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STATE OF THE UNION WITH JOHN KING
Sound of Sunday
Aired January 3, 2010 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
YELLIN: Hi, Howie, happy 2010. We will try not to elide, elide or demagogue here on the show. I'm Jessica Yellin. John King is off today. This is "State of the Union."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
YELLIN (voice-over): It's 11:00 a.m. Eastern, time for the "State of the Union Sound of Sunday." Eleven government officials, politicians and analysts have had their say. The president's top counterterrorism advisors and the former chairmen of the 9/11 Commission. And former homeland security secretary Mike Chernoff. We've watched the Sunday shows so you don't have to. And we'll break it all down with Fran Townsend, Jeanne Meserve and Richard Ben-Veniste and four top political reporters and strategists. "State of the Union Sound of Sunday" for January 3rd.
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YELLIN: The president's point man on the war on terror was on the defensive this morning over the Christmas day terror plot.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRENNAN: Clearly the system didn't work. We had a problem in terms of why Abdulmutallab got on that plane. There is no smoking gun piece of intelligence out there that says he was a terrorist, he was going out this attack against that aircraft. We had bits and pieces of information.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
YELLIN: The former chairman of the 9/11 commission says some of the blame rests at the White House because he says President Obama's plate just might have been too full.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KEAN: The problem was not now, but the fact before that this administration I think was distracted. That's understandable. Heaven sakes, if you're in this huge health care fight and worried about the economy and global warming and all that sort of thing, that's what they were concentrating on. And I think they weren't giving this enough attention. It's understandable, but it's not acceptable.
(END VIDEO CLIP) YELLIN: And the former director of the CIA warns the American people of tough choices ahead in the balance between privacy and security.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL HAYDEN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: What's the balance the American people want between their privacy and their security? You can't just keep coming back to the intel guys after bad things happen and expect them to perform miracles 100 percent of the time if we don't address these more serious fundamental questions as a nation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
YELLIN: As you can see, we've been watching all the other Sunday shows so you don't have to. Joining me now in Washington, Fran Townsend, CNN national security contributor and former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush. Richard Ben-Veniste, a former member of the 9/11 Commission and CNN's homeland security correspondent Jeanne Meserve. Welcome everyone, thanks for joining us.
Richard, let me begin with you. The former head of the 9/11 Commission, which you say on, Governor Kean, not a partisan gunslinger, is basically laying the blame this morning at the president, not just because he runs the executive branch, but he accuses him of being distracted. Do you agree?
BEN-VENISTE: Well, far be it for me to disagree with Tom Kean. I agree with him about 99 percent of the time. Here I think he's been a little too harsh. The president doesn't oversee the day to day workings of the intelligence community. But here when it appeared obvious that there has been a failure, he immediately responded, I think quite appropriately saying it was unacceptable. That he intended to get to the bottom of it, find out the specifics of what went wrong and hold people accountable and make the changes that are necessary. And I think that's quite appropriate.
YELLIN: Well Fran, you sat in the White House. You would have been involved in some of the discussions that would have led up to a Christmas holiday. One of the things I keep hearing is the reporting is focusing a lot on whether the CIA and the intelligence community pushed intelligence up. But it's the White House's responsibility to pull it out and to say, Christmas day is coming, are there attacks forming? Do you think the White House was asleep at the wheel here?
TOWNSEND: We're hearing now that there was a Christmas threat briefing before everyone -- the president went to Hawaii and others went. And while you're right, Jessica, it is the responsibility constantly of the White House to pull intelligence to it, by the same token, we set up the National Counterterrorism Center on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission so that they could pull it together, they could pull all the threads and all the information together. They have access to raw intelligence. They have the ability to do it and they have the manpower that no one in the White House has got access to right there. So you really do rely on them to synthesize all the raw intelligence so you can make that judgment before a holiday.
YELLIN: So you are siding with Richard Ben-Veniste this morning and you are not saying what Governor Kean was saying, that the president was not distracted?
TOWNSEND: Well, I do think, Jessica, I do believe that the responsibility really lies with the National Counterterrorism Center and the director of national intelligence.
But that said, the entire federal bureaucracy takes its queue from the White House in terms of priorities. The president has been very involved in his domestic policy agenda. And that can't be helpful to the intelligence community, to the law enforcement community and those who really need to fight for his time and attention now.
YELLIN: OK Jeanne, let me get to you. You've done some remarkable reporting on all of this. We have a timeline of some of the clues and some of the intelligence that was out there. But the threads were not connected.
If we can put that up on the screen for folks to see. Different agencies had different warning sighs. The father of the terrorist went to the embassy and warned American intelligence of the problems. There was the fact he got on the airplane with no luggage and had paid cash for the ticket. There were other facts that the British had revoked a visa for immigration reasons. But still, all these dots had not been connected. Should they have been?
