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PAULA ZAHN NOW
Interview With Dan Bartlett; President Bush Meets the Press
Aired December 20, 2004 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm John King. Paula Zahn is away.
We begin tonight with "TIME" magazine's person of the year, President George W. Bush. It's the second time he was recognized. This year, he was picked for "TIME" calls his 10-gallon hat leadership style and for sticking to his guns literally and figuratively. Those qualities were on full display today during a rare formal news conference at the White House. The president put the difficult agenda for his second term in his own words.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here's the president.
KING (voice-over): The president was in a relaxed, even joking mood as he took questions from the White House press corps.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'd like to welcome all the new faces -- some prettier than others, I might add. But...
KING: There was a strong show of support for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who's been catching bipartisan flak for telling a soldier in Kuwait you go with the Army war you have, not the Army you want.
G. BUSH: And he's a good, decent man. He's a caring fellow.
You know, sometimes, perhaps, his demeanor is rough and gruff, but beneath that rough and gruff, no-nonsense demeanor is a good human being who cares deeply about the military and deeply about the grief that war causes.
KING: As for Iraq, the president acknowledged there are mixed results right now, but says his strategy is clear.
G. BUSH: The strategy is to work to provide security for a political process to go forward. The strategy is to help rebuild Iraq. And the strategy is to train Iraqis so they can fight off the thugs and the killers and the terrorists who want to destroy the progress of a free society.
Now, I would call the results mixed in terms of standing up Iraqi units who are willing to fight. There have been some cases where, when the heat got on, they left the battlefield. That's unacceptable.
KING: On domestic issues, President Bush said Congress has a duty to fix Social Security now.
G. BUSH: The system goes into the red.
In other words, there's more money going out than coming in in 2018. There is an unfunded liability of $11 trillion. And I understand how this works. You know, many times legislative bodies will not react unless the crisis is apparent, crisis is upon them. I believe the crisis is. And so, for a period of time, we're going to have to explain to members of Congress the crisis is here. It's a lot less painful to act now than if we wait.
KING: The president was especially passionate when asked about immigration reform, reminding reporters of his days as governor of Texas.
G. BUSH: You know, I know what it means to have mothers and fathers come to my state and across the border of my state to work. Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River, is what I used to tell the people of my state.
People are coming to put food on the table. They're doing jobs Americans will not do. This is a system that can be much better. And I'm passionate on it because the nature of this country is one that is good-hearted
KING: Today's news conference was good-hearted with plenty of bantering back and forth with the press corps.
G. BUSH: Let's have somebody new.
Mike, you want -- no, you're not new.
G. BUSH: That is a cheap shot. Go ahead. That is generous.
QUESTION: Thank you.
KING: What may be the president's last news conference of 2004 ended with a heartfelt wish and one final joke.
G. BUSH: Thank you all very much. I wish everybody -- truly wish everybody a happy holidays.
G. BUSH: For those of you coming to Crawford, I look forward to not seeing you down there.
KING: And so it ended, the 14th solo White House news conference of the Bush presidency, the fewest of any first-term president in 50 years.
And while he's getting a second term, the latest polls indicate the president may not be getting much of a honeymoon. A brand new CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll has the president's approval rating at 49 percent, down from 55 percent just last month; 46 percent of those polled disapprove oft way the president is handling his job.
Earlier this afternoon, I sat down with White House communications director Dan Bartlett. And I began by asking him about the increased criticism of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld by some senior Republicans.
DAN BARTLETT, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, John, I think just as the number of people you may have mentioned who are Republicans, there are three or four for each one who've come out and supported Secretary Rumsfeld.
I think what President Bush said this afternoon or this morning was the fact is, is that being secretary of defense during peacetime is a very difficult job. And it's even that much more difficult during a time of war. And during a time of war, you're going to have good days. You're going to have bad days. But President Bush believes that Secretary Rumsfeld has the capacity and the qualities you want leading the secretary -- our nation's forces during a time of war.
KING: The president had very high personal praise of the secretary, too, the type of man he is behind what the president called I think a gruff demeanor sometimes.
But there has been this heat over the weekend about the use of a machine, an auto-pen, essentially, to sign to these letters to family members of troops killed in Iraq. The president didn't ask that part of the question when he was asked whether that was appropriate or not. Is it, in your judgment?
