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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

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.
Q: Do you think he believed it was a success?
A: He expected the casualties to be much greater. If al Qaeda really knew America, instead of attacking at 8:45 in the morning, the time to attack would have been 10:45 in the morning. Then, instead of 2,800 to 2,900 dead, you might have had 30,000 dead! But remember something about what I just said. This was a classic terrorist attack. The Irish Republican Army has done it. This kind of attack happens all the time in the Middle East. You set off the bomb. You wait twenty minutes for all the first responders to show up and then you set off the second one. That's what the World Trade Center was. That's why I say the World Trade Center was the perfect model. One airplane, twenty minutes later the other airplane.
There are a lot of folks who've looked at the attack that are convinced Flight 93, that went into the field in Pennsylvania, would probably have hit the White House twenty minutes after the plane that hit the Pentagon. The guy that hit the Pentagon just wasn't high enough when he made that turn, and basically wasn't in control when he hit it. He just didn't have quite enough flight training.
Q: Where do you think bin Laden is hiding?
A: I think bin Laden's dead. The guys on the ground are convinced that he's dead and they give two reasons. One, he hasn't been heard from since December; two, the guy is such a megalomaniac that there are hundreds of miles of videotape of this guy. It's not just the stuff we've seen. This guy was giving interviews for years to Al-Jazeera, which we all in the television business call Jihad TV. He had his own favorite news crew that he dealt with. He had his own favorite reporters with Al-Jazeera and a number of other Pakistani, Saudi Arabian and Yemeni and Egyptian newspapers. And we've not seen or heard from him since mid-December.
Q: Do you believe that he has been surprised by the U.S. response to the attacks?
A: Absolutely. He's shell-shocked, if he's still alive. I think he was shell-shocked the moment that that Penetrator landed on top of his bunker. He never imagined that an American president had the leadership ability or the guts to respond the way we have. I think he really did believe his own propaganda. Look at the things he's been saying about us, not only that we're 'the Satan,' but that we're hollow, we've no core, we've no courage. He believed it.
Q: If he is dead, as you believe, how do you assess the remaining capabilities of al Qaeda? A: There's an old Texas expression: when you fall into a snakepit, what snake do you kill first? That's the snake that last bit you! You grab it and you kill it. The organization without him as its visible leader is badly damaged. It's still dangerous. But he fired his best shot on 9/11. He took nineteen of his most effective terrorists and killed them. He had built a system. The president touched on this a couple of days after in the State of the Union. I won't try to paraphrase him, but look at what transpired in building up to 9/11. What bin Laden and his organization did is they took young men many times away from their families, put them into a tutoring system where he taught them to hate, taught them to kill, and taught them to kill themselves. That's all being broken up now.
So the long-range prognosis for al Qaeda's continued operations, and as a serious threat, is not good. Not just in Pakistan or even in Saudi Arabia, but in Indonesia, the Philippines. In much of the Islamic world there is a new awareness about how dangerous bin Laden's kind of philosophy is, or if you will, theology. It's a very twisted perspective on life. Therefore, as a viable entity, its long-range prognosis is not good. In the short range, I think we have to assume that security alerts like today [February 13] are going to continue. There are very likely dozens of other al Qaeda terrorists in the United States.
Q: When you were dealing with terrorism in your role in President Reagan's White House, there wasn't much doubt about where the terrorist groups were getting their support. It was a Cold War phenomenon that was being supported by the Soviet Union. In those days, was any thought given to this other version of terrorism, the Islamic fundamentalist group, and did anyone think then that it would transform into what it's become today?
A: I don't think anybody was looking at it back then, except maybe at Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad as kind of the blueprint for al Qaeda. Surely the guy who drove his truck bomb into the Marine barracks in 1983 and some of the terrorist bombings that we saw in Beirut from '83 onwards were suicide bombers. So, yes, people were looking at it in the context of the Middle East. We created the CIA counterterrorism center in those days, because William Casey was very concerned about where this was heading and it was a new dimension. Up till that point you didn't worry about attacks against U.S. targets inside America. Yeah, you had the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and you had the Black September organization and a bunch of organizations like that, but you didn't have it aimed specifically at the United States. There wasn't this kind of rampant, a-bombing-a-day kind of thing. All of the sudden in the '80s, there's this explosion of it.
Q: Hadn't there been terrorist attacks for years before that?
A: Sure. The British have dealt with it for years in Cyprus and in the Middle East; they'd had a lot of those kind of attacks addressed against them. Abu Nidal worked against them. But that's nothing compared to what happened to King Hussein. I think it was forty-one times they tried to kill him. Why? Because he was willing to sit down and talk to the Israelis. People looked at him and said, "Look. Our relationship with Israel is going to be a problem."
