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interview: lewis schiliro

... [Can you compare the 1993 World Trade Center attack] to today?

Well, certainly I think it is important to do that. In 1993, we had a van that was driven into the parking garage at the World Trade Center and really had a great amount of damage that was done, some people that were killed. Ramzi Yousef, one of the principals in planning that and organizing that, subsequently relocated to the Philippines, and some years later was involved in a conspiracy to bomb U.S. allies, to actually put explosives onboard those planes, and to bring them down -- something that would have cost a great amount of life. Again, another example of intelligence finding out about the plot beforehand and preventing that from occurring.

A few years after that, with the Khobar Towers case, certainly a case where a great amount of life was lost, again, as a result of a terrorist act. Again, followed by the USS Cole, driving a small boat into a U.S. Navy warship, and again causing destruction. And then the embassy bombings in East Africa, in Nairobi and in Dar es Salaam. Again, a suicide attack causing a great amount of carnage.

Is this all the work of Osama bin Laden?

I'm not here to suggest that there is specific evidence about his direct involvement in all of these cases. My inclination would be that many of the people that were involved in the cases would probably have been shown to have some connection, direct or indirect, to Osama bin Laden, either through the use of his training facilities, logistical support ... the fact that his organization really does develop cells that then go out and commit some of these acts. ...

about lewis schiliro

Until his retirement in 2000, Lewis Schiliro headed the FBI's New York bureau, where he supervised several counterterrorism investigations, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. He questions whether the U.S. has had enough resources for intelligence operations and whether it has the will and the technical ability today to infiltrate terrorist groups. This interview was conducted mid-September 2001.

We've made [bin Laden], if you will, into the icon of international terrorism. And some people would suggest that the Hezbollah or the Egyptians and other organizations who are out there in the world -- he's in Afghanistan today -- that they're the ones who are really pulling this off.

I am not attempting to say that certainly there are not extremists in all of those organizations -- certainly in Hezbollah and the Hamas -- that are not equally as potent in committing terrorist acts. What I'm saying is that as it evolves, people that are connected with the terrorist acts that we've identified, many of them have connections to Osama bin Laden. And I think that that is quite significant.

OK. And he's under indictment?

And he's under indictment for the bombings in East Africa.

Ramzi Yousef -- the FBI tracked him down in the Philippines.

That's correct. ...

What we've been told by people in the State Department is that the FBI didn't want to give information to the Philippine authorities, and that slowed things down.

I'm not familiar with exactly if that was the case or not. What I can say is that there are times when dealing with foreign law enforcement agencies are very, very difficult. One, in terms of sharing information, particularly if information is sensitive in nature and you need to protect sources.

And two, and more importantly, if our goal is to prosecute people in the United States, then we have an obligation to ensure that any foreign investigative agencies for the most part abides by our due process standards. And sometimes that does cause differences of opinion on that. ...

You met Ramzi Yousef at the airport and you got into a helicopter with him?

That is correct.

What happened in the helicopter?

Our responsibility at the time was to transport Ramzi Yousef into the metropolitan correctional center in lower Manhattan. In order to do that, we did use a helicopter to transport him down the Hudson River. It was on a very clear night. For a point in time, he was blindfolded. And we allowed him to remove the blindfold. Ironically, he focused his eyes, as the helicopter was adjacent to the World Trade Center, one of the agents that was onboard the helicopter said to Mr. Yousef that the World Trade Center was still standing. And in no uncertain terms, Yousef's response was, "It would not have been, had we had more money."

I think everybody on board the helicopter that night was almost speechless from that comment, mainly from the standpoint of the seriousness of which it was said. And that left very little doubt in my mind that he was very serious in intent on actually bringing down the World Trade Center at the time they committed that act.

And when you saw the pictures and heard the news [about the Sept. 11 attacks], what was your reaction?

My first reaction was utter shock. I think that was followed by just absolute anger. ... When we look at it, that act was designed for one reason, and that is to kill as many people as humanly possible. There was no other intent in my mind for the purposes of flying those planes into both towers and causing both towers to really implode on themselves at a point in time when really there would be the maximum number of people either in the towers, or on their way to the towers.

So I think when we look at that and the utter devastation that it caused, and the fact that it really struck at the essence of what this country stands for, to me [it] is an act that I don't think many people could really put into words. ...

But they did what Ramzi Yousef wished he could have done?

