New York, N.Y.
GIDEON ROSE: Welcome. Sorry for getting started a little bit late. Welcome to lunch with a very distinguished and very interesting author. I’m Gideon Rose, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, and we are very fortunate today to have with us Tim Naftali, one of America’s finest young diplomatic historians who has a distinguished track record, which you can read about in the bio, but we won’t take anymore time with that. We’ll get right to the subject. He’s the author a very interesting new book, Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, and it’s gotten wonderful reviews everywhere, from Commentary to the Wall Street Journal. I was just teasing him that he was now the [inaudible] toast of the town. [Laughter] Which is quite interesting.
NAFTALI: Unexpected, I should say.
ROSE: There’s a review of it in the new Foreign Affairs that you’ll be receiving in a couple of weeks. So without further ado, let’s get right to the Q and A. First, let me remind you to turn off your cell phones, BlackBerries, and other wireless devices, and I’d like to remind everybody that unusually today, this meeting is on the record, so Council—usual Council rules about non-attributions don’t apply. And—you can turn off your phone, too, exactly. [Laughter] So without further ado, Tim, we have here a very distinguished audience that knows a lot about the subject. Why should they read yet another study of American counterterrorism? You had access to the 9/11 Commission and your role in it to secret documents, what exactly is new here?
NAFTALI: When I—when [an article about al Qaeda operative] Zacarias Moussaoui appeared in the New York Times a few days after September 11th, and it was the story of this man, I mean, we all know the story now. He comes in the country, wants to learn how to fly by jet—he’s never flown before—I had, I had spent some time at a school that Gideon knows well, studying the history of counterterrorism and counterintelligence in World War II, and I knew that we were very good at the end of World War II in following bad people. And we’d set up some model organizations to deal with this where information was shared—all the things that the 9/11 Commission later criticized our current intelligence community, or the then-existing intelligence community, for not doing, I knew we did at the end of World War II. So I just wanted to know, well, how did we get from there to here? And there was no book to talk about how we dealt with terrorism.
And, you know, I grew up in the ‘70s, and I remember all those PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] issues, and I was—I was a kid but I watched the Olympics in ‘72. In the ‘80s I was in college, and I remember the Reagan war on terrorism. In the ‘90s, well, we experienced the World Trade Center attack in ‘93 and, you know, the others. I wondered if there had been any institutional memory. I wondered what had happened, whether there was a generation of people that actually cut their teeth working the terrorism issue and what had happened to them in 9/11.
And there is no book that tells the story until now. So I started working on this in 2002, and then I got a really lucky break because the man who ran the Miller Center where I, where I work, Philip Zelikow, and I hope he becomes the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and he—[Harvard University’s Charles Warren Professor of American History] Ernest May is the first person he hired to work on the staff—hired me as a consultant to write the prequel, if you will. The story of how the United States dealt with terrorism between ‘68 and ‘93, and the ground rules were phenomenal for a historian. It’s an unclassified study, but there are a lot of declassified documents. But I was allowed to interview anybody I wanted. In fact, the Commission let me use Commission letterhead. So basically, anybody I wanted to meet, I met, as long as they weren’t a former president because, obviously, the Commission wanted to deal directly with them.
So I got the chance to talk to people who’ve never really talked about how they worked the terrorism issue in the ‘70s and the ‘80s and ‘90s and piece together the story, which is troubling. It’s not all a story of failure. There are some successes, which we can talk about a little bit later, but it is troubling, and it’s troubling about the way in which we, as a nation—I’m not just talking about the White House, and I’m not just talking about the executive branch, I’m talking about all the branches—well, two of the branches. I don’t talk about the Supreme Court too much. How we as a nation have had a hard time doing counterterrorism and the reasons for it. And it—and it says the inner aspect of this book is the baseline for asking good questions in the future; I think it’s the set of conclusions I reach about the troubles that we’ve had doing counterterrorism over the years.
ROSE: So what are the troubles, and what are the sources of them?
NAFTALI: We don’t like to do counterterrorism. And I mean the big “we.” And I can go, you know, group by group. National Security Council [NSC] hated counterterrorism, with a couple of exceptions. Exceptions happened in the Reagan and Clinton years. But by and large, the National Security Council didn’t like it. And why is that?
Well, you know my previous work has been on U.S.-Soviet relations. So I’m accustomed to studying an issue that is the organizing principle of our foreign-policy establishment. But when working on terrorism, I wasn’t working on the [inaudible]. I was working on the No. 2 or No. 3 and No. 4 issues. And it’s fascinating to take the No. 3 issue and follow it through administrations. Do we know how foreign policy is made? It’s a matter of face time. It’s a matter of meetings. It’s a matter of power and decisions about how to use power. Terrorism never got face time, with a few exceptions.
So the National Security Council decided, the staff, said terrorism is not a first-order issue. And therefore—and is chronic. And that’s the key part. It’s a chronic disease. We don’t want to associate the president with something he can’t solve. And so they isolated and insulated presidents to this.
Now, this is particularly significant because one of the presidents that was so isolated was [Gerald R.] Ford. And the people who isolated him were named Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. And there are some interesting lessons that they learned in the ‘70s that, unfortunately, I think they implemented in 2001 in those first nine months. It’s a set of assumptions about how a president should deal with terrorism. So National Security staff didn’t like [counterterrorism].
The military hated the counterterrorism mission. Absolutely hated it. There’s a remarkable story that I got from a number of sources, but I spent a lot of time with Admiral [John] Poindexter. And Ronald Reagan ordered a retaliatory strike after 241 Marines were killed in a barrack in Beirut, but it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because [Reagan’s Secretary of Defense] Casper Weinberger unilaterally stopped it.
