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An Interview With

John Miller

February 20, 2009

 

 

John Miller is one of very few who have had successful careers in both journalism and law enforcement. Currently the Assistant Director of the FBI, Miller began his career as a journalist in the 1970’s. From 1994-1996 he was the Deputy Police Commissioner of New York City. After joining ABC News in 1998, he was assigned to interview Osama bin Laden. He began his service with the FBI in 2005, bringing with him experience from both sides of the yellow tape, as well as extensive experience in the field of terrorism. In his 2002 book, The Cell, he describes Al-Qaeda and the events leading up to 9/11 that show the failure of our anti-terrorism efforts.

“It (the FBI) is certainly an organization that has been called on many times over 100 years to redefine itself.” - John Miller

Spencer

In 1994 you left your job as an investigative journalist to become the Deputy Police Commissioner of New York City. Why did you want to trade in your press card and cross over the yellow tape?

 

 

John Miller

A couple of reasons, first and foremost of which, if you look at my career path, you will never see a particular climb in authority and you certainly won’t see an increase in financial gain, so in that case what I usually focus on is what would be the next most interesting thing to do. Where would be the next most exciting place to be positioned? People say how do I move up? How do I make more? That has never been my thing.

 

 

 

It was the next most interesting thing to do. Having covered the New York Police Department for 20 years, it would be like the guy in the sportscaster booth saying, “Hey, how would you like to manage the team? How would you like to be the coach? Of course every sports writer thinks they can do it better but very few of them can. Every theater critic says, “I could have written a better play.” But none of them ever do. So this was a chance to transcend that and instead of being the critic, instead of talking about what they did everyday and how they did it, to actually be a part of formulating the policy and the action. If you look at the environment of the time, a new police commissioner, Bill Bratton, had cut crime by 40 percent in subway. No one had ever done anything like that before. The question was could he bring that same difference to the streets of New York. It was the most exciting time to be in the New York Police Department in terms of change and opportunity since the days of Teddy Roosevelt when he was commissioner. So it was the right time to do it. And it was worth every minute of it.

 

 

 

By the time we were done changing the processes in the New York Police Department, murder was reduced by 70 percent and crime by half and certainly no one has ever done that before or since in any other place. So it was worth the adventure.

 

 

Spencer

In 1998, you returned to journalism and joined ABC News., One of your early assignments was to interview Osama bin Laden. Your journey took you halfway around the world from cities to villages, through camps and finally up a remote mountain. You could have been kidnapped or killed. Did you consider the dangers and were there any precautions?

 

 

John Miller

I did consider the dangers and calculated the risk in the following way. It was very unlikely that Al Qaeda in general or bin Laden in particular would go through the time and trouble it took to get us in there to do that interview or submit themselves to the operational security risk that it took to do it if they didn’t’ have a message that they were trying to get out.

 

 

 

And if they had a message that they wanted to get out, it was in their interest to get us in, give us that message, and get us out safely. So that was the calculated risk. Precautions? We had to put ourselves in their hands in order to get in. They weren’t going to let us meet them on some neutral ground. It wasn’t going to happen in a hotel. He wasn’t going to come to Pakistan. So there were no precautions. We had to hand ourselves over to them and trust that our original calculus, that they really wanted this message to get out, was going to hold.

 

 

 

When I looked forward to some of the things that happened such as the murder of Daniel Pearl in similar circumstances, you realize that it was a calculated risk because they could have easily turned the dynamic around by saying, “Our message is we are holding this guy and our demands are X.” But I think we calculated it right. And it turned out to be what I believe is the most significant interview with bin Laden to date because he declared war on the United States and he said that he was going to change the dynamic in that struggle against the United States and he certainly went on to do that.

 

 

Spencer

So it was worth it in the end, you would say?

 

 

John Miller

I think it was well worth it although at the time I was thinking, when we came under fire a couple of times during the trip to find bin Laden, I was thinking that this isn’t worth it. No one has ever heard of this guy. I don’t know if he is terribly important in the world of terrorism. He looks like he might be although I think over time it is pretty much well vetted that he was that important and more.

 

 

Spencer

When the interview was about to begin, you were told that the answers would not be translated. Did this take you by surprise? Did that decision affect the interview?

