Ignatius: So, ladies and gentlemen, as the lights come up and the real people are on stage—I’m David Ignatius. I’m a columnist for The Washington Post. I’d say this is a much better turnout than we get when we have politicians or cabinet secretaries here. [LAUGHTER] I wonder why that is. But it’s a delight. Let me first say what a pleasure it is to have everybody from this team here, especially my old friend Larry Wright, who I’ve known for many years. And I should say, also, especially to have the real-life Ali Soufan, who you’ve just seen portrayed on screen. But somebody who lived this fight in real life and whose struggle is documented in the film. So it’s wonderful to have everybody here.
Second, I should just note that we at The Washington Post are delighted to host this. We’re still journalists. We’re going to let our critics review The Looming Tower. We’re going to let our journalists write about the issues that are discussed here, but we’re delighted to have everyone here. I want to start off with Larry, whose book, The Looming Tower is how this began. It won a Pulitzer Prize and is an absolutely seminal work in the history we’ve lived through. I, watching this, was haunted by a question that I think many people will be, which is if Osama bin Laden, the other side of the story that you’re telling, were alive today, would he say that he ended up winning or losing the battle that he joined on that terrible day, September 11th, 2001?
Wright: Well, the battle isn’t over and, you know, it’s a mixed thing because from his point of view, yes, right after 9-11, Al-Qaeda was scattered and in disgrace and rebuked by every country in the world, including every Muslim country and, you know, that was the nadir. And from that moment, Al-Qaeda began to reconstitute itself. It’s a far larger organization today and far more sophisticated than it was before 9-11 and it’s in so many countries and it’s spawned not just Al-Qaeda, but ISIS and other groups have proliferated.
And I think he would also take credit for polarizing America and the Muslim world. This has been his object from the very beginning and it’s striking to me how we take the bait. On the other hand, he’s provoked a crisis inside Islam that I don’t think he understood the dimensions of it and it’s going to define that religion in the future. But I do not think it’s going to be defined on the terms that he would like for it to be.
Ignatius: I’ll take that as a positive conclusion. Certainly, I think about Saudi Arabia and the way it’s changing. It’s not the Saudi Arabia that bin Laden won—
Wright: Yeah, just a few years ago, yeah. It’s just amazing how quickly it’s changing.
Ignatius: So let me turn to Ali Soufan, the real-life former FBI special agent who lived this story. And Ali, I want to ask you about the basic dynamic that runs through this series, which is the deep tension, the antagonism. Sometimes bitter, bitter rivalry between the FBI and the CIA. The series opens with that very stark accusation and these problems were supposed to be fixed by the 9-11 Commission’s recommendation that we create a new structure, that we have a director of National Intelligence who would force the FBI and the CIA to cooperate. You watched this as closely as anyone. Has that worked? Are the problems that this series is about; have those problems been solved?
Soufan: Yes, absolutely. I think you cannot look at the relationship between the different intelligence agencies today in the same way that we used to operate before 9-11. And let me mention something about 9-11; at least from my side, before when we were doing operations, like what you’ve seen in Albania or what we’ve seen in Jordan or in the East Africa embassy bombing or in Yemen. We were working very closely together, the FBI and the CIA. I was more detailed to the CIA than detailed to the FBI. My actually first partner on the JTTF was a CIA case officer. I thought everything was fine and dandy, so when we were requesting information that we want because of the Yemen investigation on the USS Cole, we thought that when people tell us, “We don’t have it”, we don’t have it. And on September 12th, actually, I was handed intelligence that I had been asking for since November and we were told, “Not have it.”
It wasn’t an institutional. For me, it was the death of innocence, honestly. It was an institutional issue as it was we thought everything was going great. But then we found out that things were not going great. So you start to have to look at everything that happened before in a totally different perspective. The situation today is a lot better, especially after the restructuring of the intelligence community. I think the FBI and the CIA have an excellent working relationship and they are on the same sheet of music. You’ve seen it today. For example, with all of the intelligence chiefs talking about the Russians; cyber-attacks against the U.S., the CIA, the FBI, NSA. Everyone is basically on the same sheet of music on this.
