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FAREED ZAKARIA GPS

Interview With Admiral Mullen

Aired January 10, 2010 - 13:00   ET

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


FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome, and Happy New Year to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria.

We have a terrific show for you today -- naturally, centrally involving the attempted Christmas bombing in the United States.

Before we get to it, I want to give you some of my own thoughts about that attempted terrorist attack.

Senator Dianne Feinstein says that she believes the United States government should over-react rather than under-react to these kinds of events.

Isn't that exactly backwards? The purpose of terrorism is not to kill the few hundred that are attacked, but to terrorize the tens upon tens of millions who watch.

Terrorism is unique as a military strategy, in that it depends for its effectiveness on the response of the society. For it to work, all of us have to respond with fear and hysteria. So far, we're doing just that.

I don't mean to suggest by this that the system worked. Obviously, it didn't. When U.S. officials got information from the terrorist's father, they should have immediately checked if he had a visa, or put him on a no-fly list. They should not have allowed him to enter an airplane with a bomb, a make-shift bomb.

These are all mistakes. They should be fixed.

But there will be other mistakes uncovered over the years as we continue going through this process. And we must have the ability to calmly, seriously and effectively react to these problems, improve the system, so that it gets better and better every year, rather than going crazy.

The atmosphere in Washington these days, the media calls the political wrangling, the calls for heads to roll, these are all indications of panic -- and partisanship.

And over-reacting will produce the worst policy responses -- large, broad-brush, expensive efforts, pat down thousands of more grandmothers every day, get the military involved in every place that claims they have al Qaeda. But these might not be the most effective fixes.

We need less grandstanding from everyone, including the president of the United States, and more sober efforts to simply improve security and resilience within this country.

Anyway, that's my view. You will hear from a superb panel on this later. But first, an in-depth conversation with America's top military man, Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Let's get started.

(BREAK)

ZAKARIA: Admiral Mullen, thank you for joining us.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN, CHAIRMAN, U.S. JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: It's good to be with you, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Does the Christmas bombing suggest strength or weakness on al Qaeda's part? Because at one level, I look at it and think to myself, you know, eight years after 9/11, this is all they've been able to do. And that's not very impressive.

MULLEN: And I think it's important that we look at that. So, across a decade, if you will, there have been an awful lot of attacks which have been thwarted.

But the system -- I think General Hayden said on Sunday -- the system has got a human dimension to it. It's not perfect. And we need to do everything we can to make it as perfect as possible, so that some of these spectacular attacks cannot be pulled off.

ZAKARIA: But is there also a case to be made for being honest with the American people, that, you know, there is a human dimension and that sometimes people will get through.

MULLEN: I'm very confident, this president, this administration, my colleagues will take these lessons and do everything we can to adjust where mistakes were made, and make sure that it doesn't recur again.

ZAKARIA: A few days before the Christmas attack, you gave an interview in which you talked about your fears about Yemen becoming a new base for al Qaeda, or a new haven for al Qaeda.

Have U.S. forces actually engaged al Qaeda in Yemen? Have we struck them directly?

MULLEN: Again, I'm not going to go into the details of our operations.

This has been led -- and rightfully so -- by the president in Yemen, President Salih, his forces. And it's been very clear that their leadership has been critical here. We have provided some support in that regard, and we'll continue to do that to meet these challenges.

But it has been, in my view, an impressive operation on the part of the Yemeni forces and their improvements over the last couple of years.

ZAKARIA: It's interesting you say that, because a number of people say that this is a weak, dysfunctional, corrupt government. The president has staffed large parts of the security establishment with his relatives. He faces three battles, as it were -- a rebellion in the North, a secessionist movement in the South, and then this battle with al Qaeda -- and that he is actually focused least on the one against al Qaeda.

MULLEN: We've been focused on Yemen for some time. So, I can speak very specifically to the improvements that they've made, and also to the challenges.

I think what you see in the public discussion right now are the challenges that are out there. And you talked to the three different areas that he's very much focused on.

And it is a country that is weak economically. It's got some of the classic tribal challenges that exist in countries like this. And the leadership there, I think, recognizes this and is working hard to move forward.

