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As the first assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division, Dale Watson headed the investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks. A 24-year veteran of the FBI, he worked in counterterrorism and counterintelligence since 1982. In this interview, Watson, who retired in 2002, says that prior to Sept. 11, although concerned about Al Qaeda, neither the Clinton nor the current Bush administration had the political will to direct resources towards counterterrorism operations. He tells FRONTLINE that the U.S. response to the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole was "not a whole lot" and that he believes it gave a "green light" to Osama bin Laden to continue operations. In this interview, Watson also discusses the development of the investigation into the Lackawanna Six. Noting that they were all U.S. citizens, he says, "You can't arrest them unless you have probable cause that they are involved in a criminal activity." However, he maintains that "the full force of the FBI's investigative efforts [were] focused" on Lackawanna. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on April 29, 2003.

What was the state of counterterrorism operations in the United States before 9/11?

It was evolving, and over a period of time. You can go back to the first World Trade Center, Oklahoma City bombing case; forward to the [Khobar] Towers bombing in 1996, the East African bombings in 1998. Prior to 9/11, and even the USS Cole, there was a real pattern of what was going on here. People in the FBI and the CIA rightfully recognized that this was a serious problem coming our way. ... But what happened basically is, as we made attempts to change and refocus that, basically the American will or the activity or concentration of the American people was not there.

We just couldn't round up individuals because one of them sent an anonymous letter that said A, B, and C are doing something illegal and are terrorists. ... You had to have some probable cause...

The FBI knew. Various commissions knew, predicted that there would be an attack here in the United States.

That's correct.

Your office made various proposals to the government, to the president, to the attorney general, to expand operations. What happened?

You look at it, and what happened on that was the political will was not there. It was a problem that was a problem. Everybody wanted to talk tough about terrorism. But when you came right down to it, where you said, "In order to prevent an attack or to make sure America is protected, we need this X amount of money and resources," it came down to priorities. And the priorities were thought of in a different context. ...

No one thought there would be an attack here.

Smart people thought -- and people in the know realized -- that there would be an attack here. There was no question about that. I think that's been well documented. We knew we were going to be attacked again. The problem was, what were we going to do about it, and who was going to support us in that effort? ...

In June 2001, a letter comes into Lackawanna, saying that some people [trained] in camps in Afghanistan. Did you know about that?

Probably, to answer your question, no, I did not. There were a lot of anonymous letters. There were a lot of activities that would enter on the scale but would not make it up to my level. Did I know in June 2001 we had an anonymous letter coming in from Lackawanna, talking about that? No, I did not.

But you knew people were going through the camps?

Absolutely.

How dangerous was it -- this training going on in these camps? How much of your attention was focused [on that]?

... We were very, very concerned about the camps. The basic question of the camps was, who's graduating from those camps, and where are they going? Did they come back to the United States? Did they scatter in 60 countries or whatever? So the idea was we had to identify who was coming out of these camps and better yet, maybe we should discontinue allowing them to use the camps. But at the time there was there was not a political will to do that. ...

Prior to 9/11, were you concerned about sleeper cells, Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States?

The answer to that question is, "Absolutely." Prior to 9/11, we were concerned about what we knew and what we did not know about sleeper cells in the United States. But it goes back to, how do you go about identifying them, and what is the role and function of the FBI? Is it to investigate methamphetamine cases, or do you want to go after and try to run down terrorists?

I guess what I'm saying is, you guys must have had a threat assessment of who was on the ground here in the U.S., how many people you thought might be here. Did you have some kind of strategic assessment of who was here in the U.S.?

We were always trying to figure out who was in the United States. Did we have a list of the graduates from those training camps? No, we did not. We would piecemeal that together whenever we could. Individuals could go to training, assume a different name, come back and say they were in Dallas, Texas, or some other city in the U.S. Unless we uncovered that information, we would have no idea that those individuals were there. So did we have a master plan? The plan was to try to disrupt, identify Al Qaeda along with other terrorist organizations in the United States. But we were moving in that direction.

So you would say that the problem wasn't that you weren't willing to disrupt, prevent or preempt what was going on here; it was a problem of political will and resources?

That had a lot to do with it

Which had a lot to do with it?

The political will. We had the drive and understanding of what to do. There was also a lack of information of who's here and what activities they were doing. Could you equate that to say if you had 10,000 agents working on the terrorism matters, you would have uncovered the Lackawanna [case] long before it was discovered? You could make an argument in that. At the same time though, you could also say that your increased resources probably wouldn't have identified more people. I think I come out with the fact that first of all, we had to figure out what the threat was, and secondly, match that threat with the resources we needed.

When 9/11 happened, that day, did you reflect at all that you knew? Did you reflect on what you had been denied and what you might have been able to do?

Initially after 9/11, I didn't reflect on what we should have done differently. I was really focused on what we needed to do for 9/11, and to make sure there were not other groups about to attack us. That took the majority of my time. But after some time had passed, I went back and thought about it and said really, we should have been more proactive in our investigative steps prior to 9/11. We had a plan in place to do that, we were moving in that direction, but quite honestly we weren't there. ...

