(NBC "Today" Interview)
Couric: On Close-up this morning, the Bush administration and the terror warnings. As we've been reporting, controversy is swirling about what the president knew about threats from al Qaeda and what could have been done about them before September 11th.
Donald Rumsfeld is the secretary of Defense. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us this morning.
Rumsfeld: Thank you.
Couric: Certainly you've heard about all the controversy, with Dick Gephardt asking what the president knew and when he knew it. Many newspapers across the country are focused on this story. What is your reaction that the Bush administration perhaps did not act quickly enough or efficaciously enough when it came to warnings that some kind of terrorist attack might occur on this country?
Rumsfeld: Well, I think, when all the dust settles, the American people will know the truth. And the truth is that every day there are numerous threat warnings -- the walk-ins off the street, pieces or scraps of intelligence collected by the FBI, pieces of information that are gathered by the Central Intelligence Agency in one way or another. And they are then looked at and sorted and sifted.
And what has to be done is to recognize that when you're all through sifting all of those, some, a very small number, prove to be actionable. That is to say, there's sufficiently specific information that someone can do something about it.
And, needless to say, when that happens, someone does do something about it and they make an effort to either alert people, which we do in the Pentagon -- for example, if we have a threat warning in the Middle East, we alert the combatant commander there, and he then puts his forces on a different alert level. And there are procedures for that taking place.
The vast majority of the reports and scraps of information that come in tend to be eventually discounted as not being valid or, at the minimum, not being actionable.
Couric: But there's some feeling, Mr. Secretary, that some warnings were not properly heeded by the powers that be; for example, the FBI memo that was written or the FBI agent who warned about people training at U.S. flight schools, about foreigners doing that back in July. There were other memos and sort of more generic CIA briefings. Should these things have been taken in toto, and should more have been done as a result of these things?
Rumsfeld: Well, I wasn't aware of the FBI information that you mentioned until it showed up in the press very recently, so I can't speak to how valid it might have been at that time. But it seems to me that the information is collected, it is collated, and judgments are made and warnings are issued.
And a great many events that would otherwise have occurred, terrorist activities, are, in fact, stopped; one very recently. We gathered some information in Afghanistan in a building that ended up stopping a terrorist act in Singapore within a matter of days thereafter, where the terrorists had planned to attack a U.S. ship, a U.S. building and a Singapore facility, and it was stopped. So there are a great many things that are stopped.
The advantage a terrorist has is a terrorist can attack at any time at any place using any conceivable technique, and it is not physically possible to defend in every place, at every moment of the day or night, against every conceivable technique. So --
Couric: But is it possible, Mr. Secretary, to have better coordination among all the agencies who might be getting these bits and pieces and scraps of information so they can join forces and prevent something like this happening in the future?
Rumsfeld: Well --
Couric: It's pretty disconcerting and unsettling that some of these warnings, albeit disparate, were surfacing prior to September 11th.
Rumsfeld: Well, you can be certain -- the American people can be certain, which is what's important, that the changes that have taken place over the past year or two -- as the threats have increased, the warnings have increased -- have been substantial and that the caution and the heightened awareness and the steps that have been taken at airports, the steps that have been taken by the FBI and the CIA, all are contributing to a safer circumstance for the American people.
But even that does not suggest that there cannot be a terrorist event somewhere, someplace in the world. And I suspect there will be. That's just the nature of the world we live in. That's why President Bush is focusing on the right thing, and that is to go after the global terrorist networks where they are and to go after the countries that are harboring those terrorists. That is really the only way to defend against terrorism.
Couric: What do you think about congressional hearings and Dick Cheney's comments that the Democrats should not make political hay with this? Because it's not just Democrats; Richard Shelby, a Republican of Alabama, talked about getting to the bottom of this yesterday on our program.
Rumsfeld: I'm not familiar with the remarks you're referring to.
Couric: Well, he basically said that an investigation was warranted to find out why more action wasn't taken.
Rumsfeld: He being the vice president?
Couric: No, this is Dick Shelby of Alabama, Senator Shelby.
Rumsfeld: Sure, he's on the Intelligence Committee, and the Congress has oversight responsibility. And certainly that's perfectly appropriate.
Couric: Let me ask you quickly about the Crusader program. The House of Representatives has already approved a $475 million budget for the Crusader program, which President Bush requested. If the Senate votes for the money, are you afraid you're going to be stuck with a weapon system you don't really want?
Rumsfeld: Well, it's happened before in history. But I think in this case it won't happen. I think that the American people recognize that it's time to transform our military, that we need to take steps.
It's always tough to cancel a weapon program. There are a lot of supporters for it -- the companies that make it, the districts it's made in. And we understand that; it's not an easy thing to do. But we intend to proceed and terminate the Crusader program. And I think, when the dust settles, that's what will happen.
Couric: All right. Well, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; again, Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for talking with us this morning. We really appreciate it.
Rumsfeld: Thank you.