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Giuliani's Rhetoric on Terror Contrasts With His Record

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 24, 2007

As Rudolph W. Giuliani campaigns for president, he rarely misses a chance to warn about the threat from terrorists. "They hate you," he told a woman at an Atlanta college. They "want to kill us," he told guests at a Virginia luncheon.

The former New York City mayor exhorts America to fight back in what he calls the "terrorists' war on us" and accuses Democrats of reverting to their "denial" in the 1990s, when, he said, President Bill Clinton erred by treating terrorism as a law enforcement matter, not a war.

Democrats, he said in July, have "the same bad judgment they had in the 1990s. They don't see the threat. They don't accept the threat."

It is a powerful message coming from the man who won global acclaim for his calm and resolve after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But it is undercut by Giuliani's record as mayor and by his public statements about terrorism since the 1990s, which document an evolution in thinking that began with a mind-set similar to the one he criticizes today.

In presenting himself as the candidate most knowledgeable about terrorism, Giuliani stakes the same claim he used to build a successful consulting firm after leaving City Hall: that he is not only a strong leader in a crisis, but someone who was deeply engaged with the Islamic extremist threat long before planes hit the World Trade Center.

But for most of Giuliani's career as a Department of Justice official, prosecutor and New York's chief executive, terrorism was a narrow aspect of his broader crime-fighting agenda, which was dominated by drug dealers, white-collar criminals and the Mafia. Giuliani expressed confidence that Islamic extremism could be contained through vigorous investigation by law enforcement agencies and prosecution in the court system -- the same approach he now condemns.

His public warnings about the threat were infrequent. To the extent that he mentioned terrorism in his aborted run for the Senate in 2000, for example, it was to call for more spending on intelligence. Even in the weeks after Sept. 11, he framed the attacks in the language of crime, describing the hijackers as "insane murderers" and calling for restoration of the "rule of law."

As mayor, Giuliani made decisions that seemed to discount the gravity of the terrorist threat, such as placing his emergency command center at the World Trade Center a few years after the 1993 bombing attack there, against the wishes of top advisers. By his own account, it was after Sept. 11 that he started reading up on al-Qaeda, devouring a book that his then-girlfriend Judith Nathan bought for him.

As terrorist incidents occurred sporadically in the 1990s, Giuliani sought to keep them in perspective. He urged against publicizing terror drills, to avoid needlessly scaring New Yorkers. He resisted branding as terrorism smaller-scale acts of Islamic violence in the city.

In late 1999, as authorities scrambled to unravel a worldwide "millennium plot" and a top former FBI official advised people not to attend the New Year's Eve festivities in Times Square, Giuliani warned against overreacting. "I would urge people not to let the psychology of fear infect the way they act. Otherwise we have let the terrorists win without anybody striking a blow," he said.

Among those who have watched with interest as Giuliani takes up the antiterrorism mantle is Peter Gross, a New Jersey lawyer. Gross's son suffered brain damage when he was shot by a 69-year-old Palestinian man on top of the Empire State Building in 1997, an outburst that killed one and injured six.

Giuliani declined to label the shooting as terrorism, saying the gunman was just deranged, even though the shooter had a note declaring hatred for "Zionists" and their American allies and a wish to "strike at their own den in New York."

Gross still marvels at Giuliani's concern for his son, recalling how often the mayor visited the hospital, and watched as he took the same approach, on a much larger scale, after Sept. 11.

"I do think he rose to greatness after the World Trade Center, but it wasn't because he was an expert on terrorism but because he was an affected and obviously level-headed leader when we didn't need cheerleading, we needed honesty," Gross said. "That's the tone he set. But it wasn't because he was some kind of expert on terrorism."

One of Giuliani's rivals for the Republican nomination, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), made a similar distinction, saying recently that while "the nation respects the mayor's leadership after 9/11," it is unclear that it "translates, necessarily, into foreign policy or national security expertise. I know of nothing in his background that indicates that he has any experience in it."

Giuliani, through his campaign, declined to discuss his record on terrorism. But supporters say he gained unique insight into the issue when he witnessed people jumping from the twin towers and was almost trapped in a nearby building when the South Tower collapsed.

