Council on Foreign Relations
New York, N.Y.
NICHOLAS LEMANN: So, welcome everyone. My name is Nick Lemann. I’m the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and I’m here to ask questions to, and sort of field questions from you to Michael Scheuer, who you all know. I will just read his bio for the sake of formality, but here’s the book, “Imperial Hubris,” which I am sure many of you read. And let me just read this quickly. [The] New York Times and [The] Washington Post bestseller, “Imperial Hubris” was originally published anonymously, as required by the counterintelligence. Its author is Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, who resigned in November 2004 after nearly two decades of experience in national security issues related to Afghanistan and South Asia. As Anonymous, he is also the author of “Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America.” Scheuer has been featured on many national and international television news programs, interviewed for broadcast media and documentary, and has been the focus of print media worldwide, and now the ultimately appearing at the Council on Foreign Relations. [Laughter]
I wanted to start—I was going to just kind of walk you through, or get you to walk us through, the contents of the book, but I thought a nice timely way to do that would be to offer up to you a quotation from last night’s State of the Union address by President Bush and get your response. Mr. Scheuer told me before that he did not see the speech, but as I see it—and correct me if I’m wrong—the book is a kind of argument against a thesis, and here we have from last night a succinct statement of the thesis. So give me just two minutes, and I’ll read this passage and then ask you what you think: “In the long term, the peace we seek will be”--I’m sorry—“will only be achieved by eliminating the conditions that feed radicalism and ideologies of murder. If whole regions of the world remain in despair and grow in hatred, they will be the recruiting grounds for terror, and that terror will stalk America and other free nations for decades. The only force powerful enough to stop the rise of tyranny and terror, and replace hatred with hope, is the force of human freedom. Our enemies know this, and that is why the terrorist [Abu Musab al] Zarqawi recently declared war on what he called the “evil principle’ of democracy. And we have declared our own intention: America will stand with the allies of freedom to support democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
“The United States has no right, no desire, and no intention to impose our form of government on anybody else. This is one of the main differences between us and our enemies. They seek to impose and expand an empire of oppression, in which a tiny group of brutal, self-appointed rulers control every aspect of every life. Our aim is to build and preserve a community of free and independent nations, with governments that answer to their citizens and reflect their own cultures. And because democracies respect their own people and their neighbors, the advance of freedom will lead to peace.
“That advance has great momentum in our time, shown by women voting in Afghanistan and Palestinians choosing a new direction, and the people of Ukraine asserting their democratic rights and electing a president. We are witnessing landmark events in the history of liberty, and in the coming years, we will add to that story.” So what do you think? [Laughter]
MICHAEL SCHEUER: I’m convinced. I no longer—
LEMANN: You’re renouncing—
SCHEUER: Yes, I think it’s just warmed-up Wilsonianism. It is finding a port in the storm after you’ve made a tremendous mistake—we can cover it with ridding the world of tyranny. But clearly—and the president fell back on the idea that bad economics and poor education, bad sanitation and the rest of that stuff, is the spawning of the attacks against us, which is entirely not the case in this particular instance. We’re still grasping or groping around to try to find out why we’re being attacked, and it has nothing to do with who we are or what we believe in. It has to do with what we do in the world, or at least in the Islamic world. And I still believe that until there is a separation of church and state in Islam, the idea of installing democracies in that part of the world is vacuous.
LEMANN: When you said a minute ago—it was a response to a mistake, what was the mistake?
SCHEUER: The mistake clearly was Iraq. And I’m not at all an expert on Saddam Hussein or weapons of mass destruction, or any other part of Iraqi history, except the fact that it’s the second holiest place in Islam, and for better or worse, we are now viewed as occupying the three holiest places in Islam: the Arabian Peninsula first, Iraq second, and Jerusalem, which is held by the Israelis, third. And whether or not 1.3 billion Muslims support [al Qaeda leader] Osama bin Laden—and probably most of them don’t, at least in terms of military activities—they’re going to be offended by having their sanctities held by Westerners.
LEMANN: Let’s go back for a minute—I want to return to Iraq, but let’s go back before Iraq to Afghanistan. Now, would you agree—which I know you don’t, but for the sake of argument—with the idea that after the September 11th attacks, the Bush administration acted swiftly, surely, and boldly to go in to Afghanistan, where many had failed militarily, scored a quick and convincing victory, ousted the Taliban from power, took al Qaeda’s main sanctuary away, and installed a successful pro-Western democracy—you agree with that, right?
SCHEUER: I may question parts of that argument.
LEMANN: So give me sort of the counterargument on Afghanistan.
SCHEUER: Well, a former colleague of mine wrote in Foreign Affairs that the Afghan cities fell very quickly—they always do. And that’s exactly what happened. We mistook a battle for the war. We took the cities. We killed very few people. The Taliban went home with their guns, al Qaeda went home with their guns, and we’re seeing a slow resurgence of an insurgency in Afghanistan. The recent election really did not, I think, do anything but draw the traditional ethnic lines that have always dominated Afghan politics. The southern tribes of the Pashtuns voted overwhelmingly for [President Hamid] Karzai—not because he was a good leader or because he’s a democratic with a small D, but because he was a Pashtun. The other minorities voted for [Northern Alliance leader Younis] Qanooni, because he was a minority [Tajik]. So I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet in Afghanistan.