They did exactly what Ramzi Yousef wished he could have done. There is no doubt in my mind that they did that.

Some people are saying it's an intelligence failure. Was this the result of somebody dropping the ball -- not looking in the right direction?

That's a very, very difficult question. And I'm sure that there will be a lot of studies and inquiries as to the result of that. It is certainly my firm belief that anybody within certainly the government agencies responsible -- it's the FBI, the CIA, or the other intelligence agencies -- there was no specific information indicating that they were going to attack the World Trade Center. The agents that I worked with, and certainly the ones that ran into the building on that day attempting to save people, and may have in fact given up their lives to do so, would all, in a heartbeat, have surrendered their lives to save what happened on Sept. 11.

But on the other hand, I think the broader question is, should we have known about that? And that is to suggest whether or not we have appropriate resources devoted toward this, whether or not we have the technical capability, and the will, to really infiltrate these groups.

Do we have the cooperation between U.S. government agencies?

For the most part, we do. I think that, under certainly Louis Freeh and George Tenet, the cooperation between the CIA and the FBI has vastly improved. And I think certainly when you get information that would indicate a terrorist act from the standpoint of the loss of life, that there is no doubt in my mind that the agencies would do everything in their power to prevent that.

The argument, though, becomes how we divulge techniques. In other words, the divulgence of sources and techniques of investigation oftentimes become a center of issue between the agencies. But when information is developed that indicates that there will be a terrorist act, a violent act -- and I've seen this in numerous occasions -- agencies work very well to prevent it.

No one is questioning that the agencies would work in the right direction. But Nairobi is a good example; there was information that something was going on. There was a preventative raid, if you will, to disrupt the cell. The bombing still took place. They did what they set out to do.

They did exactly what they set out to do. But I also would submit -- and again, I am not attempting to defend whether or not the flow of information is where it needs to be, and that the cooperation is exactly all that it needs to be -- but the issue becomes how we manage that information and interpret that information. There's been a jihad against this country for a number of years, in which the extremists in some of the Al Qaeda groups have avowed a violent reaction to the United States, and have demonstrated that on numerous occasions.

That threat continues to exist. It existed prior to Sept. 11. The only thing that was lacking, in terms of information, was really the specific target of that jihad. ...

Were you surprised to find that so many of these people who have been identified as hijackers went to flight schools in the United States, and no one seemed to be suspicious?

... To be honest with you, it did, mainly from the standpoint that in order to have pulled off what they did on Sept. 11, communication amongst them would have had to have occurred, and that perhaps suspicions were raised, as far as the need to have flight training and logistics.

But again, I'm equally as surprised that they were able to skyjack four U.S. airlines with the success that they had, and the ability to coordinate their attacks. But I think everybody that looks at this case is shocked and surprised at what occurred on Sept. 11.

We were watching the cell in Nairobi. I remember the FBI visited the home of Wadih el-Hage in Texas. We were watching the cell, apparently, in Jersey City, prior to the World Trade Center bombing. And these guys are in flight schools. It just seems that some people would suggest that we're one step behind. Or is it because you're enforcing laws in the United States, and you just simply can't act arbitrarily?

Well, I think certainly the fact that a foreign national comes into the United States, and assuming that he has the appropriate documentation, is allowed to enroll in a flight school and take flight training is not a crime. Now to the extent that, perhaps if it were reported to law enforcement agencies, it would have raised the level of suspicion or consciousness, that could be the case.

But you couldn't get a wiretap ...

Based on strictly that, probably not. What you would have had to have developed was information that would have indicated that the individuals taking the flight training had some connection to a terrorist act -- perhaps did not have appropriate documentation, or something in addition to that -- that would have raised an antenna, so to speak.

The reason I raise it is a CIA officer was recently quoted in The New York Times saying that you could never stop all the attacks because you could never hear about all of them. You can't just spy on all these groups, he said; you have to destroy them. And that's not what he says the CIA was set up to do, and obviously, that's not what the FBI was set up to do.

I think that's a fairly good assessment of where we're at right now. You cannot conceivably infiltrate and provide technical coverage of everybody that is of a certain ethnic characteristic, or perhaps comes into this country from countries that we do know cells exist in. But for the most part, I think that that is accurate. What we need to do is a better job of identifying people that are likely to cause harm to this country, and then using that as a predication for investigation.

Was this really our 21st century Pearl Harbor?

