the bin Laden organization, said that the threats on this tape were very serious; that there was an imminent attack in the works. I spoke to somebody who was familiar with the organization a few weeks ago who made those statements to me: I have been very concerned about a potential attack as a result of this tape. It fits with the modus operandi, which is to talk about potential attacks coming up relatively soon without being particularly specific -- Aaron.

BROWN: Peter, let me just interrupt you for a second. Our senior analyst Jeff Greenfield is here. And Jeff, has a question, Jeff, go ahead.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: Hi, Peter, if I'm not mistaken, you actually interviewed Osama bin Laden some years ago; correct? BERGEN: Yes, in '97, for CNN.

GREENFIELD: Right, now, at that time, what did he say about the notion of targeting civilians? I mean, what is the rationale behind targeting civilians for death and destruction?

BERGEN: Well, at that time, Jeff, he told us that because of the American military presence in the Middle East, that he was calling for attacks on U.S. soldiers. Now, he said if American civilians got in the way, that was sort of their problem. So at that time, in '97, he was really only calling for attacks on American military targets. Later that position evolved, by '98, he was calling for attacks on all Americans, whether civilian or military. I think the rationale behind that thinking is that in his view if you are an American taxpayer, you are subsidizing the "anti-Islamic," quote activities that he's against, whether that's in Saudi Arabia with the American military presence there, or with America support for Israel in the ongoing Intifada -- Jeff.

BROWN: Peter, thank you for work today. I suspect we'll get back to you. But we appreciate the background which I think gives it some context for why the focus is again on bin Laden. But we should add that as we talk to you now, we can't be certain. We do not know that that's who is behind what has happened. What we do know is extraordinary national tragedy has taken place, that someone is responsible, and that the American government has promised to "hunt down and punish," the president's words a short time ago, hunt down and punish whoever is responsible.

GREENFIELD: Do we have Director Gates still on the phone? BROWN: No, I don't believe we do.

I guess we do not. Because the question, obviously, we've already heard it with General Clark and at least one of the Congressman, asking the question, how could an agency with an estimated budget of $26 1/2 billion a year not have known this. I think that's the first of many such questions we're going to be hearing.

CORRESPONDENT: Sandy Berger, who worked national security in the Clinton administration and Richard Holbrooke, the former U.N. ambassador, back on the phone with us.

Mr. Berger, give me a sense of what is going on in Washington right now? Who are the players at the table? Where is the table? And what are they doing?

SAMUEL BERGER, FMR. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, obviously the president of the United States is at the head of the table no matter where he is. But others around that table include the secretary of defense and attorney general, the head of the FBI and the national security adviser, the secretary of state, because this may obviously involve international matters.

I think we, in the midst of our outrage and indignation, we have to stay focused and stay determined here. The first job in this situation is rescue and to deal with what must be thousands of people here who are in peril. This is in the first instance a massive rescue operation.

In the second instance, it's a security operation. We don't know what else may be part of this multi-faceted operation. A number of precautions have been taken in the last few hours, and we have to obviously lock down as much as we can.

BERGER: And then the focus becomes detection. And I think that, given the magnitude of this, given the fact that this has obviously involved multiple points of origin in the United States, it is inconceivable to me that we will not know relatively quickly when the dust settles, who was responsible for this.

QUESTION: Now, Mr. Holbrooke, Ambassador Holbrooke -- what has happened today is extraordinary. Give it a kind of historical context, the enormity of what's taken place. RICHARD HOLBROOKE, FMR. U.N. AMBASSADOR: Well, your coverage has made it more clear than anything else, although despite the superb efforts you've made, it hasn't become yet fully evident to your viewers what would be evident to any of us like myself who worked in the World Trade Center. I was there at the last bombing, as I mentioned earlier. The number of people in that area, including the Chamber Street subway stop, which goes right under the World Trade Center, means that the dimensions of it exceed by a factor of probably 100 any previous incident, including Oklahoma City and the previous World Trade Center, in American history. And one must be ready for news that will be very, very grim indeed for all of us as individuals who will have friends and relatives there and for all Americans.

And there will be additional consequences. This is the financial center of the world -- the buildings in that area, all of which have now been evacuated, whose infrastructures may be threatened by gas and electrical line degradation, could affect, at least temporarily, the financial markets as well, although I would leave that to Treasury, and Sandy Berger listed the -- I'm not sure if Sandy mentioned the Treasury secretary, but I'm sure the Treasury and the Fed are well aware of the implications of orderly movement on capital transfers.

