DATE September 18, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Benjamin Weiser discusses the terrorist attacks on the
US, covering the embassy bombing trials and the 1993 World Trade
Center bombing trial
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Last week's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are part of a
decade-long holy war against the United States. Earlier attacks include the
first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the bombing of American embassies in
Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and a thwarted plan to bomb New York landmarks,
including the United Nations and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. My guest,
Benjamin Weiser, covered the embassy bombing trial this year. Four men were
found guilty of all the charges against them. Weiser also covered the 1997
trial that convicted Ramzi Ahmed Yousef of directing the 1993 bombing of the
World Trade Center.
Benjamin Weiser covers the federal court in Manhattan for The New York Times.
I spoke with him this morning.
The embassy bombing trial wrapped up in August, and you wrote that the closing
arguments for the trial sounded like the opening argument in a future trial of
bin Laden if he's ever captured. Would you sum up some of the things that
were said in that closing argument?
Mr. BENJAMIN WEISER (The New York Times): Well, in the closing arguments of
the embassy bombings case in New York, of course, the government was trying to
convict and eventually did convict four of bin Laden's associates who were on
trial. But in order to do so, they had to prove to the jury's satisfaction
that he, bin Laden, had led and participated with these men in a global
terrorism conspiracy to kill Americans abroad and everywhere around the world,
as the government put it. And that really put bin Laden on trial in a way,
too. He was not tried in absentia, he has not yet been tried, and the
government did not try to prove evidence against him. But they clearly had to
show that this conspiracy existed so that they could then show that the four
men on trial were members of it. So I suspect we would hear many of the same
kinds of arguments and pieces of evidence in a trial in the future, if bin
Laden was ever put on trial in New York, and I suspect we would see a number
of the same witnesses.
GROSS: So how close did the embassy bombings trial come to tying bin Laden to
the bombings, and what were the convicted men's ties to bin Laden?
Mr. WEISER: The four men who went on trial had various ties to bin Laden,
some weaker than others. One of the men, and probably the man the government
felt was the highest-ranking man in his organization of the four on trial, was
an American citizen named Wadih El-Haje from Texas, who the government claimed
had been his personal secretary and a close aide, in addition to being an
operative who traveled around the world, helped to make false passports,
helped to set up corporate fronts for bin Laden in Kenya. And at another
level, some of the operatives you would perhaps describe as much lower members
but who played the role of suicide bombers in the Nairobi attack, although the
one on trial did not, in fact, die, and a man who helped deliver the bomb in
the Tanzania attack. The fourth man on trial was also an associate who was a
member of al-Qaida, the group run by bin Laden, the government says, and was
also involved in the Nairobi case. So those were the four.
In addition to the evidence produced at trial, in a hearing before the trial,
the government took a plea from another man who had worked for bin Laden named
Ali Muhammad(ph), who interestingly was a former American Army sergeant, who
had served at Ft. Bragg but had also gone to work for bin Laden and his
conspiracy. And in that hearing, which took place somewhat before the embassy
bombings case began--this was last October--Ali Muhammad said that as early as
1993, he had actually gone to Kenya to surveil American targets for possible
bombings at the request of bin Laden, and while there, took photographs and
other surveillance of the American Embassy in Nairobi. Then he said he went
back to bin Laden and showed him his file, and bin Laden pointed to where a
truck bomb might drive, looking at the photographs. That's actually the
closest that they've ever tied bin Laden to the embassy bombing in Nairobi,
although they did not actually put that evidence into the trial itself.
GROSS: I'm wondering if there's anything you see in last week's attacks that
seem to connect in terms of method or technique to the embassy bombings, the
trial that you covered. You know, for example, I think in that trial, at
least one of the men went to flight school in the United States.
Mr. WEISER: That's right. It's very early in this investigation to make the
links that people are making, and they, of course, may be true. We haven't
yet seen much of the evidence that the government's collecting that would link
this to bin Laden, if that's the case. But there were a number of things that
surfaced in the embassy bombings trial that will really help people
understand, if this is a bin Laden operation, you know, how it happened. In
addition to the fact, as you've just pointed out, that a number of--there was
evidence in the trial of several of bin Laden's operatives going to flight
school in the United States and learning pilot techniques, there was also a
great deal of evidence that surfaced in the trial that, to some extent, shows
how bin Laden's modus operandi has worked and that of his organization, and
we've seen that again in this case.