The Pentagon hated these air attacks and resisted time and again, and it was—it took enormous, enormous energy to birth the mouse that was the air attack on Libya in 1986. And there was absolute evidence in ‘86 that, instead of actually deterring [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi, we in fact compelled him to act, to commit more acts of terrorism. There is a lot of terrorism that happens that Libya—I know there’s a sense that these—this attack in ‘86 was a success, it was a failure. But—and the National Security Council understood this. And they talked about a second strike. But the administration could not get around a second strike, and they were going to launch one in 1986.
ROSE: Let me just question that for a second. Seems to me a bit of a contradiction. If the first strike produced more terrorism, then why would a second strike not have done even more [inaudible] sensible not to go on the first one?
NAFTALI: No, because we tried to kill Qaddafi. And the point was, there was a covert act. There was a covert operation that was linked to this air attack. This was not just supposed to be a lucky strike. They were working with members of the Libyan Air Force. And the goal was to launch—there was supposed to be—I mean, this sounds—we always hear this—there was supposed to be a coup. And the Libyan Air Force gave us the targeting information that we had for getting Qaddafi—it came from the Libyan Air Force. We were supposed to kill him. And they were prepared to take over. And they—we got more information after the first strike about where he had moved. And the Air Force generals that were working with us were asking us, “Hit him; get him.” And we didn’t do it. That was—the point was, this was not some kind of blunt instrument. It was supposed to be actually a much more sophisticated attack. And it—and the administration had a hard time getting around this issue.
So it’s not just—you’ve got the Pentagon. You’ve got your National Security Council, Congress did not like the counterterrorism mission since the ‘70s, when the—when [reporter] Seymour Hersh, the same man that came forward with all those revelations about the extent to which the FBI had abused its power, largely in civil rights investigations in the ‘60s, and the CIA’s illegal work on U.S. citizens, Congress saw antiterrorism as an extension of the political intelligence that operations against dissidents, that had caused such political troubles in the ‘70s. So for Congress, counterterrorism and antiterrorism was an absolute loser.
American business hated antiterrorism because it associated it with inconvenience. The airlines fought a rear guard action against sensible air security from the 1960’s. In the late ‘60s, there were two hijackings a month in this country. And the airlines didn’t want to do anything about it. The airlines argued—because in those days, until September 11th, they were financially responsible for security—their argument was all the little airports in the country are going to be shut down because they won’t be able to afford security measures. So they were against—100 percent—screening of passengers and carry-on [baggage]. They fought—and their lobby was the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] because the FAA is captured by the airlines; at least it was in those days. And they made these cockamamie arguments about why you couldn’t have screening.
They also argued that you shouldn’t have air marshals on planes. I don’t know if you ever saw the movie Goldfinger. If not, you should. It’s a great movie. [Laughter] In the movie, you could bring down a plane by shooting it—shooting the fuselage with bullets. Now, I’m not recommending that any of you do this, because I understand we’re on the record, but you can’t, OK. You cannot bring—you can’t. But the argument that the airlines made was, “We don’t want an air marshal on board the plane because what if there’s an accidental discharge? The one bullet will cause a massive depressurization; the plane will go down.” It’s just nonsense.
And it’s only in the early ‘70s that, because of a horrific hijacking—nobody died, thank goodness—but it was by a group of embezzlers who threatened if they didn’t get five million dollars [they would] fly the plane into the Oak Ridge Nuclear Facility in Tennessee, the very first time anybody talked about using a plane as a missile. The U.S. government said, “Oh my God, we’ve got to do something,” and organized itself for 100 percent screening of passengers. And within the first three months in 1973, do you know how many guns they picked up at airports in the United States? Five thousand, and 600 people were arrested. Five thousand people sought to board planes with guns.
ROSE: Were they just Texans or were they, were they [laughter]--who were these people?
NAFTALI: Given that is a question that I could only expect in New York, they were—they were not just Texans, they were all over the country.
ROSE: Well, were they criminals, potential criminals, or just—
NAFTALI: Some, some were not.
NAFTALI: Some were not, as I said, there were two, there were two, there were two hijackings a month in this—you know, they were so frequent—these hijackings were so frequent, that, that, that airline pilots flying in the southern United States routinely carried maps of Jose Marti Airport [in Cuba]. That’s how often this happened. [Laughter]
And the Cuban government—no really, this is great. The Cuban government realized it could make some money out of this. So they used to, they used to sell sandwiches to the American passengers who were, you know, visiting Havana. And they used—they made—I love Cuban sandwiches—they made a Cuban sandwich [and] they sold them for $30 a sandwich [laughter], which the State Department picked up the tab.
ROSE: Let me press you on this. You started out by saying your earlier work on World War II and just afterward demonstrated that we could do a lot of this stuff, and yet we now see that we didn’t later on. What was the decline? Why could we do it back then but then later, fell prey to all these pathologies?
NAFTALI: Well, there are two things that happened. One was, we went from war time to peace time. And the Cold War was, as you all remember, a very confusing time, when we really didn’t know if we were at war or what—what were the rules that applied.
ROSE: Sort of like the war on terror?
NAFTALI: Exactly. What are the rules that apply? And what is the trade off between security and liberty? Nobody—I mean, there’s—the smartest person on this issue, other than Gideon Rose [laughter]--the smartest person on this issue was [diplomat] George Kennan, who made the argument at the beginning of the Cold War that we have to remember that in—in order to fight the Russians, we may—we must not become like them. And that we have to be careful that in mounting this defense of our way of life, we don’t sacrifice our way of life—an interesting point that we could get to later on the war on terror.
