December 22, 2003 | Broadcast

THE NEWS with Brian Williams

Mr. Woolsey, what are the chances — the feds had a vigorous debate about releasing a little bit more information. We reported a whole lot more at the top of this broadcast that we haven’t learned officially on the record from federal authorities.

JAMES WOOLSEY, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: A little bit more probably doesn’t affect the way most people behave. I think most of these alerts, Brian, are — to some extent, they’re for all of us, but, to a great extent, they’re really for law-enforcement authorities and people like…

Remember the Customs agent, the able woman who grabbed Ahmed Ressam just before the millennium celebrations trying to come over from Canada up near Seattle. She was probably a little bit more alert just before New Year’s there because we were all worried about terrorism at the time of the millennium.

It’s — I think, you know, the — the things that we’re getting, these sort of statements are probably to tell people to stay extra sharp and — especially the people who are first responders for us, people like Customs agents.

WILLIAMS: Assuming, for conversation’s sake, that part of our reporting is correct and what they’re worried about is al Qaeda having infiltrated a foreign airline, so, in effect, a pro pilot, safely and legally in the cockpit, would become a terrorist at some point during the flight and try to use the plane again as a weapon.

Isn’t it, as we discussed with another guest, beyond perverse that the notion of reinforced cockpits would help them carry out their mission?

WOOLSEY: That really is, yes, a terribly — it would be terrible if that were true, and it is an important — makes an important point, which is that the terrorists are smart, and they go for the jugular, and they look for weaknesses, including weaknesses that we may have created by some of the fixes that we’ve done.

That’s why dealing with terrorists is very different than building in resilience to something like California earthquakes. The earthquakes aren’t smart. They operate more or less the same way all the time, and so, if one makes buildings sway and make them resilient, one can deal with earthquakes pretty much the same way all the time, whereas a terrorist, unfortunately, learns.

It’s a different kind of resilience we have to build in to our economy and our infrastructure.

WILLIAMS: And I’m reminded of the Tom Friedman quote in “The New York Times” that lived well past 9/11 that it was more of a failure of intelligence, it was a failure of imagination. Knowing how this government works, as you do, are you convinced that enough imagination has been applied to the task these days?

WOOLSEY: Well, never really enough because we don’t want attacks to succeed at all, but probably the best we’re going to be able to do is construct our infrastructure in such a way that they don’t succeed catastrophically.

If, for example, we stockpiled transformers for the electricity grid, then if somebody attacked a transformer, we’d have a ready replacement. We don’t do that nearly enough. There are things we can do to build resilience in to our infrastructure.

But we’re not going to be able to get the kind of intelligence on individual terrorist operations that we thought we might get, for example, back during the Cold War if the Soviets were getting geared up to attack West Germany.

They had a big elaborate structure that we could watch in a lot of different ways. Terrorist cells are really hard to penetrate. This is a tough job.

WILLIAMS: Everyone’s trying to figure out kind of how to feel about this latest warning and what to do differently. Allow me to ask what was your personal reaction when you heard of this latest hike. Did it make sense to you?

WOOLSEY: I think it probably does. Unfortunately, this time of year would be a time that a lot of people would be traveling, and, therefore, terrorists might want to move. They might want to sort of stick their finger in our eye, so to speak, with respect to its being Hanukkah and Christmas.

It’s been over two years since they attacked here in the United States successfully, and, unfortunately, al Qaeda is very patient. So, even if they hadn’t been picking up chatter on the Internet from terrorist Web sites and the like, this would probably be a good time to stay alert, and now it looks like, unfortunately, it’s even more so.

WILLIAMS: Director Woolsey, it’s always a pleasure having you on. We appreciate you taking time this busy week to come on the broadcast.

WOOLSEY: Good to be with you, Brian.