Transcript of Peter Mansbridge's interview with PM Stephen Harper

Transcript of the interview between CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge and Prime Minister Stephen Harper at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, as aired on The National on Sept. 8, 2011.

9/11, 10 years later

Transcript of the interview between CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge and Prime Minister Stephen Harper at 24 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, as aired on The National on Sept. 8, 2011.

MANSBRIDGE: Prime minister, I was kind of surprised this week when I read a survey that suggested that most Canadians still feel that the war on terror can't be won, that Afghanistan wasn't worth the cost, and that the world is not a better place 10 years later. Would you agree with that?

HARPER: Well, I wouldn't agree with all of that. I certainly think in terms of Afghanistan, the international community went into Afghanistan and, you know, despite some well-known failures there, the fact of the matter is today Afghanistan is not a safe harbour for terrorists to launch attacks in other parts of the globe. The war on terror, can it be won? You know, there's ... the truth of the matter is there's so many different possibilities, manifestations of terrorism I think it is a case that we will have to be perpetually vigilant and we'll have to have appropriate security apparatus and intelligence apparatus that is trying to identify plots or terror events before they happen. And I just think that's going to be an ongoing reality, and that's, you know, that's just ... that's just life going forward I think in the 21st century, unfortunately.

MANSBRIDGE: How about the world being a better place?

HARPER: A better place? Well, I ... look, I tend to think the world's a better place. When I look at the course of my lifetime, you know, the fact that we have a much wealthier world, a globalized economy, a lot of people who were in poverty 10 years ago are not in poverty today. You know, we don't have the Soviet menace that we once had. So I think in many ways, the world is a better place. Is the world a perfect place? Absolutely not. The world's still a very dangerous place in very many parts of the ... of the planet, and a lot of those things, because of the age in which we live, become direct threats to us.

MANSBRIDGE: You mentioned how you were sitting at home that day on 9/11, and you were watching it with your wife. You were a private citizen then. Things have changed a lot in your life in 10 years. How did that day change you personally?

HARPER: Well, you know, it's funny, Peter. I was a private citizen, but I was at home. I was actually a bit under the weather is the truth of the matter, but I was just in the kind of first phases of my leadership campaign to return to politics. And you know, I think it changed us all in that it just made us aware of how vulnerable we really can be if we don't keep our guard up. Now then, of course, I was truly a private citizen. It's very different now. I'm now the person responsible for, you know, for being vigilant against this kind of event. That's a big responsibility some days.

MANSBRIDGE: And how much of your day does that consume? And I ask you that, because I've, you know, I've talked to a number of people who are kind of in one way or another related to the security aspect of this country, and they talk about how you are adamant about intelligence briefings. And they don't say this in a bad way. They say it in a way that they respect, that you want intelligence and you're hard in the briefings in terms of demanding information. Is that a fair assessment of you on this role?

HARPER: The one thing about being prime minister is a million things come across your desk, and I try and stay well-briefed on, you know, most things. At the same time, I try not to get too far into the weeds on anything. And that's really how I handle security and intelligence matters. I do get briefed regularly. It'd be hard for me to put a percentage on it, but you know, it's a part of ... certainly a part of something I do every week, a significant amount of hours every week. 

MANSBRIDGE: It wasn't long after you became prime minister that the security establishment was able to tap into what was a serious threat.

HARPER: Right.

MANSBRIDGE: And more than a dozen people were arrested in Toronto, and some of the horror stories associated as to what they were planning in terms of blowing up Parliament, assassinating the leaders, including the prime minister. How do you deal with that, not yourself, because I assume some of that comes with the territory, but you've got to come home here and talk to your family. One assumes they are witness to that. They've heard about it. They've seen it. What do you say?

HARPER: Well, you know, it's probably more difficult for them than for me, because I fully understand it. For them, you know, they're not ... they're not as aware ... I don't give out detailed information to anybody. They're not as truly aware of the threats as I am, and you know, and sometimes, sometimes the unknown, and sometimes also just the burden of the personal security I think bothers them a little bit more than it bothers me, but you know, that's ultimately what, as you know, that's what you worry the most about in all this, is your family.