And clearly we have not intimidated anyone in Afghanistan. They were attacked by the greatest superpower the world has known, and they looked up, and they said, “Well, the air power isn’t very welcomed, but otherwise we haven’t been hurt at all.” So I think Afghanistan, as always, has many more chapters to go, and I think we’re going to see some surprising ones.
LEMANN: What about Pakistan? What’s your assessment of the state of things there, before we return to Iraq?
SCHEUER: I think Pakistan is—from our viewpoint, they’re the single most important ally we have in the war on terrorism, and I personally, after having worked on it for the better part of two decades, would have never thought [Persident Pervez] Musharraf would have delivered as much as he has. It’s one thing for him to help us by arresting—or helping to arrest [al Qaeda operatives] Khalid Sheik Mohammed or Abu Zubaidah in the cities. It’s something quite different to send military into the border areas. I would have bet he wouldn’t have done that. And I think Musharraf has helped us about the extent he can, without really causing instability in Pakistan, or pushing Pakistan toward a civil war. I think there are some people in Washington who realize that. The last time Musharraf was here, there wasn’t the usual chorus of, “Why can’t you do more for us?” But I think both Pakistani stability and Musharraf are kind of one step ahead of the locomotive.
LEMANN: If Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan somewhere, which seems to be the leading theory, whose fault is that, and what’s to be done about it?
SCHEUER: I don’t think there’s much that can be done about it. The fault lies with the people who didn’t kill him when they had a chance to do it. He lives in an area where now the mountains, the largest on earth—you know, our law enforcement had a bit of trouble in the mountains of North Carolina with [serial bombing suspect] Mr. [Eric] Rudolph [laughter]--he lives in an area where the tribes, part of their culture is protecting a guest at all costs. They’re not very likely to turn him over. And although we don’t accept it, bin Laden is the single most important Islamic leader or hero in the world today. There’s very few “I Love [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak” T-shirts, for example. So as a co-religionist, they’re not going to turn him over.
Our military effort in Afghanistan is very minimal. Our conventional forces are mostly in garrison. The people on the cutting edge, who have been a small number of the clandestine service and the U.S. Special Forces. So in terms of pressure, there has been no U.S. military pressure. Musharraf put more pressure on than we did. And I think our obsession with money, too, is probably misleading us. I think they either doubled or are going to double the reward. And before they did that, we have $200 million in reward money out for bin Laden and his lieutenants on the poorest country—one of the poorest countries on the planet, and no one has come forward for it. So whose fault is it? I think it’s just a very difficult assignment at this time.
LEMANN: Let me, before again returning to Iraq, which I will do in a minute, read you another intriguing passage from the speech, which I’m sure many of you in the audience noticed, and you may want to weigh in on, too. But I’m curious what you think this is laying down a marker for: “Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region. You have passed, and we are applying”--“you” being the Congress—“the Syrian Accountability Act, and we expect the Syrian government to end all support for terror and open the door to freedom. Today, Iran remains the world’s primary state sponsor of terror, pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve. We are working with European allies to make clear to the Iranian regime that it must give up its uranium-enrichment program and any plutonium reprocessing, and end its support for terror. And to the Iranian people, I say tonight: as you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you.” Now, does that mean something is going to happen, and if so, what? Or something is being contemplated?
SCHEUER: I think it means, in addition to Iraq, that they simply don’t understand that the threats to the United States are transnational and not nation-state in dimension. And one of the reasons they went to Iraq is they don’t understand that. The Clinton administration didn’t understand it; this administration doesn’t understand it. The idea that Syria is a threat to us is about as credible as me being the next queen of England, it’s not. What threat is there?
In terms of Iran, threatening the Iranians, and you know better than I do probably that Iran is a very nationalistic country. One way to save the theocracy is to put pressure on Iran or to try to attack Iran. So I think there’s just a basic misperception of the way the world works—partly a holdover from the Cold War, partly because it’s genuinely hard to defend America against transnational threats, but partly because they’re at the moment addicted to this kind of hands-on Wilsonianism.
LEMANN: Is there a kind of policy-option paper underlying those two paragraphs I just read you? And, if there is, what do you think it says?
SCHEUER: I don’t know if there is or not. I frankly wouldn’t have had access to that, and I have never worked on either Syria or Iran.
LEMANN: When Senator [John] Kerry [D-Mass.] said over the weekend that he thought he lost the election because of Osama bin Laden’s appearance on television the weekend before, do you find that credible, and do you think that election calculations entered into bin Laden’s decision to make that tape available when he did?
SCHEUER: Viewed in isolation, that tape may have been—appeared to be pointed toward the election, but it was the fourth in a series of statements by Osama bin Laden since 2002 that talked directly to the American people, that said, “I know how your system works—what we’re fighting against are our foreign policies. Your policies remain the same, as long as you vote your leaders in. Vote for someone other than the people who are executing these policies.” Now, that was the fourth in a series.
