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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Interview With Frank Lautenberg

Aired August 12, 2003 - 20:05   ET

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The incident, of course, at the airport and the arrests in New York and New Jersey raise serious questions about security at the nation's airports. They also follow a congressional report blasting the national terror alert system as too vague.
Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey has been one of the system's most outspoken critics. He's here with me now. Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. FRANK LAUTENBERG (D), NEW JERSEY: Glad to be here.

BLITZER: First of all on this incident at John F. Kennedy Airport, the fact that these young kids were walking around for more than an hour what does that say to you?

LAUTENBERG: That says that they almost had to knock on the door to announce their arrival. It's terrible. It shows you how porous our system is around these ports and then this other fellow gets caught in Newark trapped having a weapon that came in via the port.

Now, one of the things that I tried to do was to get more money for port security. As a matter of fact, it was turned down by the majority when Senator Hollings from South Carolina offered it as an amendment to the budget bill. They wouldn't provide the money. We're short of funds for our security.

BLITZER: Can the security though, this is a shoulder-fired missile, the SA-18. It only weighs about 40 pounds. It can easily be put in a suitcase. How do you make sure that something like that can't be smuggled off a container or off of a ship into the port?

LAUTENBERG: Well, the one thing you don't do is you don't reduce the number of people who are providing security services. We have to be as alert to that possibility as we are to airline hijacking or something like that. You have to have people searching the perimeter on a constant basis. This is as we know again a system that permits entry into the ports without too much interference.

BLITZER: Let me read a statement to you from the Department of Homeland Security and we'll get you reaction. We'll put it up on the screen.

"The Homeland Security Advisory System is designed to inform law enforcement personnel at the federal, state and local levels as well as the private sector, what the current threat level is and what protective measures should be taken to address the threat...the information provided so that security personnel can take the appropriate steps to protect the country.

We are hopeful that in the future we will receive specific information that will allow us to focus on a particular geographic area or sector of the economy rather than raising the threat level and corresponding protective measures for the entire country."

That's a pretty significant potential change. Would that satisfy you as far as the threat level?

LAUTENBERG: No.

BLITZER: The codes are concerned, the color codes?

LAUTENBERG: Well, I think that color coding is a bad idea altogether.

BLITZER: Why?

LAUTENBERG: Well, because it confuses people. It scares them and in a way helps the terrorist to succeed in rattling the psyche of our society.

BLITZER: Well, what do you do, you have to alert the public.

LAUTENBERG: Well, you don't -- no.

BLITZER: You have to alert the 30,000 law enforcement officials around the country. They have to know what the threat is out there.

LAUTENBERG: Yes but you have to notify them in any event; however, to issue general alerts and raise the level of the alert so that people don't know whether they should go to work, I get phone calls in my office should I go to New York City? Not so much now but a while back should I got to New York City?

BLITZER: But they only have that kind of vague information. They don't have the specific intelligence that would pinpoint a city or a target. They just know there's an al Qaeda threat. They're looking for some target. Shouldn't they inform the public about that?

LAUTENBERG: No. No, because it's a worthless thing. All if does is tell people that they ought to be scared, they ought to maybe stay home which is not what we'd like to see happen in our society but to issue a threat that's so general that no one knows what to do with it, they have to be specific. They've got to figure out a way to do it better and if they don't figure a way to do it better we're going to figure it out in the Congress for them.

BLITZER: Let's get back to this threat from a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile.

LAUTENBERG: Right.

BLITZER: What do you do to deal with the potential threat? There are hundreds of thousands of these missiles roaming around and, as you know, terrorists over the years have tried, most recently in Mombasa, Kenya...

LAUTENBERG: Right.

BLITZER: ...to shoot down a commercial aircraft.

LAUTENBERG: Right and, as a matter of fact, it's believed that over 20 organizations, terrorist organizations presently have these in their inventory and 29 times in the past civilian airplanes have been hit by these things.

BLITZER: So, what do you do about it?

LAUTENBERG: What do you do? You continue to expand the force that you have. You continue to work with intelligence agencies all over the country but you make sure that in the process you don't reduce the number of the air marshals that will accompany an airplane, you don't reduce the number of security officers at the airports, which we've done.

We have learned that we don't have enough money to fill these billets, why, because they're going to the wealthiest among us in large tax cuts and I guarantee you that if anybody was asked would you rather have a tax cut or protect your family better they'd say protect my family.

BLITZER: We've got to leave it right there. Senator Lautenberg, thanks for joining us.

LAUTENBERG: Good to see you.

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