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A Conversation with Philip Zelikow

Speaker: Philip D. Zelikow, Keynote Speaker, Graduate School Dean and Professor of History, University of Virginia and Former Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission
Presider: Garrick Utley, President, SUNY Levin Institute
Introductory Speaker: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
September 12, 2011, New York
Council on Foreign Relations

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RICHARD HAASS: If people would take their seats, we could get started.

Well, welcome. Good afternoon and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations, and thank you for joining us for this symposium, "9/11: 10 Years Later." For those of you were in New York or Washington or Pennsylvania the last few days or near a television set, we've had an extraordinarily powerful set of events over the last few days about the -- focusing on the people, the families that suffered so much and lost so much a decade ago.

We debated when to hold this event here, and we thought what made the most sense was to do it sequentially -- essentially, to do it after the memorials. Because the purpose of this is to be slightly more detached, to look back a bit, but really more to look forward, to look at the future of the threat and to look at the potential range of responses.

Looking back for a minute, there have been important successes in the fight against terror. The Taliban were ousted from power in Afghanistan; a number of important terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, were captured or killed; there's not been a successful large-scale attack on this country; and we've also seen a real evolution in what we can do against terrorism, whether it's increasing and refocusing America's intelligence, a revolution in homeland security, and all sorts of new means of going after terrorists -- including, but not limited to, drones.

Yet despite these changes and despite these advances, the reality is that the terrorist threat not only endures, but evolves. Pakistan remains the epicenter of global terrorism, giving a -- given a mixture of a limited capacity and, at times, limited will.

There's new real estate for terrorists to exploit in the greater Middle East as governments have lost, in some cases, an ability to control their own territory. Certain governments which were particularly robust against terrorism are either weakened or no longer in power. And the threat is evolving.

We now have cyber threats that are more acute than they were a decade ago. There's the continuing challenge of the potential of WMD and there's greater interest, for good reason, on homegrown threats. So the reality is obviously that the -- terrorism cannot be eliminated any more than we can eliminate our vulnerability.

There's also the reality that we have to be smart and restrained in what we do, and I would argue -- and I'm speaking personally here -- that while counterterrorism and a global war on terrorism must be an element of American foreign policy, it cannot be -- they cannot be its central element.

I would also argue, and this would probably not come as a surprise to many of you, that what we did in Iraq or, as of two and a half years ago started doing in Afghanistan, cannot be a template for our future response. We will need something, I would argue, more focused, more modest and more scalable.

And here at home we're obviously going to have to balance defensive and homeland security-related measures against the price they exact in economic output, inefficiency and in civil liberties.

Let me say, on behalf of the institution, that the subjects we're talking about today have been an important part of this institution's agenda for -- now for more than 10 years. Just recently the Council on Foreign Relations actually published a book, a Foreign Affairs e-book titled "The United States versus al Qaeda." The Global Governance Monitor just does that, monitors and measures our global efforts against terrorism, we've had an independent task force recently on Pakistan and Afghanistan.

All told, the numbers are quite interesting. Over the last decade, this organization has published more than 500 articles on 9/11, on terrorism and its consequences -- or just about one a week, for this decade. And that doesn't include the extensive commentary on the wars in Afghanistan or in Iraq.

This afternoon's program will take stock of where the United States stands a decade after 9/11 and the strategies being used to keep the country safe. The first panel, which will come at 2:15, will assess the threats facing the United States. And there we will feature Richard Falkenrath, John McLaughlin, Juan Zarate, and Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, will preside.

And then for the second panel, or the third and final session today at 3:45 or so, we'll have the panel discussing counterterrorism and homeland security, and that'll include Harry Crumpton, John Lehman and Fran Townsend, and Thom Shanker of The New York Times will preside.

Starting off, however, I'm glad to welcome these two gentlemen sitting here on the stage patiently -- Philip Zelikow and Garrick Utley. Philip is currently dean of the graduate school and a professor of history at UVA, University of Virginia. He served as the executive director of the 9/11 commission which produced the definitive history of the attacks and has just produced an updated version including an extensive afterwards written by Philip. And Philip, just to get my conflicts out, is a friend and former colleague, which is not to be confused with those who are former friends but still colleagues. (Laughter.)

Last but not least is Garrick Utley, who is currently president of the Levin Institute at the State University of New York. He's an experienced and well-known journalist. He -- I learned when we were putting together these notes that he was the first full-time reporter in Vietnam during the war there and has since reported from 75 countries, anchored a number of programs including "Meet the Press" and the weekend edition of "NBC Nightly News."

So I want to thank all of you for joining us. It really is an extraordinarily rich program and I'd be hard pressed to think of anyone better than Philip Zelikow to launch us, given the important service he has done for this country and his years in government and, in particular, in his work in the 9/11 commission report. So, sirs over to you.

GARRICK UTLEY: Thank you, Richard. Thank you very much and good afternoon, everybody. First things first -- we promised to be done at 2:00 o'clock -- 1:59:59, as we used to say in the network days. We have to be slaves of the clock. This is on the record today, again, and please silence your cell phones or other electronic devices and I'm told that today that includes even those you have on vibrate. That somehow can interfere with what we are doing here.

The subject -- and to have Philip here is really a particularly important opportunity for us to get this symposium under way this afternoon because among the many things that Richard described in the -- about his career and what he is doing today -- and the full bio is in your program -- Philip just told me that just a few days ago last week you were appointed for a second tour of duty on the intelligence -- the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, which used to be Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board until a couple years ago. Now, it's just plain Intelligence. So, obviously, the president recognizes his value experience and I think that's all in the good service of the nation.