BARTLETT: Well, I think, by the actions they are taking, they are demonstrating that they are going to change the policy and Secretary Rumsfeld is going to sign them himself. And I think what President Bush was talking about is, beyond just the signing or not of the letter, what does it say about the man?
And he's had the opportunity over the course of the last four years to take the measure of the man. And he sees somebody who is very compassionate, somebody who cares deeply about those troops we send overseas.
KING: Let's talk about Iraq policy for a minute, which I think, in some ways, is one of the reasons people target Secretary Rumsfeld, if you will, is because they don't like this, that, or something else about Iraq policy or they are frustrated.
The president I thought today was unusually, for him, candid in talking about a problem in Iraq, when he was talking about the Iraqi army, saying, yes, it's very mixed results, and some of it is unacceptable to him. Why?
BARTLETT: The president has talked specifically to this.
One thing that you have to take into consideration is that the very people who are intimidating those for not participating in the future of Iraq and particularly those who are trying to participate in the security of their country are the same people who are doing it to them for the last 30 years. These are the people who are intimidating, killing their family member, putting them in prison, and that has an effect over time.
If you've grown up under that type of tyranny and that type of oppression and that type of -- use of intimidation, that's not going to be overcome overnight. What President Bush also talked about is the need to make sure that there's a command structure in place, so when the guy out on the field who is kicking in the door knows that he's reporting back up to an Iraqi chain of command, to an Iraqi general, to an Iraqi colonel. And that's very critical. And that's something that's been lacking.
KING: And the generals say some of this help from the former Saddam loyalists is coming to Syria. I tried to ask the president about that. I understand it's delicate diplomacy. But have the consequences been made clear to the Syrian government; if you do not stop this, this will happen?
BARTLETT: There's absolutely been messages sent from our government and from others that we take this matter very seriously. Those neighbors who are not looking for out for the best interests of Iraq should not meddle in Iraq's affairs.
It's important that the neighborhood and the international community come together to make sure that democracy is successful. But if that's not your goal and that's not your aim, if in fact you're actively working against it, what -- there are some reports, as President Bush said, that there may be some old Saddam loyalists or Baathists who are located in Syria that may be funding or providing other means of support. We need to do something about it.
And we're working very aggressively with the Syrians and with others in the region to do just that.
KING: Several people I work with were struck after the news conference. This may be a legacy of the first term, if you will. You had to deal with the September 11 attacks and the war on terrorism. The president was discussing the effort to find Osama bin Laden and he was applauding the government in Pakistan.
And he talked about them capturing and killing people affiliated with al Qaeda, said it quite casually. I know the president doesn't view killing quite casually. But is that, in a way, the legacy of the first term, that the word just rolls off his tongue?
BARTLETT: I don't think it's a legacy of the first term. It's a legacy of the nature of the world we live in the post-9/11 environment. The bottom line is, is that there are trained killers who received training in Afghanistan over the course of the last decade, tens of thousands of people who are now bent on the destruction of the United States and anybody who allies themselves with the type of values that we hold so true.
And what President Bush is recognizing, when you're in a war, some aspect of that war is, you have to get them before they get us. And I think he's just stating a fact as we all know it, unfortunately, in such vivid ways in the post-9/11 world.
KING: And Dan Bartlett told me that President Bush fully understands he can't store his political capital. He needs to spend it before it expires. Bartlett said look for the president to act on his beliefs with speed and with conviction.
In tonight's PZN meter, we'd like to know what you think of "TIME" magazine's choice. Go to CNN.com/Paula and tell us, do you think President Bush was a good choice for "TIME" magazine's person of year? We'll show you the results a bit later.
And there's still a lot more to come on PAULA ZAHN NOW, including the threat to America from sea to shining sea.
KING: Tonight, our CNN "Security Watch," the nuclear threat in American ports.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The amount of plutonium you would need for a nuclear bomb would fit easily in a coke can.
KING: How could you find a bomb inside of any one 18 million truck-sized cargo containers?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that is the Trojan horse.
KING: And a Christmas story, how an American soldier far from home 60 years ago became Santa Claus to a small town's children, why he keeps going back.
All that and more ahead on PAULA ZAHN,NOW.
KING: It was one of the biggest surprises of this election; 22 percent of our nation's voters called moral values the most important issue. And 80 percent of those voters went for President Bush.