Just before 9/11, the attorney general rejected your budget request.

They forwarded on a budget request that was not exactly what we asked for.

Are you being polite?

We asked for certain things, and the priorities of the department and the priorities of the government were different. ...

So what I'm getting down to is, 9/11 happened. [We] were told you asked for 203 agents and 104 support people. ... You got eight agents. So that's what you're talking about. That's no political will.

Yes, I guess. Not a guess, but yes, that's right. That's what it came down to. It came down to, do individuals think we're going to get attacked again in the United States? And does this fit in the priorities of what the administration wanted to do, past and present?

Can you guarantee they are not going to do anything? There are no guarantees in this business.

So if you look at it from that point of view, I'm asking for resources. I'm asking for personnel and money, because I know what's coming down here. I don't know about 9/11 prior to that. But I know that the pattern of attacks, that the U.S. is going to get attacked again, because we haven't really done anything to stop Al Qaeda. So you ask for it. You say, "In order to protect the United States internally, I need X amount of agents and X amount of personnel to support that." I'm a realist. I understand that that's a business decision when it comes down to how much they can afford to do and what they can do. ...

[Before 9/11], you know it's a big problem. You know it's a threat. And yet, the government is not doing much about it?

No. Basically, they were not doing a lot about it. I think, if you look back over it, what happened in East Africa, what was the response from the U.S. government after East Africa? Not a whole lot. I mean, people will say, "Well, yes, there were a lot of cruise missiles fired." That was basically it.

And then you have a U.S. warship attacked, where 17 sailors were killed. And what is the response? There is no response. None whatsoever. I mean, nothing. And so one side of the house says, "Well, let's get the FBI in here to investigate this." Which we did in East Africa, and did a great job. Another side of the house was saying, "Hey, this is not a law enforcement issue. This has nothing to do with law enforcement. This is an attack on the United States."

You got two embassies simultaneously bombed. You have a U.S. warship in port in Yemen that's bombed. And the response is not a whole lot. So a lot of people on the bad side of the house were taking notes on this. I am convinced they were taking notes: What was the response? What would the U.S. government do after East Africa? Will they solve that? Are they going to disrupt all our training camps? Can we continue to train people, and plot? Even after the Cole. Absolutely. So this whole process of training people, graduating graduates, attacking U.S. targets, with the U.S. response being not a whole lot, was a clear signal that they had a green light. I think Osama bin Laden thought that. ...

During this period of time, some of your critics in the bureau, the FBI, said to me, "Well, they didn't have the resources but they weren't really trying. Counterterrorism was known as "latte agents" sitting around drinking coffee.

What's your question on that?

The criticism is you were too involved spinning up plans and holding meetings and trying to reorganize things and the Bryant plan and so on, instead of just going out there and doing your work and yelling loudly that you needed more help.

I think there's a cultural difference here between counterterrorism work and facing someone that steals a car or does some other federal crimes inside the United States. And the basic premise that most people in the FBI and my colleagues did not understand was the fact that ... a large percent [of the counterterrorism work] that consumed me on a daily basis was outside the FBI. It was working with the CIA. It was working with the State Department. It was working with foreign services to try to get information about things that happened overseas, as well as being able to obtain that knowledge.

What people saw within the FBI was the fact that they didn't really feel like they were necessarily nuts and bolts a part of that process. And when the realization came that we were not very well prepared, the FBI internally within the United States to understand what the threat was and what we needed to do to prepare ourselves to be the best we could. So you come to them and you say this is it. This is how we're going to evaluate it. In order for us to say where we're at in the process, you have to have a starting point. And so we went back and made a conscious effort to try to evaluate where we were.

Where the "latte division" term came from, I don't know. But I can tell you that it's not true. Those were very difficult cases. They were not easy cases. Solving a bank robbery, you know, with someone that slips a note or an eighth grade dropout is not that difficult a case. Trying to penetrate ... Al Qaeda in Phoenix, Arizona is a very difficult matter that doesn't show immediate results.

I want to take you back to why you couldn't get inside the camps. If a bunch of Yemeni-Americans from Lackawanna can go to the camps, John Walker Lindh can go to the camps, how come the FBI or the intelligence community couldn't have someone [there]?

I'm not going to say whether we had anybody in the camps or if the agency had anybody in the camps. But it was certainly difficult to try to identify and recruit intelligence sources within a terrorist organization, particularly coming from the United States. Because first of all, the reluctance and the suspicion associated with someone coming from the United States into a training camp or whatever facility, they would be suspect.

You can equate to that trying to get into a terrorist organization, say, in Beirut. You send somebody there, and they say the first thing they want to do is send them down to the border and ambush against the Israeli soldiers. You can't allow that. You can't participate in that.

After 9/11, is [Lackawanna] on your radar at all? It takes quite a while.

It takes a while. I'm really not bogged down, but all my energy is focused on [9/11], these terrible acts, and are there other groups? Over a period of time, it comes on the radarscope. ...