What I'd like to do is spend a few minutes just in conversation as a keynote exercise on the part of Philip tackling some of the issues that are on the symposium agenda today, others which may not be directly pertinent there too but we think are -- he thinks are of relevance, and then we get into the discussion, as we usually say, and it used to be called question and answer. In the digital era, we call it the interactive period, and, again, we'll be done at 2 o'clock.

So thank you, Philip, very much for being with (it ?). Let me just go as a former journalist and ask some of the questions that may be on our minds. 9/11 -- 10 years ago and one day -- we probably recall that amid all that terror and tragedy it was a beautiful day like today -- same temperature, not a cloud in the sky. It couldn't have been a more lovely September day. And then, of course, it happened. We know what happened. What do we not know about what happened? What do you not know after these years investigating this that you would still like to know?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Let me highlight three things. Number one, and one point that has received almost no press attention in the rivers of ink that have been spilled in the last week, is that the 9/11 conspirators haven't been brought to trial. These are the people who carried out the worst mass murder in the history of the American republic. They're held in the custody of the United States and they have not formally been brought to justice.

I actually find this offensive -- profoundly so. There are arguments about how they should be brought to justice. My own view, actually, is military tribunals are just fine and actually probably appropriate. No need to get into that but the bottom line and the point of view I had when I was last in government arguing that they need to be taken out of the CIA black sites so that they could be brought to trial is that these people should be brought to justice, and under the law of armed conflict they would be considered mass murderers and war criminals and could be tried, indeed, capitally tried, on that basis and there are ample precedents.

So they should be brought to trial. Now, I stress this, Garrick, in answer to your question because as an old trial and appellate lawyer myself one thing that I have learned is that usually trials bring out new evidence. I think the 9/11 commission report has held up over the last seven-plus years as, I think, a healthy and strong foundation of knowledge of what happened and why.

I actually hope that the trials, when they occur, will bring up new things that are not in our report and will provide some additional supplementary evidence. I think the prosecution team actually has assembled some interesting new material that the commission did not have. It may not be earthshaking and I don't know exactly what it is but I think they've done some interesting work. So the first point I'd make, Garrick, is it really is important to have the trials in part just to complete the factual and historical record of what happened in more detail.

UTLEY: And how many people would you count as co-conspirators? Everybody at Guantanamo or do you have a number in mind that you think are the real key ones?

ZELIKOW: Oh, no. You're talking about a group of four to six people in the -- the mastermind of the entire attack, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is in custody awaiting trial. The person who managed the entire financing of the attack is in custody awaiting trial, plus several others who -- you know, the key intermediary between Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the killers, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, is in custody awaiting trial.

By the way, the issues of well, you know, maybe they were mistreated in custody by the CIA and is that a hindrance -- remember that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh bragged about having masterminded the attacks on television before they were captured. So making the evidentiary case here for a prosecutor is not the hardest thing in the world.

UTLEY: So we look at today --

ZELIKOW: But if I could just finish the answer with two more points, as the first one is remember the trials. Second is -- and I mentioned this in the afterward -- we do not this day, actually, have an adequate understanding of whether the hijackers had a support network inside the United States. That's a big deal. There are some -- there have been some recent things lately that have resurfaced some stuff that got a lot of publicity in '02 and '03 that are mostly red herrings about Saudis and things like that, and that's actually not the most interesting stuff.

The most interesting stuff has to do with names like Anwar al-Awlaki -- a name now back in the news -- another name named Mokhtar Abdullah, both of whom are Yemenis and therefore were less interesting to the press, although the difference between a Yemeni and a Saudi is, actually itself, a rather arbitrary distinction in some ways. But there actually are some really odd and interesting threads, and maybe this is another thing a trial could bring out. So that's point two is the issue of a support network in the United States with a particular focus on this group of Yemenis who mainly were centered in a suburb of San Diego, and then al-Awlaki moved to a mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, and, lo and behold, the future hijackers happened to show up at that mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, where they got some more help to help them find a place to stay in the East Coast and so on. The details are in the report.

Third point and last -- the commission, in our terse, low-key way -- because we were -- we were very careful when we used words that talked about complicity in mass murder -- and -- but we did say that there were actually very significant unanswered questions about the role of the Iranian government. The commission actually played a fairly important role in putting to bed the theories about Iraq and 9/11. The Iraqi government had flirted with al-Qaida in the 1990s but it never, in our view, came to fruition as a collaborative relationship on operations.

The Iranian relationship actually is a more difficult puzzle. The Iranians -- there was a conventional wisdom that Shia extremists wouldn't cooperate with Sunni extremists. We concluded that that was wrong -- that they actually had -- they had common enemies, especially in the Saudi regime, and that there was evidence of cooperation on various things in the 1990s. And then it turns out the majority of hijackers traveled to the United States to stage for the attack with their passports and travel records laundered, in effect, by the Iranian government -- that this was actually a habitual practice in which al-Qaida operatives would routinely travel through Iran and the Iranian governments wouldn't mark their passports and would kind of obscure where they were coming from as a favor to al-Qaida.