 

 

John Miller

It did and it did. It took me by surprise because I thought that the reason we had a translator of our own and they had a translator of their own was so we would be able to translate it. And when they said that wasn’t going to happen, my first reaction was that won’t work. What about the follow up questions. They said, “There won’t be any follow up questions.” I think that you know in some way they didn’t want bin Laden to be challenged. They wanted him to get out a statement, a doctrine from a reporters standpoint that is not an optimum situation. But, you want to be able to interact. You want to be able to question the premises put forth by the interview subject.

 

 

 

You want to be able to say, “Well if that is true, what about this?” But it is funny because later when I looked at the transcript of the interview I thought these are pretty much the questions that I wanted to ask and on some level he answered them. I would have rather have been able to do live time translation but his message was clear enough in the answer to the questions.

 

 

Spencer

In the interview bin Laden had explained his reasons for supporting terrorism. He talked to you about fighting for the word of Allah and fighting until the American and Jewish people are driven out of all Islamic countries. Did he say anything to you that you didn’t expect?

 

 

John Miller

He said interesting things. I expected the three-way dynamic of US out of Saudi Arabia and your support for Israel, and drop your sanctions again Iraq, because I had heard that in other places. What was more interesting about bin Laden is when you challenged him on a certain issue. I asked him about fighting wars. Fighting the Russians on the field of battle is what we consider a war. Declaring war on America and blowing up, let’s say the World Trade Center filled with innocent people, noncombatant woman and children, how do you call that war?

 

 

 

And his answer was very interesting because he said, “Well that is very interesting this question coming from an American. Was it not your country that brought us Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Did you not drop terrible bombs on these places? Were there no innocent children there, noncombatants?” And he went on to say, “In Israel their country blows up a Palestinian hospital. And you say, Oh it was a small mistake. They didn’t mean it and that is okay.”

 

 

 

He essentially said, “What we are doing to you is only a small percentage of the horrors that you have already brought on the earth. Why would you question such a thing?” Now without getting into the substance, because we could pick all of that apart, what you see are certain skills as an interview subject, to be able to rationalize, to be able to engage into some debate. And I found it very interesting that he would answer the question with something that was carefully constructed and thought out.

 

 

Spencer

Do you think he was well prepared before you got there?

 

 

John Miller

Well, he certainly had every opportunity to be. We submitted the questions because they said their translator needed to copy them into Arabic so he could read them back exactly as we asked them. And their rationale was, “You don’t want him approximating the questions or you will get an approximated answer.” So they certainly could have prepared for those questions but in that particular answer I am not sure that was one of the questions that I actually wrote out because when I went through my questions and in between sometimes I added one that was not on the list.

 

 

Spencer

So you would agree that he was very formidable?

 

 

John Miller

Yeah, as an interview subject, he was interesting.

 

 

Spencer

In the ten years since you’ve met bin Laden do you think his objectives have changed? And how is Al Qaeda different?

 

 

John Miller

Al Qaeda has shifted a great deal as has bin Laden and his role. Bin Laden used to be the face and voice of Al Qaeda and now he is a face and a voice in the background. Certainly he is the best known name, but most of Al Qaeda's communications comes from Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has really become the face and voice of Al Qaeda to the public; and from an American known as an Adam Gadon from the Los Angeles area. Bin Laden communicates far less, only a handful of times over the last seven years plus, since 9/11. And Al Qaeda has changed a great deal in that it went from being Al Qaeda the organization structured like a mafia family with a boss to something much more amorphous in which there is a message that comes from leadership but it is very difficult to determine on any level that they are running extensive operations.

 

 

 

They have not in that amount of time been able to launch a successful attack either on US soil or successful attack in a major way against US interests overseas, and that speaks to the breakdown of command and control and formidability of their organization on one level. On the other hand, there is a price you pay for that which is the Internet has become the new Afghanistan. The terrorist training, the plotting in chat rooms, and in web forums occurs bringing people together globally who otherwise would not have met. And Al Qaeda has gone from being primarily an organization.