But I don't understate both the challenges internal to Yemen, as well as the need for the international community to support and help with respect to how we address this in the future.

And this al Qaeda threat is not going away. It's going to keep coming at us -- and I don't just mean us, the United States, I think us, internationally -- until we take steps to finish it off.

ZAKARIA: You know, if I look at the intelligence that one gets and reads, it suggests there are a few hundred al Qaeda members or operatives in Yemen. By your own admission, that's probably more than there are in Afghanistan. Yet we have -- but we'll have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Why not take a much more aggressive approach in Yemen?

MULLEN: Well, again, it's a sovereign country. We have great respect for the president there in terms of his judgment, in terms of what he needs to do this. And right now, as far as any kind of boots on the ground there with respect to the United States, that's just not -- that's not a possibility. I mean, he's just -- we're not into those kinds of discussions.

And in all of these -- in all of these fights with al Qaeda and with terrorists, it is typically, relatively small numbers, nimble, agile, very capable, cunning. And they have studied us, and they adjust. And so, typically, there, it does take larger numbers to get at those.

In the case of Afghanistan, where you talk about we've got -- between ourselves and NATO, and other countries, actually, who are contributing -- upwards of 100,000 troops, that's really focused on making sure that the Taliban doesn't turn Afghanistan upside-down and then create the kind of permissive environment where al Qaeda could return.

ZAKARIA: Now, you're just back from Afghanistan.

MULLEN: Yes.

ZAKARIA: Give us a report on what kind of progress you see being made in achieving those goals, and particularly in getting the Pashtuns, who make up about 50 percent of Afghanistan, but probably 100 percent of the insurgency and the Taliban, getting them to move over to the government side in some form or the other.

MULLEN: I'll give you some data points, just based on this trip.

In December, we recruited to an exceptionally high number for the Afghan army, specifically. So much so, that the minister of defense had to stop recruiting mid-month, because he was well over what the system could absorb. And that's a good sign. That doesn't mean we won't have continued challenges, because we do have challenges in development of their forces with respect to attrition and retention.

We've raised their pay. And we think that their showing up now has a lot to do with that improved incentives.

I was in Kandahar, where I met with a number of elders there. And the message that they sent me was, we must see the endemic corruption at every level. Significant steps have to be taken with respect to that. And certainly, President Obama and many others have spoken to the need for President Karzai and his leadership to address this.

ZAKARIA: And what's your sense of that? Have you seen any change in President Karzai's efforts (ph)?

MULLEN: Initially, yes, he is looking to ministers. He and I actually talked about this. His strategic intent is there.

What struck me in meeting with these elders was the evolution of this corruption. So, it wasn't something that was always there. It's been over the last decade or so that they spoke to it.

These same elders said to me that they were embarrassed, that the United States soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, were dying for them. They want to lead this effort. They appreciate what we've done, but they really want to lead this effort. And this is something I know the president -- President Karzai -- is trying to engender in his leadership with his people.

ZAKARIA: But what you talk about, the leadership issue, I mean, you've talked in the past in interviews about the critical need of good local leadership.

President Karzai, by many accounts, is not moving forward in his second term. You know, his appointments to the cabinet were largely rejected by parliament, many on grounds that these people were corrupt.

Do you see a significant change in President Karzai's attitude?

MULLEN: I -- clearly, from my visit this time, absolutely. And I guess the signature speech would have been his inauguration speech -- I think that was on the 19th of November -- his very hard work to get ministers in place who are committed to that. And the ones that I'm heavily focused on, obviously, are defense and the interior, because of the Afghan security forces.

ZAKARIA: And you are satisfied with those...

MULLEN: Yes, and -- yes, absolutely, and that they are committed.

ZAKARIA: You've spoken in the past about how important Pakistan is to the Afghanistan struggle. And you, I think, were perhaps the first senior administration official to publicly acknowledge that, in fact, the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is almost entirely in Pakistan.

Now, do you see any significant shift in the Pakistani military in being willing to take on not the Taliban in Pakistan that attacks Pakistanis, but the Taliban that attacks the Afghans? In other words, the people in northern Waziristan who are actually attacking -- who are making life difficult for Americans, for American troops.