Ignatius: So I want to just briefly read you something that George Tenet, who was CIA director during the events that are described here wrote in his memoir. He discusses these issues of the rivalry, anger. The CIA has its own version of this. But he says, “While our cultures and missions may have been different, there was no difference in the heartfelt way CIA officers and FBI special agents tried to protect the country.” At the end of the day, is that accurate, in your judgment or—
Soufan: Actually, I support him 100% with that specific statement. However, if you look at the CIA-IG Report, Inspector General Report on 9-11, they hold Mr. Tenet and a few other people in the agency accountable for what happened on 9-11. So it wasn’t the CIA officers in the field who are putting their life on the line with the FBI agents that they are working within Yemen or Albania or in Afghanistan or in Pakistan. We were working together. We were in the same vehicles. We were debriefing the same sources. We were doing the same operations. It wasn’t that. It was a more a systematic problem at the top and I think the CIA IG —I don’t want to say what the FBI IG is saying about that because you’re going to say, “Well, you’re an FBI agent. You’re taking the FBI’s side.” I’m talking about the CIA Inspector General Report in the declassified summary of their investigation.
They found out, number one that information was not shared with the FBI in a timely manner. And number two, the DCI, who is—I think at the time was Mr. Tenet—
Ignatius: Indeed it was.
Soufan: Few senior members were to be held accountable for the tragic events that took place on 9-11.
Ignatius: So I want to turn to Jeff Daniels. Jeff, as you’ve just seen, plays the person who is, in a sense, the dark hero of this story. An extraordinary FBI special agent in New York who was driven by this. A swashbuckling. I don’t need to tell the audience. You just watched Jeff play the role—
Daniels: I swashed a buckle or two. [LAUGHTER]
Ignatius: So I want to read you something that appeared in The Washington Post’s review of Larry’s book back in 2006 about the character that you’re playing. Our reviewer said, “By all accounts, O’Neill was a larger-than-life figure: a Damon Runyon-esque type who J. Edgar Hoover reportedly complained dressed more like a mobster than a G-man.” So my question is: How did you get your midn around playing somebody who looked like a mobster, but was an FBI man and that this extraordinary, somewhat out-of-control personal life?
Daniels: Well, that was the reason to take it. I read the first episode. I read that and committed because I’d never played it before. I didn’t have a clue how to do that. I had never played a character like that and I loved the challenge of it. I immediately started talking to his partners, talked to Ali, and talked to a bunch of his guys quite a bit; Mark Rossini, guys like that, who just went into the—“Here’s where John was great. Here’s where he was weak. Here’s where he was a complete asshole, and here’s where he is a hero.” You got the full spectrum from those guys and Larry’s book and the scripts and you’re going, “Okay, I think I can do this.” And I jumped off the cliff and then you get Peter, Tahar around. You get actors who bring it and now you can pretend you’re in that room with them. It really felt as real as we could possibly make it because of all of the research and then all of the help you have from the other actors.
I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but it worked.
Ignatius: Do you think, Jeff, that it would have taken an SOB like John O’Neill to have stopped bin Laden. As we know, O’Neill was, in the end, forced out of the Bureau. But did it take someone like that to try to make this work?
Daniels: He certainly tried and he went there and he turned over tables and screamed and yelled, because, at the end of the day, he knew he was right. Correct?
Daniels: That meant if I have to be that and probably not a political bone in his body down here in Washington and he’s slamming into the CIA and ripping on Richard Clarke, whose patience with him was almost fatherly. Yeah.
Ignatius: I could ask you what John O’Neill would think to see the FBI being pounded in public today, but we’re going to—
Daniels: What would he say?
Soufan: I don’t know. You’re John O’Neill. [LAUGHTER]
Ignatius: So let me turn to the fictional Ali Soufan, who is Tahar Rahim, who is in our mezzanine tier here. So you have the opportunity to play this man and I want to ask you to explain how you got to understand him and, in your presentation, as I said to you, what makes him tick? With a watch or something that makes it tick, what makes this man tick as you as an actor tried doing?