George W. Bush's religious faith is a vital aspect of his presidency. And, recently, I explored this matter of faith for "CNN PRESENTS." (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
G. BUSH: Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war. And we know that God is not neutral between them.
KING (voice-over): He is a president who sees the war on terror as good versus evil. And counts God as an ally.
G. BUSH: We can trust in that greater power who guides the unfolding of the years.
KING: A president who also sees too many walls between religion and government.
G. BUSH: We stand for the fair treatment of faith-based groups so they can receive federal support for their works of compassion and healing.
BARTLETT: Extending compassion through his faith-based initiative and other initiatives to those who may feel like they are being left behind. This is a real gut issue for him. It is something that he feels very passionate about.
KING: One moment in the first campaign, made clear a Bush presidency would be very different.
QUESTION: What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with, and why?
G. BUSH: Christ. Because he changed my heart.
KING: A rebirth of faith, he says also changed his life.
G. BUSH: I know first hand what it takes to quit drinking. And it takes something other than a textbook or a manual. If you can change a person's heart, you can change their life.
KING: God is on the dollar, in the Pledge of Allegiance, and intertwined from the beginning with American history and politics.
MICHAEL GERSON, DIRECTOR OF PRESIDENTIAL SPEECHWRITING: People of faith were behind the abolition movement, and the civil rights movement. And every movement of conscience in the history of our country. People of faith bring an element of conscience to political debates that should be welcomed. And the president has certainly welcomed that role.
KING: Each day begins and ends in prayer. And Mr. Bush is known to quietly reflect before emerging for major speeches and news conferences.
STAN GREENBERG, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: And as people who have worked in the White House describe it as an evangelical White House. There is a whole evangelical feel about the place. And that is the center. That is their identity. That is what they believe. KING: Like most everything about this president, his faith can be a dividing line. Some see an effort to tip or trample a delicate historical balance.
BARRY LYNN, AMERICANS UNITED FOR SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE: Government and religious bodies both have a place in the American system. But it is not the same place. And politicians I think, do a great disservice to both the church and to the state when they merge the two.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are going to say a prayer. So let's bow our heads before God. Shall we?
KING: But to others, including religious conservatives critical to his political success, Mr. Bush is restoring faith to it's proper place.
KEVIN PHILLIPS, AUTHOR, "AMERICAN DYNASTY": I think a lot of Americans feel the line was drawn too far against religion. And they don't mind seeing the envelope pushed a little bit.
G. BUSH: Since America's founding, prayers reassured us that the hand of God is guiding the affairs of this nation.
KING: To some, a welcome and natural expression of faith. To others, too close to claiming God's blessing.
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: I don't want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side.
MELISSA ROGERS, WAKE FOREST UNIVERSITY: The question becomes, well does that suggest to some people, that if God is controlling history, and this is a part of history, does that tend to suggest that these policies might be unassailable?
KING: Those close to him bristle at the suggestion Mr. Bush believes his presidency is a religious calling.
LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY: You know. It is just a very important part of our life. My husband has never said -- I think this is some extrapolation from his critics, maybe that he felt like he was called to this. He has never said such a thing.
GERSON: He wants the public square to be welcoming to people of faith. But not sectarian, favoring one faith above another. And we try to keep that balance in the way that we communicate.
G. BUSH: Freedom isn't America's gift to the world. Freedom is the almighty God's gift to every man and woman in this world.
KING: Invoking God's name, reassuring or alarming. Again, a divide.
PHILLIPS: The relationship of the religious right with George W. Bush has been honed for almost 20 years now. Based on his showing them personal religiosity.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let us pray.
PHILLIPS: But prayer, the language, the desire to be around these people, to partake of what is important to them with them.
G. BUSH: We ought to welcome faith-based programs. And we ought to fund faith-based programs.
ROGERS: It was James Madison who said something like, that we should not use religion as an engine of civil policy. So it calls into question some of the use of religion in a sort of utilitarian fashion to accomplish goals of public policy.
LAURA BUSH: You know, our Bill of Rights says that we believe that these are the rights that we were given by our creator. And it is just a fact of life in American that many people find their faith to be very important to them. And certainly both of us do that.
KING: How will the president's faith affect us all in a second term? I'll ask a minister who has worked closely with the president next.
And later, CNN "Security Watch." Could a cargo container hide a terrorist nuclear weapon?
Stay with us.