MULLEN: The way I would describe that is, I would say it is shifting. And these are discussions I've had with General Kayani, who is the head of their army. And I've met with him many, many times. In fact, the same visit when I was in Afghanistan, I was with him in Pakistan.

And I see more and more focus on this, as he has, he described to me most recently. He just finished his ninth campaign over the last year, year-and-a-half, up in South Waziristan -- very challenging for him. He's shifted his forces over there, learning counterinsurgency.

I spent all day in Swat, flew from south to north. And where a lot of us thought Swat was a year ago and where it was headed, is, again, completely reversed.

ZAKARIA: You know, there are people who say, you've invested a lot in the relationship with the Pakistani military, with General Kayani. You've met him something close to 20 times.

You don't have much to show for it in the sense of the Pakistani military taking on the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani faction. Again, not the people attacking Pakistanis, who, of course, they will take on. They're a mortal threat.

MULLEN: Sure.

ZAKARIA: But the ones who are killing Americans, or Indians, or Westerners.

MULLEN: I'm invested -- I've invested my time in a relationship with a country that I think is absolutely critical to the United States, and not just the United States military.

We have a long history of support for Pakistan. And we've also left them hanging several times.

So, it's going to take, I think, a long time to fill up that trust gap. And that's one of the reasons that I go there so often, to understand, really through their eyes, what their challenges are and try to rebuild that trust. And so, that's what I'm -- that's what I've worked so hard on.

ZAKARIA: We'll be right back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Are we at war or not at war, the Obama administration isn't at war.

This is a terrible argument. Of course we're at war; that is, literally, in the sense of conducting an armed conflict.

The Obama administration is launching missile strikes against people in at least three different countries whose names are not Iraq or Afghanistan. That's armed conflict.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about another country -- broadly speaking, in the region -- Iran.

You've talked about the need to think about all options with regard to Iran and with regard to making sure that they do not develop nuclear weapons.

Let's be specific. Do you believe that there is a military option for the United States in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?

MULLEN: I wouldn't go into specific military options. But when I speak of leaving all options on the table, certainly, it includes the potential for military options.

But I've also been very vocal on the need for the diplomatic, the political, the international focus here, to generate enough intensity and motivation on the part of the leadership of Iran to not consummate this threat. In turn, what I clearly see as their continued development of nuclear weapons, the strategic intent to do so -- so, basically...

ZAKARIA: Just to be clear, Admiral, you're saying their continued development of nuclear weapons. MULLEN: Yes.

ZAKARIA: Do you believe that there is a clear path to weaponization?

MULLEN: I believe that they are continuing to do that, and I have for some time, and with the strategic intent to do that. And I think that would be an incredibly destabilizing outcome and potentially generate a nuclear weapons race in that part of the world.

I also think an attack -- and I've said this many times -- I think an attack would also be, by us or anybody else, would be very destabilizing. And so, in that very narrow space, I think it's important that leaders throughout the world do everything we can to make sure that, one, they don't consummate it, and, two, that we don't get to a point where an attack is imminent.

ZAKARIA: How do you factor in the reality of the Iranian opposition? An opposition leader said to me, if the United States or, even more difficult for them, if Israel were to attack Iran, that the first day after the attack, we -- meaning the Iranian opposition -- would all have to come out and support the regime, because we would have been attacked by a foreign power. We would have to show, demonstrate our patriotism and, therefore, support the regime. And that would be the end of the Iranian opposition.

MULLEN: I think that that's a very legitimate concern. And it's one that we all understand and weigh as we look -- as we go forward, looking at ways to address this challenge.

I mean, Iran is a very critical country. And they have a wonderful population that can deliver a lot to the region and to the world. What I'm most focused on is their leadership, which has been much more destructive than constructive. And that's really the focus here.

And so, I applaud the efforts to try to get them to the table to ensure this doesn't happen. I think that needs to continue.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about Russia.

Do you find in your dealings with your counterparts in Russia that the Russian military at its highest levels views the United States as a partner, and adversary, or something in the middle?

