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interview: r. james woolsey

Let me start out with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. You're the head of the CIA. Was it done by a bunch of Egyptians living in the United States?

Well, we didn't know.

We didn't know what?

We didn't know what the investigation was turning up, because the investigation was all being done by law enforcement. Pursuant to Rule 6E of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, anything that's obtained pursuant to a grand jury subpoena can't be shared outside the prosecutor's team. There are some limited circumstances in which they could share it, let's say, with a state or local prosecutor, but not with the intelligence community. So all that information was bottled up inside the law enforcement community for at least a couple years until the trials took place. ...

When did you become aware, or when did you think that possibly Iraq was involved in some way in the World Trade Center bombing, or in terrorism against the United States?

Well, I left the agency in January of 1995, shortly before Ramzi Yousef was apprehended. It really wasn't until I saw Laurie Mylroie's article in National Interest that my interest was piqued. And then a few years later, when she sent me the manuscript to see if I would do an advertising blurb for her book, I went into it in great detail.

What did you learn?

I think she did a very workman-like job of looking into the historical record. And the first thing that really jumps out at you is that Yasin, the other sophisticated plotter besides Ramzi Yousef, is an Iraqi-American who fled to Iraq, had conversations with the FBI from Iraq, as far as we know, still lives in Iraq. Now, I don't think the United States government has ever asked for his extradition.

The Iraqis today apparently say that he's left Iraq and he's gone to Afghanistan.

Right.

But that's Abdul Rahman Yasin. Why is he important?

Well, he, along with Ramzi Yousef, was one of the two major plotters. Most of the other people who were involved in the World Trade Center bombing were of limited intelligence and sophistication. But Yasin and Yousef clearly were very sophisticated people.

They disappeared?

Yousef disappeared on a passport in the name of Abdul Basit, a Pakistani passport, first to Pakistan and then to somewhere. He next turns up in the Philippines; his chemicals catch fire in his apartment and the Philippine police get a lead on him. By getting into his computer, we were able to capture him early in 1995 in Pakistan.


R. James Woolsey is an attorney and former director of the C.I.A (1993-1995) who labels U.S. policy on Iraq over the past ten years "feckless." He strongly advocates a thorough investigation into Iraq's possible linkage to terrorist attacks against the U.S. and has sought to prove the Iraq connection in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He was interviewed in mid-october 2001.

Who is Ramzi Yousef?

Don't know. He may be Ramzi Yousef. He may be Abdul Basit, a Pakistani. One thing does seem reasonably clear to me, which is that he's a sophisticated man. He's a subtle man, and he's the sort of man who might well have a tie to an intelligence organization. I don't think he is some member of a pick-up basketball team who just sort of decided to put some chemicals together and blow something up. I think he's someone's agent, and my best guess would be Iraq. But I can't prove that.

Are you discounting that he's part of bin Laden's organization, that he's part of this crusade against Americans and Jews?

No, but it's certainly not inconsistent for him to be involved with bin Laden's group in some way and also with an intelligence service, such as Iraq's. There's no sole-source contracting requirement for terrorism.

One of the things that makes me the most tired about this public discussion of this issue is that people assume that if someone might have been working with bin Laden, that means he's not also working with an intelligence service. It's entirely possible for Yousef to have been involved with an intelligence service as well, maybe, with bin Laden's organization.

A senior law enforcement official who I talked with recently, who is deeply involved in the current counterterrorism investigations, when I asked him about Iraqi involvement, he says, "There are people who pushed hard -- some in the current administration, some in the previous administration -- to tie people to Iraq. We didn't see it, and the people who know the Trade Center case the best" -- he's referring to the prosecutors in New York -- "just agree to disagree with that."

It makes as much sense to ask a prosecutor's team to make a determination as to whether a terrorist incident has state sponsorship as it does to ask a Marine captain who's trying to take a hill and deploy his platoons and squads to make a judgment about the foreign policy in the capital of the enemy troops. Anybody who's ever tried a case knows -- especially before a jury -- simplicity is your friend, complexity is your enemy, and you focus on the task at hand.

The bird in the hand, you mean?

You focus on the people that you are prosecuting and trying to get them convicted with a coherent theory. It's really not your job to make overall judgments about state sponsorship. That's not what prosecutors are good at. It's not what they ought to be asked to do.