What [does] the matrix of sleeper cells, of Al Qaeda operatives in the U.S., look like [after 9/11]?

It looks very frightening in the fact that, again, about what we don't know, particularly. We went back and looked at how many visas the INS processed, how many commonalties of individuals that carried out 9/11 were potentially here from inside the United States that had obtained a visa. The numbers were astronomical, so to speak. So do we know of the 70,000 Saudi males between the ages of 18 and 35 that entered the U.S. between December 2000 and August 2001, what were they all doing and what were--

Seventy thousand?

Approximately 70,000. Now, that doesn't mean they all came and stayed. Some of them were probably businessmen. Business individuals that come out and in all the time. ...

So you had tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people to be concerned about.

That's not an unfair statement. That is correct.

But you had the Yemeni six, if you will. The six people--

U.S. citizens, that's correct.

Who had been identified in this letter.

Yes.

Did you interview them?

Yes, some of them, that's correct.

You knew where they were.

Yes.

Why didn't you pick them up?

I hear that argument a lot. Why don't we just round them up? I guess we can reflect back on World War II when you're talking about rounding up the Japanese-Americans and detaining them. There was a period of time where-- We still have the Constitution. The U.S. is vulnerable because we encourage people to come here.

We have rules and regulations. We just couldn't round up individuals because one of them sent an anonymous letter that said A, B, and C are doing something illegal and are terrorists. That would give us cause to take a closer look at them. But you had to have some probable cause to arrest somebody in this country. Which is a good thing. ...

OK. The guys from Lackawanna, went to the camps.

That's correct.

You had information they went to the camps. They denied it. When did you know that, in fact, they were lying?

They were a series of things that turned up on that. One, I think, was the capture of individuals in Afghanistan, [who] were moved to Guantanamo Bay. Some information developed out of that. In addition to that, I think there were other telltale signs, just basic investigative techniques. You look at somebody's passport, and it doesn't say "Afghanistan," it says "Pakistan." So you can kind of figure that out after you start investigating what happened.

My understanding is that there were interviews in Guantanamo. Do you recall upon that, at any time that happened?

[Yes]. ...

But you couldn't use those in the United States, right?

[Yes].

You had the information from these individuals who had been interrogated.

[Yes].

Thinking of Mr. Juma, I understand. But you couldn't use it to pick them up. Why?

We could have picked [them] up, I guess. But at the same time, you had to build a case. What we would pick [them] up for? If you are going to try to charge [them] with material support for terror states, you got to build some degree of credibility of what evidence you have to sustain that prosecution. So it's a matter of building a case, getting in there and figuring out, going back and looking at travel records, going back and looking at meetings, credit cards, and checking accounts; doing all the things you need to do to build a criminal case.

The system in this country is you don't pick somebody up because one person says something. You might have to question his credibility, eventually, or the admissibility of that. ...

So you had good reason to believe these guys were lying to you, that they had been denying that they went to Afghanistan?

Yes.

But you didn't have solid information to prove a case?

That would be correct.

So they were out on the streets?

Yes. They were out on the streets.

Until something happened in May 2002, fully almost a year after that initial edict.

They were out on the street, but the intense investigation is underway. That's where we were. It's looking at -- were they just free to come and go. They were free. But did we have a pretty good handle on what they were doing? Yes, we did.

So they were probably -- you can assume they were being heavily surveilled?

You can assume they had the full force of the FBI's investigative efforts focused on them.

But as we understand it, no wiretaps, no interceptions of their e-mail, nothing until late May, June 2002. Why is that?

I am not going to comment specifically if there were intercepts or wiretaps and when those were obtained. But I will tell you, in the process of obtaining a Title III or a FISA Court order, you need to build a case, to make sure -- and it's agreed by a federal judge -- that you have probable cause to go play. It takes a while. So if we get an anonymous letter in June, and I talk to him maybe June, July 2001, and we don't really pick back up on him until 2002. That's not something you do overnight. It would take a period of time to build evidence, build material, and build support for a potential technique to be utilized.

Most people--

--don't understand.

Yes, don't understand what you just said. Because they say, "Hey, we got a letter that says they went to a camp. You have got the intelligence information from Guantanamo, the interrogation that says they went to a camp. They are denying it. The World Trade Center has been taken out. The Pentagon has been taken out. And you can't get a wiretap?"

We got one at some point in time. But the idea behind that is that is a separate process. You have to build up what the rules of the law are in order to obtain that. People are not going to just wave the wand to say, "I don't like the way you look." Or your neighbor calls me and says, "You are a terrorist. We are going to tap your phone." That's not the way the system is set up, and it's for the protection of individual citizens. There are standards that you have [to] submit and obtain. You have to show more than just someone says, "They traveled to Afghanistan." You got to be able to support that with some kind of documentation that they weren't, first of all, in the country, and second of all, their passport had some notations on it. So it takes awhile.

