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are we winning the war on terror?
Bush has given the U.S. government the mandate that protecting America against another terrorist attack is now its number one priority. Since Sept. 11, there has not been an attack on U.S. soil. Now, some Bush administration critics have argued that the threat is being hyped for political reasons -- especially with an upcoming presidential election in 2004. Here, FRONTLINE asks Dale Watson, former FBI assistant director for counterterrorism; Alice Fisher, former deputy U.S. attorney general; and Tom Ridge, secretary of homeland security to comment on the extent of the threat and whether the U.S. is winning the war on terror here at home.

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David watson
FBI assistant director for counterterrorism, 1999-2002
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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. ...


alice fisher
U.S. deputy attorney general, 2001-2003
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One of the surprising things to us, in what we've discovered over the last number of months, is that it doesn't seem like there are a large number of [Al Qaeda terrorists] in the United States, or at least a large number that we know about publicly. How big is this threat?

Well, even one person who will be a suicide bomber and that could walk in to one of our shopping malls or another landmark here is a big threat. So it's not the number or the quantity, so have you. It is that we consider any member of Al Qaeda that would come to our country to do harm against our citizens a big threat. ...

Since 9/11 we've taken out Al Qaeda's training camps. In a sense, they don't have a free camp to operate in and plot from and train people. We've picked up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and some of their major operatives. We've had all kinds of changes in the law here in terms of screening visas to prosecutions. Is it possible that you've actually done to them already what was done to organized crime in the United States, to the Mafia? They may still be there but they're no longer what they used to be.

Well, I hope we've taken a big strike against them and incapacitated them in some respect. But that certainly isn't a signal to us that we can let down our guard in our efforts to combat terrorist organizations. And as recently as a couple of weeks ago we had a conviction of an individual, Iyman Feris, in Virginia. He had been sent here and he was casing out targets here for Al Qaeda operatives abroad. And so it is not the time to let down our guard. And that's why it's imperative on all of us that are working in this area to go to work every day and think about how we're going to prevent another attack and how we best protect ourselves. ...

I'll just ask your opinion. I asked a veteran counterterrorism official: Is the threat being hyped, for example, by the Justice Department, for political reasons? For example, what's the likelihood, I asked him, that you should be worried about being harmed or injured in a terrorist attack in the United States? And his response was, it's more likely that you'll be hit by lightning.

Well, the threat is not being hyped for political reasons. The threat is out there. It is real. And the information that the government puts out to the public is imperative to allow the public to protect itself. The information that we give to local law enforcement, that will better help us protect America and Americans.

Even when it's non-specific? And you know what the criticism is. I mean, you say, orange alert, and what do I do? Get duct tape?

Well, I think the information is imperative to allow American citizens to have as much information we can give them about threats without affecting or compromising national security interests. It's our job to do that. And it's important to do that.

It's not a fear that if you don't say something and something happens, you'll be held responsible?

Absolutely not.

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tom ridge
Secretary of Homeland Security
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You say, as do many other people we interview, that this threat will be going on for quite a while into the future. In fact, the threat has led to the greatest reorganization of the U.S. government in decades. But there's been no attack. Some would say that you've exaggerated it, in a sense, out of political fear, that if it happens, you'll all go down in the next election. So is [the creation of the Department of Homeland Security] just a political move to stop another attack?

I think long before the president sent his version of the Homeland Security Department to the Hill, there was strong bipartisan support for such an initiative. In fact, there were agencies even pre-9/11, given the rise of international terrorism and the accelerated use of this terrorism around the world. There were those who predicted we would not be immune to it, so we'd best consider reorganizing in one fashion or another.

Now, the president's reorganization, far more comprehensive than any that had been proposed, in fact, included some new units in science and technology units, so we could go out there and take advantage of the creative genius of this country, and come up with countermeasures to these weapons of mass destruction. There was a new strategic product that the president felt that we needed that no one had really embraced before, and that is create an analytical unit within the new department that would take the information that it gets from the Threat Integration Center and others, at targets in the United States, and make sure we've done everything to harden those targets and reduce our vulnerability. So I think it's pretty clear that strong bipartisan support for the concept of a department long before 9/11. ...

So when people say this was a political move and it just resulted in rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, if you will, is that accurate?

It's a mystery, or in and of itself it may be a political interpretation, because the president had assigned -- actually the vice president had been working and had pulled together a staff shortly after the inaugural, some months after the inaugural, to begin taking a look at how this country would combat terrorism. ...

We asked former head of counterterrorism for the FBI, how real is the threat from these terrorists? He said, "Well, it's more likely you'll be hit by lightning than you'll become a casualty in a terrorist attack." That's why we asked the question, "What's going on? It's the number one priority to the president. It appears every morning, every day."

Yes. I think there are a lot of analogies that you could draw. A number of people get killed in automobile accidents because they don't put on the seat belt even though we tell them to. The number of people who lose their life because they didn't get immunized during flu season. Being struck by lightning.

But at the end of the day, a terrorist act is designed -- and this is the new form of terrorism that we're combating -- is to bring catastrophic consequences in terms of either loss of human life, as well as economic damage. The other goal is to incite a fear and anxiety or an apprehension.

So the random, the tragedy of being struck by lightning, the tragedy of being involved in an automobile accident, whatever -- for purposes of comparison it's not a bad idea. But these terrorists are interested in inflicting massive harm, monstrous consequences and at the same time, move a free and open system and bring peril, paralysis and fear and anxiety to that system, that perhaps we forget who we are, what we stand for and how we treat one another. Basically, try to undermine our way of life. ...

There hasn't been an incident in this country for over two years. Why doesn't the administration, why don't you take credit for victory? Maybe we are winning. Maybe they have, in a sense, as one CIA guy put it to me, shot their wad.

I don't believe that it's a question of that maybe we are winning. I believe we are. But I think all of us have a much longer view of this challenge as to be substantially longer than the next year or two.

We are winning because we have undermined their leadership and we have really created problems for them to generate the financing they needed. We have begun to dismantle some of the cells, not only in this country but elsewhere. We have a bigger and a larger and stronger coalition. We have done some things in this country, some rather dramatic things, to reduce our vulnerability to an attack.

Every day since 9/11, we have gone to a new level of readiness. Some of it's because of the federal direction and federal aid and hopefully, federal leadership. But states and locals have done things, the private sector has done things. We know that the terrorists pay close attention to security. We know that raising the threat level and added vigilance is a deterrent. They told us that. So you couple those things, and that maybe explain why we haven't been attacked yet. Maybe it's sort of divine intervention. I wouldn't mind having a little help there from time to time.

A bit of luck.

Or luck.

There are just a lot of things that come into play. We are winning. But I don't think there will ever be a single victory that we can point to and say, "This is it. It's done once and for all." It's just been, for literally well over a decade, almost two decades, this ferment, this agitation, this development of this form of extremism. It even continues today -- the calls for jihad, the religious justification for giving up your life in order to defeat the infidels.

It's going to be here with us for a while. The president very appropriately said it appears to be the newest threat in the twenty-first century, a permanent threat. So we better reorganize in order to deal with it. No doubt that we will prevail. But we improve our chances immeasurably if we rethink and redo how we combat it domestically. ...

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posted october 16, 2003

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