 

 

 

There is still an organization there, but it is not the primary purpose. Now it is primarily a movement which sends out messaging, the videotapes, the audiotapes, the web postings, hoping to reach a far larger audience, an audience of millions as opposed to an audience of dozens that they had in those camps or a couple of thousand, an audience of millions hoping that they could drive that movement for individuals to rise up and become self starters, the homegrown terrorist phenomenon.

 

 

 

And if you look at the attacks from London to Saudi Arabia to the plots prevented in the US to other places, you see that movement has taken some hold.

 

 

Spencer

Isn’t the risk large?

 

 

John Miller

It is a large risk if you look at the law of unintended consequences, the intended consequence was to smash Al Qaeda, which occurred. Their bases were blown up. Their communications were broken. Their funding was cut off. Their people were sent on the run, captured or killed. But like anything that you smash with a thousand pound hammer, the many little pieces will scatter. I think that is the phenomenon that we have seen. Many little pieces have scattered. And those pieces are reached again through propaganda, through the internet and through those who would seek to radicalize individuals in places. And that does have an effect.

 

 

 

Look at a plot like the one we call the Northern Exposure Case. That was a code name for a case that involved Canada, Great Britain, Bosnia, Sweden and the United States. You have one group of people who were talking over the internet with one who was a pretty good facilitator on supplying training materials.

 

 

 

He wanted to know how to make a car bomb. He could give you a diagram. If you wanted to know how to build a suicide bombing vest, he could give you all of the instructions and where to get the materials. You wanted to know how to shoot people from far away he would upload for you the Navy Seals sniper guide. He was prolific. He was good at funding in that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from credit cards by stealing credit card numbers over the internet.

 

 

 

He was good at propaganda in that he stole bandwidth from the Arkansas Department of Highways, from the websites of small newspapers and publications but he used that bandwidth to post Al Qaeda videos. And who was he talking to? His screen name was Irhabi007 or terrorist James Bond. He was talking to a group of 17 people who were plotting attacks against the Canadian government in Canada, two Georgia Tech students in Atlanta who were plotting attacks in both Atlanta and Washington, and an individual with a screen name Maximus in Bosnia who was the self-styled leader of a self proclaimed organization, Al Qaeda of Western Europe, whose name turned out to be Mirsad Bektasevic.

 

 

 

When the Bosnian police stopped him, he had all of the weapons and explosives to do an attack against NATO and he was a very short time away from carrying it out. The people in Canada had already bought the timing and power units and the explosives from an undercover informant that had been placed into the case. The two Georgia Tech students were arrested, one in this country, one overseas, after plotting against targets in Washington including the Capital, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, oil tank farms along the highway, as well as targets in Atlanta.

 

 

 

And when you got to the end of it, you had 18 FBI field offices involved, seven US intelligence agencies, nine foreign countries and who were we talking about really? Irhabi007 or Terrorist James Bond turned out to be a 21-year old kid named Younes Tsouli, who worked on the computer in the basement of his father’s apartment in London. He couldn’t find Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda couldn’t find him but the fact is he became the centerpiece of a multinational, multi-terrorist plot organization that wasn’t organized.

 

 

 

It was all through the globalization of communications and the fact that one person with some leadership communications and technical skills could be the impetus or catalyst to a number of asymmetric terrorist attacks in the name of Al Qaeda and that Al Qaeda actually had very little to do with. That is a pretty accurate depiction of the new face of terror.

 

 

Spencer

On 9/11, working for ABC, you sat beside Peter Jennings. In your book you reviewed the events of that day in some detail. Did you think back to your meeting with bin Laden three years before? What were your emotions on that day?

 

 

John Miller

It was interesting because I remembered in the early hours of the Oklahoma City bombing how some commentators on television said, “this has all the earmarks of Middle East terrorism,” and it turned out to be Timothy McVay, who was certainly a domestic terrorist. So, I wanted to be cautious, but as the minutes turned into the first hours, it was becoming increasingly clear that to have the infrastructure to fly two commercial airliners into a building and have the people take it over and so on required the backing of not a domestic terrorist organization but a well funded international terrorist organization and the short list certainly started with Al Qaeda.

