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NBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript: Al Qaeda and NSA Surveillance

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DAVID GREGORY:
Andrea, you'll be with us. We'll talk more about this and other matters, thank you very much. Let me turn now to the Vice Chair of the Intelligence Committee, Republican senator from Georgia, Saxby Chambliss as well as the Assistant Majority Leader in the Senate, the Democratic senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin. Senators, welcome. Senator Chambliss, let me start with you. Your Republican colleague in the House, Peter King said, "This Al Qaeda threat is the most significant that we have seen in many years." What have you been told about it?

SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS:
Well, the one thing that we can talk about David is the fact that there's been an awful lot of chatter out there. Chatter means conversation among terrorists about the planning that's going on. Very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11. We didn't take heed on 9/11 in a way that we should, but here I think it's very important that we do take the right kind of planning as we come to the close of Ramadan.

We know that's always an interesting time for terrorists. We're also, what, 38 days, 37 days away from the September 11th anniversary. So we're paying very, very close attention to the chatter that's going on. And I can tell you, David, this is the most serious threat that I've seen in the last several years.

DAVID GREGORY:
Can I just press a little bit? What makes it so serious? Is it the nature of what the attack could be? Is it that it could be in different places? Because we have such a wide area here that's being covered.

SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS:
Well, obviously we don't know where the location is. That's part of the problem. But what we have heard is some specifics on what's intended to be done. And some individuals who are making plans such as we saw before 9/11. Whether there are going to be suicide vests that are used or whether they're planning on vehicle-borne bombs being carried under an area, we don't know. But we're hearing some kind of that same chatter, David, that we heard pre-11 leading up to anecdotes like that taking place by the terrorists.

DAVID GREGORY:
Senator Durbin, the Benghazi attack became not only a tragedy, but also a politicized event in our national security debate. Here you've got embassies that are being protected, they're being closed down. Is this a big deal or a big reaction?

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
No, it's a big deal. Vice President Biden gave us a classified briefing this last week. They identified more than 25 of our embassies around the world that are particularly vulnerable. More than 25. In the Defense Appropriations bill, which we wrote and sent to committee this week, I included $48 million specifically to upgrade in 35 embassies around the world the security that we need. We need to protect the people who are out there representing us, we need to know and realize we're living in an increasingly-dangerous world. And this specific threat that we've been briefed on over and over again has reached a new level.

DAVID GREGORY:
And Senator, Chambliss, look, we're also in the middle of a big debate over surveillance programs. I've got to put the question to you directly. Are our surveillance programs what are giving us this stream of specific information, specific intelligence on this potential plot?

SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS:
Well, that's kind of interesting, David, because in fact they are. These programs are controversial, we understand that, they're very sensitive, but they're also very important because they're what allow us to have the ability to gather this chatter that I referred to. If we did not have these programs, then we simply wouldn't be able to listen in on the bad guys.

And I will say that it's the 702 Program that has allowed us to pick up on this chatter. That's the program that allows us to listen overseas. Not on a domestic soul, but overseas. And that's where all the planning is taking place, we think that's where the activities is planned for. So yes, these programs, even though they're controversial, this is a good indication of why they're so important.

DAVID GREGORY:
And this is a key part of the debate, Senator Durbin. It was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, your colleague, Senator Leahy who said, "Wait a minute, I know the N.S.A. tells us 54 plots in one way or another have been thwarted," because of the program Senator Chambliss is referring to. He says, "That's a bit of an overstatement." And he said it in open testimony this week, listen.

SENATOR LEAHY (ON TAPE):
Well, (UNINTEL) open testimonies that Section 215 helped to thwart or prevent 54 terrorist plots. Not by any stretch can you get 54 terrorist plots. This program is not effective, it has to end. So far I'm not convinced by what I've seen.

DAVID GREGORY:
Do you agree with that?

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
We had a meeting in the White House, Saxby and I attended it with the president. There were about ten of us, Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate. And we spent an hour and a half with the president in the Oval Office, an hour and a half, going over this N.S.A., debating it back and forth. The N.S.A. 215 Program that we're talking about here is a program on domestic surveillance.

In other words, do we need to collect all of the phone records of all of the people living in America for five years so that if we're going to target one particular person, we're ready to jump on it. That is being discussed and debated. The president is open to suggestions to make this stronger and more responsive and transparent.