MESERVE: Well, I would think all of us would say yes. And I think the administration is saying yes, they should have been. But the problem is where exactly was the breakdown? Was it because people weren't putting things in the system? Was it because nobody was taking a hard look, trying to do the synthesis. Frank, maybe you can explain to me the computers. I would have thought when you had an intercept with a partial name of Umar Farouk and then you have a father coming in talking about his son, Umar Farouk, that somehow the computers would have gone ding, ding, ding, and set off.
TOWNSEND: Well, you know, the technology -- what technologists will tell you, Jeanne, is that the technology exists to do just that, but what the technologists require are the policy decisions that allow that to be put in place.
I expect that John Brennan, as he goes back and does a more thorough and detailed scrub of exactly what happened and where, those are the sorts of things that absolutely should be put in place, including the revoked British visa, Jessica, that you mentioned. That certainly should have been shared and that should have been a part of the analysis.
YELLIN: One of the issues here is obviously, of course, yes, it should have been . But is it so easy to look back and see all these threads and in hindsight, understand that it could have been connected easily, but at the time there's just too much information coming in to really capture this at every instance?
BEN-VENISTE: This is what the Counterterrorism Center is supposed to do. This is their function. This is why they were stood up. This is why we have a director of national intelligence, to consolidate this information and to receive it and then to be interactive to pulse for additional information. Once there was information and an intercept, presumably the NSA heard something about a Nigerian who would be involved in a Christmas day attack -- OK once we know Nigerian, once we have a partial name, that should be in the system so that when the CIA receives additional humint, the father of this young man coming into the embassy, so distraught, we don't know exactly what he said, whether there was information about a threat his son had made about America. But that information should have been knitted up together with the prior electronic intercept that talks about a Nigerian being involved in a Christmas airplane attack.
YELLIN: This goes to the question of bureaucratic bloat. One of the issues I keep hearing when I talk to intelligence officials is that they feel that there were more entities added on after the 9/11 Commission made recommendations and none taken away. There are more people working in the community. There are more bits of intelligence coming in. And maybe it needs streamlining. So my question to you, Frank, because you worked in this community, did the 9/11 Commission recommendations fail?
TOWNSEND: Well, I will tell you I actually think the execution of those agencies failed in this instance. I supported the 9/11 Commission recommendations and was actually responsible for their implementation. Could the office of the DNI, the executive office be smaller? Probably. But I have to tell you, more people devoted to putting the dots together and collecting additional dots is a good thing for this country. And so we have to look at -- I wouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water as the saying goes.
YELLIN: So pushing forward, Richard, how do you fix it?
BEN-VENISTE: Well, you need to find out why this information was not knitted together. What was it about the information that did not receive the kind of response that we would have expected. Pulsing the system. Now that you know Nigerian involved in attack, according to the electronic intercept, all agencies should have been pulsed to see what do you have about Nigerians involved, being trained in Yemen, for example.
BEN-VENISTE: Big red flag. What do you know? And that should have elicited the response, oh yes, here is a man who has come in highly respected, banker, very conservative, presumably, non-jihadist, concerned about his son in Yemen and that should have triggered a search that finds that the young man had been to the United States, has an active visa to come here again and he should have been...
YELLIN: Jeanne, you're agreeing?
BEN-VENISTE: ... questioned.
MESERVE: Yes. And there was another thing that Fran and I have discussed, which is the apparent connection with the al-Awlaki, who was the radical imam who now is in Yemen. And after the Hasan Fort Hood shootings, as Fran has said, the intelligence community should have been going back and looking at absolutely everything having anything to do with this guy, every communication.
And if he, indeed, had had contact, as officials are now saying, with this young man, that's another thing that you sort of can't believe wasn't flagged along the way.
TOWNSEND: Jessica, we should talk about this for a moment, because John Brennan this morning said there was no smoking gun. And I actually think if this turns out to be accurate, this may be, if it's not a smoking gun, it's the smell of gunpowder.
YELLIN: The connection with the cleric.
TOWNSEND: Yes. Let's talk about it. The intercept related to Abdulmutallab came in, we're told, some time in August. OK. Maybe they missed connecting the dots in August. But on November 5th, when we had the tragic Fort Hood shooting where we lose 13 soldiers, as we go back and look at that case in Fort Hood, we understand that Nadal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, had contact with al-Awlaki, this Yemeni cleric.
Certainly on November 5th, the entire U.S. intelligence community and the director of national intelligence is on notice to go back and look at everything we have on al-Awlaki. And presumably either they did it and they didn't do it competently, or they didn't do it at all. Either way tragic. And they would have found this intercept of al- Awlaki presumably either talking about Abdulmutallab but certainly referring to the plot.
