Transcript: 9/11 Commission Hearings for June 16, 2004
KAY: Good morning.
I want to thank the commission for the opportunity to discuss the nature of the enemy that carried out the September 11 attacks.
The commission staff statement that was read this morning paints an accurate picture of al Qaeda's history and evolution, and how this organization came to pose such a serious threat to the United States.
What I would like to do over the next few minutes is to provide some context for the staff statement by examining the role that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda played in the broader Sunni jihadist movement.
Bin Laden, to be sure, is the key part of that movement, but the movement goes beyond just him and al Qaeda. And just as their place in it and the role that they play have evolved, our understanding has also evolved. That understanding helped to shape our response to the attack that took place on 9/11, because we knew about the people and the organization, as well as the role and importance of the Afghan sanctuary.
As we continue to learn about the enemy, that additional knowledge will help to shape how we respond in the future.
It is also critically important to understand the role bin Laden and his organization play in the broader jihadist movement so we can better understand the nature of the future threats and how to deal with them.
The story that's told in the staff statement describes a very deliberate, patient adversary driven by a utopian ideology, possessing a comprehensive strategy; an enemy that is independent, an enemy that is disciplined.
Keep in mind, however, that in the early days of al Qaeda it was just one part of the emerging global jihadist movement.
The mujahedeen who had fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan returned home and brought with them the terrorist skills they had learned in the fight against the Soviets, the belief that they could beat anyone if they were willing to die for their cause, and contacts with other individuals and terrorist groups that had been forged in Afghanistan.
That confidence and capability was directed at those who were perceived to be a threat to their vision of Islam, whether it was their own government, the United States or Israel.
Several factors allowed al Qaeda to emerge out of this environment as the preeminent organization and serve in many ways as the ideological and practical force unifying these individuals and groups.
First of all, bin Laden and his followers possessed a utopian ideology based on a vision of the old notion of a single caliphate. This vision, while extreme, resonated among many Muslims and was attractive because it was built on a foundation of deeply ingrained cultural and religious norms and sought to redress deeply felt historical wrongs.
Muslims who felt victimized by their governments, had some claim to being victims of colonialism or felt their societies drifting into corruption could identify with bin Laden and his vision.
al Qaeda and others cultivated an image of bin Laden as the voice for this vision. He was portrayed as the pious son of a pious but wealthy man who shunned the comforts of home and spent his wealth and risked his life for others.
Bin Laden himself increased his credibility by laying out his program and sticking to it. He said what he meant and he meant what he said.
This allowed the group to operate anywhere and attract support and members everywhere.
all of this would have come to nothing without a comprehensive strategy, but al Qaeda had that too. al Qaeda was created to serve as the base or foundation for a new global movement; what one former member has called an Islamic army.
When you look at al Qaeda's internal documents, you can see that they thought through what this would take. They knew they would need to build relations with groups in every part of the world and build the conditions for Islamic militant groups to arise where none then existed.
al Qaeda encouraged, supported and inspired the terrorist activities of others, all while planning its own operations. although some al Qaeda members may have been involved in several early attacks in the 1990s against U.S. interests, the East Africa bombings in August of '98 are the first attacks that were exclusively al Qaeda operations.
As al Qaeda grew and evolved, it not only conducted operations that were centrally planned, it also approved operations initiated by members dispersed in other countries.
And it continued to support and inspire other associated or independent groups to attack as well.
We see more of these semi-autonomous operations today, not because al Qaeda is weak, even though it has been weakened, but because al Qaeda succeeded in building the capacity of other groups and individuals in the broader network.
al Qaeda put a premium on its ability to operate as an independent organization, independent from states as well as from donors and other groups. This is an integral part of its operating directive. al Qaeda sought independence in every facet of its work: organization, strategy, funding and supplies.
It sought to dictate the terms of its relations with states rather than the other way around. al Qaeda's relationship with states was symbiotic, especially with those states that granted it safe haven. And this left al Qaeda free to pursue its own strategy in its own time.
Rather than give up this flexibility, bin Laden defied states, including the Taliban when it directed him not to launch attacks.
In general, the Taliban offered al Qaeda a safe environment to do its thing, including building up its own funding network within the larger global network so that they would never be dependent upon anyone's source of funds or territory; building its own network of sympathetic imams, to provide religious directions and legitimacy; building their own training camps and weapons factories; and operated their own recruitment network.
all of this required patience and discipline...
KEAN: "Dr. K", if you could start to wrap up your statements.
KAY: I will in one second, please -- which al Qaeda showed from the first. Bin Laden built his organization methodically, gradually as a dissident organization within the global network. He patiently created ties to other extremists around the world and laid the seeds for a more effective worldwide jihadist movement.