Now looking beyond that, and I think we have to go back to the fact that everyone has talked about the possibility of this kind of thing for a long time.

HOLBROOKE: And we have faced lesser, but similar, attempts. This exceeded, apparently, the expectations of the intelligence experts. And we will learn more about that in the weeks to come.

But I need to underscore one point. To find the people responsible is going to take a unified international effort. No one nation, not even the United States, can do it on its own. And we must have the full cooperation of the Russians, of the states in the Middle East, because I think the assumption that that's the region where this was planned is pretty solid.

And -- I repeat this again, any nation that is seen to have harbored or abetted or sheltered any of these people must be treated as co-equally responsible. They cannot hide behind the facade we just saw in the remarks of the Taliban foreign minister.

And Peter Bergen's extraordinarily insightful explanation a few minutes ago on CNN, I think is the first real glimpse into -- that the viewers have had into how dangerous this is. If the Taliban shelters Osama bin Laden, as they do, and if Osama bin Laden is responsible for this, as I think almost everyone is going to suspect, then the Taliban must be held equally responsible for what has happened today.

QUESTION: Ambassador Holbrooke, what -- I would like you to be specific. What does that mean? Are you talking about a retaliatory strike against Afghanistan?

HOLBROOKE: Is this Jeff?

QUESTION: Yes, that's Jeff. QUESTION: It's Jeff Greenfield. I'm sorry, Mr. Ambassador.

HOLBROOKE: Hi, Jeff. No.

QUESTION: Is that what you mean? That if -- put the leads together. If you find...

HOLBROOKE: No, I -- let me be -- Jeff, let me very frank. And I don't want to -- I don't want to lapse into bloody-minded verbal excesses at a moment of high emotion. But let's be very blunt about this. If a country or regime, the Taliban or some other regime to be determined by the intelligence community, has sheltered people who played a role in this, they cannot hide behind the attributes of, they didn't know it, they had nothing to do with it. They must cooperate in the pursuit of the people responsible.

HOLBROOKE: And since the Taliban leader has been publicly proclaimed by Osama bin Laden as the present spiritual leader of the Muslim world -- I'm referring to bin Laden's declaration that Mullah Mohammed Omar is the rightful spiritual leader of the Muslim world, something he said on tape, quoted by John Burns (ph) in the New York Times two days ago -- and if, in fact, these people are in some degree of collusion, I personally believe -- and I'm only speaking for myself here -- I personally believe that the Taliban should be regarded as co-equally responsible for this. And therefore, if and when we consider military action, it is fully justified and the Taliban should face the same consequences.

QUESTION: Ambassador, thank you.

Just quickly, if we can, one last question to Sandy Berger. When you were at the table, in honesty, did you ever anticipate the magnitude, an attack of this magnitude, which has taken place, just to remind people, not just in this city, in New York, not just in the capital, Washington, but on a number of airliners flying across the country as well? Was the planning that broad with the fear that great?

BERGER: Well, I think for some time we have known that we are vulnerable to a serious attack. A multiple attack was thwarted, as you recall, during the millennium New Year.

BERGER: But I think this, you know, certainly exceeds in scope anything that intelligence community anticipated, and is a, as I said, an extraordinarily sophisticated operation to carry out something like this from various sites in the United States, relatively simultaneously without detection.

And whoever has perpetrated this, has declared war on the United States, and we will have to respond accordingly. But I would also caution here that we should be careful about jumping to certitude about what happened here. We'll know this soon enough. And we'll also know -- be able to find out why this was not detected.

QUESTION: I think that's just an extraordinarily important point, that what is going on right now at this moment is more important than why it happened. And what is going on is, you have thousands of people, we presume, in a number of different places whose lives are at risk, who have been hurt, who need to be rescued, who need to be treated, who need to be taken to hospitals.

In New York, in northern New Jersey where the bulk of the injured are being treated here, there is a critical shortage of blood. Hospital officials are desperately seeking help there. And as Mr. Berger said, time enough later to figure out who and how we deal with it.

Ambassador Holbrooke, Sandy Berger, thank you both for joining us.



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