House Homeland Security Chair Reacts To NY Bomb Scare

Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, is in custody for his alleged role in the attempted car bombing of Times Square in New York. Host Michel Martin speaks with Congressman Bennie Thompson, Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, about how the case reflects on current security policy, and what might change going forward.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

As you might imagine, we're going to spend some time today digging into the developments in the case of that weekend's failed car bomb attack in Times Square.

Early this morning, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the arrest of Faisal Shahzad, who was accused of having bought a car over the Internet and filled it with a homemade explosive device and leaving it to explode in Times Square. Shahzad is a 30-year-old naturalized American citizen from Pakistan who was removed from a flight on his way to Dubai en route to Pakistan.

In a few minutes we'll speak with one of our regular contributors, Arsalan Iftikhar. He's a civil rights attorney and an author and a community activist. Also, we'll hear from a scholar who specializes in Pakistan and Pakistani-U.S. relations.

But first, for the latest information, we turn to Congressman Bennie Thompson. He is the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security and he's with us from his home office in Bolton, Mississippi. Congressman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Representative BENNIE THOMPSON (Democrat, Mississippi): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: As you I'm sure know, the Pakistani Taliban took credit for the attempted bombing. But the suspect, authorities tell us, has already told them he acted alone. Do you have any knowledge of which of those versions is true?

Rep. THOMPSON: Well, I've heard both and the only information we have that we're going on is primarily what the individual is saying himself. Obviously, we will continue to pursue any of those avenues as long as the investigation continues.

MARTIN: Are there any lessons to be drawn from this to this point?

Rep. THOMPSON: Well, to be honest with you, this confirms suspicions that some of us have had for quite a while that while we've been successful at keeping international terrorists from coming to U.S. soil, the whole notion of homegrown terrorism has risen to a new level with this incident in that we have someone who was a naturalized citizen living here. And we're not sure how that person became radicalized or whatever the circumstances are, but obviously it raises a significant red flag for all of us.

MARTIN: What are the red flags? You're saying he did, or - what's the red flag?

Rep. THOMPSON: Well, the whole notion that individuals could be here in the U.S. for a period of time, demonstrated no real radical notions or ideas or associations. And all of a sudden, a situation like this would occur from somebody who really wasn't on anyone's radar screen. And so the question for our government is how do we create as robust a system as possible to protect American citizens from individuals like this?

MARTIN: And to that point, as you've mentioned, there have been a number of incidents involving people who were born here, but who have ties to other countries, but there have been a number of countries and places that people have ties that have been involved in incidents.

There was this incident in December where these five young men from Northern Virginia, two of whom were Pakistani-American, two of whom were Yemeni Americans, one is Egyptian, who was arrested in Pakistan. There are these young Somali men who, from Minnesota, who have been connected to terrorist groups in Somalia.

Is there any particular part of the world that's a focus for concern or do you think it's people of a certain age? Do you think there's a recruitment effort involved here or do you think that things are just individuals who, for whatever reason, are attracted to this kind of...

Rep. THOMPSON: Well, I think the sole determinant at this point we've not been able to put a definition to. We've seen young people, we've seen middle-aged people. We've seen people from different parts of the world. We just know that the more situations like this occur, obviously we have to put systems together to help.

One of the things we have been recommending to approach this is to get state and local law enforcement involved in outreach to immigrant communities so that there is the confidence level that we are here to protect anyone who's on our soil, and anyone who is trying to harm us is also harming your people, too.

So we are in the process of continuing to try to model a preventative program to help identify and prevent situations like this occurring. But as you know, it's a work in progress.

MARTIN: Well, we hope you'll keep us posted.

Rep. THOMPSON: Well, we will and I'd like to, again, compliment all those individuals who worked with the New York incident, the customs and border protection people actually did an outstanding job at the last moment to catch this individual. And so in this instance, the system worked.

MARTIN: Congressman Bennie Thompson chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security. He's a Democrat, of course, and he represents Mississippi's second district and he joined us from his home office. Congressman Thompson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rep. THOMPSON: Thank you for having me.

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