By the way, I hate this term “war,” because how do you win it? Do we have a victory on Osama Bin Laden Day? See, what we learned over 60 years is that terrorism is a tactic, and the faces change, and it’s immature to associate it with a person. Because in the ‘70s, it was the PLO, and the PLO did it for political feeder for the most part, to draw attention to Palestine as an issue. In the ‘80s, it’s much more homicidal, but largely, our enemy is the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and they’re a very sophisticated, and remain a very sophisticated, terrorist organization. But they had a goal. They set a goal: they wanted us out of Lebanon, for the most part, and they wanted to destroy Israel. In the ‘90s, the faces change again. Tactics will continue to be used by groups that are not powerful enough to mount a military strike on the United States.
ROSE: Let’s press you on this. So you have World War II; you can do a lot of things coherently and—well, especially by the end of the war and afterwards. Then you get into the Cold War and the issue drops in salience. The rules change. Your national state and apparatus gets very diffuse.
ROSE: And so you—the ball drops, and you end up with these various competing bureaucracies, none of which have counterterrorism as a chief goal.
ROSE: And that gives the situation in which you have no coherent response over time, even though people want to do it. OK. Let me play devil’s advocate. Until September 11th, or generously, until the late ‘90s, wasn’t it rational to put terrorism lower down? You had more people dying of peanut allergy, let alone lightening strikes. So why didn’t it make sense to put everything else first, whether it was the [Arab-Israeli] peace process, whether it was other kinds of goals, whether it was relations of great powers? Why—aren’t you guilty of sort of, you know, wig history, or looking at everything in retrospect, and blaming people for what was actually very sensible behavior at the time, given what people could rationally expect?
NAFTALI: If I made that argument, I would be guilty of [inaudible] argument and a bleak history. But I don’t. I’m not—I don’t blame the Ford Administration for not creating some huge national counterterrorism center in 1976 to protect us against an attack on the bicentennial that didn’t happen. What I was interested in, all right, was how our government—and how we dealt with this, because the threat actually does—it’s a [inaudible] wave. At times it was more important than it was at other times. And what we did wrong—and here I am critical—is that, for most of the period I’m studying, we did not react to terrorism. You could kill an American overseas and the United States government would do nothing. Two American diplomats in 1973 were killed in Khartoum [Sudan] by the PLO, by [the Palestinian paramilitary organization] Black September, on the orders of [then PLO-chairman] Yasir Arafat. We did nothing.
A few months later, Yasir Arafat, during the [October 1973] Yom Kippur War, tried to open a line of communications to our government. In fact, two would ultimately open—one through the State Department and one through the CIA—and we began the process of getting Yasir Arafat to renounce terrorism. And you know, it was going to be a very hard and long, complicated relationship with him. But the decision we made was that we wanted the PLO in the peace process and losing a few people overseas was the cost you had to pay, the price you had to pay. We didn’t retaliate against Hezbollah, and so we sent the message to extremists that if you want to get the United States out of a place where you don’t want us to be, just kill a few of us. That was the lesson of Lebanon. You know, we got out of Lebanon. We pulled out of Lebanon.
ROSE: Well, now I can see why the neocons are reviewing the book so well. So here’s the question: Is the implication that, basically, there should have been zero tolerance for terrorism, and that we should have launched a much more aggressive foreign policy in response and elevated the centrality of the issue? Even way before?
NAFTALI: I don’t argue—I actually think we were really very successful in the late Reagan and early—and George H.W. Bush administration, not because we involved the president, because in the latter part of the Reagan administration, [former Secretary of Defense Frank] Carlucci and [then-Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Colin] Powell told President Reagan to stop talking about the seven hostages in Beirut. I believe we should have retaliated, but not necessarily by using the full might of the United States government or military. I prefer to use selective intelligence activities. I think the reason we were so good at this at the end of World War II was we have a very smart, small group of people working the issue. We did again in the late ‘80s.
You know, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, we destroyed three of the four principal terrorist threats to this country. That’s pretty good. We didn’t get rid of [Lebanese Islamist organization] Hezbollah. It’s still a problem. But we got rid of the Abu Nidal [terrorist] organization, working with the Jordanians and the Israelis, the mainline PLO. We fingered Carlos the Jackal [Ilich Ramirez Sanchez], who had caused a lot of trouble in the 1970’s and the French picked him up. We let the French pick him up. It was a deal that we struck with them because there was an indictment against him in Paris. And we’re the ones who found Abimael Guzman, a man associated with 60,000 deaths, as we did the Shining Path in Peru. It’s the CIA that got this man. And how did they get him? Because he had very specific dietary needs. And so the CIA was looking for the grocery stores in Lima that were actually stocking this particular kind of food. And then once they determined the neighborhoods, they then went and started investigating the trash around various buildings and they were able to—they found Guzman this way with the Peruvians, and they let the Peruvians capture him. That’s three out of four. That’s a very, very good—
ROSE: Late ‘80s, early ‘90s.
NAFTALI: Early ‘90s. Three out of four very good operations, small groups, 400 people, some 500 people in the counterterrorism center.
ROSE: Mid ‘80s, some of the worst problems [inaudible].
NAFTALI: Mid-‘90s, you mean?
ROSE: No, ‘80s.
NAFTALI: Well, we didn’t do—
ROSE: Take the—
NAFTALI: Yeah, but mid—but this is different. We’re not doing that in the mid-‘80s. I’m saying—
ROSE: What is it that changes—
ROSE: --if, in the mid ‘80s, you have policies that are—
NAFTALI: Well here’s—
ROSE: --not optimal?