That's a misunderstanding that people -- and I think, and the American public is -- what are the procedures? How fast can we move? You move. You can move rapidly. But also you have to move with the full support and understanding that can be sustained. A federal judge has to look at it and agree. So if you go in before a federal judge and you say, "I have got an anonymous letter. This guy down in Gitmo, or wherever he is at, or somebody in Pakistan said these guys went to Afghanistan." The judge will say, "OK. What are you trying to do here, Mr. Watson? Tell me how you can relate that to a terrorist organization. Tell me how that relates to that." It's the same thing.

Our understanding [is] that in late May 2002, intelligence information was provided to the FBI, in addition to these statements from Guantanamo, that identified Mr. Derwish as being a much bigger actor than you originally thought. Do you remember that? Do you remember him?

... I think the information on Derwish came from a lot of different sources, and not necessarily all inside the United States. So it was a combination of things. I don't recall specifically what led us to that conclusion. But I was convinced, at that point, that he was a key player.

That Derwish was a key player in what sense? That he was a major actor in Al Qaeda?

That he had activities, and he had conducted himself in a manner that he was much more than a low-level player of Al Qaeda, and that he had some involvement up in the hierarchy of Al Qaeda.

So at this point, the Lackawanna group then becomes a much higher priority?

Well, that's correct.

In June.

In June 2002. That's correct.

Part of a White House briefing, as I understand.

Yes. It was. I am sure it was briefed, and it was brought up. ... The conclusion was that this is a very dangerous group in Buffalo, or Lackawanna. ...

What we were told is that they were described to the president as the most dangerous terrorist cell.

I have seen that reported that way.

The most dangerous terrorist cell inside the United States.

At the present -- at the time, it was stated, yes.

In June, or so--

June. Yes. June or July -- sometime in that time frame. That's correct. ...

All of a sudden, the eyes of the president and the White House are on Lackawanna?

Lackawanna. What in the world is going on up there? Who are these people? How much longer are they going to be able to run loose, so to speak? ...

The heat goes up.

The heat, yes.

The heat is, "Get them off the street. Do something."

No. The heat is, what in the world is this group doing? Are they capable of carrying out an attack? Can you guys make sure it doesn't happen? Can you, the FBI, make sure it doesn't happen? That was the heat. No one said, "Get these guys out of here today." Not initially. That wasn't the deal. ...

You have information from Guantanamo, from one of their associates, that they actually were lying to you. And now the president of the United States wants to know, "What are they gonna do?"

But it's not, "What are they gonna do," but "How can you make sure they don't do anything?" That was it. I think that was the key point. And you can't. You cannot make any guarantees, initially. It's like the old surveillance statement, you know? "Don't lose them, but don't get made."

"Don't lose them --

-- but don't get made." Which means, don't let them know that you are targeting, you are surveilling somebody.

I understand what they are saying. They were saying, just like you rephrased it, "We know about them. We know they are pretty bad. You are getting more information all the time, and they could be really bad." Of which, the CIA says, "They are really bad."

Then you have the FBI here, sitting here, almost as a sitting duck. The obvious question -- and likely so -- is, can you guarantee to me that these people won't do something? The answer is, we think we can. We think. Yes, we are probably 99 percent sure that we can make sure that these guys don't do something, if they were planning to do something. Under the rules that we were playing under at the time, that's not acceptable. So a conscious decision was made: Let's get them out of here, or let's get this case resolved. ...

I can hear somebody out there, listening to this, saying it sounds like, because of this "speculative analysis," it's called by the agency, this analytical conclusion that they came to that it was the most dangerous terrorist group in America, that therefore, you had to find a case to hang on them. Otherwise, they would still be out there, on the streets. Do you know what I am getting at?

Yes. I understand.

It sounds like the intelligence community is driving the law enforcement activity. ...

Intelligence analysis and criminal investigative analysis are not 180 degrees, but it's a different standard. The agency -- and they are very good at this -- does predictability studies. What's going to happen if Castro leaves office? They have a lot of smart people that do that sort of thing. In the terrorism arena, they also have predictability, and assessment of what Al Qaeda's capabilities are now, as opposed to 9/11. Those sort of things.

The collection method on that, for them to draw some conclusion, is just a massive amount of information from any source, from any place -- not vetted. It can be a newspaper article in Pakistan. Anything that draws conclusions [goes] into this big pot. Then [what] they do is they take it, they sort it all out and they draw some type of reasonable conclusion that the probabilities of North Korea having nuclear weapons is such-and-such. It can be based on real hard facts; it can be based on speculation.

If you are doing that on a criminal case, the Lackawanna case, "most dangerous" -- those terms [are] not necessarily backed up [by] factual information. So if the FBI had to determine how dangerous is this bunch in Buffalo and we were going to do an assessment of that and say, "We are not real sure, because we don't have any factual basis. We have got all this intelligence. We need to take a closer look at it." ...

So what is the difference in your mind between probable cause, let's say, and reasonable suspicion?

Probable cause is factual basis. You know? You don't need me to tell you what probable cause is. But probable cause is the standard that would lead you to believe that this is factual.

