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U.S. Intelligence Warns of Al Qaeda Terror Attack

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Sept. 18: US Embassy employee inspects a damaged vehicle in front of the main entrance of the US Embassy in the capital San'a, YemenAP

This is a rush transcript from "America's Election HQ," September 22, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

MARTHA MACCALLUM, HOST: U.S. intelligence officials are warning of an Al Qaeda October surprise attack — an attempt they say to possibly influenced our upcoming election.

This comes after two major terrorist attacks back-to-back in Pakistan and Yemen and after intercepting a series of messages from Al Qaeda's leaders telling its followers to prepare for more instructions. Authorities say U.S. bases and our allies overseas could be possible targets.

So how serious is this warning this time around?

Former CIA agent Gary Berntsen just got back from Afghanistan. He's the author of the new book, "The Walk-In."

Gary, welcome. Always good to talk to you.

Video: Watch Martha MacCallum's interview

GARY BERNTSEN, FORMER CIA AGENT: Nice seeing you again, Martha.

MACCALLUM: You know, a lot of folks might hear that intro and say, oh, you know, they are just trying to scare us again, this is what happened before every election. We hear that something like this might happened. Is there intelligence that you think substantiates that concern?

BERNTSEN: Well, these historical precedents where you have the al Qaeda doing an attack on, you know, the Spanish back on the 11th of March in 2004.

MACCALLUM: And, boy, that should work in their favor, ain't it?

BERNTSEN: Well, of course. But, you know, the thing is this is that such an attack in the United States wouldn't benefit either political party here and all Americans are, you know, united in their effort to block such an attack and defeat Al Qaeda. The more likely scenario would be they would be trying to attack some of our allies in trying to peel them off from the coalition that George Bush has built to defeat them.

MACCALLUM: And what areas are you particularly worried about?

BERNTSEN: Well, I think that, you know, you have to go back to Europe because there's a large number of Al Qaeda in Europe, probably more in London than any other place. But you know, we've had a growth of these guys back in Latin America again.

You know, before, we had a problem in the tri-border area which is where Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil meet. We have had attacks that are launched there that unsuccessful on those days, but you know, with the movement to the left in Latin America, there's less cooperation, and you know, this is a problem for the U.S.

MACCALLUM: You know, when you talk about an attack on the military and U.S. allies abroad, does that mean that Al Qaeda is not in a position to attack us here at home, in your opinion?

BERNTSEN: I think that, you know, it's kind of amazing. You know, seven years ago we never would have thought that we could have gone this long and would have been able to avoid an additional catastrophic attack in the U.S. It says a lot for what President Bush has done to defend the U.S. I know a lot of people don't like the Patriot Act, they don't like some of the things he's done but they've been effective. The real argument now is how to do we move forward, you know, on this.

And we're in an election year and you got Senator Obama who's looking very, very focused on Afghanistan, and Senator McCain — whom I happened to support, I'm a veterans' leader from New York — who's looking at a more broad approach to dealing with al Qaeda globally.

MACCALLUM: And what kind of broad approach would you like to see in Latin American? I mean, what is our intelligence like in Latin America, how, you know, sort of beat up are we and ready to deal with this situation that might crop up there?

BERNTSEN: We have a dual track problem there. There's an assault on democracy in Latin America. You got countries like Venezuela and Bolivia. You know, the Bolivians just PNG'ed our ambassador. Venezuela PNG'ed our ambassador. You had the Bolivians just kick out the Drug Enforcement Agency there.

MACCALLUM: Yes.

BERNTSEN: These people are aligning themselves with the Iranians. You've got Russian, you know, military exercises jointly with the Venezuelans. So you're not going to get the level of cooperation that we had in the past. So, you know, we're going to have to go ahead and push for the re-democratization of Latin America.

Senator McCain has talked about this. He's talked about having, you know, a broad alliance of democratic nations and it goes back to fundamentals, goes back to the good governments, democracy, and a shared effort to fight against extremists. And it's a global issue, this isn't based on Afghanistan. I know we're all looking at it at Afghanistan now.

MACCALLUM: Right.

BERNTSEN: And I'm sort of Afghan-centric, having served there multiple times. But it goes beyond there. And also, holding Iraq.

MACCALLUM: Yes. Such a good point. I mean, we really do have to look at some of these other trouble spots in the world because I feel like that rarely the place that you think it's going to come from that these kinds of things crop up and there could be something brewing in another place. So, we have to keep our eyes wide open.

BERNTSEN: It's a big world.

MACCALLUM: Gary Berntsen, thank you very much. always enlightening to talk to you. Take care.

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