And finally, patience is ultimately significant for our understanding of the nature of the threat posed today by bin Laden and like-minded extremists. al Qaeda, to be sure, is the vanguard of the global Sunni jihadist struggle against the United States. It has by no means been defeated and though weakened it continues to patiently plan its next attacks. It may strike next week, next month or next year, but it will strike.
And finally, last point, even after bin Laden and al Qaeda are defeated, the global jihadist movement will continue to exist. That movement may again produce another bin Laden or al Qaeda as long as there are individuals who are willing to use violence to redress perceived wrongs.
Thank you, and now I'll be happy to answer any questions.
KEAN: Our questioning today will be led by Senator Kerrey, followed by Governor Thompson.
KERREY: Well, first of all, "Dr. K", let me also provide some context perhaps for the entire panel.
all through the readings and the witnesses and the contact that I have had with this story, I oftentimes find myself asking myself what was going on in my life at the time that various things that we're now looking at were going on.
Specifically, I was campaigning for the United States Senate for the first time in 1988 when al Qaeda was being formed, and the dominant national security issue in that campaign -- I remember it very well -- which was should we build and deploy the MX missile system?
And it wasn't even a year into my first term when the absolutely unimaginable began to happen, which is East Bloc nations began to be liberated. The Berlin Wall came down in the fall of 1989, and by '91 the Soviet Union was over. The Cold War had ended much more rapidly than anybody had predicted.
And one of the observations that's been made externally to this commission that I think is correct is that in a very real way we were so busy celebrating that victory that we failed to pay attention to a number of problems that were going to occur as a consequence of the Cold War's end.
We got into the Balkans immediately and one of the ones that we missed was al Qaeda and the rise of their capacity as a consequence of the Cold War struggle inside of Afghanistan that ended in 1989. I think that history shows rather painfully we abandoned Afghanistan and took no interest in it all the way through the 1990s.
And that one I remember as well, because there happened to be a gentlemen from Nebraska with a great deal of interest in Afghanistan and he was encouraging me to seek some USAID funding -- some very, very small amounts of USAID funding. He was simply unable to get even the smallest amounts of funding to try to do something inside of Afghanistan, because the Cold War was over, the Soviet Union was gone and they were no longer important to us.
Let me ask you if there is any disagreement with the staff statement that was presented. I heard "Dr. K" said it was a good staff statement. And if there's any comment about that staff statement, I'd like to hear it. Any disagreement, any fundamental disagreement with the staff statement as it was prepared?
FITZGERALD: I thought it was fundamentally great.
KERREY: Well, let me also note that our staff director, Phil Zelikow, made a comment that was not in the staff statement referencing that we need to be clear, you know, some of the stuff we've learned later.
But the thing that concerns me the most is that an awful lot of this was known at critical times and not delivered to key policy- makers. I mean, for example, the whole connection between al Qaeda and the battle for Mogadishu on October 3rd and 4th, 1993, that connection is enormous.
We've heard from President Clinton through President Bush's representatives that one of the problems dealing with bin Laden was that the American people wouldn't give us permission to do what we had to do to end the sanctuary in Afghanistan until after 9/11.
KERREY: But I find in the open statements that could have been made in 1997, could have been made in 1999, could have been made in 2001, a very compelling case that I think the American people would have embraced much more aggressive action against bin Laden.
Let me ask, Mr. Fitzgerald, you a couple of questions in that regard. You say in your statement -- and I wish you had read your statement, because it's an excellent statement -- that we knew that al Qaeda were expert forgers, that they could produce quality visa stamps and other documents. You made that comment in that statement. When did we know that?
FITZGERALD: We certainly knew that in 1998. And I can tell you that in the indictment we filed publicly in the fall of 1998 we laid out the al Qaeda structure.
If you look at my statement, it's a digested version of what we put in a public indictment. And in fact in that same indictment that was filed in the fall of 1998 that was public, and later tried in 2001, we made clear that we believed al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks on the American forces in Somalia.
So that to the extent that there's any concern that that wasn't in the public domain, we put it in a court document and tried it. I don't think it got a lot of attention in the media, but it wasn't something that was hidden.
KERREY: Well, we found, though, that, public statements to the contrary by federal agencies, that all 19 individuals came through on forged documents.
Does it cause you some concern that, since we knew it in 1998, that neither INS or a consular office, there was no strategic plan on our part?
We heard "Dr. K" describe al Qaeda with a strategic plan, and we appeared not to have a strategic plan to deal with these kinds of vulnerabilities.
Knowing that they were capable of producing forged visas and passports, knowing that bin Laden by 1992 had identified the United States of America as the enemy that he was going to go after, do you not think that that information should have been delivered to the INS and our consular office so they could begin to develop some sort of defensive mechanism to make sure that we had the capacity to identify forged documents?
