R. James Woolsey has a special vantage point in the current debate over U.S. intelligence capabilities in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has an extensive background in arms control and defense, and he served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1993 to 1995 during the Clinton administration. Woolsey later was a member of the National Commission on Terrorism, whose warnings issued in 2000 would haunt the nation a year later.
During interviews on May 24 and 29, Woolsey was outspoken on issues ranging from intelligence-gathering to the anthrax scare to future terrorist attacks. The following are edited excerpts from these interviews.
NJ: Do the September 11 attacks demonstrate that our intelligence system has failed?
Woolsey: Espionage against highly ideological terrorist groups that hold their plans very closely is extremely difficult, if not impossible. We might get lucky. We will get material from captured computers in Afghanistan and from captured al Qaeda suspects there and in other countries. If the FBI is organized properly so that one part of it knows what the other part of it is doing, we may well get information and hunches from law enforcement in the United States.
The main problem is people in the U.S. government who are cleared to receive material from communications intercepts. Far too many of them are blabbermouths. We broke into [Osama] bin Laden's satellite telephone in the late `90s, then someone decided to tell the press about it and-surprise-bin Laden's people read the newspapers.
Indeed, if you want to look for one person who is probably the most culpable of what happened on September 11, the country was betrayed by some idiot who talked to the press. I have no idea who did it, but they did the thousands of people who died a great disservice.
NJ: President Bush warned Congress that he might curtail intelligence briefings because of leaks. Is that the problem?
Woolsey: My experience is generally that Congress is not the problem with leaks. It's generally the executive branch. Unless the president orders a huge cutback in the numbers of people who have access to intercepts and communication about terrorism, I'm afraid we'll continue to have the leaks.
NJ: Who could be responsible for sending anthrax through the mail?
Woolsey: The FBI seems committed to the idea that it was a lone American. I find the hypothesis highly questionable. It's very strange that this theoretical "crazed Ph.D. microbiologist," with his fully equipped laboratory, started shipping anthrax one week after the 11th-and started shipping very sophisticated anthrax four weeks after September 11.
And when you have two leading experts at Johns Hopkins, as well as the physician who examined Mohamed Atta's colleague in Florida, say there's a high probability that what he had on his leg was anthrax, I think you have to take very seriously the possibility that there is some link-we don't know exactly what it was-between September 11 and the anthrax. It's not proven, but certainly some things about the situation are very suggestive.
NJ: Nearly every day brings a new warning about terrorist threats, targeting railroads to apartment buildings to banks. Is the system working, or are the multiple warnings overkill?
Woolsey: It's probably better to have it than not. It's going to be a judgment call when the warning is vague, as it almost always is. On the downside, people get inured when things don't happen, and they think the government is crying wolf. On the positive side, you make them more alert. The flight attendants and passengers on the flight that [Richard] Reid was on, [where he] tried to light his shoes, picked up immediately that something was very strange and restrained him.
But you also have to be concerned that some of the terrorist suspects-such as [captured bin Laden aide Abu] Zubayda, who's being questioned-may be putting out some of these so-called warnings precisely to degrade the quality of warnings.
NJ: It seems obvious that much of the information that the warnings are based on comes from Zubayda.
Woolsey: Al Qaeda instructs people to lie under interrogation, so some of these things may be lies. Some may not be. The best way to tell whether a prisoner or an agent is telling the truth is to have more than one source and to triangulate.
NJ: President Bush opposes appointing an independent commission to investigate what happened on September 11. Do you think a commission is a good idea?
Woolsey: It depends on whether or not the Justice Department is prepared to cooperate fully with the [congressional] Intelligence Committee investigation. That is not the committee that has jurisdiction over the Justice Department. So if there are gaps and inadequacies, then there is time to establish a commission thereafter. Both Sen. [Bob] Graham, [D-Fla.,] and Congressman [Porter J.] Goss, [R-Fla.,] as well as their ranking members, are experienced in intelligence. We ought to give them a chance.
