An Exclusive Interview with Oliver North
The Retired U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Discusses Osama Bin Laden, the War on Terrorism and President Bush
(continued from page 1)
A: You can't recruit a guy who knows what's going on in a terrorist organization from Mother Theresa's sisters of the poor. You can't find them there. You've got to deal with the bad guys. That realization doesn't happen until 9/11. 9/11 changed that forever and hopefully for the good. Now, does that mean that we're going to be dealing with people who are very bad people? Yes it does. We're going to have to deal with people who are inside those organizations, who have already passed the litmus test. The litmus test to being accepted as a member of a terrorist organization is, before I accept you, you're going to have to go out and commit an act of terrorism. You're going to have to hurt or kill somebody.
There's no other way of learning about these organizations, because bin Laden is not picking up his cell phone or his satellite phone and calling in instructions for the next attack. He's calling over a courier and saying, "Come here. You've got a French passport, or an English passport, or even an American passport. I want you to go to Boston, I want you to look up Omar Somebody and tell him at this address and tell him the attack is 9/11. We've all planned this for years in advance. Go, do it." That's why the CIA didn't figure it out. It wasn't that the NSA was asleep at the switch. And you're not going to find it even after they've reviewed all of the miles of audiotapes and videotapes and telemetry and all that stuff. They're not going to find all the instruction being given over the air or through the Internet, because it's a courier who was sent around to give the instruction.
Q: But weren't we aware of Osama and his group long before 1993, especially given the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan?
A: I'd like to clear up another myth about Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden never got a single solitary cent from the CIA back in the '80s. He never fought a battle against the Soviets. He's created this mythology about himself: that he was a great anti-Soviet fighter. He wasn't. He never fired a shot against the Russians [and later anti-Taliban leaders]. He did build some facilities and he built a network. What the guy is, is a consummate opportunist.
He had guys like Ahmed Shah Massoud and Al Huq, both of whom are now dead, either assassinated by bin Laden or the Taliban. These are the guys who fought against the Russians, and Osama had the good sense to have them killed off. He thought that the United States would respond the same way to 9/11 as we did to the bombing of our embassies and thinking that they're trying to sink the USS Cole. The Americans have established a reputation for wasting a bunch of cruise missiles and tent camps in Afghanistan and pharmaceutical plants in Khartoum, Sudan. The Americans aren't going to come, so take care of any opposition.
Q: Say Ollie North gets the phone call tomorrow: We want you in charge of the antiterror campaign. What would you do differently?
A: Well, I've been replaced by a four-star general at the White House. He's doing a great job. Quite honestly, a lot of us, who worked for a great president, looked with some envy on what this president's been able to do. Now, no one would envy what happened to bring it about, but what this president's been able to do is to galvanize the world to cooperate in a manner we were unable to do. That's a sign of real leadership. That's a sign of steadfastness.
Q: Today, the country was given another alert to be ready for another attack (February 13). Do you think those alerts are a wise thing? If you were running the campaign at this point, would you be constantly reissuing alerts?
A: Yes. For two reasons. Look at the Richard Reid shoe bomber case. Richard Reid's flying from Europe to the United States and he tries to detonate his sneakers. An alert passenger alerts the flight attendant, and the flight attendant and the passenger and then several other passengers disable the guy and take him out from maybe blowing a hole in the airplane.
When you send out an alert like today, and this is the fourth one, the chances are that some people will pay more attention. Certainly the 18,000 law enforcement organizations—federal, state and local—are paying more attention. I think what you do is you have to chance that an alert passenger or an alert American driving down the street says, "That's the guy I just saw," and calls 911 or the FBI tip line. John Walsh, who's also a Fox network guy, had to convince the FBI to help out. The FBI did not want to cooperate with John Walsh when he started "America's Most Wanted." Well, there are thousands of people who call in every week; there's millions more who just watch. Scores of criminals have been caught. Lives have been saved because people have said, "Hey. That's the guy down the street." I think there's proof that that kind of thing can pay off. Does it? No, not yet, but I think it's a good chance that some alert American is going to say, "I saw that guy! He delivers my newspaper."
