Authors at Google: Peter Bergen

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 21.05.2012

>>Female presenter: Thank you for having us. I want to thank Peter Bergen for this book,
Manhunt, because this is a book we've all been waiting for. Not just because it's about
how we pursued, we as a nation pursued Osama bin Laden and eventually killed him, but because
it tells us so much about the war on terror and how it was conducted at the highest levels.
In many ways, this is a culmination of work Peter's been doing for a very long time. If
you had to pick both the person who would write about Osama bin Laden's end, then you
would pick Peter Bergen. And if you would pick the next project for Peter, it would
have been this book. He's written many books about bin Laden, about al Qaeda. He's considered
the nation's expert on it. Let me get to the heart of this. Why did it take us so long
to find bin Laden?
>>Peter Bergen: Thank you everybody for coming. I know you have busy lives. Thank you, Karen,
for doing this, and thank you, Google, for organizing this. Why did it take so long?
Rumsfeld had an interesting answer to that question several years ago when he was asked
the same question. He said, in a very Rumsfeldian manner, "The world's a big place." Think about
how long it took for the Israelis to find Eichmann after the Holocaust. Not for a lack
of trying, it took 15 years. In fact, one of the stories I have in the book is the CIA
looked at other manhunts like the hunt for Eichmann, like the hunt for Pablo Escobar,
like the hunt for Eric Rudolph, like the hunt for Aimal Qazi who killed two CIA employees
in Virginia in 1993. They tried to derive any lessons learned.
The lesson learned in the Eichmann case is: you can hide, but your family may not be as
effective at operational security as you are. In Eichmann's case, his son was dating a girl
in Argentina and he started bragging at their house something about his father's Nazi past.
The father of the girlfriend called a friend of his in Germany who was a federal judge
who was interested in finding former Nazis. Somehow, Mossad got wind of that and they
famously kidnapped Eichmann in Buenos Aires and took him back. Of course, he stood trial
for his crimes in Jerusalem in 1962 or thereabouts. Finding bin Laden. On one level, it was a
complicated problem. On another level, we spent half a trillion dollars on our national
security, just on our intelligence, since 9/11. That was a lot of money to spend to
find one person. Because at the end of the day, what was the war on terror? It was really
about finding bin Laden, in a lot of ways. Because if the Taliban had handed over bin
Laden after 9/11, then you wouldn't be in this room because there wouldn't have been
a war in Afghanistan. The whole story would have been over.
>>presenter: One of the things that you deftly insert into this book, along with a lot of
other things that you might not think are relevant to bin Laden, is the story of 9/11,
which is relevant to bin Laden. You are pretty harsh on the national security establishment,
at least some of those people at the top level. You don't name names, but you are concerned
about the failures that brought us 9/11. Then, you spent a lot of this book talking
about the CIA, and the CIA's role in taking the wrong direction in trying to find bin
Laden and taking so long to find bin Laden. I'm just wondering on both these things how,
after all these years of thinking about the United States and its relationship to bin
Laden and its relationship to al Qaeda, how do you assess the CIA? Are there periods of
time in which they're doing a better job than a worse job? Just what your overall report
card on them is, in the name of the war on terror?
>>Bergen: Well, look. I think the point of the book wasn't an assessment of how well
the CIA did before 9/11 as you say, but the fact is, the CIA did pretty well before 9/11.
9/11 wasn't an intelligence failure as it was often portrayed. It was a policy failure
because the intelligence apparatus of the United States, in particular the CIA, in particular
the bin Laden unit, in particular people that Karen knows very well, who are in the National
Security Council focusing on counter-terrorism, Richard Clark and his deputies, and also,
by the way, the FBI field office in New York, which was investigating the first Trade Center
attack. They were all saying bin Laden was a big problem, and they were also all saying,
in the summer of 2001, "There is an imminent attack." It was the most serious set of warnings,
I think, any administration had every received about a matter of national security. It was
simply tuned out. I do say in the book that went President Bush was famously briefed on
August 6, 2001 with a highly classified presidential brief that was titled "Bin Laden determined
to strike the United States", something we only found out several years later. I interviewed
the woman who wrote that brief, Barbara Sude. She's quoted in the book. After being briefed
about that, President Bush took the longest-- continued on the longest presidential vacation
in 30 years. The idea that-- That's just a fact. You can
draw your own conclusions. Was the Bush Administration really concerned about this threat? If they
were, why was the president-- why did the president continue on the longest presidential
vacation in three decades? What happened, of course, is they came into office as if
the Cold War wasn't over. Their biggest concerns were China and Russia and anti-ballistic missile
defense, which, by the way, doesn't stop anything-- you can't stop a terrorist with an anti-ballistic
missile system, a system that doesn't still even work to this day. There was plenty of
blame to go around, but I think it's at the top levels of the Bush Administration, from
a policy perspective. Now, that said, after the event happened,
President Bush presided over the most successful, unconventional campaign in modern history,
which is in three weeks, 300 US special forces and 110 CIA offices overthrew the Taliban.
In three weeks. It was just amazing. They were victims of their own success because
this model was so successful that they didn't get bin Laden at the Battle of Tora Bora because
they kept to this model. That wasn't enough to keep him enclosed at Tora Bora.
>>presenter: Let's talk a little bit about Tora Bora. This is something you've been talking
about for 10 years, or however long. It's always bothered you that we didn't get bin
Laden at Tora Bora. When you wrote this book, did you learn anything new about--?