KING: To understand the faith of George W. Bush, it helps to understand the men and women who have faith in George W. Bush.
During the campaign, one those was Reverend Joe Watkins, who's made it his mission to convince African-Americans that George Bush speaks to them.
Reverend Watkins, welcome.
REV. JOE WATKINS, FORMER BUSH CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Thanks, John.
KING: We're about to go into a second Bush term.
KING: And he was reelected with a majority, 51 percent. To him, that is great, when you're trying to govern. But 48 percent, almost 49 percent of the American people voted against him. As the president tries to unify the country, where does faith come into play?
WATKINS: Well, I think faith plays a large role. Remember, again, 22 percent of those who voted on Election Day said that the most important thing to them were moral values. And 80 percent of those folks voted for George Bush. Now, there are a lot of other folks who like what George Bush is doing, especially from a faith standpoint. And a large number of those people would be African-Americans who are churchgoers, who are believers.
KING: Why didn't they vote for him, then? You say that. And your job, part of your helping the Bush campaign was to reach out to African-Americans.
WATKINS: Yes, part of it was.
KING: I think 8 or 9 percent..
WATKINS: Well, we did better. We got double digits this time. We would have done a lot better had it not been for the massive effort by some of the other lobbyists, who tried to demonize this president.
But, clearly, this president speaks to the hearts of so many Americans. And I love what he's doing from a faith standpoint. He's living his faith. He's not wearing it on his sleeve, but he's living it.
KING: You say he's not wearing it on his sleeve.
KING: But, in many of the debates that could just come ahead, his faith will be analyzed closely by those watching.
WATKINS: Of course.
KING: One of them is the Supreme Court and the abortion debate.
WATKINS: Well, you know what he said about the Supreme Court. He said that what he's looking for are impartial umpires who strictly construct the Constitution. And so he doesn't have a litmus test as such. Many people are trying to accuse the president of having a litmus test. He doesn't have one.
KING: But, as a Christian, do you believe that, as a personal goal, overturning Roe v. Wade?
WATKINS: Well, many Christians, many of us do. Many of us, of course, want to see that overturned, of course.
And the president has been strongly pro-life throughout. What I like about him is that he doesn't run away from the tough issues. A lot of politicians to stay elected or to get elected or to get reelected will sometimes take the temperature of the American public. And then, once they have taken that temperature, then they will take a stance.
This president has been consistent about all the issues that matter, certainly all of the social issues that matter.
KING: Another issue, of course, that he spoke of in the campaign that could well come up again is, should there be a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage?
Now, the president's religion tells him homosexuality is a sin. In his problem remarks, the president have been very careful to say that there are sinners among all of us, that he himself is a sinner. How do you walk that line between pushing what you believe personally and pushing a public policy he believes in without offending a great number of people?
WATKINS: Well, I don't think he's trying to offend anybody.
What I like about him is that he realizes that he is supposed to love everybody. And I think he does. And, at the same time, he's true to what his beliefs are. His beliefs tell him, according to the scriptures, that marriage is between a man and a woman. And if you recall, last fall, when that was in its apex, a lot of African- American ministers came out to support him because they agreed with him as well on that whole issue.
KING: There are a number of cynics out there who say that this president played up his faith in the first term because he knew how important social and religious conservatives were to his reelection. And many of them believe that we won't see it as much in the second term, that it was all for politics.
WATKINS: I disagree. This is sincere. This comes from here, from his heart.
This a belief that is sincere. This man underwent a change when he made a commitment to serve God. And you are going to see it in the second term, just like you saw it in the first term. It's going to continue. He's going to be very, very consistent.
KING: How do you -- help me navigate the line. When you say right and wrong, come from your faith and your belief in God and you speak of them as if they are absolutes, there are others, of course, who disagree, whether it's a policy matter or a religious matter.
WATKINS: Well, of course, a lot of policy matters aren't clear with regards to the issue of faith.
If you look at Social Security reform, for instance, what is the right position for somebody of faith to have on that one? This is a president who is consistent. Now, he could again escape that issue and say, you know what? It is not going to be until the year 2018 that the system begins to have problems. But, instead, he's tackling it now. It's a toughie. And he's tackling it now. I think that's right thing to do. This is a guy who is all about doing the right thing.