Rahim: It’s hard to say. No, first, I picked this part when we talked and there’s a funny story about it. When I got the two first episodes and read them I was—I didn’t know if I wanted to do it because I always take time, so I talked with Dan and Alex on Skype and at some point, I said, “I didn’t know really.” So I said, “I’m going to call Ali.” And Ali is my agent, right? It’s not the real one. And I said, “Okay, we can set a Skype call.” And I was like, “But I got his number. Why do you want to do that?” And I said, “We can do it with Ali Soufan.” I said, “Okay.” I was like, “All right.” And then we talked and he started to tell me about his life and what’s going to happen after these two episodes; I mean, the real story.
And over the course of that conversation, I started to understand what they were talking and—what they were saying? And I wanted to do it, so when I went to New York to prepare, I met Ali and I have to say that he really welcomed me as a brother. So we started to talk about everything. About his life with its limit, and about his private life because when you work as an FBI agent, you have to compose private and professional life and I wanted to know more about his values and everything because, for me, it was more important to portray his soul than the way he talks or he walks.
Ignatius: It’s a wonderful performance, as you’ll see in later episodes. Ali is always leaving his girlfriend in the lurch. [LAUGHTER]
Soufan: She’s my wife now. [LAUGHTER] Did I destroy the season? Oh, sorry. You know what happens.
Ignatius: She must really love you. [LAUGHTER] So next to Tahar is Peter Sarsgaard who plays a character that you’ve just seen named Martin Schmidt. He bears more than a fleeting resemblance to another real-life person whose initials are the same, but we won’t go into that. I want you to tell us about Schmidt. In this argument between the CIA and the FBI, Schmidt would argue that the FBI doesn’t understand what this is. That the FBI is treating this as a law enforcement issue and this is a war. Voice some of what that character thinks and how you got your mind around them.
Sarsgaard: It’s lonely to be the smartest guy in the room. [LAUGHTER] And I say that like—and I really do believe that’s the experience that I’m having and a lot of it is that first of all, if I share with the FBI everything I know, and these people are going to go out and arrest sources, you know, is the idea, or they’re going to mess up the investigation. But it’s also this sense of being someone who really is very, very, very intelligent and has accolades. There are people around me reinforcing that all the time. They happen to be all women. Has his own separate place, Alec Station. So he’s got his own little universe and it’s like tunnel vision and a tunnel vision that has a certainty to it. So when anyone comes into that world, they’re stepping into my universe and they know nothing about it from my mind.
Ignatius: Partly because you won’t let them know anything about it.
Sarsgaard: Yeah, but it’s almost like the sense that they can’t possibly understand it, David. [LAUGHTER]
Ignatius: I felt that. [LAUGHTER]
Sarsgaard: And sometimes it even feels like a burden. I think a lot of us in some small way do this where we are the heroes of our own lives and the story that you tell about your life from birth to this moment is a hero’s journey. And maybe not all of us have that, but this guy really has that in spades and the world is against him and he’s on a mission that no one else can understand. And I think that my heart is in some ways in the right place. I want some of the same things that he wants. But to me, he’s really inept and he is going to completely eff this thing up if I share anything. And I don’t know. It was great fun to play, I have to say.
I felt like I empowered myself playing it. I was—I had no superior. In some scenes and they would hand out these little badges you had to wear when you went into the Oval Office or whatever and I would be like, “I don’t need this thing.” [LAUGHTER] I’m like, “Don’t put any stuff on me.” I could wear whatever I wanted to wear. I didn’t have to dress up for any scene. That’s him calling now. [LAUGHTER] But the characters that this is based on have been much maligned and I’ve been given this task before as an actor to play someone who on the surface of things is not a very nice fellow, but we’re all born, we all die, and your job as an actor is to figure out why you’re there at that moment and what they want. And I do believe that what he wanted was to be of use to his country. And I don’t think he thought even that we should be in any of this.
I think deep down, he was an isolationist like someone else who supposedly is an isolationist who is running this country. [LAUGHTER] But like that idea of like, “We could just leave Saudi Arabia. We could just leave Egypt. We could just leave Israel all alone, come back here, mind our own business, and it would all be fine.”
