Transcript: John Brennan on 'FNS'

The following is a rush transcript of the January 3, 2010, edition of "Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace." This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: Citing ongoing threats, the U.S. government today has closed its embassy in Yemen.

Meanwhile, the president and top advisers are reviewing what Mr. Obama calls the systemic failures that allowed a would-be bomber on board that plane Christmas day.

We're joined now by the White House official leading that review, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.

And, Mr. Brennan, welcome to "Fox News Sunday."


WALLACE: As we said, the U.S. today closed our embassy in Yemen. Why?

BRENNAN: Well, there are indications that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is targeting our embassy and targeting our personnel, and we're not going to take any chances with the lives of our diplomats and others who are at that embassy.

So we made a decision overnight. I spoke with Ambassador Seche, our ambassador in Sana'a, last night and again this morning to make sure that we're doing everything possible to protect our diplomats there.

We're working very closely with the Yemenese. The Yemenese are providing support. But we're not going to take any chances.

WALLACE: Now, you say targeting the embassy. Do you mean you had indications, intelligence, that they might try to explode a bomb or attack the embassy?

BRENNAN: Al Qaeda has been trying, in fact, to carry out such attacks over the past many months. We know that in November of 2008 they carried out such an attack against the embassy.

We're continuing to track this. We know that there are a number of Al Qaeda operatives who are determined to carry out such attacks. We're not going to let that happen. And if we have to close the embassy to ensure that we have the optimal security, we will do that.

WALLACE: Are U.S. citizens in Yemen in danger?

BRENNAN: Well, the embassy has a warning system so that other U.S. citizens in country are notified when such activities take place. We are doing everything possible to make sure that all U.S. citizens, as well as westerners and the Yemenis themselves, are protected from the scourge of Al Qaeda.

WALLACE: But to press my question, are U.S. citizens in that country at risk? Are they in danger?

BRENNAN: I think until the Yemeni government gets on top of the situation with Al Qaeda, there is a risk of attacks. A number of tourists have been, in fact, kidnapped. A number of tourists have been killed. That is why we're working very closely with the Yemeni government.

We've worked with the Yemeni government closely since the first day of this administration. I've been out to Yemen twice, met with President Salih. I spoke with President Salih this week, emphasizing the importance of maintaining pressure on Al Qaeda.

And the Yemenis have been very good. They've been very cooperative. And we're determined to continue to press this effort.

WALLACE: Let me widen this discussion in that sense. Not only as you point out, obviously, were you in Yemen earlier, but General Petraeus, the head of Central Command, was in Yemen yesterday.

The British overnight have announced that the U.S. and the British are going to be co-funding a new Yemeni anti-terror counter-terror police force.

Is it fair to say that we are opening up a second front in our war on terror outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater in Yemen?

BRENNAN: I wouldn't say we're opening up a second front. This is the continuation of an effort that we've had under way since, as I said, the beginning of this administration.

David Petraeus has been out to Yemen several times. I spoke with him yesterday after he met with President Salih. We're continuing to have a very close and ongoing dialogue with the Yemeni government. The cooperation is on the security, intelligence and military fronts.

We've had close consultations with the British. I spoke with the British last night also about the types of things that we can do together in support of the Yemeni government. So this is a determined and concerted effort.

We're not going to let Al Qaeda continue to sort of make gains in Yemen, because we need to take whatever steps necessary to protect our citizens there as well as abroad.

WALLACE: Could that mean U.S. troops on ground in Yemen?

BRENNAN: We're not talking about that at this point at all. The Yemeni government has demonstrated their willingness to take the fight to Al Qaeda. We — they're willing to accept our support. We're providing them everything that they've asked for.

And they've made some real progress. And over the past month, Al Qaeda has taken a number of hits, and a number of Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen are no longer with us because of this determined and aggressive action.

WALLACE: In President Obama's media address this weekend, he talked for the first time about the young Nigerian Abdulmutallab's links to known terrorists. Let's watch.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It appears that he joined an affiliate of Al Qaeda, and that this group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.


