tv The Terror Years CSPAN November 5, 2016 4:50pm-5:31pm EDT
it's terrific to see you here. my name is brian sweany, and i am the editor of texas monthly magazine, it is always a pleasure -- [applause] hey, thank you for that. whoo hoo! thank you for that. it is always a pleasure to be part of this festival. its roots are so deep here in this city and in this state, and it is always a great honor to be part of it. i have to say today is very special because sitting to my right is a writer that i have long admired before i had the chance to become his friend but has produced some of the most important journalism in my lifetime for sure -- [applause] both in magazines, primarily the new yorker, and in book form. ladies and gentlemen, lawrence wright. >> thank you. [applause] >> you no doubt know larry from all the unbelievable works he has done, the new one is called "the terror years."
but as of late, he has had just an unbelievable string of bestsellers and books that have been enormously influential. certainly, "13 days in september," "going clear on scientology," and and a book that always remains on my night stand, "the looming tower," for which he won a pulitzer prize. [applause] the new book, as i said, is "the terror years," and it is a come to bylation of articles that he -- compilation of articles that he had written for the new yorkers as a primer on what is happening across the globe. what i wanted to start with you to see is could you tell us your first trip when you were sort of overseas into the middle east or that region of the world came when you were a young man during the vietnam war. but it's a fascinating story as to what took you over to egypt in the first place and, i suspect, got your interest going in this. >> well, yeah, it is an odd story because i didn't know anything about the middle east at all.
i was a conscientious objector during vietnam. i didn't -- i was surprised to be given a conscientious objector status out of dallas, texas. it was a little bit surprising. and so i had two weeks to find a job, and you had to -- it had to be 50 miles from home, it had to be low paying, and it had to be nominally in the interests of the united states. and i thought i didn't mind the 50 miles from home. the vietnam era was one of the worst periods in our history, and i wanted to get as far away from america at the time as i could. so i went to the united nations thinking they would give me a low paying job far, far from home. and they said, no, we don't do that, but here's a list of american institutions abroad. and one of them, the american university in cairo, had an office right across the street at 866 u.n. plaza. so i walked across the street. and when i walked across the street, i did not know, for
instance, that we had no diplomatic relations with egypt at the time. [laughter] i knew that this had been a war over there -- that there had been a war over there, but it wasn't a war that i was paying i much attention -- i don't even think i knew what language they spoke. and so, you know, there were a couple hundred americans in the whole country, a handful were trying to run this university. so i went in, i applied for a job, and 30 minutes later they said, can you leave tonight? [laughter] well, no. my girlfriend's back in boston, i haven't told my parents what i'm doing. can you leave tomorrow? yeah, i can go tomorrow. [laughter] so i went back and told roberta, i'm going to egypt for two years, i don't know where this leaves us. and then i called my parents from jfk, and i flew to cairo, landed at midnight, taught my first class at nine in the morning. [laughter] i was teaching kids whose english language ability wasn't quite good enough to get into
the university, so my first words as a teacher or as i walked into the lowest level of this preschool teaching assignment for the university, i said can anybody here speak english? and someone said, you do. [laughter] and my beginning of my brilliant teaching career in the middle east. [laughter] you should always be careful when you walk across the street. you never know what's on the other side. >> it's perhaps a wonderful accident that that took you overseas,some then i would imagine -- and then i would imagine the first steps of informing your knowledge in that part of the world, one as you say i suspect many of us didn't have nearly a good understanding of as either we should have or needed to as global events began to overtake our modern day politics. i want to read one thing from the introduction of your book to frame what you are doing here. it is a little bit to unpack, but i think it's important for
our session. you write, and this again for the for "the terror years," this book can be seen as a primer on the evolution of the jihadist movement from its early years to the present and the parallel actions of the west to attempt to contain it. america's involvement in the middle east since 9/11 has been a long series of failures. our own actions have been responsible for much of the unfolding catastrophe. which, i think, is a fascinating and yet provocative statement, no doubt controversial in many areas. i wonder if that's something that you can just sort of begin to talk about your sort of understanding of that as it relates to your role as a reporter, explaining a world that very few of us here probably do know, have any real insight into aside from what we do see in media or read in books. how did you begin to unpack it? what are the skills as a journalist that you brought to over, you know, a decades-long career? >> well, when -- you know, i used some of the experience of