MANSBRIDGE: Has it taken away some of the childhood innocence of Ben and Rachel?

HARPER: Well, we've tried to shelter them a bit from that, but I think they're getting to the age where that's disappearing anyway, for other reasons.

MANSBRIDGE: All right. Let's move it to how it's changed the country, and you've touched on this. It's interesting, because I've been reading this book — it's not out yet, but it's Richard Gwynne, the author. It's volume two of his book on Sir John A. MacDonald.


MANSBRIDGE: And it's basically from Confederation onward. And it's a fascinating book with all kinds of new disclosures, certainly new to me. But one of the things I find interesting is the goal that seems to be driving MacDonald is to ensure that that tug south doesn't happen, that the United States, many of its leaders, were openly saying they wanted Canada as part of their territory. It's interesting reading it now, though, with times considerably different, challenges very different in this country, and yet you wonder, especially in the post-9/11 world, whether we have lost some of that independence from the U.S.?

HARPER: I don't, no, I don't think so at all. I think what we try and do as Canadians is we try to use our independence, our sovereignty intelligently for our own benefit. Look, obviously when we share a border with the United States, they have certain security concerns, most of which I think are quite valid. It's incumbent upon us, if we want true interaction with them, to respond to their concerns and to try and work with them on joint systems around the border. I think this just makes common sense. If we, you know, if we wanted to be entirely isolated from the United States, we wouldn't have to do that. But we don't want that. So look, I think we just use our independence intelligently. I think we've seen through this entire last couple of years of the recession the ability of Canada to set its own policies and have its own results, even when the United States may be on a different and frankly a less good track than this country. 

MANSBRIDGE: But on the security front, where do we draw the line in terms of where the decision is ours and ours solely, that it isn't a joint decision?

HARPER: Well, I think things around the border are either going to be joint or they're going to be one side, in this case the United States, imposing something on us. So that's why I think it makes sense, and previous governments have agreed it makes sense for us to work with them. Look, I think when we're sitting down with the United States on these latest sets of negotiations around this security perimeter, you know, we have certain legal bottom lines in terms of certain rights, charter protections that are expected, certain privacy rights. And those are the bottom lines for us. You know, I think we've got an administration in the United States that also understands and has some sympathy for our bottom lines as well.

MANSBRIDGE: The U.S. ambassador was interesting in an interview he gave the other day with Tonda MacCharles of the Toronto Star. He kind of wondered aloud, or more than wondered, he basically said that the U.S. is more focused, more concerned on security than Canada is. Do you think that's right?

HARPER: I think it is true. I would say that probably eight, nine years ago that was probably extreme. United States security was all they were focused on, and that was not so much the case in this country. I think we've stepped up our game in terms of security. I think the Toronto 18 plot that you mentioned is, quite frankly, an example of the heightened sense of security, and action on the security front in this country. At the same time, I do think things have started to come a bit back into balance in the United States.

MANSBRIDGE: Because, you know, many Canadians feel there is this perception in the States that we don't.  That we're lax on security. And they're unsure as to whether that's really changed since 9/11. Every once in a while you hear an elected U.S. official, you know, talk about how in their view the 9/11 hijackers came from Canada, though everyone knows..

HARPER: …That’s completely false.

MANSBRIDGE: But those perceptions still exist 10 years on, on the part of some people who clearly shouldn't have them. How has that happened? Why have we not been able to turn that page?

HARPER: Well, you know, I think we have made progress, Peter. I don't think many knowledgeable people think that. In fact, I think to the extent we used to be perceived as lax on security, I think that's diminished considerably. Will it ever go away? Probably not. There will, you know, there will always be an element in any country of people who want to blame their problems on somebody else, who want to say, "Well, it didn't really happen here. It must have come from somewhere else. The fact of the matter was that's not the case. So I just think that's, there's always going to be a segment like that, but do I think that really reflects the views of American decision makers? I don't think so.