Reasonable suspicion means merely, "I have a suspicion. I think it's reasonable. I think this might happen or this is what is happening." Probable cause is a standard way beyond reasonable suspicion, and probable cause only gets you in the courtroom. You have to convict people on "beyond a reasonable doubt." ...

What kind of tension was created over the [frequent briefings to the president on the Lackawanna case]?

Well, obviously, any kind of president with a briefing about an individual matter, you know that will be on a regular basis, that he wants updates. So you feel a need to make sure that you are doing everything you can, and that things don't get left out, or not done on a timely basis. ...

But it did change the way you would have handled this case.

There was a discussion about this.

What do you mean, "There was a discussion about this?"

Historically, traditionally -- and if you look at it in that perspective -- the Lackawanna case, if you eliminate the presidential push on this and the almost constant "not another attack on the United States" even ... we would have then felt reasonably secure [about] these folks in Lackawanna. We knew where they were. We knew what they were trying to do. If, in fact, they made overt acts to do something, we would have been able to stop that.

This would have allowed us to launch the investigation for a much longer period of time, and hopefully identify other Lackawanna individuals, throughout the United States and overseas, and maybe get intelligence out of it, but with the eventual feel that they would be prosecuted.

Well, you knew that they had ties to people in other cities?

That's correct.

You knew that there was a long list of other people, who were identified in the letter.

[Yes].

So potentially, if you had sat back and watched this you could have made--

There is no telling. It could have produced a lot of good intelligence. It could have produced a lot of other individuals in the United States, and outside the United States. And it might not have produced anything.

It could have produced a cooperating person?

Could have. Could have. So if you had that time, and that luxury of time, yes, that's exactly what you would have done.

But that ended in June, because?

Not necessarily ended. But certainly the wheels were in motion, that once you get asked, "Make sure, you have got to give me a 100 percent guarantee that they can't do something," well, then, at that point, you say, "You can't do that, you know? I could give you a probability here that it's really great that they are not planning anything. But I can't guarantee that." ...

You were talking about "probable cause." I can see people scratching their head. "Probable cause is important to the FBI?"

Well, is this a joke question? Yes, it's important. It's part of the constitutional process of due process of law. It's not something that law enforcement people, or someone gets thrown in jail -- I mean, our system is set up so that 99 guilty men will go free, as opposed to allowing one innocent person to be convicted.

That was the dilemma with Lackawanna, was it not?

With Lackawanna? I mean, I don't understand that. Because the idea was, Who are these guys? What are they doing? Can you charge them, at some point, with material support? If you are referring to, oh, there is a problem in Lackawanna. Go arrest them or go throw them in jail, the question is, what do you want to throw them in jail, and arrest them for? They are born U.S. citizens. [They have] rights just like everybody else that was born in New York. ... So if somebody says, "Arrest them, deport them," you can't deport them. You can't arrest them, unless you have some probable cause that they are involved in a criminal activity.

[From] other sources, I understand that this message that you just described was given back to the attorney general, and back to the meetings in the White House. And that the answer came back, "Well, can you guarantee they won't do anything?"

Yes. I think that was the question. I think that was the driving force. Can you guarantee? We talked about this. Can you guarantee they are not going to do anything? There are no guarantees in this business. So there is a high probability they are not going to do anything. But if you are the president, or if you are the vice president, and you say when somebody tells you that, "Well, there is a real high probability, they are not going to do anything and we want to watch them for a while," they'll say, "Hmmm, I don't think so. My recommendation would be, maybe you ought to move faster than normal on this." ...

When you heard that the Lackawanna group was characterized as being the most dangerous terrorist cell in America, did you laugh? Or did you agree?

I thought there were problems with the six-member group up in Lackawanna. To say that they were the most dangerous terrorist group in the United States -- I wouldn't necessarily approve of that, because I have seen enough to know that they probably didn't have the means or the capabilities at that point to do something.

Were they a clear and present danger to the United States?

In what terms? In inciting people to join the organization? Or to write letters, or proselytize? Yes, they were a threat in that arena, but not big. Were they a threat to obtain a dirty bomb, or chemicals, or get a truck, and go to do it? I said, probably not. I saw nothing to support that they were ready to carry out some attack. ...

But if I understand you correctly, your experience in a case like this [would have been] let's have a little patience. Let's watch.

Yes.

Let's see where it leads us. Let's see what happens. Let's see what develops. Let's take a closer look.

But understanding fully well that, if this bubbles up, that people above, in high places, probably can't run the risk of me telling them or the FBI telling them, "We think, we are almost sure, that they are not planning anything." So it was a risk not worth taking, in their view.

For political reasons, they don't.

Well, probably for the protection of the country, and just on the small percentage chance that maybe we were wrong; maybe they had something else up their sleeve that we didn't know about. ...

Yes. So at some point, you go into what's called "bumper lock," in Lackawanna. ... Explain bumper lock. Then what happened? What does that mean?

... Bumper lock was you could get close enough so you could follow them. Whether they detect you following you -- it doesn't matter then.

