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interview: bill esposito

When did you first become aware of this phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism?

... At one time, I was the agent in charge of the San Diego office, and we received a call from a source who told us that there was a group on Christmas Day out in the desert in California taking target practice. We thought that was somewhat suspicious. We looked into it, and to make a long story short, it turned out to be a group that had connections to Sheik [Omar Abdel] Rahman, who was connected with the World Trade Center bombing [in 1993]. ...

We then picked up that there was a direct connection between [Sheik Rahman and] the people we were looking at in California, and that since he was going to jail, he was turning over a lot of his day-to-day operations to the people in California. So we became very concerned. We assigned a lot of manpower to that particular group or cell in California.

We also needed somebody who spoke the language. One of the resources that's needed in the FBI today, and probably the whole intelligence community, is people who speak these various languages, such as Farsi, Egyptian ... Arabic. These people happened to speak Egyptian, and we had to ask for an Egyptian interpreter to come out to California. The bureau had one translator at that time that we used, and then we had to subcontract with two people who spoke Egyptian from the military.

So at that time, you really didn't have the facility to even handle this kind of case.

Correct. What we wanted on our coverage was real-time coverage. That means that we wanted to know what was going on exactly as it happened, as opposed to at some future date when it was translated by somebody else. The resources to speak these type of languages, the Arabic languages, was not there in the FBI.

about bill esposito

A former deputy director of the FBI in the Clinton administration, Bill Esposito talks about the need for far better working relations between the FBI and CIA, and the lack of agents skilled in Arabic languages. Esposito doesn't believe that the Sept. 11 attacks were the result of intelligence failures. Despite the sophistication and reach of U.S. intelligence, he tells FRONTLINE, it is still very difficult to detect some of the more stealthy terrorist groups. This interview was conducted mid-September 2001.

Real-time coverage -- you mean of electronic eavesdropping?

Correct. ...

The FBI still, today, has a shortage of language facility, in terms of being able to translate all of this.

Correct. ... If you have national security concerns about listening to people and their phone conversations, especially people that may be suspects, you certainly would want to translate their conversations immediately, so you knew what was going on, what was being planned. There's a limit on how many interpreters, translators that the bureau has in a certain language, especially the Arabic-type languages. ...

And we don't even have the wherewithal to collect it all. Let's say if you just limit it to three or four words -- that if these three or four words were picked up, they would be recorded, picked up out of the air. You're talking millions of words and phrases. How would you have the wherewithal? And, at least in this country, United States citizens are not monitored as much as everybody thinks they are, because we are a free society. ...

When you got familiar with the way these people operated, and later on when you supervised or got reports when you were in Washington about the cases that were developing ... How did they differ, let's say, from Mafia cases?

In a typical organized crime case, the motivation for a lot of these people who are linked with organized crime, basically, is greed. Also, I think the other difference is, even though they can be vicious killers and commit crimes all the time, they do have certain rules and regulations they go by -- don't hurt [a Mafia member's] family, personal family. ...

In terrorism, the difference is these people don't live by the rules, and they're really championing a cause that they believe in and will take it to their death if they have to. ...

So is this kind of a culture shock for the FBI, dealing with this kind of phenomenon?

I don't know if I would call it a culture shock. I think it's things that people have learned throughout the years, more and more as the cases build up in terrorism, but it's basically an understanding of their mentality. That's what we're up against right now.

A difficulty understanding this mentality?


And a difficulty getting inside their communities.

Correct. And I think, as an investigator, the best way to work any type of case -- whether it's a terrorism case, an organized crime case, a white-collar case -- you have to have an understanding of how they think, how they do things and why they're doing it. It gives better insights into their motivation, why they're doing it. The law enforcement [community], especially the FBI, is taking those steps to try to understand why these people are doing what they're doing, to better understand and also to kind of maybe predict -- and I use that term loosely -- what the next target will be, or what their vulnerabilities will be.

But that's the question. To many people in the United States, and actually to the National Commission on Terrorism, they were predicting a Pearl Harbor last year in their report, and it seems like that's what happened.