It appears that, you know, a small number of what they call cells or groups of
four to five people were involved in each of--the hijacking of the planes and
perhaps receiving support from a larger network on the ground in the US. And
this is very characteristic, at least the testimony showed in the last trial,
of how the organization that he runs works. There was a manual introduced in
the trial, a terrorism manual as it was described, in which the government
literally showed that bin Laden's group had instructed, you know, its agents
to work in small cells to ensure their security and safety, almost
compartmented so that no member of any cell would know what other cells were
involved in doing, both to protect their own security and the security of the
GROSS: What else did you learn about how the cells operate?
Mr. WEISER: The cells were almost hierarchical in structure, at least based
on the evidence in the trial. Again, they involved very few people and each
cell was representative of a different task. Some of the cells would
do--after an idea was thought up, one cell would do the surveillance of
targets, as Ali Muhammad had himself in the Kenya case. Others would plan the
operation, and then others would actually carry out the actual attack. And
yet, others would clean up afterwards and help in the escape. And it was all
written down in these manuals. As we mentioned in a recent article in The
Times, on page 12 of one of the manuals under `missions required' was a
particular section that talked about the blasting and destroying of embassies
and attacking vital economic centers. So it's interesting in retrospect as
GROSS: So do the targets come from the top of the organization or do the
cells even decide on who the target is?
Mr. WEISER: The evidence suggests that the ideas do flow from the top and
that they are--you know, the targets are picked at the highest levels. But
there's also evidence that the cells can operate on their own once they're
activated. Again, in one of the documents that surfaced in the embassy
bombings case, this fellow, Ali Muhammad, who again acted as a kind of
logistics expert for bin Laden and later pleaded guilty and talked in court a
little bit about what he had done, described the placing of hundreds of
terrorists known as sleepers or submarines, as they described it, who would
lie low for years until they were activated.
And one document described Ali Muhammad's comment that trained terrorists
don't order their people to blow things up. Terrorists are trained and then
they act. And the characteristic of the operations is long planning and
advanced surveillance and meticulous preparation, which could take years and
years. And as we saw, the embassy bombings in Kenya were planned at least as
early as '93, according to the testimony from Ali Muhammad, which was five
years before, and that might suggest that today's bombing was planned four or
five years ago, you know, somewhere in the world.
GROSS: Yet the submarines or sleepers, as they were described, these are
operatives who are put into place, for instance, into the United States, and
they just wait there until they're activated, until they're called to work.
Mr. WEISER: That's right. And again, the evidence is extremely scant so far,
but it appears that a number of the people who are being identified as
suspects in this hijacking case were in the United States for several years
undergoing their training and their schooling and melding into the community
with nothing to do except wait.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Benjamin Weiser. He covers the
federal court in Manhattan for The New York Times. He covered the trial of
Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who was convicted of masterminding the World Trade Center
bombing of 1993. And Weiser also covered the trial of the embassy bombings,
and that trial wrapped up in August.
Did you learn anything at the trials that you covered about recruiting of
Mr. WEISER: One thing the trial showed was that bin Laden wanted to recruit
Americans and did because of the ease with which they could travel around the
world with their American passports. In the embassy bombings case, at least
two or three Americans surfaced. One was Wadih El-Haje, who was a naturalized
American citizen, who had worked for bin Laden and was ultimately convicted.
Ali Muhammad, the sergeant I had mentioned, was also a naturalized American
citizen from Egypt.
GROSS: You know, I've been reading in a couple of articles in The New York
Times, in fact, that the profile of the suicide bomber seems to be changing;
that, you know, for a while, the suicide bomber seemed to be people who were
young, pretty poor, pretty disenfranchised, not very well educated, ready to
give their lives, in part, because there probably weren't a whole lot of
options for them. But now some of the suicide operatives seem older. Some of
them have families. Some of them are fairly well-schooled, and they don't
seem to be in the dire straits that the suicide bombers were thought to be in.