I think one of the big mistakes here was that the Clinton administration really turned most of these terrorist investigations over completely to law enforcement and kept it focused on the problem of prosecuting and convicting people, as distinct from looking under the rocks carefully, of possible state sponsorship. ...

Other than Mr. Yasin, who goes to Iraq, and the suspicion that Ramzi Yousef may be connected to a state intelligence operation, what else is there that makes you say that Saddam may be involved in this?

Well, it depends what you mean by "this." If "this" is terrorism against the United States, I think it's pretty clear that we have him dead to rights on trying to assassinate former President Bush in the spring of 1993.

"Dead to rights?"

Yes. President Clinton believed that. That's why he launched the 24 cruise missiles at the empty building in the middle of the night in the summer of 1993, after Saddam tried to assassinate former President Bush and the bomb didn't go off. The CIA looked into the forensics of the bomb and told President Clinton that it was an Iraqi government bomb. He then asked the FBI to double-check and sent an FBI forensics team over; they did the same thing. We both said, "Yes, this is an Iraqi government plot." That was the occasion for the launching of the cruise missiles against the empty [Iraqi security service] building in the middle of the night.

Now, I think that anybody who's looked at the 1993 plot to try to assassinate former President Bush believes that it was an Iraqi government plot. I don't think that President Clinton's response was anywhere nearly as forceful as that terrible plan of Saddam's that happily didn't come off.

So we have possible involvement in the World Trade Center bombing, definite involvement in the plans to [assassinate a] former president of the United States. What else?

If the U.S. government would now go back and look at all of these previous terrorist incidents -- the bombings in East Africa, the Cole, all the others -- and look beyond bin Laden, beyond the terrorists, and see if there is anything anywhere that points toward foreign government involvement-- and by the way, some of these may be Iran and not Iraq; it's not only a possibility of Iraq -- I think they might turn some things up.

We know Saddam is working hard on weapons of mass destruction. We know particularly through Khidir Hamza and various other defectors that he's put a lot of time and effort in on biological weapons programs, as well as ballistic missile programs and nuclear programs. We know that he guarded more jealously than anything the details of his biological weapons programs, against UNSCOM and Ambassador Ekeus and Ambassador Butler and their inspection teams.

I don't know how many pieces of evidence one needs in the case of someone like Saddam Hussein. We are not, after all, trying to convict him in a court of law beyond a reasonable doubt. We're trying to make a judgment about American foreign policy and national security policy and whether that set of circumstances creates enough material for us to make a judgment that he has been actively involved in terrorist incidents against the United States. ...

But we bomb him or his facilities with some, if you will, almost regularity.

Well, I think the bombing in the north and the south of an occasional radar site is pretty pro forma.

It's become pro forma. Can you think, in American history, of any military action that we have taken sort of pro forma, regularly, for a decade, and it doesn't even make the news until recently?

I think that our policy toward Iraq, beginning with first President Bush's decision not to support the Shiites in the south and the rebels in the north after the Gulf War when they rebelled against Saddam, and continuing through the eight years of the Clinton administration, has been remarkably flaccid and feckless. It sets some kind of a record, I think, for fecklessness.

Fecklessness? What do you mean, "fecklessness?"

Indecision, lack of will, not making a decision and following it through. I don't know what the reasons were for the eight years, particularly during the Clinton administration, of their continuing to let him buffalo them and get rid of the inspections and get rid of UNSCOM and work his way gradually out from under most of the sanctions that meant anything. But by the end of those eight years, I think he was sitting there laughing at us, and understandably so.

What do you make out of the reports that his ambassador in Turkey, for instance, was an intelligence operative or official, and that he went to see bin Laden in Afghanistan? Is that substantial?

I've heard those reports, and if Mr. Hijazi went to see bin Laden or anybody in the leadership of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan -- I think that was in 1998 -- that, to me, would be yet another substantial piece of information suggesting that Saddam and not only Al Qaeda has been behind some of these terrorist incidents against us and indeed, that Saddam and Al Qaeda could quite well be working together.

And what about the reports that Mr. Atta was meeting with somebody in Prague?