 

 

 

I tried not to jump to an instant conclusion but I did know that the World Trade Center had been an Al Qaeda target before Al Qaeda was really even known in the 1993 bombing and I did know that they, the World Trade Center, had recently hired John O'Neill, the FBI guy in charge of the Al Qaeda cases at the FBI to be its brand new Chief of Security. It was his second day on the job and ultimately he was killed in the attack. Peter Jennings said to me, “When did you interview bin Laden?” I said 1998. He said, “Where is the transcript?” I said, "I can pull it up in the computer."

 

 

 

I pulled it up. I printed it out. Somebody brought it over. Peter Jennings read the thing and he highlighted three or four passages, no more than five, handed back to the kid and said, “Go pull these sound bytes.” And he pulled the sound bytes, put them together and Peter Jennings played them at some point during that day on the television. And your question is, “What were your feelings about that? What emotions did it bring back?”

 

 

 

It was very interesting hearing the words of the Osama bin Laden from a few years before because he said, “I predict a black day for America after which nothing will be the same. After which the United States will no longer be united because you will see the horror that will be wrought by not addressing these challenges and some in substance.” He added, “ In the future years, you will see many men like Ramsey Youssef coming to your shores.” And there was the World Trade Center collapsing there on the screen.

 

 

 

So on one end I felt I had been in the right place at the right time. I had found the right guy, Osama bin Laden. I had brought back the right story which was a story of danger and warning that this guy had to be a focus and had to be paid attention to, but then there was the flip side of it which was as I watched the Towers fall I realized that I knew many people inside, not just casually but I knew them like I had been to their homes and knew their children and their children’s names. I knew people that I had grown up with who had taught me a lot about the police department, about crime, and about terrorism.

 

 

 

I knew that one or more generations might be dying together on that scene and I felt helpless. I felt that I had done what I could by doing what a reporter does. I had found the threat. I had exposed the threat. I had sounded the warning that was the bin Laden interview and the coverage of Al Qaeda from 1998 on. But I still felt helpless because for all of that work we were still seeing this, and it was horrible.

 

 

Spencer

Most people have a great respect for the FBI, yet some remember Waco and only want to look at the mistakes. What are some of the misconceptions about the FBI?

 

 

John Miller

I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the FBI. When you look at a 100 year history, you are going to have your shining moments and you are going to have your moments that you wish you could live over again and perhaps do differently. That is true of any organization. The FBI is certainly the most recognized in terms of the name. I mean, you go anywhere in the world and say “FBI” and nobody crooks their head at you and says, “FBI, what is that?” It may be the best branded law enforcement agency on the planet in that sense, but it has had challenges over its 100 years.

 

 

 

If you look at that time from Ruby Ridge to Waco to the Hansen case, the FBI agent who turned out to be a mole for the Russians, or even the questions raised over how we were positioned as a national security service after 9/11 given the warning signs. It is certainly an organization that has been called on many times over 100 years to redefine itself.

 

 

 

And its post-9/11 efforts to redefine itself have really brought it to a new place, capitalizing on its strengths which are the core values - fidelity, bravery and integrity. We still have all of that as an organization among our people. But we must respond to those who ask is it enough to respond to the threat, find out who is behind it, track it down to the ends of the earth if necessary, and bring them to justice.

 

 

 

Or do we have to be out much further ahead of the threat today than we’ve ever been called on before. We must find spies before they can do immeasurable damage to national security and neutralize that threat either through arrest or through some other action. We must be identifying them, exposing them, deporting them. We must also be identifying emerging threats, whether it’s the threat of mortgage fraud to the economy or the threat of corporate fraud to Wall Street and to the economy, by extension of threat to national security.

 

 

 

A threat to national security is something that can hurt our way of life, our freedom, our country, and the economic threat is one of those. And our top priority since 9/11 has been this threat of terrorism against the United States or its interest overseas. Since that time we have prevented a dozen plots against targets on US soil with our international partners in intelligence and law enforcement around the world. That has been part of redefining the FBI as an agency.

 

 

 

If you look at that universe, there are around the globe a couple of kinds of agencies. One is an intelligence service whose job is to understand the problem, to know what the threat is but it usually doesn’t have the ability to take action against the threat in their own county. The other is a law enforcement service which is well poised to take action but not really build as an intelligence service to see the threat coming from afar. What we’ve had to do is combine both and become a national security service that has the ability to look forward, identify the threat, and then disrupt it after gathering enough intelligence to make sure that we are not missing a part of it.

