With Michael Kirk
Documentary filmmaker and producer, "Frontline"
Friday, Oct. 5, 2001; 11 a.m. EDT
When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, a stunned nation asked not only who was responsible, but how could this happen? How could a nation with sophisticated intelligence and the most powerful military in the world be vulnerable?
But these were hardly the first attacks on American citizens: the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, the killing of American soldiers in a Berlin nightclub, the downing of Pan Am 103 and the first attack on the World Trade Center all followed the taking of hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran 22 years ago. In "Target America," airing on PBS Thursday, Oct. 4, at 9 p.m. EDT, Frontline examines how the U.S.'s national security community deals with enemies who have long targeted America and its citizens.
Award-winning producer and documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk produced the program, and was online to talk about the film and what he learned on Friday, Oct. 5.
The transcript follows.
Kirk, a former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard, was Frontline’s senior producer from 1983 to 1987, and has produced more than 100 national television programs. His most recent Frontline production was "LAPD Blues," which examined corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department. Other films include "The Clinton Years," a week-long co-production with ABC News on the presidency of Bill Clinton that aired in January 2001; "The Choice 2000," comparing the lives, beliefs and experiences of Vice President Gore and then-Gov. George W. Bush; "The Killer at Thurston High," the first comprehensive TV profile of high school shooter Kip Kinkel; "The Navy Blues," a 1996 Emmy Award-winning look at the post-Tailhook Navy; and "Waco -- The Inside Story," a behind-the-scenes look at the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound that won the Peabody Award in 1995.
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washingtonpost.com : Good morning, Mr. Kirk, and thanks for joining us. Your film highlighted the U.S. response to terrorist activities during the '80s -- particularly the notion that terrorist acts were incident-by-incident, not a larger problem. Why do you think that was the thinking? Do you think the U.S. government has changed its thinking and better understands how terrorist campaigns work?
Michael Kirk: Yes, I agree that the government was dealing with in a completely piecemeal fashion. It was never a priority, certainly during the Reagan administration. They were focused on the Cold War, and not the war on terror. The intelligence agencies -- CIA and FBI -- were ill equipped to deal with it, and in a process of retrenchment. There were huge divisions within our own government between the Defense Department and the State Department, which created a kind of paralysis. And the president was politically constrained by his political advisers, who didn't want him to be viewed as a cowboy out of the West.
Part of what our program did was talk about the fact that a lot of the men who are at the center of power now were at the edges of power then. So I do believe that they are aware of what happened then, and I think the United States' response indicates that they are trying to be more comprehensive in their policy. We're trying negotiation, coalition building, military buildup -- the one thing we don't seem to be able to do is the intelligence. And that's the question mark that hangs over it all, both for defensive and offensive purposes.
Arlington, Va.: How did your sources in the film feel about the U.S. policy not to recruit foreign agents with dubious backgrounds?
Michael Kirk: Certainly almost everyone agreed that we should re-visit the prohibition of assassination policy. There seemed to be agreement among most of them that our human intelligence capabilities in the Muslim world are non-existent, and that in order to be effective in this "war," we're going to have to fight it with bullets and not bombs. And that means identifying significant players in terrorist networks and killing them. Who does that? In some respects, it's Delta Force and special ops people, but it's also some pretty unsavory characters.
As people were talking to me, I kept imagining this scene from "The Godfather," where Michael Corleone crosses the line morally and uses the gun to kill the police captain and the gangster. And I can see that scene being played out in restaurants and hotel bars and airport waiting rooms all over the world now.
Platte City, Mo.: How much of our national securities failures are due to lack of funds, lack of commitment, and lack of competence?
I have been in education for more than 30 years, and in fact we did have an era of dummy down education. Could part of our over all security problem be a by-product of various illiteracies?
Michael Kirk: It's pretty clear that terrorism was back-page, back-of-the-desk stuff. Nobody at CIA, nobody at FBI came in and had it on their desk. It was definitely not a priority ever in America, except in response to something. The lesson is now that this is front of the desk for everybody all the time.
I think the fact is, at Frontline we've made 400 films and maybe 100 of them have been on foreign policy issues, including materials for the film we did last night. The ratings for those programs have always been dismal. Americans, the myth goes, especially since the Cold War, are just not interested in foreign policy. we're much more interested in our 401(k)s. Part of the reason we did the film last night was to remember history -- remember the lessons of our history. As Americans we're not real good at that, and maybe there's something to be found.
Alexandria, Va.: Your program spoke of the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah as being behind the bombings of the U.S. Marine barracks and the U.S. embassies in Beirut. Is it proven that Hezbollah operatives committed these crimes?
Michael Kirk: Certainly the Sheik Fahdlallah and Hussein Musawi, both of them Hezbollah leaders, both acknowledged that men of their group did this bombing.
