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Transcript: Frances Townsend on 'FOX News Sunday'

The following is a transcribed excerpt from 'FOX News Sunday,' August 8, 2004:

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS: Major terror arrests were reported abroad this week, as we know, as officials here issued new warnings about Al Qaeda's efforts to launch attacks in America. Throughout the week, President Bush turned to our first guest for briefings on the arrests and threats. Joining us is Fran Townsend, the president's counterterrorism advisor.

Good morning, and welcome to you.

FRANCES TOWNSEND, WHITE HOUSE HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISOR: Good morning, Brit.

HUME: Tell me about the arrest of this man who is now in Pakistan, I gather, in the United Arab Emirates. Who is he, and how big a fish, how big an arrest?

TOWNSEND: Very important, particularly for Pakistan. He's wanted in connection with the two assassination attempts on President Musharraf. He was also involved in the training camps in Afghanistan.

HUME: Is he thought currently to be someone who's operational...

TOWNSEND: Absolutely. Absolutely.

And, you know, this is really — the fact that he was picked up in the UAE, transferred back to Pakistan, is really cause to feel good about the relationships within the region on counterterrorism issues.

HUME: You mean between the U.S. and countries in the region?

TOWNSEND: That's right.

HUME: All right. Now, we had this arrest, we had the Muhammad Khan arrest and, what, three laptop computers and a stack of, what are they, CDs or disks or what?

TOWNSEND: Disks.

HUME: Like floppy disks?

TOWNSEND: That's right.

HUME: All right. And you had the arrest in London of this man al-Hindi.

Reading all this, one gets the sense that perhaps a corner is being turned here, that this is a big moment in this war on terror.

Is this really a big moment, or is this just a big visible moment?

TOWNSEND: No, it's a big moment. And it's also very visible, and that's OK. People ought to feel good about the fact — what we're seeing now are the dividends based on the president's counterterrorism policies. We've spent a lot of time investing in those relationships.

You know, three years ago, you wouldn't have believed that we could have this kind of cooperation from Pakistan on counterterrorism. They were not our strongest partners, and now they really have come around. It's not only a threat to the United States, Al Qaeda, but it's also a threat to President Musharraf, because, as I mentioned, of those two assassination attempts.

Likewise in Saudi Arabia, we're seeing unprecedented cooperation. And that's a long-term investment that's now beginning to show dividends.

HUME: So your point is, then, that Pakistan really, in terms of these recent arrests, is the linchpin.

TOWNSEND: That's right.

HUME: All right. Let's talk a little bit about the fascinating details that are contained in this Time magazine article that will be on the newsstands, I guess, tomorrow. Talked about limousines possibly being used to attack the Prudential building in New Jersey. We mentioned earlier some of the other devices and ideas that these planners apparently had.

 

It seems from this report that the Prudential building in Newark, New Jersey, was a centerpiece, if not the centerpiece, of the planning, at least as can be determined from these disks. Is that correct?

TOWNSEND: I'm not sure I would bring particular attention to the Prudential building. All five — it was incredibly detailed, incredibly chilling. So much so it's not clear if it was one person who did all that detailed work, in terms of the surveillance, or whether it was a group of people. It certainly looks like one person wrote up the reports.

HUME: The criticism has been made that perhaps the administration should have said in the immediate briefing that was done last Sunday, briefings that were done last Sunday, that some of this information was several years old. We didn't find that out until the next day.

In retrospect, would it have been better to say that when the first briefings were done?

TOWNSEND: In fact, it was said when the first briefings were done.

HUME: Really?

TOWNSEND: As it was reported in the L.A. Times.

After Tom Ridge's press briefing, we had four career counterterrorism intelligence officials do a background briefing for the press. And they did mention it then. Only the L.A. Times reported it, and it wasn't until a day later that the other papers picked it up.

You know, and it's unfortunate, because when it broke, it didn't break with the whole story. And that is what we know from the East Africa embassy bombings; those casings were done five years earlier. 9/11, the casings were done almost five years earlier.

So the timing of the casings was not what's important. It's the detailed nature of them that ought to frighten us.

HUME: It has also been said that there was additional information that, combined with this earlier surveillances, made them current, and more current and urgent than they otherwise would have been. Can you, in any sense, characterize that information, the recent information?

