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Senator John McCain Speaks Out on Airline Security

Aired October 30, 2001 - 14:55   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We want to go quickly to the Capitol, where Senator John McCain speaking out on the issue of airline security. He disagrees with the president.

Let's listen.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: This is all about law enforcement. Law enforcement is a function of government. I am a proud conservative. But law enforcement -- Border Patrol, INS, Customs, the FBI -- are all government, law enforcement responsibilities. The safety and security of our airports and airliners is a government responsibility.

I'd like to just take a minute to set the record straight on a couple of issues that, unfortunately, have assumed a greater importance than they deserve. One is the passenger and baggage screening operations at El Al, the airline of Israel, which has been the subject of conflicting information.

At a briefing for Senate Commerce Committee members and staff, senior representatives of El Al security and the Israeli Security Agency reported that El Al security managers, marshals, and screeners are public employees with full security background checks. ISA is the oversight agency, and the Aviation Security Division runs the security operations.

The Israelis use a multi-layered security system including aircraft, aircraft area, cargo, check-in gate, airport and intelligence. According to the embassy, the employees at the airports are hired and controlled by the Airport Administration Authority, a division of the Israeli government.

In Europe, Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Switzerland, they use public employees to perform passenger security screening. United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands do not use public employees, however the government provides and pays for their health and retirement benefits.

You know, the major ones are foreign owned, so they spent a few million dollars and hired a Washington lobbyist, who I'm sure is going to become very wealthy over this issue. So what you get is an advertisement like this. I know that a lot of you can't read it, but basically it purports to have various leading newspapers in the United States, quote, "Congress should implement the European model for aviation security." And it has, surprising enough, the Arizona Republic is in there. But the LA Times, the Washington Times, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and USA Today.

Well, what this purports to do is say that these newspapers editorially are in support of the opposite position, when in fact I know, because -- I didn't look at them all -- but the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the USA Today have all in support of our bill and our position. The LA Times editorialized, "The Senate has unanimously passed an effective remedy for airport ills. The Senate bill would make airport screeners government employees, put the Justice Department in charge," et cetera.

But if you look at this very highly paid lobbyist -- another argument for campaign finance reform -- you will -- I had to get that plug in.

Never lose sight of our...


MCCAIN: You would think that the LA Times was in opposition to our legislation. That's unfortunate. It's unfortunate that this kind of thing.

I don't mind having an open and honest debate on the merits or demerits of our proposal or others. But to misconstrue the position of the leading newspapers in America, obviously, is something that's not needed here.

I want to emphasize: Americans want legislation passed. The Americans want to see the president of the United States in the Oval Office signing legislation that says, "There will be air marshals on airplanes; there will be increased security and screening procedures; there will be individuals around who you can count on to ensure your security," and all the other provisions of the bill. That will restore the confidence of the American people.

As has been spoken before, if we pass this bill on Thursday, the president could sign it that evening. So I hope we will move forward.

And I thank my colleagues for their bipartisan effort on this very important piece of legislation.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), MINORITY LEADER: Jim Oberstar has been our Democratic ranking member.


REP. JAMES L. OBERSTAR (D), MINNESOTA: Thank you very much, Leader and Senator McCain. We've worked for many years on aviation issues. And Congressman Ganske...

WOODRUFF: We've been listening to a number of members of the Congress, Democrats and Republicans. And you just heard Arizona Republican John McCain expressing support for an increased federal role in stepped-up airline security. This has become a very contentious issue in Washington: a number of House Republicans and some Democrats arguing the federal government should have limited oversight over the screening and security positions at airports and on airlines.

But this group of members of Congress, many of them Democrats, but some Republicans -- and most prominently there John McCain -- arguing that the federal role must be prominent in order for this to be done correctly

Let's bring in our Congressional correspondent, Kate Snow. Kate, we heard Senator McCain citing what the rules and regulations are in Israel -- which I've heard some members of Congress who oppose this -- say are something different from what he described.

KATE SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. I think that's why he was going through all that, Judy, because there's been a lot of counterinformation. Both sides using the cases of Europe and Israel to try to bolster their cases. And as you heard him lay out, it really is a mixed bag in Europe. So there are pieces that both sides of the argument can pick out and say, look, this is the right way to do it. So he was trying to straighten some of that out.

Senator McCain's bill is exactly what House Democrats are going to propose this week. They're picking up the Senate version which, you'll remember, passed two weeks ago 100-0. Senator McCain's version, the Senate version, calls for federal employees to do the security screening at the largest airports in the U.S., and then at some of the smaller airports they would allow local law enforcement to do the work. But no private employees at all.

Now, that's quite different from what President Bush favors. The White House actively trying to build support for the airport security bill sponsored by the House Republicans, which is what President Bush wants. And he is scheduled to meet with many members of Congress this afternoon, trying to convince both Democrats and also some of his own Republicans to come along with him.

House Republican leaders are trying to pass this bill that would not automatically make screeners federal employees, but rather would give the federal government oversight over that force. But the administration would be able to decide who exactly should do the work.


REP. JOHN MICA (R), FLORIDA: We think it's important to give the president the ability to federalize some of the positions that are critical in the entire airport security arena. And then, to contract out, like we do with our nuclear plants, with our overseas bases, some private contracting of some of the responsibilities.


SNOW: Congressman Mica, supporting the bill that's supported by President Bush. And speaking just a short time ago at a Republican- sponsored news conference, at which Mr. Mica was at, were some private security companies that do security in Europe, but don't do security at airports here in the United States.

And they all made the point that it's become inefficient. It's not cost-effective for them to do security here. They wouldn't make any money, because they say the airlines have lowered it down to the lowest common denominator. They say they couldn't possibly provide quality security at that level of cost.

And it's interesting, Judy, I think that's the one thing that both sides agree on, is that what's happening right now, both sides will tell you, is not working. We're not getting adequate security, and something has to be done -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: So right now, Kate, you've got two sides with their feet dug in. I mean, the President is saying -- at least the indication is, he's not going to give. And Senator McCain and the others with him now, suggesting that they're not going to give either.

SNOW: Right, and you heard Senator McCain say, well, the president will sign this if we pass it on Thursday. Well, that's not necessarily true. That's what that side would like to believe. The president and the White House have been very noncommittal about what the president will do if a bill reaches him that isn't exactly what he wants. Will he sign or won't he -- that part of it is unclear.

If, on the other hand, the Senate version passes the House on Thursday, John McCain's version, then it might be very simple. They might, you know, have the same version the Senate already passed. The president might feel that he has to sign it in order to get something changed for airport security.

WOODRUFF: Kate, I'll let you go. But we've also heard some rumblings from the White House that the president may be putting out an executive order to do it his way. But that remains to be seen.

All right, Kate Snow at the Capitol.




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