We found no evidence that the Iranian government was witting to the 9/11 attack plan. I want to be clear about that. But we found some suggestive circumstantial evidence that the Iranian government had continuing links with al-Qaida and we said this is something the U.S. government needs to investigate further, and to the best of my knowledge the U.S. government did not do much investigating further.

There is some stuff being done in federal courts in New York and other places to keep this issue afloat, and I'll just note I think there is something to this that's still a loose thread.

UTLEY: Following up on this, why hasn't there been a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil in 10 years?

ZELIKOW: Well, the honest answer of course is that anyone who says they know the answer to this question is wrong. But what you can say for sure is it ain't because the motive isn't there.

All right, so usually -- back 30 years ago when I used to do criminal work, we used to talk about motive and opportunity, so here is -- we hold the motive constant, right? So this clearly has to do with the opportunity variable.

And so, obviously we have disrupted their operational capability to some degree, because even the stuff we've captured from bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad confirms he's desperately trying to find some way of getting at the Americans.

And, in a way, a pathetic marker of al-Qaida operational prowess is the best they could do to launch an attack at the end of 2001 was to send Richard Reid with explosives in his boots. And then, you know, kind of eight years later, the best shot they could take of us was to essentially repeat the Richard Reid attack plan again, but with the explosives in the underwear. And both fizzled.

Now, there was actually a fairly serious attack planned that almost came off in '06 that the British intelligence helped discover and the Americans and the British worked together to thwart. That's the reason that you have to have those liquids checked when you get on airplanes.

So they actually had a little bit of, I think, a rise in capability around the middle part of the decade, then some things done at the end of the decade, at the end of the Bush administration. The Obama administration I think kind of knocked them back again and are still knocking them back.

But the bottom line first is we greatly disrupted their operational capability overseas. Instead of an archipelago of terrorist camps in Afghanistan in which, at leisure and with deliberation, they could receive and process thousands of recruits -- evaluating and training, deliberating -- now they're hunted and on the run. There are fewer core members of al-Qaida even in Pakistan than you would see on the set of the average Hollywood film set. You know, so it's important to get this in perspective. That's one.

Two, remember, in the 9/11 attack story, which was the third major intercontinental operation that they had carried out -- and they've carried out none on that scale in sophistication since. They've been mainly regional, local stuff. Remember, the hijackers actually staged and trained inside the United States.

The United States was such a safe operating area that they could deploy here months before the attack in order to further perfect and elaborate their training, and, by the way, living, in many cases, under their true names inside the United States. So the United States is clearly a less hospitable operating environment for al-Qaida than it was 10 years ago.

So both disrupting them where they live and keeping them off-balance offensively, but also in a layered defensive system all the way to making the United States a far more difficult place, and making it much more difficult for terrorists to travel. Cumulatively, clearly this massive outpouring of resources and energy that we've witnessed has had an effect.

UTLEY: So, if there is no longer this monolithic terrorist organization under bin Laden as there was, but rather it becomes more of a splintered, fragmented, maybe almost, you know, individual series of organizations, miniscule though they may be but with a motive, does that, ipso facto, make us more secure?

ZELIKOW: It does make us -- it does make us somewhat more secure. It doesn't make us, quote, "secure." I mean, just to use an analogy to air travel, when I was a kid, if you look at the statistics on how many airliners crashed let's say in the 1960s -- you know, they didn't crash all the time but it was a regular occurrence somewhere in the world.

Actually now, if you look at the statistics for how many airliners crash, it still happens from time to time -- you know, the Air France and the South Atlantic and so on -- but it's a fairly infrequent occurrence, maybe except for Russia -- (laughter) -- and parts of Africa, but in general it's a highly infrequent occurrence.

Now, people still boarded airliners in the hundreds of thousands in the '60s, and now they board airliners every day in the millions. So you wouldn't say that air travel is perfectly safe today, but you'd say that over time, constant systemic improvements have kept making it incrementally safer. And I think that's a useful way of thinking about endemic dangers of this kind.

If I can digress on this theme just for a second, Garrick, I was filming at Ground Zero yesterday morning live. I was being interviewed on television on a terrace overlooking that elegant, somber and dignified memorial and that remarkable ceremony.

You know, and I'm giving my facile explanations of what 9/11 means, like we all can, right? But I have to say that as I was there, I had some humbling reflections that I'm actually not sure I'm smart or good enough to articulate what 9/11 means. There is a point where I sensed the overwhelming sense of collective grief and disruption that we all see, and there's almost a level to me at which it's meaningless. That is, is that the act is so ridiculously disproportionate to the pathetic group of zealots who carried this out that, you know, we struggle, you see, to make that fit into a grand narrative that somehow fits the calamity.

And what we did -- and the reason I digress in this way is, a little bit of what we did after 9/11 is we made the enemy big enough to fit the narrative that made logical sense to us and somehow seemed like an appropriate narrative for all of this. And we actually -- we made bin Laden and Islamist fanaticism bigger than it was. We made it sound like some kind of world historical force, like Stalinism or Hitlerism. I actually saw speeches that President Bush gave, where I tried to fight this and it went forward anyway. You know, the fourth world war, to borrow a phrase that one of my old friends once used. Things like that. World war four. No, this was not that.

You can't -- it's too facile to try to kind of somehow make this fit into our narrative so that -- we all grew up, you see, in an era where we were in great danger, apocalyptic nuclear danger, but in the narrative that had a sort of grand, logical coherence to it. And now we live in an era of vulnerability that's not really quite susceptible to same sort of epochal narrative conventions.