YELLIN: OK. Let me wrap you for a moment because we have to take a break. But when we come back, we'll continue the discussion, much more "Sound of Sunday" ahead. Plus, a look at today's top stories. All that next.
YELLIN: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. More "Sound of Sunday" in a minute. But first, let's get a check of today's top headlines with Gloria Borger.
Good morning, Gloria.
BORGER: Good morning, Jessica.
Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning. The U.S. embassy in Yemen closed today due to threats of a possible terrorist attack. President Obama's top counterterror adviser elaborated that threat earlier today on this program. John Brennan says there are indications al Qaeda is planning to carry out an attack on American interests in Yemen. It's unclear when the embassy will reopen. The British embassy in Yemen is also closed, but could reopen tomorrow.
Brennan says the failed terror attack on a U.S. airliner Christmas Day will not change plans to close Guantanamo Bay. He calls the attempted attack a unique incident that will not impact the transfer of prisoners from the U.S. military prison. Lawmakers have called on the Obama administration to stop sending Yemeni detainees back to their country, citing the terrorist threat there. Brennan says some will be sent back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRENNAN: I have been in a constant dialogue with the Yemenis about the arrangements that are in place. Several of those individuals were put into custody as soon as they returned to Yemen. So we making sure that we won't do anything that is going to put American citizens, whether they be in Yemen or here in the States, at risk.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BORGER: Those are your top stories here on STATE OF THE UNION.
Back to you, Jessica. There is plenty to talk about this morning.
YELLIN: There really is. That was a startling sound bite from him when you were interviewing him, Gloria, because he's sending those guys back. Did you get the sense it will maybe be in a hundred years or some unknown date?
BORGER: Right. Yes, the -- I think the operative thought is "eventually." That eventually they're going to go back. Remember, we just sent six back to Yemen. There seem to be no regrets on that. So I think it's clear the administration will only send them back when they believe that it's actually safe to do so.
YELLIN: Sounds like they're kicking that can down the road a bit. Thanks, Gloria.
YELLIN: See you later.
We're back now with Fran Townsend, Richard Ben-Veniste, and Jeanne Meserve. OK. During the break, you all had so many things you wanted to talk about. This is just so much information to cover. I want to go to something that the former CIA director, Michael Hayden, said this morning.
He said that Americans are going to have to make a tough choice between privacy and security. There's only so much intelligence officials can do.
So in our future, Jeanne Meserve, do you see full-body scanners, more intensive screening, even profiling like the Israelis do when we fly?
MESERVE: A lot of people are talking about the body imaging. I think the British said today that they're going to start doing it. We had the former secretary of homeland security pushing it.
I'd raise this question though, ultimately is that going to be the solution? If we start doing body scans, will they just start hiding this stuff internally the way drug dealers have been doing it for years? One question on body scanners, profiling, again, a lot of debate about should we be doing more of this? The Israelis do a lot of it.
But never before Christmas Day did I ever hear anybody talking about -- including Nigerians, as part of profiling. There was Jose Padilla. There was John Walker Lindh.
YELLIN: So you're saying the profile keeps changing.
MESERVE: The profile keeps changing. And so If you wed yourself to a certain type of individual that you're looking at, perhaps you're going to miss the kinds of people that are actively being recruited by these groups...
YELLIN: Well, then this raises the question of intelligence and what intelligence can be gathered. We also heard this morning John Brennan saying that there are not turf battles. This isn't about the kind of turf wars that led to the 9/11 missed clues. This is just a failure of human intelligence.
Fran, do you buy that?
TOWNSEND: Well, I mean, if you look at the finger-pointing between the agencies that's going on now, it looks like the very traditional turf wars. I do think there's some amount of human failure, though, Jessica. When you look at the intelligence community, the CIA, for example, more than 50 percent of their workforce joined after 9/11. And so you've got a very young, less experienced work force. And so that may -- it may have been to some degree human failure.
But we look at what intelligence has provided. John Brennan this morning said that he did get a brief on the underwear bomb from Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of the Saudi service, when he visited the United States.
By the way, he is not the only one, we understand that all of the three-letter agencies, FBI, DHS, CIA, all got the same briefing. And when we're looking at a failure to connect the dots and we're thinking about smoking guns, that's another one to me.
TOWNSEND: If we understood that there was this modus operandi, what were we doing...
YELLIN: Now, he says that the brief he got about the possibility of using underwear did not apply to any, sort of, threat to an airplane. Should that make a difference? Should they still...
(CROSSTALK) TOWNSEND: Well, this is -- no, absolutely, that shouldn't make a difference. I mean, what you understand is the method of deploying a bomb. And that's what we have intelligence and law enforcement officials to do, is to then say, how could that apply to the United States and pose a threat and to act against it.