NAFTALI: Now here’s, here’s the problem. The argument I make for the Iran-Contra [affair], or the Iran side of Iran-Contra, is that—is different. The best way to understand it is a consequence of our failed counterterrorism policy. See, when the military, when the Pentagon and, and its allies in the NSC [National Security Council] refused to retaliate, the whole policy process jammed on this issue. You had these seven—the numbers change, but roughly seven Americans held at any time in Beirut. You have these Americans who have been killed, and we don’t know what to do about Hezbollah.
So this is what I think is the genesis of the idea of paying off the Iranians. It’s not simply because Iran might go the way of the Soviet Union and our concerns about you know, the strategic nature of Iran. It’s that Iran is the patron state of Hezbollah, and we want Hezbollah to stop doing what it’s doing. And we can’t seem to agree amongst ourselves how to deter them from using force or intelligence. There were efforts to do this with intelligence. They just didn’t have very good sources. And that’s what comes—that’s what leads to the [inaudible] and the visit by [National Security Adviser Robert] McFarland to Tehran. It’s a way of buying off the Iranians.
We told—you know, Rafsanjani was still around. Rafsanjani was promising that he could actually contain Hezbollah. The problem was that Rafsanjani was in the middle—and [Middle East expert] Kenneth Pollack does a great job about this in his book [The Persian Puzzle]--but he’s in the middle of a power struggle himself and the guy he’s struggling with is the man responsible for training Hezbollah in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. So, I mean, our knowledge of Iranian politics was completely wrong.
ROSE: So is the wake—is it in the wake of Iran Contra and the screw up there that you get these new policies that work?
NAFTALI: It is in the wake of, it is—well, Iran Contra hadn’t been a screw up, yet, because this new policy actually predates Iran Contra. It’s the fact that, it—the U.S. government realizes it’s making a mess of counterterrorism, and it goes on two different tracks. One track is the way of dealing with Iran by paying off Iran. The other track is by getting tougher on most—on those organizations you can get tougher on. And here is where strategy matters.
The U.S. government felt that—and don’t forget, it’s the Cold War—that the Soviets would probably not accept an air strike on Tehran. It’s a whole issue of what the Soviets would commit. But we figured the Soviets wouldn’t care if we killed [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi. So that we felt we had more—I mean, this is what the National Security folks told me as I worked this issue—that we really had more—there was more room for military action against Libya, which was an ally of Abu Nidal, than against Iran. So it’s a two-track issue.
But at the—the source of this is the fact that, for the first term, the Reagan administration is a disaster in counterterrorism, despite all the rhetoric. That’s what leads to this, the-two track approach.
ROSE: OK. Last question from me before we go on to the audience. Take us from that period in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, you just described as successful into the ‘90s and al Qaeda and the new challenge that emerges.
NAFTALI: Well, I’m a lot—I have a lot more praise for the Clinton folks. They actually get the terrorism problem. We can talk about implementation—
ROSE: Right from the beginning?
MR NAFTALI: No, no one gets it. In 1993, the—when that terrorist [Mohammed Salameh] goes back to collect his deposit on the van [he had rented with terrorist Ramzi Mohammed to carry the bomb for the first World Trade Center attack], it creates in the intelligence community the sense that Sunni extremists are the B-team. The Shiites are the best. I mean, Hezbollah was magnificent in terms of its organizational abilities, and let’s not forget that until 9/11, there was more American blood on the hands of Hezbollah than on al Qaeda’s. But these are—Sunni extremists are big talkers. OK? And they’re all talking about doing this to the United States and that to the United States, and they don’t achieve anything. And they go back to get their deposits. And this really does affect the community.
Something else happens, and it’s a generational issue. Those characters, those people who are involved in the successful operations at the end of the Bush—then the Reagan—or [George H.W.] Bush 41 administration start to retire. So you have, simultaneously, a generational shift. So there’s a real gap.
And in 1993, the CIA considered shutting down the counterterrorism center because terrorism was over as an issue. The Cold War was over. The Middle East peace process seemed to be in good shape. And so you have this odd juncture. All of this happening at once. It takes until the mid ‘90s.
So the National Security Council—and this is one of the exceptional National Security Councils—I described really four—I talked about four, in terms of, you know, which ones thought creatively about counterterrorism, and you know, McFarland—and there were all kinds of problems with him. But McFarland and Poindexter—five really—and Carlucci do and [Clinton’s National Security Advisers W. Anthony] Lake and Sandy Berger do [get it]. Lake is a very smart guy, and Lake is interested in global issues. He’s thinking beyond borders. And he understands, he really does understand that it’s possible for somebody in a cave in Afghanistan to pose a strategic threat to the United States. Because, see, he’s thinking about HIV/AIDS and thinking about environmental issues, things that cross borders, and he is the one who motivates a shift in the CIA to start thinking about terrorism-finance links, which ultimately becomes the Bin Laden station in 1996.
We know bureaucracies. We know hard it is for them to shift. Inertia is a terrible thing. Yet, the U.S. intelligence community begins to shift by the mid ‘90s to focus on Sunni extremism. And I, I thought that was quite remarkable.
Now, by the late ‘90s, they don’t do everything we’d like them to do, and for that I would—I argue—and the 9/11 Commission does a great job of it. I mean, I—but I think I argue that part of the problem was domestic. There was not a lot of support in this country for more active counterterrorism. There was no support in this country for invading Afghanistan, and there’s no real evidence that the Clinton administration would considered it, but it was just understood that there was no taste for it. It took a lot of effort for Clinton to get Americans to believe that Kosovo was something to think about.