Do you have any observations about that?
Mr. WEISER: It, of course, is an important question, because if we can't
anticipate the profile of the bomber, it's going to be very hard to find them
before they act. Again, Ali Muhammad, in the embassy bombings case, said that
the United States, in a comment he made to the FBI, was hampered in its
efforts to stop terrorism, specifically because the profiles it uses to
identify potential terrorists are flawed. And also the embassy bombings trial
showed that the people who worked for this organization specifically sought to
change their appearance, even in ways that might make them look, you know,
less Muslim--shaving their beards, not wearing traditional Muslim
dress--specifically so that they would not fit the more physical descriptive
profile at the time that they're moving.
GROSS: Now your reporting has described the terrorist network as meticulous
in its planning, but you wrote, on the other hand, the embassy bombing trial
showed that bin Laden's group was at times slipshod, torn by inner strife,
betrayal, greed and the venalities of life. What are some examples that came
up in the trial?
Mr. WEISER: Well, the most dramatic example was the emergence of one of Mr.
bin Laden's former top aides, a fellow named Jamaal el Faddal(ph), who
ultimately broke with bin Laden and eventually worked his way into the hands
of the United States, pled guilty and became perhaps the most important
witness in the trial for the government. I also believe he'll be perhaps the
most important witness, one of them certainly, if Mr. bin Laden or other top
members of his organization are arrested. And he left bin Laden after
stealing money from him, because he felt that he was being underpaid and that
bin Laden was favoring certain members of his group over others, feeling that
the Egyptian members were getting paid better and treated better. So although
this ultimately had no affect on the operational capacity of bin Laden, it did
allow the United States government, I believe, to see that there were, you
know, like every organization, some vulnerabilities that could be exploited,
and the government ultimately presented two very important what they call
accomplice witnesses at the trial, people who had worked for bin Laden and
left him over some disagreement.
GROSS: My guest is Benjamin Weiser. He covers the federal court in Manhattan
for The New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter Benjamin Weiser. We're looking at
what we learned from earlier terrorist attacks. Weiser covered the US
embassies bombing trial this year. He also covered the 1997 trial related to
the first attack on the World Trade Center.
Now you covered the 1997 trial of the World Trade Center bombing, the one that
convicted Ramzi Ahmed Yousef. Just sum up what that trial was about for us,
to refresh our memory, like who was on trial in this one?
Mr. WEISER: In the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, of course, initially a
trial was held the same year of four men who had been arrested for actually
carrying out the operation. By 1997, the government had also arrested two
other men--Yousef, who was largely described as the man who led the operation,
and a second man who had driven the truck into the basement garage of the
World Trade Center, which carried the bomb. Yousef was convicted in that
case, as was the other man, and was ultimately sentenced to prison for the
rest of his life.
It was an interesting trial because Yousef at the end of the case when he was
sentencing got up and gave a speech in the courtroom in which he tried to
explain why he had acted, and actually did not hide the fact that he was a
terrorist. He said--`I am a terrorist and I am proud of it,' he said. The
judge at the time, Kevin Duffy, who's a veteran judge in Manhattan and also
somewhat of a scholar of the Koran himself, also talked and accused Yousef of
really betraying his religion. I'm looking at the quote. Duffy said, "It
wasn't honor or the glory of God or Allah that Ramzi Yousef took away from the
Afghanistan war where he had fought, but it was his enjoyment of death,
particularly the death of innocent people, and," as he put it, "your adoration
of the cult of death." And Yousef complained at one point that he hadn't been
allowed to make phone calls to his family, and the judge said, `You know, we
don't even know what your real name is,' since Yousef had used dozens of
aliases. The judge said, `Having abandoned your family name, I must assume
that you've abandoned your family also.' So they got into quite a
You know, there's also information that Yousef, after his arrest in 1995 as he
was being brought back to New York by the FBI in a helicopter that was flying
over mid-Manhattan and bringing him to detention before he would be actually
placed on trial, that he looked out the window and saw the World Trade Center
towers, you know, standing, glowing in the city's night. And one of the FBI
officials said, `Look down there. They're still standing.' And Yousef
replied, `They wouldn't be if I had had enough money and explosives.'