Did he want President Bush to win? President Bush is his ideal target, because he’s very articulate in the things that drive—motivate bin Laden’s people. But was it designed to affect the election? I don’t think so. I think it was a warning that, “We’ve warned you as much as we’re going to do.” And then if you remember, [senior al Qaeda leader Ayman al-] Zawahiri followed up later in November and said, “We don’t know what’s wrong with you guys—you aren’t listening, but we’re not going to warn you anymore.” So it was part of a process that I don’t think was too apparent to the media.
LEMANN: I’d like to return to that in a minute, but on to Iraq first. There’s this moment of euphoria right now, because of the elections on Sunday. What do you see happening over the next year, say, in Iraq?
SCHEUER: I think more of the same. I think we’re kind of in the odd position for the United States to have installed a Shia government, and maybe that’s one reason—one way we can get the Iranians to be more cooperative. Iraq has become, I think, an Afghanistan of much more importance than Afghanistan was in the late “70s and early “80s. Afghanistan was an Islamic backwater. Iraq is smack in the middle of the Middle East. It’s the second holiest place in Islam. And, moreover, our actions there validated many of the things bin Laden has said. He’s always said we wanted Arab oil. There’s oil in Iraq of course. That we will destroy anyone who threatens Israel, point two. He said we cannot tolerate a strong Arab government, point three. But, more than that, bin Laden is not the real worry in Iraq. The real worry are the Sunni clerics who declared a jihad against us for invading Iraq, for—and that included people, clerics, who were genuinely supportive of bin Laden, and had been for years, and it included the clerics that receive their paychecks from Mubarak or the Al-Sauds [Saudi Arabia’s royal family]. It’s going to remain a magnet, if you will, for mujahedeen from around the world. And, in context, Zarqawi’s statements that the president quotes—what Zarqawi was basically saying is Muslims are to be ruled by Quranic law, not by man-made law. And he is probably a bit unvarnished, but he’s not far from what the clerics would say themselves about democracy.
LEMANN: Do you think, from the American policy point of view, that spreading democracy in the Middle East is either desirable or possible?
SCHEUER: I don’t think it’s a case of Muslims not being able to be democrats, or not wanting to be, or not being talented enough. I think that’s not the case. I think there’s a basic logical problem of trying to establish a democracy without a separation of church and state. And that’s one of the, I think, extreme problems we’ve had, not recognizing that.
I also think you can forgive American leaders or excuse American leaders, whether Republican or Democrat, for not knowing the history of Iran or Islam or Saudi Arabia. But you can’t forgive them for not knowing our own history. And you know American democracy is not 20 years old. To pick a date, go to Runnymede in 1215, where 800 years of process of building of wars and civil wars and world wars, of trying to define the difference between church and state. Now these guys want to put it on a CD-ROM and give it to [Iraqi politician Ahmed] Chalabi, and say, “You’ve got six months to do this.” So I think the basic motivation is based on either an ignorance or an ignoring of the history and the struggle of American democracy.
LEMANN: When you mentioned a minute ago bin Laden’s four appearances, where he’s essentially saying, “I warned you—“
LEMANN: What would listening, the American people listening to his warnings, lead to in policy terms? What would it do?
SCHEUER: I don’t know. I don’t know really what we would do. But I know that the one thing we’ve seen since 9/11 is bin Laden tying up loose ends in the Islamic world. He was criticized for three things in the Islamic world by scholars, clerics, jurists: that he killed so many Americans without religious approval, that he didn’t warn us sufficiently, and that he didn’t give us an offer to convert to Islam. Now, as I said, he’s taken care of the first—he’s had four direct speeches toward the American people warning us. He’s offered three times to serve as our guide and our teacher to convert to Islam. Now, it sounds silly from our perspective, but the prophet always demanded, “Before you attack someone, warn him and offer him a chance to convert.” The third thing he took care of in May 2003, when he secured from a radical Saudi sheikh a fatwa, which would allow him to use nuclear weapons in the United States. So the idea of killing too many people next time out won’t be a subject of criticism for most of the Islamic world. So what I would say is that what all those things taken together mean is that they’re probably ready to attack us again, and are unconcerned with talking to us about it anymore.
LEMANN: Can you make a judgment as to their capability of carrying out the attack successfully and ours of deterring it?
SCHEUER: They can’t be—I don’t think they can be deterred. Deterrence in my own mind, for their side, has never existed. And certainly given the fact that they don’t mind dying, if they have, our ability to deter them is pretty minimal, and our dainty application of military power in the last three years has been kind of a reaffirming in their mind that we’re not brutal, we’re not bloody, and we’re not ruthless. So they won’t be deterred.
LEMANN: Well, this leads to—and I’m running toward the end of my allotted Q-and-A time, but I wanted to just spend the last few minutes exploring the question of what should we have done as a response to the September 11th attacks. And, you know, as you point out in the book, that was at the end or maybe in the middle of a string of attacks by al Qaeda. What would have been a better response? What should we do now?
I want to read a passage from your book just briefly, because it stuck in my mind, for reasons you will see when I read it: “To secure as much of our way of life as possible, we will have to use military force in the way Americans used it on the fields of Virginia and Georgia, in France and on Pacific islands, and from skies over Tokyo and Dresden. Progress will be measured by the pace of killing and, yes, by body counts. Not the fatuous body counts of Vietnam, but precise counts that will run to extremely large numbers. The piles of dead will include as many or more civilians as combatants because our enemies wear no uniforms.