And after the Monica Lewinsky case and Clinton was criticized for launching 79 missiles—cruise missiles at Sudan and Afghanistan, it is clear that people are going to question his abilities as commander-in-chief. Clinton launched those 79 cruise missiles because he had excellent intelligence, credible intelligence that Bin Laden was going to be in a certain place at a certain time and he had very good intelligence that linked Bin Laden directly to the attacks on the embassies in East Africa. He absolutely had to launch that attack—
ROSE: That’s the Afghan part?
ROSE: What about Khartoum?
NAFTALI: Well, here, I haven’t seen the evidence. The people I interviewed for obvious reasons say that it was very good. I don’t know. I can’t—but I think that’s a red herring. The Sudanese government is not our friend, was not our friend, won’t be our friend for awhile—the Sudanese government made a big thing of it and said it was a baby—made baby food or something. So it was in their interest to say that. And a lot of people picked that up.
But the climate in this country was absolutely poisonous in 1998, and probably, you know, as bad as it is now. There was something, there was a Wag the Dog movie. And people said that Clinton was wagging the dog in order to distract us from you know, his lies when he was deposed on Monica Lewinsky. That was absolutely irresponsible to make that argument. Absolutely—and a number of people made it and it was absolutely irresponsible.
That period is a fascinating period because the people—all of the positions on these issues were switched. You have Republicans arguing against tougher counterterrorism measures in the mid ‘90s. The Clinton administration proposed legislation which we now know as the Patriot Act in 1995, and there’s more to it than what’s there, but the effort to increase the FBI’s power so they could do in counterterrorism what they’ve been doing against organized crime, that’s from 1995.
And that was opposed by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who said that the FBI had enough power. In fact, there was a congressman from Oklahoma named Tom Coburn who argued—and I’m paraphrasing—“I’m more afraid of the federal government than I am of foreign terrorists.” This legislation, which would have made us much more secure and was not passed, and it was introduced by the Clinton administration.
ROSE: With that, let’s turn it over to all of you. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it and please stand, state your name, and affiliation and keep your, only one question per person, and keep it consist so that we can have as many as possible. Yes, over here.
QUESTIONER: Scott Johnson, SJ Partners. What I wanted to ask is, in your tour through history, what lessons do you see being most important? Specifically, what type of policy recommendations could you come up with, changes to infrastructure, and are those at all realistic?
NAFTALI: That’s a great question. The most important—the most important recommendation I have—Well, before I go to that, I don’t believe in creating bureaucracies. You know, after Pearl Harbor, the United States did not dismantle its intelligence community, and we did very well against the Germans and Japanese. It’s an unusual thing to dismantle your intelligence community while you are at war. You’ll notice that many of the new positions that we have created are not filled. This has got to be one of the oddest ways of responding to a national emergency I can imagine. So my tour through history led me to believe that small groups of motivated people with a mission are much better than these humongous departments with 22 agencies—
QUESTIONER: The [inaudible] will always get through.
NAFTALI: Exactly. Thank you, Curtis. That’s, but that’s, that’s sort of an instinct. All right. But the thing that I argue at the end of the book, besides asking people to ask smarter questions and be more demanding of their congressmen or women is that I think we need a national dialogue on this relationship between security and liberty. I don’t believe that we can have a 100 percent security. But I don’t know if we make that argument often enough.
Now, I know politicians can’t make it. If I were running for something or I had actually been elected something—God knows it’s not possible—but I could never tell you, “Well, we really can’t keep you 100 percent secure.” I couldn’t do that as a politician. But we can, as smart people in business and academia, we can tell people that that’s the way the world works. You drive to work everyday and you know there’s a chance you’re going to get killed on the highway. It doesn’t stop you from driving. If you look at the argument in the New York Times the other day about whether or not we should arm planes with these devices that would make shoulder-launched missiles—it would actually deter them. It’s going to cost—I don’t know, someone might remember—a lot of money.
QUESTIONER: Ten billion [dollars].
NAFTALI: Ten billion [dollars], OK. Now, look. What is the chance that this is going to happen? And the argument is that I would—the argument that some people were making was it might be small. But if one of these planes goes down it’ll shut down air traffic. Well, that’s our fault, people. We should educate the American public better. That’s our fault for not being honest with the American public about the nature of terrorism.
If one plane going down—because planes go down—well, not all the time—they used to. People still flew. If one plane going down is going to shut down our air systems, we are failing as, if I may say so, as experts in foreign affairs. We are failing. The only way for terrorists to win is for them to undermine our way of life. And really, the only people who are capable of destroying our way of life are ourselves.
The terrorists are never going to have enough fire power. Never, to match what the Kremlin had at the height of the Cold War. The Kremlin could have destroyed our civilization. Maybe it didn’t want to, but by accident, they could have. Terrorists can never do it, but we can do it to ourselves. So why not be honest about these odds and inure people to the possibility that this might happen? I just don’t think that that expenditure of funds makes sense, to arm every plane. I just don’t think so.
ROSE: It sounds like some [Senator] John Kerry [D-Mass.] saying we should get it back to where it’s a nuisance again.
NAFTALI: Well, John—the [inaudible] article’s really interesting. I believe that what we have to do is complicate the planning of our enemy. See, what really angered me when I wrote—when I get to the end of the book. And I did not write this book in order to say, “See, this is why 9/11 happened.” I did not write it that way. I’m an historian. I believe—first of all, I like characters and narratives, and you know, stories begin and end. It’s not just one long march to disaster.
But I started to see a pattern that was very troubling, which is, whereas our discussion of foreign threats was rather sophisticated. CIA—we had a national-security system structure. We had nothing to talk about domestic threats. There is no domestic, at least then, no domestic security council. So the discussion of our domestic threats was episodic, ad hoc, second rate, really, really nothing we’d be proud of.
