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CNN "State of the Union with Candy Crowley" - Transcript: Al-Qaeda Planning Attack

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CROWLEY: Joining me now, Congressman Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Thank you, congressman for being here. I want you to clear up a couple of things from me that I think people must be sort of mulling over in their head. From what you have seen in terms of intelligence reports and what you can tell us, which I understand is limited, how imminent is this threat and how great is this threat?

SCHIFF: Well, I think we know a lot more about the when than the where. And you can tell that from the breadth of the closures across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. But the when was very specific in terms of a Sunday. Obviously, that may continue and the closures may continue. The travel warning is more extensive.

But this is not the usual kind of chatter, not the more generalized death to the Americans or death to great Satan, but had to be corroborated or come from very reliable sources to take this kind of action. So, I think we're doing what's necessary to protect our people. We're also protecting our sources. And, I think that's exactly the right step.

CROWLEY: There are also reports out there that there's a team of terrorists is already in place. From what you know, is this a single target event or is the fear that it's a multi-target event?

SCHIFF: Well, I think, given the breadth of the closures, you can tell there's concern about seeing something like we saw a year ago where there were riots and attacks at multiple embassies around the world. There has to be a lot of concern as well with the recent prison breaks in Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere where a lot of al Qaeda figures were released.

So, we have a lot of things coming together, including the significance of the end of Ramadan, that would raise our concern, but all of that would not be enough without having some particularly specific information. So, you know, I think we're taking the precautions we should.

We obviously have our military forces deployed in a different way than we did a year ago so that they can take rapid action if necessary. But the concern is a broad one. Hopefully, we'll fend off this attack.

CROWLEY: Senator Graham just told me that he thinks that these threats are yet another reason for those who have been critics of the national security agencies, the depth and the breadth of their intelligence collecting. It should show that that depth and that breadth should stay there. You've been a critic of the sheer reach of the NSA. Does this make you change your mind?

SCHIFF: It doesn't, and I think you have to be very careful about how much you represent that any particular program has contributed to our security. And I know Senator Graham said that this shows that we need to continue these particular programs, but if you look at the one that's most at issue here, that's the bulk metadata program, there's no indication, unless I'm proved wrong later that that program which collects vast amounts of domestic data, domestic telephony data, contributed to information about this particular plot.

And I think that with respect to any of the NSA programs, we need to ask ourselves three questions, we need to ask whether it's constitutional, whether it's effective, and whether it's structured in a way that minimizes any unnecessary imposition on our privacy. And if you look at that third criteria, I don't think the metadata program can survive in its current form.

I've been urging the NSA for some time to restructure the program so that the telephone companies hold on to their own data. There's no reason for the government to obtain all that.

CROWLEY: OK.

SCHIFF: We can still go to those companies when necessary. CROWLEY: Congressman, I want to bring in a couple of other folks in this conversation. Our CNN national security analyst, Peter Bergen, who's written extensively about al Qaeda, and Fran Townsend, a former homeland security adviser to President Bush, she's also a member of the CIA external advisory board. Thank you both for being here. And let me just throw this out there for all of you.

If you are an American traveling abroad and someone says to you, hey, there's a global terrorist alert here, be careful. I can just imagine sitting there in my hotel room in Paris thinking, what am I supposed to do here? What are they supposed to do? What does that even mean?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL; SECURITY ANALYST: I think go ahead and take the trip. I mean, unless, you're planning a vacation in Afghanistan and you plan to, you know, check into a hotel right next to the U.S. embassy. I mean, you know, so, exercising common sense is really what's required here.

CROWLEY: Congressman, it just seems pretty vague and almost something like that the U.S. has to do, but there's nothing specific for tourists or Americans, expats to do really.

SCHIFF: Well, I think Peter's right. All we can do is take reasonable precautions. There may be certain places that tourists were going to go that they want to write off for this time and this trip, but, you know, I think that all we can do is ask for prudence here, and I think that also we're seeing some of the Benghazi effect here.

We don't want to have another terrible loss of life, and so we're taking a very broad response to this to make sure that we're prepared as possible. But being vigilant, participating in the step program with the state department, these are some reasonable steps people can take.

CROWLEY: And Fran, let me just turn you in a slightly different direction. If nothing happens today, certainly, we hope that's the case, what makes tomorrow safer than today? What makes Tuesday safer than Monday or Wednesday? It just seems to me that this can be kind of -- I mean, you might as well just shut down forever because you can't be shut down awaiting a terrorist attack for whenever it's going to come.

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Candy, that's exactly right, and that's the challenge you always face with these threats. I will say that, you know, Congressman Schiff's comments suggesting that there's a particular focus on a Sunday explains why today, but I'll tell you operationally the reason you do this is it buys the government time, right?

Once you take targets away, it buys you additional time to try and disrupt, to identify the cell, the operators in country and the region, and work with your partners in the region to try and, you know, get them in custody or disrupt the plot. So, some of this operationally is about buying time. And I think that's why you see, you know, in Abu Dhabi, for example, they're saying there may be additional days that they need to announce closures until this threat -- the government is satisfied that they've disrupted this threat.

CROWLEY: I guess, congressman, though, that I would think, were I a terrorist, I'd just wait it out.

SCHIFF: And they may, but Fran makes a good point. As they're waiting for another target of opportunity, we're gathering more intelligence, and it may be it gives us the chance to take some of the leadership off the battlefield or to neutralize the threat or to reinforce our defenses. All of those options are far superior to not making this warning to suffering an attack and the potential loss of life. So it gains us time. It also, you're right, does tip off our adversaries, potentially, if we're not careful, to what the source of information or sources may be, but also they need to pick a better time or target of opportunity. But I think all of those risks and costs are worth it in terms of buying time for more intelligence and protecting our people.

CROWLEY: Congressman, Peter brings us a good point because not just we can bide our time. It's, hey, let's try a softer target here. And that's always a possibility. But as a final question, let me ask you this. I asked this of Senator Graham, if we all know what the intent of terrorism is. It's to make people afraid. Where is that line? When you have the government saying, we're going to shut down 22 embassies. There's this imminent threat. By the way, Americans, be really careful, and we're moving the military around in certain spots, it's getting pretty close to be afraid.

BERGEN: If we're not terrorized, terrorism doesn't work, yet, you know, the government is responsible for the safety of particularly its employees and...

CROWLEY: Sure.

BERGEN: ... all Americans. So, you know, no --

CROWLEY: And you don't want to be the guy that says, now we don't need to tell people and then have it --

BERGEN: You don't want to be the official a year from now sitting here on Capitol Hill testifying about an attack that you --

CROWLEY: Knew about.

BERGEN: Yes.

CROWLEY: Exactly. I hope all of you will stand by. Peter Bergen, Fran Townsend, Congressman Adam Schiff, for getting up so early California time, thank you.

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