"You have to understand what the results of [terrorism] entail, and that's very personal. If you have compassion for that, you can lead this effort, and if you don't understand the personal consequences, you can't," said Lewis Schiliro, who ran the FBI's New York office in the late 1990s.

Others say Giuliani's experience with terrorism is not the point. What matters to voters, they say, is that he is a strong leader who has taken on scourges such as the Mafia and the New York murder rate, and so can be trusted to triumph over a new threat. "Giuliani does have a track record of being a no-nonsense S.O.B., a really tough guy," said New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat. "Rudy is not someone you can picture waffling when it comes to terrorism."

As Mayor, a Focus on Crime

Giuliani argues that his experience with terrorism long predates Sept. 11. His campaign notes that his work as a Justice Department official and as a U.S. attorney in New York included several encounters with the issue, such as serving on a 1976 task force, writing a 1982 letter to the State Department recommending counterterrorism legislation and prosecuting a member of a Puerto Rican terrorist group, FALN, for making false passports.

On the campaign trail, Giuliani particularly stresses the time he spent as U.S. attorney investigating Yasser Arafat for his role in the death of a wheelchair-bound New Yorker, Leon Klinghoffer, in the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. "I investigated Yasser Arafat before anybody knew who he really was," Giuliani said in Las Vegas.

But prosecutors who led that case say Giuliani overstates his role. He assisted in the later, failed attempt to evict the Palestine Liberation Organization from its New York office, but the investigation of an Arafat link to the ship hijacking was handled by the Justice Department in Washington, say former Justice officials, including Stephen Trott, now a federal appeals judge.

Jay Fischer, a lawyer who represented the Klinghoffer family, said he never talked with Giuliani about the case. "When I heard [him] just in the last six months making a speech that he knew about terrorism because he had led the investigation, I recall turning around to my wife and saying, 'That comes as news to me,' " Fischer said.

Giuliani's focus throughout the 1990s was on reducing crime -- New York had more than 2,000 murders a year when he took office as mayor. So fixated was he on crime during his 1993 campaign against David Dinkins that Giuliani said little on the trail about the explosion, that Feb. 26, of a 1,200-pound bomb in a rental van in a garage beneath the World Trade Center. That blast killed six and injured 1,000 in the first major attack by Islamic extremists on U.S. soil.

After winning that fall, he invoked the attack in his inaugural speech in passing, as a sign of the city's resilience: "It was a day in which 50,000 New Yorkers took charge of themselves and each other."

As he campaigns for president, Giuliani describes the 1993 attack as having been forefront in his mind throughout his mayoralty, saying it was others who failed to reckon with the blast.

"Islamic terrorists killed Americans. Slaughtered Americans. Bombed the World Trade Center. Bombed it," he said in July. "You know what the reaction of the Clinton administration at the time was? It was a crime. It was another group of murders. . . . Well, it wasn't just another group of murders."

But the 1993 attack also receded on City Hall's radar screen. During Giuliani's search for a police commissioner, terrorism did not come up, according to four candidates and three members of the hiring panel interviewed by Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins, authors of the 2006 book "Grand Illusion." Giuliani never asked his successor as U.S. attorney about the cases against the attackers or about other terrorism cases, said a source familiar with the office who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Securing the World Trade Center against another attack also got little attention from City Hall. The buildings' owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, made some safety upgrades, but the city set aside a task force's findings on building-code flaws revealed by the attack, as well as findings by fire chiefs. The city held several terrorism drills during Giuliani's tenure, but they focused on biological or chemical attacks, not high-rise evacuations.

Joe Lhota, a deputy mayor under Giuliani, said the threat of terrorism was taken seriously, with City Hall constantly reacting to police or FBI alerts. But the city's planning tended to focus more on the subway system and sports facilities than on high rises, he said; City Hall -- like everyone else -- simply did not envision an airborne attack on the twin towers.

"There were numerous exercises, to the point where I knew all the exitways from Madison Square Garden," Lhota said.

Giuliani often cites the 1993 attack as a motivation for his creation of an Office of Emergency Management, in 1996. But those present at the agency's creation say it was intended to give the mayor oversight over more routine emergencies.