living in the middle east to write a movie called "the siege" with denzel washington and bruce willis -- >> i'm going to cheat and say that i watched that as part of my research. >> oh, good for you. you can write that off on your taxes. [laughter] so, you know, that experience informed my journalism, and i had spent some time in the middle east before 9/11. but when 9/11 happened, i felt compelled to write about it because, you know, in some -- i had lived in a muslim country, i spoke some arabic. it had been a long time, but, you know, i'd studied arabic for fun when i was in egypt and so i could get around. and also i had written this movie which in creepy ways foreshadowed what was going to happen on 9/11. it was -- the question that "the siege" asked, what would happen
if terrorism came to our country as it already had, you know, for instance, in london and paris. what if terrorism came to new york? and so that's the premise. what kind of country would we become. how would we change. and it was a box office failure because muslims and arabs were so angry at being stereotyped as terrorists. this was 1998. and before, you know, it came out just after the embassy bombings in 1998 in east africa when al-qaeda began its assault on america. but when i wrote it, that hadn't happened. so people were picketing the theaters, they didn't, you know, nobody wanted to cross the picket lines to go see a movie, and so it was a big bust. and and then after 9/11 it was the most rented movie in america. and i've thought about that. you know, it was labeled prophesy, but it wasn't really. it was just, you know, i had
studied up on how other countries handled situations like this and what we've done in our own history. but it was end creepy to see -- it was creepy to see these events that i put in as plot points in the movie one after another -- the rounding up of muslims, the torture and all those things that had been a feature of the movie became a part of our national life. and i felt, you know, because of all those things i was, i had just a compulsion that i had to find a way to write about this incident. >> i want to, certainly, talk about where we are right now in this war on terrorism that we have now spanned the complete administrations of two presidents. but let's go back a little bit to that -- >> actually, three if you go back to clinton. '98 was our first attack. >> exactly right. and so you think of the long time that we have been engaged
with this, but then perhaps not engaged enough, perhaps something that's happening separate from what we do as we go about our daily lives. so tell me about in your view as you say in the introduction the mistakes that the west has made either leading up to 9/11 as you say the attacks, obviously, had already begun. we can trace this going way back to the takeover in iran, beirut, sort of going all the way back, but what are some of the mistakes that you think we have made either before then or, in particular, post-9/11 that have informed your reporting? >> well, to start with, i think the fundamental problem is we simply don't understand that part of the world, and we don't have a comprehensive understanding of what is meaningful to them. and an example of that is after, you know, when saddam hussein invaded kuwait in 2003 and his massive million man army on saudi arabia's border, and saudi
arabia is a country that can't really defend itself. so osama bin laden came over to talk to the saudi defense minister, and he proposed that he would just have al-qaeda defend saudi arabia which was a couple hundred guys at the time, and they were going to use his father's construction equipment to trench, you know, it was a lunatic idea. and the defense minister said, no, i think i'll turn to america instead. and they did. so half a million american and coalition troops went into saudi arabia. very few of them muslim, many of them women. this was in an extremely conservative islamic country, probably the most conservative. and seeing american women soldiers driving jeeps and humvees, this was a total revolution in thinking in saudi arabia. and many, many very conservative
muslims believe in one of the sayings of the prophet muhammad, on his death bed, he said let there not be two religions in arabia. islam is the only religion that can be represented in saudi arabia. so having nonbelievers, having female soldiers in the country was inflammatory to their sensibilities. and we promised to get out as soon as we finished up with saddam hussein. we didn't. the saudis had given us wonderful bases and great accommodations. there were other american bases in the persian gulf that we could have retreated to, but it was just why bother, you know? the reason why bother is because it was a huge talking point among radical islamists. and that became one of the
things that ignited al-qaeda in its war against the west and especially america. it was simply a lack of understanding. and, you know, of course iraq is the thing that everyone points to as a catastrophic error. i was in saudi arabia when we invaded iraq, and my wife -- [audio difficulty] there i was very close to the war, and the saudis were saying iraq? are you kidding? of all the countries in the middle east, you're gown to invade -- you're going to invade iraq? everybody over there knew that this was going to be a catastrophic mistake. nobody was saying that in washington, apparently. and so in we went. with good intentions, as often is the case.