This is much more to me the kind of vulnerability and narrative we need to adapt to for this generation. Don't ennoble them by making them the grand villain, the Dr. Moriartys of this little fable. Instead, think about this as one more kind of a series of systemic problems in this highly globalized and interdependent society that includes right-wing Norwegian nut cases, that includes a variety of other different kinds of problems. Noticing, for instance, that transnational criminals in Mexico have murdered more people in the last two years than have been murdered in Iraq and Afghanistan put together, which, again, doesn't fit in any of the conventional narratives.

And then, I think , you can get a better sense of how to try to frame this than try to struggle a little bit with, why does a 9/11 event feel so important, yet at the core of it somehow have a quality of meaninglessness that we struggle to articulate?

UTLEY: Well, quite far from being a digression, this takes us right to the heart of what I think we're going to be discussing this afternoon and follow up on that. Obviously 9/11 altered policy, the atmosphere in the United States, the amount of anxiety with all of its various colored lights and warnings, and even organization and bureaucracy. Let's just take a couple of these.

The first one was calling it the war on terrorism. We've already addressed that. But then we have Department of Homeland Security. We have TSA. It's in our lives every time we go through an airport. Personally I feel quite -- this is when it really comes home to me. Maybe it's my own selfish little inconvenience, but when you stop to think the number of people working on security in airports around the world, not just in the United States, to stop an attack which probably, if it were to occur, would be carried out by no more than a few people sitting in the first few rows here who are actively involved in plotting that.

But that's the whole meaning of terror. You create the state of terror in mind but you end up, understandably, with a Department of Homeland Security and TSA.

Which leads to two questions. If there is a dynamic in any organization and policy where nobody is going to say this is enough, we have enough security, because nobody wants to take the blame and see his or her career ruined, how do we discuss this? How do we decide what level of vulnerability we are expected to accept? Israel, for example, said, we're not going to search every bus, but we will build a wall. There are other approaches you can take.

So how do you view what our homeland security has grown into, TSA, all this has grown into, the mindset there? Have we created a monster or something that's essential, and how do we debate and discuss this?

ZELIKOW: This is a great question, Garrick. Before 9/11 we had what I've called in print a paradox of prevention. It's a classic paradox, by the way. The paradox of prevention is that if you need -- at the time when massive action can readily prevent the oncoming danger, you can't mobilize the support you need to undertake the massive action because the danger isn't manifest enough. And therefore, it's obvious what you should have done after.

I mean, to give an illustration, pre-9/11 illustration. On September 10th, 2001, a massive action in Afghanistan was literally inconceivable in two previous administrations. I mean, literally in the sense that no one even wrote it down as a policy option. By the afternoon of September 11th, not only was it utterly conceivable, it was obvious, and immediately it seemed, well, this should have been obvious to us for the last two years. That's the paradox of prevention at work.

And the paradox of prevention for terrorism, that's gone. Actually it now applies to several other problems. Now for the terrorism problem we're in what I call the paradox of adjustment. The paradox of adjustment is, once you're fully mobilized around a risk and a threat and it's embedded in mass consciousness, it actually then is actually very difficult to turn.

The institutional momentum, all the interest groups and just accumulated weight of activity that grows up around that paradigm is so hard to change. And then for the president to change it would require a big exertion of political capital. But to make a big exertion of political capital to downsize or rightsize the threat, naturally (feels it ?) risks the humiliation if there is an attack the next day. You fear you're going to dull the edge of alertness and invite complacency. You don't want to do that. So oddly it's -- I can't talk about the risks going down because it would be too risky to say so.

That's the paradox of adjustment. Yet that's precisely the paradox we need to face. Maybe the killing of bin Laden gives you the vehicle you need in order to turn the page.

Now, all of the folks here, you're very sophisticated about these issues. And so you'll have already noticed that in discussions of this issue, basically I'd say it falls into two categories:

The first is, we've inflated the nature of this threat and we need to snap back to some sort of idyllic pre-9/11 period. We need to snap back to the status quo ante of, say, where we were in the 1990s before we'd done all this. For a variety of reasons, that's probably not wise or likely.

Then their second paradigm is, it's still really dangerous and bad, and we -- you know, we're very comfortable in this track we're in now and we just ought to stay there.

When you look at both of those, you don't like either of those paradigms very much. So you clearly need something in the middle. But that's really hard to find. And it actually requires some creative thinking about, where do we go now?

Let me give a concrete illustration for this. I don't think we're going to do away with the Department of Homeland Security or TSA, though I think they're rapidly, and will continue to get smarter and smarter. And actually some of the capabilities they've built for 9/11-style contingencies, like National Incident Management Systems, have actually already proven their worth in some national emergencies. Most recently -- actually, some of that worked pretty well in the Gulf oil spill case. So just -- that works fine.

The concrete illustration I'll give you is how we fight these future wars. I call the war we've been in a twilight war. Suppose you conclude that we're not going to have another set of wars like we had in Iraq and Afghanistan -- that we're not likely to want to do that quite again any time soon, which actually is where I think most of the country is, in both parties. Does that mean that really the wars we're going to fight now --that what we're doing in Pakistan, in Yemen, and Somalia and Libya, that's really the future of warfare. It's all going to be mainly these twilight wars.

