BBC NewsAndrew Marr Show


Page last updated at 09:56 GMT, Sunday, 14 December 2008

Terrorists and WMD

On Sunday 14 December, Andrew Marr interviewed Michael Chertoff, US Homeland Security Secretary

Please note 'The Andrew Marr Show' must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

The US Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff discuss his biggest fears.

Michael Chertoff
Michael Chertoff, US Homeland Security Secretary

ANDREW MARR: Now then, Michael Chertoff made his name taking on some of the mafia's biggest bosses, taking them off America's streets.

But for the last three years, he's been faced with an even bigger challenge than that.

He's the man in charge of US homeland security, responsible for keeping America safe from terrorists. In many ways, he has succeeded: America has not faced another 9/11.

But there have been, I think it's safe to say, some questions about some of the methods used to keep the country safe.

Mr Chertoff joins me now. Welcome.

Overall, looking back, because it's a looking back moment now, I suppose, the wars, the huge number of people dead and the limitations on traditional rights, has it all really been worth it?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well of course the most important responsibility we have in the United States, as you have in Britain in your government, is to protect the people of our country; and I think in that sense what we've done, which I actually think has been quite measured, has been worth it.

We have not had a successful attack in the United States since September 11th, and other than the July 2005 bombings here in London, your authorities have frustrated a lot of attacks as well. So I think that's really the bottom line success in this effort.

ANDREW MARR: When you look at all the information, and you must get more information than almost anybody else coming across your desk from around the world, how do you rate the current level of threat from Al Qaeda type operations?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well I would say that we have significantly increased the protections we have and decreased the vulnerability that we have in the United States and I think that's true here as well.

On the other hand, the threat continues to move forward and the enemy continues to adapt, and of course the latest tragic example of that is Mumbai.

We're particularly concerned about the fact that there are parts of the world in which terrorists like Al Qaeda can operate with safety, they can plan, they can train and they can launch attacks, and that's true in Pakistan and in Somalia.

ANDREW MARR: And does the nature of the Mumbai attack, using boats and individuals careering through the streets with machine guns, is that a new form of attack that you then have to absorb and think about and plan for?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: It is one we have thought about and we have a strategy in place with respect to the possibility of attacks from the sea, on a seaport or on a city. So this is not something new from our standpoint. But still the skill with which this was carried out is a very important lesson for everybody in the field of security.

ANDREW MARR: Now you've talked in the past about Islamists in Europe, in particular. Do you think we have a special problem, perhaps particularly in Britain with the Pakistani connection, which is greater than the problem that you face in the United States?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well we do know that Al Qaeda has deliberately gone to recruit Westerners, particularly people in Europe, to bring them into the frontier areas and to train them, so that they could then operate in the West with a degree of anonymity that would make them much more formidable.

Obviously there have been attacks here and other parts of Western Europe and we are concerned about recruiting in communities, particularly by propagandists or extremists who are able to pervert the language of Islam in order to lure young people into becoming suicide bombers.

ANDREW MARR: And is that worse in Europe than in the States?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I think we've been a little luckier in the United States. We've had a very well assimilated Muslim community and I spend a lot of time myself talking to community leaders, students, academics and trying to get a sense of what the community is concerned about and also making them feel part of the country.

ANDREW MARR: And is this why it is going to be harder for British people to travel to the United States from now on?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well I think it's not particularly focused on British people. We have a visa waiver programme with now thirty countries, including some new countries in Eastern Europe, and the only change we've made is to request that we get information online in advance of travel as opposed to fill that on the aircraft when people are on their way to arriving in the United States.

ANDREW MARR: So you have to go online and tell the US authorities a fair amount about yourself before you can travel to the US?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well actually you will not be telling us anything more than you have always told us traditionally. The only difference is you'll tell us earlier and you'll do it online instead of on a piece of paper with a pen.

ANDREW MARR: Which means by the time you arrive in an American airport, the people on the other ...your people behind the desks will know who they're talking to?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Exactly. We'll have a better opportunity in advance to determine if there is somebody that we need to interview with a little bit more depth than the normal traveller.