MULLEN: Probably closer to something in the middle. I mean, I've met several times with my counterpart there and some of his military leadership. He is very committed to growing this relationship. Clearly, we've got challenges, not just military-to- military, but between the two countries.

I'm also not naive. I think they are a country that we need to continue to engage and understand, and be realistic about what the possibilities are.

I've spent a fair amount of time working on the new START follow- on agreement, which is the nuclear weapons agreement that, hopefully, will be put in place here in the next few weeks or months.

So, again, it's back to that engagement piece. And that's why I answer your question, probably somewhere in the middle, emerging from a time where we certainly didn't have a very strong relationship.

ZAKARIA: Same question about China. Many people in China report that there is a growing sense within some sections of the Chinese government that perhaps there is going to be an inevitable clash in the long run between China and the United States, particularly with relationship to the Chinese navy and its growing ambitions.

Do you see that?

MULLEN: I don't see that as an automatic outcome at all. These are the two greatest economic powers in the country, two biggest economies.

ZAKARIA: In the world.

MULLEN: I'm sorry, in the world. And I think there are opportunities and, actually, responsibilities that are tied to those positions. And again, I think the two leaders have taken steps to signal that we want to work together. We have some huge challenges with respect to that.

It's a really critical part of the world. We've got allies out there that we have supported over decades, and we will continue to do that. And we will do that with a strong military presence. Yet, again, that's not the only part of this relationship

I think there's been enough discussion of this to certainly put leaders in positions to head this relationship in the right direction, so that we don't have any kind of catastrophic outcome. None of us believe that a conflict with China is going to be productive in any way, shape or form.

ZAKARIA: A final question. Looking forward to this year, what do you see as your critical challenge?

MULLEN: Clearly, execution of the president's strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, focused on what I call the broader Middle East, to include South Asia. I remain very concerned about Iran in that same vein.

We continue -- we will continue to come out of Iraq after the elections, which are now set for March 7th. And that appears to be on a good glide slope. I was just in Iraq, and would just confirm that.

ZAKARIA: You will be down to 50,000 by the end of the year?

MULLEN: That's the -- absolutely, yes. That's the plan. And we'll start that right after the elections.

The other thing that I'm very focused on is the continued health of the force, a force that has been in two conflicts, pressed hard. I also will this year try to spend some time on what's next. These wars are going to end. The world is going to continue to grow in complexity.

And so, what does the United States military look like? What are our needs? What kind of military do we have to have in a growing -- a fiscal environment which is going to get tougher? I know that. And I think the military leadership has to speak to, this is what we believe we need for our national security.

ZAKARIA: And we will have that conversation when we have you on next.

MULLEN: Thanks, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: A pleasure. Thanks.

MULLEN: It's great to be with you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: Now, for our "What in the World?" segment.

What got my attention was this number -- zero, nothing. That is the extraordinary number of American troops who died in combat in Iraq last month. Zero.

And it doesn't seem like a fluke. In both October and November, only two U.S. war deaths were recorded. Naturally, tragic that they happened, but just two.

So, for the entire last quarter of 2009, there were a total of four deaths. That's compared to a high of 126 in a single month, a tragic record that was seen twice in 2004.

And there are other bright spots. The Iraqi government has recently launched an important conference, aimed at attracting investment there. Business is beginning to boom in that country -- a very healthy sign. Iraq has become, or is becoming, something of a success story.

I want to emphasize, these are very early trends. Iraq remains a very tough place. In fact, while October saw only two U.S. combat deaths, it also saw the worst attack on Iraqis in two years -- two car bombing attacks on government buildings in Baghdad that killed more than 150 people and wounded another 500. And last month, when no Americans died in combat, more than 120 Iraqis, mostly Iraqis, were killed in another coordinated Baghdad bombing.

What plagues Iraq, and what's behind almost all of this violence, is terrorism, of course. But behind that, still some degree of sectarianism. A Sunni minority, which is in some ways implicated with al Qaeda, is attacking a Shia majority, which it feels is excluding it from power. Perhaps more pressing now are the disputes between the Kurds and the Arabs. But if all these political, ethnic, religious disputes can be mediated -- and they can, with some luck -- Iraq could turn out to be a place where political differences are resolved through negotiations and elections, and where fervor for making money replaces fervor for making jihad. It could become the first modern, democratic country in the Middle East, in the Arab Middle East. And that's good news all around.