GROSS: Yeah. In fact, you said that this FBI agent quoted Yousef as saying
that he hoped the explosion would have toppled one tower onto the other,
killing tens of thousands of people, to let Americans know they were at war.
It's really terrifying to read that that's what he wanted back in '93.
Mr. WEISER: There's no question that's what Yousef wanted.
GROSS: So let's back up a bit. You said at the '97 trial, Ramzi Yousef said,
you know, `I am a terrorist.' What did he say to explain why?
Mr. WEISER: This, of course, was not at the trial itself, just to clarify.
He did not testify on his own behalf. But when he was sentenced, before
sentencing everybody has an opportunity to explain themselves, and the judge
gave Yousef an opportunity to explain himself. And Yousef said, to summarize
it, you know, in his short talk, he attacked the United States and Israel, the
peace process. He described what he called the Jewish lobby, which he
contended had paid bribes to American officials to win their influence. He
said, quote, "This is what you worship, money. Money is your god. Hypocrisy
is your courier." That was Yousef talking. Judge Duffy later said back to
him, quote, "Death was truly your god, your master, your one-and-only
religion,' the judge said. He told Yousef, "You claim to be an Islamic
militant. Of all the persons killed or harmed in some way by the World Trade
Center bomb, you cannot name one who is against you or your cause. You did
not care, just so long as you left dead bodies and people hurt." And, of
course, six people were killed in the first World Trade Center bombing, more
than 1,000 were hurt. That number's very small, of course, compared to this
GROSS: Many terrorist experts have said that even if we do get bin Laden, the
terror network would likely continue to exist, that by getting rid of bin
Laden you haven't destroyed the network. Did you learn anything at the trials
you covered about the other powerful people, perhaps his number two or number
three who might be ready to take over if he's captured?
Mr. WEISER: There was a great deal of evidence about his organization, who
were his high-ranking aides, what their nationalities were and how they
operated. There was no indication necessarily that these high-level aides had
access to the same kind of money or even were able to inspire followers the
way bin Laden did. And I think it just seems to me to be too early to say
precisely, you know, who might take his place, but it doesn't seem likely to
me that when the United States says that it wants bin Laden handed over, that
means that it wants only bin Laden handed over. I have to assume that they're
asking for bin Laden and many of his closest aides.
GROSS: Given the kind of training and ideology and religious fervor behind
the terrorists, is it harder for the government to turn terrorists into
Mr. WEISER: You know, it's actually sort of--it's a difficult question to
answer, but I think the evidence shows that even with the intense dedication
that bin Laden's followers gave to him and his organization, that ultimately
the government was able to turn at least two people who were presented at
trial--Ali Muhammad, his former top aide, did not testify, but obviously
provided a lot of information to the government, and pleaded guilty, and there
were other lower-level people who testified and had pleaded guilty. So the
evidence is there that they were able to do it, and I have no doubt that
they'd be able to do it again. But it's clear that the government has to, you
know, look hard for these people. And I'm sure it's a combination of luck and
skill and good investigative work to find them, but I think some come to us
and some we find.
GROSS: What's the incentive that a terrorist might have to turn and become a
Mr. WEISER: In the case of Jamaal el Faddal, who until the trial had been
described in a very mysterious way as CS1(ph), for confidential source one,
and ultimately became the major government witness, you know, against bin
Laden, he ultimately was on a run for his life. He left bin Laden, as I
mentioned, after stealing some money from him, getting into a financial
dispute and ultimately left. You know, he ultimately, I think, was--you know,
ended up in the hands of the United States for his own protection. And I
think a lot of people who might be recruitable by the United States, at least
in the sense of participating as government witnesses, may fit that category.
GROSS: Benjamin Weiser covers the federal court in Manhattan for The New York
Times. Our interview was recorded earlier today. I'm Terry Gross and this is
GROSS: Coming up, the foiled attempt to blow up New York landmarks in 1993.
