The 9/11 Terrorists
With John Miller
ABC Journalist and Author
Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2002; 2 p.m. EDT
Why, with all the information the intelligence community had, was no one able to stop the terrorist attacks on 9/11? Who is Osama bin Laden and how did he become the leader of the al Qaeda terrorist network? How were the 19 hijackers able to avoid detection throughout the planning stages?
ABC journalist John Miller was online to discuss the attacks, al Qaeda, and his book "The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot, and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop it."
Miller is an Emmy Award winning broadcast journalist and co-host of ABC's 20/20 with Barbara Walters. He is also one of the few Western reporters ever to have interviewed Osama bin Laden.
The transcript follows.
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Arlington, Va.: How long was the 9/11 plan in the works? Are there any points along the way where the CIA/FBI should have known something big was going to occur?
John Miller: The 9/11 plan was in the works from at least 1999. There were some opportunities for the FBI and the CIA. Number one the much discussed Phoenix Memo. Number Two the arrest of Mr. Moussouia. Number three the fact that the CIA had discussed with the FBI the possibility of finding members of al Qaeda who attended a terrorist meeting Malaysia but by the time they had those discussions, two of them were already here and taking flight training. There is no telling if any one of these things would have prevented the plot had it been handled differently. But had all three of them been caught you have to wonder if they would have been put onto the hijackers earlier.
Washington, D.C.: John,
A few years ago when you interviewed Osama Bin Laden, were you really afraid for your life? I would imagine that certainly must have been running through your mind the whole time -- before, during, and even after that interview.
John Miller: At the time we wondered about safety issues because once we met our contacts and began to travel we knew that we didn't know who the people were or where they were taking us. But in the back of my mind I kept reminding myself that if bin Laden was going to see us he probably had something to say and wanted that message to get back so I felt we were pretty safe.
Maryland: Just some comments. Why all the second guessing about what the FBI/CIA/Federal government knew/failed to act upon with the intel. it had prior to 9/11? Think back to 9/10: any attempt to stop and investigate Middle Eastern, Muslim males in their 20's and 30's would have raised cackles about "racial profiling" and been severely criticized. Moreover, there was an ingrained culture, in no small measure thanks to Senator Frank Church, of the CIA and FBI not talking to each other, because by law essentially, they could not! Why don't we just admit the obvious, that the terrorists did great harm to us by exploiting our weaknesses and taking advantage of the freedoms that we have taken for granted for so long?
John Miller: Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.
New York, N.Y.: Although we were not prepared to stop the attacks of 9/11, we have devoted a lot of resources to stopping future attacks. How well do you think we'll do?
John Miller: It appears that we have already prevented one such attack (the dirty bomber) but the government by taking every piece of intelligence anbout a threat and broadcasting it has probably accomplished two things, 1) to frighten a whole lot of people, and 2) that attacks that may have been planned were cancelled because terrorists found that their plans had been leaked. Either way the government seems to be taking the position better safe than sorry.
Sandusky, Ohio: There are a lot of rumors floating around, maybe you can dispel or shed light. First, do authorities now believe that other flights indeed were planned to be a part of the 9/11 attack but, for some reason, these other planned hijackings were thwarted or aborted (e.g., by the grounding of all flights)? Second, what about the report that a gun was used on a passenger by a hijacker on one of the flights?
John Miller: I have never heard that a gun was used on any of the flights hijacked on Sept. 11.
There were many strange incidents on Sept. 11th involving suspicious passengers and their contacts with flight crews when planes were suddenly grounded. Even on Sept. 12th when the government began to resume flights in U.S. airspace there were suspicious incidents at Kennedy Airport that some still believe may have involved another attempt. Ultimately the people detained and questioned in that case were cleared, but some police officers who work at the airport still wonder if all the answers came out.
Washington, D.C.: We hear a lot about Osama Bin Laden being the hero to a lot of young people in the Middle East and Africa. Do you know if the actual hijackers are also recognized as heroes in certain parts?
John Miller: I spent time in Saudi Arabia and Beirut where people told me not long after 9/11 that they thought that it was a terrible act. In the same breath they then voiced suspicions that the hijackers were put up to the job by America or Israel so it was hard to gauge public opinion in the Middle East where so many people trade in conspiracy theories about everything.
Washington, D.C.: According to Breakdown: How America's Intelligence Failures Led to September 11
by Bill Gertz, the lack of Arabic-speakers was the most damaging aspect. Is this true?
John Miller: It remains one of their largest problems and while they have just now, post Sept. 11, set out on a recruiting drive the vetting process and security clearance for such hires can take more than a year. So we still haven't seen enough translators who understand Arabic, Farsi, Peshtun and other languages and dialects to make a real difference in the backlog in materials.