And we'll be right back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD FALKENRATH: Right before this attack, there was another attack in Yemen. And it was a terrorist camp blown up from above.

ZAKARIA: Right. Blown up, probably using a U.S. -- using U.S. firepower.

FALKENRATH: Right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: So, what do we think of the attempted Christmas bombing over Detroit? Are we over-reacting? I told my views at the top of the program. I think we are. But I wanted to find out from some of the smartest people in counterterrorism what they think, so I've invited them here.

Joining me now are Richard Falkenrath, the deputy commissioner of Counter-Terrorism here in New York City; Stephen Flynn, the president of the Center for National Policy, who's written a lot about this subject; and from Charlottesville, Virginia, Philip Zelikow, distinguished historian and the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission.

Philip, I wanted to ask you about what this tells us about al Qaeda, because, at one level, when I first heard about it, I thought to myself, all right, eight years after 9/11, what al Qaeda has been able to do is, you know, really find some tactical opportunity.

This wacko Nigerian guy comes to them, and they say, let's wire him up with a pretty sophisticated bomb and send him out. But a very different approach or strategy than what was going on in the '90s. There's no great progression.

It does not suggest to me the kind of resurgence of al Qaeda that lots of people are talking about.

PHILIP ZELIKOW, HISTORIAN AND FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, 9/11 COMMISSION: Let's think about this. You've got an operation over Christmas Day that has the exact same concept of operations as the Richard Reid attack eight years ago.

And before 9/11 -- 9/11 was the third large, complex, intercontinental operation that al Qaeda had mounted. They blew up two embassies simultaneously. They blew up an American destroyer in Yemen. Then they conducted 9/11.

All three of these operations where they were deploying operatives on a transcontinental basis, staging them in another place and conducting fairly complex operations with a number of moving parts.

And then you see this Christmas bombing that's basically an attempt to replicate what they tried with Richard Reid eight years ago, with a somewhat more sophisticated explosive device, but the same concept.

Now, what does this tell us? It tells us that al Qaeda is still at war with us, they're still trying to kill us, but their operational capability has been degraded, and it remains somewhat degraded.

RICHARD FALKENRATH, DEPUTY COMMISSIONER OF COUNTER-TERRORISM, NEW YORK POLICE DEPARTMENT: These are very different than the 9/11 attack and the Cole bombing and the embassy bombing eight years ago. These are much more opportunistic, as you say. They are lower level.

But what they show us is that this is still a very active threat, that the al Qaeda franchises in other areas -- in this case, in the Arabian Peninsula -- are capable of launching their own attacks, and that there is a great deal of radicalization and extremism occurring out there in the world, which every once in a while will turn up someone who's willing to carry out an attack like this.

And so, that's what we've seen in the last year, is about a dozen such cases in and around the United States, of which this was the closest to causing mass casualties.

Another point is, our intelligence community was focused in on Yemen in a very serious way for the last three years. We've known that Yemen was a big problem.

But the assumption and the assessment was that the...

ZELIKOW: We've known about Yemen for a lot longer than three years.

FALKENRATH: Well, of course we have, Philip. But the assessment is that the terrorists based in Yemen were principally a threat to Yemen, and especially to Saudi Arabia, that it was a cross-border threat. And I think there was a tendency to downplay the possibility that Yemen would stage an attack trasncontinentally into the United States, in this case to an aircraft.

ZAKARIA: So, in a sense, you're saying you don't think we are over-reacting to this.

FALKENRATH: Well, we may be over-reacting on the airport screening side of it, given all the different things that we need to do. On the airport screening side of it, I think, actually, a much more productive area to work on would be linking up the databases with the foreign governments and the airline system, so that we can more swiftly target people we have intelligence reasons to believe are a threat.

ZAKARIA: But you think, though, that the problem with this kind of over-reaction is it leads to very broad-brush measures, rather than the kind of targeted things you are in favor of.