And you know, of course, the combatant commander in these twilight wars is the director of the CIA. They're running the big guided missile program that is leading the way in the twilight wars. And actually they're going to become really the -- we're going to have this very large Department of Defense that's kind of out there for those formal wars that we need to be prepared for, but we're not really going to fight. Then we're going to have this other department of defense over in Langley; it's called the CIA.

And, by the way, a lot of people at CIA are going to -- they're going to like -- (chuckles) -- this role. It's a very exciting role to play. It's a compelling subject. And by the way, recently some of the stuff they've been doing, they're doing really well. So you don't really kind of want to mess with success.

So if you would then ask yourself, if you're the president and you say: OK, I see where we are today, and this is good, we're doing good things. Where do I want this to be three years from now? When we're drawn down in Iraq and we're drawn down in Afghanistan, what's the posture I want to have in 2014, for the long haul? And what roles and missions do I want to allocate?

Man, that is an interesting and difficult question. And it's not a question that -- and if you're on, say, the liberal side of this, Mark Danner has just written a piece in the New York Review, one of a series he's written, called "State of Exception," in which Danner says -- he's very angry about this, he says: We're now in a semi-permanent state of twilight war, on which we have a semi-permanent netherworld, a semi-permanent legal and policy netherworld that we're never going to get out of, that increasingly is important.

This troubles him a lot. And my answer to that is, I think we are going to be in a twilight world war for a long time, therefore you need to figure out how to normalize that and shine enough light on it that you get this in a mode where it really works well with the norms of our societies, and that we're comfortable living with this, and get it into the sunlight a little bit more and regularize it.

But that means you actually have to think about these roles for the future in a more serious way than we've done so far in the state of emergency.

UTLEY: Let's go to questions. But let me just pick up on this, because also you have really raised a very interesting and important subject here: the extent to which, in this ongoing twilight war or struggle, the Department of Defense really becomes sited more and more in the CIA; what implications that has, in terms of allocation of natural resources. B, it's interesting to note that the secretary of defense was, until recently, the head of the CIA; and the head of the CIA, until recently, was a four-star general. We'll leave that for another occasion. (Laughter.)

Questions, please. Please identify yourself. Stand up and offer a question. Make it succinct so we can get as many comments in as possible. Start all the way at the back -- there's a microphone that will come to you -- all the way at the back. You don't have to raise your voice. But please stand up and identify yourself.

QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm Laurie Garrett from the Council on Foreign Relations.

I've spent seven years trying to figure out how much of the billions of dollars of readiness and preparedness money that was spent, and the changes in our legal system were due to -- you could say, were actually because of 9/11, and how many were because of anthrax?

And it's very clear to me they were inseparable, and yet we talk about them as separate entities. And I wanted to ask you about it because you were (harking ?) on some of the issues that, we might say, were inappropriate spending, or inappropriate readiness post-2001. I found everywhere I went, in 48 states across America, that people would say: Yes, we do get -- it is appropriate that here in Wyoming we get 10 times more per capita bioterrorism preparedness money than New York City, because we have a Costco over here, and we have a really big Walmart, and we have a civil war memorial on a bridge over here. And somewhere in Tora Bora, you know, the bad guys are planning to blow them up.

We seem to have gone completely off kilter here to a crazy space. How do we pull out of that crazy space into something that's realistic assessment, realistic risk spending, and that reflects on both what 9/11 and anthrax did to us?

UTLEY: And in this particular case, obviously, there's a political dynamic. (In Congress, it was. ?)

QUESTIONER: (Off mic.)

ZELIKOW: Laurie, thank you, because few people have done more than you, Laurie, to publicize the biohazard threat consistently over the years. I see you've very shrewdly managed to enlist Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon to help you out. (Laughter.) A cute move there. (Laughter.)

No, it actually -- people forget that for a while -- for a while we didn't know who'd done the anthrax attack in October of 2001. And what they also don't know is that the leading people in the White House had some really unnerving bio-alarms. Both Vice President Cheney and Condi Rice believed for several hours in October, 2001 that they had been exposed to a lethal biological agent, because a sensor in the White House had gone off. And there was no antidote. They thought they might be -- they might not live out the day there for just a little while.

A few things like that happen to you in your life, it makes an impression. (Laughter.) And so a lot of money has been spent on biohazards. You're in a better position than others to evaluate how important it is. But the key point of your question was: Yeah, but we spent a lot of that money; it gets allocated in this political process.

Well, welcome to the United States government. If you create a massive, multi-billion-dollar program to give out money around the country, this is a government in which power is shared. It is a fundamentally fragmented form of government; power is very broadly shared and diffuse; a lot of people have stakes and get a say. And so the decisions will inevitably be somewhat driven by the tug and pull of political interests.

I am philosophical about that. You cannot get, kind of, the -- you know, if Laurie Garrett and Philip Zelikow can get together in the room, and then come out in their pristine white robes to announce to the assembled humble multitude exactly how the money should be spent, maybe it would be spent better. But that ain't this country, or any country we will ever live in.

So accepting that, what you then need to set up is a dynamic in which there are people who say, here's what the rational allocation of risk is, and they then become a powerful pull that offsets to some degree the inevitable tug of the political interests on the other side, so that the resources are allocated somewhat more rationally that would otherwise be the case. And the attention of people like you, and a few in the journalism world, to the way money is actually spent, therefore, plays a rather healthy service.

UTLEY: Question down here. The microphone is coming.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, Dick Garwin, IBM fellow emeritus.