So you transitioned in Lackawanna to "bumper lock," as we understand it, to make them know you were watching them?

I think a couple of things came into play. I think it's a very difficult area for the folks up there to operate in a manner that they wouldn't be detected. So any kind of strange car, or maybe in folks in that neighborhood -- very difficult to do that. ... So we had an overt surveillance team. ...

The press reports are that, it's when e-mails that talk about, "The next meal will be very huge. No one will be able to withstand it, except those with faith." E-mails like that come in. Or phone conversations, referring to "delivery of a watermelon." That sort of puts you over the top. The press reports that there was specific communications that made everybody think, "Maybe they are going to do something."

There were theories of communications. I don't want to talk specifically about what they were, and what others were obtained, or whatever, if they were obtained. But I recall there were two sort of things that continued to build, and about what was going on up there. Communications between the parties, talking about certain things or not certain things. It was enough of a line to say, "Hey, you know? This is enough, I think." We decided there was enough probable cause, source material, to support a case. ...

The FBI's individuals up [in Buffalo], say that in May, when they got down to write their affidavits and get warrants, that they said to each other, "We may be going to jail," because they were bringing together foreign intelligence and other information and aided from two sides of the house, if you will. All of the things at the same time. What's that all about?

Yes. Well, there is confusion, that there was confusion about that, prior to 9/11.

Confusion about what, exactly?

Exactly what a FISA or the information that was obtained, could that be cleared with criminal investigation?

That's the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act?

That's correct. ... Your primary purpose for obtaining a FISA is collection of intelligence, not for criminal information.

Let me take this one step at a time. FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is set up to collect -- according to the courts -- intelligence information.

The primary purpose of a request to go to the FISA Court is for intelligence. Yes.

Therefore, you don't share the information?

They did not want people, law enforcement, particularly the FBI, to be able to try to, first of all, to get a criminal warrant on somebody for whatever, and you didn't have enough probable cause, then to turn around and say, "Oh, OK. Really, we couldn't get this criminal one. Well, we want to go to this intelligence way," and, in reality, we are circumventing the criminal process. So the word was "the primary purpose." After 9/11, it changed to "a primary purpose."

Before all that got straightened out, if you collected intelligence, primary purpose of intelligence by the court order, then there were methods and procedures that you couldn't just openly share with the criminal side, because that would come into play -- that you are circumventing the courts -- by getting the FISA. So there was a wall. There were procedures set up. ...

So the training of the agents was that, if you were up on an intelligence case, that there was an anti-terrorism case related to Lackawanna. You couldn't bring in other FBI agents who, let's say, were involved in criminal cases and share that information with them.

Oh, you absolutely could. But there were procedures set up to do that. You just didn't pick up the phone, and say, "Hey, Bill, come over here. I got something to share with you." There were procedures, and there were methods to do that.

But it was changed after 9/11?

The primary purpose went from "primary purpose" to "a purpose." Yes. It loosened those types of restrictions. And it's still to be determined whether you are going to end up with such a thing.

OK. But it's still like that today?

But it's a work in progress. Yes. If someone says, "Well, I can't share this, because it's coming out of a FISA," it is totally inaccurate. You can, and there are procedures. Most agents didn't understand those procedures. It was a complicated -- well, not a complicated process. But it was much easier to go and make sure in talking to people. ...

Mr. Derwish and Mr. Elbaneh were not indicted. Initially, they were supposed to be. Why not?

I don't know the answer to that, other than that it's probably a conscious decision made by the prosecutor. At that level of information he had, with the charges already made, maybe the evidence was not as strong, to do that. That doesn't mean, he won't be indicted. It just means he isn't.

So Mr. Elbaneh is on the loose?

Right. Elbaneh is loose.

And Mr. Derwish?

I don't know. There is still some question about where he is or what happened to him.

You don't have any question as to what happened to him.

He is not indicted. So from a law enforcement perspective, for this case, it doesn't matter.

I thought he had a traffic accident in Yemen.

I have seen those reports. I don't know the answer to that.

If you had more resources, if you had the resources you asked for before 9/11, the political will, would it have made a difference?

I thought through that question a lot. I don't know if 100,000 FBI agents would have prevented what happened to us on 9/11. I would like to think, if there were more resources and more people working with us, we might have possibly discovered or had some activity that would have been prevented. But again, I come out on this, as it wasn't an FBI total failure, or CIA failure. It was a combined effort of a lot of things that didn't happen, that played out eventually. So to answer your question, I don't know.

Director Tenet, Director Freeh, different times before 9/11 would testify, saying, "Al Qaeda should look over its shoulder. We have a fix on Al Qaeda." Were you telling Director Freeh that we had a good fix on Al Qaeda?

We had a good fix on Al Qaeda. We were doing a lot against Al Qaeda. Certainly, if you have more, you could do more. So were we at a level of comfort with what we were doing? We were not. But at the same time, I think, working with the agency we were doing a lot with and against Al Qaeda.