FITZGERALD: I don't know what we delivered, in what form, to the immigration officials. I can tell you that that was not a hidden secret. I mean, it was in open court, we had testimony to it in open court. It was in indictment.
I don't think anyone was under a misimpression that there were people around the world who didn't have access to counterfeit documents. We prosecuted people on passport charges related to the first World Trade Center bombing.
I recognize that you're in a difficult position when you run one of those agencies to have to ferret out what's been obtained by fraud, what's counterfeit, what's been altered, when there's been a photo substitution. But I'm not aware of anyone withholding information from anyone about the fact that that capability was there and that it had been acted upon.
KERREY: Well, I'm going to ask "Dr. K" I think you were in -- how long were you in the CTC?
KAY: I've been in it seven and a half years.
KERREY: I mean, we've been told that there was a comprehensive analysis of OBL that was done in January 1997.
KERREY: Were you part of that analysis?
KAY: Yes. I oversaw the completion of the project, correct.
KERREY: Were you disturbed that the results of that analysis was not disseminated, particularly since the national intelligence estimate was not updated?
By 1997, we were still presuming -- those of us who were being delivered information, we're still being told and presumed that Osama bin Laden was financing terrorism, that he was not the head of al Qaeda. We didn't even have the information that Ms. Doran talked about with Fadl, the Junior. We didn't have that information either.
Did you think it was a mistake not to disseminate the comprehensive analysis that was done in 1997?
KAY: I think it would have been better had we been able to get out as much of that story as possible, as quickly as possible. We were unable to -- the project that's mentioned at the time it was completed and completed means essentially it was in draft, was not in a form that was suitable for outside consumption and needed to be prepared in such a fashion that it would be manageable, easily digested, and understood by the policy-makers.
KERREY: Well, I'd like to, at some point, pursue that because the stuff that we were being given was, I think, too easy to digest. I mean, we had reached the wrong conclusions based upon the information that was being delivered to us.
Let me give you one of them that we've heard over and over and over from federal people all -- again, from President Clinton through President Bush. "We were focused on over there, not here." We heard that from FAA administrators to National Security Council. "We were focused over there, not here."
But Wadih al-Hage and ali Mohammed were arrested in the United States, members of al Qaeda in 1998. Do you think there was any basis for policy-makers to be reaching conclusion that we didn't have anything to fear from al Qaeda inside the United States; that we should focus our attention overseas, not inside the United States?
Mr. Fitzgerald, don't you think the arrest of those two individuals indicates that they had great capacity to get inside, to penetrate the United States, and that we might have vulnerabilities here, as well, again, given the public statements that bin Laden was making as early as '96 about wanting to attack the United States?
FITZGERALD: I think it was clear in public, from 1996 forward, that war had been declared upon the American military. And from February '98, bin Laden had declared war upon the American civilians who are in the world. And I think the arrest of Mr. al-Hage was public in September '98 and the arrest of ali Mohammed became public shortly thereafter.
And much of what, for example, Mr. al-Fadl, known as Junior -- his identity was kept secret until a trial, in (inaudible) leak, but the information he gave describing how al Qaeda operated and the various committees, the fatwa committee, the military affairs committee, the media committee, all that was laid out in very, very much detail in the indictment in many of the instruments and pleadings in that court. So it was public, only his name was withheld.
KERREY: But you said something that I think is very important, which is that we were relying upon secret information, and the better information was the public information.
In fact, the president, the very famous August 6th presidential daily briefing, it'd been better if you'd have gone and briefed him and delivered the public information that you had about the trial, because there was more content and there was more clear from the trial who Osama bin Laden was, what he intended to do than the briefing that the CIA prepared for the president trying to tell him the same thing.
So the open source information was more reliable than the secret information.
FITZGERALD: I think it's fair to say that there's a lot in open source that wasn't reported widely, even by the media. I've always been confused by way people don't pay attention to what becomes public. I think it's not exclusive, but...
KERREY: Well, I mean, the reason is that we get, I think, a false presumption oftentimes. We presume that the best source of information on national security comes from classified sources. And this case, I think it turned out to be incorrect. I don't think we were given a clear enough picture of who Osama bin Laden was and what his intents were.
I mean, can you describe what -- actually, I've got one very specific question, so that it came from the record of the trial that I'd like to ask you of the embassy bombing, that the United States at the time that we were -- in the trial documents now; this is not me giving any secret information -- that we were intercepting a telephone conversation of an al Qaeda operative in Nairobi. Which, by the way, I think does a little damage to this idea that, "Gee, this was a very hard target, and we couldn't penetrate it at all."
KERREY: We were penetrating. We were intercepting an al Qaeda operative's telephone conversations in the summer of 1996 and the fall of 1997.
Do you remember what insights were gained from that intercept?