And so the fact that it wasn't in that context doesn't really persuade me of very much.
YELLIN: Richard, what does this mean then for the future of flying for us, for no-fly lists and how those kinds of pieces of information will be gathered?
BEN-VENISTE: I think we are recalibrating, right now, as we speak, who gets on the no-fly list, who gets on the selectee list. I think it was clear, on the basis of the information that we had already, and we did -- as in 9/11, we had collected a great deal of useful information. But we were not able, because of various problems in communications, to utilize that information effectively.
We knew a lot -- Al Qaida had made mistakes prior to 9/11. We didn't exploit them. Here, thank God, there was no loss of life or serious injury to any innocent person in connection with this attempted bombing. But it's a wake-up call.
So now we need to recalibrate. We need to rethink how it is we can, ahead of individuals coming to the United States from foreign countries -- and the 9/11 commission was very explicit about this, particularly individuals coming from Third World countries through transit areas into major airports like Amsterdam.
YELLIN: This all reminds me -- it sounds a bit like shutting the barn door after the horse is out. When we see that it's from Nigeria, now we're going to start focusing on African countries. When it was shoes, we took off shoes. You're saying that the new -- the new streamlined intelligence agencies do work. You're saying all the extra staff is helpful. What are you describing that could be the fix?
BEN-VENISTE: There's always some amount of kiddie soccer involved in this, where everyone rushes to the ball.
Here it's perhaps Nigeria.
But we need to focus, and particularly with respect to profiling. Profiling should be a combination of intelligence and other factors. Now we know the danger of Somalia, as well as other countries that are now on our target list for where training centers are being conducted. And so we need to check passports for when individuals have visited these countries and to make reasonable calibrations about secondary screening, questioning individuals, some amount of what the Israelis do.
(CROSSTALK) YELLIN: Fran, more profiling?
TOWNSEND: Well, Jessica, I think the president was right when he said there was systemic failures. One of the things we've got to do is look at where these agencies failed to execute their missions effectively.
Look at the NCTC. They get a nomination for a watch list. They say it's not enough to put him on the watch list. And then they put that piece of paper down, as opposed to going back and asking for additional information.
We need the agencies to execute fully their authorities and their mission. And I think that's what Richard's saying. I mean, I do think that the right protocols and procedures -- the process is there. People didn't use what was available to them.
YELLIN: So do you agree, Jeanne, it was a failure by individuals, but not a problem with the way the system's structured?
Well, I think that's what we're going to find out after this White House assessment is done. I don't think we know until then.
But another point I'd love to make since, we have a member of the 9/11 Commission here, is that one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that's never been acted upon is reorganization of Congress. And...
YELLIN: Good luck on that.
BEN-VENISTE: Aren't you shocked? (LAUGHTER)
MESERVE: And when you see these slings and arrows being pulled out of their quivers today and being thrown back and forth along party lines, you look at Congress and there's an incredible amount of important time wasted serving many different masters on Capitol Hill.
The last administration used to keep a running count on how many man hours it had taken to answer letters, to prepare for testimony, to deliver testimony to the scores of committees that claim some piece of homeland security.
And am I crazy, but this was one of your recommendations...
BEN-VENISTE: I don't claim to be Nostradamus, but we predicted that perhaps the most difficult of our recommendations to enact would be for Congress to reform itself.
YELLIN: I think that's a safe prediction. I think you're right in the end. Good luck on that one happening. BEN-VENISTE: Yes.
YELLIN: Thanks so much for -- I'm afraid we have to go to break. But thank you so much for joining us this morning. We're so grateful. We'll continue this discussion in the weeks to come.
All right. And up next, four top reporters and strategists are going to look at the political backlash over the Christmas Day terror plot. Stay with us.
YELLIN: Welcome back to "State of the Union." Joining me now in Washington, Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for the New Yorker magazine; Chris Cillizza, White House correspondent for The Washington Post; Republican strategist Rich Galen and Democratic strategist Michael Feldman.
Welcome, gentlemen. So good to be with you this morning. Thanks for coming in. I have to tell you, when we were booking you guys, as the "izzas." We kept referring to you as the "izzas."
So I hope I get it right.
FELDMAN: ... the is-nots.
YELLIN: The is-nots.
I couldn't come up with a term for you guys. So, yes. (UNKNOWN): This town isn't big enough for both of us. So we're going to have a duel after this.
YELLIN: We'll make a choice today.
