This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, Feb. 17, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.
JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Keeping an eye on the sky. Lieutenant General Eric Findley was on duty the morning of September 11th, 2001, deputy commander in chief at NORAD (search).
That's a Cold War (search) agreement between the U.S. and Canada to protect North American air space from overseas attacks. Its role has expanded to include terrorist threats within our nation's borders.
Lieutenant General Findlay is here to talk about his job. Big question, General, going back to September 11th, 2001, what was your mission? What was your job that day?
LT. GEN. ERIC FINDLEY, DEPUTY COMMANDER IN CHIEF, NORAD: Well, we started off the day running an exercise. We were running an exercise with Strategic Command and with Pacific Command. And we were also running a counter exercise or counter operation to a long-range aviation or Soviet or Russian bombers who were moving to their Arctic bases. So that's what we were there for. The battle staff was in the mountains, and all the air defense sectors and all the regions conducting an exercise in a real-world operation.
GIBSON: Was it your organization that ordered all the planes out of the skies, or recommended they get out?
FINDLEY: No, my understanding is the Federal Aviation Administration (search) made that decision, but as great minds think alike, we were already looking that way and so were the airlines to clear the skies so we could figure out who was ...
GIBSON: What was the worst-case scenario that day for you?
FINDLEY: The worst-case scenario was that we had more than the four aircraft. So that's why we wanted to see aircraft on the ground so we could figure out who else was out there.
GIBSON: Were there fighters in the air under your command ready to shoot down civilian airliners?
FINDLEY: Yes, there were.
GIBSON: And what would it have taken for that decision to be made?
FINDLEY: It would have — there was a self-autonomist or an autonomist part to that for Washington D.C., but for the rest of the country, it would have been a very high-level decision.
GIBSON: Beyond NORAD?
FINDLEY: I would say with the national command authority in Washington.
GIBSON: How have things changed all this time later?
You are much more aware of the terrorist threats inside the national borders. So what is it you can do now that you maybe couldn't do so well then?
FINDLEY: We have better information, and we improved our hand-eye coordination. What I mean by that is we have taken a lot of the radars that we couldn't see before or couldn't see them latched up before, connected them into our NORAD air surveillance system.
We've improved the communications so we can talk to fighter aircraft in the interior of the United States and Canada. We have moved a lot of aircraft into different alert sites so they can respond in a more timely manner.
GIBSON: Do you think that with the way security has been beefed up at airports there is a reasonable fear that planes could be hijacked and used again as they were on September 11th?
FINDLEY: One of the things we've learned since September 11th is how great our interagency partners are, folks like the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Agency and the airlines themselves have gone to a lot of trouble to make sure we have hardened cockpit doors, air marshals on board, better screening at the airports. It has gone a long way to alleviate any of that concern.
GIBSON: Nonetheless, you are still looking inwards as well as outwards?
FINDLEY: We're looking inwards and outwards.
GIBSON: Is the threat from outwards as great as the threat from inwards?
FINDLEY: I would say the threat is inwards right now.
GIBSON: We were speaking euphemistically here.
FINDLEY: Yes, but the traditional strategic threat still has the capability, but no intent, whereas we have other folks who have a smaller capability, but do have more intent.
GIBSON: What is the realistic danger of a foreign flag airliner entering American space with a hijacker at the controls?
FINDLEY: There's great cooperation from all of the other countries right now. They followed the lead of the United States in hardening cockpit doors using air marshals.
GIBSON: The British don't seem to be too happy about it?
FINDLEY: They get annoyed, but that's life and the new regime that we have — the new air security policies that we have.
GIBSON: The British Pilots Association thinks that this is just putting pressure on them because they don't like to have armed marshals on.
FINDLEY: I don't think so. It's an intelligent prudent reaction to the information they had.
GIBSON: Lieutenant General Eric Findley. General, thank you very much. Appreciate you coming on. Don't be away from your job too long. Get back there and take of things.
FINDLEY: I'll be there tonight.
GIBSON: All right, thanks very much.
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