|Bin Laden and Bergen in 1997|
His small tent in the secret, arid Arab wasteland was sparse. True, he wore a military jacket over his robes, had a loaded AK-47 propped at his side, and unleashed a scathing verbal diatribe decrying the infidels of the West, most especially the United States. But he spoke his words of hate in a monotone. Despite the impassioned nature of his rhetoric, he remained calm and collected. There was much more cleric than killer commandant about him. In short, there was little evidence to believe in the late 1990s that Osama bin Laden and his handful of Al-Qaeda followers would ever be able to pull off a massive attack like 9-11, 2 veteran news correspondents who personally interviewed bin Laden told a standing-room only audience at The Newseum today.
In a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion, CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen and ABC News Correspondent John Miller, who were 2 of the only western correspondents to ever interview bin Laden, revealed details of those interviews and talked about their take on conditions in a post-bin Laden world.
"People who say bin-Laden's death means the end of terrorism are wrong," Miller, who interviewed bin-Laden in 1998 said. "But people who say his death is meaningless are also wrong."
Both correspondents said that America's focus on Al-Qaeda and recent killing of its spiritual leader have drastically weakened the organization's ability to mount significant attacks in the United States. "So much has changed since 9/11," Bergen said, noting that, for example, where the US then had about dozen agents sorting out terror signals that group numbers more than 2,000 today. "Or take the TSA. It may be a mixed blessing, but with the TSA, those box cutters wouldn't have gotten on board."
Both correspondents pointed out the difficulties in originally securing their interviews with bin Laden. First there was the substantial costs of such an operation. Then, at the time, America and American news organizations were more concerned with the the O.J. Simpson trial or the President Clinton/ Monica Lewinsky scandal than they were with an unknown bearded leader from a little-known part of the word.
And then there were the conditions imposed by the ultra-secret, always paranoid bin Laden and his followers. There were countless questions of intent. And more questions of motive. Locations were set and locations were moved. Guns were produced. And guns were fired. But Bergen said he believed there was never any real danger and the benefits to be gleaned from his 1997 interview far outweighed any risks."They (bin Laden and Al-Qaeda) wanted to get the story out and I didn't think they would do anything to jeopardize that," Bergen said. Miller concurred, but noted that not everyone was blase about the danger. "After the interview aired, I got a call from my mother. I thought she was going to say what a good job, but she said 'don't you ever go to Afghanistan and do something like that again.' "
Of course, one of the great questions for any leader of hate is how do you justify the taking of innocent lives in your struggle, no matter how right you believe your cause to be. Miller said he asked bin Laden that question and the Al-Qaeda leader, ever the master of manipulation and rationalization, matter of factly answered: "We learned from you. Did not the Americans kill women and children at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? We are simply doing what you taught us."
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Although the special speakers program centered around the 10th anniversary of 9/11 has concluded, there is still much to learn about that day if you visit The Newseum. For example, there is a separate 9/11 exhibit with artifacts and news footage, as well as a section of the FBI exhibit that deals with the agency's handling of that da