>>Bergen: I did. Wikileaks is an incredibly useful resource for this kind of reporting
because we have the-- There's a lot of material on Wikileaks which is not significant, but
some of it is significant. In particular, the summaries of the Guantanamo interrogations
of the detainees there. Karen's written literally several books on this subject. I have visited
Tora Bora, where the battle happened, on two occasions. I've interviewed everybody who
was involved, more or less, at a high level. But I still find out things on Wikileaks which
were interesting. There was one particular discovery, which is what did bin Laden do
after the Battle of Tora Bora? He disappeared. The conventional view was that he got into
Pakistan. Well, in fact, he did something quite clever, which is he doubled back into
Afghanistan and he went to a place called Kunar, which is heavily forested, very mountainous,
perfect place to avoid American satellites and drones. He went to ground there for a
while. The other thing that I learned, I think a
properly interesting anecdote: On January 4, 2002, the deputy director of the CIA, the
now deputy directory of the CIA, Michael Morell, who is the only person in this book who was
with Bush on 9/11. He briefed Bush about the Battle of Tora Bora, and he was the absolutely
principle person involved in a lot of the intelligence cases in finding bin Laden. He
is the only person who actually spans the whole story. On January 4, 2002, he went to
President Bush and he said, "The CIA's official conclusion is that bin Laden was at the Battle
of Tora Bora, and that he's escaped and he's alive."
Why is that an interesting anecdote? Go back to the campaign of 2004 when John Kerry was
making quite an issue of this with George W. Bush and the election campaign. Very closely
run, very close election campaign. Vice President Cheney publicly said that Kerry was essentially
making this fact up, that bin Laden was at the Battle of Tora Bora. George W. Bush made
similar comments. General Tommy Franks, who was the Bush supporter and also in charge
of the military operations overall, made similar comments. They all essentially-- [pause] Let's
say, generously, they forgot what actually happened, or something. You could say something
less generous if you were so inclined. But I think this is an important point: that the
CIA officially briefed President Bush shortly after the battle to tell him it was their
conclusion that bin Laden was at the Battle of Tora Bora, that he had escaped.
Now you know-- go ahead.
>>presenter: I was going to change the topic to something else, which is that you referred
before to the importance of family, or relatives in the capture of Pablo Escobar, in the Eichmann
kidnapping. You make the point early on in a way that keeps a tension through the book,
which is "Is bin Laden's family going to play a role here?" You met bin Laden, famously,
first in 1997. You've been thinking about him for, I don't want to age us, but--
>>Bergen: A while.
>>presenter: A long time. You talk a little bit about his family and his family relations
and the fact that his wives were with him at Abbottabad, where he was eventually found.
I'm just curious, overall, how you think about him as a father, as a husband. Where do you
place that in his psyche and in the eventual capture?
>>Bergen: The CIA was asking a lot of the same questions about "Okay, what is the profile
of Osama bin Laden?" Because most fugitives don't try to take three wives and a dozen
kids and grandkids around with them, for obvious reasons. But they concluded, at the agency,
that it would be quite likely that bin Laden-- Bin Laden's a family guy. He's had six wives,
one of whom he had a very brief marriage to, another one who-- it wasn't even consummated.
Another one divorced him. And he, of course, had four wives. His first wife had left him
by the time he got to Abbottabad. So this is a guy who's been married since he was 17.
He was 54. He's got at least 20 kids, probably more like two dozen kids now.
The CIA, when they were thinking about "What would be the profile of bin Laden? How would
he be living?", they certainly didn't discount the idea that he'd be with his family. So
when they started zeroing in on the Abbottabad compound, when it became clear that there
was not one, not two, but three families there, and that the third family seemed pretty sizable,
to anybody who'd been following bin Laden, that was actually more of an indication that
this is looking pretty good. As a father, he's a doting father. I have
a picture in the book with his son Hamza, in which he was reading poetry to his kids.
He's teaching them. Playing soccer with his kids, and volleyball. Hitler was nice to his
dogs. What does that say about anything? Most people are nice to their kids. "Is he a misogynist?"
is an interesting question, because certainly, his view of the world seems quite misogynistic.
I would say yes, but with an interesting qualifier, which is that he basically-- His first wife
went into the marriage with bin Laden. He was 17, she was 15. Obviously, she had no
idea that he was going to become an international jihadi militant. Every other wife along the
way who married him understood what he was getting into because he started being involved
in these fights with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan against the Soviets when he was 22, 23. He
basically said to his wives, "If you want to bail out, you can." In Sudan, one of his
wives said to him, essentially, "I thought I was marrying the son of a billionaire, and
now we're living in total poverty in Khartoum, without air conditioning. I'm going back to
Saudi Arabia, thank you." Which is what she did. There was no contest. By Taliban standards,
I guess that's relatively-- Of course, he married wives with a lot of education. There
were three wives at the Abbottabad compound. His first two wives both had Ph.D.s. They're
a 62 year old Khairiah and 54 year old Siham. His youngest wife, Amal, the Yemeni who he
was really living with in the Abbottabad compound, she was basically a high school dropout. Maybe.
I don't even know if she had any schooling at all. Bu he's not afraid of educated women.
>>presenter: And she's the one, Amal, who through herself in front of him as Americans--
>>Bergen: Yeah. Amal, she married him when he was 17, and again, she was from a rural
backwater in Yemen, a place called Ibb. She told a cousin, "I'm going to go down in history"
and he was like, "Well, how are you going to do that?" The way to do that was to get
married to Osama bin Laden. It's interesting to see how these wives-- they're now, as you
probably know, they're all back in Saudi Arabia, she'll go back to Yemen. The Saudis will keep
a pretty careful watch over the two older wives, but in Yemen it's an inefficient police
state, so she might have some ability to communicate.