Q: Isn't there the danger of the government crying wolf once too often?
A: Politically it's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't. You don't do what Governor Gray Davis did in California by saying, "Oh my God. Everybody stay off the bridges!" What you do is you say, "We've got a definitive threat. We don't know where it is and here are the people who may well be in the country trying to perpetrate it." Meanwhile, you've got Interpol and every national law enforcement organization in the world alerted to the fact that if this guy's in your country, we want him!
Q: What's your assessment of how the government responded initially to 9/11?
A: Well, we're now looking back 154 days from today. If you consider what took place on 9/11, there are several remarkable things about it. Number one: it is the most serious terrorist event that's ever happened in the history of man. Number two: there were more American casualties than any other terrorist event. Number three: there were more aircraft hijacked than in any other single event. Three was the other record, back in the '70s. Number four: a larger number of terrorists who were involved in it than any other single terrorist event.
Over the course of my time when I was the U.S. government's counterterrorism coordinator, from 1983 to '86, we were concerned generally about the Soviet proxy—supported terrorist organizations that have [now] all disappeared: M-19, Baader-Meinhof, the Red Army Faction, the Red Brigade—all of those groups that somehow disappeared when the wall came down. They were generally very small organizations, not suicidal. The effort was to perpetrate an act of terrorism and survive the experience, because they wanted to crow about it.
As I said earlier, the Israelis have had to confront this kind of suicide terrorism for years. But the idea of suicide terrorists is something new to us, at least here in the homeland. The shock of that experience was remarkable in terms of one, how quickly the government was able to respond, literally in minutes, and two, the ability to forge an international consensus of over seventy nations that were willing to help us and to do it all in twenty-six days; that's all it took between the day of the attack and October 7, when we started to shoot back in Afghanistan.
Q: There was some criticism in those early hours of how the government was handling the crisis, especially of President Bush. Was that justified?
A: Some of the criticism was the result of real misunderstanding. In the immediate aftermath, the president was down in Florida, you may remember. The president turned to a military aide and implemented a program that had been built in the 1980s but never triggered. That plan basically shut down the civil air structure in this country in minutes. That means that every flight control center and every tower in America was to give instruction to every airplane except a military aircraft to "land immediately," and designate airports where they should go. You think about that being done on a nationwide scale. Instantly, within minutes of that attack, the orders were being given. You couldn't have done that before. It was all done because of the programs that were put in place because of President Reagan and thankfully are still in place.
Q: Had you worked on those programs?
A: In fact, that was my real job. The plan was built between 1981 and 1983 to give us the ability to avoid allowing anyone to decapitate the government of the United States. You never want the government of the United States in the hands of a guy who wears a green or blue suit with stars on the shoulders to work every day. You want the government run by a constitutional president; that means the president, the vice president, or one of the Cabinet successors: the speaker of the House, the president pro tem of the Senate, and then it goes to the Cabinet. You want to make sure you've always got that. There are a lot of people who misunderstood: why did the president go off to an Air Force base and then avoid coming back to Washington? Dick Cheney disappears for days? All of that was part of that plan to protect the president.
At the same time he's doing that, you've got a contingency plan being put in place at the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA, the Department of Treasury. From there, you can start focusing the efforts of our intelligence resources, which quite frankly for the last eight years have been allowed to flounder.
Who did this and how do we address preventing the next attack? That's the first step. The ability to do that requires the president willing to make a decision, because it may cost billions of dollars for this country's economy to shut down civil aviation for as long as it was down. Now we're looking at it in 20/20 hindsight and looking at the war in Afghanistan, forgetting what was done here in this country at that point in time. It was extraordinary.
Q: And probably saved some lives?
A: We still don't know, but it's widely believed within the intelligence and military community that there were other terrorists on other airplanes who were waiting to take off to fly their airplanes into other targets.
