Former U.S. Attorney General Under Bush on National Security

This is a rush transcript from "Your World With Neil Cavuto," January 12, 2010. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

NEIL CAVUTO, HOST: Meanwhile, on top of that, we got this: another disturbance on the very same route that the alleged underwear bomber used a few weeks ago. Today, the airline and the TSA taking no chances, law enforcement officials meeting the airline as it arrived a short time ago, four unruly passengers questioned, so far, no arrests made.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft says you need to do whatever it takes to keep passengers safe. He joins us now for his first TV interview since the Christmas Day bomb plot here and only here.

General Ashcroft, very good to have you. Happy New Year.


CAVUTO: What do you make of this? Did the authorities do the right thing? Some argue they were a little too precautious. What do you say?

ASHCROFT: Well, I'm in favor of erring on the side of caution here. And when people talk about the — the risks involved, we should remember that it's not just a risk to the traveling public. If we will remember back to nine years ago to 2001, September the 11th, it was a lot of people on the grounds whose lives were endangered, not only endangered, but people who died.

So, the point is that this is a serious risk. It's — the potential is for very significant devastation, not just to air travelers, but to people on the ground, and we should take it seriously.

CAVUTO: I remember, General, that, after the 9/11 incident and for some time after that, you had always warned that we couldn't get complacent in the skies, that, for some reason, terrorists had this thing about planes. And, obviously, they still do.

Why is that? Despite all the hassles, all the headaches, all the hurdles, what is it about that, that they obsess over?

ASHCROFT: Well, I can't answer that question. I just know that we need to be very careful on a continuing basis.

And whether it's airports and plots regarding airports, or whether it's actually the air transportation itself, or the weaponization of airplanes, which was what happened on September 11, and using airplanes to destroy significant assets and destroy lives, thousands of lives on the ground, we need to understand the air situation continues to be a threat, and it's a preferred mode, but it's not the only mode that terrorists would undertake to disrupt our society.

CAVUTO: Do you think we could have another 9/11 airline/airplane type incident?

ASHCROFT: Well, the hardening of cockpits. And we all know who do a lot of traveling that the access to the cockpit is substantially restricted. I think it would make it very difficult to weaponize an airplane in the same way that it was done on 9/11.

I don't ever want to say that something is so impossible that we cease to guard against it, but that — that same method of operation would be much more difficult today. We're much better prepared to resist that kind of an attack.

CAVUTO: Would you say the better part of valor would be to screen Muslim-looking men?

ASHCROFT: Well, I think we should screen people who are high-risk. And all of criminal law is a matter of using profiles. We have learned, however, that racial profiles are frequently misleading and that there are other things that really provide better indication where the risk is high.

And, obviously, with the so-called underwear bomber, there were things that should have led us to suspect that he would be eligible for the right kind of screening on the right kind of special attention, if it meant a no- fly list. But the warnings from his family, the kind of fare he purchased in — well, I think a one-way fare with cash, and those kind of things, they are items which we have long known to be indicators of high risk.

It seems to me that...

CAVUTO: I never understood — yes, I never understood purchasing the one-way ticket thing. I mean, if you're not going pay the bill, or if you don't assume you will, you might as well get the round-trip.

But this comes at the same time, General, we're finding out about other security and communications lapses in the case of Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood bomber, that there were many a clarion, shouting warnings about his bizarre behavior, his radical words, and maybe we were being too politically correct with this guy.

Are we too politically correct today?

ASHCROFT: I think with we have to be very careful that we have, as our focal point, national security, and that we don't allow political correctness or institutional or interest groups, if you will, to dictate that we handle things one way, when we should handle them another.

And people who insist on jury trials for all people who are apprehended may simply be compromising national security and our ability to gain intelligence, if we need to take people and treat them as — for what they are, is enemy combatants, and they should be processed in a different way.

This is not always the case. Each case is to be understood on its specific facts, but we shouldn't be — the tail shouldn't wag the dog, interest groups and political correctness. The Constitution should define our behavior. The law should define our behavior. And we should always live within those limits.