Jonathan Best interviewed for the job of leading the agency and said the subject of terrorism barely arose. "That wasn't the focus of what they were looking at," Best said. "They were interested in hurricanes. Hurricanes were big."

In 1997, the city decided to place an emergency command center for the agency on the 23rd floor of 7 World Trade Center, across from the twin towers. Several top officials argued for a lower-profile site, such as an office complex across the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn.

But Giuliani was adamant about having a site within walking distance of City Hall, recalled Jerome Hauer, then the emergency management commissioner. Hauer left City Hall in 2000 and had a falling-out with Giuliani after Sept. 11 over Hauer's endorsement of a Democrat to replace the mayor.

On Sept. 11, the $13 million center was quickly evacuated, and 7 World Trade Center collapsed later in the day.

Giuliani and his advisers have rejected criticism of the site selection, saying no one could have predicted the collapse of the towers. But Louis Anemone, a top-ranking police officer who has since retired, disagrees. The World Trade Center "was number one on our list of the most vulnerable and critical and symbolic locations in the city. The place had been attacked once before, and they had been threatening to bring those towers down again," Anemone said. "For those of us who lived and breathed this stuff day in and day out, it boggled the imagination."

'Worst Crisis in Our History'

Throughout his tenure as mayor, Giuliani had to contend with more limited incidents of politically tinged violence, often involving Islamic extremism. But, not wanting to cause undue alarm, he described the attacks as isolated events and repeatedly expressed faith in the ability of law enforcement agencies to contain any threat.

When, in 1994, a Lebanese livery car driver shot at a van carrying Hasidic students on the Brooklyn Bridge, killing one, Giuliani resisted declaring it terrorism and praised the police response. "The person who allegedly did this . . . is now going to be in a legal system that is really a very effective one," he said. When later that year a man set off a firebomb in a subway, Giuliani pushed for reinstating the death penalty, calling it the "ultimate deterrent" against terrorism.

And after the 1997 shooting atop the Empire State Building, Giuliani said it was "irresponsible" to label it terrorism, a judgment that brought criticism from the Anti-Defamation League after the gunman's anti-Israel note surfaced.

Giuliani's desire to keep terrorism in perspective could be discerned even on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the days following, when he sought to marginalize the attackers and the threat they represented. Asked on the day of the attacks whether they constituted an "act of war," he said, "I don't know that I want to use those words. . . . I'm totally confident that American democracy and the American rule of law will prevail."

In an interview later that month, he noted that one of the inexplicable things about the attacks was that, unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor, they lacked broader context: "This has no purpose," he said. "They're not going to gain freedom as a result of this. They're not going to win a war as a result. They're not going to stop us. America's not going to stop as a result of this."

But Giuliani's rhetoric changed as time went on. Campaigning for President Bush in 2004, he described the attacks as part of an existential war for survival -- "the worst crisis in our history" -- that had been going on for years, but that Clinton and others had failed to recognize. It was, he said in his speech at the 2004 GOP convention in New York, "much like observing Europe appease Hitler or trying to accommodate the Soviet Union through the use of mutually assured destruction."

On the trail this year, he has noted that the lack of awareness about terrorism was widely shared before Sept. 11. But this statement often precedes an attack on Democrats for lapsing into the "big mistake" of the 1990s. The Democratic candidates, he warned members of the National Rifle Association last week, would, if elected, cause a "slip back to the Clinton era of playing defense against Islamic terrorism. . . . That may be the single defining issue."

Lhota, the former deputy mayor, said Giuliani's shift from not dwelling on terrorism to his full-throated warnings today could be attributed to the difference between being a mayor and being a presidential candidate. "It's really the role of the [mayor] to reassure the public that the situation is under control. It's the role of national leader to tell Americans that we are vulnerable," he said.

Hauer, the former emergency commissioner, said he does not know what to make of the rhetorical shift. In the 1990s, Giuliani "wanted to play the threat down," he said. "Rudy felt like talking about [terrorism] was alarmist. He never talked about it except in reaction to something. Now he's screaming that the sky is falling."

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