It's not so much we've created a monster, I think, as a Maginot Line. And the solution is not on a line, different line, between that and a lesser amount of it. It's probably someplace else in the plain -- not the airplane.

But to go back to the airplane, in 1968 a committee I chaired in the White House to look at airplane hijacking said it would be solved if you locked the cockpit door. Now, that would also have solved the problem of hijacking an aircraft to crash it into buildings, but we didn't do it. It would have cost the airplanes a little bit of money. Instead we had much more costly alternatives.

So nowadays the question is learning from the Internet. We see that from the Norwegian example, which empowers even an individual, empowers organizations also, because you can separate the thinking from the doing. And although al-Qaida never was the threat that we made it out to be, there are threats out there which are unnamed, which are individuals, which are small groups that I think we have to watch out for and we have to be aware. On the Internet, we have to make small changes rather than big ones where we can, which might have broad impacts.

UTLEY: But if I could give a quick follow-up on that comment with --

ME. ZELIKOW: All right.

UTLEY: Go ahead. But I also would like to know what's out there that you think about that we're not thinking about.

ZELIKOW: Well, actually, I think the way Dick puts it is very wise and good. If you begin to basically say I'm not going to elevate al-Qaida into being a world historical force to create this kind of -- so I can make it fit into a narrative that I'm comfortable with at a cognitive level, and instead adopt the kind of point of view that Dick is saying -- well, there are a lot things like this, because lethality is now much more diffuse and dispersed in this age we're living in; we're no longer threatened solely by accumulations of men and metal as we were in the industrial age.

Then you're really into a science of risk management in which the essence of Dick's comment is to say, all right, I then need to think about, with the least amount of spending, identify -- identifying risk pathways. Where can I make the best interventions that dramatically change my risk calculus?

And actually, engineers are very used to thinking in these terms. And policymakers also ought to be used to thinking in these terms. And a lot of what we're doing in some areas now use this. And the risk-management concept is a layered concept in which no one of the layers is relied upon as being 100 percent effective, but the accumulation of layers really changes the odds.

And I actually think that we've done some really good things in risk management and that this is one of the reasons we're safer. Juan Zarate, who's here, has seen a lot of these evolutions in the last few years and has overseen some of them.

And I'd like to just pick up on your comment and underscore it and urge that a risk-management concept of the kind Dick is describing is a really useful way of trying to think constructively about many problems of this kind without getting caught up in hysterical swings of public mood.

UTLEY: Question right here; the gentleman with the glasses.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

It's a very good presentation. My name is Roland Paul. I'm a lawyer.

Two things that I'm kind of personally easy with and not opposing, though it may sound it from my question. Did you think the message for getting bin Laden was, although publicly we'll say capture or kill him, we really meant kill him? And is that OK?

And the second is -- I think it was public here that Ray Kelly said to us or confirmed a public statement that aggressive interrogation techniques did prevent at least one threat to New York, which had to do with the Brooklyn Bridge. So is that your view that aggressive interrogation techniques in some cases is not such a bad idea?

ZELIKOW: OK, let me -- on the first question, it's simply a historical question. I don't know -- I don't know for sure what the rules of engagement were for the team that hit Abbottabad. I know a little bit about how those folks operate in some other cases, and they make decisions very quickly.

And, you know, whether or not it's dialed a little more toward one end of the dial or a little more toward the other end, I'm sure they were not told, kill him no matter what. And so then it just moves into, well, if it's -- if there's this degree of uncertainty -- I just don't know enough about the facts to have an opinion, but nor am I deeply troubled by the question. (Laughter.)

On the second issue, of aggressive interrogation techniques, first of all, again, I have a point of view on aggressive interrogation techniques that I've been public with now for some years, but on the inside and the outside, in which I thought the adoption of the rules and approaches that we adopted was a grave mistake. It was profoundly counterproductive and ended up hurting us not only publicly, but actually began to interfere with coalition intelligence operations in the war on terror itself by the middle part of the decade. I experienced this personally; so counterproductive and hurt us on many, many levels.

So then the extreme version of that argument says yes, and we never get good intelligence from them. My answer -- and I've looked at examples of this in Britain and Algeria and a lot of other cases, and Israel. My answer to this is sometimes you do get some help from them. Sometimes you don't. It's -- sometimes you break people faster, but sometimes what they tell you is crap. Sometimes also you've lost the chance to turn someone into someone who's cooperative and can become an agent for you.

I mean, but so sometimes it helps, sometimes not. You really need to work the case. And also no one, no one, to my knowledge, has actually scrubbed all the different claims about what intelligence led to what successes and what was uniquely available only from extreme techniques and could not have been obtained through other things.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been spending years trying to work this problem over in a serious and professional way and hasn't yet come up with a good outcome.

When I was in government, I actually looked into a couple of these allegations and cases, because I was reading the talking points that were being given to the vice president too, which is the same stuff the vice president's been using in his speeches and in his memoir and Liz Cheney has been using. And I actually tried to dig into what was underneath that.

And what you discover is a typical intelligence-case story. Most intelligence cases of this kind are mosaics, where you have a number of pebbles and leaves going into them. It's usually not just kind of one aha moment, like, I got this, and then that maybe cued me to something else, which allowed me to bring that to bear, and these fairly patiently constructed and often incomplete mosaics that begin then cueing you to other things.

And then what you want to do as an organization is everybody who contributed a pebble to the mosaic, you say, great job; you're responsible for us getting the case. And as a manager of the organization, you want to do that, because you want everybody to feel like they contributed to the success.

