Spokesman Bill Harlow
Interview on CNN News program: "Target Terrorism: The Investigation Continues;
Intelligence Community Retraces its Steps; How Can Attacks be Prevented?"
@12:00 P.M. EDT
October 6, 2001
We're joined now by CIA spokesman Bill Harlow.
Bill, what's been going on in the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community since
September 11? How is the work and the life changed for you all?
BILL HARLOW, CIA SPOKESPERSON:
Well, as you know, the war on terrorism didn't begin on September 11 at the
CIA. We've been working on that for a long time. Our Counterterrorism Center,
in fact, was set up in the mid-1980s. In the last four years, the size of it
has doubled, and in the last four weeks, it's doubled again.
We have analysts, operators, people detailed to us from the FBI, from the FAA,
from the Department of Defense, all working together on this target. Not just
the Counterterrorism Center but throughout the agency, all of our assets are
devoted to this very important target.
To the extent there was an intelligence failure that led to September 11, should
anyone accept blame for that?
Well, it is a war against terrorism, and in wars, sadly, some battles will be
lost. Obviously, the events of September 11 were a very serious blow, but I
can assure you that all of us are focused on the mission of taking care of the
terrorist target and working overseas. It is a very difficult target, much more
difficult than the conventional wars that we've been used to, and one that requires
a great deal of resources and assets.
In your piece that you just had on, Chairman Goss talked about the additional
assets which are being provided to us. And we welcome that support and need
it very much.
And some argue that -- and you've heard them already today--that the CIA is
actually rather weak on human intelligence, particularly against terrorist groups.
Is that a problem in your view? Is that something that needs fixing?
Human intelligence is the core of what we do, and we absolutely need to have
more of it. The CIA, just like other agencies of the U.S. government, in the
early '90s, was reduced in size, more than 20 percent.
But since 1997, when Director Tenet, George Tenet, came on board, we've been
addressing that. It's not the kind of thing which you can fix in a day or a
week or a month.
Our clandestine training facility this year graduated five times as many students
as graduated from that facility in 1996. We're working on dealing with the question
of language capabilities. As you pointed out in your piece, three times as many
people with capabilities in Arabic. Our last graduating class from the clandestine
facility had 22 different languages represented among the students there.
This is not enough. We need to do more. We appreciate getting the resources
provided by the Congress, and we will be doing more.
But some argue also that there's a sort of bureaucratic and risk-averse culture
in the U.S. intelligence community. Is that changing? If so--or is that true
You generally hear that from armchair critics and from even some of our alumni
who haven't been in the agency for years and years, and they have no way of
knowing the way operations are now conducted.
I assure you that there are very risky operations going on as we speak and have
been for quite some time. This is a very dangerous business.
The way we go about doing the business has changed dramatically since the end
of the Cold War.
Mr. Harlow, I just wanted to ask you a question about, you know, we've heard
a lot this week from the attorney general and the president, and senators were
hearing this over the course of the week, that there is an increased threat
out there. And we've had a report last night that law enforcement says there's
similar activity to the hijackers that's causing a lot of concern about a future
attack. How much should people be concerned about another attack soon? What
is the threat?
Well, the president, as you pointed out, made very clear, and the attorney general
and others have made clear, that there is a real threat to the United States.
That threat is present, and no one should minimize that threat.
That's also something which is not new. Bin Laden and his organization have
made it clear that it is their goal to target American taxpayers.
They've said that it's their religious duty to kill Americans. And they said
that years ago, which we widely publicized at the time. And you should assume
that they continue to want to carry out that threat.
But they also said years ago that they were going to use flight training and
terrorist activities. And they said years ago in 1995 that specifically they
were going to use an airplane to crash into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon
and the White House. What was done about that, those warnings?
Well, I would differ with you on whether bin Laden's organization said specifically
those things. But there have been lots of threats and warnings and rumors and
much information which is out there.
And we, working with law enforcement, the FAA, other agencies, have tried to
deal with them.
But in a country likes ours, as open as we are, with the vulnerabilities that
go with the freedoms that we have, it's very difficult to guard against all
of those threats.
There is a lot that's being done. Obviously much more needs to be done, and
people are working on it now.
I want to pick off of Eileen's point there. You mentioned armchair critics.
I'm going to be an armchair journalist for a moment, coming from outside of
I think it's a question a lot of Americans still have. When you look at September
11, and you see four airplanes, three airports and two airlines, what had to
happen in order for this to be coordinated, for that much information to have
to be transferred between all of these people who had to plan it?
Are you saying the CIA had no idea, or there was just so much information out
there it just didn't have the right organization to process it? I think Americans
still don't understand how its government could not know what was going on,
or even have a hint.
Well, the terrorists' target, as I said earlier, is very difficult to penetrate.
These organizations communicate among themselves very quietly in ways which
are difficult, if not impossible, to learn exactly what their plans are.
They have sleepers, people who have embedded themselves in the U.S. society
and been here for months and years on end. We have restrictions, as some of
your earlier guests talked about. But what we're able to do, the U.S. intelligence
community, is prevented from conducting operations in the United States. We're
prevented from listening in on communications with people who are in the United
If I could just interrupt you here, because I don't think you're answering my
question. Are you saying that didn't have the information, or you didn't have
the right access to the information?
We did not have the information about specific time, place, location of these
terrible attacks. Very difficult to obtain. And everyone, including law enforcement,
FAA, need to work harder to prevent people from being able to get control of
airplanes or being able to conduct these kind of attacks.
But those who think it's easy to do, to penetrate a terrorist cell, people who
are often small groups of people who are related to each other, who do not communicate
in the open airwaves, who do not advertise precisely what they're going to do,
is a very, very difficult thing to do.
Bill, briefly, the House bill says the CIA should stop vetting people for their
human rights and criminal records. Is that going to help?
And, secondly, you wrote a book about terrorism on U.S. soil a couple of years
ago. Did you ever expect to see this?
On your first question about vetting people; the rules were put in place in
the mid-1990s because members of Congress and members of the media criticized
our officers for dealing with people with unsavory characters. And we have continued
to deal with people with unsavory backgrounds, because we know better than anyone
else that that's who you need to deal with in order to get the information you
need on terrorism.
We do that, but we've tried to have rules that protect our people to make sure
that everyone knows that we were doing it. The point is, we have never turned
down an opportunity to recruit a terrorist because of a human rights background.
We're just trying to protect our people. If these new rules help communicate
better to folks, that's fine. We'll, you know, deal with that.
As far as the question on fiction, the authors...
And reality--the authors of this tragedy on September 11 cooked up a plot that
I don't think any normal person could concoct. The one thing I would say though
is I think, at the end of the day, the end will be the same as in fiction and,
in this case, the good guys--the United States and our allies--will win.
Bill Harlow with the CIA. It's not often we get a chance to talk with somebody
from your organization, so we really do appreciate your time.