 

 

 

And to bring the discipline of knowing together with the ability to take action, together in one organization, puts us at a prime advantage now.

 

 

Spencer

What do you believe has been the Bureau's greatest accomplishment? And what do you believe was the most significant setback?

 

 

John Miller

I think the greatest accomplishment in recent times is having successfully carried out a transition from primarily a law enforcement agency to a national security service. I think that has been very important. I think one of the greatest setbacks to that was what happened on 9/11. I don’t blame what happened on 9/11 on the FBI but rather the larger intelligence community. And this isn’t me talking. You can read the 9/11 Commission report or the WMD Commission report or any set of documents.

 

 

 

What you saw was a community that was not well fused together in terms of the exchange of information and understanding the common operational picture of what the bad guys were up to. I think we’ve made great strides since those setbacks, of holding up our part of that bargain, which is bringing the FBI resources to the table in the intelligence community, but also in two war zones from Iraq to Afghanistan, and contributing in that way and also understanding the roles of those other agencies.

 

 

 

And being able to exploit what they have so that it helps us do our job better. That is it an important two way street. But if you look at the FBI that most people know, we chase bank robbers, mafia members, foreign spies on US soil. When you look at today’s FBI, you’ll have agents operating in a war zone where they will descend from a helicopter onto a terrorist safe house in Afghanistan or Iraq. They will move in quickly. They will be able to do a very fast search. And they will be able to deal with military people who have detained people around that area and you know they say, “Is this guy really a goat farmer as he says or is he a terrorist?”

 

 

 

Those agents can pull out a quick capture system, put their hand on a piece of glass, send those fingerprints up via satellite down to criminal justice information services, our division in West Virginia, determine if that person has ever been held in Guantanamo Bay or US Federal Prison or if their fingerprints have ever been found on a bomb or a piece of remnant from an explosive device and send that information back almost instantly. And say, “don’t let this person go. He is clearly someone in our records who has been a terrorist or you are going to have to make a determination here because he may be a goat farmer.”

 

 

 

The fact that all of that is happening, most people don’t know about that. And that is how different the FBI is today from what it has been over the years.

 

 

Spencer

I understand that you had a large role to play in the creation of an exhibit at the Newseum called the Journalist and G-men. Could you tell me a little bit about the exhibit and your role in its creation?

 

 

John Miller

One of the prides of the FBI was the FBI tour. It was the second most popular tour in Washington next to the White House. Many people went through it and many people who work in the FBI today will tell you they work here because they went through that tour and said, “I want to be a part of this organization.”

 

 

 

After 9/11 for security reasons we had to shut that tour down and as we were coming up to our 100 th anniversary, the challenge was how do we find a place, an environment that the public will have access to where we can display some of the history of the FBI over 100 years. And it was hard. The Smithsonian was undergoing extensive renovations and as a government agency said, “They would require extensive funding and a couple of years lead time.” The National Archives was in the same boat which as they said, “If we did an exhibit here, it would take a long time and it would have to fit not in with FBI history but in the parameters of what we consider national archives. What documents, what other things do you have?”

 

 

 

And I remember looking across the street leaving the National Archives at the Newseum. I thought, “What is the FBI?” I come from the field of Journalism and I understand it well but what relation do we have to this exciting new museum. What is about? The Newseum is about news. All right so what is the nexus there? If anything over 100 years, the FBI has had its share of big news stories and to find the nexus between the 100 year history of the FBI, the biggest headlines and stories of the FBI, and the reporters who covered them we were able to bring those two things together into an exhibit called the Journalist and G-men.

 

 

 

And since it has opened in June, 350,000 people, more than that, because that was the figure from three months ago, 350,000 people have gone through that exhibit and had access to it which is more than we could have put through a tour here at the FBI given the security reasons and everything else so it has been a good place to showcase two things which is the FBI’s past and a glimpse into the FBI’s future.

 

 

Spencer

In order to get information on terrorists, you need contacts to come forward and talk. When people are so afraid of talking, how do you get them to do this?