You're right. A Pearl Harbor did happen in the tragedy that happened on Sept. 11. But could anybody predict that, even though everybody suspects that certain things are going to be targets? When and how they're going to pull it off, and what mechanisms they're going to use, such as an airplane in this particular case, nobody could predict. ...

In cases when, let's say, you're listening to an intelligence case and it becomes a criminal case, you start hearing criminal evidence. Is there a problem in the FBI or in the Justice Department dealing with that crossover between the two?

Yes, there is. As I said, in the criminal world, everything goes through the district court, and you're geared towards making your case in court -- gathering the evidence and presenting it in court to get a prosecution. In a national security case, we're basically concerned with the national security of the country. There's not really an intent at the beginning of that case to take that case to court. [The intent is] trying to protect the national security of the nation, to find out, is somebody trying to overthrow the government? Is somebody trying to do whatever it takes to ruin the national security of the country? ...

On a national security case ... one reason why they don't like to bring these cases to court is you have to divulge sources and methods. And a lot of times, the government does not like to divulge what sources and methods the government has used to obtain the information that is now being presented.

The question is, has the existing system gotten in the way of our ability to, for instance, predict this kind of Pearl Harbor? Is this what they mean when they say an intelligence failure has taken place here -- the struggle between national security and criminal prosecution?

In my mind, just based on experience, I wouldn't call this an intelligence failure. I wouldn't say that the difference on whether it's a criminal case or a national security case could have been the resolution and we would have known about this, our law enforcement would have known about this. ... I think there were other things that were of more concern as to better coordination of intelligence among various agencies.

Let me ask it a different way: Why do you think this happened on Sept. 11 and we weren't able to stop it?

Well, that's a question that a lot of people are asking themselves. If I had that answer, I'd probably be the richest man in the country. The United States is an open society. ... There are a lot of people who cross our borders every day, who fly into this country, a lot of people who get visas, who go to graduate school here, who work here. And we, as a government, do not track every one of these people. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't. There's too many of them. When a group of individuals get together and decide to commit an evil act, a lot of times we find out about it, I mean law enforcement, and they prevent it. Sometimes they can't. If they're a group that is very closed-mouth, that watch what they're doing, it is very hard, no matter how much intelligence you have.

There's already talk about how much change is going to have to happen.

Correct. Any time you have an incident such as the one we had on September 11, I think people are going to sit back and say, "OK, what should we do different? What can we do different? What can we do to prevent this from happening again?" It doesn't mean that they can stop it completely. But you can always look at an incident and say, "What could we be doing better?" Just like what they're doing right now at the various airports around the country.

When we interview people who are, as you would describe them, terrorists, they talk about war. But you're talking about law enforcement. It's almost like there's a different perception of what's going on here.

You're right, there is a different perception. My training's in law enforcement, so I look at things from a law enforcement view. And I think in some cases, what's going on today, the government is kind of looking towards law enforcement to a certain extent to say, "Do you have any evidence, from a law enforcement standpoint, the kind that could give us the direction where these attacks are coming from? Or can you tie it to a certain group, a certain individual, a certain country even?" That's the law enforcement pitch that's being given right now.

There are other areas that the government is also looking at. They're looking at it from an intelligence standpoint, from a political standpoint, to try to put this all together. ... And if it all blends together, then they have a much stronger case.

Law enforcement can kind of verify, because of the techniques we use. That's the job in law enforcement, to try to solve a type of crime and find out who is actually behind it. It might be an individual, it might be a group of individuals, it might be state-sponsored. ...

The World Trade Center wasn't a secret location that these people hadn't been focused on before. Some people say, "We spend $10 billion a year on counterterrorism. How could this happen?" Is that because we're unrealistic about what's really going on in the world?

I think there might have been a feeling -- even though we had some prior attacks that maybe weren't completely as successful as they would have liked -- that, as a group, we were somewhat immune from a large attack such as the one that happened on Sept. 11, because of our distances and because we haven't had it up until this point.

So the war has come home.

Yes, and that's made it very real. ...