but we broke that country. and between iraq and afghanistan according to various estimates we spent $4-6 trillion. and think how i'm just setting aside the loss of life -- >> cost, yeah. >> yeah, the vast human cost. think about what $4-6 trillion could do. and what do -- we invested that in misery. we did not invest that money in anything that would make the world a better place or a safer place. it's far from it now. and those are the kinds of errors of understanding that i think have had such dismal results for us and for the region. >> i, i wonder if you had been, you know, sort of offering advice outside of the iraq war which certainly is one of the more controversial decisions, are there other things that you would have said from not understanding culturally what is happening, not having a sense of
what the west's role has been? certainly not to take responsibility off of the other side, but what would you, what would you have suggested beyond that? what are some things that we should have known as we tried to combat and contain? >> well, you know, right after 9/11, you know, one of the heroes in this book and also in the looming tower is a lebanese-american, fluent arab speaker. he was one of eight arabic-speaking agents in the entire fbi. there's a statistic that i still have a hard time crediting, but a university census showed that at the time of 9/11 there were only six students in the whole country majoring in arabic. so, you know, it was a totally unattended part of the world. and we had nobody on the ground who could understand.
and while i was roaming around in the middle east and south asia after 9/11, there were practically no westerners to be seen. you know, and so i was very conspicuous. but one time i was talking to a probable cia agent in this, in the embassy i think in afghanistan, and he said, you know, i'd like to do what you do. well, why not? you know? [laughter] why don't you just go outside and talk to people? the problem -- and i recognize the danger that our diplomats are sometimes placed in, but they're so imprisoned by these fortified consulates and embassies. and there's good reason for it. and while i was in jeddah, bin laden tried to kill the american consul general, lovely woman named gina abercrombie stanley, and three or four people were killed outside the gates trying
to get into the consulate. but that inability to get into the culture and to understand it means that we've cut off the flow of information. >> there are so many -- again, this book is a collection of stories that have primarily run in the new yorker, and so many of them will be things that you're familiar with, and there's a lot that i had read and delighted in, enjoyed rereading, some that i had missed. one thing i found fascinating because it's actually an update to the way the piece had originally run, and that is a story that you had written called the spymaster on mike mcdonald who had been the director of national intelligence. >> yeah. >> there's a great moment not at the beginning of the piece, slightly into the piece where you say sort of reluctantly when he's meeting with mr. mcconnell that i don't know much about you. and he replies to you, well, that's a good thing, i'm a spy, which i thought was interesting in terms of the difficulties of reporting on this type of subject matter. but there are two moments in
that piece that i think are striking. one, your discussions with him about the fact that your own phone had been tapped and that information had been taken based on your reporting. two, you acknowledge in the introduction the fact that you had material based on your reporting that did not appear in the initial new yorker story that you did include in this version, and that was as he was sort of talking about torture or enhanced interrogation techniques or whatever the term is, that part of his training early on that he, in fact, had been tortured. you had left that out of the new yorker or piece but put it in here, and i wonder if you could talk about those things. >> all right, i'll talk about it. mike mcconnell, a distinguished, you know, military veteran, naval admiral and became the head of, you know, after 9/11 we reorganized our intelligence community. there are 16 different agencies in the intelligence world, and a new one was the office of the director of national intelligence.