FITZGERALD: To be perfectly honest, I do remember what we gained from those interceptions and I think what people thought we didn't know as much as we did when we did at the trial, because you have conversations like any wiretap where people talk cryptically, they harumph, they refer to this guy, they refer to that guy, that place over there.
It took us years to go back and look at those wiretaps, particularly with the benefit of witnesses, figure out what was going on, know the hindsight and piece together what was being said.
But there was that wiretap which we later used in court. When we thought -- I'll be honest, prior to the August 1998 embassy bombings, it was clear to us that there was an al Qaeda support and logistics cell in Kenya.
If someone had told me the day before the embassy bombings that al Qaeda would actually attack in Kenya the American embassy, which for all practical purposes would shut down their ability to operate there, I would have told them that didn't make sense because it was important for them to be able to move people.
So there were efforts made. There was a search done. The place where that telephone was being operated in August 1997, which yielded great intelligence information that was put to good use...
KERREY: As well as documents that I think the FBI and -- again, from the trial docket, didn't the FBI and the CIA go into the residence and get additional documents out of the residence?
But I think the one thing that the trial might distort is that the trial was in 2001 and what we put in from the wiretap and the documents and pieced together was a result of three years of work of agents such as Agent Doran and the agents seated behind me.
So there was good information coming off that wiretap and that search, but we knew a lot more with three years of studying it that was then put in the public record at the trial.
KERREY: Well, I mean, I say it again: The public record of the trial of 2001 brought to my attention at least things that were happening in 1998 that would have been a lot more useful to get in 1998.
I just for myself put together what we knew -- what the president could have told the American people in 1997 based upon what we knew if there was a briefing of the Congress and the American people: "Here's what we know about bin Laden and al Qaeda in February 1997. Here's what we know in February 1999. Here's what we know in February of 2001." And most of the information would come from open source documents because it would have to be delivered in a public fashion.
KERREY: And I think it obliterates this idea that we had to wait until 9/11 to be able to knock down sanctuaries, to be able to go to the world and get public opinion on our side. As well, that we're dealing with somebody who is not trying to attack the French, not trying to attack the Germans, not trying to attack anybody but Americans and had been very successful dating all the way back to 1992.
We heard in the staff statement something that, again, I think, we have to understand what was available at the time. But I would say 70 percent of it was available in February '97, 90 percent was available in 1999, and 100 percent was available in February, 2001.
So I turn to "Dr. K" and Ted Davis, here. You're there now. I mean what do we need to do to make certain that we get this open source information to us so that policy-makers are not heavily reliant upon classified information to a point that they're not able to get from open sources the very things that they may need in order to respond?
KAY: If I could just make one comment, I think -- and I'll go back to your original question to me about that comprehensive report on bin Laden -- that was only one piece of production that we in the counterterrorist center were producing on bin Laden.
We, as I think the commission has seen from the record of production from (inaudible), the message, I think about the threat posed by bin Laden was out there to the policy-makers based on both clandestine and overt sources. We did extensive analysis of the fatwas that came out publicly, and that information was provided to policy-makers.
KAY: And, now, again, what happens after that is somebody else's responsibility.
KERREY: I'm done here, but I think it was an enormous mistake not to update the NIE, and to presume that, "Well, gosh, we knew what was going on." I think it was a huge mistake. Because as far as I'm concerned, that's the gene code that determines how we judge what threats are out there. And it should have been updated in '96, '97 and '98, and it was an enormous mistake that it wasn't.
KEAN: Governor Thompson?
THOMPSON: Prefatory question directed to all three members of the panel, if I might.
From the beginning of our history as a nation, whenever the nation has been the subject of attack or the subject of threat or engaged in actual warfare, we have faced enemy forces from states, across fixed battle lines, in the United States or in other parts of the world, and we have protected ourselves.
Now we have an enemy, as I understand it, that can operate in any part of the world, which draws support of one kind or another from hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people, willing to die, and willing to be very patient and conduct operations perhaps for the rest of history.
We, at the same time, have a country that is big, open, free and in many respects unguardable, unprotectable. And our interests abroad are so far-flung that the same might be said of those facilities and forces as well.
How in the world do we ever expect to win this war? And if the war is not winnable in the traditional sense, how do we contain or checkmate this enemy?
Because I think when this is all over that's still the fundamental question. And I'd appreciate the views of all three of you on that.
PISTOLE: Governor, I think you raise a very interesting point, and I would add just one more element to what you described and that is that al Qaeda is a very innovative, creative organization. It is constantly refining its tactics to circumvent the security precautions that we put in place. And so it is constantly evolving. It is very agile tactically.
THOMPSON: President Clinton described them to us as entrepreneurial.
PISTOLE: I think that's probably an excellent description.
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