Islamic radical terrorism the likes of which we are now seeing was never on the table as big a threat as it is now. I don't think that anybody ever anticipated that the Wahabi movement in places like Saudi Arabia would get to be as big and as dangerous as it's been. I mean, if the financial backing, and if you will, the general guidance for terrorism in the '70s and early '80s was coming out of the Soviet Union, the financial and, if you will, the philosophical guidance today is coming from places like Saudi Arabia. There's a lot of money there, but there's probably less control over the organizations.
There's probably less ability for somebody in Saudi Arabia to say stop to Hamas, because that organization has got money in the bank. We started tracking financial transactions back in the '80s. We were all over the Libyan movement of money, for example: from Tripoli and Benghazi to the Peoples Committee for Libyan Students in Germany and in McLean, Virginia. We watched it. When the FBI detected the attack on my family on February 11, 1987, it was because we'd been watching those guys. But nobody was watching the growth of al Qaeda and its type of organization in mosques and in college campuses around the country.
Q: But you believe the transformation of radical Islamic fundamentalism had already started at that point?
A: In fact, it starts in 1979 with the Ayotollah Khomeini coming back to Iran. He leaves Iraq, goes to Paris and then comes back to Tehran. That's where it begins and at that point, it's under the control of the religious mullahs. Tehran could say to the Islamic Jihad or to the Hezbollah, "OK, guys, knock it off." But there's separate money for it now and you've got separate leadership. I mean, the Iranians couldn't control somebody like Osama bin Laden if they wanted to. And I don't think the Saudis could, either. Even so, what we've got is something that may ultimately be more easily controlled than the Soviet support for the global terrorist network, because it was so widespread back then. The Soviets just kind of supported it with concrete things. Their questions to the terrorist groups were things like, "You need some more munitions? You need a little training? You need a little refuge? You need medical treatment?"
Q: Would you say giving terrorists refuge, a place to rest and recuperate, may be as important as anything else you can give them?
A: Exactly. And, today, the number of places where these people can go take summer vacation has gotten a whole lot smaller. The commitment of their followers is much more zealous. Case in point, the Mukhabarat, which is the foreign intelligence service of the Iraqi government, have long been sponsors of terrorism. They're just like what Khadafi used to be. I mean, they've got their operatives running around the world bumping off opponents of the regime all over the place. It happens all the time. But the fact of the matter is, that no terrorist was ever willing to die for Saddam Hussein or even Mohamar Khadafi. They were willing to plant a bomb for him, but they didn't want to ride the bomb in. What makes Osama so dangerous, and what makes radical Islam so dangerous today, is that they not only are willing to die, they want to die. So, that's what the Israelis have been up against now for the last fifteen years and what we're now up against in reality for at least the next fifteen years.
Q: In your conversations since September 11, do you have a sense of when the intelligence community realized that Osama was the focal point that they needed to be worried about?
A: This sounds like I'm criticizing the CIA. I'm not. But it's not the responsibility of the CIA to do things that the administration tells them not to do. In 1995, largely due to pressure about bad things the CIA had done in Guatemala, Senator [Robert] Torrecelli goes and convinces the CIA that if you guys even talk to somebody who's got a criminal record or a bad human rights record, I'm going to cut you guys off. We have then what they internally called out at Langley, the Torricelli sanction.
We could already see the growth of radical Islam with the bombings of the Beirut barracks, the bombings of our embassies, repeated bombings in the 1980s with suicide bombers. The Israelis were already going through it. Organizations like Hamas didn't just bloom overnight; the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah were already doing it. Osama bin Laden himself does not become a visible threat until the early '90s. By the mid-'90s, people are starting to say, "Wait a second. World Trade Center [bombing]?" We've got no ability to even penetrate these guys because of the Torricelli sanctions.
What's happened is that the CIA has been trying to find out information. But I don't care how sophisticated your satellites are, how many guys you've got sitting around with headphones on, or how many miles of tape that you're making out at the National Security Agency or General Command Headquarters or any of the listening sites around the world—you can't get information that way. Unless you can get inside those organizations, you can't forecast where this event's going to take place. So what happens is you get the living daylights surprised out of you, because all of the sudden here's this guy Osama and we don't know anything about him. In large measure that's the consequence of not having human intelligence.
I keep telling people that. You know to the extent that the government every once in a while wants to hear from an old geezer like me. First of all, [bin Laden] fired his best shot on 9/11. If he'd had things like anthrax, botulinum toxin and Hanta virus and all these other kinds of [things like] Sarin gas, suitcase nukes … it's nuts. If he had any of those, he would have used them first.
Q: What kind of methods does an intelligence operation have to use to get that kind of insider's information?
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