Atlanta, Ga.: I was struck by how ineffectual the Reagan administration was in dealing with terrorism. If one had been paying close attention to the news in the '80s, would this have been apparent, or do we now know this only through hindsight?
Michael Kirk: You could use ineffectual, or the word I kept thinking of was "incapacitated." Despite what the president said at the very beginning of his administration, which was famous to people who were paying attention, was "a policy of swift and effective retribution." And if you would have kept a list -- swift, effective, yes or no? -- you would have discovered that it was never swift and never effective. One could argue about the Tripoli bombing, but even there I think the definition of effective is very much an open question.
Sacramento, Calif.: From the Frontline report, President Reagan appeared so ineffectual, just bouncing from one emotional response to another. What specifically were the lessons learned and how is it impacting our response to terrorism today?
Michael Kirk: The first and most important lesson is that we need better human intelligence. It's almost a cliche now, but everybody learned that. One of the lessons is that there will always be a tension between the tools of war and the tools of law, and that in a free society, in a democratic society, the natural tendency toward law may not be the most effective response to terror. A third lesson is that it's not about an individual. Winning is not about an individual In the beginning we thought it was Gaddafi, then we thought it was Abu Nidal, and now it's bin Laden. And if we get bin Laden, it will be someone else. Wanted posters with "most wanted terrorist" on them only go so far. It's thousands of people, apparently.
Buffalo, N.Y.: I always hear people who say they can't understand why people in the world are so angry at the U.S., then on Frontline they talk of the slaughter of Palestinians in Beirut as being the work of "Lebanese Christians." It seems to me that this kind of misleading news work is what gives U.S. citizens not only a false impression of history, but eliminates a point of view that we surely need to know about. How can this happen?
Michael Kirk: I agree in general that journalism has not done as good a job as it might have of informing people of the complexities of this issue. As to the specific question about the Christian Phalangists, there's no doubt that they conducted the acts in the PLO camps.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Regarding the massacre of 800 people in Lebanon -- who did the killing and who did they represent?
Michael Kirk: The Christian Phalangist forces did the killing. They represent a small portion of a fractured society where many groups are fighting as surrogates for Middle Eastern states, including Syria. The Phalangist allies were the Israelis.
Washington, D.C.: The notion that Reagan advisers like Colin Powell and Dick Cheney were hypersensitive to the Vietnam syndrome makes sense, but clearly it hopelessly hindered our ability to deal with certain threats. Do you think we've changed?
Michael Kirk: Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, one week after the tragic events of Sept. 11, said in so many words that the Powell/Weinberger doctrine no longer applied. So what that means in practical terms is that the United States government may, after nearly 30 years, feel we can take large numbers of military casualties and cause large numbers of civilian casualties (collateral damage) if the cause is just (in the national strategic interest) and the politicians will support the price it will take to win. Rumsfeld's announcement indicated that he believed that those were the conditions that exist in the country now.
Wiredog: I found it interesting that Libya reduced its attacks, and became much more cooperative, after the U.S. military paid Tripoli a visit. That would indicate that a strong response is an effective deterrent.
Michael Kirk: Clearly, that was the lesson Defense Secretary Weinberger and others in our program last night believed. There is the unanswered but apparent reaction, however, by Libya, namely the bombing of Pan Am 103 two and a half years later, that would indicate that Gaddafi believed in the old adage that "revenge is a meal best served cold."
New York, N.Y.: Given what we know now about terrorists' motives and plans vs. what we knew in the '80s, what do you think should be the strategy in this "war on terrorism"?
Michael Kirk: I personally don't have a strategy. I know what the people who we interviewed believe. They believe we need connection to the Muslim world in order to understand the problems, anticipate the attacks, undermine the effectiveness and kill the enemy.
Washington, D.C.: Have you considered drawing any parallels from the terrorists to someone like Kip Kinkel and looking at the rise of nihilism in general, from violent protesters to popular music? It's starting to feel like a Dostoevsky novel.
Michael Kirk: Now I know what I'm going to spend my time thinking about this weekend.
Boston, Mass.: It seems that Reagan was guilty of many of the same things that Clinton is now blasted for -- Reagan relied on bombing Gaddafi and shelling the Shouf mountains rather than sending ground forces into the Bekaa Valley. And the emotionalism of Reagan's response led to some pretty dumb things -- like giving Iran arms in order to have them return hostages (and take more). Yet it seems the account of history will much harsher on Clinton than Reagan (or Bush 41).
Michael Kirk: There are no neat parallels in history. In context, Reagan tried, against an onslaught of terror, a variety of approaches -- all unsuccessful. By President Clinton's time, the nation and its politicians, bewildered and defeated by those 1980s attacks on Americans, had come to believe that the tools of law enforcement were more effective. 41 and 42 [Bush and Clinton] both used these tools in the Pan Am 103, the first World Trade Center bombing, the two African embassy bombings and the Kobhar Towers bombing to little effect, as can easily be proven by the Sept. 11 events. But comparisons of presidents and their preoccupations -- Reagan (Cold War); Bush (Gulf War); Clinton (Lewinsky) -- show the difficulty of that effort.