And as a result of that, in the summer of 2001, the CIA was at war with al Qaeda. There’s no question about it. That’s one reason why I don’t know why we needed a director of national intelligence. There was nobody who was more understanding of the terrorism threat than the president’s principal intelligence adviser in the summer of 2001. His name was George Tenet. He’s director of central intelligence [DCI]. Why we need somebody else with a new title to do the same thing George Tenet couldn’t do successfully because of the president is beyond me.
But again, we didn’t handle—the recommendations and the way we discussed this after 9/11—I mean, the commission did a phenomenal job of the history and laying out of what happened—brilliant, brilliant. But let me ask you this: Why didn’t anybody look at this as a policy failure? Why was it immediately assumed that 9/11 was an intelligence failure? I’ll tell you why. Because the way in which we structure our government and our dialogue about these things is, we always assume surprises are intelligence failures.
Pearl Harbor was as much a policy failure as an intelligence failure. The Navy told Franklin Roosevelt not to put the entire Pacific Fleet in Hawaii because it was not a defensible position. He wanted to. He had a set of ideas with [Army Chief of Staff] George Marshall about how do you deter the Japanese. It was wrong. It’s as much a policy failure. OK?
We weren’t focused on domestic security in the summer of 2001 because of a policy failure. Because—and it’s not just the Bush administration. It includes the Clinton administration. It includes all of them. Nobody thought that terrorism could really pose a threat to us at home, a threat that required some kind of coordinated response. OK?
ROSE: Let’s get a—over here.
QUESTIONER: I’m Ted Sorensen with Paul Weiss. To analyze counterterrorism, were you able to do what neither the United Nations nor Washington has been able to do, which is reach an agreed-upon definition of terrorism? And if so, did you find that the United States, against the Cubans at times, and maybe in supporting others in Afghanistan at one time, engaged in terrorism?
NAFTALI: That’s a great, great question, Ted, and of course, I’m going to side-step it. Well, actually I did come up with it. I came up with my own definition for the purpose of the book, which is that terrorism is acts in peacetime—acts of violence in peacetime against civilians. And this is a—this was a book about how we organized against what we defined in various periods as terrorism. And I let the policy-makers of each period define what they saw as terrorism. An equally interesting book and a companion book would be “Sources of Why People Hate Us.” That’s another book. [Newsweek International Editor] Fareed Zakaria sort of started the process. But I think it would be a wonderful book. What mismanagement and missteps have we done that leads people to choose suicide as an act of political defense against us? That’s a companion volume. I’m not sure I’d write it, but someone should. That’s a different issue. And I hope my particular definition is useful, at least for the study that I did.
ROSE: Over here.
QUESTIONER: I’m Harrison Goldin. Just before Ted Sorensen asked this question, you, in response to your emphasis on policy as opposed to intelligence, said—and I think I’m quoting you on this verbatim—that, “nobody thought that terrorism was a threat that required a coordinated response.”
NAFTALI: At home.
QUESTIONER: Right. I want to focus on the word coordinated. If you move from policy to intelligence, why is it that we don’t need a coordinated intelligence network? It’s been so well-publicized. All of us know how many instruments of intelligence there are in the United States government. Why is it that you’re hostile, is the word I think that’s appropriate, to the notion that it is useful to have an effective—but we may not have created an effective one with the new role—but an effective coordinator of national intelligence?
NAFTALI: I’m not hostile to it at all. We did it in 1947. In 1947, that was the whole point of having a director of central intelligence. The problem was that the Pentagon intelligence services grew. And the director of—the early directors of central intelligence, particularly Allen Dulles [during the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration], decided not to fight for budgetary control, and hiring and firing privileges over these new Pentagon entities.
It is a decision that—Dulles loved running the CIA and he spent very much—much less time running the intelligence community. But the National Security Act of 1947 [that reorganized the U.S. Armed Forces, foreign policy, and intelligence community] gave him—it certainly wasn’t the intent of Congress at least, for him to do that centralization. Now, what has happened here, is we’ve managed to create yet another layer of bureaucracy, and [Director of National Intelligence] John Negroponte does not have the—he has a little bit more budgetary authority, but he does not have the budgetary authority that even the 9/11 Commission asked that he have over the Pentagon’s intelligence assets.
And let’s not forget, they are the most expensive and arguably the most important intelligence assets we have. This is the overhead spy apparatuses. This is the National Security Agency. These are the tactical, intelligence-gathering units that support the mission—our military missions abroad. This is the Defense Intelligence Agency. Negroponte with a new, whole new bureaucracy and magnificent, and even he is lacking the budgetary authority to centralize now. My point was, why not just knock heads and give the DCI this budgetary authority? Why create yet another layer of government? It seemed to be unnecessary.
ROSE: OK. Yes, over here.
QUESTIONER: I’m Moushumi Khan, I’m a lawyer in New York. I have question about the role of public diplomacy and counterterrorism, and specifically, both at home. Domestic relations with communities that can help us, you know, Muslim and Arab-American communities and immigrant communities, as well as abroad in the Muslim world. And particularly, if you could bring into this argument about integration, or [what Council President] Mr. [Richard] Haass spoke about last night of the need for having an integrationist foreign policy view for Americans.
NAFTALI: Well, one of the things I learned in doing this is that very good counterterrorism requires excellent liaison. It’s a—you can’t do this unilaterally. I don’t think you should do any kind of diplomacy unilaterally. But you certainly can’t do counterterrorism unilaterally. And you watch, we don’t do it in this country. You have relations between state police and the FBI, and you have to work with the people on the ground. So, what you want to avoid are actions overseas that’s going to make it harder for you to work with police forces in Muslim countries.