YELLIN: All right. Serious topic this morning. We're talking about the Christmas terror plot. And, obviously, the president is taking a lot of hits this week, the administration has. This morning, on our air, Senator DeMint had this to say. Let's listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DEMINT: There's no question that the president has downplayed the risk of terror since he took office. He's been completely distracted by other things, as has already been mentioned. And he is not focused on building security and intelligence apparatus of our country.
(END VIDEO CLIP) YELLIN: Michael Feldman -- who is not just Democratic strategist but former senior adviser to former Vice President Al Gore -- is that fair?
FELDMAN: I think what's remarkable is not the president's reaction time here but how quickly Senator DeMint and some of his colleagues have tripped over themselves to rush to the microphones to criticize the president on what should be ostensibly a bipartisan issue.
These are difficult issues. The Bush administration was confronted with them. The Obama administration is confronted with them. And I just think some of the attacks have been very swift, far out of line.
So no, I don't think so.
FELDMAN: And Senator DeMint has his own vulnerabilities here. After all, he did vote against DHS appropriations and some other areas where he hasn't necessarily been in line with this criticism. So I think he's got some questions to answer, too.
YELLIN: Rich Galen, let me ask you because obviously this apparatus, this intelligence apparatus was put in place by a Republican administration. So can President Obama really be blamed for the failures after less than a year in office?
GALEN: I don't know that anybody is blaming Obama -- President Obama for the failure. I mean, as he properly said, it was a systematic failure. I think for those of us, and Michael can't agree with this, but I think in the green room he might -- for those of us who watch this pretty closely, it wasn't what happened. That stuff happens. I mean just too much going on to stop everything. But I think what got everybody's attention was the reaction of the administration after the event from Secretary Napolitano to the fact that the president didn't come out for three days. That's sort of got everybody's antenna up and say, hold it, why can't they get this organized? So I think that's why this story has gone on for so long. It's not anybody saying President Obama or Janet Napolitano should have figured this out ahead of time, they didn't, too bad, we got lucky. But to use the secretary's point, the system for the administration is not working.
YELLIN: So the president didn't play the politics of this right, Chris?
CILLIZZA: I think Rich is probably right about that though I will say if he had come out earlier and the intelligence had borne out something other than what he initially said, then he'd get whacked for that as well. So the truth of the matter is, it's probably -- right I don't disagree with you. But my point is it's probably a no-win situation.
I think that this is about, look, we can now officially say it. It is an election year. I've waited 367 days to be able to say that. A guy like me loves campaign. It's an election year. Anything that happens anywhere around elections, particularly about national security is going to be painted in a political light. Is it good or bad for the country? That's a debate I leave to other people.
But yes, you know Jim DeMint's original hold on the TSA nominee was about a labor provision.
YELLIN: Transportation Security Administration, a guy that oversees planes.
CILLIZZA: This was not about Jim DeMint thinking that this person wasn't the right person for the job because the Obama administration was letting down on national security. I mean I think he now -- it looks like he's the guy who found the bone because he was in the right place at the right time. But let's remember this is played within a very partisan political atmosphere. We just saw health care pass with no Republican votes. Let's not forget the context in which we're operating in.
YELLIN: Ryan, how much -- go ahead.
LIZZA: To go back to Rich's point. The idea that the reaction time of the Obama administration tells us anything about their approach to terrorism or has any correlation with what they've done on terrorism is ridiculous. And it's strictly a public relations issue there. The only thing about what DeMint said is it's just demonstrably wrong. I mean, the president just sent 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. The idea a that the president hasn't been focused on terrorism is absurd.
YELLIN: Well, let's say, if we can -- Claire McCaskill, what she had to say earlier this morning, going to that point.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCASKILL: From day one, from the inaugural address, President Obama said very clearly and very forcefully that there is a war against terror and violence that is a vast network, and we have been taking it to that network through the intelligence community, through additional resources in Somalia, in Yemen, unlike a myopic focus on Iraq.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(UNKNOWN): That's not true, by the way, is what it boils down to.
(UNKNOWN): Claire McCaskill needed to spend a few more hours in bed this morning, I think.
YELLIN: Well, it's been fascinating to me that one of the attack lines by the Republicans has been that the president won't use the word terrorist or he won't call certain incidents acts of terror. Is this a winning strategy and message? I put to it the Izzas?
LIZZA: On the Republicans part, is it a winning strategy? Look, they don't want to talk about domestic issues for the most part. Most of the advantages are to the Democrats there. They always believe that their strength is on national security issues so they're very concentrated on the midterm elections, think they have an opportunity to win back some seats. So they're taking the ball and running it down the field as far as they can and trying to paint Obama as soft on terrorism. Frankly, I don't think they have a lot so far -- most of the attacks haven't had a lot of merit to them. But it's predictable that this is the direction they would go. CILLIZZA: I think Ryan is right, that Republicans think they're sort of kicking with the wind on the field goal. It's football season.