So, the ability to stop any further acts was the first step. Number two: the ability to put together in that twenty-six days up to October 7 the worldwide consensus that something has got to be done to address it, and then focus the intelligence resources: What did we know? When did we know it? And who did it? We knew that in the space of forty-eight hours. It went right back to Osama bin Laden, and we know that Afghanistan is the last known place for the guy. Then, you start running through hundreds and hundreds of miles of tape, and hours and hours, days of communications that have been intercepted. It's easy for the people to point the finger at the CIA and say that they didn't do their job. It's not really a fair accusation, and so what you've got is an intelligence agency that for a lot of different reasons had not been able to collect real human intelligence for years. They just didn't have enough human intelligence to be able to finger the attack. Look, you and I are holding this interview on a day in which a threat warning has been issued, saying an attack may well be planned for today. As of this minute, we don't know that anything's actually been carried out. But they linked 13 faces and names with the threat. Things have come a long ways in 154 days.
Q: You emphasized how important President Bush's role has been in forging a coalition and establishing a real presence with the American people. Going forward, doesn't he still have a monumental challenge in continuing to achieve a unified front, both at home and abroad?
A: I've listened carefully to all of the criticisms of Bush and the ongoing conduct of the campaign. That's why I know it's 154 days today. When the president said, "Either you're with us or you're with the terrorists," there were people like General Musharraf in Pakistan who went, "What did he say? Get me the phone to the Oval Office because he really means business." Now, Musharraf had not cooperated with this president's predecessor. In fact, his country was actively supporting al Qaeda and the Taliban.
What brought the change in heart? It's the leadership of this president. And everybody who's involved in the counterterrorism endeavor at this point is grateful to have his backing. For the very first time, we're able to get from the Congress the kinds of resources that, quite frankly, simply weren't there. The American people demand it. Now that's leadership. People can write it off to rhetoric and all the rest, but the fact is that this president has been able to do things as a consequence of 9/11 that we all knew needed to be done, but you simply couldn't get the money. You couldn't get the resources. You couldn't get the attention. You couldn't get the international cooperation, all of which this president's got.
Q: But hasn't the president's portrayal of the "axis of evil" worried some allies that we will go it alone?
A: I don't think he ever meant that the bombs were going to start falling on Baghdad and Tehran and Pyongyang. What this president was saying was, "You're on notice!" It really is an axis, by the way, to the extent that the North Koreans, probably the most of all the rogue states, have the most advanced missile technology of anybody. Where'd they get it? They got it originally from the Russians, some of it maybe even from the Chinese, but they've got the most advanced missile technology. If they continue to share that technology and their nuclear technology with countries like Iran and Iraq, we've got a really serious problem.
Q: Does the rest of the world believe that?
A: What the president's got to be about now is convincing the rest of the world to join us in this effort to bring about a change of regime in all three of those countries, but particularly the two most likely to carry out the terrorism. Back in the Reagan years, to a certain extent it was relatively easy to define and deal with your adversary when it was the "evil empire." It originated in Moscow and its proxies that carried out most of the problems we had in the world from 1948 to 1988. So when the wall comes down and this terrorism starts to build, you've got a much more difficult time convincing the rest of the world that you've got a threat. But then, something like 9/11 happens. The world didn't take us seriously after the USS Cole. They didn't take us seriously after two embassies were blown up in Africa. They didn't take us seriously after the World Trade Center was attacked the first time. Now they're taking us seriously.
Q: How would you define success in this campaign?
A: You know, I asked that question out there and the best answer I got was from an Army special operations guy. I asked the question a lot: do you have to get Osama bin Laden? One of the special ops guys said to me, "I'll tell you what success is, Colonel." This is one of the guys who could be from the movie Black Hawk Down. I know a lot of these guys who went through the real event. I know them well. He said, "I'll tell you what success is, Colonel. You shouldn't base it only on killing Osama bin Laden. Success is six months without seeing the word terrorism on the front page of any American newspaper." Absolutely right. That's success in this war.