And I interviewed quite a few counterterrorism specialists, and I don’t know anybody who thought that the war in Iraq was a good idea. It’s a good idea if you want to change the politics in the Middle East, and I guess, over the long term, that might reduce the number of people who want to blow themselves up to kill you. But in the short term and medium term, it just complicates our ability to work with Muslim police forces.
And it created a sanctuary for terrorists in Iraq, certainly in the Western border of the country. So we’ve managed to add to the number of sanctuaries where terrorists can operate, and we’ve made it easier for terrorists to recruit more people to blow us up. And we’ve made U.S. military installations closer to the suicide bombers to make it easier for them to kill our people. That’s—in the so-called war on terrorism, that’s what Iran—Iraq has done for us.
It may again have a medium, long-term solution, which is not—but I’m thinking tactically about this struggle against Sunni extremists. So it seems to me our public diplomacy starts with a disadvantage, because we have managed to attack and invade a Muslim country. Now I’m hopeful, because I want us to win and I don’t care whether “us” is Democratic or Republican. I’m hopeful that there’s going to be some kind of political process in Iraq that is its advantage—is it something we can trumpet in other Muslim countries? But I’ll leave it to the Iraq specialists to talk more about that.
My concern is at the working level. Are we getting Muslim countries to help us because they are still the experts in their own country? And the other point I’d make is that one of the unheralded reforms—not all the reform was bad. One of the unheralded reforms that came out of the National Intelligence Reform Act was a new scholarship program for young men and women to go into the intelligence community, which is a little like what we’ve been doing with the military for a long time.
And one of the things we need to encourage are members of the Arab-American community and other Islamic-American communities to join the intelligence community. We’re not very good at that. We didn’t encourage it. The communities, I think may have also been somewhat hesitant, as well. But that is a—but that’s part of a long-term strategy, which is a long-term improvement of our understanding of these cultures by, if you will, secret penetration.
ROSE: Over here.
QUESTIONER: Allen Hyman, Columbia Presbyterian. Why do you think, since 9/11, there have been so many suicide bombers in Iraq these days, one or two a day, and there hasn’t been a terrorist attack in this country? Is it because we’re doing such a great job or is there another explanation?
NAFTALI: It’s a great question and one fraught with peril, because you never know what’s around the corner. Let me give you some guidelines, because I don’t know the answer, and you know what, I suspect if we brought the people at the National—the people who are working the National Counterterrorism Center these days they, if they’re smart, they wouldn’t give you—they wouldn’t know for sure.
But let me give you some guidelines for looking at this problem. It is dangerous for an organization—a secret organization—to move people en masse to another country. And al Qaeda’s decision to try to bring 20 people into our country—they only got 19, ultimately—meant that they didn’t have much of a sleeper network here. And the 9/11 commission looked hard at connections between local folks.
ROSE: The fact that they had to send people in meant that they didn’t have—
NAFTALI: They didn’t have anybody here to work for them. And historically, there have been sleeper networks—terrorist sleeper networks. The Abu Nidal organization had a whole bunch of grocers in the Midwest. It’s a cash business. And the IRA [Irish Republican Army] has sleepers in Boston. But they use this country as a banker. They collect money here. They raise money here. And in a sense, the basic [inaudible], the basics of understanding of how sleepers work in this country that the FBI had was that they worked—they treat us as a bank, and therefore they don’t blow up the bank.
I think the one reason why we haven’t been hit is that al Qaeda did not, and does not, have much of a sleeper organization. We can all name, because we see it in the Times, the number of so-called al Qaeda affiliates that have been picked up—the Lakawanna group [of six Americans of Yemeni descent who were arrested in 2003 outside Buffalo, New York]. There’s just a recent FBI sting operation. A couple of people wanted to cause trouble, though it’s not clear to me either one was trained by al Qaeda.
ROSE: So the [terrorism expert] Steve Emerson types are wrong on that.
NAFTALI: As I said, this is a question you’ve got to be careful. I don’t know for sure but my hunch is, it’s now nearly been four years. Thinking about the way al Qaeda works, if you look at the way, what [suspected 9/11 mastermind] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has said under—in his testimony under interrogation—this idea that al Qaeda only wants spectaculars, and they’ll wait five years for a spectacular. I think it’s some kind of post-facto rationalization.
The [2000 USS] Cole bombing—the attack on the Cole, which actually began as an attack on something called the USS Sullivan, and the airplane operations which became 9/11, were planned simultaneously. And so, this idea that—I’m sure al Qaeda would launch five or six attacks on us every year if it could. And it hasn’t. So I suspect it’s disrupted and the people I’ve talked to tell me it is. It’s disrupted. It doesn’t have much of a sleeper organization here, but it can move people in here if it needs to, because our borders still are porous.
We’re an easier target in Iraq. My great concern at the moment is for our allies, our European allies, who have very restless Islamic populations. And that’s where I would think an attack, another Madrid-like attack, is much more likely.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Deroy Murdock with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. I’m wondering, in your research, what evidence, if any, did you find of Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism in general, and al Qaeda in particular? And if there is any such evidence, did that justify his ousting from power?
NAFTALI: OK. Well, on the most recent issue of al Qaeda/Saddam Hussein, I’ll just—the 9/11 Commission did a phenomenal job of looking into that issue, and they had superior access to things than I did and I didn’t work on that issue for them. But I can tell you a story about the Gulf War, which should have predicted this.
In the Gulf War, Saddam’s intelligence service was so bad. We looked at the terrorism aspect of it, and there’s a section in the book about this. And Saddam had the contract out to do harm to us. And he went around looking, with his money, looking to see which organization he could get to help us—to help him. He did not go to fundamentalist organizations. He didn’t go to Hezbollah, but he went to the Palestinians, because these Palestinian groups would take money from anybody.