“Killing large numbers is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes. With killing must come a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure. Roads and irrigation systems; bridges, power plants, and crops in the field; fertilizer plants and grain mills—all these and more will need to be destroyed to deny the enemy its support base. Land mines, moreover, will be massively reintroduced to seal borders and mountain passes too long, high, or numerous to close with U.S. soldiers. As noted, such actions will yield large civilian casualties, displaced populations, and refugee flows. Again, this sort of bloody mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America’s only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world.” And you know that last line is important. Are you saying on the one hand these—you know, what you’re calling failed policies in the Muslim world, have to change? And what would that consist of? Or are you saying this blood bath has to occur? And, if so, could you elaborate on what that would consist of exactly?
SCHEUER: I think in any war America has fought we have applied military power with more vigor than we have in this particular war. But at the same time, we have never been without policies that were in the economic sphere or in the public diplomacy sphere, or in the—whatever other spheres are available—that complement your military activity. And at the moment we’re clearly not in a position of winning any hearts and minds at all. We’ve lost that war for the time being. We’re clearly not making a dent in the insurgencies that are either under way or growing. It’s simply—when I wrote it, it sounds to me like a statement of fact. Our enemies don’t have uniforms. If you choose to defend America, you should defend her with all your tools. If we choose not to do that, then we have to use only the military, and only intelligence services, and we will have to be World War II-like, if you will.
SCHEUER: Wherever you find them.
LEMANN: Who’s “them”?
SCHEUER: Clearly the opportunity presented itself on the 11th or 12th of September to take out a great number of al Qaeda, and especially Taliban people, and we were entirely unprepared to do anything. I can’t think of a worse failure of the U.S. military than to have no plans to present the president. Those people went home with their guns, and now they’re fighting us again. You have to choose. If you’re going to defend America, you have to decide how to do it. And if you don’t want to change your policies, and if policies are motivating your enemy, then what other tools do you have left?
LEMANN: Would you favor changing the policies that are motivating the enemy? And, if so, what would that look like?
SCHEUER: I would favor changing them to the extent we can with the simultaneous application of more force and more intelligence—
LEMANN: What policies—just walk us through what policies.
SCHEUER: I would certainly try to rearrange the relationship with Israel so it looked like we were the great power and they were the insignificant power, rather than the other way around. I would certainly think how far we can really succeed in supporting tyrannies across the Middle East for the sake of oil. I would think that at some point—and if we want to disengage from what really is going to be a war within Islamic civilization is, as well as some clash between us and Islam, we will have to move toward alternative energy supplies or further fossil fuel development in North America. I think they’re intertwined. And I’m not really recommending it one way or another; I just think these policies have been in a status quo position for quite a while, and need to be looked at.
If you believe that we’re being attacked because they hate our liberties and our society and our freedoms, then you don’t have to do anything. You don’t even have to do military stuff, because you can eventually arrest enough of them and put them in jail. If you think that’s not the case, then you better be a little bit more creative.
LEMANN: So you’d advocate changing these policies, on the one hand being sort of withdrawing from the region in a sense, or disengaging, while at the same time raining destruction on the region?
SCHEUER: At every chance I had, I would rain as much destruction on the enemy as I could—not picking a town and destroying it, but if the enemy is there, not being too worried about what we—you know, what they call collateral damage.
LEMANN: Last thing I’ll ask is: How should we understand al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden? I’m taking somewhat—I don’t know if I can quote a direct statement from your book—the sense that you don’t have much use for the term “terrorist.”
LEMANN: And you would regard it more in the category of a sort of traditional military enemy. Is that right?
SCHEUER: As an insurgency or a paramilitary threat. The fact is that any other terrorist group that America has ever thought would have been destroyed if it had as much damage visited on it as the directorate of operations at CIA has visited on al Qaeda. The president says we’ve destroyed two thirds of their leadership and arrested or killed 4,000 of them. And out of the next breath, he’s saying they can detonate a weapon of mass destruction in the United States. The plain fact is we, as a country, look at terrorists as criminals and arresting them is the answer. As long as we do that against al Qaeda and its allies, we’re going to get licked every time, because it won’t work.
LEMANN: And instead, we should regard them as insurgents, which would lead to—?
SCHEUER: Much more aggressive military activity, using the military you have in Afghanistan, for example, to go out and get them, instead of garrisoning or staying in garrison. I don’t know how else to do it, frankly.
LEMANN: I’ll cheat and ask one more last question on a completely other subject: How do you read the new administration of [Director] Porter Goss at the CIA, accompanied by many leave-takings of long-time officials there?
SCHEUER: I think, clearly, the agency is better off without [former CIA Director] Mr. [George] Tenet and some of his immediate lieutenants. I was of the opinion that Mr. Goss should be given a decent interval to try to put his house in order, because he was following our first rock-star DCI [director of central intelligence], and Mr. Goss is a much more buttoned-up man. Some of the people who have left, particularly Mr. [Stephen R.] Kappes, the deputy director of operations, would probably have been the best DDO [deputy director for operations] we’ve had in the last 10 to 12 years. There seems to be some civility-challenged people among Goss’s lieutenants, but I think it’s too soon to tell. You need to give the man a chance.