YELLIN: What does that mean? That means the wind is behind your back? It's a good thing?
CILLIZZA: It's a good thing. Maybe I should stay away from football metaphors. Here is why I think that may not be 100 percent right. In 2008, the exit polling, they asked, if you're very worried -- people are very worried about a future terrorist attack. McCain 54, Obama 43. Somewhat worried, Obama 51, McCain 48.
National security terror, the fear of another attack was very strong ground for Republicans in 2002 and in 2004 elections. Less so in 2006, even less so in 2008. Is it possible we'll see that move back towards Republicans in 2010? Sure, but I'm not sure it's the perfect ground on which they can fight. They may well, despite, Ryan's right, domestically usually Democrats have an advantage. Health care may be a place, if you look at polling, it suggests a majority of the American people do not favor this, but they may not want to solely focus on national security because it's not a clear out right winner for them politically.
GALEN: We all know this. There's an ebb and flow to all this stuff. Because Republicans see an opening now doesn't mean that they're going to continually do this every day for the next however many days until the November elections. But this happened to have happened two weeks ago. So it's in everybody's mind. So Republicans are taking advantage of the environment as they find it.
YELLIN: OK, we're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we're going to get to Michael Feldman and we're going to talk about Dick Cheney, a lot of other things. That is right on the other side of this break. Stay with "State of the Union." We'll be right back.
YELLIN: And we're back now with Ryan Lizza, Chris Cillizza, Rich Galen and Michael Feldman. Good morning, gentlemen. I know, I'm going to mess it up one of these times. Let me get back to you Michael Feldman. You were about to make a point before we went to break.
FELDMAN: I just wanted to pivot off something that the Lizzas both talked about which is there is a real risk of going back to the 2002, 2004 political playbook, politicizing the war on terror, politicizing war in general. I think Rich made the point, too. The country is -- farther we get from an attack, the more dangerous that is. I think people look back, and they see the threats that our country faces. They want both Democrats and Republicans to come together. And I think having former Vice President Cheney, former Vice President Cheney running out there every time even before the ink is dry on a statement to bash this administration and say something that is demonstrably untrue is very dangerous for the Republican Party.
GALEN: I'm not sure what he said is demonstratively untrue. I think he is saying it badly.
YELLIN: Let's pause and look at what Cheney said just so we have it.
YELLIN: He said that we're at war and when President Obama pretends we aren't, it makes us less safe, "why doesn't he want to admit we're at war?" It goes on.
GALEN: OK. I think -- as I said, I think he's saying whatever he is saying inartfully. But I think -- and I'm not a national security expert by any stretch of the imagination. But I don't think whatever the administration has done has not made us safer, whether it's made us less safe I'm not qualified to say. But it has not made us safer. And you know, I'm not sure there's anything they can do to make us safer.
FELDMAN: I think it may remind people that it was Vice President Cheney's policies that took our eyes off the ball in Afghanistan, that may have made us less safe. We went to war in Iraq. We took resources away from the fight on terror and against in al Qaeda. It is President Obama who has brought the focus back to Afghanistan and Pakistan, that has made the fight against al Qaeda a truly global effort. And I just don't think it's the right voice to have...
CILLIZZA: From a purely political perspective, I would say -- not to disagree with Rich or Mike, but Dick Cheney is not the face that the Republican Party wants out there. I mean, that is a -- to my mind, an indispensable fact. This is someone who is deeply unpopular among most independents, among many moderate Republicans.
Whether he is correct or not on the merits of it, having him, an older white male face who is not popular, who is reminiscent of an administration that the American public largely rejected in 2006 and 2008 is bad politics.
LIZZA: On this one, let's just take a step back. The statement was that Obama doesn't think we're at war. I mean, this one is one we can referee. It's not true. Obama has said that repeatedly.
YELLIN: Well, let's get to something, an area where the president could be open to some criticism, analysis. The president went to the National Counter -- the terrorism center earlier I think it was in October of this year. Let's listen to what he said then. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: You are setting the standard. You're showing us what focused and integrated counterterrorism really looks like. And the record of your service is written in the attacks that never occur, because you thwarted them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
YELLIN: D'oh, whoops. OK. Here is what President Obama said earlier this week about the same center.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon, as it should have been so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could have cost nearly 300 lives, a systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
YELLIN: Now obviously there's a busy game of finger-pointing going on who is responsible. But this National Counterterrorism Center was designed to sort of coordinate all of this intelligence. How much is this going to hurt the president politically, Ryan?
LIZZA: Look, he did the most important thing, which is take responsibility for it. You can't argue this is all George Bush's fault. You can't argue it's all the Democrats' fault. This was a bipartisan system that has been set up over the last eight years since 9/11, right?