We talk with journalist Ralph Blumenthal of The New York Times. He covered
the trial of the terrorists who planned the attack, and he covered the first
trial related to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel that she says fits the tone of the
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal discusses the
September 11 terrorist attacks in the US
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're looking at earlier acts of terrorism against the United States to see
what clues they offer about last week's attacks. My guest is New York Times
reporter Ralph Blumenthal. He covered the first trial related to the 1993
bombing of the World Trade Center. Terrorists planned to follow that attack
by blowing up several New York landmarks, including the Holland and Lincoln
tunnels and the United Nations, but that plot was discovered and foiled.
Blumenthal covered the conspiracy trial in 1995, which ended with the
convictions of a blind Egyptian cleric, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who headed a
radical fundamentalist mosque in New Jersey, and his co-conspirators. Ralph
Blumenthal has also covered organized crime for The New York Times and
currently writes about arts and culture. I spoke with him earlier today.
What are some of the major connections you see between the first World Trade
Center bombing and last week's attack, connections that might help us
understand what happened last week?
Mr. RALPH BLUMENTHAL (Reporter, The New York Times): Well, the important
thing to understand, Terry, is it is one war that we've been fighting against
terrorism really from 1990. It's come in different forms and not always been
recognized. But, for example, World Trade Center one, as we now unfortunately
look back on it, also relied on a small group of very secretive extremists who
used all the trappings of spy craft, secret meetings and coded telephone calls
and false identities--and the links actually persist, if not the same players,
to the current plot.
GROSS: Are there any people connected to the first World Trade Center bombing
who seem to be connected to last week's attacks?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: The simple answer is no because they're in jail. And from
jail, where they are around the country in maximum security prisons, they have
no opportunity to communicate. So the actual people who participated in or
carried out the first World Trade Center attack are no longer on the scene.
OK. But there are links--because it's a complicated world of relationships,
there are links between the first World Trade Center attack and even plots
predating that, and the current attacks.
GROSS: What are those links?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: The links really go through this Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman,
who is now in prison, who was the leader, as a jury determined, of the first
attack on the World Trade Center, a subsequent foiled series of attacks on New
York City landmarks. And it is his spiritual guidance really, or terroristic
guidance, that lay behind Osama bin Laden, who is now believed to be the
mastermind behind the latest attacks. So there's really a continuum of
people. It's like a relay race. The same people don't appear at the
beginning or the end, but they're in touch with people who are in touch with
people who end up doing the most recent attacks.
GROSS: So the sheik, Sheik Rahman, was an inspiration to bin Laden?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: He was. And one of the reasons given for bin Laden's
terrorism activities is that he was angered over the prosecution of the sheik.
GROSS: The prosecution of the sheik, subsequent to the World Trade Center
bombing of '93.
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: The prosecution of the sheik, right, in the World Trade
Center bombing, and particularly in this plot to blow up the Holland and
Lincoln Tunnel and the UN and various other landmarks of New York.
GROSS: Do you know how much is known about the relationship that they've had,
bin Laden and the sheik?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: I don't know because they really come from different parts of
the Arab world. The sheik is Egyptian and he was actually tried and acquitted
in the assassination of President Sadat of Egypt. Bin Laden's background is
Saudi Arabian. But they came together, at least ideologically, in the same
war on America.
GROSS: Now let's get to the foiled plot. You covered the trial of the
leaders of this foiled plot. What was the plot?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: The plot was really chilling. It was to stall some cars in
the Holland and Lincoln Tunnel. The cars would be packed with high
explosives, as the truck was that blew up the World Trade Center shortly
before it. The people driving these cars would have 10 or 15 minutes to get
out of the tunnel. The traffic would have caused backup in the tunnels. The
tunnels would explode and water rush in and everybody would be drowned. This
attack was to have been coordinated with an attack on the United Nations and
other landmarks, including, they talked about, the Empire State Building,
Grand Central Terminal, Times Square, the predominantly Jewish Jewelry
District(ph). So it was a very wide-ranging plot.
GROSS: What did you learn during the coverage of the trial of how this
conspiracy was foiled?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, it was foiled by something that the government
unfortunately did not have in any of the later cases, which is a very
high-level mole or informant directly in the plot. This man was an Egyptian
intelligence agent, very enigmatic character himself, who claimed to have had
prior knowledge of the first World Trade Center attack. Anyway, he had
penetrated this group. He became very close to Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and
was able to record conversations. He was actually in the Lincoln Tunnel with
some of the conspirators at the time they were planning the attack, and he had
that on tape.