It's much worse than Pearl Harbor. I think this strikes at the very heart of what this nation is about. To me, Pearl Harbor was by an identified enemy against a military target.

I think this was done by covert activity, by people that I do believe whose sole intent was to cause as much civilian harm and murder as conceivable -- no different than I think if they would have flown a bomber over Manhattan, and just released a series of bombs. To me this is ... I cannot imagine a more despicable act against the very icon of what the United States is built on.

So, in some ways, are we looking at the wrong people? Is this a problem that's really a political problem, possibly a military problem, a policy problem? Because we're dealing with people who are coming from overseas, basically, who have a grudge against us -- primarily because of the conduct of their local government or our alliance with their government or a policy in Saudi Arabia. And the FBI really can't deal with that.

Yes, I agree with that. It's all of those things. It's a problem that the country has to look at in a very focused and coordinated fashion. We have to have the ability to integrate all of the issues that you represent -- that is, the executive, the legislative -- because I think there were changes that need to be made.

Certainly, now, I think it's going to unfold into a military issue. We need to do that. And really what we need to do is to eliminate the threat, to somehow, with perseverance, and I think a great deal of courage, go out, identify the terrorist organizations that either have the potential or the will to do harm into the United States or against U.S. citizens ... I think it's unfortunate, but whether we can bring them to justice in a court of law or somehow neutralize that threat.

After the events of Sept. 11, I don't think we have an alternative.

In your mind, what was the purpose of Sept. 11?

... In my estimation -- and I think that some of the teachings of bin Laden would go to this -- his purpose is probably to galvanize an anti-American sentiment amongst a broader section of Muslim extremists.

There are some people who are advocating that we use this opportunity to take out all the terrorists. The Hezbollah for the Khobar bombing, which means Lebanon; Saddam, for any number of things that he's done, as well as Afghanistan. What you're saying is that's almost like playing into bin Laden's hands?

I'm sure, as the administration looks at what response they need to have, that one of the things that they do need to take into account is that whatever action we [take], and whether we make bin Laden a martyr or not, is likely to develop an anti-U.S. sentiment amongst the extremists within the Muslim countries. Some of the writings in the jihad call for the creation of a Muslim state. I think this is to suggest that we have to be very careful in preparing our response, that we take that into account.

I think to look at the devastation that was caused by the attacks on the Trade Center and the Pentagon, that the people responsible must have known that it's going to cause an incredible reaction on the part of this country. And I think rightfully so; we need to respond. But that is also going to cause an effect within, I think, the terrorist cells that we've talked about.

You know, Mr. [Sattar], who we've interviewed, says that the American people don't understand that the reason this is happening is that in a place like Egypt, where he comes from, we are the people who prop up and support Mubarak -- who oppresses the people, who tortures people -- ... and keep his nation in poverty. And [Mubarak]'s our ally, and that's why we're their enemy.

There may be some reason for that. But I think the overall question is that the enemy that perpetrated this against the towers and the Pentagon are people that are of such a mindset to commit terrorist acts against this country that what we need to do is certainly find out who they are ...

Before we do anything?

Before we do anything, we need to find out who they are, where they operate, and as the administration has suggested, who supports them. Once having found that out, then I think they need to find out who we really are, and I think that's a difference. This is not an attempt, at least in terms of how we view this, merely to attack for the sake of punishment. This has to be -- and I think we're at this stage right now -- [an attempt] to eliminate those that pose a threat to the United States. And I think there's a difference in that.

So this is not really a law enforcement problem in the end?

It is my opinion that, as of Sept. 11, that all necessary and appropriate responses, including the law enforcement response, are appropriate.

Let me take you back for a minute to Title 3 and national security wiretaps and so on. Has that procedure got in the way of your ability as law enforcement to do your job?

I don't think it's the procedure, whether we term it a foreign investigative surveillance or a Title 3, which is mainly geared to providing evidence in a criminal court. There are provisions within the FISA Act -- the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- to use information gained during the course of that in a criminal case with a court order. So, for the most part, the procedures are in place.

The problem has become, I think, that the way we now communicate is far different than it was as little as 10 years ago. The ability to be able to intercept communications over digital telephones, over cellular, the ability to intercept communications that are sent via encrypted technology probably surpasses the ability of law enforcement to intercept.

I think that we have to come to grips with the fact that the way business is done right now, not only on the criminal side, but on the terrorist side, has changed. We need to add resources to that. We need to change the laws on what allows us to intercept technical communications. And I think we really need to come to grips with our ability to deal with that type of technology.