WALLACE: Mr. Brennan, what do we now know about Abdulmutallab's links to Al Qaeda, what their role was in the Christmas day attempted terror attack?

And how seriously do you take claims from Abdulmutallab and from Al Qaeda in Yemen that there are dozens more jihadis who are being trained to attack the west?

BRENNAN: Well, I think right now in Yemen we know that there are probably several hundred members of Al Qaeda. And as we've been able to piece together the story about Mr. Abdulmutallab, it's clear that he was in Yemen for several months between August and November or so.

We know that he had reached out to Al Qaeda. We know that he received training — in fact, training at one of the camps that was hit during the month of December. He was clearly directed to carry out this attack at the direction of Al Qaeda, the senior leadership there.

This is something that we're very concerned about. We're concerned that they may be, in fact, trying to get other operatives, non-Yemenis and others, to train inside of Yemen, to send to the west. And that's why we need to make sure that we maintain this pressure on Al Qaeda within Yemen.

WALLACE: Now, you say you're very concerned that they're reaching out. Do we believe that, in fact, as Al Qaeda — as Abdulmutallab — has claimed that there are dozen more jihadis who have already been trained to attack the west?

Do we have specific information about a credible threat of that?

BRENNAN: We have good intelligence that Al Qaeda is training individuals in Yemen. We are pulling the threads on a number of these reports to make sure that we stay on top of it.

And over the past week in particular, we are doing everything possible to scour all the intelligence that is out there to see whether or not there's another Abdulmutallab out there.

WALLACE: And at this point, do we have credible information, specific information, that there is another Abdulmutallab out there?

BRENNAN: We know people have been trained inside of these camps. We've not been able to identify any individual who may be, in fact, getting on board a plane. But it's much more difficult to get on a plane today than it was on Christmas day.

WALLACE: Several Guantanamo detainees who were released, it should be pointed out, by the Bush administration reportedly ended up in important roles in Al Qaeda in Yemen.

And yet the White House says that it has no plans to halt all transfers of detainees to Yemen, that it's going to decide those on a case- by-case basis.

First of all, is that true that we have not decided to halt all transfers of detainees to Yemen? And if it's true, why not? Why wouldn't we want to, at this point, given the instability there, decide not to send any Yemeni detainees back to the country?

BRENNAN: Well, first of all, we ought to put this in context. During the last administration, 532 detainees were transferred from Guantanamo. During this administration, we have transferred 42. Seven of those have gone back to Yemen. The first one went about six or eight weeks ago and six went in December.

We've had close dialogue with the Yemeni government about the expectations that we have as far as what they're supposed to do when these detainees go back.

Several of those detainees were put into Yemeni custody right away. We're continuing to talk with them. What we're trying to do is to do this in a very measured fashion.

Guantanamo facility must be closed. It has served as a propaganda tool for Al Qaeda. We're determined to close it. We're not going to, though, do anything that is going to put American security at risk.

So working closely with the Yemeni government, right now we are looking at the other detainees in Guantanamo from Yemen, and we are going to take the right steps, but we're not going to do anything that put Americans at risk.

WALLACE: But you are going to consider on a case-by-case basis sending more Yemenis back to Yemen?

BRENNAN: Absolutely. We're going to be looking at this, working closely with the Yemeni government, and ensuring that these security measures are put in place as we address the security situation on the ground.

WALLACE: Perhaps the most controversial step that President Obama took after the Christmas day terror attack was to charge Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant.

He was cooperating with authorities. He was giving information about his links to Al Qaeda. But after he got a criminal lawyer, he reportedly stopped cooperating, stopped talking.

Why not treat him as an enemy combatant, put him in a secret prison, use the interrogation techniques that President Obama has specifically approved, and try to get more information out of him?

BRENNAN: Well, we have an array of tools that we will use, and we want to make sure we maintain flexibility as far as how we deal with these individuals.

Now, let's get the facts on the table. He was arrested on U.S. soil on a plane on — in the Detroit airplane. He was, in fact, talking to people who were detaining him.

There were people who were arrested during the previous administration — Richard Reid, the shoe bomber; Zacarias Moussaoui; Padilla; Iyman Faris; others — all were charged and tried in criminal court and sentenced, some cases to life imprisonment.