STEPHEN FLYNN, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR NATIONAL POLICY: Yes, I think the bigger, bigger challenge, really, Fareed, is that the motive for our adversaries to engage in terrorism as a military weapon -- which it is -- is to generate a big bang for their buck.

So, to the extent to which we do over-react politically, as well as do very expensive and disruptive, not very well thought-out things to respond to the immediate concern of the terrorist attack incidence here, we're essentially fuelling the motivation for acts of terror.

And so, a big element of how we make ourselves more secure going forward is to invest in the part that we as democracy should be able to control, which is our reaction, or our over-reaction. We need to make ourselves more resilient.

Part of the resilience comes from being aware of the inherent limits of what can be done by our national security, intelligence and law enforcement apparatus. It's imperfect. It always will be. The human dimension will be there.

So, the political dynamic is what I very much worry about, this finger-pointing and the sort of degeneration, because that's an incentive for people to say, well, let's keep striking, because we get them on -- we get them divided, and we get them essentially spending themselves into -- into a security, supposedly, that really is not going to make us that much more secure.

ZAKARIA: So, Philip, when you look at this broader war on terror, I want to pick up on something that Richard was saying, the theory of the war on terror, which I think we all have bought into, is that this is a broad effort against a group of extremists that are within the Islamic world, that need to be -- a cancer within the Islamic world -- and we need to make a very active kind of offensive effort, nation-building in Iraq, nation-building in Afghanistan.

My guess is we're now going to be doing nation-building in Yemen. God knows, it's a tough place to do it.

So, should we be approaching this sort of differently, which is counter-terrorism, very good intelligence, very good homeland security? But, you know, whether or not we need to create a democracy in Afghanistan, Iraq, whether we need to produce good governance in Yemen, and solve their civil wars there, maybe that's not that important.

ZELIKOW: We have vocabulary, and it's a political argument about -- are we at war or not at war, the Obama administration isn't at war.

This is a terrible argument. Of course we're at war; that is, literally, in the sense of conducting an armed conflict.

The Obama administration is launching missile strikes against people in at least three different countries whose names are not Iraq or Afghanistan.

That's armed conflict. So, a war is going on.

The point is not whether or not there is a war going on. Indeed, the Obama administration is conducting more such missile strikes per month than the Bush administration was.

The point is that it's more than a war, not less than a war. When you begin to say that the problem is a civilizational struggle within the Muslim world -- which is right, your point's right. But the United States' responsibility, then, is we have to send our people in to drain swamps in every one of those countries at the -- kind of in every one of the wilderness areas of the world need to be physically occupied by American troops and government officials to drain those swamps, we're embarking on a national agenda that is probably Quixotic.

ZAKARIA: Richard, what do you think about this issue of, should we be taking -- I mean, in a sense, I guess, what I'm wondering is, is the Biden plan for Afghanistan more true, actually, in a more global sense; that is, a real focus on counter-terrorism, a real focus on intelligence, a real focus on homeland security, and maybe less on this much broader effort to drain the swamp everywhere?

FLYNN: Fareed, you're taking me back to my days at the White House and Harvard. I'm now at the NYPD. We worry about far more local concerns.

I do think we need to be very targeted and focused globally on this. And nation-building is likely to be a not particularly effective, or at least cost-effective, way to deal with this terrorism threat as we've discussed it here.

The effective way to deal with it is to find those few hundred or maybe low thousands of people who are a threat, exclude them from our country, arrest them, bring them to justice. And if we really have actionable intelligence and know they're a threat, destroy them from above.

This is, I think, the single most important thing that we need to be doing effectively to protect this country.

And I, frankly, credit the Obama administration with not backing off, as far as I can tell, one bit from what the Bush administration was doing -- and indeed, expanding it in certain respects.

Right before this attack, there was another attack in Yemen. And there was a terrorist camp blown up from above.

ZAKARIA: Right. Blown up, probably using a U.S. -- using U.S. firepower.

FLYNN: Right. And so, this is a noteworthy fact.

So, we may have had an intelligence failure on the defensive side, that is, finding an operative with a bomb on his person coming into this country. But we were still using it in an offensive way, which was locating part of the threat and destroying it.

