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Exploring 'The Price of Security'

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Tomorrow the Discovery Channel will air a documentary that explores how this country has changed since 9/11. The program is called The Price of Security.

(Soundbite of The Price of Security)

Unidentified Man: A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and Constitution to protect them and their civil liberties.

As of today we're changing the laws governing information sharing.

WERTHEIMER: The documentary is hosted and reported by NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel, and he joins us now to talk about it. Welcome, Ted.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Your documentary is about the choices this country's leaders have made over the last five years in what they say is an effort to protect us all from future terrorist attacks, and it's about balancing those choices. Is that the price of security?

KOPPEL: It is the price of security, but while most of us have tended to focus on what is visible - that is, having to take your shoes off at the airport and the fact that you can't take liquids and gels through anymore - beneath the radar, all kinds of things have been going on.

Data mining used for intelligence purposes. The fact that if you are accused of something related to terrorism, the entire paradigm of you're innocent until convicted is turned on its head. There have been some major changes in this country.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the president talked about - right after the event, 9/11 - about finding those responsible and bringing them to justice. And then you point out that privately he said the to the attorney general, who was at that point John Ashcroft, that he wanted him to prevent it from ever happening again.

And you quote an administration official as saying that what that meant was proactive, preemptive efforts to disrupt future attacks. Now, here's a short excerpt from the documentary. You'll hear Ted Koppel, of course, and then Assistant Attorney General Viet Din, who was involved in developing the response to 9/11.

(Soundbite of The Price of Security)

KOPPEL: Did anybody, Mr. Din, at some point or another, say, whoa, this is a - when you talk about a paradigm shift, it really is. This is huge. You're changing the way that America has done business with regard to criminal behavior.

Mr. VIET DIN (Assistant Attorney General): No question about it. Because once we think about looking at preventive prosecution, we start recognizing the potential danger of infringing on core values like civil liberties or privacy.

WERTHEIMER: Paradigm shift, preventive prosecution - what does all that mean?

KOPPEL: What it all means is that the - when the president talked about this criminal act, it was really the first and last time that he referred to it in that context. Thereafter, he began to refer to it as an act of war and that the United States is in a posture of fighting a war.

The obvious statement that the administration has made many times - when I say it's obvious, it is obviously correct - is in one sense you cannot wait until after the crime has been committed if the crime potentially is the use by terrorists of a weapon of mass destruction against a major American city. You've got to do everything you can to prevent that from happening in the first place.

Do you believe that that is the threat? Well, many do, some don't. But clearly the administration does. And with that in mind, Viet Din and John Ashcroft and all the others were set the task of making sure it doesn't happen.

WERTHEIMER: Former White House Counsel Brad Berenson talks about the decision to treat 9/11 as an act of war rather than a crime in your documentary. And he says the fear that animates the Bush administration is in a nuclear attack on a city like, you know, like this city or London...

KOPPEL: Exactly.

WERTHEIMER: ...or Brussels or Chicago.

(Soundbite of The Price of Security)

Mr. BRAD BERENSON (Former White House Counsel): And so the people who are fighting this war see themselves, I think rightly, as being in an existential struggle for our way of life and for the values that everybody in the United States, from the furthest left to the furthest right, really shares and holds dear.

WERTHEIMER: It's such an interesting kind of way that he sort of flips over the idea of rights and values.

KOPPEL: Well, in a sense, I mean it's almost an echo of what that famous colonel said during the Vietnam War. We had to destroy the village to save it. What he is saying is that we have to inhibit certain American rights, which we recognize as being Constitutional rights - certain liberties, certain privacies - in order to protect the larger rights that we all hold dear.

Now, if you buy the notion that you can do that, that you can just sort of tweak rights - you have slightly fewer rights than you had before, but don't worry about, we won't take any more away from you - that makes perfectly good sense. The danger is, you may be on a slippery slope, and once you start taking rights away, where do you draw the line?

WERTHEIMER: You studied the questions that you raised in this documentary for months and worked on it for a long time. Do you think America is safer than she was five years ago?

KOPPEL: I don't think you can look around the world and say that we are safer. Five years ago, we were dealing with 19 terrorists who worked for an organization which our intelligence agencies estimated at no more than a couple of thousand men for the most part.

I think we have in one sense, we have raised Osama bin Laden to the level of an international superstar. And we have turned al-Qaida into the most successful franchise operation since McDonald's. I can't see that terrorism has been diminished or that the number of terrorists have been diminished. We are clearly no better off today in Iraq than we were a few years - I mean quite clearly that optimistic banner that was unfurled behind the president on the aircraft carrier of mission accomplished was drastically and tragically overly optimistic.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much for talking to us about this project.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppel. His documentary, The Price of Security, airs tomorrow on the Discovery Channel. NPR will simulcast a town meeting on many NPR stations and it will accompany the documentary. Our coverage will be hosted by NPR's Neal Conan beginning at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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