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American Morning

Interview With Sen. Arlen Specter

Aired May 22, 2002 - 08:13   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: The FBI agent behind the now famous Phoenix memo is in Washington this morning for more meetings with key Senate leaders. And on Capitol Hill yesterday, Kenneth Williams told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee how he came to write the memo last July which warned that Arab terrorists might be training at U.S. flight schools. But the memo apparently never reached the highest levels of U.S. intelligence until after 9/11.

The 42-year-old Williams, a former policeman, is now in charge of the Bureau's Arizona counter-terrorism unit and some members of Congress want his memo made public.

Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, attended the meeting yesterday with FBI Agent Kenneth Williams and Bureau Chief Robert Mueller. He joins us this morning from Capitol Hill.

Welcome back, Senator. Good to see you again.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Good morning, Paula. Nice to be with you.

ZAHN: Now that you have had the chance to talk with Mr. Williams and Mr. Mueller, is this the smoking gun that some of the president's critics have been looking for, perhaps?

SPECTER: Well, I don't think that it's a smoking gun which is a problem for the president because the president, I think, acted entirely properly on the very generalized briefing he got last August the 6th. But I do think that the failure of the FBI to follow up on this Phoenix memo is a very, very serious matter.

When you put it in context with the evidence which led to the arrest of Moussaoui on August the 17th, well in advance of September 11, and you add to that the 1996 warnings which the FBI had from a Pakistani al Qaeda terrorist named Marad (ph) about flying into, flying a plane into the CIA headquarters or some other building in Washington, if you put all those pieces together, I don't say you could have prevented September 11, Paula, but there might have been some warning had it been handled properly.

ZAHN: Did you get a satisfactory answer yesterday from Mr. Mueller why, apparently, according to the "Washington Post," this memo was pretty much shoved in a case closed folder shortly after its receipt from Mr. Williams?

SPECTER: No. We did not get a satisfactory explanation and that is a matter which the Judiciary Committee has a duty to proceed as a matter of our constitutional responsibility on oversight. It is true that the Intelligence has been given the primary responsibility for investigating the intelligence failures of September 11, but the Judiciary Committee has a duty to oversee the reorganization which is currently under way and we have yet to trace precisely what happened to that Phoenix memorandum. We don't know why it got off the track.

ZAHN: There are various accounts of why, perhaps, the memo wasn't taken as seriously as it should have been. Some were saying that it was highly speculative, others saying the that FBI simply didn't have the resources to do nationwide interviews on Arab students learning to fly. Are any of those rational explanations as far as you're concerned?

SPECTER: Paula, neither of those will pass muster. The FBI has enormous resources. It's true that they have enormous responsibilities, but that's the management job to give priorities and there's nothing of a higher nature than counterintelligence. And when you talk about the speculative nature of the memorandum, I can't discuss with you the specifics, but there were very solid indicators.

And I say if you put it together with Moussaoui's arrest and what we learned from Marad back in 1996, most investigations have a bit of speculation in them. But that means you have to pursue the leads to move beyond speculation to find the facts. And the FBI did not do that.

ZAHN: So who should take the fall for it? If these very solid indicators are in this memo, and I know you say you can't share the specifics with us this morning, who should get the blame here?

SPECTER: I'm sorry, I didn't follow that last question, Paula.

ZAHN: Who should be blamed for this if, in fact, you've seen this memo -- and I know you're not allowed to share the specifics with us this morning. And I know you say it's still not clear why the memo wasn't given a greater deal of importance as it sort of moved up the food chain. Who should take the fall for this? Or are you suggesting anybody should take the fall?

SPECTER: Well, when you, Paula, when you talk about blame, it's not very constructive. What we really have to do is learn from what has happened in the past and try to correct it. Right now we are living under a very high state of alert. You have Director Mueller saying earlier this week that a suicide bomber is an inevitability. I question whether that's really a wise thing to say. It sort of gives the imprimatur that it's going to happen. And you have other people talking about nuclear attacks.

So that right now we ought to be focused on trying to figure out how to do it right.

ZAHN: Let me ask you this. Tom Friedman writes in the "New York Times" that he's kind of fed up with these alerts and he essentially says the administration is essentially "terrorizing America" with these repeated unspecified threats. Is that essentially what you're saying here this morning?

SPECTER: Well, that's a very, very difficult judgment call as to when to alert people and when not to. Obviously, if you call wolf too many times when the wolf comes to the door nobody is going to pay attention. But I would rely upon the administration's judgment on that. They have all the facts and there is a lot of concern that anything could happen at any time. That's the word we're getting. And we have asked whether there's anything specific. I have asked that question myself of the top administration officials and they concede that there is nothing specific. But there's a lot of conversation, there's a lot of talk, there's a lot of jabber, which is very similar, they say, to what happened right before September 11.

And if Americans are on the alert to see something suspicious -- I hear they closed the Brooklyn Bridge for a while this morning.

ZAHN: Yes, they did.

SPECTER: Well, OK, we're all on the alert and the problem is serious enough because we know al Qaeda is fanatical. We know they would use anything they could. Suicide bombers. If they had, nuclear. Whatever they had they would throw at us. So when the risk are that high, I think we ought to be on a high state of alert.

ZAHN: All right, Senator Arlen Specter, as always, good to see you. Thank you very much for your insights this morning.

SPECTER: Nice being with you again, Paula. Thank you.

ZAHN: My pleasure.

A quick footnote tour interview, according to a report in "Time" magazine, the FBI does not want to release that document, the Phoenix document, because two administration sources have told the magazine is dovetails or details a live investigation of at least two men believed to be tied to radical Islamic groups who are still at large in the United States.