But the point is, when you really dig into it, there are these very complicated stories, and often the case officers in the field know how complicated they are and are kind of (dismissive ?) if the claim is being made by one person or another. And it's -- and then, even when you dig into that, is -- and in that particular case, did we have to use those techniques to get that particular nugget of information, or that nugget of information confirmed and corroborated something we'd gotten from another source?

So, for instance you've seen that Leon Panetta stated unequivocally, after the public thing surfaced, that we did not rely on EITs to get the intelligence that led to bin Laden. Maybe Panetta overstated it. Maybe he was wrong. But I don't think he would have said that if he didn't at least have a plausible argument to make.

But the bottom line -- I'm just trying to underscore that do not get too caught up in the thicket of these rival claims, because until you really sweat the details of the cases, it's mostly just rival talking points. Acknowledge that maybe these techniques buy you a little bit at the margin, but there are significant costs and uncertainties that go with them, even in the intel world, and then huge tradeoffs beyond that.

And now let me underscore it with another story, which most of you don't know, I suspect. We actually ran the most remarkable natural experiment on interrogation techniques against al-Qaida without meaning to do so. By `04 and `05, we basically had adopted a completely different set of rules for interrogations in Iraq than we were adopting in the CIA program against al-Qaida worldwide, because the military redid its interrogation program in Iraq during 2004 and into `05.

By the way, they had different rules and they had different interrogation teams in Iraq. And I visited these centers in Balad, where we were doing this. We were using FBI guys and CIA guys and NSA guys. It's a really interesting interagency team they've put together, and operating under Army Field Manual rules. And at the same time, the CIA was insisting that, against al-Qaida worldwide, they had to use their set of rules.

We hadn't meant to run a natural double-blind experiment in this way, but we did. And it's interesting because the guys that we were hunting in al-Qaida and Iraq are pretty bad guys. I mean, if anything, they were more seasoned and hardened killers than the guys we were chasing in al-Qaida worldwide, more guys who had been personally killing people themselves on occasion after occasion.

So this was a very serious group of people, and we broke al-Qaida in Iraq with this interrogation program. I was sitting in the White House Situation Room when the head of JSOC told President Bush in the presence of all of his advisors, when asked point blank do you need extra interrogation rules to do your job in Iraq -- no, Mr. President, we do not -- we can do a perfectly adequate job of interrogating them and getting what we need fast under the Army field manual rules.

Now, my own view is that there are a couple little footnotes you need to make to the Army field manual rules to get them to work the best, and actually they were making a couple of little footnotes in terms of when you notify the Red Cross and a few little things like that. But in terms of how you actually treat the prisoners and the abrogation of reliance on physical torment, they were running a pretty clean interrogation program and one the American people would be comfortable with, and it was highly effective in an interagency team against a very dangerous group of people.

UTLEY: Question back there. One more, and then we'll come back up.

QUESTIONER: (Inaudible) -- and thank you for this fascinating presentation. I just want to pick up on a couple of things you said, the last of which is Iraq. Did al-Qaida come to Iraq after the war started -- after President Bush said, you know, come on -- we'll have you there -- because there was not really that much in Iraq. And as far as Iran, having spared Iran accountability, do you think this has contributed to what they later have gone on doing including developing a program -- you know, the nuclear program feeling that they had been spared. And on Saudi Arabia, do you think that what they have done actually by breaking al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia it helped in -- as far as defeating a large part of this movement?

UTLEY: All right. So Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia. If we can make this pointed answers.

ZELIKOW: All right. Iran is a, I think, mainly a different narrative altogether and I don't think they're -- I think they were on -- they made some key decisions about their nuclear program that I date, personally, to around 2004 -- 2004, 2005 -- for reasons I'm not confident I understand yet. I have my hypotheses but I just want to confess my humility. I think I can kind of sense where the key decisions were made. I'm not sure why they were made. I think it mainly has to do with the internal ideology of the people who were seizing power inside Iran and the internal dynamic in Iran in those years and is really a separate narrative that is substantially independent of the Iraq narrative.

The Saudi Arabia narrative -- the Saudis, who have a highly ambiguous record on how they dealt with Islamist extremism in the 1990s for complex reasons that are understandable in the Islamic world of the 1990s, but they essentially found they could no longer tolerate this level of extremism in their midst and it was coming home to roost because, after all, they really hated the Saudi regime more than any other, and the Saudis now played a critical part in breaking them. And al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is mainly now in Yemen and lots of Saudis have been killed now fighting these folks.

A lot of Saudi policemen have got -- have had funerals. So their role has been very significant although, of course, belated. On the Iraq point and, you know, did the Iraq war attract a lot of these people? Yes, but you have a conglomeration of different Sunni extremist groups who were all attracted to the situation.

A, you have a civil war in Iraq that was bound to happen as soon as the Sunni tyranny was overthrown because what happened then was a gigantic revolution in Iraq itself in which the longstanding oppression of the Shi'a majority was being overturned and the Shi'a were going to reclaim every element of political, social and cultural influence in a society that had been denied for centuries by what they regarded as a Sunni tyranny.