Can you give me a specific example of what you couldn't do prior to 9/11 that you wanted to do? If you wanted all this money and you didn't get it for these agents, what would you have done?

Particularly after East Africa, the assessment was, are we prepared -- we, being the FBI -- are we prepared inside the United States to fight against the terrorist threat? In order to do that, we came to the conclusion -- or I did -- right away, [that] we will never be able to stop all acts of terrorism against the United States. That's a given.

If you take that as a given, that leaves you with basically two alternatives. One is, you don't do anything, and you sit back. Then when something happens, you react and investigate it, which was traditionally the method -- not traditionally -- but that's what people remember about the FBI.

Or you do an assessment and say, "This is what an absolute best counterterrorism program for the FBI looks like. Here is what it would take to do that. This is how many agents we need," and etc., etc. Then you go about doing that. If you go about doing that, and you weigh the level of the capacity to be the absolute best you can be and something gets through that net, then you can look yourself in the mirror and say, "That got through." That's what we were building for.

So to answer your question, our capabilities -- we were very good at what capabilities we had. We needed additional capabilities to bring us up to the maximum level that we possibly could. So that was where we were -- in the state of flux.

I understand the general concept. If you have more jobs, if you got more people, if you got more resources, if you got more money, then you would be more prepared. Specifically, what would have helped you in the counterterrorism world that may have stopped 9/11, if anything?

Would it have been helpful to identify and know what every individual coming from the certain collective of countries -- without profiling -- what they were doing in the United States? Yes, it would have. If we had had massive amounts of extra resources when it involved a report that maybe people were taking flight training, we could have gone to every flight school, and talked to every flight student. Would that have been helpful? Absolutely. Would it have been helpful, if we would have been able to hire a thousand analysts that would have been able to document enforcement, the factual, our material? It absolutely would. Would it have been helpful to have been able to have a thousand extra linguists to be able to work there? Absolutely.

So there is a whole litany of things, and a whole litany of stuff, that you could build up, and say, "You know, we needed this. We could have done better, if we had had this." That's the state of flux we were in. I don't know if that answers your question. But I think it does.

But the responses that I have been getting -- and some people have written this, like the Gilmore Commission -- that the FBI, by its very nature, is a reactive organization, a prosecuting organization, they would say. You are not a domestic intelligence organization. You are [not] going to prevent them from happening. That's not their mindset.

I would have said that prior to the 1998 East Africa bombing. From 1998 on, it was very clear to me -- that this wasn't said, but it's exactly right -- and the right response was to be proactive. To be proactive, you have to change people's way of thinking. You have to say, "Well, maybe we are not going to investigate methamphetamine cases anymore. Maybe we should let DEA run those cases. Maybe we should take the people working drugs, and put them into counterterrorism." So, in fact, we could interview all the immigrants, if we needed to do that, or, in fact, be able to go to all the flight schools, or all the bus driving schools in the United States.

So that was just a plot, or the plan.

There was never a question about proactive/reactive in 1999. That's in 1998. It is very difficult. It was the hardest thing you are ever trying to do, particularly within the culture of the FBI.

What people are saying is, the culture of the FBI, the history of the FBI, the fact that it's going to court makes it impossible for them to become an effective domestic intelligence organization to eliminate this terrorist threat.

I have heard this argument. I don't necessarily agree with that. I think it will take some hard work. It will take a new process of thinking. Not "new," but a continuation of thinking, of what reactive means, what proactive means, and how do you build off of intelligence cases. It talks about the quality and the background of individuals you do hire to do that work.

You said, "I don't necessarily agree?"

Yes. That the FBI is incapable of doing this, of shifting into proactive.

But you are skeptical about whether the FBI can do it.

I am not skeptical. I think it will take a period of time. I think it has to be driven from the top down. But also, at the bottom level, you need to reinforce why this is important, and why these cases are difficult to do something with. Realize that they are not the easy criminal investigative matters. ... You might work for years on the intelligence side and not have a prosecution. But yet, have you done something to try to prevent the next act of terrorists in the United States? Absolutely.

Should there be an MI5 type organization created, based on your experience, that just goes after the problem alone and doesn't worry about prosecution?

The answer is no, and the reasons behind that are many. First of all, there was so much talk after 9/11 about people not talking, and the FBI and the CIA are not sharing anything. If you come out and create another agency, that the problems between them doing intelligence work, and then it crosses over into a prosecutable case -- they have to share that information. So, in fact, you create another soapbox. Secondly--

Belt-tightening information.

Yes. An organization over here, security organization, and law enforcement over here.

The other thing most people don't realize is that criminal prosecutions are in fact the prevention, and provide a tremendous amount of intelligence. So you can't fragment that. Bringing people back up to the East Africa bombings -- certainly, it enlightened us about Al Qaeda. ... So it's a blending of roles, and it's a unique thing in this country, to [be] doing criminal and intelligence.

There is one thing that I am really curious about, if you would. Mr. Padilla, the alleged "dirty bomber." Mr. Moussaoui, the alleged -- whether it be 20th hijacker or fifth airplane, I forgot which it is now, but how are decisions made? If Mr. Padilla is an enemy combatant, and is a U.S. citizen and Mr. Moussaoui is in court -- can you define [how these decisions are made]?