There have been reports that on at least one and perhaps more than one occasion, Mr. Atta, who was probably the central figure in the events of September 11 -- at least of the 19 in this country -- when he was living in Hamburg before he came to the United States, visited Prague, met with an Iraqi intelligence officer -- someone who was declared persona non grata last spring by the Czech government. That would be yet another one or more indicators of cooperation between terrorists attacking the United States and the government of Iraq.

So the bill of particulars that you bring to the table in this is potential involvement in the World Trade Center [in 1993], definite involvement in trying to assassinate former President Bush in 1993, meetings of his intelligence operatives with people at least close to or associated with bin Laden, up at least through this recent September 11, and his general commitment to biological weapons, chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, and getting even with the United States.

Then there's also the recent reports from two Iraqi defectors about possible training and hijacking aircraft at Salman Pak, just south of Baghdad.

Salman Pak was a pretty well known facility. ... UNSCOM was there, I know.

UNSCOM was there once, and I believe there has been material about work there on biological weapons taking place. But there have been two defectors in the last few weeks who have come forward with stories about training there of non-Iraqis, as well as Iraqis, hijacking aircraft on either a mock-up or a model or perhaps a shell of a large passenger aircraft, including training not only with guns and explosives, but with knives or with just physical intimidation as ways to hijack an airplane.

We're told this by people who come through the Iraqi National Congress, which is the opposition to Saddam, which would be interested in seeing us to something to Saddam. So they have an interest. Is there any objective information that corroborates these stories?

There's no indication, as far as I know, that the Iraqi National Congress has done anything other than bring these two men to the attention of the U.S. government. One of them, Mr. Khodada, was brought to meet with me at my law firm a few days ago. ... And Mr. Khodada told the story, unprompted by anybody from the INC, of this training that he had witnessed going on at Salman Pak. Then there had been another Iraqi defector who spoke to my former client in Arabic, from Ankara, Turkey, and told him a similar story. And that man is more senior than Mr. Khodada. I know nothing to suggest that the Iraqi National Congress tried to spin or influence those stories in any way. ...

So two people come forward and say that Saddam was training people -- not just his own people, Iraqis, but foreign nationals?

Right.

Mr. Khodada, when he talked with us, described them as apparently being fundamentalist, at least in their dress or attire, the most he could tell, and that this was sort of a super-secret operation inside Saddam's government. Is that enough to say he was involved?

It's not enough alone, but it's two more very interesting pieces of information if the U.S. government would pursue it. The last thing I heard was that the only thing the U.S. government people were pursuing with the man in Ankara was to find out whether he was involved with the Iraqi National Congress. They weren't asking questions about hijacking airplanes, which I find just amazing.

But my understanding is that the CIA, your former agency, has shown almost no interest in these gentlemen, or in information related to Saddam being involved.

I hope that's not true, but I must say there are two phenomena here that one always has to guard against with intelligence organizations. First of all, the CIA or any other intelligence organization is used to running agents, and they like to get information from agents that they control. They don't deal well with defectors. The CIA has never dealt very well with defectors, from the Soviet bloc, or otherwise. ...

Back when I was director of Central Intelligence we worked closely with the Iraqi National Congress. But after early 1995, the relationship between the INC and the U.S. government soured for a lot of people. The place where the INC is popular is on Capitol Hill. Congress has been their supporters, not the State Department, and certainly not the CIA. I don't think the Defense Department is one way or the other on this. ...

We talked to Mike Sheehan, who was, up until January, head of counterterrorism at the State Department. I read to him sort of the litany of contacts between Iraqi officials and bin Laden's organization, and he said, "Over the years there's been some anecdotal evidence of some contacts. But in my judgment, while I was in the government, and again, from my friends who are now in the government, there's no conclusive evidence that I know of that links these networks" -- meaning Al Qaeda -- "to any state, including Iraq."

Well, it depends what you mean by conclusive evidence. Conclusive evidence is a phrase that most people think of in a law enforcement context, beyond a reasonable doubt. That's not the kind of evidence that you get in intelligence. You get indications. I think that if one sets the standard at conclusive evidence, one will always be disappointed in virtually any intelligence assessment.

What you get is material that enables you to make a judgment. Most of this is about judgments, and it's not the kind of evidence that will convict people in a court of law of a crime. It's a different thing altogether. And so whenever I hear a phrase like "no conclusive evidence," I immediately say, "If you're talking about intelligence, you're using the wrong standard." ...