Just because somebody is going to be put into the criminal legal process does not mean that they're — we don't have other opportunities to get information from them.

WALLACE: But wait, wait. Let me ask you specifically. After Abdulmutallab got lawyered up, did he stop cooperating with authorities? Did he stop talking?

BRENNAN: I'm not going to address exactly what he did before or after he was — talked with his lawyer. We got information. We continue to have opportunities to do that.

As you talk with the lawyers and you talk with the individuals, as they recognize what they're facing as far as the charges, conviction and possible sentence, there are opportunities to continue to talk about it.

FBI has some of the best interrogators and debriefers in the world, and so I'm confident that we're going to continue to be able to work this system and see whether or not...

WALLACE: But once he gets his Miranda rights, he doesn't have to speak at all.

BRENNAN: He doesn't have to, but he knows that there are certain things that are on the table, and if he wants to, in fact, engage with us in a productive manner, there are ways that he can do that.

WALLACE: But why not treat him — you certainly had the right — have — had — still have the right to treat him as an enemy combatant. Why not do that?

If he has more actionable intelligence about future attacks, and you say there's a real possibility of that, doesn't the president have a responsibility to do everything legal he can to get that information?

BRENNAN: And the president has that responsibility, and the Department of Justice makes these determinations about what's the best tool to use. And in this instance, we felt as though it was the best way to address Mr. Abdulmutallab's case.

We'll continue to look at each of the cases individually and proceed accordingly.

WALLACE: Just briefly, what's the downside of treating him as an enemy combatant?

BRENNAN: There's — there are no downsides or upsides in particular cases. What we're trying to do is to make sure we apply the right tool in the right instance. In this case, we made a determination that he should be tried in U.S. criminal court.

WALLACE: You're leading the review, as we pointed out at the beginning, of what the president calls the human and systemic failures that led to Abdulmutallab being on that plane on Christmas day — intelligence screening. From what you've learned so far, what was the failure?

BRENNAN: Well, we're still going through those reviews that have come in to the White House, and I think there are a combination of issues that we're looking at.

First of all, the president is very determined to make sure we identify what the problems were and take corrective actions immediately, whether or not they're individual cases or whether or not they're more systemic issues that we have to address.

I think it was a combination of things. We had information that came from Mr. Abdulmutallab's father. His name was put into what's called the TIDE record system.

We also had, though, intelligence, snippets of intelligence that came in, that didn't refer directly to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab but had little bits and pieces of information that we now know, in hindsight, related to Mr. Abdulmutallab.

We need to, as a system, make sure we can put those pieces together so that we take every step possible to prevent these individuals from...

WALLACE: But if you...

BRENNAN: ... getting on planes.

WALLACE: ... can characterize it without getting into the details, was it that there was a smoking gun that was ignored? Was it that there were bits and pieces of information that — and the puzzle wasn't put together?

Or was that it that there's continued division, rivalry, among the various intelligence agencies?

BRENNAN: Well, a couple things. One is that there was no smoking gun. There was no piece of intelligence that said, "This guy's a terrorist. He's going to get on a plane." No, not whatsoever.

It was the failure to integrate and piece together those bits and pieces of information. But it's much different than prior to 9/11. Before then, I think there was really a culture of keeping information to the individual agencies and departments.

In the review so far, there's no indication whatsoever that any agency or department was not trying to share information.

There were some lapses. There were some human errors. There were some failures of the system to allow that to happen at the speed of light. And that's what we're talking about, information that comes in to one agency or department that has to get somewhere else so that actions can be taken.

WALLACE: You talk about human error. The president insisted this week that people will be held responsible for their failures. Let's take a look.


OBAMA: It's also my job to ensure that our intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security systems and the people in them are working effectively and held accountable. I intend to fulfill that responsibility and insist on accountability at every level.


WALLACE: Let me pursue this question about accountability. Does the president have full confidence in Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano; in Director of Intelligence, National Intelligence, Blair; and CIA Director Panetta? Or is he reserving judgment on those three?