The FBI and the CIA had problems over the years. This inter-bureaucratic rivalry and inability to communicate -- does that account for some of this?

I think there's no doubt that, over the years, going back to when the CIA was first started, that there was a rivalry and not the greatest communication between the two agencies. Back in the mid-1990s, under Louis Freeh's regime and George Tenet's regime started by John Deutch, they did a lot to get that gap closer together. ... A better relationship exists, including exchange of personnel, more exchange of information, working together. And that was a great step in putting information together that has prevented several incidents from occurring, or putting a better intelligence package together for the people who make decisions.

But it wasn't good enough; or it's not good enough yet.

Well, no, everything could always be improved. And one of the ways it could be improved is they both need additional resources. They need to be sitting, a lot of times, closer together. They exchange personnel, but I'm saying that there needs to be a better harmony. There are other agencies that are out there also, that are involved in intelligence gathering. Sometimes it hasn't been the greatest in getting that information to either one of those two agencies.

We've seen it, so far, in this incident. The INS doesn't move fast enough when told by the CIA or the FBI, and passing information along and so on. It appears that we're one step behind.

Some of it could be due to resources. Sometimes the competition among agencies ... while it's good to have competition in the corporate world, you shouldn't really have competition in the public sector. ...

The way this has been unfolding, it seems like everyone was asleep at the wheel, because all of these guys from the Middle East were taking flight training courses here in the United States.

Today, after Sept. 11, it looks like, "Why didn't anybody know that?" But before Sept. 11, you have a situation where you have a number of people, and it's not just people of Arabic extraction. It's a number of people signing up for flight schools and taking lessons. We've gone through a couple years where the economy has been real good in this country. More people are flying, more people are buying planes, small planes, for their own use.

So it probably was not out of the ordinary. As a matter of fact, I'm convinced of that, because if it was out of the ordinary, there would have been more calls into law enforcement about what was going on. ...

If you were an agent and you got a phone call before Sept. 11 saying, "There is a man with a Saudi passport taking commercial flight training here at my school, and I'm suspicious," could you open a case?

Probably just on that, no. Not unless you checked the name and found out that this was a name that was actually tied to a terrorist cell somewhere. I don't know if they had that information.

Some of these people apparently were totally clean.

That's right. If they were totally clean, if you checked their name and maybe did a credit and criminal check, track it through some other type of indexes that the government has and came up negative, then you'd probably say, "Let me know if you see anything else."

So you couldn't just get a national security wiretap or ...

No, just because somebody of a foreign nationality was going to flight school. I mean, there's people that do that every day. ...

Do you think basically that this was not an intelligence failure, that this was just inevitable because of the kind of society we have?

It's a hard question to answer. To say, "Because of our society, anything that happens, so be it," that's not totally accurate. Having an open society, as I discussed earlier, doesn't help the situation. But that's the kind of society we also want.

You could look at any incident that occurs and say, "OK, what could we do to prevent this from happening again?" And that's what the government is looking at now, that's what the intelligence community is looking at now, that's what law enforcement's looking at now, and that's what they should be doing, as opposed to looking back and saying, "OK, why didn't we do this, that, and the other thing?" They should be looking forward and say, "OK, how can we prevent something like this from happening again?" ...

Have we ever been able to look forward in that way? After Pearl Harbor, they created the CIA to centralize all our intelligence, and now it seems like we've fallen back into our bad old habits.

No. I guess the reason why it's hard to answer this question is, you have to know: What did we know, when did we know it, and did we act on it? I don't know that. It could be that maybe there was a ton of information and nobody looked at it, and it could have been prevented. I don't know that. Or it could be that we had no information. ...

There hadn't been a hijacking in a long time. We all know that airport security wasn't very tight, and it's still just minimal, really. So we got caught.

I don't know if they would have gotten caught. In the past, if you look at the hijackings of the late 1960s, early 1970s, when we had the old sky marshal program, there was usually one ... hijacker who said he wanted to take the plane someplace, and had a weapon. The weapon they used was a knife or a gun. You didn't have that in this case. You had several people getting on who used tools that people have in their everyday shaving kit or something like that.

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