But when we get inside those limits, I'm in favor of putting a high priority on national security. I think that's why people elect presidents. It's the job of the executive to secure the nation. And so when decisions are made, I would expect them to be made based on my personal security and the national security, securing the lives and liberties of Americans.

CAVUTO: To that end, General, when the president spoke on this issue, and steps were taken to avoid another underwear bomber incident like we had potentially on Christmas Day, that we can't do on a witch-hunt — I'm paraphrasing here — but I think he was taking a slap at you and the Bush administration in the early days, and that we were surrendering a lot of personal freedoms under the guise of clamping down on terror risks.

Are we?

ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, I never interpreted the president's remarks as directed toward me or the Bush administration in that respect. But when he indicated he thought this was the work of an isolated extremist, and did so within a couple days and without a real awareness of the full extent of the associations that this individual had had with training operations in Yemen and with other extremist operations, I think that — that reflected perhaps a rush to judgment, the willingness to say this wasn't a part of a war launched by terrorists against the United States.

It disturbs me a little when I think that we are too eager to say there's no longer a War on Terror because we are no longer at war with terrorists. I believe we are at war with terrorists. I believe they continue to declare war against us. They continue to train for it. They continue to implement terrorist schemes, whether it be in the Middle East or whether they attempt to carry those schemes out in the United States, and I think we should understand that.

And, if we do, then we maximize the effort we put into intelligence and gathering information that can disrupt them. And we adopt policies that don't assist them, don't expose what we know to them, because every time we increase what we share with the terrorists through our information that we hand out in the world generally, it makes the terrorists a bit more capable.

CAVUTO: We are learning, General, as I'm speaking to you, at this Detroit Metro Airport, that authorities are questioning three to five passengers from Saudi Arabia about this incident we mentioned earlier from Amsterdam to Detroit.

First of all, if there is a connection, beyond what we fear, and yet again on a flight coming from abroad here, what do we do? What should we do?

ASHCROFT: Well, I don't know all the facts. Obviously, we need to increase our sensitivity to be aware of individuals who pose high risks.

Now, the idea that we will always be able to thwart every risk is a very noble aspiration, but it's probably not a valid idea. There are going to be times when, even with the best of our operations, individuals, given the free nature of our society and the openness of our community, will be able to threaten us, and if not do serious harm to us, to — to be well on the path to doing that before we detect them. We have to continue to do the best we can.


CAVUTO: Sir, by that, I take it you mean that this same incident, series of incidents, could have happened under the Bush administration?

ASHCROFT: Well, we're pleased that it didn't.

CAVUTO: Right.

ASHCROFT: And we hope it doesn't again in this administration.

This is not the place to play politics.

CAVUTO: Right.

ASHCROFT: And this is not a place to say, well, if something bad happens, it will hurt somebody politically.

This is the national security of the United States. And perhaps it shows my age, but I remember the days when national security was a place that politics didn't enter. And I personally am hoping that this administration will do everything to maximize our intelligence resources and to minimize the capacity of terrorists to strike against the lives and liberties of Americans.

CAVUTO: But this administration is intent on eventually shutting down Gitmo. It might get delayed. Developments like what happened on that Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight might delay it significantly. And those Yemenis who were at Gitmo don't get to Yemen. They might sit and stew for a while, and they might go to Illinois.

What do you think of that and whether now this changes the equation for that?

ASHCROFT: Well, obviously, I think there is far less appeal, even for the interest groups that wanted Gitmo shut down, to the idea of closing Gitmo, because there aren't good places to put those individuals.

And I personally believe it was a good decision to have Guantanamo Base as a place for detaining war combatants against the United States. I believe it was appropriate when it was opened. Some of the individuals that we made an effort to release and did release have been very dangerous, in spite of our best efforts to try and release only those who have not been dangerous.

So, when you're dealing with national security, you have to be very careful, and — and you can't be just satisfying various special interest groups who want to promote one sort of idea or another.

CAVUTO: All right.

ASHCROFT: National security is high on this list.


ASHCROFT: People who violate the law of war and assault the United States don't deserve the protections and the same kind of process that criminals do in the United States.


John Ashcroft, thank you very much. More after this.

ASHCROFT: Thanks, Neil.

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