Ignatius: One of the fascinating dynamics of this story is that the two people who see this coming; see the looming tower ahead, in Larry’s phrase. Larry and I were talking about this earlier really are your two characters; the Martin Schmidt character and the John O’Neill character. They each see the danger. They do very different things about it, but it’s fascinating. So one of your acolytes, as you said. [LAUGHS]. One of the people who is supporting you is played by Wrenn Schmidt. She plays a CIA officer named Diane Marsh. And I’m fascinated to know how you read into this role. Claire Danes in another unnamed—I don’t know what that series is called. [LAUGHTER] Has taught us that women are significant players in the modern CIA. But I’m curious about how you got into that, what you learned about the way that women operate in the agency in its very particular culture and how you brought that into the character.
Schmidt: Well, for me, the first place I always start is the script because that feels like that’s my roadmap. So before I kind of go searching for ideas, I really want to kind of investigate and dive into what the character is doing and how they’re behaving and how they’re reacting to certain circumstances when they choose to speak, not speak. The fact that she has this almost worshipful way of interacting with her boss because she sees his fearlessness, his clarity, his brilliance, and is fascinated by that. But also feels very much in sync with that. So for me, that’s always the starting point, and then after that, it just felt like a headlong deep dive into research in such a way that I felt like I wouldn’t feel like a fraud playing a CIA officer, which I have to say, I think we all feel a fair amount of responsibility in telling the story and the gravity of this story.
So for me, that was kind of paramount initially was how do I learn enough to speak these words so that I can feel like I can imbue them with the weight that they are due. So that was really the beginning for me, but I don’t have like a set idea of what a CIA officer should be because I also feel like they’re people doing a job and I haven’t seen Homeland. So I really don’t have Claire Danes in my mind. I haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty. So for me, it was very fresh, and it was about what makes a person in this particular environment who is female succeed and very much have a presence. What is that? So for me, those were all of the starting points and at that point, I think you just jump off the cliff and you hope for magic on the day when you’re in a room with other actors and that you can be open to what’s happening. So it wasn’t about an idea—
Ignatius: Say just a word about your research. You went and did a deep dive and you researched. How did you do that? Did you hang out across the river at a certain—
Schmidt: I got some binoculars. [LAUGHTER] So Larry’s book was the starting point for me and then I read Steve Colls’ book Ghost Wars, which I felt like helped me really kind of understand what kind of led to where Afghanistan was as a country in the ‘90s and what U.S. policy was towards Afghanistan at that time, what it was like to be in the CIA fighting the Soviet Union during the Cold War, etc., etc. And then I spoke with a CIA officer who was—she was an operational officer so for me, I really wanted to understand also what was the culture. How do the two departments—or not departments. I feel like in some ways I still don’t understand the terminology. How does the intelligence side as far as an analyst goes, interact with the operational side? So it all kind of started there and then it was like, “Okay, throw that all away now that you feel like you have some kind of understanding and just go back to the script and really let go with this guy.”
Ignatius: So I want to turn, finally, to the two producers of this series, who with Hulu, made it happen. Alex Gibney and Dan Futterman. And I want to ask each of you to just share with us what you take away from this story that you’ve been living with. Larry said in introducing tonight’s performance that he thought this was the right time because 9-11 is receding. It’s possible now for us to talk about it. It was too painful awhile ago. But also, there are a lot of people who don’t really—who were so young they don’t remember it. So Alex, and then Dan, tell us what you take away from the project, what you think the lessons are. Alex?
Gibney: Sure. Well, one of the things that so intrigued me about this and I had worked with Larry together on a film about his one-man play, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, which was all about the writing of The Looming Tower and what attracted me about that, but then particularly for this, was the idea of this story as an origin story. So much of our lives now are defined by the mess that has become the Middle East and so much that we started or that we were victims of and then reacted to. But if you look at the origin story, it’s galvanizing and simplifying in some essential way that allows you to better understand where we’re at in the present. That was one thing. I think the other thing, too, was that framing this story as a kind of conflict between the FBI and the CIA sheds a lot of light on some of the issues that we’re dealing with right now in terms of people in the government who should be working together to solve simple problems have either political or institutional agendas that are preventing them from doing that. So for both of those reasons, it seemed very present and also, riveting that as an origin story, you could understand it better than you could by trying to come at it in the present time.