MANSBRIDGE: I guess if it doesn't, then we must have some chips at the table on these discussions about the new security perimeter, in the sense that American officials, if they believe, like you're suggesting, that we have ... that we're different on the security front than they thought we were, that must help us in these negotiations.

HARPER: Yeah, no, I think we're going to get a good action plan coming out of this very shortly, and...

MANSBRIDGE: Very shortly?

HARPER: Yeah, it will be ... I'm optimistic it'll be coming pretty soon.

MANSBRIDGE: This year?

HARPER: And it'll be ... yeah, pretty comprehensive. We've had good discussions with the Americans, and on both security and the trade fronts, I think our ambition to do something's pretty high.

MANSBRIDGE: Now, this is a pretty wide-ranging deal, one assumes, here.


MANSBRIDGE: The U.S. ambassador, to take his words once again, thinks that perhaps both sides should have been more forthcoming, or should be more forthcoming about what's being discussed, what's being agreed to.

HARPER: Well, there's been lots of consultation with business and other community leaders. But look, we haven't finished even the action plan yet, so we have to put that together, and then we'll go from there, and once we have the action plan, then obviously we'll be, if necessary, having to put specific individual measures up for debate and votes, but look, I think Canadians, you know, I think, Peter, Canadians long ago crossed the threshold where they said that co-operating with the U.S. or trading with the U.S., that these things somehow are sellouts of Canada. I think Canadians are way past that.

MANSBRIDGE: One other question on how the country's changed, and I guess it's a question of values, and in some way relates back to something you said earlier about that, that your assessment of the gap between the first world, the rich world, and the Third World, the poor world, has perhaps narrowed somewhat in the last 10 years.

HARPER: At least with certain countries, for sure.

MANSBRIDGE: With certain countries. Let me … you know, nine years ago right now I interviewed the then-prime minister Jean Chrétien, and his remarks on the first anniversary were seen by some as a suggestion that we'd somehow brought this on ourselves. This is just two sentences here of what he said. "I do think that the western world is getting too rich in relation to the poor world, and necessarily we're looked upon as being arrogant, self-satisfied, greedy, and with no limits, and the 11th of September is an occasion for me to realize it even more." Now, he got pretty criticized for those remarks.

HARPER: And I think he deserved it.


HARPER: Yeah. Absolutely. Nobody who was killed on 9/11 deserved it remotely. It was a terrible thing, has nothing to do with wealth versus poverty. It has to do with, in this case, a particular hateful ideology that has attacked people around the world, not just affluent societies like our own, but some pretty poor places. You know, I think the people killed in Indonesia, in India. The fact that Afghanistan became a failed state, where you know, people just essentially lived in not just poverty, but brutality, to the point where a kind of Islamic fascist regime literally invited terrorists, international terrorists to set up camp in their country. I think that that kind of situation obviously bred a threat, and that's why we are so worried when we look around the world now at other places where the same thing could happen. You know, I think you know some of them: Somalia, Yemen, that are there or at that kind of stage. That's the kind of thing I think we really have to worry about, where you have not just poverty, but poverty and literally lawlessness becomes the nature of the state. And I do think it's in our broader interests and the right thing to do to try and help people and help countries so that they don't get into that situation. That's why, you know, we obviously are helping with the famine in East Africa. It's why we're so involved in Haiti. Not to have that kind of a state in our own backyard. So those, I think those kinds of situations are very dangerous.

MANSBRIDGE: Couple of closing questions. Where's the major threat to us as a country right now? Where does it come from?