GROSS: And so exactly when did the government intercede to stop the plot?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: It was a few months, maybe up to six months after the World
Trade Center attack. The first World Trade Center attack was February 26,
1993, and the foiled attack, or the would-be attack, on the bridges and the UN
was to have taken place several months thereafter, and what we now know as
sort of a one-two punch strategy of these terrorists. And so it was to have
taken place shortly after the World Trade Center attack. But this time, at
least, the government was aware of the plot every step of the way. And in a
very dramatic part of the story, they seized the conspirators in the process
of mixing explosives in a warehouse in Queens. They were actually preparing
GROSS: What did you learn about the sheik's motivation in wanting to blow up
New York landmarks and murder so many people?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, the first thing about the sheik is he--it's very
interesting--like bin Laden, he was very careful to maintain an outward
distance. He was very, very careful not to say anything publicly that would
indicate he was behind this or encouraging these attacks, but he was convicted
on testimony and taped conversations that showed very subtle backing or
direction that he was giving underlings, and giving them sort of spiritual
guidance that this is what was demanded of them. This would be permissible.
And in terms of his motivation, he was part of the Islamic fundamentalist
movement in Egypt. They've had a long-running war with the secular government
of Egypt. And it really grew out of, actually, the fight, the battle going on
in Egypt that was being carried over here. Abdel-Rahman, for example, tried
to recruit this informer to kill President Mubarak of Egypt when he was
visiting New York. So it really grew out of ideological strife in Egypt.
GROSS: You've covered the Mafia in New York...
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Right.
GROSS: ...and you've also covered terrorism trials, two really different
kinds of operations. But there are some similarities in that in both you're
looking for informers, if you can get them. There's a code of secrecy. It's
hard to get people to testify...
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Right.
GROSS: ...against their own. Can you talk about some of the similarities and
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, you know, it is curious that there is a parallel. I
just noticed today that the terrorists had a way of changing the spellings of
their names, which is not that unusual considering they're often
transliterated from the Arabic. But one of the old techniques of the Mafia
dons and soldiers was to change their names periodically, just a letter or two
here or there, which meant that all the files weren't concentrated in the same
place, that they were spread, you know, among three or four different
spellings of their names. So we see that here, that it really makes the job
of tracking them much more difficult. They use terror among themselves on
each other to force associates to submit to very rigorous discipline. There
is the code among the--you know, the Omerta, the code of secrecy among--you
know, that they pledge to enforce their conspiracy with death. So, you know,
there's not that much difference in the methodology, in just the way they go
GROSS: What are some of the differences in the tools that the federal
government has to go after the Mafia vs. going after terrorists?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, the Mafia--you know, they have--the government was in a
very good position to penetrate the Mafia because they had a lot of
Italian-American agents who had a lot of experience in so many years of
watching traditional organized crime that the government had gotten some very
remarkable people, like, you know, Joe Pistone in the Donny Brasco story who
actually lived as a high-level, you know, Mafioso inside the mob for five
years. We don't have that, as far as I can see, with the terrorist cells.
When I covered the World Trade Center one, it was clear that the government
had a great shortage of Arabic-speaking FBI agents who could penetrate. So
that's probably the biggest single thing. We don't have the intelligence.
Sadly, we see the evidence of it now.
GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal. We'll talk more
after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal. He covered the
first trial related to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. And he
covered the thwarted conspiracy to blow up New York landmarks.
You know, I've been asking you to try to make connections between previous
terrorist plots and last week's attacks. Any other connections you'd like to
make for us?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. There's one very big one. In 1990, the leader of the
Jewish Defense League, Meir Kahane, was assassinated in New York. And at the
time, the attack was seen as an isolated extremist attack by a Muslim fanatic
named El Sayyid Nossair, who was convicted not of the murder but of a weapons
violation, of having a gun. It was a strange jury verdict. Anyway, he turned
out to be the center, or a center, of the World Trade Center conspiracy
originally to bomb the World Trade Center, and he had terrorist links to many
of the groups that are showing up and showed up since then in terrorist plots
against the city, including the foiled plot to blow up the Hudson River
tunnels and the UN. This was a missed connection, we all now realize, as far
back as 1990. And he's now in jail. He was convicted and is serving a long
sentence. But the inability to see that that assassination was really one of
the--literally, the opening gun in a 10- or 12-year war that is still going
on is one of the big intelligence failures.