DAVID GREGORY:
Well, what's your suggestion? Because--

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
But secondly, the--

DAVID GREGORY:
--the N.S.A. argues you can't have half a haystack. You've got to have basically all the numbers in the United States if you're going to be able to match it against what Senator Chambliss talked about, a bad guy overseas talking to somebody in the United States.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
That's one of two questions. First is how much do you need to collect, who should hold this, does the government need all this information on everybody in this country? That's the first preliminary question that we're going to address. The second is the FISA court, this court we know very little about, it isn't public, how much authority should it have, what checks should be in place to make sure that there is at least an adversarial proceeding there when it comes to the issue of privacy and security. So I think that we're open to changes in both, the president is committed to the safety of this country. But let's do everything we can to protect the privacy of innocent Americans.

DAVID GREGORY:
You know, the secrecy, Senator Chambliss, surrounding these programs is, of course the intelligence community tells us, necessary. And they say, "Look, the executive branch, all branches of government are involved in checks and balances." And yet, you have frustrated members of Congress like your colleagues who have put some of these questions, who tried to force this into the open a little bit, and you have the director of National Intelligence-- Mr. Clapper who appeared on Capitol Hill, James Clapper, and had this exchange that was not leveling with the American people. Watch.

SENATOR WYDEN (ON TAPE):
Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

JAMES CLAPPER (ON TAPE):
No sir.

SENATOR WYDEN (ON TAPE):
It does not?

JAMES CLAPPER (ON TAPE):
Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect. But not wittingly.

DAVID GREGORY:
James Clapper told our Andrea Mitchell after that testimony that was the least untruthful answer he could give. Now this morning The Guardian Newspaper is reporting that members of Congress who want more information, now that it's been leaked and been in public is still not learning about the true extent and depth and breadth of these surveillance programs.

SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS:
Well, if they are it's their own fault because all they have to do is ask. And we make available within the confines of the intelligence community where, it's what we call a skip, where classified information can be reviewed. All members of Congress have the ability to come in and review most of the documents that are involved in these programs.

Not all of them, but most of them. And I'm not going to defend General Clapper there. He can defend himself. But the fact is, Senator Wyden knew the answer to that question when he asked it. He knew that he was asking about a classified program. And yet, he still asked the question. It put the general in a very, very difficult position. But again, we go back to the fact that as Dick said, we do gather an awful lot of information.

And if you could tell us who the bad guys are, I assure you, we'd limit it to gathering on just the bad guys. But we don't know. But this information is not shared. There's an article out today talking about the complaints from other federal agencies who don't have the benefit of this information. So the N.S.A. does do a pretty good job of keeping the information within the law enforcement community only. And not sharing it around all federal agencies.

DAVID GREGORY:
I've got less than a minute left, and I want to ask about what one columnist called "Gridlock among Republicans" this morning. And it's about the domestic debate over funding the government, defunding Obamacare in some circumstances. Republicans, Senator, as you know, are divided about this. Senator Ted Cruz, appearing with Glenn Beck on Monday said, "It's about one thing, and that's fear." This is what he said.

TED CRUZ (ON TAPE):
What I can tell you is there are a lot of Republicans in Washington who are scared. They're scared of being beaten up politically.

DAVID GREGORY:
Are you scared about taking on the president over the budget?

SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS:
Well, I think Dick knows that I hadn't been afraid to step out and take on my own party and take on others within the administration to make sure that we do the right thing. I've never been scared since I've been in D.C. other than when I get classified briefings. So I appreciate Senator Cruz's passion, his intent to want to defund Obamacare. I'd love to do it too. But shutting down the government and playing into the hands of the president politically is not the right thing to do. Plus, it's going to do great harm to the American people if we pursue that course. We've been there. It didn't work.

DAVID GREGORY:
Senator Durbin, final point here, with a few seconds left.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
I can just tell you, Senator Cruz is part of a few extreme people in the Senate when it comes to this subject, calling for shutting down the government of the United States, even shutting down the American economy to make his political point. That's not the right way to go. Senator Chambliss and I have worked on a bipartisan basis, we are producing bipartisan appropriations bills which have been held up on the floor of the Senate. It is time for us to work together. The American people are sick and tired of this political gamesmanship.

DAVID GREGORY:
All right, we'll leave it there. Senator Durbin, Senator Chambliss, thank you both very much. I appreciate it.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN:
Thank you.

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