KING: In this Christmas season, what is the right thing for a president, when you see, as we do every year, attacks and criticism of public money, other public displays of Christianity, Christmas as a religious holiday? A lot of people say the government, any taxpayer money, any government sanction should have nothing to do with that, because that's a religious choice. What's the role of the president or is there a role in the president?
WATKINS: Well, I think the president leads by example.
And this is a president who understands strongly the separation between church and state. He knows there's a separation between church and state. But, at the same time, he thinks it's important to lead by example and his example's been a very, very strong one. He, like the founding father, knows that our heritage is a Judeo-Christian heritage and he has a firm faith in God. And he lets that show on a regular basis. I love that about him.
KING: Reverend Joe Watkins, we thank you for your time.
WATKINS: Thanks, John.
KING: Have a great holiday.
Now let's check in with my colleague Aaron Brown and find out what is coming up tonight on "NEWSNIGHT" -- Aaron.
AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, John.
The pain in painkillers these days. We've had Vioxx, Bextra, Celebrex the other day. We'll talk with the CEO of Pfizer about their decision to stop marketing the drug to consumers, though not to stop selling the drug. And then, late today, the drug that makes up Aleve, another popular painkiller, gets a new warning, too. Not a good time to be in pain.
That and much more on "NEWSNIGHT" tonight -- John.
KING: Aaron, thank you very much.
And next, a chilling report on how easy it may be to smuggle a nuclear bomb into our nation's seaports.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This would make 9/11 seem like a toothache.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: In our CNN "Security Watch," what's being done to track the millions of cargo containers that come into the United States?
KING: On tonight's CNN "Security Watch," a frightening look at just how vulnerable we are to a future terror attack using nuclear weapons.
While security has been beefed up at our nation's airports, many experts say our seaports are far from safe, and they point to the thousands of shipping containers coming to our shores with few people tracking them.
So just how easy would it be to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States?
Here's David Mattingly.
DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Macao, a small island in the south China Sea. Once a Portuguese colony, now controlled by China. For decades, Macao has been the seedy underbelly of Asia. A steamy, neon splattered gateway to the international under world. It's a place where, Chinese gangs came to spread violence and North Korean spies learned how to operate in the west. Today it is a place where tourists come to test their luck in the casinos, and to satisfy other urges in the arms of prostitutes. But look more deeply into the shadows and some say you will likely find a base of operations. For a sophisticated North Korean smuggling network, that in the past, moved drug, counterfeit money, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
MATTHEW BUNN, HARVARD KENNEDY SCHOOL OF GOV.: North Korea is a country that has a history of selling any weapon it had to virtually anyone who would buy.
MATTINGLY: So could a terrorist group come to Macao shopping for nuclear material, and would the North Koreans sell it to them? The experts who study the nuclear threat hear the answer could be yes. In fact, they say the transaction would be surprisingly simple. A North Korean agent, operating virtually unnoticed, slips into one of the hundreds of bars. He meets an al Qaeda middleman. He makes an exchange. Then the al Qaeda operative heads into the night, getting lost amongst the tourist and the prostitutes on the prowl. All it takes is a small bag like this, big enough to easily hold enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium to incinerate the core of an American city.
BUNN: The amount of plutonium you would need for a nuclear bomb would fit easily in a Coke can.
MATTINGLY: Matthew bond studies the security or insecurity of the world's nuclear material.
BUNN: It is very plausible that a well organized and sophisticated terrorist group may be able to put together at least a crude nuclear bomb.
GRAM ALLISON, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: If we simply keep doing what we're doing today, the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack within the decade is more likely than not.
MATTINGLY: Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and former Defense Department official warns in a new book that we're dangerously vulnerable to a terrorist nuclear attack.
ALLISON: No even like this has happened in American history. This would make 9/11 seem like a tooth ache.
MATTINGLY: Steve Flynn has been studying for years, long before 9/11, how terrorists might attack the U.S. with a weapons of mass destruction.
STEPHEN FLYNN, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Reality is the Central Intelligence Agency said the more likely way a weapons of mass destruction will come into the United States is in a ship. And likely to be in a shipping container.
MATTINGLY: Most about the size of a typical truck trailer, containers like these are of vehicle of choice on the super highway of international of trade. The busiest container port in the world is Hong Kong, just an hour away from Macao. Despite many efforts made by U.S. and other governments and private industry since 9/11, experts like Flynn say containers are America's Achilles's heel.