ZAKARIA: And we will be back right after this with more on the war on terror, abroad and at home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FLYNN: This is a very ingenious bomb, designed expressly to evade detection, a rather sophisticated bomb. It's like finding a needle in a haystack. But bombs like this don't come along very often.

Two million people per day. We can spend billions and billions of dollars trying to get every one of these people exhaustively searched in the effort of finding this one bomb.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: And we are back with Philip Zelikow, Richard Falkenrath and Stephen Flynn, talking about the Christmas bombing and what we can make of it.

Richard, there's a lot of focus right now on, you know, this sort of partisan blame game. But the odd thing is that the system in place, whether it worked or not, is largely a system that was created by the Bush administration -- and I'm going to say it, by you, because you were actually a very key player in the Bush White House on these issues.

Do you look at it, that the institutional structure was pretty good, that there was data out there, but there was essentially a kind of human error here in terms of somebody not doing something as simple as saying, let's check if the guy has applied for a visa?

FALKENRATH: Yes, I do agree. I think the structure is basically sound as it is. The collection efforts that were underway against these targets and many others worldwide are really very impressive -- far beyond what they were pre-9/11. And this was a human error -- a very bad one. Because I think, as the facts of the case dribble out, we will see that it was really a very clear connection that should have been made, and was not made.

ZAKARIA: Philip, there was another recommendation in the 9/11 Commission that was pretty specific, which was about screening passengers for explosives. Because it strikes me there are two screw- ups here. One is the issue of why this guy was given -- was allowed to fly with a visa, with a valid visa not double-checked. But the second is that he was allowed to bring a bomb on board, a kind of make-shift bomb.

The commission actually specifically called for better screening. Why did that not happen?

ZELIKOW: In fact, we were -- our recommendation was more specific than that. We said, as an urgent matter, improve your screening for people carrying explosives. So, that was -- and that was five-and-a-half years ago.

What it's important to understand here is that people more or less built the system that the Congress, the interest groups influencing Congress, and the executive branch wanted.

Because what you're doing is, you're making trade-offs here between how much risk do we accept versus what costs we will impose -- monetary costs, costs of hiring extra people to do work, costs that we'll impose on people's privacy. And so, you're constantly kind of turning the dial to find the right balance between risk and cost.

But the main point to observe here is that we made these recommendations five-and-a-half years ago. The technologies are not the limiting factor here. The limiting factor here is the balance that societies want to strike between cost and risk, and then the way governments are responsive to what they're hearing from the society about that balance.

ZAKARIA: Steve Flynn, is that -- is the balance we're striking right? In other words, you know, despite this one very bad screw-up, were we at about the right place? Or should we be doing what seems to be happening now, which is we're turning the dial substantially further in terms of more checking, more pat-downs, more screenings?

FLYNN: Well, there's, I think, two ways to look at the issue of balance. The overall effort, really, since September 11th, where the real resources have been applied, has been in the war on terror piece that has taken the battle to the enemy -- obviously, the expense that we've made in Iraq and Afghanistan, now as an ongoing effort.

The efforts we put in place for homeland security have been a very distant second in terms of overall effort and energy. Our best and brightest are not spending every day thinking about the vulnerabilities here at home and some of the problems. And the management challenges, the training issues for front-line agents, whether it be at the customs, immigration officials, or so forth here, that's not the front lines in the way that we've approached this.

Now what we really see, though, is that there are limits to what we can do with our national security tools. It's not -- it's always going to be an imperfect system. People can get through. And your defenses are pretty important.

FALKENRATH: I think there's another perspective on this, though. We have roughly two million passengers per day on aircraft, flying inside the United States or into it, per day.

This is a very ingenious bomb, designed expressly to evade detection, a rather sophisticated bomb. It's like finding a needle in a haystack. But bombs like this don't come along very often.

Two million people per day. We can spend billions and billions of dollars trying to get every one of these people exhaustively searched in the effort of finding this one bomb that comes along.

By contrast, we have about five-and-a-half million people per day who ride the New York City subway. So, twice as many on the New York City subway every day as in every commercial aircraft into and inside the United States, per day.