and then the idea was to get a coordinator so the different parts of the community could talk to each other. that had been a horrible problem during 9/11. preceding 9/11. and mcconnell, part of his job at the time i was talking to him was to deal with the fact that we were waterboarding our prisoners. >> right. >> and, you know, the fact that americans were engaged in what most people acknowledge to be torture was quite a shock. and mcconnell is from south carolina, and so i, i said, you know, he said we do not torture people. and i said, well, what -- what personal experience informs your view about that? well, what do you mean? i said, like, did you ever go through the se -- survival,
escape -- what is it? survival, escape, resistance -- survival, evasion, resistance and escape? for troops that might be placed in places where they might be captured, they torture them in a, you know, in a kind of mock way. and just so they learn what it might be like. and so mcconnell said, yes, i was tortured. i've been tortured, i think were his actual words. and then he said, they beat me up prison pretty seriously, and they put me in a hole with a snake. and i wouldn't want that to happen to me. but he never thought that he was going to be killed, you know? >> right. that's the point you make in the book, that even if this is part of the training -- >> right, right. and the new yorker has extensive, as you know, fact-checking. so the checkers are running everything by him, and one of
them was mcconnell said that he had been tortured. and i didn't want say that. i said, do you want to see the transcript? and so i sent him the transcript, and he -- larry, please don't print that. i'll lose my job. it's one of those moral decisions, you know, that you have to make as a reporter because i knew i've been tortured is a sentence that goes all the way around the world in about five seconds. you know, the director of intelligence in the united states claims he's been tortured. >> right. >> and as a reporter, you like that. on the other hand, it wasn't my object to get him fired. >> right, right. >> so i took it out. and then he went and lied to congress about my story -- [laughter] when i asked him about waterboarding, he -- and i kept in the story, he said, well, it's not torture, but it would
be torture if it happened to me. well, why is that? well, i've got a deviated septum. [laughter] you know, when i was a lifeguard, i had to wear the, you know, so i, i kept that part of the story in there, and senator dianne feinstein asked him, you know, is it true that you said that it would be torture if it happened to you? no, ma'am. that was taken out of context. and, of course, i sent him the context. [laughter] as for the -- there was another conversation we had which i, when i was working on the looming tower, there was -- initially it started with a source of mine at alec station which was the virtual bin laden station run by the cia. i had been in contact -- ayman al-zawahiri is the guy who now runs al-qaeda.
he was number two then, but he's now the one guy with the big beard, and he's the egyptian. i'd been in conversation with some of his relatives in cairo. and one time they called me to see if zawahiri's children were still alive. and so i called another source of mine at the fbi who was the case agent for zawahiri, and he told me that the children were all dead, which turned out not to be true. once again, the intelligence community. so i called the cousin back and i said, i'm sorry to tell you that zawahiri's children are all dead. then my source at alec station said that he saw that conversation on his desktop that morning. and i thought, oh, it's those egyptians, you know? so i let it go. and then i got a visit from the joint terrorism task force here in austin. and and that's a group comprised of the fbi, local police, local
sheriff, fire department, food and drug, you know, everything you can imagine to combat terrorism. and so they came over to my house, and they wanted to ask about some phone calls that had been made from my phone to a number in london. it was a 44201 number. and could i tell them whose it is. and they didn't know, it was really shocking. [laughter] and i said, well, it looks like a business number in london. and so i looked it up, and it turned out to belong to a lawyer who defended some of the jihadis. and her -- the nature of the conversations was she was telling me stop talking to my clients. but anyway, the information that the joint terrorism task force had was that my daughter, caroline, was making the calls. and now, you understand that the fbi, the way they map out a terrorist network is if, if you
