When he was arrested, did that trigger a specific reaction? Were there
meetings at the White House about this?
... There were ... already ongoing meetings of the principals, the
Cabinet-level officials. Because we had, in addition to this incident, we had
had specific information which was uncovered about a terrorist plot in Jordan
that would have affected American interests there. So we were already meeting
regularly at the highest levels and operational levels to prepare and
coordinate these responses. So the same group, which consisted of the secretary
of state, the [national] security adviser, the director of FBI, the director of
Central Intelligence, the attorney general, and others, met almost immediately
thereafter to go over what we knew about this, how we should handle it in terms
of how we should talk to the American people about it ... should we encourage
or discourage people from attending millennium activities. At this point, it
had tremendous consequences in terms of our responsibilities not only to track
down the source of this attempt but also what kind of guidance we should give
the American people....
How would you characterize what you decided in those meetings? Presumably
you didn't want to cause a panic.
We didn't want to cause panic, but we also had a responsibility to the American
people. ... Our normal practice is when you only have general threats, it's
hard to say stay home and hide under your bed. We urged people to be attentive
to their surroundings, but we felt that in the absence of the specifics,
credible evidence of a specific threat, that we would not want people to feel
that they could not attend [New Year's] activities. ...
You clearly don't want to be intimidated by terrorists, but you also have an
absolute responsibility if you have reason to think that there is a specific
risk. ... So there is always a balance between providing full information.
There is also a concern that you don't want to tip off people who might
otherwise be involved when you want to try and track them down. So you're not
only trading off a question of panic versus adequate warning, but a desire to
preserve some kinds of operational details, because you don't want potential
co-conspirators or collaborators to know what you know about this particular
attempt. So there was certainly some information which we felt was relevant to
our investigative efforts, but not necessarily to the public's need to know,
that we wanted to keep quiet in terms of our ability to try and track down
other members of the operation.
So what do you think are the lessons of the Ahmed Ressam case?
Well I think that one, we do have to take seriously that the United States
could be at risk of terrorist attacks here, that there are a number of ways in
which that could come about and there are a number of individuals and groups
who have as an objective to try to bring terrorism home to the United States
itself. Second, it shows the critical importance of intelligence, that this is
a very shadowy world of people. We've learned as we have examined this, both
before the Ressam case and certainly we have learned a great deal since, about
the various networks and the relationships between different groups which may
not be under complete centralized control, but do have links with each other,
and the need to understand them and the need to have strong international
cooperation to deal with it. ...
Do you sense that the Canadian government's attitude toward the terrorist
threats changed with the Ressam case?
I do. I think that it was a bit of a wake up call. I think that any government
feels responsibility to its citizens, but I think there is also a sense of
obligation to other governments. Seeing the possibility that Canada can be used
as a stage and base for terrorist operations in the United States may make the
government of Canada recognize that it had an international responsibility as
well as a domestic responsibility to take this seriously, and that while there
are important challenges relating to civil liberties and the kind of society
that we all want to live in, ultimately we will not be able to live with the
kinds of freedoms and openness that we want if we simply ignore the possibility
that this is going to be taken advantage of by those who want to use terrorism
to undo what we believe in.
You know officials in Canada and in the United States have portrayed the
Ressam case as a law enforcement success story, as a triumph of Canada-U.S.
cooperation. Is that the way you see it?
I think it's a more mixed picture. I certainly think that leading up to it
it's not a triumph. I think that there were reasons to think that the
government of Canada had some information about the potential risks of these
groups that wasn't exploited as it might have been. And I think, as I said, the
enormous credit [goes to] the Border Patrol and the customs people for
intercepting Ressam. We didn't have good tactical intelligence, at the time, of
that possibility. ... We were fortunate that Ressam was intercepted and that
the level of cooperation and coordination grew dramatically following that. So
certainly, in terms of the follow-up to Ressam's arrest, I think that it is a
positive example and I hope it becomes a model for going forward.
There was a lot of luck involved in catching this guy?
There was considerable luck involved. ... It was not an intelligence success.