GROSS: You work at the Arts and Culture unit(ph) of The New York Times now.
What aspects of the terrorism story are you still pursuing?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, I'm helping out on the intelligence part of it. We're
still trying to piece together the pictures of the conspirators, and that's
really the hardest part of the story because they've left very few clues.
And, I mean, there are a lot of impacts of the story on--for example, on the
cultural life, I had a story the other day on how building projects, including
the reconstruction of Lincoln Center, which was to have been probably the
largest cultural project in the nation's history, a billion and a half dollar
plan to revive and renovate Lincoln Center, is probably going to be stalled,
if not totally junked now because of the need to put resources in Lower
Manhattan. A lot of other projects are going to be stalled. A lot of plays
and books have been held back now because the subject matter is deemed
inappropriate at this time. The ramifications are just getting wider and
wider. Somebody said the other day that the people who are saving the
newspaper of the attack were really on the wrong track. The paper that
everyone should save is the paper of September 11th, which is the last day of
the old world. Everything is different now.
GROSS: What were some of the things that went through your mind, having
covered terrorist trials and realizing probably pretty quickly that this was
an act of terrorism?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, my first thought was, `Oh, no. Not again,' because the
first one was a hellish experience just from the stand--you know, quite apart
from the death and destruction. And remember, the first attack we only had
six dead and a thousand or so injured. I say only, which seemed very paltry
numbers now against this tragedy. But it was a hellish experience to cover
because, again, we were dealing with a lot of shadows. It was a very
competitive story to cover. Everybody was running around. A lot of rumors
were floated. We didn't have the experience that we have now, actually, on
how to cover these kind of stories and where to look. So in that sense, we're
a little better off today because we do have sort of a framework now.
GROSS: What are some of the more practical things you learned during covering
the trials about how the terrorist cells operate, their methods?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, first of all, you know, like the Mafia, they're not
always as good as they try to be. They make a lot of mistakes, thankfully,
and they certainly have to talk. You know, the Mafia has to talk to plan
their activities and figure out what they're going to do with the money, so
they have to have meetings, they have to talk on the phone, whether it's in
code or not, and so do these guys. And every time they make a phone call,
they leave a track, and there are phone records that are very, very helpful on
establishing these connections. So that's the one thing you see that even the
best-laid, you know, plots have big flaws.
Now in World Trade Center one, the huge breakthrough was finding within days
of the explosion the chassis of the truck that carried the bomb into the World
Trade Center garage, and that with the identification number on it led to the
car rental company, Ryder, and they could trace it to the particular office
that rented the car and the people who rented it. So right away within days,
they had that connection, and that was not something that the conspirators
ever thought would happen that quickly. And here, too, in this case, you
know, they have found obviously the manifests of the planes and some of
the--they found a passport already, and as soon as they have this list of
names, they're going back over their residences, their circle of
acquaintances, the telephone records. So what we're learning is that the FBI
can move with great speed at putting the picture together once they have a
little evidence to go on.
GROSS: Now you mentioned that the conspiracy to blow up New York landmarks
was foiled because there was an insider who spoke to federal agents. Do you
know what his motivation was? Did that come out during the trial?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, Emad Salem, the Egyptian intelligence officer who had
penetrated this group, partly it was financial. He was looking for a million
dollar payoff, which he got, I believe.
GROSS: He got it from the feds?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. And this is often the attraction for people who, you
know, turn on their associates. That's why they put out these huge rewards.