LEMANN: But I mean the thesis that the hawks in the administration put Goss in to sort of get an agency that tells it what it wants to hear—what do you think of that thesis?
SCHEUER: You just had one. [Laughter]
LEMANN: OK, well, that’s a good note in which to go to audience questions. I have some from remote locations here, but let’s see if anybody here wants to start. Ma’am?
QUESTIONER: Hi, my name is Kim Marten. I’m at Barnard College at Columbia University, and I want to challenge your World War II analogy, because it seems to me that the reason that all that massive destruction was able to have an effect in World War II is because the people who were followers of Shinto and the people who were followers of Nazism were relatively limited in their geographical areas, which meant once that they were defeated the people in surrounding areas were very happy to see them defeated. And I’d like to make the argument that if we actually go to an all-out horrific military campaign against these enemies, what we will do is create more and more enemies all the way around the world, because they will have more and more sympathy for the people—the civilians in particular—whose infrastructure we’re destroying and whose lives we’re wrecking.
SCHEUER: My books are pretty nationalist, ma’am. I don’t much care. I don’t think America is being defended at this moment. I don’t know how else to do it. If you have a better suggestion, then I think it needs to be inserted into the debate. But clearly our policy isn’t working, the nature of our military activities are not working. What do you do at the end of the day to defend the United States? You also are confronting a culture where violence remains the lingua franca. We have not intimidated them. We have no deterrent value at the moment. They have just ridden out two wars with the greatest power the world has ever seen, and they’re not significantly impressed by our military applications. If there’s a peaceful way of debate or public diplomacy, then, my God, let’s do it. But right now there’s not a lot on the horizon.
QUESTIONER: Jennifer Whitaker of the Ralph Bunche Institute. I wonder if you could give your assessment of how effective a peaceful approach or an approach which you sort of vaguely describe as changing, rebalancing our policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, and withdrawing support for tyrannies in the Middle East—how effective might that be in terms of your overall view of the situation?
SCHEUER: I think what we have at the moment, ma’am, is a choice between—not between war and peace, but between war and endless war. I think American policy needs to be, in the first place, more militarily aggressive, but we also have to find a way to cut down on the growth of support for bin Laden or bin Ladenism around the world. And I think the settlement of some kind in Israel and Palestine would begin to cut that down. I also think action by the United States on those policy issues that was substantive and not just rhetorical would be a useful tool, because it might create within the public square in the Islamic world a space where what we identify as moderates or liberals can speak out against Osama bin Laden and his like.
At the moment they’re more than willing to speak out against terrorism. But “terrorism” and the term “Osama bin Laden” are very seldom mentioned in the same breath, because if they attack bin Laden they implicitly say it’s all right for the Americans to completely support the Israelis, it’s all right to support tyrannies like Mubarak and the Al Sauds. So I think we’re not at the point where we can talk our way out of this war. If we’re going to do anything about policy, it can’t be just a promise—it has to be action. It has to be something substantive. But I don’t think it’s a war-winner in the short term. I don’t think there is peace in the short term. It’s a matter of cutting down the size of our opponents.
QUESTIONER: Mercedes [inaudible] Spain. Among the many theories to explain September 11, one of them says that Osama bin Laden actually was trying to provoke a response from the United States of the one that he was, because his relationship with the Taliban government was getting complicated, and he was trying to get the Muslim world together around his cause. I don’t know if you share that idea, but certainly what did he really try to do, because I think he must be a very smart person, and he knew that if he was successful, the United States was going to come to attack.
SCHEUER: He was trying to hurt us, clearly, and he did. He’s wanted us in Afghanistan since he started speaking publicly in 1995. I often think that he must wake up in the morning and bang his head against the rock figuring, “My God, it took me all these years to get the Americans here, and now they’re sitting in their garrisons.” I think what surprises him is that we’re not out in the bushes chasing him. Clearly he wanted us there. The idea that—when Mr. Tenet testified before the Congress and he said we surprised bin Laden—he didn’t think we had the courage to come there—is just fatuous. Bin Laden wanted us there, but he wanted us to be—
SCHEUER: To kill us. He doesn’t think we can stand the pain. And clearly, that was reinforced when we had a chance to get him at Tora Bora and we chose to send in surrogates who had fought alongside of Osama bin Laden against the Soviets in the “80s. They don’t believe we can stand the pain.
LEMANN: Sir, back there?
QUESTIONER: [Inaudible] Columbia University. With your theory of sort of raining death and destruction, I think a lot of people could absolutely agree with that. But there’s a preliminary that has to go through, and that’s the targets. I mean, you have got to be able to identify, locate, and presumably not just lash out sort of indiscriminately and go out [and] just kill lots of people. We can do that. I don’t think that would accomplish anything. And do we have—I mean, from your experience, do we have that kind of targeting that would in fact help us identify where these people are? And if we’re going to rain death and destruction, we ought to have some idea of what we’re hitting.