>>presenter: Let's talk about the courier a little bit. The United States intelligence
agencies and defense establishment seems to have known about the courier since December
2003, January 2004, and his role in top level al Qaeda operations. Then it took us until
a year ago today to actually tie the courier to bin Laden and kill bin Laden. How do you
account for that? Let's put on hold talking about how we got the information, because
I think that--
>>Bergen: Okay. Why it took so long? [pause] Everybody knows who Whitey Bulger is? Whitey
Bulger killed 20 people in Boston and was on the FBI's Most Wanted list starting in
1999. The allegation is he killed 20 people. He was found relatively recently, I think
in Santa Barbara, living quietly by the sea. The FBI's tried to be-- It's not an incompetent
organization by any stretch. The problem about finding bin Laden was the
United States has a few ways to find you. Signals intelligence: you're talking on your
cell phone. That's how they found Pablo Escobar. Essentially, they gave the Columbian police
directional finding technology that allowed them to zero in on his cell phone. Well, it
was a radio phone at that time. Another way is human intelligence. We don't have a huge
number of Taliban fundamentalist Pashtun speakers who can pass for members of al Qaeda that
would be able to penetrate the group. That's what would have been required. Another way
is-- People drop a dime on you to pick up a reward. That happened, for instance, in
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational commander of 9/11. Somebody picked up $25 million. Well,
people in bin Laden's immediate circle think he's basically the savior of true Islam. They're
not going to drop a dime on him. And then, people make mistakes, and that's the other
way to find people. But waiting for bin Laden to make a mistake is obviously not a particularly
effective strategy.
>>presenter: But one of the things that your book conveys is-- Part of it was about bin
Laden. That maybe he wasn't directing operational activities around the world, but that he understood,
he was very careful. You were at Abbottabad. You got in there before the Pakistanis destroyed
the compound. Talk a little bit about how he protected himself and how he was aware
of all of these ways that he could have been gotten at.
>>Bergen: He stopped using his cell phone. He stopped using his-- Cell phones were not
in existence in Afghanistan at the time. He stopped using his satellite phone probably
in '98. He [pause] was very paranoid about-- I mean, I met him in '97, and we were treated
in an extremely paranoid, secretive, disciplined way, searched very thoroughly, not allowed
to carry anything with us except-- not even a watch. There were very concerned about electronic
tracking devices, for instance. He wasn't letting people in his immediate circle that
he didn't know very well. He wasn't talking on a cell phone. He wasn't, obviously, using
the internet.
>>presenter: You talk about his house and the windows in his house, how he had this
house constructed for himself in Abbottabad, and how the windows were these slits so that
you actually couldn't see.
>>Bergen: In a way, he became a prisoner. He created his own prison. It meant that it
was very hard to find him, but also, when the day came, the night came, the SEALs were
there, he couldn't really see very much because he created this prison-like environment. At
the end of the day, he faced a dilemma, which was he could essentially stop communicating
with anybody and never be found, or he would have to remain in communication with some
of his followers, and there would be some possibility of finding him. The agency essentially,
I say in the book-- a female analyst--. One of the interesting side stories here is how
the CIA-- The biggest cultural shift, I quote somebody in the book, in the CIA in the last
20 years is the rise of women in the agency. The bin Laden unit was full of women because
initially, at that time before 9/11, it was seen as a backwater and no one really cared
about bin Laden. But some of the people who did the work that found him, in particular,
were women. It was a particular female analyst who essentially said, in 2005 when it was
clear there was going to be no magic bullet, "There are going to be four ways we can find
him. We can either find him through his immediate family and their communications with him."
That never really happened. "We can find him through the communications that he makes to
Al Jazeera and other media outlets." Those were always dry holes as it turned out. "We
can find him with communications with the senior leadership." That didn't really bear
much fruit. "Or we can find him through a courier."
I think, deductive logic showed quite early on that that was the way to go, but Abu Ahmed
al-Kuwaiti, which is the name of the courier, that's the equivalent of being the father
of Ahmed the Kuwaiti. I don't know what the number of citizens of Kuwaiti are, but it's
not an insignificant number. And of course, he's not even really Kuwaiti, he was really
a Pakistani whose family had gone to Kuwait and they moved back. Pakistan is twice the
size of California, with a population of 180 million people, so trying to find out-- In
terms of-- Leaping over the question of coercive interrogation
for a minute, the things that really got to find Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was associating
a real name with him, which took till 2007. The next big break was associating a real
cell phone with this real name. That took till June of 2010. The reason that happened
is they switched cell phone carriers, or did something to the way they communicated on
cell phones, that made it a lot easier for the National Security Agency, the NSA, to
geolocate the phone. But even when you geolocated the phone, it still took a while to find where
this guy lived because he was very careful. He took the battery-- he switched off his
phone and took the battery out at least an hour's drive from where he lived. Then it
was a matter of inserting human spies on the ground to actually survey this guy and follow
his distinctive white Jeep back to where he lived in Abbottabad. There was no expectation
that he'd be living with bin Laden. The CIA thought there would be a whole other set of
hoops to jump through. But, as they started looking at the compound, the strange third
family, then they're beginning to think, "Well, maybe bin Laden's there."
>>presenter: Let's talk very briefly, I promise, about enhanced interrogation techniques. Al-Qahtani
is one of the individuals that we've known for a long time was tortured or to whom enhanced
interrogation techniques were applied. In December of 2003, in January of 2004. Those
techniques were approved by Donald Rumsfeld. We've always had this questions lingering,
this question of torture, of whether or not you can get reliable evidence. One of the
things seems to be that from Qahtani, as your book says, we did get information. Could you
talk a little bit about what that information was and then we'll talk a little bit about--
So we know how important it is.
>>Bergen: Qahtani is really an interesting case because he appears, from what we can
tell, to be the first person to finger Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti as a reasonably significant
player in al-Qaeda. He describes him as somebody who was giving him instruction. Al-Qahtani
was going to be the 20th hijacker and was arrested at Orlando. Well, not arrested, turned
back at Orlando Airport by a very astute INS officer who said "This guy's on a one-way
ticket, doesn't really speak English." Qahtani became hostile. A year later he was picked
up in Pakistan. His cover story, as was not infrequent in these cases, was that he'd gone
to Afghanistan because of his pressing interest in falconry, when he was in Guantanamo. Eventually,
they matched this guy to the fingerprints of the hostile guy in Orlando who many people
think is the 20th hijacker, 'cause Mohammed Atta was waiting for him outside the airport.
Now this guy, the 20th hijacker, says that he was trained in the use of the internet
and other things by KSM, the operational commander of 9/11. That makes these-- that Abu Ahmad
al-Kuwaiti is playing an important role in al-Qaeda.