We have the Department of Homeland Security, all of the intelligence apparatus that has been set up has been set up with support from Democrats and Republicans. And at least he's taking ownership of it, at least he's saying, this was wrong, you know, it was a mistake. We're going to review what happened and make sure it doesn't happen again.
YELLIN: Is this a Katrina Brownie moment, you're doing a heck of a job?
CILLIZZA: I don't think so because the Katrina statement, the -- this was not a systemic failure came from Janet Napolitano, not the president of the United States. I think Ryan is right. Whether you agree or disagree with the timing of when the president came out and said, this is something we need to address, he came out and said it.
I think it's largely dependent on things outside of his control. In some ways, are there future attacks? Do these agencies, these many agencies that are dedicated to it, can they coordinate better? If there is another attack, I think it would be -- it would come back negatively to him because he has come across as...
YELLIN: But already this morning we've heard people saying -- somebody almost bipartisan as Governor Kean saying that the president was distracted, he had his eye off the ball. Then you had Napolitano last week saying that the system worked.
Let's listen to what Senator Susan Collins said on ABC this morning about Janet Napolitano's comments last week. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I do, but I will say that her initial comments were bizarre and inappropriate. It baffled me that she said that the system worked very, very smoothly when clearly it did not.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
YELLIN: Well, clearly this was a PR fumble by Napolitano. I mean, she owned a problem that she didn't have to own. But Michael Feldman, is this devastating for Napolitano and for the administration? Or can they get it over it quickly?
FELDMAN: No, I think they can get over it. I think most important for Janet Napolitano, the president clearly has trust in her and believes that she's doing the job very well. I will say this, this was a communications error. This wasn't a massive systemic failure like Katrina was where it was very clear that the country was not ready specifically to support that kind of tragedy in Louisiana.
The president came out right away, to Ryan's point, he took responsibility, which is something that President Bush didn't -- we never saw him do very often. And what he's doing right now is what he should be doing, which is asking all of the relevant agencies to report in. There were paper reports sent to Hawaii over the weekend. He's having an intense session, we hear, on Tuesday at the White House.
He did not come out and begin point fingers at the previous administration, which was something that, by the way...
FELDMAN: By the way, that Republicans were eager to do in 2001.
This is not something that he's treating as a partisan issue. He knows mistakes were made. He said it was a systemic failure. And he wants to get to the bottom of it. That's what he needs to do.
GALEN: I absolutely agree with Mike's last statement. Nobody in the White House has used the personal pronoun "I" or "my" more than Barack Obama. He is saying -- he's very carefully using the subjunctive clause, "mistakes were made." He didn't say "my administration made these mistakes."
Those guys made -- he's not taking responsibility for this at all. Where are you guys getting this from? Let me make another point. Tom Ridge on CNN the other night right after all this stuff was going on, A, defended Janet Napolitano, saying, I understood what she was saying. But secondly, he said something I think we all agree with this, he said, we have gone back to the need to know, between these agencies, from a need to share which is what Ben-Veniste and everybody else was trying to get organized. YELLIN: OK. This is a discussion that will continue for many weeks to come about information sharing. But we have up next is our lightning round with predictions for the year ahead. So stay with us, we'll be right back.
YELLIN: Welcome back to "State of the Union." It's now time for our lightning round. Gentlemen, the question is, who will be, who or what will be a winner in the year ahead? Who or what will be a loser in the year ahead? Anything from pop culture Tiger Woods, private jet companies, you name it. Michael Feldman, who will be a loser in the year ahead?
FELDMAN: Well unfortunately I think there are a lot of American workers who are still going to be losers next year. Unemployment is a lagging indicator. I think the economy is the potential winner of 2010. I think the economy is beginning to show real signs of recovery. See strong growth this last quarter. Signs of strong growth next quarter. I think the administration having saved off what could have been a real economic crisis has done a great job there. But I do think the American worker, if you're part of that 8 to 10 percent, whatever the predictions are at the end of this year who's still unemployed, unfortunately you're the big loser this year.
YELLIN: And hopefully that will change.
FELDMAN: And another big winner, anybody with the last name that ends in "Izza" I believe will be...
CILLIZZA: That's every year, basically.
YELLIN: The big winners in the year ahead. Rich, win or loser?
GALEN: I think the big winner is going to be China of all things. They -- their economy is roaring along because they can fund it with their own bank.
YELLIN: And loser?
GALEN: Loser will be the American workers who going to keep losing jobs to Chinese workers. It's going to be very difficult to get that unemployment figure down to where I think everybody wishes it would be.
