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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 5)

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.


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