SCHEUER: I entirely agree, and I didn’t mean we should lash out uneducatedly. I would refer you to the 9/11 Commission report in which it documents that the clandestine service of the United States provided eight to 10 opportunities to either capture or kill Osama bin Laden, and on each occasion they were refused because there might have been collateral damage or shrapnel might have hit a mosque, or an Arab prince might have got killed in the desert. You have to act when you have the target, you’re fairly confident the target is there, and you really have to say, “You know, damn the torpedoes, we’re going to go and get this person or this group of people.” You know, there’s no other way around how to do that.
LEMANN: Let me do a follow-up to that though, because you know all through this period one hears within the administration there was an argument about what that kind of attack would do. And one school, including supposedly [Middle East scholar] Bernard Lewis, would say this is a warrior culture, it understands and respects force, and this would sort of tamp down the insurgent opposition. And another would say for every person you kill, you create five more insurgents. So how do you come down on that, or am I presenting it misleadingly?
SCHEUER: No, I think it’s a fair question. And my job in the civil service was to protect America, and if it creates more people, it creates more people, but at least it’s one less problem you have to worry about at the moment. And certainly the issue of Osama bin Laden is he is a remarkable man. He has influenced the course of history. He is not, as we so often describe him as, a gangster or a deviant or a madman. He is neither nihilistic nor apocalyptic. He’s a very rational actor. And the chance to have killed him would have been worth killing an Arab prince, for example. The world is [inaudible] with Arab princes. [Laughter]
QUESTIONER: I am Richard Whalen. I’m a writer, and I’m working on a book that’s looking at the preliminaries to World War II, when we last had a debate about whether we should go to war before we were thrust into war. I want to congratulate you on reintroducing some of the fundamental issues and questions that have to be addressed before you go to war in a democratic society. And you have particularly focused on the forbidden subject of whether the United States has any limits with the spoiled child of Western civilization, the state of Israel, which insists upon having its own way, to the extent we must read the Israeli press on the Internet and read [the Israeli newspaper] Haaretz so that we see real criticism of a policy that has gone too far. Now, you have taken some criticism for your approach. I’d like to hear what you feel about this subject.
SCHEUER: I always have thought that there’s nothing too dangerous to talk about in America, that there shouldn’t be anything. And it happens that Israel is the one thing that seems to be too dangerous to talk about. And I wrote in my book that I congratulate them. It’s probably the most successful covert action program in the history of man to control—the important political debate in a country of 270 million people is an extraordinary accomplishment. I wish our clandestine service could do as well. The point I would make—the point I try to make basically in the book is we just cannot—we can no longer afford to be seen as the dog that’s led by the tail. I’ve tried to be very clear in saying we have an alliance with the Israelis. We have a moral obligation to try to work through this issue, if we can. But I don’t think we can afford to be led around, or at least appear to be led around by them. And I certainly, as an American, find it unbearable to think there’s something in this country you can’t talk about. That’s really my spiel I guess on that, sir.
SCHEUER: It was interesting to see the sheet suggested ways to review “Imperial Hubris” that came out from AIPAC [the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee]. [Laughter]
QUESTIONER: I’m curious—Gary Rosen from Commentary magazine. If you could just elaborate a little bit on the clandestine ways in which Israel and presumably Jews have managed to so control debate over this fundamental foreign policy question.
UNKNOWN: All you have to do is look at this landscape of American politics and see how many people who have raised this issue of the Israeli relationship.
SCHEUER: Well, the clandestine aspect is that, clearly, the ability to influence the Congress—that’s a clandestine activity, a covert activity. You know to some extent, the idea that the Holocaust Museum here in our country is another great ability to somehow make people feel guilty about being the people who did the most to try to end the Holocaust. I find—I just find the whole debate in the United States unbearably restricted with the inability to factually discuss what goes on between our two countries.
QUESTIONER: Your scenario of hit them hardest where we can find them leaves us pretty much alone in the rest of the world.
SCHEUER: It does, sir.
QUESTIONER: And I can’t really believe that you mean that we should ignore all of the people who so far are tolerating, and in some cases supporting, what we’re trying to do, or tear up the United Nations. Wilsonianism isn’t all bad. And I can’t really visualize our country go on talking about all the things you want to talk about, and nobody in the world will talk to us or deal with us.
SCHEUER: Well, I think it comes down to how you define your threats, sir. Again, if you think it’s a threat that we can afford not to take action when we need to take action ourselves and survive, then I guess we can afford to listen to the U.N. and to the Europeans who, as always, are always waiting for the alligator to eat them last. They—it’s a very difficult situation and it comes down to accurately defining the threat. And I think if anything, that’s what my two books are about: that if we don’t understand the nature of the enemy and what motivates him, we’re not going to be able to judge what we have to do to defend ourselves. And as long as we’re saying that they’re out there to destroy our liberties and our society and all the rest of it, I think it’s—I think we’re on the wrong track. And at some point, it’s going to require a more massive response than we ever imagined. So I guess it’s defining the threat satisfactorily before you can really know what you have to do to defend the country. And I don’t think it’s been defined, but that’s just my opinion.
LEMANN: Here, and then here. And I will get to you, Steven, in one second there. I see you.