 

 

John Miller

There are the traditional methods of developing relationships with the subjects of investigations and the people around them. And there are less traditional methods. We have 56 community outreach specialists in the field offices across the United States. And in each one of the 56 offices, there is one COS and we try to take the community at large and say not the obvious.

 

 

 

The obvious is where do we have the best relationships. Let’s do stuff together. What we try to say is where do we have the biggest gap. Where do we have the worst relationship? Where is the place where they trust us the least? We target our resources where you find a wall between you and a segment of the community. Now some of these are going to be predictable. Some of them are going to be the eye of the American Muslim community because since 9/11 they fell under suspicion. They know the FBI investigates terrorism and there may be some cross suspicion there.

 

 

 

You know, “This organization is not our friend.” Some of that maybe because of where they come from in their country, the security services is the secret police. They are not to be trusted. They are brutal and they are dishonest. And they are feared. So what we try to do is we try to break down those walls, brick by brick, person by person and say, “We’d like for you to learn about the FBI, about who we are. How we are here to protect you. Not just your safety from terrorism and crime but also your particular civil rights so that no one else tramples on you, least of all us.”

 

 

 

And we do that through seminars, through speeches, through inviting them to become members of our FBI citizens’ academy where they will come one night a week for nine weeks. They will learn all about the FBI programs from subject matter experts. They will come to the shooting range. They will shoot weapons. They will go to barbeques. They will attend lectures and they will become part of, if not the FBI family, at least the FBI’s extended family because they will join the alumni association with the other citizens’ academy members.

 

 

 

And they will continue to have relationships with that office. We are talking about Hispanic business leaders, African American clergy, Muslims, or business leaders or community leaders or refugee organizations. This extends the FBI’s hands of friendships into a lot of places where we would have had trouble making a cold contact. I mean, Knock on the door and say, “If you ever hear anything, let us know. If you ever have a problem or something worries you, feel free to contact us.”

 

 

Spencer

While terrorism may never be eliminated, there must be things that can be done to reduce the risk. First, what can be done on the global stage to reduce the factors that drive the terrorist? And second, what more can we do at home to protect our homeland?

 

 

John Miller

On the global stage, the short term solution to terrorism is law enforcement, intelligence, and military. The long term solutions are political, which means the brittle issues, whether it’s the Israeli’s or Palestinians, whether it is Hezbollah, Syria, Lebanon, Israel; whether it is issues with the United States in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

 

 

 

Those are the long game issues. They have to be not solved but resolved in such a way that they are palatable for more people and that the grist for the terrorist mill, which is to play on those anxieties and unhappiness, is minimized. That is the long term part of the solution. The other pieces of that, law enforcement, intelligence, military and coordinating that among global partners are going to be the thing that keeps free countries free until those political solutions can be reached.

 

 

 

Domestically, the second part of your question, what we look for is awareness, on the part of the public. If you see something, say something. If there is something suspicious, report it. If you have information, whether you are the man on the street or whether you are a person from one of those communities that I talked about where there is reluctance to come forward, go to someone to get that information in the right place. And that is all we can really ask of the public.

 

 

Spencer

One final question, one lesson from 9/11 is the importance of interagency communications? Would you tell me a little bit about the Freedom Center and the Watch Floor and what they have accomplished?

 

 

John Miller

The Freedom Center is the NCTC, National Counterterrorism Center, and the Watch Floor there is a 24/7 operation.

 

 

 

But the NCTC, in the post 9/11 world is a place where you could take the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agencies, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and select local law enforcement organization representatives and you can get everybody together.

 

 

 

You know, you are talking about connecting the dots. The purpose of the NCTC is to put everybody’s dots in one bucket and pour it all out on the table and then have everybody connect them together so you really do have a common operational picture across the intelligence community. Intelligence, law enforcement, military and decision makers, whether they be at the White House, at the State Department, have the ability to get that collective picture and make better operational decisions, make better policy decisions and get better intelligence.

 

 

 

It was extraordinarily important to develop the NCTC. Yes, we still have relationships with the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial, all the alphabet soup of intelligence agencies. We send our people to work in their shops. They send their people to work in our shops. The NCTC is that one place where it all comes together every day, person to person on the big table. And that transcends all of those independent relationships so you have one central place for coordination to get the big picture. It has been very important and I think successful.