It was not a case where, because of good intelligence practice,
counterintelligence, counterterrorist practice, that we had identified
individuals and were able to track them and then intercept them. And I think an
important lesson will be, and was taken, is what did we know, what did the
government of Canada and the U.S. government know, what should we, might we
have [done beforehand to lessen] the risk that such a person should be able to
operate and get as far as he did? ...
Do you worry that Canada has become a safe haven for terrorists?
I don't think Canada is a safe haven for terrorists. And I think Canada has
admirable values about being an open and tolerant society. It's a challenge
that we all have, because there's a tendency to try and stereotype or to think
that individuals of particular ethnicity or national backgrounds may be more
risk. But I think it is important, at the same time, that you don't target
individuals because of their ethnicity or their background, but if you have
reason to believe that they have connections to organizations, it's following
those organizations. I think what we have tried to do in the United States is
not to target individuals but to look at the kinds of organizations and
structures and people's links to those organizations that support terrorism. So
we have legislation that has been passed over several years that allows us to
designate organizations as foreign terrorist organizations to restrict their
fundraising, to take action against their actions in the United States, and I
think that's the real lesson here. I think in order to preserve an open society
you have to be able to target organizations and networks that seek to undo it.
What was your previous knowledge of the GIA? Was it an organization that the
American security apparatus was very concerned about?
I think there was a mixed reaction. On the one had the GIA is one of the most
active terrorist organizations in the world, a very effective, very focused and
very ruthless organization. But I think it was puzzling that we had no
particular previous evidence that the GIA was targeting the United States or
U.S. entities -- they were largely operating in the context of the conflict in
North Africa, particularly in Algeria. And we knew that it had links to other
terrorists organizations, but they tended to be links for financial support for
their other activities related to Algeria rather than targeting the United
States. And what it led us to ask ourselves was the question of whether this
was the GIA that was operating here or whether these were people who were
linked to the GIA because of particular interest in Algeria.
Apparently Mr. Ressam went to Afghanistan for training in what we call the
terrorist training camps there, and he had addresses in his phone book that are
connected to bin Laden's organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. What do you
make of that connection?
I think it is part of a pattern that we've seen. As I said, it's not simply a
question of an individual belonging to one particular organization with one
particular target, whether it's the GIA in Algeria or the Egyptian Islamic
Jihad in Egypt, but rather a kind of loose network of people who have common
affiliations, common training, common association, frequently linked to
Afghanistan, which sort of becomes a pool of individuals who may be available
to be involved in terrorist operations elsewhere in the world. ...
What is the assessment of the American government here? Is there a terrorist
attack expected? Is it only a matter of time before one of these guys slips
through the border? How is that characterized by the American security
I think the better way to think of it is that there is an ongoing risk
and ... that one has to take very seriously that people, obviously, have tried
before and they will try again and therefore we need to have the kinds of tools
in place to make it that much less likely that they will succeed.
I think that the level of concern in general in the turn of the millennium was
one of the most high-impact situations we have had to deal with because of the
very concrete sense of the direct risk to Americans' lives. And I think with
the interception of Ressam that became all the more dramatic, because it went
from a general sense that the risk was heightened during this period to a known
concrete effort and implicit evidence that this was not to be the
act of a single individual, and so the danger that there were others connected
with it. ... The Ressam interception really demonstrated something that we had
believed, which was that there was a high probability that somebody would try
to take advantage of this period of time, and then we had the concrete evidence
that that generalized sense of risk was actually justified.
Were you on duty on New Year's Eve? Was everyone holding their
Everyone was on duty on New Year's Eve. And I think because of the excellent
work that was done between the time Ressam was arrested and tracking down those
who we believe were involved in it, I think we had a higher degree of comfort
than we had in the first hours and days after we found Ressam. Nonetheless, I
don't think anybody took it for granted, and I think that people were
enormously relieved within about 24 hours afterwards that we had been
successful in thwarting all that was there. ... I think that the good news from
our perspective is, when this happened, I think the government of Canada took
very seriously the fact that Canada had clearly been a part of a staging for
this attack and that there was a need to, in a very dramatic and quick way, to
address anything that could be found about Ressam and his associates.
home + introduction + inside the plot + canada: a safe haven? + crossing the border
links & readings + join the discussion + video excerpt
frontline + pbs online + wgbh
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation