The 9/11 Commission Report – Now What?
MSNBC: The Abrams Report
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DAN ABRAMS, HOST: First up on the docket tonight, the 9/11 Commission releases its final report on, among other things, the government's failures before and during September 11 and its recommendations for waging a war on Islamic terror that could last for decades. Other programs tonight will talk to the commissioners about the details of their report. They say that no one took the threat seriously enough. On this program, we are going to talk to some of the people who warned, in vain about the threat of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in the months and years before 9/11. …
Now, before I ask my guests about their warnings, discussions about al Qaeda before 9/11, I want them to talk about that litany of failures and the rest of the commission's report. Coleen Rowley is the FBI special agent from the Minneapolis office who blew the whistle on the agency's failed Moussaoui investigation in a letter to director Robert Mueller. She joins us from Minneapolis for her first interview on the commission.
Steve Emerson is a terrorism expert, MSNBC analyst, the author of "American Jihad" and Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum, author of four books on militant Islam. Both Daniel Pipes and Steve Emerson wrote articles before 9/11 about the dangers to come.
Coleen Rowley, let me start with you. First, your initial reaction to this description of all of the failures before 9/11. Based on what you know of the report, does it seem that their focus was in the right place?
COLEEN ROWLEY, FBI SPECIAL AGENT: Yeah, I think that from what I know, the mistakes and issues that went into 9/11 were many and were quite intertwined so to unravel all of that, I think took a lot of diligence on the part of the 9/11 Commission.
ABRAMS: Let me read to you with regard to the FBI what they wrote specifically. They say the most serious weakness among Federal agencies were in the domestic arena. The FBI and I'm quoting, did not have the capability to link the collective knowledge of agents in the field to national priorities. Other domestic agencies deferred to the FBI Do you agree?
ROWLEY: Before 9/11, the FBI was more in a criminal investigative mode with regard to terrorism than it was in intelligence gathering mode. So that part is accurate.
ABRAMS: And as you see this and as you see the amount of work that they have done here to sort of figure out what went wrong, et cetera, is it a relief to you, frustrating to you? What is your reaction on the whole to seeing this document finally released?
ROWLEY: Well, actually, I think kudos to the families that got the 9/11 Commission off the ground. But even prior to the 9/11 Commission, the joint intelligence committee and Eleanor Hill's staff had done quite a remarkable job of unraveling the various mistakes and issues that had gone into 9/11. And again, I think it's necessary to do this but we are almost three years since it happened and we perhaps need to now focus on the future.
ABRAMS: What do you think about their recommendations for the future?
ROWLEY: Well, I think that again, a lot of time has passed and when we talk about things that occurred in the summer of 2001 or shortly after 9/11, we have to keep that in perspective, that this length of time, almost three years has passed. Many changes have already been made and so we have to keep in mind that again, these things that we're talking about were quite some time ago.
ABRAMS: When you say many changes have been made, I mean look, you are one of the people who was I think very honest and direct with in particular your boss about the problems that you saw in the FBI and what you saw as sort of a miss characterization of some of the problems in the FBI. Have those problems been resolved?
ROWLEY: Well, we certainly can always do more in terms of streamlining bureaucracy, eliminating unnecessary paperwork and that type of thing. However, the major change here has been to put the FBI on the forefront of both gathering and disseminating intelligence. And that change has just been remarkable in the last couple of years.
ABRAMS: Steve Emerson, your reaction.
STEVE EMERSON, TERRORISM EXPERT: First of all, the whole paradigm of the report, this incredible document is really the type of response we need in terms of assessing and keeping the national security apparatus on a uniform anti-terrorism platform at all times. In other words, we need a national commission on terrorism 24 hours a day, seven days a week every year because they have the ability to look at all the agencies and analytically put all the product together.
Now of course, they're doing historical stuff, but really, what they are doing is essentially putting all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together. It's a phenomenal document. Having said that, what they have discovered are these major analytical deficiencies in the FBI, the CIA and also within the structures themselves.