FLYNN: There are between 16 and 18 million containers world wide, where anybody can get a contain container, order it to their home or work place, they can load it up. You close it off. You put a 50 cent lead seal with a number on it, and then you hand it to a transportation provider, somebody you may otherwise invite into your home.
MATTINGLY: Flynn's new book "America the Vulnerable" is a stark warning.
(on camera): On a scale of 1 to 10, how prepared are we for that attack?
FLYNN: We were, on 9/11, a one, and today we may be getting up to a three. We've got a very long way to go.
MATTINGLY (voice-over): The U.S. government admits there was a problem, but says it is moving quickly to fix it.
TOM RIDGE, OUTGOING HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: In the past, efforts to secure this vast global industry both here and in the United States and throughout the world were isolated, they were scattered and they were uncoordinated. The United States and the United States Coast Guard recognizes this problem and took a specific actions to secure our homeland and the global economy.
MATTINGLY: But despite these effort, Steve Flynn and others argue containers could still be the poor man's nuclear missile.
(on camera): Will we ever know what's in all of those boxes?
JOHN MEREDITH, HUTCHISON PORT HOLDINGS: No, I don't think you -- you'll never know for certainty on every single container. This one of the old cameras or one of the new ones?
MATTINGLY: John Meredith knows more boxes than anyone else in the world, 44 million a year. He's the managing director of Hutchison Port Holdings, the largest port operator in the world with 44 facilities in 17 countries. And Meredith is very worried about what could be put into one of those boxes.
MEREDITH: So many millions and millions and millions of products are coming -- flowing into the country, and no one at the moment is tracing where they came from and tracking how they got there.
MATTINGLY: Meredith says companies like his are ready and able to improve container security. With devices like X-ray, machines radio seals on containers, and radio logical detectors. But he says, the U.S. government needs to set a uniform standard for all companies shipping containers into U.S. port. There's no one person or one agency in charge. Responsibility for container security lies across multiple agencies.
MEREDITH: The ports are now secured. But what is not secured is the supply chain. The movement of the boxes through the system and that is the Trojan horse.
MATTINGLY: And if the Trojan horse, a nuclear device hidden inside a container were detonated, ports would shut down and so would the global economy.
FLYNN: If you shut those down for a period of two to three week, we shut down the global trade system. That's what we're talking about playing with here.
KING: That was our David Mattingly.
It's the busiest port in the United States, could a nuclear bomb get through? The port of Los Angeles? I'll ask the man in charge, L.A.'s counterterrorism chief when we come back.
KING: Tonight, in our "Security Watch," we're focusing on the safety of America's seaports and on the millions of shipping containers that come to the United States each year.
The ports that get the most containers from overseas are in Los Angeles and nearby Long Beach. Together, they handle more than nine million containers a year, with cargo worth more than $200 billion.
In those containers, just about every consumer product you could imagine: shoes, toys, clothes, electronics. And with so many containers, how you can keep a terrorist from smuggling in a bomb?
Joining me from Los Angeles is one man who faces that challenge every day. John Miller is the L.A. Police Department's chief of counterterrorism and criminal intelligence. In a previous life, as a journalist, in Afghanistan, John six years ago interviewed Osama bin Laden.
John Miller, thank you for joining us.
Let me ask with this basic question, I just heard a very chilling report from David Mattingly. How confident are you that your port will not be used essentially as a delivery mechanism as a terrorist attack?
JOHN MILLER, LAPD CHIEF OF COUNTERTERRORISM: I'm as confident as any port.
There is no such thing as total security. I don't think we can live in a panacea and say this can never happen.
As you point out, nine million containers a year go through the port of Los Angeles and Long Beach. It's third largest port on Earth, the largest in the United States. That's always going to be a factor.
Now, great strides have been made. Department of Homeland Security through the container security initiative has put people forward in other ports and other countries to prescreen many of these containers before they get here. They try to screen 100 percent of everything that they, through intelligence or analysis, believe they want to look at. And that's a tall order.
But even that is less than three percent of the total containers coming towards the country. So sure it's an issue.
But, John, you have to look at two things. One, there could be a truck bomb in every truck in the highway. Do we search every truck? No, we don't. The probability is there isn't.
And No. 2, if we searched every container, coming into every port, we could guarantee that there was no threat coming through, but we would have strangled world trade, decimated the U.S. economy, and damaged the world economy. In that way, the terrorists win anyway.