Did that happen before the coercive interrogation? Did it happen after? Did it happen during?
We don't know. But Wikileaks and other ways of-- We know how this guys was treated. When
Karen uses the word "torture", which I think is a word that can sometimes be, as it were,
abused. In this case, Susan Crawford, who's a federal prosecutor appointed by the George
W. Bush Administration to oversee the Guantanamo trials, who was appointed to the bench by
Ronald Reagan, not a pinko liberal by any stretch, said this guy Qahtani could never
be tried for anything because he'd been tortured. Qahtani was undoubtedly coercively interrogated.
He undoubtedly gave up useful information. The Senate Intelligence Committee is doing
a massive investigation of all this. Dianne Feinstein last night released a press release
giving some of the early indicators of what they're going to come up with. It's going
to be a 5000 page report. They look to several million pages of documents. It will be the
definitive history of what really happened in this program. Neither of us on this stage
know enough about it to really say exactly what happened, but Qahtani gave up interesting
information. He was coercively interrogated. Somebody else seems to have given up useful
information. We know less about him. He was picked up in Iraq.
The flipside is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his replacement Abu Faraj al-Libi, the number
3 in al Qaeda, were both coercively interrogated. They gave disinformation about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti,
the courier. Where does that leave you? We can't run history backward. There is ammunition
for both sides of the argument, I think. But the fact is that the first big break in the
9/11 case came from a guy called Abu Zubaydah, who was interrogated with completely conventional
techniques by the FBI by a guy called Ali Soufan, who is a well-known Arabic speaking
FBI agent. He gave up, within about a week, the key information about the operational
commander about 9/11. There are many examples of this. Somebody I quote in the book, Brad
Garrett, is an FBI agent who interrogated Ramzi Yousef on the flight back from Pakistan.
He was the architect of the first Trade Center attack. Ramzi Yousef gave up the whole story
in the course of a plane flight.
>>presenter: I was really impressed by the way that you didn't back away from the topic
and handled it in a very even-keeled and I thought responsible way. I'm not sure anybody
else could have done it as well.
>>Bergen: I went into it thinking the answer was likely to be kinda gray, like a lot of
things in life. And the answer is, it is kinda gray It's not one of these perfect "One group
is wrong and one group is right."
>>presenter: Right. And it doesn't affect the moral question of whether it's right or
not. The question of-- Or does it?
>>Bergen: That's an interesting question. That's at a level above my pay grade--
>>presenter: Right, I know, I know. I didn't expect you to have to make that comment. [laughs]
I want to turn to a different subject. One of the things that surprised me about the
book was how much of it is after 2008. It's almost like we're trying, we're trying, we're
sort of trying, we don't know what we're doing. And then all of a sudden, 2007--
>>Bergen: I think that's right, and I think that President Bush-- I quote Mike Hayden,
then the director of the CIA. Every morning he would go in the Oval Office at Thursday
at 8 am for his weekly meeting with the president, with President Bush. The first question was,
"How's it going, Mike?" Everybody in the room understood that to mean, "How is finding bin
Laden going?" President Bush didn't-- he wanted to find bin Laden.
I think General Hayden came to Bush in '07 and said, "We haven't killed a single person
in a drone strike this year. Al Qaeda is regrouping." Bear in mind that in 2005, we had the biggest
terrorist attack al Qaeda had done in the west since 9/11, which is the 7/7 attacks
in London. Bear in mind that in the summer of 2006, it was planning to bring down 7 American,
Canadian, British airlines over the Atlantic. If it had succeeded, 1500 people dead and
9/11-style events. Al Qaeda was regrouping in the tribal regions. It didn't seem to be
doing enough about it. So the agency essentially came to the president with a plan to basically
amp things up, amp up the drone strikes. They were preaching to the choir. I think there
was also an attempt, in the last 6 months of President Bush's presidency, to try and
eliminate as many members of al Qaeda as possible with drone strikes. They were quite successful.
In the first 6 months of President--. In the last 12 months of President Bush's presidency,
there were 6 drone strikes in the first 6 months, and there were 44 in the last 6 months.
This program got dramatically amped up. What's a little surprising is President Obama
comes in, maybe surprising for the people who voted for him, he amped it up and quintupled
it. He didn't just take the program and say, "We're just going to keep going." He quintupled
to number of drone strikes. He tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan. He was extremely
aggressive. I had an op-ed in the Times on Sunday in which I called him the "Warrior
in Chief" because I think there's a certain amount of cognitive dissonance both on the
right and the left about who President Obama is as a Commander in Chief, which is—. He
won the Nobel Peace Prize very early in his presidency. He used that as an opportunity
to say, "Much as I admire Gandhi and Martin Luther King, nonviolence wouldn't have stopped
the Nazis. You can't negotiate with al Qaeda." I'm paraphrasing. Remember in the campaign,
he was roundly criticized for the idea that he would do a unilateral strike into Pakistan
if the Pakistanis wouldn't work. Romney called him a Dr. Strangelove. McCain said, "We're
going to bomb one of our allies." Hillary Clinton said that he was telegraphing the
wrong message, or something to that effect. The point is that if people have actually
been paying attention to what he said, both in the campaign and also in his Nobel Peace
Prize acceptance speech, which most people would use as an opportunity not to discuss
their philosophy of war, maybe there'd be less cognitive dissonance. I think the laughter
said very little, really. He is the first American president in history, that I'm aware
of, who's actually authorized the assassination of an American citizen and, by the way, has
also killed an American teenager, because Anwar al-Awlaki's son was also killed in a
drone strike. Unintentionally, but nonetheless, it's the case.
Then on the right, he can't--. He's not going to get any credit, or very little credit,
or very begrudging credit, for what he's really done.
>>presenter: I think that's a really important point about President Obama's willingness
to be a warrior.