QUESTIONER: Barney Rubin, Center on International Cooperation, NYU [New York University]. A lot of the discussion has been about sort of your policy prescriptions. But I want to come back—I’m not quite sure how to pose this as a question, but I want to focus on what you just said, which is how we define the threat, because to me, that’s the most totally convincing part of your analysis; that is, two points—one is, it’s a transnational threat, and second, it is a response to U.S. foreign policy and not to some—it’s not some psychological response to their inability to be like us. And what I don’t think it is—and here’s where I differ—is that the response is so religiously based, purely religiously based, and that there is this massive religiously based rejection of U.S. presence based on occupying the three holy shrines and so on. But there are—you know, there are more political interpretations of things the United States does, which would lead to a more modest description of what it is necessary to do in order to lessen the degree of hatred against the United States in the Islamic world, which wouldn’t affect bin Laden, but would affect the environment in which he operates.
But my real question is when you present what seem to me to be two very obvious statements, that it’s a network, not a state, that survives on the weakness of states, not the support of states, and that it’s based on what we do, not on who we are. What kind of arguments do you get, and how do you define the resistance to what’s seen—I can’t help but regarding as [a] kind of self-evident fact?
SCHEUER: Yes, if it was rocket science, sir, I wouldn’t be here. We are controlled—and I think one of the quotations that was read earlier—we are controlled in the U.S. government, in the intelligence community, by the dread of state sponsors of terrorism, which in essence are our own creation, because we didn’t have the courage to attack states who attacked us using terrorists. But the idea that somehow Syria is a threat to us is madness, but that is a controlling factor within the government. There is a feeling that the threat really must come from a nation-state or it’s not a real threat. It’s [an] enduring problem—not among the people who work [on] the issue on an everyday basis, but within the intelligence community, the leadership is much more comfortable working against the state, whether it’s trying to penetrate the central committee of the Communist Party, or the Deutsche Bank, or whatever the target is. That’s what people like to do. They don’t like to attack transnational issues. They don’t like to think about them. They’re messy. You get accused of assassination. You have to use difficult interrogation methods. It’s very messy stuff. So there’s a mind-set that has to be changed there. But clearly, the fact that they made me publish both books with, as you said, less than rocket science in them, anonymously, suggests that they really don’t understand the problem.
LEMANN: Let me—I’ve been abjured to take a question from one of the remote locations that are listening in. So I’ll ask this question, which comes from Charles Cogan of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Here’s the question: “The New York Times reported on February 1st that funds have been set aside for use by Special Forces with intelligence and covert action assets in foreign countries so that the military won’t have to wait for the CIA to come along with the funds, as happened in Afghanistan.” I think he’s speaking particularly of Iran. “Could you comment on this, and in particular whether there will be congressional oversight?”
SCHEUER: I think the way it [was] pictured in the paper, that it was preparation for war, I can’t speak to that, but I think we would be negligent if we weren’t trying to find out where the Iranian nuclear facilities were and how they were built and how we could get at them if we needed to. I think there’s a terrific amount of oversight. I don’t think it’s particularly well done. I’ve never met a group of men and their assistants who can’t figure out how to ask the follow-on question. So I think there’s a great deal more precise oversight to be done. Whether there needs to be more in volume, I’m not convinced that that’s even possible.
LEMANN: Let’s see. The man in the blue shirt there.
QUESTIONER: [Inaudible] Teitelbaum [inaudible] Agency in Hamburg, Germany. Listening to you it sounds as if there is some kind—some sort of Jewish conspiracy about American policy. Can you just tell me in your mind how the Jews make it?
SCHEUER: Are what?
QUESTIONER: How the Jews do it? How do they do it?
SCHEUER: How do they do it?
SCHEUER: Well, mostly through abuse in the media. If someone says anything negative about Israel. We do it to ourselves in some way. [Inaudible]
Well, you know, the idea of the Jewish conspiracy is in your mouth, not mine. What I did was compliment Israel on its ability to control debate in the United States. I don’t quite know how they do it, but clearly the reaction of most of our media, electronic and print, to anyone who says, “Geez, you know, maybe the Israelis shouldn’t have the lead on all these things,” is generally negative.
LEMANN: We’ll go back to this side of the room. Sir? We’re getting to the home stretch here, by the way.
QUESTIONER: Gordon Goldstein, Clark and Weinstock. You referred earlier to al Qaeda’s quest for a nuclear capability. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that. How far have they progressed in that effort, and what specific steps can the United States take now that are not presently being implemented to address that threat?
SCHEUER: Well, I think it shows the narrowness of my own reading, but I was surprised during the election campaign to hear that Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry were arguing when the Soviet nuclear arsenal should be under full control, whether in 2007 or 2010. One would have thought that would have been done already. All I can tell you about the nuclear side of things is that we knew by the end of 1996 that bin Laden had formed an acquisition team that was unlike any other thing we saw in terms of a terrorist group. He had employed scientists and engineers who could distinguish between being sold the real thing and being scammed. We know he has said from the start that he would use it if he has it. He has—certainly he has the money and the tools to acquire them. He now has religious justification to use it. And if we’re saying ourselves that control of the Soviet nuclear arsenal is still at least five years off, then I would think we better err on the side of worrying about whether he can acquire some sort of off-the-shelf weapon. Certainly he will use it. He doesn’t intend it as a deterrent. It’s a first-strike weapon.
LEMANN: Last few. Sir, back there. Yes?