So what you're saying is that a well-organized group -- bin Laden's group or the Egyptian jihad people or the Hezbollah -- can operate, and you can't really intercept all their communications.

What I am saying is that we're coming to a point in this country where the technology that's available to encrypt, not only conversations but Internet communications, does surpass in many, many ways the ability of law enforcement to intercept that. ...

[Is the reason we didn't have advanced warning of Sept. 11] because we don't have enough Arabic speakers? That we don't have enough cultural understanding?

That's a tough question. There are good informants out there that are reporting on a regular basis about terrorist activities. But these groups, you have to understand, also are compartmentalized. The way they're structured is that the cells themselves and the groups within the cells are compartmentalized to perform a particular function, very carefully orchestrated to operate in a covert manner. It also makes it difficult to infiltrate.

But to your question, I think that obviously, the better way to have uncovered this is to have had a cooperating source amongst them, somebody that would have told us about their activity.

So there's difficulty with electronic eavesdropping because of modern technology available to the civilian population, to these people. There's difficulty because of the way that they are organized. There's cultural problems because we have a limited number of, let's say, Arabic speakers, and people familiar with their [culture]. So we're behind. ...

And resources. I think additional resources are needed both for the intelligence community and for the law enforcement community.

And no one was paying attention? I mean, the National Commission report says the FBI and CIA need more resources, need more cultural sensitivity, if you will. But this wasn't being done because it hadn't come home yet?

I don't know if I would agree with that, mainly from the standpoint of looking at the successes that we have had, and that is to suggest the ability to apply resources in East Africa, identify those responsible for it, and to bring them back into the United States for trial. To me, in my estimation, [that was] a tremendous success on the part of the anti-terrorist effort, and numerous other cases that had been brought based on that. I think certainly the original Trade Center, the prosecution of Ramzi Yousef; so there have been a number of significant terrorist prosecutions in the United States.

When it was stated recently that we had no prior information that they might use aircraft in a terrorist act, that's not technically true, right? Ramzi Yousef, there was a...

Yes, but again, his intent as I understand it was to blow up the aircraft, not necessarily to use them as a bomb. ... To suggest that they should have anticipated or government should have anticipated what occurred on Sept. 11 -- I don't know if that's quite fair.

But we were behind the curve, obviously.

We were behind the curve, if anything, on the ability to uncover the plot beforehand. I suppose that's a valid observation. ...

Is there a foreign government involved [with Al Qaeda]?

I think to the extent that there are cells that are located in countries that do provide support, I think that that would be a fair statement.

You mean if the cell is in Iraq or in Lebanon? Or there's maybe government support?

I'm suggesting that if the cell is located in a country, there may be indications that they do receive some foreign ... either sanctuary or support. I think that's correct. ...

What kind of man is [Ramzi Yousef]?

That's probably one of the toughest questions I've been asked. ... I've worked numerous criminal investigations in my tenure with the FBI. I don't think I ever met anybody ... that I looked at as being as serious as he was, an avowed terrorist, so to speak.

When you look at the motivation that these people have, I don't think that we can quite understand that. I mean, at least certainly my mind doesn't have that capability.

What do you mean?

Well, to really understand why one would hate the way they hate, or the purpose of living a life where your purpose is to institute a jihad or a holy war against a country that we all believe in; where we accept people into the United States; we educate them; we feed them; we clothe them; we really open our borders, as it has been really from the beginning. And yet to have people hate us in such a way ... So I'm not so sure I can answer that. ...

You've never imagined what motivated this person? ...

I cannot imagine, Lowell, to be quite candid with you, what would motivate one to steal a large airliner and to crash it into the World Trade towers, not only once, but twice, with the sole purpose of bringing down those towers on what could be upwards of 40,000 people. To me, in my mind, that's beyond comprehension. And back in 1993, when one attempted to drive a van with a bomb in it into the basement of the World Trade Center for the purpose of bringing it down, I still, to this day cannot understand the motivation and reasoning behind that. ...

The Sept. 11 operation -- what strikes you as being different in terms of the way it was, the tradecraft, if you will, and all the other operations?

