Trail of a Terrorist

interview - james steinberg
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In the months leading up to the millennium, were the U.S. security forces on alert? Had there been warnings, threats of terrorist activities against the United States?

photo of james steinberg

We were on a very high state of alert in the period going up to the millennium. We had both general concerns, given the fact that there were a number of high-profile events that were going to be taking place around the millennium that would inherently be attractive targets to terrorists, and we also had some relatively specific information, not precise hours or precise locations but some pretty good indications that some known terrorist groups were thinking very seriously about millennium terrorist activities. And the closer we got, the more specific evidence we began to have, not only about terrorism in the United States but also about potentially U.S.-related targets outside the United States.

So how did you react when Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles? How did the U.S. government respond?

I think there were a number of elements to the reaction. One, we were obviously pleased that the alertness of the Border Patrol there had uncovered this, because it was something that was very dangerous and which we had no specific warning about ever crossing at that place. And then the interest focused on "Who was this person? Who was he connected to? What were the targets? How did it come about that he was there with such a dangerous set of materials that threatened our safety?" ...



Steinberg was deputy U.S. national security adviser during President Bill Clinton's second term and was a member of the counterterrorism working group that met daily in the White House situation room in December 1999. He recalls the preparations taken for the expected millennium terrorist attacks, and the response of U.S. security to Ressam's arrest. (Interviewed June 2001)

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 apparatus?

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 breath?

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.

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