There's a disconnect. Every single time I come on the air and talk about the FBI's deficiencies, I feel guilty because I know FBI agents in the field, hundreds of them. They're wonderful agents. Some of them actually refer to headquarters as OT, occupied territory because headquarters is much more focused on basically making sure they don't commit any mistakes, whereas outside in the field they know what the problems are. I remember speaking to agents Dan in ‘94, in ‘93, they knew exactly what the problems were. They talked about bin Laden. They said we are going to get hit again and the only problem they said actually was that the ‘93 World Trade Center bombing quote, didn't kill enough people because that meant...
ABRAMS: We're going to get to that in a minute. Very quickly, Daniel Pipes, and then we'll have to take a break. Your reaction to what they describe as the problems, their recommendations for the future?
DANIEL PIPES, DIRECTOR, MIDDLE EAST FORUM: I agree with Steve and Coleen that it's a good report but I've got two other issues on my mind, not so much the technicalities of it but two other things. One is the fact that in the political environment, we see that there is a real move now to go back to the way things were pre-9/11. The Democratic Party in general is against fighting a war and instead of looking at this as a police action.
ABRAMS: But I don't want to get into the politics of this. I only just focus on the 9 -- let me take a quick break here. I'm going to ask you all to stick around. The reason I chose these three people is for a reason and that's because when we come back, I'm going to talk to them about what it was like at times for all of them, to be ignored before 9/11, when each one of them in their own way were warning about the danger of al Qaeda. …
NEIL LIVINGSTON, TERRORISM EXPERT: We have to be very worried about threats to the United States. Bin Laden is out there. He is wounded. He is angry.
STEFAN LEADER, EAGLE RESEARCH GROUP: We are in effect at war with the bin Laden terrorist network.
STAN BEDDLINGTON, FMR. CIA INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: There is always a possibility that Osama bin Laden may attempt a terrorist attack inside the United States. We do know because we have arrested some of his agents inside this country.
ABRAMS: We saw the dates there, three warnings, none of them later than August 1999 that Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda might hit targets in the U.S. But as the commission said in its report, even CIA Director George Tenet December 4, 1998, directed, stating we are at war, had little overall impact on mobilizing the intelligence community. And there were plenty more warnings, including some from our guests.
Sorry, Daniel Pipes, I apologize for interrupting you. I'm going to read a section of the article that you and Steve Emerson wrote together in May of 2001. This is a few months before the attacks and I read, quote: "In conceptualizing the al Qaeda problem only in terms of law enforcement, the U.S. government misses the larger point. Yes, the operatives engage in crimes, but they're better thought of as soldiers, not criminals. To fight Qaeda and other terrorist groups requires an understanding that they have silently declared war on the U.S. In turn, we must fight them as we would in a war." Is it frustrating to you now, looking back, that people weren't listening to you enough?
PIPES: Yes, Dan, it was frustrating. But I've got to say it is frustrating again because as I started to say before, I see the direction of the U.S. mood going back to that police approach rather than the war approach. There is a great deal of reluctance to see us at war. So, for a while after 9/11 there was a sense of we're all together in this and we're fighting a war but I for one feel that less and less and worry that we will need another calamity like 9/11 to get back on track.
ABRAMS: Steve, you have put together all of these jihad tapes. You've been doing it for many years where you've been gathering radical statements made by various Islamists and you have been saying, pay attention to this. This is serious. They are coming. They are going to attack. Again, as you read this report and they chronicle all the mistakes and talk about the fact that no one is really listening, do you almost want to say, I was one of them? I was out there, I was yelling, no one was listening to me.
EMERSON: Listen, Dan, the system wasn't built, unfortunately and it was stacked against anybody who basically stuck their neck out. I remember, you pointed out, I did the film, "Jihad in America" in 1994. I must tell you, it wasn't a brilliant film. I was taking material that I collected from videos from the Islamic groups themselves off the web, stuff that was openly available if anybody wanted to get. I'm looking at documents here from 1995 from San Diego saying they are going to attack the United States because of the imprisonment of bid Laden—of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman.