NJ: What do you think of FBI Director Robert Mueller's just-announced response to missed terrorism signals? Woolsey: Mr. Mueller deserves a lot of credit for moving out on this. He's taking the steps that probably should have been taken by his predecessor to refocus the FBI, move on a broad front against terrorism, and use CIA analysts at headquarters to help build up the FBI's capability. Also very importantly, [he's taking steps] to decentralize some of the decisions that FBI special agents can make about when to start an investigation of a potential terrorist group.
NJ: Is a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon inevitable?
Woolsey: I don't really like the word "inevitability," but the probability is very high that we will have other terrorist acts, including major events-quite possibly terrorist events using weapons of mass destruction. We have not succeeded in getting rid of all of al Qaeda, and we're a very open society.
I think the government has gotten some information very recently that it's particularly concerned about. Or perhaps they took a look at the summer of 2001. They issued 11 warnings of different types to the [Federal Aviation Administration]. That's about one warning a week. Since a lot of people have seen fit to criticize about [the pre-September 11] warnings, perhaps they've decided, "All right, we'll let you have all of `em."
NJ: The CIA warned in August about al Qaeda hijackings. Why wasn't anything done?
Woolsey: Everybody was concentrating too much on foreign intelligence and looking for foreign tips. The foreign intelligence material that was briefed to the president in August said nothing about suicide crashes-it was just about hijackings. And the warning was given, as I understand it, to law enforcement and, through the FAA, to the airlines.
A number of reports were available to the public. One very good one was published by the Library of Congress on the Web. Three experts from the University of Pennsylvania went to the FAA in the late `90s and said, "You should be worried about hijackers taking over a plane and crashing into buildings." And the FAA said, "We can't worry about all meteorites." But as far as anybody knows, it never got to the president.
NJ: Some criticize the CIA's performance.
Woolsey: I am sure the CIA is doing its best to penetrate al Qaeda. It's extremely difficult to penetrate with espionage overseas. This is a very ideological group and its planning is not shared widely. It's not like a government.
NJ: Cooperation between the FBI and the CIA seems to be a big issue. And it's not a new one.
Woolsey: There were some things that were just bureaucratically hard, particularly for law enforcement to share with intelligence, but there were some things it was illegal to share. Before September 11, it would have been illegal for the FBI to have given material about terrorism they obtained pursuant to a grand jury subpoena to the CIA. The National Security Act of 1947 that established the CIA gave it no domestic law enforcement responsibilities.
NJ: What is the likelihood of a wave of Middle Eastern-style suicide bombers coming to the United States?
Woolsey: We're unlikely to have a long series of suicide bombings, the way the Israelis have, because that requires an infrastructure and preparation difficult to undertake in this country without detection. But we could have some.
Al Qaeda's history is to go for a relatively few, very large operations, possibly using suicide bombers, such as it used against the [U.S.S.] Cole, rather than a number of small operations. So next time we have a major terrorist event, it may well involve suicide bombers, because suicide bombers have great advantages over other ways of detonating explosives. But I don't think we will have a number of individuals visiting public places day after day and blowing themselves up.
NJ: Do we need to profile airline passengers, as the Israelis do, to prevent hijackings?
Woolsey: Without doing ethnic and racial profiling, we could use some kind of sense of whom to particularly scrutinize. For example, except for a few suicide bombers who have been young women, virtually all of the terrorists have been relatively young men. But every time I go through an airport these days, the random searches seem to be focusing on grandmothers. The airport security folks seem to have the grandmother threat very solidly in hand, but that is not who blows up airplanes.
People with passports from countries where a lot of the terrorists have come from, such as Saudi Arabia, seem deserving of special scrutiny-and people from [countries] where passports have been easily stolen because they've been badly controlled, such as Belgium.
NJ: Another bin Laden tape was just released. Are you concerned that he's sending coded messages to his followers?
Woolsey: He can't be sure they are going to be shown the way he puts them out. The chance of their containing secret messages is perhaps not zero, but it's extremely limited.
NJ: Do you think bin Laden is still alive?
Woolsey: I have no idea. We're certainly not through hearing from al Qaeda, whether bin Laden's alive or not. Anyone who thinks we are through hearing from al Qaeda, I think must be smoking something.