BRENNAN: Well, first of all, I think we're very fortunate to have people of the caliber of Secretary Napolitano, Denny Blair and others in this government. Accountability needs to be part of any type of review. And as the president said, it should be at all levels.

But specifically as far as Secretary Napolitano is concerned, I know she's taken some hits this week as far as her comments about that the system worked. I think she's clarified those comments, made it very clear that she was referring to how the system reacted after the incident.

But I've worked very closely with Janet Napolitano over the last 11 months, and I can tell you we're very fortunate to have somebody of her experience and caliber. She is an exceptionally dedicated individual, and I consider it a privilege to work next to her.

WALLACE: Well, you've given her a vote of confidence. How about Denny Blair and Leon Panetta?

BRENNAN: Denny Blair and Leon Panetta are also consummate professionals. And there are very complicated issues within the intelligence community, and they are working as hard as they can to make sure that the president has the benefit that the intelligence community can provide.

WALLACE: On another personnel matter, it came out this week that the president's nominee for TSA chief, head of transportation security, Erroll Southers, had to correct congressional testimony after he had given it about his involvement a couple of decades ago in going through criminal records on a personal matter.

Does the president still have full confidence in him and back his nomination?

BRENNAN: Absolutely. Erroll Southers has tremendous experience and is what we need right now at the Transportation Security Administration.

And it's unfortunate that there is one senator who has a hold on Mr. Southers. And I think these issues have been looked at repeatedly. Senators are comfortable with it. And again, it's unfortunate that there's just one hold.

WALLACE: I don't have to tell you — we've got a little over a minute left — politics has reared its head in the discussion this week about the response to the Christmas day attack. This week, Vice President Cheney had this to say about President Obama.

Here it is. "He seems to think if he closes Guantanamo and releases hardcore Al Qaeda-trained terrorists still there, we won't be at war. He seems to think if he gets rid of the words "war on terror," we won't be at war. But we are at war, and when President Obama pretends we aren't, it makes us less safe."

Mr. Brennan, your response?

BRENNAN: It's disappointing to me that either the vice president and others have willfully mischaracterized President Obama's position and actions, or they're just ignorant of the facts. I think in either case, it doesn't speak well to sort of the reasons why they sort of went out and said these things.

I came back into government for the express purpose of making sure that we can make this country safer than it's ever been in the past. I have worked with the president over the last 12 months now. And he is as determined as anybody that I've worked with, neither Republican nor Democrat.

I worked for the previous five administrations, and this president is determined, and I think it is demonstrated in his language. He says that we're at war with Al Qaeda. We're going to destroy Al Qaeda the organization.

And we're going to demonstrate through our actions, whether it be in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other places, that Al Qaeda might be able to run but they're not going to be able to hide so.

WALLACE: And what do you think is the effect of the kind of political attacks we've seen in the last week?

BRENNAN: Well, I think it's made people lose sight of who the real enemy is here. Al Qaeda has been responsible for the deaths of many, many Americans.

At this time right now, after this failed attempt, I think what we have to do is to think back after 9/11 when this country came together, when Democrat and Republican said, "We have to make sure that we are able to stop Al Qaeda from carrying out its acts of terrorism and trying to murder innocent civilians."

And I would just hope that Republicans and Democrats and everybody else out there really takes stock of sort of where we are right now and — for this country's national security.

WALLACE: But didn't, over the course of the last eight years, Democrats take a lot of potshots at the Bush-Cheney administration's national security policy?

BRENNAN: I just think that, you know, partisan politics should be put aside when something as important to national security as the threat of terrorism — it's a serious threat. It continues to haunt us. And we have to make sure that we stay focused on Al Qaeda.

And so that's what I'm going to do in this job. I don't care what Republicans or Democrats say out there. We need to continue to prosecute this war because Al Qaeda the organization needs to be destroyed.

WALLACE: Mr. Brennan, thank you. Thanks for coming in...

BRENNAN: Thank you, Chris.

WALLACE: ... giving us the latest information.

BRENNAN: Thank you.

WALLACE: Please come back, sir.

BRENNAN: Thank you.

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