call osama bin laden and he calls you and he calls you and he calls you, they draw lines. so by the time that you get to you, you're two steps away from osama bin laden in the -- so is it was two -- three steps for my daughter caroline, enough to get her probably listed on the terror watch list. and, you know, i was glad that they came to ask about it but a little shocked -- >> right. >> -- to think, first of all, how did her name come up? she's not on any of our phones. she was studiering at the university -- studying at the university at at the time, at brown. and at that point they shut their briefcases and left. so from two different sources, i began to get the picture. and then later we find out that, indeed, you know, during the bush administration they had these unauthorized wiretaps. and i was not reluctant to share my information with the government. hi job is to publish information -- my job is to publish information, not hide it. i'm not in the intelligence
community. but it did make me wonder what if i were writing about dick cheney, you know? suppose information surfaced in those kinds of taps, you know? what would they do with information like that? that was really troubling to me. >> again, in that particular chapter the spy master were aspects that really jumped out at me. i'm going to ask larry another question or two, but i want to leave plenty of time for questions from the audience. we do have some microphones here. for the remaining, oh, 20 minutes or so that we have, if you do have a question, i hope you'll begin to assemble there so that we can begin. i want to switch, there's another chapter in here that i like very, very much that i had read when it was previously published in the new yorker. here it's titled five hostages, and i want to just read the first sentence, because i think it's lovely, but it comes at this from the -- an opposite perspective of those families who have had loved ones or family members kidnapped
overseas and have not been able to find any sort of relief or kind of effecti have solution through -- effective solution through the government. the first sentence is five american families, each harboring a grave secret, took their seats at the home of david bradley, which i just love and sort of kicks this piece off. can you just talk about this particular chapter briefly and sort of what it means and how did you come upon this story? >> well, i know you all saw the pictures of the mesh hostages -- the american hostages in syria in the orange jump suits who were beheaded by isis. and when i ran into this story, ali safan was working with david bradley. i had seen -- jim foley was the first to be killed, and that had already happened. and i was talking to ali in new york, and he told me that he was
working with dade bradley -- david bradley to free other american hostages. and i just had to do that story. because i'd been so upset. jim foley was a reporter -- >> right. >> you know, part of our fraternity. so there's a bit of a logistics problem. david bradley is the publisher of the atlantic, and i work for the new yorker. [laughter] so i, i had to do a little negotiating. i called atlantic, and i said i'd like to write -- do this profile. and they said, we're going to do it. i said, you can't, you can't write about your publisher like that, you know? i defy you. and then i called my editor, and, you know, i want to write about david bradley. well, why would we want to do that? [laughter] so it took a little convincing on both -- and then, fortunately, and it took, i
mean, it's really quite a long negotiation, but they did agree to let me do it. it's the saddest story i ever wrote. >> right. >> i get emotional just remembering it. there was one american still left, kayla mueller, and she was such a saintly figure. and like so many of these young people -- and there are still americans abroad in captivity, she just went there to help, you know? she was a medical assistant, you know? there were other reporters and aid workers. when i was traipsing around the middle east after 9/11, i had a sense of immunity. i'm a reporter. i took, i took precautions in certain places, but i did not feel like i was a target. and now i think that's absolutely the situation for reporters in that region. you have to be very careful. >> we have a line beginning to gather of questions. i want to ask you one.