>>Bergen: What I say in the piece, in the Times, was, and I didn't actually fully develop
this, but this is the first major American political figure, when I say major, really
major, who in a sense-- Other than somebody like Hillary Clinton, who isn't-- The issue
is not what happened in Vietnam. If you think about McCain and Kerry, their service in Vietnam
is in a sense what defined them as people for so long. For Cheney, who took 5 deferments
as we know, his lack of service in Vietnam is certainly part of his story. President
Bush, of course, was in the Texas National Guard. He didn't serve in Vietnam. Bill Clinton
was at Oxford and then got--. In the end, his number wasn't called.
Obama is part of a generation of Democrats for whom Vietnam is not an issue. I think
that maybe-- This is complete speculation. Is that, he prepared to use violence in a
way that isn't so hobbled by the question of Vietnam? If you go back to the discussions
of the Afghan search, Dick Holbrooke, who was the Afghan-Pakistan representative of
Obama to the region, served in Vietnam. Joe Biden, of course, was out of that generation.
They were concerned that tripling the number of troops in Afghanistan would be a Lyndon
Johnson-like decision. Anyway, Obama doesn't seem to be that preoccupied
by it. I think he also, this says a lot about the way he makes decisions. He doesn't make
decisions from the gut at all. You recall how he was criticized for tripling the number
of troops in Afghanistan, taking 10 weeks to discuss it. I'm like, "10 weeks?" He's
been visiting Afghanistan since 1993. It's pretty complicated just to understand the
basics about it. Look at the deliberative process in this case, trying to find Osama
bin Laden. August 2010 is when it became clear that there was a real possibility. It took
almost a year. He pulls the trigger, but he's not trigger-happy. It's deliberative, and
it's also in a very structured process within the National Security Council. I think that
it-- Look at his intervention in Libya, by the way. It took two years for Clinton to
intervene in Bosnia. He never intervened in Rwanda. This seems to be just a different
kind of presidency in terms of that issue. I think it's a little unexpected.
>>presenter: He is the decider, actually.
>>Bergen: Indeed. Well, this is a really interesting thing about the book, is that of system, I
quote Tom Donilon, the National Security Advisor. "At the end of the day, somebody has to go
into their own bedroom at night and make a decision on behalf of 300 million Americans."
That's a pretty lonely place to be. If you think about the decision that the president
made, you have Vice President Biden saying, "You shouldn't do this." Now Vice President
Biden became a Senator when Obama was age 10. You have Secretary Gates saying, "You
shouldn't do this. You should do something else." Secretary Gates joined the Nixon Administration
as an official when Obama was 13. I may have my numbers slightly wrong, but the point is
that these very senior guys with incredible--. Gates has served every president since Nixon,
and was in the room when Operation Eagle Claw, the ill-fated Iranian rescue operation, blew
apart. He was in the White House as a 41 year old, relatively senior CI. He was the Executive
Assistant to the CI director at the time, Stansfield Turner. He saw the whole thing
unfold in real time. That was very much on his mind. Then, the number 2 military officer
in the nation, James Cartwright, was advocating another course. To make a decision like that--
Hillary Clinton was saying, "Go for the raid." She gave a very lawyerly deliberative presentation.
I did an interview with her in which she, I quote her directly, she said, "I gave a
long and deliberative presentation because President Obama is-- that's what's going to
convince him."
>>presenter: Lawyerly.
>>Bergen: Lawyerly. She really examined the pros and cons. And people didn't know where
she was going to go. In the end, she said, "You should do the raid." Leon Panetta, the
director of the CIA, was, of course, pushing for the raid from the beginning. He also had
a form of the political argument, which is, I quote him again directly from an interview,
he said, "Mr. President, this is the test I would use. What if an ordinary American
was in the room? What if they knew what we know? What would they say about it? I think
the answer to that is, I think most Americans would say, 'Yeah, this is worth the risk.'
Then there was another form of the political argument, which is you want to do this when
there's no moon. Well, the lunar cycle is, of course, a month. The next new moon weekend
was going to be June 1. By now, even though this was incredibly tightly held for so long,
meetings that would have meant--. In the White House, people began to notice there were a
set of meetings which were called "non-meetings." [chuckles] I don't know if you have those
at Google, but the non-meetings were-- very few people were coming to them or allowed
to come to them. No seconds, nobody was allowed to substitute. There was no paper trail. There
was no written products. But at a certain point, when you drew an operation like what
happened in Abbottabad, you are going to have to bring in more people, even if they're not
fully briefed on what's happening. The universe of people is growing. As it grows, it grows
exponentially. What'd happen if somebody started blogging about this, or it leaked out? Bin
Laden wouldn't have hung around. The political costs also of not doing something were actually
pretty high, because--. If you hadn't done the raid and then two months later it were
to come out that we had all this information, it would have been a disaster. So it was a
very tough decision.
>>presenter: Right. And as you point out, even then, even with all the pressure on him,
he took the night to think about it. Right? He took--
>>Bergen: I would love to have-- I asked for an interview with him and didn't get one.
He did do a pretty substantial interview with 60 Minutes, and gave a very interesting interview
to the History Channel, on which he develops some of his thoughts further. And obviously,
I was able to talk to a lot of people familiar with his decision-making. But at the end of
the day, it was his decision. It was nobody else's. So the idea that anybody could have
made this decision, which I've heard in the last day or two, I think that is absolutely
nonsensical. I mean, let's do a thought experiment where--. Joe Biden was a Democrat candidate
for president who seemed to have a lot more foreign policy experience. By his own admission,
he wouldn't have made the same choice. But we know he wouldn't have made the same choice.
Do the thought experiment where Bob Gates was president. The point is is not everybody
would have made the same decision. It's very easy to say retroactively because it worked
out pretty well that "That's the decision I would have made." Not at all clear to the
people involved.
>>presenter: It's very interesting. You've laid out the answer to the question I wanted
to ask you, which one of the very interesting things is I expected, even though I know you,
I expected there'd be a lot in this book about the SEAL team and how they thought. That kind
of book. It's very much not that. This is--
>>Bergen: They wouldn't talk to me, so that's really easy. [laughs]
>>presenter: But it's very much about the teamwork--
>>Bergen: Yeah.
