All-Star Panel: Reaction to warning of possible terror threat

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," February 19, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Well, we start the panel with our breaking news tonight, and that was the warning from the Department of Homeland Security coming in that there may be some possibility of attempted attacks on commercial airlines from other countries into the U.S. Now, it's a warning, and they're specifically mentioning shoe bombs, meaning that there could be an increased screening at airports overseas coming into the U.S. This suggests that intelligence has been gained, but not specific intelligence, about possible attacks or something in the works.

Let's bring in our panel first on that, syndicated columnist George Will, Juan Williams, columnist with The Hill, and Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard. Steve, you know, we have obviously heard about Al Qaeda and plans and concerns from intelligence officials, among them the director of national intelligence at a recent hearing to launch attacks in the U.S. and Europe, but this seems interesting that it's specifically about shoes, and it reminds us of Richard Reid, obviously, from 2009.

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Right, it does.  And it sounds like we've got enough information that they were comfortable going public with this, which is unlike some of the other kinds of reports that we've had bits and pieces of where they decided not to go public about the threats.

I think the first thing to say about this is it's obviously a serious potential threat. They've obviously got real intelligence or they wouldn't have gone public with it. The second thing is that it's a difficult political challenge for the administration because they have been making the argument and pushing back against people like James Clapper, the administration still contending that Al Qaeda is on the run, that it's on the path to defeat, and this obviously flies in the face of that.

BAIER: Just to point out, Richard Reid, back in 2009, was a British passenger, tied to Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda member, according to the authorities. American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami, two flight attendants actually tackled him as he tried to light his shoe because it was high explosives designed, according to authorities, to blow a hole in the fuselage of that aircraft, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS, SENIOR EDITOR, THE HILL: So what we have heard today is there apparently are new chemicals that the terrorists have been able to consolidate, and it's very small, and you can get it into a tube of toothpaste or less, and this has presented the authorities, both U.S. and otherwise, with information in the form of chatter that's been coming across, and they are concerned that this may get through. And that's why I think, for me and you going through security now, there's more hand swiping than ever as they look for evidence of the chemicals on your hands.

The other thing to say is that there's also concern about the fact that so many Americans with ties to Syria have been over there trying to get involved in the side of the rebels to pull down the Assad regime, and now there's concern of some of those people coming back. We don't know their intentions, we don't know what they're up to. This is -- it's just a very scary moment because, as someone who travels a lot on airplanes, you're vulnerable.

BAIER: Syria, Yemen, there are Americans, there are Europeans involved in fighting who have passports. And that has been mentioned in public hearings, but that's the concern. They're getting training in fighting and then they get a terrorist plan and they use the passports to come over here.

GEORGE WILL, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: And it takes one. I think the crucial phrase in Catherine Herridge's early report was an "abundance of caution." And the people administering this policy have to make an agonizing decision, which is how far do you go in alerting and alarming a nation of 315 million people on the basis of chatter that could be put in the system just to provoke this kind of thing? So I don't envy the judgments these men have to make.

BAIER: Let's listen to Director Clapper at the last intelligence committee hearing specifically about the threat of Al Qaeda in Syria.


JAMES CLAPPER, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Syria has become a huge magnet for extremists. Tremendous concern here for these extremists who are attracted to Syria, engage in combat, get training, and we're seeing now the appearance of training complexes in Syria to train people to go back to their countries and, of course, conduct more terrorist acts. So this is a huge concern to all of us.


BAIER: We should point out they have done, obviously, a great job of stopping and thwarting what threats there have been. Steve, about Syria, this appears to be a viper pit that is devolving and not getting better.

HAYES: No, it's not getting better. And the real risk, I think, to the homeland is that you have exactly, as Director Clapper mentioned, you have these terrorists who have received training, who have come through the fighting there, who have trained in these new safe havens and turn their attention towards the United States, towards Europe.

I was talking to General Jack Keane, and he said that strategically the safe havens in Syria are so much more significant and so much more dangerous than even the safe havens that Al Qaeda had in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, that if they're allowed to develop, that presents a potentially even greater threat despite the fact we have hardened the homeland and hardened our defenses here.

BAIER: Is there a policy in regards to Syria, Juan? What you think the administration policy is now as it stands today with Syria?

WILLIAMS: They're lost. They don't know what to do. That's why you're hearing all this talk about looking for a range of options that apparently does not include a military option. The option that is on the table from last week when the president met with the king is whether or not you allow the Saudis to get more involved.

BAIER: King Abdullah of Jordan.

WILLIAMS: Right. But if you allow the army of the rebels there, of course, then you have to worry that those weapons could slip into the hands of the very extremists and Al Qaeda affiliates that we know are among the viper pit, as you accurately described it. So I don't know exactly what their options are. They're said to be engaged in a review, but you'd have to say at this moment the administration is rudderless.

BAIER: George?

WILL: The estimates of dead so far now up to 140,000. George Orwell said the quickest way to end a war is to lose it. And the quickest way to end this is for one side or the other to win it. Unfortunately, in the months, now years now, since the president said Assad should step aside, the Obama administration says his position has strengthened. He's winning the war, or at least he thinks he's winning the war.

Furthermore, our policy, you asked about -- the policy is dialogue, is negotiations.  Name me a serious civil war that ended in negotiations? English civil war, American civil war, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, none of them end in negotiations because they are so vicious and so fratricidal that splitting the difference at the end of the day is not possible.

BAIER: At one point when you talked about Syria, the response from the administration or allies of the administration was, listen, we're getting the chemical weapons out of there. But the problem is that now they're not even getting that. Syria is missing deadline after deadline of the stockpiles and the actual weapons coming out of there. So even that positive is no longer a positive.

HAYES: That's because nobody takes our red line seriously. The president, whether he's talking about Ukraine today, or whether he's talking about Syria, whether he's talking about Iran, he has declared these red lines time and again and watched as you've had those on the receiving end of the warnings cross them with impunity. This is the problem when you don't follow through on the things that you say, especially when you talk tough. The problem is that nobody listens anymore.

BAIER: Next up, the president on Ukraine and we'll talk about Venezuela as well.

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