That was -- that kind of revolution -- internal revolution was going to happen and was, in my view, bound to be accompanied by violence in which the Sunnis fought back to preserve some measure of their role against this new -- against the revolutionary government. The United States happened to play a central role in that revolution but the revolution would have happened anyway and there would have been huge Sunni violence associated with it that therefore was significantly focused on the United States and with al-Qaida running to the combat zone to help out, because follow the narrative line of al-Qaida just for a second. You have a whole set of Islamist extremists growing up in the Muslim world mainly for local reasons.

The problems about how the Muslim and Arab world was coping with modernity the confusion and conflict within that civilization about that. The global Islamists get their purchase in the late 1990s with an argument that says that outsiders are attacking Islam. They're recruiting people using film footage from the Balkans, from Chechnya. Very useful to remember Mohammed Atta and the Hamburg cell, when they first volunteered to serve for al-Qaida they came to fight Russians in Chechnya, and then they were turned to divert against the American enemy that the al-Qaida leadership actually felt was most interesting to them.

But in other words, all this spun narrative in which people who knew nothing about the United States were convinced that the United States enemy was behind a general assault on Islam. That narrative, by the way, is increasingly decrepit and it's more and more falling back again onto local agendas in which the global Islamist agenda is fading a little bit to the side and into the background.

And so, yes, Iraq, because Iraq was one more occasion for the narrative that these people had been believing in for years, and so if you deprive them of that particular occasion and don't offer them another then they're going to not have any place to go to to fight. But increasingly, what we're seeing is the narrative of how Arabs and Muslims are defining their problem and defining the menu of solutions is now moving, I think, down much more interesting and healthy channels than has been the case any time in the last 20 years.

UTLEY: You've given a very vivid portrait of what's happening abroad which is fuel for a lot of thought for the symposium this afternoon. Let's conclude on -- by bringing this back home. You articulated this concept of the twilight war and struggle. You talked about what Mark Danner and others have been thinking about and addressing and no doubt you will be addressing this afternoon as to how do we manage this in our country in terms of legality, of a sense of anxiety, how much security is necessary, and how we discuss or decide some of these questions going forward.

Now let's just add 2012 -- presidential campaign -- politics. The Republicans, for a long time, have claimed the national security mantle. You can argue this goes back to George McGovern in '72 when the Democrats really lost it in the Vietnam Era -- largely regained in the Clinton years where there were no tremendous security crises. Some embassies in East Africa were bombed and the retaliation was carried out. And now you have Obama -- President Barack Obama there.

How do you see this playing in terms of Democratic Party concerns for the real legitimate issues of national security and what needs to be done? He has not closed Guantanamo, et cetera, et cetera. On a national security basis, to what extent do you sense there being a political dynamic here that Obama and the Democrats don't want to give up what appears to be a national security mantle regained and how this might or might not play out in a presidential campaign?

ZELIKOW: Garrick, I think you're exactly right. As a historian now -- putting on my historian's hat -- the great Republican term -- we associate Republicans with being the great hawks on national security. If you ask yourself when did that start, I can date it almost precisely. It started between 1949 and 1952. Remember, before that, Republicans had been ambivalent about foreign engagement and actually they were generally in favor of cutting the defense budget. And then for -- a variety of things happened where they saw an opportunity on what they regarded as the great sins of the Truman administration.

That became their defining issue in the congressional campaign of 1950 and the presidential election of 1952, and they never looked back. Those were political catastrophes for the Democrats, and Democrats and Republicans alike carried these Korea memories with them all through the 1950s and 60s. You just see it again and again in the discourse of that period. They're all carrying that memory back and so the Democrats are being more hawkish on Vietnam than they might have otherwise been because they're carrying memories of Truman and China and Korea and all of that.

You can hear this on -- in the White House tapes from the -- from the period, and now we've got a -- and the Republicans became extremely comfortable with this issue. It became a defining issue for them in the Cold War, and now they're -- this is now a routinized habituated pattern of thought among most Republicans though not all. You now increasingly see for the first time in a long time the resurgence of a group of Republicans who are really tempted by disengagement. I don't think, though, that that's a dominant wing yet but it's noticeable and it's interesting for that -- for that -- the Ron Paul Libertarians and the like.

Meanwhile, the Democrats are still afflicted by the same dynamic that you're capturing. Obama has made absolutely sure that no one's going to be able to get to the right of him on toughness on terrorists. I don't think -- and I think -- I'm not saying that his motivations are political and cite his bin Laden decision which was, I think, a difficult decision on the facts that were in front of him and a courageous one in many ways.

But, therefore, the paradox of adjustment I talked about I think is going to run pretty strongly all through 2012 because it's going to be very hard for the Obama administration to do anything that appears to be softening this as they're making a variety of difficult decisions to push ahead with pulling mainly out of Iraq and beginning now a steady path of withdrawal out of Afghanistan.

Therefore, the last thing they can do is cede ground on this one. Even if they think they need to rebalance it's going to be very hard for them to do this in any political sense. The Republicans, though, are going to find it very difficult to make an issue out of it. I mean, they could kind of say well, let's make the litmus test whether or not we're willing to beat up captured terrorists -- you know, that's the one thing we can seize on that Obama won't do. I just don't -- I don't think that's the sexy political issue of 2012.

HAASS: Well, we have to wrap up right now. And I want to thank you, Philip, very much for being with us. (Applause.) You'll all have our takeaways here but you mentioned two words -- maybe paradox gets elevated to a policy issue. So thank you very much.

ZELIKOW: You're welcome.

HAASS: And good luck with the symposium.

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A Conversation with Philip Zelikow

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