Arlington, Va.: What political goals, exactly, is Al Queda trying to achieve through terror? Unlike Hamas & IRA, for example, there isn't really an occupying power they're trying to evict (except in some vague cultural sense). Unlike Mao & Shining Path, they don't seem to be targeting the overthrow of any particular government. It doesn't really seem simply a cult of personality, either.
From what you know, what kind of debate goes on inside Al Qaeda about the specific political purposes of their activities?
John Miller: Bin Laden framed three main goals when we sat down in 1998. Number one, the US military has to leave Saudi Arabia (where its bases are intended to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq). Number two, was that the US should end its support of Israel - especially as it affected the Palestinians. Number three, was an immediate end to the US bombing in Iraq.
Since then, as bin Laden's terror has escalated, the goal seems to have shifted into baiting the US into declaring war on Islam. What he got instead was the US declaring war on al Qaeda.
Pennsylvania: Are there other emerging leaders we should be aware of? Another Osama? -Joe
John Miller: No one with his sphere of influence and/or money, but anticipating that he might be killed in an American attack, it appears bin Laden set up and infrastructure so other al Qaeda leaders would pick up the mantle and have access to the money.
Alexandria, Va.: What was Saddam Hussein's involvement in Sept. 11, if any?
John Miller: None that I know of.
John Miller: However there was a great deal of discussion of an alleged meeting between the hijacker's ringleader Muhammad Atta and a Iraqi intelligence official in Checkoslovakia. CIA sources say they no longer believe the man seen with the Iraqi intelligence official was Atta and have discounted the lead.
Alexandria, Va.: What is the connection between the bombing of the World Trade Center a decade ago and the attack on Sept. 11?
Did two independent Islamic groups coincidentally choose the same target?
John Miller: If you follow the thread forward at the time the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993 bin Laden was paying for the living expenses of the blind sheik named Rachman who inspired the bombers. The bombers were also members of bin Laden's Afghan services office located in the mosque where Rachman was preaching jihad. Bin Laden even donated $20,000 to the defense fund of one of the suspects in a homicide that occurred before the bombing. Some of that money allegedly went to supplies to build the bomb. At the time very few people, even in the counter terrorism world, understood who bin Laden was or what significance he had to the group.
Virginia: Is the FBI and CIA mostly reactive or proactive organizations?
John Miller: They have gotten a lot more proactive since Sept. 11. The FBI's main function was to gather evidence for prosecution and make cases. The CIA's main function was to conduct "disruptions" to foul up the terrorists plans before they could strike. Now both agencies seem much more on the same page -- that it is better to prevent any act of terrorism, even at the expense of being able to make a case in court.
New York: Did you realize how serious Osama's threats were back when you interviewed him? - Mark
John Miller: At the time the fact that this man on this mountain was declaring war against a superpower and claiming that he would bring a "black day" for America sounding pretty hyperbolic. Looking back it appears that maybe we should have declared war back on bin Laden a lot sooner.
Washington, D.C.: What role did failures of our immigration policies play in allowing the September 11 hijackers into the country in the first place?
John Miller: The highjackers were here for the most part on student visas. There was no effort made to confirm once a person was here on a student visa if in fact they were studying anything. Some of that is being changed. But more than the problem with immigration was that the CIA had the names of two of the 19 highjackers and waited 17 months before putting on the terrorist watch list that would have prevented them from entering the country. By the time they were added to the list two of them were already here and in flight school.
Silver Spring, Md.: Do you think that television networks will or should eliminate commercials during broadcasts on the one year anniversary of 9/11?
John Miller: I think that many of them will.
Washington, D.C.: Does it seem to you (as it seems to me) that we are constantly fighting the last battle in this war on terrorism? NOW we start checking shoes at the airport. NOW we vet foreigners applying to flight school. NOW we remove the nail files from carryon luggage. Is there anyway to get ahead of the terrorists, or is this the way it works?
John Miller: Ultimately all of these measures are not the real answer. Until there is some kind of lasting or meaningful peace achieved in the Middle East the terrorism that has plagued us in this decade will most likely continue to be an ugly fact of life.
Bethesda, Md.: The video that CNN recently showed shows Bin Laden was heavily guarded. Does that assume that he was not safe even in his own camp?
John Miller: Bin Laden believed that there were plots on his life by the American government and the Saudi government, so to some extent that may have been true. In the case of the U.S. government, there were plans on the table to have a special forces team capture bin Laden. The plan was never enacted because it was believed that casualties would have been high and the possibilities of success very low.
John Miller: I would like to thank everyone for joining the chat and for the insightful questions. If you are interested in the secret history behind the U.S. war on terrorism you should read The Cell. It is not only a good story in that it reveals the missteps that led to Sept. 11th but it is also a detective story about the cops and agents of the Joint Terrorism Task Force
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