So the bottom line was the material was there, no one wanted to see it. And as Daniel pointed out, it was the absence of casualties. Democracies act when there is blood in the streets. Yes, you'd like not to have this occur, but maybe it took 9/11 to wake us up and I fear maybe Daniel's warning is correct, that we're getting back into this old mentality.
ABRAMS: Coleen Rowley wrote this memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller in 2002. The truth is, as with most predictions into the future, no one will ever know what impact if any, the FBI's following up on certain requests would have had. Although I agree it's very doubtful that the full scope of the tragedy could have prevented, it's at least possible we could have gotten lucky and uncovered one or two more of the terrorists in flight training prior to September 11, just as Zacarias Moussaoui was discovered after making contact with his flight instructors.
Bring us back to that time if you can in August of 2001. What was your thinking about the Zacarias Moussaoui and al Qaeda in your offices?
ROWLEY: Well, we're of course under a court gag order not to talk about the Moussaoui case for court reasons.
ABRAMS: Understood, understood. Just generally then, then stay away from the specifics if you can. Can you talk generally about the mentality?
ROWLEY: Well, I will talk about the prevention aspect which you just alluded to in that quote. I think there is a misconception about preventing acts of terrorism. And of course if you look at history, the interdiction of - say I'm trying to come down to bomb the Los Angeles airport, that was effectively done by someone at the field level, very low level and it does require a certain amount of luck even in addition to the proper mindset. I do disagree with your other two commentators there that things have not changed and are going back to the mindset before 9/11. I really totally disagree with that assessment.
ABRAMS: Tell me why. Tell me why.
ROWLEY: Well, I have seen the way things functioned in the FBI prior to 9/11 and I have seen how they function after. I have seen many effective investigations of could-be, would-be terrorists in this country and the dichotomy between before 9/11 and now is stark. Things are being handled quite efficiently. We're using all of the tools that the FBI is allowed to, sometimes intrusive tools under the foreign intelligence surveillance act, physical surveillance, all of these things and I don't think we have gone back to the earlier mentality of only seeking to use criminal means.
ABRAMS: Daniel Pipes, is that reassuring to you?
PIPES: It is reassuring and I agree in the specifics but I think the larger picture remains a more problematic one, problematic one in that for example, the FBI is deeply reluctant to name the enemy. The FBI will only talk about terrorists. The FBI will not note that there is an ideology behind those terrorists, a motive, an identity. The FBI is still not really facing the facts of who the enemy is and how to deal with it.
ABRAMS: Is that true, Ms. Rowley, that they won't sort of say it's Islamists? It's Islamic terror that's the real danger here.
ROWLEY: Well, I think we have to be extremely careful. I really kind of disagree with that assessment as well. We have to be very careful that when we are confronting and attempting to engage in a really long—I agree with that part that it's going to be a long, sustained effort for maybe decades into the future. And when we do that, we have to do things that make sense that do not allow the terrorists to win without even scoring a terrorist attack. And I talk a lot about criminal investigation and in balancing civil liberties with the need for effective investigation. And I think we are proceeding in a careful way but I think we are also able to do it very effectively.
ABRAMS: Steve Emerson, final, I've got 30 seconds left, but the bottom line is, what you and Daniel Pipes were asking for back in May of 2001, seems to me that's got to be mentality, which is we can't treat all these cases like criminal cases.
EMERSON: Absolutely, it's a much larger issue and I think Daniel is right, however, it's radical Islamic fundamentalism. It doesn't represent all Muslims but that has to be named as the larger ideological enemy from which terrorism is spawned and that's really the issue that confronts us in the future and to the extent we ignore it or pretend it doesn't exist as a phenomenon, we're pretending that the terrorism isn't going to haunt us again. That's the real issue.
ABRAMS: Well, I'm going to quote again from the 9/11 Commission report. "The biggest failure was one of imagination. We do not believe that U.S. leadership understood the gravity of the threat."
The reason I asked all three of you on the program is because I think in your own ways each one of you deserve a lot of credit for what you did leading up to 9/11 and you know, in the wake of this report wanted to talk to all of you. So thank you all so much for coming on the program. Coleen Rowley, Steve Emerson and Daniel Pipes. Appreciate it.
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