There have been press reports that you've been to the United Kingdom recently.

I've been to the United Kingdom twice this year.

Where did you stay?

Various places.

Did you go for pleasure or did you go for business?

I went for my own reasons.

It's reported that this is related to your passion about the idea that there might be state involvement, particularly Iraqi involvement, in what's been happening.

You'll have to find out about that from somebody other than me.

But the press reports are true? Untrue?

I'm not going to comment on them one way or the other.

OK. Is that because there's a secrecy rule about talking about this stuff?

Because if I do anything to help me advise the U.S. government, I'm not going to talk about it. ...

It's always been a little confusing why we didn't go to Baghdad in 1991, why we weren't able to take Saddam out, and why some people would say we don't want to do it now.

There's a difference between not going to Baghdad and not supporting the Iraqi opposition that rebelled against Saddam right after the war. I fully understand, I think, why President Bush did not attack all the way to Baghdad. The coalition that he had put together was not put together with that as an understanding of what we were going to do.

What I have a hard time understanding is why we didn't support the Shiites in the south and the Kurds and others in the north who rebelled against Saddam. Actually, Saddam lost control of 14 of the 18 provinces in Iraq. But then he was able, by ferrying troops around with helicopters and by moving the Republican Guard around, to put down the rebellion. And we were watching from overhead in fighter aircraft.

I'm sure the pilots were very frustrated, not taking out those Republican Guard tanks and armored personnel carriers that were massacring the Shi'a and the other fighters in the north. I think that was really a shame that we didn't support them. ...

Is it possible that we haven't backed the going after Saddam, if you will, because it will make our allies -- the Saudis in particular -- nervous?

There's certainly some people who don't want to make the Saudis nervous, because the Saudis sit on top of the world's largest supply of petroleum. ... I think that it is ridiculous for the United States not to have taken action long before this to move away from dependence on oil, and particularly on Middle Eastern oil. ...

Listen, you know these people a lot better than I know them or anybody out in the audience knows them. The Congress appropriates $90 million. Saddam Hussein is virtually at war with us for the last 10 years. You, an experienced government official, believe that he's probably involved here, if not in trying to kill ex-President Bush, which you say we can prove, [then] some of these other things. Why don't we release the money and try to get rid of him?

... If we backed the Iraq opposition solidly and there was a war again in Iraq, and we backed them from the air, people would criticize us: some of our allies in the area, some of the Europeans, probably Russia, most certainly China. We would have to bow our necks and take a lot of flak and a lot of criticism. But sometimes you have to do that. And it is understandable, I think, in the U.S. government, if the department of government that is involved with negotiation, with accommodation, with building alliances, with building coalitions, has serious questions about whether it wants to do that or not.

[Some current government officials say we're having a hard enough time trying to deal with Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.] And now you're advocating that we go in and have a proxy army overthrow Saddam?

... I don't have any quarrel with the notion that we should concentrate first and foremost on the Taliban. But once we bring about a regime change in Afghanistan, I think we ought to very seriously consider moving toward a regime change in Iraq and getting rid of the bad regime of Saddam's. I think his development of weapons of mass destruction, his involvement with terrorists, all of these things are going to make this harder next year and even harder the year after that, and so on.

We should have done it in 1991. If not 1991, we should have done it sometime during the eight years of the Clinton administration. We haven't. It puts current President Bush in a very difficult circumstance. But I don't know any way this is going to get better until we have a change of regime in Iraq. ...

What is this debate going on in Washington? Secretary Powell says don't go after Iraq or don't do anything that's going to screw up this coalition.

The coalition exists in order to support U.S. foreign policy and national security policy, not the other way around. You don't start with a coalition and then end up only doing what the lowest common denominator of the coalition wants you to do. You know, people will support you more if you're clear and decisive than if you're not. ...

Based on Saddam's prior behavior, his potential involvement in, as you've said, the World Trade Center and other acts, as well as the attempted assassination of President Bush, [do] you feel there is ample justification for doing something soon?

We all have our different thresholds. As far as I'm concerned, the fact [is] that he tried to assassinate the first President Bush and nothing really was ever effectively done about it by the U.S. government. ...