>>presenter: --that went on inside the Obama Administration. For a president who has made
his mark being the deliberative, procedural, process driven, as Hillary Clinton says, lawyerly
type. He actually did this in that way. You watch this last year come together, one opinion
after another. It's a little bit surprising, the absence of Gates in the narrative. But
it's also surprising, not because of his position, just because it's surprised me in the narrative,
the prominence of Panetta. If there is a hero in this book, in some ways, although there
are a lot of people who could be heroes and you could make the case for the President
and for that particular woman at the CIA, you might--
>>Bergen: Do you think Al Pacino will play him, or?
>>presenter: I don't know. I think it's-- We have to think. But it's very interesting
in how he's the person who goes in and says, "Abbottabad? Why don't we know more about
it? We need to know more about it."
>>Bergen: Panetta was very incensed by-- He was getting very angry about why they weren't
able to get more information about it. He's certainly one of the people who comes out
of the book incredibly well. There's a great quote from him in the book. I interviewed
him, one of the last people to interview. The morning of the raid, he looks at himself
in the mirror, and he's shaving, and he says, "The next time I look at myself in the mirror,
this is either going to go pretty well, or I'm going to have a lot of explaining to do
to a lot of people." [laughs] The point is--. And another great quote: he was talking to
his deputy, Mike Morell, who I mentioned earlier. They had a final conversation before the raid.
Mike Morell says, "Where are you, Director Panetta, on this?" and he says-- either one
of them or both of them say versions of "Either bin Laden is not going to be there, or he
is going to be there." And they both say, "That's where we both are." These are the
two most senior intelligence officials in the United States in a sense. [background
scraping noise] I think Panetta comes out of it very well. Admiral McRaven, who organized
the raid, comes out of it very well. A lot of people come out of it well. It wasn't my
intention to make them look good.
>>presenter: No, it's not. It's that they look good at--. They work as a team from all
different parts. If you ridicule the inter-agency process, this would be one instance where
it's not--
>>Bergen: I think this will be one of these things like the Cuban Missile Crisis that
historians will be examining it as a classic case study about presidential decision-making.
Already, Graham Allison, who wrote the best book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, did a piece
in Time last week, looking at this in a very analytical frame. It worked, but it could
have--. If things had gone wrong, it might be one of those presidential case studies
of Operation Eagle Claw, which was a total--
>>presenter: Disaster. But let's talk a little bit about bin Laden and bin Laden-ism. One
of the things--. He's referred to by surveillance teams as the Pacer. They realize there's somebody
pacing back and forth in the compound. They're not sure who it is, so they name him the Pacer.
It turns out to be bin Laden. There are certain things that happen that surprise us about
bin Laden. One of them is the Arab Spring, and the fact that he can't, for all of the
complaining that he'd done and pointing to mistreatment of Muslims and this war between
the religions and this war on Islam. When it actually comes right down to what happens
in those final years of bin Laden's life, is that the headline is not about al Qaeda.
Talk a little bit about what you think this meant to bin Laden and what it means for the
future of al Qaeda, in general
>>Bergen: I think we know what it meant to bin Laden. Bin Laden released around 30 audiotapes
and videotapes after 9/11, and he would comment on the matters of the most minor interest
in the Muslim world. Arcane discussions of theology amongst Saudi clerics who would talk
about the decision in France to ban the public wearing of the burqa. He would talk about
any issue of any significance to Muslims anywhere. The floods in Pakistan of the summer of 2010,
the list goes on and on. He never released a tape about the Arab Spring. He did make
one, which has been recovered, but this is the most significant event in the Middle East
since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire since the end of World War I, and yet he had nothing
to say about it. I think there's a reason for that. His people were not involved, his
ideas were absent. I didn't see--. To me, it was very telling that in the thousands
of hours of videotape of the Arab Spring, there was not one picture of an American flag
being burned. There wasn't even a picture of an Israeli flag being burned, because these
issues, which had seemed to so animate the Middle East, actually were not the real issues.
The real issues were the mistreatment of Arab publics by their rulers and authoritarian
kleptocracies, often family kleptocracies. People'd had enough. Of course, in Egypt the
main political party was called Kefaya, which means "enough." People had had enough. This
had nothing to do with bin Laden. Bin Laden was losing the war of ideas in the Muslim
world long before the Arab Spring or his own death because he had nothing to offer. There's
no al Qaeda hospital system or social welfare service or ideas about political economy.
It's just a restoration of the caliphate, by which he means not the Ottoman Empire,
but Taliban-style theocracies from Indonesia to Morocco. Most Muslims see what the Taliban
did in Afghanistan. It's not a very attractive model for the future.
The two great quotes that I use at the end of the book, one is by President Bush, who,
9 days after 9/11, said that al Qaeda would eventually "join the unmarked grave of discarded
lives." Just as fascism and communism had. President Obama called them "small men on
the wrong side of history." Those are both accurate.
One of the really interesting things to me about bin Laden's death was the absence of
reaction to it in the Arab and Muslim world at large. You can have a million men march
in Pakistan over almost nothing. There was nobody getting out on the streets. There was
the usual hundred rent-a-crowd-type religious fanatics in Qatar and places, but there was
nothing significant. Bin Laden's moment had long come and past.
I think when we zoom out and look at this in a historical sense, we're going to look
at this as a period of essentially world domination by Google and uninterrupted peace. 9/11 will
be seen as a significant event, but it was an aberrational event. I think we can say
that now already. I don't think we're, Al Qaeda doesn't pose a National Security problem
in the United States or anything close since 9/11. 17 Americans have died in the United
States as a result of al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like individuals or groups. More Americans die
accidentally, drown in their bathtubs every year, something like 300 every year. We don't
have an irrational fear of accidental bathtub drownings, so we shouldn't have an irrational
fear of al Qaeda. In fact, we're doing their business for them if we do. Let's put it all
in perspective. We had a case today, by the way, in Cleveland
where a group of anarchists were planning, supposedly, to try to blow up a bridge. It's
not the-- Only al Qaeda and jihadi militants is not the only form of terrorism out there,
but we have a huge--. On 9/11, there were 16 people on the no-fly list. Now there are
21,000. On 9/11, there was no TSA. We can debate about the merits or demerits of that,
but the point is there was none. On 9/11, there was no DHS. On 9/11, the FBI and the
CIA were barely talking. On 9/11, there were very few joint terrorism task forces. We have
directed, the United States, a huge amount of resources in thinking about this problem.