What it appears to me is that what we saw on Sept. 11 was an evolution; an evolution not only in terms of gravity, but in terms of magnitude. Going back again to 1993, a van with a bomb in the parking lot of the World Trade Center, the Khobar Towers, a suicide bomber into that barracks. The USS Cole, driving a smaller boat into a U.S. Navy warship loaded with explosives, the U.S. embassy bombings, two separate suicide acts in an attempt to bring down both embassies. The difference here, I think, was that it involved much more coordination, a higher degree of sophistication, a fair amount of coordination in the ability to strike these targets relatively simultaneously. And I think above all, the magnitude and the gravity of the loss that was inflicted was just something totally out of proportion to anything we've seen in the past.

The quantity of it makes it qualitatively different.

Incredibly, incredibly so. To the extent that one would look at it, and I think by design, looked to bring down those towers on a Tuesday morning, when the most people would have been at work, I think really indicates the diabolical nature of what was planned. Even in wartime, one would suggest that we would try to avoid collateral damage, so to speak, or the infliction of harm purposely on civilians. This was a direct attack against as many civilians, and as many people as humanly possible. I think as we begin to understand what was done, that's going to come out. And I think that it's a horrible thought to believe.

As you suggest, the analogy to Pearl Harbor -- Pearl Harbor was an attack against our military by another military. This, to me is a little bit different in terms of that. ...

One senior official said to me that if George Tenet at the CIA doesn't know where Osama bin Laden is, then maybe we need to have other people there, or some change in what's going on, because there is some failure of understanding what's happening. If we were to be able to retaliate, for instance.

But I think that's the difficulty: the fact that the individuals in bin Laden's camp and around him move him every few days -- and not necessarily into houses, but into caves -- in a country that the Soviet Union fought for so many years. You're talking about people that fought a war, the mujahedeen, against the largest standing army in the world -- and lost. [They are] very familiar with their own terrain, were able to effect in a guerrilla war for a number of years; they suffered tremendous loss, and yet were still successful.

So I'm not so sure that, as we look at this, that we can underestimate the tenacity and the ability of bin Laden and his followers to really avoid detection. ...

So if we get bin Laden, is that the end of this?

Absolutely not. Certainly, the idea of bringing bin Laden back here to the United States to be tried is in the best interest of justice. However, as the president has said, this effort is going to be a sustained effort. And what needs to happen is we need to identify those groups, the terrorist groups that are out there that have an avowed jihad or holy war against the United States, that espouse violence towards American citizens. And those are the people that we need to continually monitor and go after. Hopefully at some point, if the effort is sustained and the resources are there, we can bring the threat to an acceptable level, to minimize the danger to the citizens of this country.

But isn't there both a law enforcement and a policy question underlined by [former FBI Director] Louis Freeh's struggle to get indictments in the Khobar bombing case before he would leave office? That there was a foreign policy question related to the Saudi Arabians, what they would allow us to do, and the fact that we're dependent on their oil, and all those things got mixed up in this? There seems to be more here than just making a case or doing a military operation.

... It is my belief as an ex-FBI agent that what the American public expects of us is that very same thing, and that is to say, to enforce the laws of this country. And there are other policy reasons and other entities involved that perhaps have other objectives. But ours has to remain, and it has to remain today the enforcement of the laws within the framework of the Constitution. I think that that's exactly what you're seeing happening. This investigation into the events of Sept. 11, in my view, is proceeding exactly that way. And I think that's what needs to occur.

Mr. Sattar tells us on camera, he says, "This is a war." You're talking about law enforcement [and making] sure you don't violate somebody's rights.

I think what I'm suggesting is that it's a war that needs to be fought on a number of fronts, one of which is the enforcement of the criminal laws within the borders of the United States. It's paramount that we do live by the rule of law. If we abandon that, then in some ways, the terrorists win the battle.

Now, what I'm suggesting is that the law enforcement response is one aspect of that war. And I would think that, as we go through this, that the military certainly is going to play a great part in that war. I hope diplomacy plays a good part in that way, in gaining the cooperation of our foreign counterparts, in developing intelligence and causing disruption to the terrorist networks.

I also think there's going to be economic sanctions that are going to cause a disruption and perhaps eliminate part of the terrorist threat. So what I'm suggesting is, yes, we do need to go to war; there's no doubt in my mind. And as I said before, we need to find out who they are, and they need to find out who we are. But I also think that part of that has to be a law enforcement response, mainly because that's the rule of law that we live under. And to suggest or to do otherwise, I think, succumbs to this whole notion of allowing the terrorists to win.

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