So I think they've made great strides in doing better.
KING: Well -- in that balance, though, John, you need partners overseas, the ones who are testing those containers. Help us understand. Are there good guys and bad guys or eager guys and reluctant guys, if you will, to be more aggressive in these inspections overseas? And if you could, name names; name countries.
MILLER: Well, I don't think I need to get that far down into the weeds. That's really a function for customs and border patrol, border control to do that.
But what I would say is, obviously the places where we have the teams, the 30-odd ports are places that have agreed to be cooperative. And there's that.
As the piece pointed out, there may come a time when there's U.S. legislation, and this won't be overnight, that sets a standard for what will be allowed into the country in terms of prescreening. We're certainly not there yet.
And there has not yet been such an attack through the use of a container into an American port as of yet. The closest thing we've seen to it was in Israel, where they actually smuggled a terrorist team of actual human beings in to do a portside attack.
The other question is, a lot of this is focused on the weapons of mass destruction, on the self-contained nuclear device. There are still real questions as to whether al Qaeda or any other terrorist group actually has the capability to build one of these devices.
KING: In the piece you just mentioned, Stephen Flynn of the Council of Foreign Relations says on 9/11, he would have scored a one, and now after the Homeland Security Department may be place for some time and the government has been reorganized, he would say only a three.
You agree with that assessment? Has not more progress been made?
MILLER: I would say that there's been a thousand percent improvement, and I'd give that to DHS. I would say they've done a remarkable job of getting from one to 1,000 percent improvement, but when you're only screening three percent of the material, that still gives you a pretty wide gap.
Now granted, they're screening almost 100 percent of the material they flag. Meaning, it's not coming from a widely known shipper. It's coming from a suspect port. It's coming from a place where we are not sure we're satisfied with the security.
Those are the ones that are being targeted for thermal screening and X-rays and so on. That's a thousand percent improvement from almost nothing.
KING: In your view, is the government fighting the wrong war, if you will, dedicating all this money to aviation security because of the nature of the 9/11 attacks and perhaps not dedicating enough resources to ports and containers?
MILLER: Well, the port of Los Angeles and I think it's important to note, Los Angeles is urban area is going to receive $70 million from the federal government in counterterrorism money this year, double what it got last year.
Separate from that, the port of Los Angeles is receiving tens of millions of dollars. What we'd like to see is more regularity in that money, rather than having to apply for all of those grants to get funding to get the kind of money we could actually budget and hire personnel and things like that. Those would be improvements.
But I can't fault them for not stepping up to the plate. They've done some remarkable jobs in terms of funding us. We'll never say we have enough, but I have to give them credit for how far they've come.
KING: John, I will ask you to stand by for just a second and, if you will, have a flashback to your prior life. I want you to listen to something the president said today when he was asked, as he often is when he does meet with reporters, what he knows about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If I had to guess, I would guess that Osama bin Laden is in a remote region on the Afghan-Pakistan border. But I don't have to guess at the damage we have done to his organization.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Get the assessment from you, John, on what you make of the president's remark?
MILLER: I would -- I'd disagree with him a little. But I'd be guessing, too. I would say that bin Laden is more likely to be in a medium size to small-size city, where he has the resources of phones, faxes, computers and so on to run his organization as best he can.
I would agree that in that September 11, 2001, to date, al Qaeda has failed to launch a significant terrorist attack in the United States. Even if they do so tomorrow, their inability to do it within three or four years demonstrates they're not the organization they were before this administration took them on.
KING: John Miller, thank you very much for your time tonight.
MILLER: Thank you, Mr. King.
KING: Take care.
And stay tuned to CNN, day and night for the most reliable news about your security.
Next, an American soldier fighting a war overseas. And how he changed the lives of children for generations. A modern-day Christmas story when we come back.
KING: Now, a truly remarkable story of an American G.I. who brought Christmas to a tiny town in Europe as the allies began the final push to victory in World War II.
But that one Christmas wasn't the end of the story, and as Tom Foreman tells us, he's become a hero to those who remember and a wonder to the youngest.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the little country of Luxembourg on Germany's western border, a big parade rolls along. Candy for the good children, switches for the bad parents, and a miracle in the middle. For 60 years, American Dick Brookins has been St. Nicholas here.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's really great.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My grandparents saw him in the plaza. Now I'm here to see Santa Claus again. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That is the America we love so much.
