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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

(continued from page 3)

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?

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.

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