HARPER: Well, you know, Peter, there are a number of threats on different levels, but if you look at, if we're talking about terrorism, I mean, the major threat is still Islamicism. There are other threats out there, but that is the one that I can tell you occupies the security apparatus most regularly in terms of actual terrorist threats. Now, as we've seen in Norway, terrorist threats can come out of the blue. It can come from something completely different, and there are other groups and individuals that if given the chance would engage in terrorism. But that one is probably still the major one. But it's diffused. You know, it ranges all the way, when people think of Islamic terrorism, they think of Afghanistan, or maybe they think of someplace in the Middle East, but the truth is that threat exists all over the world. We've seen some recent bombings in Nigeria, domestic Nigerian terrorists.

MANSBRIDGE: Homegrown Islamicism as well?

HARPER: Homegrown is also something that we keep an eye on.

MANSBRIDGE: In terms of how you counter that, a number of clauses were brought in in 2001 that were sunset in 2007. Your last government tried to bring those back — preventive arrests, and the other — will you try to bring those back in the new government?

HARPER: That is our plan. We think those measures are necessary. We think they've been useful. And as you know, they're applied rarely, but there are times where they're needed.

MANSBRIDGE: Why are they needed now?

HARPER: Well, as I say, I don't think the threats have gone away, Peter. We've become better at identifying them and thwarting them, but they certainly have not gone away. And you know, I do think that there are times where extraordinary tools are necessary.

MANSBRIDGE: Is the threat any less because we're out of the combat role in Afghanistan?


MANSBRIDGE: Because there was this sense, and some of the earlier messages from al-Qaeda were "You're there. Unless you get out, you're a target."

HARPER: Yeah, well, we were a target anyway. Look, al-Qaeda and people who represent ... that's ... you know, those kinds of organizations — it's not a single organization, as you know — they hate people like us regardless. It doesn't matter whether we're in Afghanistan or not. You know, we're not being attacked because we were in Afghanistan. We're in Afghanistan because we were attacked on September the 11th.

MANSBRIDGE: How has the country changed in your view? When you look at Canada on the world stage in 2011, how is it different than it was in 2001?

HARPER: Well, you know, I think this country — you've heard me say this before — I think this country's become more self-confident in the past 10 years. That's probably got more to do with the relative performance of our economy. Other little things like Canada's, maybe not so little, Canada's success in the Olympics. But I also think the other thing that's changed, partly because of 9/11, so many other things, is Canadians increasingly realize we live in a global community. And I think Canadians have become more engaged, not just you know, willingness to do what we did in Libya, but also the big assistance you see for Canadian activities in places like Haiti from the population. I think Canadians are more dedicated to service here and around the world. That's something we're actually going to be recognizing in this country, September the 11th as a national day of service, because, you know, it begins with the people in Gander who put up ... who put up foreigners during the shutdown of the air transport system, and also to recognize obviously the contributions of our military people. So as I say, I think Canadians, you know, that's a change in Canadians' outlook, but I think it's one that's necessary and good.

MANSBRIDGE: Last question. And I guess it's probably the question on the minds of most Canadians as they, you know, go to bed this week. Are we safer? Are we actually safer as a people today than we were 10 years ago?

HARPER: You know, Peter, I think we are, and it might seem to people — I can understand why it seems to people that we aren't, because prior to 9/11, as I said, we were in the period of the so-called peace dividend, and I don't think Canadians, Americans, most people were aware of the range of terrorism threats against us. An irony in our case, because as you know, we had our most serious terrorist incident in 1985, long before 9/11, the Air India bombing. But in any case, Canadians just didn't see it that way, and today they do. So it seems while we weren't worrying about 10 years ago, now we're worrying about it; it must be worse. I actually think it's the opposite. Ten years ago, we weren't worrying about it, and it was an enormous threat, and a lot of things could have happened because the focus that should have been there was not. Today we are much more focused on it. We are much more concerned about it. We're much more able to detect and thwart terrorism than before. But it's obviously because we have a heightened awareness, we think we're less safe. But I think the threat was really when we didn't have that awareness.

MANSBRIDGE: Prime Minister, thanks very much.

HARPER: Thanks for having me.