FOREMAN: It all started in December 1944, as allied soldiers pushed the German army toward Berlin in the end of World War II. Dick Brookins' unit liberated the tiny town of Wiltz, Luxembourg.
DICK BROOKINS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: People here were delighted and happy to be free, but they were very unhappy because St. Nicholas Day was coming and the children, they had nothing for the children. One of us said, "Why don't we have a Christmas party for these kids?" So, gee, that sounded like a good idea.
FOREMAN: The soldiers collected all the candy, gum and cookies sent from home. Dick Brookins went to a local church, where nuns dressed him in the bishops' robes to play St. Nick and this film from so long ago shows what happened next.
BROOKINS: I was driven to a public school, and they brought the children out into the outdoor yard, and then they lined the kids up and gave them some of this candy and cookies. There was no ability to converse because there was no English understood, but somehow we've managed to get the feel for what was going on.
And those kids didn't know this was an American soldier that is St. Nicholas, OK, the youngest kids. Some of those children had not even had a St. Nicholas Day because they were, like, 3, 4 years old, and it hadn't occurred for almost five years.
FOREMAN: That joy did not last. Within days the soldiers were swept into the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive of the war. The Americans suffered 80,000 casualties.
In the gunfire, Christmas was forgotten.
But not in Wiltz. Thirty years after the war, Dick Brookins received a call at his home in the states. Was he the man who played St. Nick? Could he come do it again?
BROOKINS: I have just as many butterflies now as the first time.
FOREMAN: Because in Wiltz, every year since the war's end, the town had marked the day and remembered the long lost American St. Nick.
BROOKINS: Hearing about this after 30 years, I was just dumb founded.
FOREMAN: Brookins did go back and has returned again and again to lead the parade, to hand out the candy.
BROOKINS: Well, as it has turned out, this was one of -- one of the greatest things that have ever happened to them. It represented their freedom, their liberation, the restoration of their life.
FOREMAN: As it was in the war, the celebration is colored with sadness. Some of the soldiers who brought Christmas back to Wiltz are here forever. Dick Brookins comes to the American cemetery every time...
BROOKINS: I think it's the next one.
FOREMAN: ... to the grave of his best friend, Eddie Stein.
BROOKINS: I come here out of respect and care, and it gets me every time. I'm still alive and he's gone. These are the heroes, 5,000, some, in the cemetery.
FOREMAN: But mostly his trips here are happy affairs, time for awards from a grateful town.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I hope we will put this fire in the hearts of our children and so, these festivities and St. Nick will come to Wiltz for years and years and years.
FOREMAN: Time to meet the children of long ago. Grandparents now.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Congratulations.
FOREMAN: And time to greet the children of today.
BROOKINS: What's this one's name?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's Johann, Johann (ph).
BROOKINS: And it seems there is always time enough. Dick Brookins is in his 80s, but St. Nick is timeless and forever loved in the streets of Wiltz.
KING: Remarkable story. A holiday gift from our Tom Foreman. And we'll be right back with some late-night laughs.
KING: Before the late-night comics called it a week, they found a little time to work in a few more zingers at the expense of President Bush. Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Good news. President Bush had his annual checkup, you know, and he passed the physical with flying colors. No word yet on the mental part of the test!
But the one thing that his body fat is up 18 percent. So he's starting to balloon a little bit. And to give you an idea of how heavy that is, if he were a woman, Bill Clinton would hit on him! That's right.
JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": And yesterday, in his speech, President Bush said that even though our society's too litigious, legitimate claims should be adjudicated.
Then the Secret Service grabbed him by the lapel and said, "All right, you bastard, what have you done with the real President Bush? Come on, he never would have said adjudicated."
In the same speech President Bush said this nation must never settle for mediocrity, and then he had Dick Cheney finish off the rest of the speech.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: And now the results of tonight's "PZN Meter." We asked if you think President Bush was a good choice for "TIME" magazine's Person of the Year. Thirty-six percent said yes; 64 percent said no.
Remember, that's in a scientific poll, just a glimpse of how visitors to our web site feel.
Thanks for joining us tonight. Tomorrow, when it comes to medical care, are women second-class patients? "LARRY KING LIVE" is next. His guest, the Rev. Robert Schuller in his first TV interview since the suicide at his Crystal Cathedral.
We'll see you tomorrow night. Good night.
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