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An Exclusive Interview with Oliver North

The Retired U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Discusses Osama Bin Laden, the War on Terrorism and President Bush
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

Richard Nixon. Ted Kennedy. Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton. Newt Gingrich. Rush Limbaugh. Mention these names in partisan political company, and you will be barraged with either vitriolic denunciations or hyperbolic praise. Mention Lt. Col. Oliver North, and you may get an even broader range of responses, ranging from the renegade who threatened our democratic system to the patriot who defended American interests at the height of the Cold War by securing funding for the Nicaraguan contra war.

Today, Northoccupies a space in the American political landscape as an outspoken advocate of conservative causes. He is heard Monday through Friday on more than 100 radio stations nationwide with his "Common Sense Radio" program. He hosts a show on Fox News Channel called "War Stories," which is a combination of historical and documentary reports on famous battles or military subjects. In the wake of 9/11, North also has become one of the Fox News Channel's most visible and knowledgeable commentators about the war on terrorism, and he has 0capitalized on his prestigious standing in the U.S. military to gain almost unprecedented access to the troops in the field.

Before the intrigue and scandal surrounding his role in the secret funding of the Nicaraguan contra war, North had been a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1968, and served in Vietnam. He won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star of Valor and two Purple Hearts for wounds in action. He was assigned to President Reagan's National Security Council staff as an aide in 1981 and, until his departure in 1986, he was involved in planning for the Grenada rescue operation, the capture of the Achille Lauro hijackers, the U.S. raid on Mohamar Khadafi's terrorist bases in Libya, and the rescue of American hostages in Beirut.

North's role in securing funds for the Nicaraguan contras put him squarely in the spotlight of a congressional inquiry, which investigated how the Reagan administration had ignored resolutions prohibiting any U.S. government money from reaching the guerrilla army. The scheme, which sought to gain the release of hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon, involved the sale of arms to Iran, also an illegal act, and the proceeds were funneled to the contras. Although North was indicted and convicted of three federal crimes, the charges were overturned on appeal. The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals allowed that North's congressional testimony, under the grant of partial immunity, had unfairly influenced the jury. While North became the scapegoat for the scandal and was portrayed as having acted on his own, he maintained in a book about the subject that President Reagan had full knowledge of the plan and approved it.

The contra scandal, ironically, provided an unusual link for North to the September 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. It was widely reported that in North's testimony to Congress, he referred to Osama bin Laden as the terrorist who was trying to kill him. How that myth sprung up is unclear, but it is simply not true. Nonetheless, North did testify that Abu Nidal, the bin Laden of his time, had tried to kill him and his family. Perhaps most importantly, North's actual job in the Reagan White House was coordinator of an antiterror campaign in the National Security Council. From there, he had an early vantage point on the world of global terrorism and insights into how the larger terrorist network was linked, as well as how it was supported and somewhat controlled by the former Soviet Union. But North also had an early view of how terrorism began to change in the 1980s with the first hints of Islamic fundamentalism, and then how the movement was transformed into largely self-funded, self-directed terrorist armies.

In a wide-ranging interview with Cigar Aficionado Executive Editor Gordon Mott, North provided some of his own observations about the war on terrorism and Osama bin Laden.

Q: Let's get right to a difficult point. Given what we know today about Osama bin Laden's search to acquire weapons of mass destruction, did al Qaeda do us a favor in a twisted way by attacking when it did, given the relatively unsophisticated weapons bin Laden had at his disposal on September 11?

A: Were we fortunate that he pulled this attack when he did instead of waiting two years until they had a weapon of mass destruction? Well, granted, a 757 is a pretty effective weapon, but it doesn't take out a city.

But the World Trade Center is a casebook attack, a perfectly executed terrorist plan, although it wasn't particularly sophisticated. It's not high tech, even though it's using airplanes as missiles to take down two buildings. As we now know from Osama bin Laden's own videotape, he didn't expect the whole building to come down. He thought a few floors might collapse, but that was it.

What they did was they took advantage of very lax immigration controls, very lax airplane and aircraft security procedures. They took the time to plan it—probably three, four, maybe five years to plan it. And, in a very, very simple process, using a courier who carries the instruction to at least four, perhaps as many as ten different cells, they get instructions to carry it out. And as Osama himself says, some of those people aboard those planes didn't even know they were suicide terrorists. They didn't even know they were on a suicide mission.

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