And yet, we spend a tiny fraction of what we do on airport security to secure the subway, which has twice as many people at far higher densities.

Now, you don't have the same...

ZAKARIA: Well, what's the answer? I mean, that's...

FALKENRATH: This is...

ZAKARIA: ... yes, and I worry about sports stadiums, for example...

FALKENRATH: And...

ZAKARIA: ... where you think to yourself, you could kill a lot more people than 300.

FALKENRATH: And this is -- you know, we can't just focus on airline security. We can -- we're spending a lot of money to try to tighten this up, and we have on airline security. We can't ignore it. But there are a lot of other vulnerabilities out there.

So, remember how ingenious this bomb is. This bomb, if it's used again, has the potential to bring down an aircraft, and is really hard to detect.

FLYNN: I think one of the key points Richard is really highlighting about the other areas being vulnerable, I mean, the airline security, frankly, is the crown jewel of our post-9/11 homeland security efforts, I mean, it's what we've thrown the most money and effort and energy at -- obviously, because of the reaction to the 9/11 scenario, itself.

There are other big parts of our infrastructure, sports stadiums, as you said, and so forth. And there actually have been some good moves on professional sports stadiums. But there are other big, gapping holes. Our ports still remain very vulnerable, chemical refineries, power grids, and so forth.

ZAKARIA: Tell the story of the Los Angeles Port.

FLYNN: Well, the challenge with the Los Angeles Port is -- and Long Beach, really one complex. The two cities occupy that port complex. But it brings in 50 percent of all the energy west of the Rocky Mountains. Twenty-eight million people in Southern California require, basically, refineries working out of that port complex to crank that fuel out. And it's just-in-time. That is, there's only about seven days of refined fuels in the entire Southern California economy, with people having, on average, a half tank of gas.

So, you disrupt that port, you literally run out of...

ZAKARIA: This is literally coming out of one tap.

FLYNN: This is really coming out of one tap in the Port of Long Beach. So, if you disrupt that port and you can't, basically, recover it quickly, be resilient enough to bounce back -- and there are currently no real plans to manage this kind of contingency in L.A.- Long Beach, in part, because the Navy doesn't view the Los Angeles Port as a strategic port, because there's no gray ships that leave it.

So, what's astonishing is that we have a new war that's in our civil and economic space. What's where our adversaries are most likely to attack us, certainly on U.S. soil. But we spend a huge amount of money, relatively speaking, safeguarding military assets. But it's largely left to states and localities, who don't have a lot of resources, and private sector to take care of themselves.

ZAKARIA: Well, I want to thank all of you. And I want to thank particularly Philip and Richard, because, as I said, two Republicans here, one independent, I assume. And we've been able to have a serious conversation that has not degenerated into any partisan name- calling. And one wishes this could happen more in Washington.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: Now, for our "Question of the Week."

I didn't ask you one last week, since we were resting our brains for the holiday. But now that we're back to work, here's what I want to know.

We've talked a lot today about the uproar over the attempted bombing of that plane over Detroit. Do you think all of this -- the new security rules, intelligence reviews, political fights -- do you think it's an over-reaction? Or is it warranted?

You know what I think. I think it is an over-reaction. I have a feeling I'm in a minority here, but let me know what you think.

And as always, I'd like to recommend a book.

This is a terrific one I read over the holidays. It's called, "India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy," by Ramachandra Guha.

Now, this is not a quick read. I think it's about 700 pages. Like the country it documents, "India After Gandhi" is sprawling, vivid, complex. It's the story of a country that is, in fact, a conglomeration of vastly different states and cultures, all of which fought an epic struggle to become an unlikely union.

Think about it. This is a country with 15 distinct official languages, 400 dialects, yet has somehow become a single democracy that works.

Obviously, I'm fascinated by the story. I was born and raised in India. But I think you will be, too. And it's very well written.

Before we go, let me remind you about our foreign affairs quiz, which you can find on our Web page, cnn.com/gps. Test your knowledge by taking the Fareed Challenge. And while you're on the Web page, check out how you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.