TOWNSEND: Well, what we did was we went out with the five that were most detailed, because we were going to have to do investigations here in the United States, and so it was going to become public anyway. And we wanted to have the benefit of the help of both the public and state and local officials, as well as the corporate entities that had been targeted.

There were others. We obviously didn't want to go out with everything that we knew and indicate to the terrorists exactly what we knew and force them off targets that we were unaware of. We worked directly with those other entities that have been targeted to take additional security precautions.

HUME: Well, you said, for example, that the casing information, with regard to these buildings that we now know about, had been updated as recently as January, or some of it had been.

What other current indications did you have that these buildings or others like them might now be currently in play and, perhaps, imminently, or at least sometime in the near future, likely targets, actual targets?

TOWNSEND: Well, you know, it's interesting, because the casing reports were not a sole strand of intelligence that we were reacting to. You'll recall, earlier in the year, both Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft went out and talked about a preelection threat.

We had, from a variety of methods of intelligence, both signals intelligence, HUMINT. We understood there were meetings in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region by senior level Al Qaeda officials. We understood that there were targets and discussions about preparations for an attack inside the United States. This event came on top of that.

HUME: Right.

TOWNSEND: And I suspect, Brit, we're going to find additional information about targets in the United States after the arrests and seizures in Great Britain.

HUME: How likely do you think it is that an attack will be attempted at least between now and the election, or perhaps at the time of the election?

TOWNSEND: I think it's certainly their intent. I think the good news to this terror threat alert is that we're in front of them. And every time we get in front of them, we get additional time to try and disrupt them and deter an attack.

HUME: So you think that's happened here?

TOWNSEND: I hope so. I mean, I think yes. I certainly think that by our actions now that we have disrupted it. The question is, have we disrupted all of it or a part of it? And we're working through an investigation to uncover that.

HUME: I can't tell you how many people have said to me, why don't these terrorists simply put a handful of suicide bombers out in various public places in this country? Might not kill a lot of people; it would scare the bejesus out of everybody.

Why do you think that is?

TOWNSEND: Well, you know, what we know about Al Qaeda and the way they attack, they want something — and we've seen it in the intelligence — they want something bigger than 9/11. They want a catastrophic attack.

That takes more planning, more precision, more explosives, more time to put together. And it really requires a level of operational security. It's quite different in scale than what you're describing.

HUME: We've had no suicide attacks in the United States. Why do you think that is?

TOWNSEND: Well, you know, Brit, I would call September 11th suicide attacks.

HUME: No, I agree. I'm talking about...

TOWNSEND: Since then.

HUME: Right.

TOWNSEND: Well, we've — there's varying analysis about that. We believe that what they're trying to do is put together time for a large, catastrophic attack.

HUME: The Kerry camp, Kerry himself, have called for the wholesale acceptance and enactment of the recommendations in the 9/11 report.

TOWNSEND: Well, you saw the president's announcement...

HUME: Right.

TOWNSEND: ... last week about the national intelligence director, as well as the national counterterrorism center.

Frankly, Brit, what that doesn't — what goes before that, frankly, is all the work the president's done since 9/11. You know, when you look at the recommendations, there's about 41, 36 of which might have been fully enacted or are in the process of being enacted by the president.

HUME: Let me ask you another question about the 9/11 recommendations. You've had this current round of success: Three major suspects picked up; this treasure trove of data from the computer.

Did anything in the 9/11 Commission's report, recommendations, would they have affected those events in any way?

TOWNSEND: The...

HUME: Are they relevant at all to the major — I mean, the 9/11 Commission recommendations relevant at all to the kind of thing that has happened this past week?

TOWNSEND: Well, sure they are. And the bipartisan commission really made some wonderful recommendations. But as I say to you, the fact that we've already begun implementing 36 of the 41 has enabled us to get in front of it. It's good work. We need to improve on it. But that's why it was important for us to take the time to read it, to understand it and to move forward with it.

The president feels strongly about this national intelligence director. He's very reform-minded on the intelligence issue. And we believe that, for example, the national counter intelligence center will build on reforms already put in place, like the Terrorist Threat Integration Center.

HUME: Fran Townsend, nice to have you. Thanks for coming in.

TOWNSEND: Thanks, Brit.