Washington, D.C.: Why do you think terrorism has been so difficult for Americans to understand?
Michael Kirk: Because at least this new kind is not about acquiring land or winning wars in the conventional sense. This is a fundamental war where people who have come through a time machine from 600 years ago have looked at our modern society and decided they don't like what they see. And they want to end it. Most Americans can't even fathom that anybody would not understand the profit motive of a two-car garage, television sets and all the accoutrements of modern life -- education for your daughters, women in the workplace, equal rights, civil liberties, and all the elements of a free society.
Oshkosh, Wis.: It seems to me that some people think a retaliation will result in less terror. Like in the film last night where Reagan decided not to raid the the Hezbollah from the air at the last second and bombed them from the ship instead. Aren't we playing with fire by indiscriminately going into places where our intelligence is sketchy and bombing people?
Michael Kirk: No question about it. It's one of the fundamental lessons learned from history. But to look too cautious is to look too weak. And that's why George W. Bush is not going to Crawford, Tex., with any regularity any more.
washingtonpost.com: Did CIA director William Casey's decisions to act on his own hamstring the agency?
Michael Kirk: It seems to me, and to at least one of our guests on the program last night, that if you want Muslim people to help you with your intelligence, you probably should be careful about what you do in covert ways to get even. Clearly, the car bombing of the mosque enflamed many otherwise moderate Muslims who we may have been able to rely on. I think that's a very important thing to worry about.
Washington, D.C.: Thank you for an insightful film. It was at its best in describing how U.S. officials understood the threat of terrorism in the 1980s, how they decided on responses, and what they intended to communicate and accomplish with those responses.
Given the necessity of partnering with allies in the Arab world for the renewed fight against terrorism, I found myself wanting to know more about how Arabs and Islamists reacted to these responses and to U.S. policy, in particular how moderates interpreted the air strikes, etc. What obstacles might one face in putting together such a documentary?
Michael Kirk: I am thinking about that film. And the first stop on your journey is Saudi Arabia. And then Egypt. And the first thing you learn is just how really complicated it all is. And how fragile the royal family in Saudi Arabia are, and Mubarak is in Egypt. Those two places are the undoing of anything that could happen in that part of the world if we destabilize them. And yet, almost anything we do there is fraught with that potential. So as a filmmaker, it's a little bit like capturing shadows on film.
Los Angeles, Calif.: How much hate and terrorism is aimed at the U.S. because of Israel?
Michael Kirk: I have a feeling, and it's just a feeling, that the bin Laden people and the other believers of Wahhabism (a very small orthodox conservative sect of Islam) are less interested in Israel and the United States and PLO politics than something much more fundamental. This is a holy war against secularism and all that it entails.
Arlington, Va.: I don't want to sound like I'm condoning the spate of spontaneous violent acts against Arabs (or Arab-looking) people in the U.S., but in watching the program I was struck by the continuity, the history of Arab-Muslim terror against the U.S. and the Western world. Now it's all very well that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 Arab-Muslim leaders have joined hands with their ecumenical colleagues to declare that Islam is about peace, but where were they on September 10, or before?
To go back in time, I remember reading accounts when the U.S. attacked Libya that the Arab League convened immediately to condemn the action unilaterally, which was followed by a series of clandestine visits from Arab officials to U.S. embassies to convey "between you and me, way to go!"
I am with Baroness Thatcher in saying that Muslim leaders have not expressed nearly enough remorse.
Michael Kirk: I think generalizing about Muslims or Arabs, given the tremendous numbers of them, and like all complicated human groups, there are varieties of political sects and religious sects and everything else, is a bit like saying all Catholics are IRA bombers. And I just think that's a mistake. And we should be careful.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: If this is true, “almost half of the identified groups, 26 out of 56, were classified as religiously motivated; the majority of these espoused Islam as their guiding force” and if bin Laden is, “not strictly a political person. ... he is also a spiritual person, ... he believes that he's getting guidance from God,” has there been any attempt to build coalitions with the more moderate religious leaders of Islam to criticize, condemn and reduce the power base of the radical groups; an attempt to bring the radical group members back into the mainstream. Certainly, economic aid, medical aid and education aid can support such efforts.
Michael Kirk: I completely agree. There has to be, at this present time, real efforts to do exactly those things. That is the linchpin of Colin Powell's philosophy.
New York, N.Y.: Do you think that terrorism would subside or disappear completely if the U.S. were to withdraw from the Middle East entirely and adopted an isolationist policy?
Michael Kirk: I think everything we seem to know, which admittedly may not be very much, is that these people seem determined to bring this fight to us now. And clearly we have declared war on them, and so we may be too far down the road after Sept. 11 to back up.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the
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