And he failed. He couldn’t—they couldn’t do it. There were a couple of operations that the United States stymied that were organized by the Iraqi intelligence service, most of them were abroad. But the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community after the Gulf War was that, like the Iraqi army, the Iraqi intelligence service was third or fourth rate. It was not very good. Now of course, they did try to kill President George H.W. Bush when he visited Kuwait, and of course they didn’t, and that’s wonderful.
But look at what operation that they—but look at the operation that they ran. It was extremely amateurish. I’m glad it was, but the point is, this was not a professional operation that the Kuwaitis disrupted. So the idea that the Iraqis were really good and had the trade craft to do what the alarmists have said does not square with our historical experience in the U.S. intelligence community.
ROSE: Yes, over here. Heather.
QUESTIONER: Heather Higgins, the Randolph Foundation. Hi, Tim. First, a comment: I don’t think you should be so hard on the foreign intelligence community and the foreign experts in terms of educating the American public. The American public is notoriously ignorant when it comes to issues of risk—if you look at the way the entire apple industry was destroyed over [the pesticide] Alar [banned in 1989] or any other numerous examples.
My question for you is, taking the bait which you threw out earlier: If you could elaborate on what you thought the mistaken lessons that [Vice President Dick] Cheney and [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld learned and applied, that would be interesting.
NAFTALI: Thanks, Heather. If you cry wolf and there’s no wolf, and the wolf finally comes, who’s at—and if no one was listening, who’s at fault? If the person who didn’t listen when they were crying wolf at a period when there was no wolf, is that person at fault or not? This is the issue that arises from studying the ‘70s. Mid-tier professionals cried wolf about a threat to the United States during the bicentennial and during the election campaign of ‘76.
And Cheney, who was chief of staff, basically kept those people away from the president. They did not get the high-level meetings that they wanted. It wasn’t even a nuclear-terrorism task force. Again, we’re talking about people who are deputy assistant secretaries, which in Washington, is not very much. And they didn’t get the higher level discussions. They didn’t even want a principals’ discussion. They wanted a deputies’ discussion. That’s all they wanted. They didn’t get it.
Now, it turns out that there was no terrorism organization with the reach or the desire to do [a bicentennial attack]. So I don’t blame Cheney and Rumsfeld for the way they acted in the 1970s. Again, you go back to the point that Gideon made, which is, it was rational. And they looked at the evidence, and they did the right thing. But I would say that, to understand the first nine months of 2001, one has to keep in mind that these guys were right in the ‘70s. And there’s a lot of evidence the 9/11 Commission turned up that the George W. Bush administration was asking some very old questions about the nature of the terrorist threat. What states were sponsoring this group? These were questions that were a product of experiences in the ‘70s and again in the early ‘90s, when this group, particularly [when] Cheney was back in power with the George H.W. Bush administration [as the secretary of defense]. The argument I make in the book is simply that it helps to understand why the George W. Bush administration demoted terrorism from the top of the agenda where it sat in 1999 and 2000, to fifth or sixth. And there’s no question it was demoted.
Again, it’s a matter of Washington. If you understand Washington. If you look at, and it’s not just [former National Security Council counterterrorism official] Richard Clarke, if you look at who is talking about terrorism, you can see that it’s no longer a big issue. If you—you ask, the administration made the argument, “Well, we needed a general review of our policy towards South Asia. Gosh, that sounds like [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger NSC reviews that were meant to take forever.”
If you feel urgent about a problem, OK, you handle it quickly. And the administration did. It handled missile defense really fast. It didn’t need some massive review. It knew—[then-National Security Adviser] Condi Rice knew what to do. Rice and Rumsfeld flew to Moscow [in 2001]. This is a big deal. I don’t know if you remember this, but we wanted to move to the next stage in developing our SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative] project. And we had to negotiate with the Soviets, because this would be technically a violation of the—with the Russians, the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty. So this got number one—got all the energy and all the attention you needed to move the issue. You didn’t have to have some general review of our policy on this.
Same with China. Now to be fair, China pops up not simply because of the politics of 2000, but because the Chinese take a plane of ours and hold it in the spring of 2001. So that helps push China to the top. But, my point simply is that we know the mores of Washington. We know how things work. If you look at how terrorism was treated, you realize that, in those first nine months, this administration thought, “It’s a problem, but there are other problems that deserve more of our attention.”
ROSE: Tim, thank you very much. It’s interesting that you said that because another thing happened in ‘76 that was a big crying wolf. And it’s coming back again now, and it’d be very tragic if the same thing happened, which is of course, swine flu, which was thought to be this great peril and it turned out to be a total dud. And if the avian flu potential pandemic is treated less seriously because the same people have memories of what happened with swine flu, it could be an interesting parallel.
We have here a good example, by the way, of what a trained diplomatic historian can do when set loose on contemporary history. And I’d like to close on one somber note, which is that the 9/11 Commission was one of the spectacular public enterprises of this or any other time in American history. And I think it is not accidental that so many of the key staff were trained, academic, diplomatic historians. Whether it was Phil Zelikow—
NAFTALI: Ernest May—
ROSE: --or [inaudible] [Council Fellow] Warren Bass or so many of the staff, exactly.
NAFTALI: I wasn’t on the staff, though. I was a consultant.
ROSE: A consultant. But you were involved in the project and it’s depressing to think that we live in a demise of diplomatic history where the future will be able to draw on similar banks of talent down the road.
NAFTALI: Well, we’ll just have to be like [lawyer] Lloyd Cutler and do this into our ‘90s, then.
ROSE: Mr. Naftali, thank you.
NAFTALI: Thank you very much.
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