QUESTIONER: I’m Marc Levinson. I’m with J.P. Morgan. We have now had the president of United States criticize and attack a number of purported Islamic terrorists by name. Are we providing free advertising? To what extent are we creating heroes here?
SCHEUER: We’re not. I think one of the great—another great indication that we don’t realize the danger of the enemy we face is both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush for a while decided to say—not to say bin Laden’s name. Now bin Laden kind of goaded him, I guess, during the election, and he’s also followed up on Zarqawi. But I think it’s kind of a—the idea that America controls everything, that somehow if we didn’t talk about these guys they really wouldn’t be a problem. They’re heroes in the Islamic world. It’s—how can I say it? We had a small shelf—a couple of shelves when I was still working about bin Laden just in terms in popularity, and there were candies from the Far East wrapped with pictures of Osama bin Laden. There was an Osama bin Laden cologne that was being made in Europe. There were t-shirts in virtually every language of the world. There were posters from Senegal, from Sierra Leone.
Our function in this is not to make them heroes at all. They are heroes. The desert of leadership capability in the Muslim world is astounding. So it’s not only that bin Laden himself is a remarkable man, but he has no competition. As I said, no one has an “I Love Al Saud” bumper sticker. It doesn’t happen. But there’s something hubristic, if you will, about the idea that we’re creating these people, because it’s not at all the case. I think media helps. But what’s really helped bin Laden was the serendipitous rise of bin Laden the man and Arabic satellite television at the same time. That was a tremendous—not accomplishment, but a tremendous value to him that that came up at the same time. We’re not creating these people.
LEMANN: Last couple of questions. Yes, you.
QUESTIONER: Moushumi Khan. I’m an attorney. I have a question about democracy. You mentioned it way in the beginning. Am I understanding you correctly that you define democracy as per se separation of church and state? Because some might argue that the model of governance in the Islamic world may not follow our idea of democracy—and I don’t mean the Middle East, but does—you know, it is a functioning democracy.
SCHEUER: Well, again, any kind of democracy is acceptable to me. Would it be acceptable to the people who want to export our democracy, is another question. If you had an election in Saudi Arabia, and you elected someone like bin Laden, if not himself, would that be acceptable to the United States? I don’t know. I just often think when I hear what the president says, again that he doesn’t know very much about American history, that they wouldn’t know an American founder from an Atlantic flounder. [Laughter] There is no—the founders meant our democracy to be a benign sort of example for the rest of the world. We weren’t to be the installer of democracy in every nook and cranny. And Bernard Lewis, I think, has eloquently said that within a true application of Islamic law in a country, there would be restraint on a ruler from being a particularly barbaric or unapproachable type of leader. And I think that’s exactly right. It probably should be acceptable, but I don’t—I’m not sure if it would be.
LEMANN: Last question. Ma’am, why don’t you go. You’re last. I know you already asked a question, but since no one else has their hand up.
QUESTIONER: It’s actually a follow-up question, because I didn’t understand your explanation of why Osama bin Laden wants America in Afghanistan. Could you elaborate on that?
SCHEUER: So they can kill us, ma’am. They wanted us there, just like they—they wanted to do to us what they did to the Soviets, make us bleed. They regarded the Soviets as much tougher enemies who can take it. They don’t think we can take a lot of blood. And I think the fact that there’s so much anger and worry in the United States over 1,400 dead people in Iraq—God wish that it never happened—but 1,400 casualties is very few in terms of a population of 280 million people. And I think our enemy takes aid and comfort from the idea that that’s causing a real problem within the United States.
LEMANN: And one last-last question. This gentleman in the back, and then that’s it.
QUESTIONER: Keith [inaudible] with GSC Partners. You made it clear here that terrorists are not very impressed with what we’ve done in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I think by extension, you’re not very impressed. Knowing what you do about the threat, and making it clear that you think much stronger, more brutal action against the right enemies is necessary, I’d like to know what you would do if you were in control of the levers of power in the military and policy.
SCHEUER: I would not wait for the level of intelligence that we had during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. We were used to intelligence at times that was 80 [percent] or 70 percent certain in knowing what they were up to, or the plans they had. Against this enemy, we’re going to be extraordinarily lucky if we ever get to a 40 percent assurance level. So what I would do if I was in charge is I would not, as the National Security Council did in the “90s, say the intelligence isn’t good enough, because we’re only 30 [percent] or 40 percent certain. That’s the way it’s going to be on a transnational threat—not only against terrorism, but against proliferation and against narcotics. It’s much more difficult to get a degree of assurance—degree of confidence in intelligence against a transnational issue than it was against the nation-state. So I would act on less certain intelligence, sir.
QUESTIONER: And what would you do?
SCHEUER: I would apply military force to the maximum I could. And that’s—it has to be complemented by some change in policies or some support in terms of public diplomacy. But right now we don’t—we’re not addressing those issues. So we have to use the tools that are available to us. As I said in the book, it’s not desirable or admirable, but if we’re going to willfully neglect to build a tool box of things we can use, then that’s what we use.
LEMANN: I was told I have to stop right at 7:00, and it’s like 30 seconds after. So that’s acceptable, I guess. Thank you very much, Mr. Scheuer.
SCHEUER: You’re welcome. [Applause]
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