It is basically you can't--. No politician is going to get up and say, "The problem is
over" because what if it isn't? Even if you're wrong by 1%, politically, you pay a huge price.
But we can say that this problem--. I have every interest in saying this is a problem
that continues to exist because I spent 15 years and 4 books trying to document it. But
I feel like a Sovietologist in 1989, which is like this problem--. The difference is,
of course, the Soviet Union officially has dissolved itself. Al Qaeda will never say,
"Hey, we are out of business." But they are effectively out of business. If the death
of bin Laden and the Arab Spring isn't the punctuation mark, what is? We didn't kill
every Nazi to win World War II.
>>presenter: Perhaps you could whisper that in the ear of some politician.
>>Bergen: Yeah, I could whisper it, but I think it would be a waste of breath because
I think no--. Politicians are politicians because they want--. This is not even a criticism
of them. They're not going to say that because it becomes freighted with too much political
cost if you're wrong.
>>presenter: Well, let me ask a question. Do you think that there is a concerted group
of politicians who think that the al Qaeda moment is over and the threat of al Qaeda
is something we can now be at ease about?
>>Bergen: The way I would answer that, Christmas Day 2009. If that plane had blown up over
Detroit with 300 Americans on board, carried live on CNN, the Obama presidency would have
been over, in my view. He would be a one-term president. That's not a comment on him, it's
a comment on zero tolerance that the American people now have for this kind of thing. After
all, Pan Am 103 blew up over Scotland, killing 270 people in 1988. It wasn't the end of George
H. W. Bush's presidency. But in the post-9/11 era, that would be something that would be
politically impossible to recover from.
>>presenter: So we need to keep this--. Or we will keep this big infrastructure? Do we
need all of that?
>>Bergen: I'm sure we don't. There are 860,000 Americans with top secret clearances. Not
secret, top secret. I don't think they all need them, somehow. Having a certain amount
of redundancy is fine, but there's--. Clearly everybody's going to have to give blood at
the blood bank in terms of this budget crisis. The national security industrial complex shouldn't
be exempted.
>>presenter: Well said. Do you have any questions? We have a few minutes for questions if you
have any. [pause] Go to the microphone if you have a question.
>> male #1: I actually have a question. Actually, I have two questions, but I'll make them brief.
First one is, I read your piece in the New York Times, the op-ed piece, which I thought
was excellent. But a few days later, and I don't know if you caught it in a Wall Street
Journal, there was a piece that, I can't remember who wrote it, that implied that the Obama
Administration is losing their focus on al Qaeda and focusing more on China and the Far
East. I was just wondering what your reaction to that is. The second thing, on a more personal
level, I realize you're a journalist, and so there's always a tension between journalism
and the national security apparatus. But I was just wondering, are there ever times where
you're surprised by what information is publicly available? Where you say to yourself, "Wow,
I didn't realize" or "That might be information that could help al Qaeda or some other terror
>>presenter: Okay, good.
>>Bergen: On the question of informations publicly available, obviously I'm a journalist,
so I'm in favor of as much publicly available information. Obviously at Google, which is--.
Obviously, that's part of Google's philosophy. Am I surprised what's out there? The way I
would answer that is the CIA, belatedly, but in a real way, is getting into the open source
intelligence business which-- [pause]. When I'd been writing about bin Laden, some of
the most useful materials were stuff that was publicly available information in the
Arab language press. The open source, you can actually -- Universities have access to
it. It's a CIA-funded thing. Universities and think tanks. That's a tremendous resource.
I'm happily surprised by how so much is available. I think that, until recently, I think the
intelligence community tended to view things that weren't secret as not being useful. I
think they now understand that in fact, most of the useful material is actually open. At
the end of the day, there are certain things that are--. There's a distinction between
secrets and mysteries. Mysteries are very hard to-- A mystery might be "What is Ahmadinejad
really thinking?" [laughs] That's a tough one and obviously not something easily available
on open source. On the question of China. The idea that the
United States government can't chew gum and walk simultaneously is ridiculous. Al Qaeda
has received a huge amount of attention. I think it's good that there's been more attention
on these other issues. They're not going away. I just don't buy that.
>>presenter: Over here.
>> male #2: I have two questions. The first is, you said if they had handed over bin Laden,
there would be no war on terror. Do you truly believe that? Isn't it a little bit pretext?
>>presenter: Okay, and next question?
>> male #2: So as someone who served in Afghanistan, what is the future for the country?
>>presenter: Thank you.
>>Bergen: Okay. What's the future of Afghanistan? I'm like a lot of people. I'm somewhat optimistic.
I've been visiting since '93. I was there in the civil war. I was there for the Taliban.
What's happening in Afghanistan is not great. On the other hand, it's much better than being
invaded by the Soviets, having a civil war, and being ruled over by the Taliban, which
is what happened to the country in the last 30 years. There was no phone system under
the Taliban. Now, 1 in 3 people in Afghanistan has a cell phone. There were no girls in school.
Now, 2 million girls are in school. GDP growth rate was 20% in 2009. The list goes on and
on. There've been advances. Not to say that Afghanistan would be anything other than a
not particularly successful central Asian state like Tajikistan. That's what it will
be. I think the prognosis is really reasonably
good. We signed an agreement with the Afghan government in principle that the United States
will be there another 10 years after 2014. I think most Afghans are happy about that,
that we will continue to be involved in the future of their country.