CILLIZZA: I will be rawly political and brief. The winner, John Thune, South Dakota senator. I think he will not have a serious reelection race and that will allow him to begin positioning this year to run for president in 2012. Bad year, anybody who likes legislative or partisanship, I think you're going to see very little of it as we lead up to 2010. LIZZA: I think a lot of the predictions we make are usually based on taking a trend right now and just putting it forward and it's why so many predictions have been wrong the past few years. So the economy is not going to be nearly as bad as people think it is. I think this is going to be seen as a low point for Obama and things are going to start getting better as the economy approves. And House losses for the Democrats will be much lower than sort of the alarmists are predicting right now.
YELLIN: Ah, you're looking rosy ahead for Obama. You're an optimist this morning for Obama. All right, gentlemen, such a pleasure to be with you. Thank you for spending your Sunday morning with us. Happy new year 2010.
Up next, we get out of Washington as we always do on "State of the Union" and ahead go to Salt Lake City, Utah, four our weekly diner discussion on the issues that matter most to you.
YELLIN: For our 49th state, John decided to head out west to Utah, a traditionally conservative state and one that's seen its share of pain during this punishing recession. Let's take a look here at Utah. Here you can see it's got a 6.3 percent unemployment rate, 13 percent of the state's residents are currently uninsured. President Obama's job performance approval rating not so hot there, 38 percent, nearly 38 percent of his job in office, 60 percent disapprove.
So for our CNN diner this week, John sat down at the Blue Plate Diner in Salt Lake City, where he heard some optimism on the economy, but plenty of skepticism out of Washington.
KING: Let me start with the question I ask everywhere I go. How is the economy here and is it still getting worse, plateau, starting to get better?
ADRIAN ALEXANDER, WORKS IN MEDICAL EQUIPMENT SALES: A lot of the businesses that used to be around, mom and pop stores and shops, they're not around as much anymore. For example, I was at the gym the other day and I saw a bowling alley that they had opened up. We, in fact, had bowled there a couple of years ago and it's no longer there.
ANDREA BURGGRAFF, WAITRESS: There's ups and downs but I feel like Utah maybe have been hit less bad than a lot of the states around the country.
KING: Go around the table, raise your hand if you voted for President Obama. We have two and one. OK. Let me start with the non-Obama voter then. Grade the first year.
DAVID CORN, RETIRED: "C."
KING: "C." Why? CORN: Well, being as much in debt as we are as a country makes me nervous. I don't comprehend the debt very well. I don't understand it, but in my world, debt's bad. If I'm spending more than I'm making, I'm not in very good shape.
KING: How would you grade him? BURGGRAFF: I think he's done really well. I don't think you can expect that much from a president to, like, have really, like, finished a lot of the things he set out to do in his first year. He's getting further with the health care debate. It's slowly coming along which is awesome.
ALEXANDER: I would probably give him a "C+" and here's why.
KING: Even as a supporter?
ALEXANDER: He hasn't even been in office for a year so maybe after 2.5, 3 years then I'll have a better assessment of how he'll do, but what I think is different about him versus other presidents -- this isn't neither bad or good -- but I think he's more analytical. And what I mean by that is he's not so quick to make a decision. So right now I give him a "C+." And I don't envy the gentleman because he has a lot on his plate.
KING: If you could have one new year's resolution for Washington or the president or the Congress, what would it be?
ALEXANDER: Get along, get it done, no excuses and come together.
BURGGRAFF: I think get it done is probably really well said. I think there's a lot of, like, bouncing around of different really good ideas that is happening right now but just put them into action to get them passed, to get some positive change happening in our country would be awesome.
CORN: Don't be driven so much by political items so much as what's really good for the country and what's good for us.
KING: How about a personal resolution?
CORN: Wow. Let's see, you know, my life's not that bad. I don't have anything in mind. I guess --
KING: Keep it good?
KING: That's a good resolution.
BURGGRAFF: I'll stick to something classic. Save money. My own economic resolution to figure out my personal finances, I guess a little bit better.
KING: We'll check back in a year and see how you're doing. ALEXANDER: Mine's just what I've been doing since my children were born. Be the best dad that I can be and be there for my kids and my wife. That's the most personal thing -- and, of course, my friends, but they come first.
YELLIN: John King reporting from his 49th state, Utah. He's got one more state to go. What will it be? You'll see next week.
YELLIN: I'm Jessica Yellin. Thanks for joining me on "State of the Union." I'm going to toss it now to Gloria Borger.
BORGER: Hey, Jess.
YELLIN: Hi. John always seems to get these lucky meals wherever he goes for a story.
BORGER: It was a little caloric. But, you know what, at least he got...
BORGER: At least he got a day off, a well-deserved day off, I should say.
YELLIN: He needs it. Yes.
BORGER: But he'll be right back here next week.