Well, we blew up the [Iraqi security service] headquarters.

We shot a few cruise missiles into an empty building in the middle of the night. I think he probably laughed at the time and is still laughing. I think that the fact that he did that and the fact that he's working hard on weapons of mass destruction -- ballistic missiles, nuclear, chemical, bacteriological especially -- that's enough as far as I'm concerned.

Secretary Powell was talking about lifting the sanctions, with the exception of certain particular military items. Saddam is on the verge of, let's say, being readmitted to the world community. Why would he risk doing anything as silly a hanging out with a bunch of fundamentalists bent on mass murder?

I think he doesn't believe that he'll be caught. I think he believes -- and he sees some eight years now of experience to support it -- that the United States is not serious about looking into his ties with terrorists. I think he thinks he can get away with it; and so far, he has.

And the credibility of these two witnesses who have appeared?

Along with all of the other things that we've seen, it adds some weight to the judgment that he has been involved with terrorist organizations. When you look at the Atta visits to Prague and you look at the Hijazi visit to Kandahar and so forth, there are just a number of things. It's difficult to say that any one of them is conclusive or decisive. But they begin to add up. ...

What will it take for President Bush to reach the same threshold on Iraq?

I don't know.

Is this really a story that hasn't really been written yet -- a detective story, if you will? We don't really know what the answer is.

I think things will continue to come out tying Iraq -- possibly Iran -- but tying Iraq to terrorism directly against the United States in the 1990s and possibly September 11, 2001. We weren't really looking under those rocks hard from the early 1990s on. And now that, I hope, the U.S. government and its friends and allies are starting to look under those rocks, they might find some things that they didn't find before. ...

And Saddam isn't crying over the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

No, not at all. I think he's quite delighted. He said he's delighted. I take him at his word. He said he's very pleased that the United States was badly damaged. I think he thinks in terms of revenge, and he thinks in terms of... either he or one of his senior lieutenants once said, "The way to get people to do what you want is to hurt them." I think that's the way he thinks. Saddam was a hit man before he was a dictator. That was his profession, sort of like yours is a journalist and mine's a lawyer. He was a hit man. That's what he knows how to do: hurt people and kill people.

And he wouldn't care whether it was a bunch of fundamentalists who did it?

He's, I think, perfectly happy to work with fundamentalists. People who say he would never work with fundamentalists are about 15 years out of date. He's restructured the Iraqi flag in his own calligraphy to show "Allah Akbar -- God is Great" across the face of it. That's roughly equivalent to, if during World War II when he finally decided he needed the Russian Orthodox Church, if Joseph Stalin had written in his own hand across the Soviet flag, "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

Saddam is a very cynical man, and he sees that some of the religious extremists are able to hurt the United States. He likes to see the United States hurt, so he'll make common cause with whoever he needs to.

Does it indicate to you that some of these people appear to have adopted Western dress and lifestyle -- drinking, going to nightclubs -- don't appear to have been fundamentalists, at least in Europe or when they were in the United States?

Some of them may be Iraqi or other intelligence officers, like, say, possibly Yousef. Some of them may be fundamentalists who've been told it's all right for them to behave that way as a cover. But in any case, it strikes me as the sort of thing that an intelligence service would help people plan and understand.

Does this mean if there was some long-term solution to this problem, as some of your friends in the Iraqi National Congress have said to us, the United States is going to have to deal here -- not just with bin Laden or Saddam Hussein -- but the United States is going to have to deal with the autocratic and corrupt governments that are currently our allies?

First, I think we get rid of the Taliban. Then it would be my judgment we should deal with Saddam, and we do what we need to do in order to bring about a change of regime in Baghdad. If we're able to do that, it's time to take stock, and to see if some of the governments in the Mideast may have begun to crack down and at least limit their use of terrorism, such as Iran. It may be that if we were successful in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we would have some renewed respect from some of our autocratic friends in the Mideast and they would be a little less likely to try to order us around, even if they do have the oil we need. ...

Do you expect more developments? Are we going to learn about more things that might tie Saddam and Iraq to this?

It may be a function of whether we get more volunteers coming forward with information. It's also a function of whether the CIA and allied intelligence services are now out there looking hard for such ties. I don't think they were for some time; I hope they are now. ...

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