The pretext on bin Laden. I think if the Taliban had handed over bin Laden, why would we have
gone to war with them? It's not like Afghanistan's such a valuable piece of territory for the
United States. There would be no reason to--. Why? Let's do the thought experiment. They
handed over bin Laden. The United States would still have gone to war to fight the Taliban,
you think?
>>male #2: Iraq. [pause]
>>Bergen: I don't see the connection.
>>presenter: Let's move on to another question.
>> male #2: Okay. I just want to sum up. I talked to a lot of Afghanis--
>>presenter: You know what, we're just going to take the next question. Thank you very
>> woman #1: Hi, I have a related question to that, which is as the person who manages
for Google our military veteran programs internally and externally, we've seen, our military and
our American public has seen the goal shift a number of times. At least, that's the perspective
of the hundreds of veterans I've talked to who've served on multiple deployments. We
went in to get bin Laden. We decimated al Qaeda. Bin Laden's gone. Now it's all about
the Taliban. We're going to be there for 10 years. From your perspective of having written
so many books and covered this winding road of this story over the many, many years, where
do you, where does the goal stop? When we do leave in 10 years, what's to say that the
Taliban isn't going to come back?
>>Bergen: Right. That's a fair enough question. Why are we in Afghanistan. What is the strategy?
I think if President Obama was here, or President Romney if he gets elected, or President Hillary
Clinton, or any other president, would say that we're in Afghanistan basically to prevent
the Taliban having a resurgence of any meaningful nature. Not to say that the Taliban won't
be part of the future of Afghanistan in some way, but it wasn't just al Qaeda that was
living in Afghanistan pre 9/11. Every jihadi group from the Philippines to Uzbekistan to
around the world was living there. The reason that it's a powerful argument to
say we should continue trying to continue this counter-sanctuary strategy is we've tried
varieties of ways in the past to-- We've had an Afghan policy of essentially leaving it.
In 1989, we closed our embassy. We zeroed our aid to the poorest countries in the world
at the time. That was under the Clinton Administration. George H. W. Bush closed the embassy there,
his administration. Into the vacuum came the civil war, the Taliban. Then we did a version
of that again in 2002 when George W. Bush, because of an ideological aversion to nation
building, didn't really do anything in Afghanistan. In 2003, there were 6000 American soldiers
in Afghanistan. It's a country the size of Texas with a population 10 times the size
of Houston. 6000 is the number of policeman in Houston. So it was not enough to maintain
control. I think any American president will say, will try to maintain some kind of presence.
Our post 2014 presence is not going to be a combat presence. It's going to be an advisory
presence because the Afghan National Army is going to need help. By the way, there was
no--. The coalition in Iraq was essentially the British, and that was that. The coalition
in Afghanistan includes about 40 countries, including some Muslim countries: Jordan and
Qatar have very small contingents. Many countries are threatened by--. The Germans are threatened,
or there's a case going on right now in Germany today about some Germans who were training
in the tribal regions who were planning to attack in Europe.
I think that that is, I don't think it's so much the goalposts have changed. A part of
it is also what people say about what the strategy is. I think that it's easier just
to say, "We're there to defeat al Qaeda" rather than to say, "Our goal is a counter-sanctuary
strategy to prevent the Taliban coming back from controlling a significant part of the
country where they might bring back al Qaeda or like-minded groups" because that does not
fit very well on a bumper sticker. But that's really the strategy.
>>presenter: I'll take the last question.
>> male #3: So based on your research, do you believe there is every any sincere attempt
or intention to capture bin Laden alive? Or was this team effectively on a shoot-to-kill
mission? And if we had brought him out alive, what would have happened?
>>Bergen: I say in the book. There was a plan, if we captured bin Laden, to take him to Bagram
Air Force Base and then put him on a plane to the USS Carl Vinson, which is a huge warship,
which is where he was buried, essentially from that warship. There was a group of high-valued
interrogators, special high-valued interrogation team, linguists, lawyers, experts in al Qaeda
who were assembled there who would have interrogated him in Bagram and then on the the Vinson.
He probably would have been kept there for several months, probably incommunicado. It
would not have been announced, if there was a way to keep it covert that he was actually
in custody. Was there any real chance that he was going
to be killed, uh, you know, captured? I'm pretty skeptical. First of all, his own public
statements were "I'm going to go out as a martyr." He said that repeatedly. Secondly,
unless he conspicuously surrendered, I think the rules of engagements suggested adult males
in the building were likely to be killed, which is what happened. The US Navy SEAL Team
6 is not the Red Cross. On the other hand, they do have rules of engagement which they
would follow. But he didn't conspicuously surrender. He was shot. Why he didn't put
up a fight is a question I could never really get a good answer to because obviously, he
wasn't available for an interview.
>>presenter: Let me ask you one final question, Peter, following up on that. Was there anything
that you in particular would have liked to know from bin Laden, had he been taken alive?
Beyond what we've gotten from the documents cache that has been retrieved from the Abbottabad
house? Is there anything we wanted to know?
>>Bergen: One of the interesting things about these documents is a question that I've always
had about bin Laden, which is he claims he's a defender of Muslims, yet a lot of his victims
have been Muslims civilians. A lot of the victims have been civilians. From a juridicial
Islamic theology perspective, that's not a very easy thing to say is okay. Plenty of
people have pointed out that bin Laden is on very thin ice when he says it's okay to
kill American civilians and others. A question I would have had for him is: how
do you justify that? He's been asked that, but what's interesting in these documents
is that it became clear to bin Laden that the attacks that people were doing on civilians
in al Qaeda's name were actually very counter-productive. I have a piece on CNN right now. The leaders
of al Qaeda wrote the Pakistani Taliban saying, "You've got to desist from these attacks on
mosques and public marketplaces. They're killing lots of Pakistani civilians." Was that a tactical
thing, was that a religious thing, was it both? Probably a little bit of both. Al Qaeda
itself was beginning to realize that this was its main Achilles' heel.
>>presenter: Well, we're out of time, but thank you Peter. I encourage you to buy the
book, which is for sale over there. It is wonderful.