I can take the easy road on this, and say the FBI's role is to investigate and collect the facts, and the Department of Justice, the attorneys decide when and where that prosecution. It will rest with the attorney general. I don't know the political or the judicial discussions that determine that.

I know from being just a citizen of this state, it's something that bothers me about a U.S. citizen being placed as a combatant somewhere without any legal rights. That's just me, though.

What are you saying, though?

The fact that Padilla was not removed to a federal court process, where they would be at trial, etc., where the government proves, or disproves. He is a U.S. citizen. He needs that protection. He was not--

And U.S. citizens are different?

I believe U.S. citizens are different... I was concerned about the individual that was born in the United States and never really stayed here, but went to Saudi Arabia to live, and then just picks up in Afghanistan, who ends up going to Guantanamo. You know? Hey, I don't care what you do; he is a U.S. citizen. Maybe he should be removed out of that, and be withheld, or released. I mean, I think there are certain rights that need to be protected. I am certainly not in favor of tossing out all of that, just because of whatever is going on at the time. ...

Mr. Derwish's name was taken out of the indictment. [He] is a U.S. citizen. After the indictment, he is apparently killed in Yemen for being in the wrong car at the wrong time, by a U.S. military or intelligence operator. Does that bother you?

I don't know if his name was taken out of the indictment. I don't know if they are looking for something serious, "Well, let's take his name out, then try to whack him in Yemen." I seriously doubt there were ever any discussions about that.

Does it bother me that U.S. citizens get killed? I mean, let's face it. If U.S. citizens like to go and fight with the Taliban, Osama, can fight with the Iraqi army and they'll come back, and then they get killed -- that's their free world choices they made. That doesn't bother me. The picking up of American citizens in Taliban, and doing something different, that our judicial system, after maybe a period of time of figuring out who they are -- that's a different story. That's where we were at. ...

There haven't been any attacks in the United States since 9/11. Are we winning?

I think we are winning to an extent. I think the degree of sophistication, of them carrying out simultaneous attacks, has been severely limited. But that doesn't explain and that doesn't cover all the graduates out of those tents that could lead, so to speak, or Osama, or those individuals. We still have those to contend with. That's why it will never go away until they are all identified, prosecuted, and done something with. I believe that. ...

I understand that you can never be completely free of a threat, any more than you could be from the Mafia.

Yes. Right.

But you're saying we are winning, and as of the time you left, we pretty much have it under control.

I would hate to say under control, but we have made great progress. I think if you could interview bin Laden or Al Qaeda members, I think they would say "Holy smokes. The U.S. government woke up and they came after us. And my lot in life, or my associates' lot in life, is Al Qaeda leadership['s ability] to stand up and talk anymore is probably severely limited forever." ...

Why doesn't the FBI, the Department of Justice, the government of the United States explain the reality to the people that we are, in fact, possibly on top of this problem?

Well, there's a fear of explaining exactly that -- that we are not on top of the whole problem. And I don't think anybody would ever admit that we can, in fact, have everyone blanketed here in the United States. OK, I understand that. But at the same time, you know, there's not a nuclear bomb behind every street corner in this country either, or a dirty bomb about to be released. It's the fear of what else is coming that we don't know about.

When you were executive assistant director of the FBI, it was announced that there was a potential "dirty bomber" on the way to the United States who was arrested at the Chicago airport. The attorney general of the United States announced it by satellite from Moscow. It set off panic in this country. Why isn't there an announcement that, in fact, that is a very slight possibility; we have this under control. It may happen, we can't guarantee anything -- as in Lackawanna -- but the fear level, ladies and gentlemen, is off the scale.

I think you've seen some of that, but again, the problem is the probabilities. And no elected official wants to stand up and say, "Don't fear a dirty bomb because we've got it under control." OK? We don't have every single probability of that under control. We're doing much better. Just as chemical, biological, just as Al Qaeda's ability to attack us. But no one in responsibility, or [no] elected official is going to say that because they can't guarantee that.

And because it might happen tomorrow and therefore they're out of office.

That's exactly right. And tomorrow Al Qaeda might not be the problem, but there might be a new group that pops up that we don't know about that may take us a while to figure out. So for someone to stand up and say, "Hey, there's not going to be a dirty bomb in the United States," one, that's political suicide. And two, you can almost say that would be a challenge to someone to do it. So therefore why take those risks? ...

But you see the ongoing reports -- we have to worry about this, we have to worry about that. This could happen; that could happen.

Sure, and if you just think about it, you can quote the number of containers coming into the United States that aren't inspected. That's widely publicized. But does that increase your probability of someone slipping something in, or getting something inside the United States? Should we, as a country, check that? Yeah, we should. But to stand up and say there will be no dirty bombs coming into port, because we did not find any evidence that Al Qaeda had that capibility -- probably not the right thing to say. ...

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posted october 16, 2003

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