CIA Spokesman Bill Harlow
Interview on CNN News program: "Target Terrorism: The Investigation Continues; Intelligence Community Retraces its Steps; How Can Attacks be Prevented?" (Excerpts)
@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?

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 even?

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 Washington.

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 States...

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.

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.

Thank you very much.

Thanks for stopping by.