it's a big question but maybe a quicker answer. as of the last week, mosul has been in the news a lot in terms of the efforts to retake that talk town. what is your sense of where things are right now on the ground overseas? are we -- how do you evaluate the situation and are we any closer to some sort of resolution, or will this continue to go on for another decade, another generation? how do you see it? >> well, to start with, i, you know, i'm not much of a prognosticator because i never thought i'd still be writing about terrorism 15 years after 9/11, and now i don't know when i will stop. the, you know, those terrorists who are in mosul and raqqa right now, when they get chased out, unless they're all killed, they're going to still be around. there's still people drawn into that even if not those particular organizations, into other organizations that do
sponsor terror. and so they're not going away. and the conditions that gave rise to them haven't diminished. in fact, you know, the chaos that they themselves have created have only made more terrorists more likely. and i particularly address the question of refugees. if you think back about, you know, modern era of terrorism really in many respects began with palestinian terrorism. and the entire palestinian exodus in 1948 and '67, 750,000 people. that was the entire group of people who left. five million syrians, closing in on six now have, are refugees outside of the country. half of the country is uprooted from their homes. that is a tremendous repository of despair. and you can talk about tyranny or lack of education, poor
unemployment, gender apartheid, poor health. i mean, so many different avenues that lead to terror. not a single one of them has been shown to be the cause. but i think of them all as just a tributary in this mighty river of despair that runs through the middle east and south asia. and that five million syrians who join a similar enormous group of refugees from afghanistan, iraq, nigeria, you know, the world is awash in them, that is a huge repository of despair. and if the world doesn't -- i know that there is danger in dealing with refugees because they're not like ordinary immigrants. they only arrive with the traumas on their back. but left untended, just think about a child who was 5 years old in 2011 when the civil war began in syria. that child is -- has likely lost
his or her entire elementary education already. according to unicef, half of the refugees are children, and only 20% of them are getting education. so millions of uneducated, unemployed people, that, you know, without the world attending to that, i think that we have great problems in our future. >> a sobering assessment. be we have about ten minutes left. i'd love to turn it over and have some questions from the audience now. ma'am, would you like to start us off please? >> thank you. first, i want to thank you. i think there is nobody in america writing more beautifully, with more information and more insight than you about terrorism. >> thank you. >> you are a national treasure. thank you. [applause] my question is we now have donald trump running for president who has a full-throated embrace of torture. it is a feature in his candidacy
as part of what draws people to him. i'd like you to comment on that not just for the implications for the future, but what it says about who we have become and how we've changed in our thinking about torture since 9/11. >> yeah. you know, i think that americans underestimate the example be of our model in the world. we think of our might, our military might.÷÷ and, you know, sometimes our military might gets us into trouble as in the case of iraq. when we go in we cause, you know, catastrophic result ares. but the power of our example, when i was in cairo in 2008 during the primary season and barack obama and hillary clinton were running against each other at the time and i was speaking at cairo university which is where barack obama later went to make his historic speech. and there were all these kids out there, and i said, well, how
many of you if you were -- because they were following the american elections very closely. well, how many of you would vote for hillary? all these girls. how many for barack obama? you know, nearly everybody else. how many for john mccain? one guy from the embassy. [laughter] so those kids were the same people who went into tahrir square just a few years later, because they wanted to bring america to their country. they had seen the example of nonviolent social change. few people believed that america could elect either a black man or a woman. now, that example, i think, is our most precious thing that we have in the world. and i fear that the example that we're setting now having an opposite effect.
torture is not, should never be a part of our agenda. it should never be seen as something that people associate with america. [applause] i think i'll stop at that point. thank you. [laughter] >> yes, please. >> thank you. so specifically with syria, currently what's happening in yemen, do you think that some abatement of terrorism will happen with a political solution that is more along the tribal redrawing of the political map in the middle east? >> the question is about whether the wars in syria and yemen may redraw the political map. it's certainly possible. the -- yemen has had a brief existence be as a sing lahr state. it had been -- singular state. it had been two states for most of its existence.
so if it split apart again, it wouldn't be very surprising. as for syria, you know, nobody knows how this is going to resolve. it's a, it's a very fractious country. but it is not like, it is not like libya or yemen which, you know, has this alarming experience of being divided. syria has much more broad-reaching goals about expansion. so i don't, i don't think that the syrians want to divide it, but practically speaking some solution has to be reached. my feeling is that we have to understand the russians if we want to have some way of resolve toking this question -- resolving this question. the russian border is 600 miles from syria. that's a distance from here to el paso. and, you know, they have a far finish there are so many russians that have been going to
fight in syria and so many isis recruiters in moscow that, you know, we have to acknowledge that they have a much more driving interest in that part of the world than we do. and if we're not going to get into it and really stay, then we should try to make some kind of political accommodation with the parties that are going to be there. >> we have time for one last question. we're under fife minutes, please -- five minutes, please. >> mr. wright, i want to go back to "the looming tower" and to the beginning of "the looming tower." ..