Ignatius: Dan, let me ask you to address the same question. I want to add one more point to my set of takeaways. And it’s really the most visceral one, which is whether you think at the end of this story that the truth is that 9-11 was preventable; that it didn’t have to happen. It happened because of mistakes.
Futterman: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I think that families of the victims of 9-11 have been asking those kinds of questions for 17 years and we try to answer some of those questions, and when they’re not answerable, we try to ask those questions again loudly and clearly. For me, that was not a primary interest in writing this. The primary interest was working with Larry and Alex, who I had been a fan of for a long time and telling these parallel stories of an acolyte and a mentor. But also, telling Ali’s story of a Muslim-American hero; an immigrant from Lebanon, a teenage immigrant from Lebanon who would probably have a hard time getting into the country these days. And who is very possibly the most patriotic person I know.
He uses the phrase all the time “my country this, my country that”. I don’t know anybody who does that. He’s talking about the United States; he’s not talking about Lebanon and we tried to add in a story of a man who is trying to wrest his religion back from people who are trying to hijack it. And we added in as he is doing that, an increasing devotional aspect, which to horror, has possibly a little bit more than the real Ali Soufan. And became an interesting threat to explore. It’s a parallel thread that John O’Neill has; an increasing interest in Catholicism that he had left behind. Those are the things that interested me, whether those are the takeaways that people have, I don’t know.
Ignatius: Each of you made powerful points of the resonance of this story 17 years ago or more with what’s going on now, the centrality of a Muslim-American in the investigation; the difficulty then and now of making our government work smoothly. I want to close this by coming back to Larry, whose book I think really has been a kind of benchmark in our debate about 9-11 and just ask you whether you think we’re condemned to be in these cycles of reaction to the terrible violence that’s done to us and then we fight back. We’ve watched that in Iraq. We’ve watched that in Afghanistan. Do you think there’s a way for the United States to escape that cycle? And just say a little bit about how you think that might happen.
Wright: Well, I’ve thought a lot about this. I don’t have an easy solution because it’s so tragic that we’ve done such a poor job of learning lessons. So one would say, “Oh, look what happened to us. We’ll never do that again”, and then we do it again. And the pessimistic side of me says, “Yeah, we’ll finally stop doing it when we’re broke and our status in the world is diminished and then we could no longer try to be a force for good in the world because we’ve been wasting ourselves on efforts that are going nowhere. That’s one way in which the scenario you were talking about would come about. Another way would be for Americans to decide that, “Wait a minute. Let’s stop and reappraise our role in the world, what we are capable of doing and the effect of our presence; a lot of times we don’t know the powerful effect that America has in the rest of the world and we don’t understand why we get this incredible blowback. When you’re out in the world, you see America on the horizon. But when you’re in America, you don’t see the world that way and I think another thing is we have to have a powerful exchange of cultures.
And having students traveling, all this sort of thing, getting to know the world. It’s so shocking to me still how little Americans know about the rest of the world and the arrogance that we have about thinking that we can fix cultures that we totally don’t understand. That’s why we get into these fixes that we’re in. so educating ourselves about the rest of the world, assuming a more sober stance about what we can do. And then finally, remembering who we are. I think one of the things about 9-11 is that fear took over our country and we began to act out of fear and we lashed out and moreover, we began to create a kind of security state that is very different from the America that we all grew up in. Young people don’t know about how America was before 9-11. The ordinary freedoms that we had. I remember going in high school, taking my girlfriend on a date to the airport because I didn’t have any money. But we walked out on the tarmac and we climbed into some airplane that was just flown in from Paris and they served us a snack. [LAUGHTER] And we went up in the FAA tower. “Hey, kids. Come on in.” That America is dead and terrorism killed it, but if we forget that America, then I think in some vital way, the terrorists have won.
Ignatius: So that’s a perfect way to end our conversation. This is a show that will begin. Now that you’ve seen—you’ve had the tease. Now, you can watch this story unfold. I just want to thank all of the people on stage with me for being here tonight, the creative work they’ve done. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]