ANDREW MARR: Now that's obviously just one of the things that's going on. The President-elect has said that he is going to close Guantanamo Bay very quickly. Now I know that Guantanamo Bay is not directly your responsibility. Nonetheless, as a member of the administration and as a lawyer, how easy is that going to be?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well I think even President Bush has said previously he would love to close Guantanamo Bay.

The problem is what do you do with the people in Guantanamo? Regrettably, some who have been released turn up on the battlefield again. We had a suicide bomber who was released and then blew himself up in Iraq. The question is how do we sort those who ought to be returned to their home countries.

We have to make sure the home country wants to receive those people; we have to make sure they won't be mistreated. And then those that can't be returned, we have to find some way to adjudicate their cases, so we can have a long-term plan for dealing with them.

ANDREW MARR: So what would your advice be to President-elect Obama?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well my advice would be to take a deep breath and try to put together a plan that would sort between the various categories of detainee. Some I think can be sent back and we've been doing that. Some will not be able to be sent back and we need to have a legal process to resolve their cases in a way that is fair to them, but also takes account of the special problem of trying people where there is national security evidence.

ANDREW MARR: Of the people who are facing trial at the moment, some clearly have been water boarded, which the presidential candidate John McCain, who was sitting in that chair, thinks is torture. Now given that, and again as a lawyer, isn't that going to make it very, very hard to give them a fair trial?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well actually what typically happens in a case like that is you simply exclude any evidence that came from any kind of questioning of which you disapprove, so I think that's actually not a big obstacle. The larger obstacle is that much of the actual forensic evidence that you would normally use in a trial is actually located overseas.

It's in a battlefield zone. It's not like on television where you can send detectives in to pick up the little scraps of hair and paper because nobody's shot, and so putting together evidence in a court room that has ordinary civilian rules is challenging because of these kinds of practical obstacles.

ANDREW MARR: Do you think, looking back, that it was right to use waterboarding?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well I don't know specifically what was done and I know there's a lot of debate about what is the line in terms of questioning people. For example, in our domestic law enforcement, we actually give people their rights or what you call cautions and we barely question them at all. If we had applied that approach, we would have had very little information. We might have had attacks that we could not have stopped.

ANDREW MARR: Waterboarding is absolutely at the other end of the spectrum though, isn't it?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I mean you can debate about individual techniques and tactics and there's a lot of legal discussion, which I won't trouble your audience with, but I think the larger question is this: we clearly have to draw a line somewhere and there'll be a balance of risks.

And if we don't do certain things, the public will have to then ask itself is it prepared to accept a heightened risk that there'll be an attack that will be undetected with a loss of lives, maybe similar to what we had in the United States, similar to what we've had here, or even worse.

ANDREW MARR: What is the hardest choice that Obama has to make now in your field?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well I think in our field, it's going to be to build a sustainable process for going forward with respect to the War on Terror, and of course also looking at the struggles and the battles going on overseas. The biggest concern is a weapon of mass destruction.

How do we prevent a radiological or even a nuclear weapon or a biological weapon from getting in the hands of terrorists? The more proliferation we see, the more space that terrorists have to plan by building laboratories, the greater the danger. And that's going to be the big challenge.

ANDREW MARR: And people like the Brazilian who was killed in the streets of London, some of the people in Guantanamo Bay who are not guilty of anything, they are sort of collateral damage in the war and that can't be helped?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well I think we clearly want to make sure that we give people in Guantanamo or elsewhere an opportunity to have their case evaluated. There's no value in holding innocent people.

Sometimes it is difficult to know or to prove guilt because, as I say, people are picked up in the battlefield and there are split second decisions that are made. The luxury of hindsight is not one that people who are in combat can engage in.

ANDREW MARR: Mr Chertoff, thank you very much indeed for joining us this morning.


Please note "The Andrew Marr Show" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

NB: This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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