And often with these turncoats, they enjoy the game. They like the excitement
of being a double agent or an undercover agent, and so there's a sort of a
psychological thrill to it all for them, especially since the stakes are so
high. I mean, if they're unmasked, they face death. So he was a complicated
character in his case. But, you know, other people turned, too, during the
trial. Two of the people facing charges in the landmarks plot turned
government witness and testified against their cohorts. So it did happen a
GROSS: It seems that the FBI and the CIA have some tough choices to make in
terms of who they're going to put on the payroll for information, people who
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Right.
GROSS: ...still be terrorists, who might still be working against them.
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, those are very unpalatable choices, and just as, you
know, they take Mafia informants, people who've been involved in murders--look
at Sammy "The Bull." He became the darling of the prosecutors because he
turned against John Gotti and he himself had killed, I believe, 11 people or
more--19, the count keeps changing. So these are tough choices that the
government has to face all the time, and we're used to that in our society.
You have to deal with these people because ordinary law-abiding citizens don't
have this information. They're not privy to it. So you have to deal with the
people who are in the middle of it.
You know, one of the really interesting choices that the government had to
make in the case of the informer in the landmarks case was whether to bring
him out to testify or to leave him undercover. He wanted to stay undercover.
He didn't want to be exposed as a witness. But there was a big argument over
that and the forces that made him into a witness to testify won and that had
certain consequences, and perhaps if he'd stayed undercover, he might have
exposed this plot. We don't know.
GROSS: Ralph Blumenthal, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Ralph Blumenthal is a reporter for The New York Times. Our interview
was recorded earlier today.
Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan on continuing to read and to teach.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Elizabeth Benedict's new book "Almost"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our book critic Maureen Corrigan is still reading and she recommends a new
book that seems to fit with the tone of this awful time. It's called "Almost"
and it's by Elizabeth Benedict, who also wrote "Slow Dancing," which is a
finalist for the National Book Award.
You could see the Pentagon burning from my classroom windows the morning of
September 11th. Since then, given the sights that we've all been witness to
on our TV screens, it's been hard to concentrate, to read, to teach. Two days
later, when my classes at Georgetown resumed, I stopped into the office of one
of my colleagues, who's also a native New Yorker, to share the shock. I said
to her, `All this makes what we do pretty irrelevant, doesn't it?' My
colleague is wiser than I, so she replied, `No more irrelevant than it ever
is. We're always teaching and learning within the shadow of our own
Her remark reminded me of something my father once told me about how on the
destroyer Escort he served on during World War II, there was a makeshift
library, spottily stocked with the classics and adventure stories.
Distractions, sure, but basic nourishment for the mind and spirit as well. So
it's with the recognition that books will have to be necessary cargo on our
national voyage into the implausible that I offer you a book review.
Fortunately, it's a review of a very fine novel.
Elizabeth Benedict's novel is called "Almost," and like many another
emotionally profound and richly textured story, it sounds schematic when you
try to summarize it. That's because the great life of this book arises out of
Benedict's judicious and sometimes startling mastery of language. The casual
dialogue here and the descriptions of the ordinary remind me of Raymond
Carver's short stories and poems. Nothing phony, nothing literary, nothing
done, at least so you'd notice, for effect.
Take that nothing of a title, "Almost." The little word echoes and grows more
ominous sounding as you read and realize that it's the perfect way for Sophy
Chase, the main character here, to diagnose herself and her life. The story
opens on Sophy and her boyfriend, Daniel, having passionate sex in her New
York apartment. At an orgasmic moment, the phone rings. It's a policeman
from the Martha's Vineyard-type island of Swansea, where Sophy, until
recently, used to live. He's breaking the news to her that her husband, Will,
has been found dead in their house.
Sophy walked out on Will some months earlier and she's in the midst of
divorcing him, so she's almost a wife, almost a widow, or a widow monkay(ph)
as she calls herself. She's also almost a step-mother to Daniel's four
adopted children, whom she loves, almost a mother to Will's adult children,
and almost a writer. She's had one serious novel published years ago, but
since then, she's been ghost writing celebrity autobiographies.
The theme of people impersonating their lives or being too drunk to face
them--a lot of the characters here are, like Sophy, in AA--all of that sense
of loss intensifies when Sophy returns to Swansea. There we learn more about
Will, who was a CIA operative in the 1960s and a man undercover throughout his
whole life. As the mournful days on the island pass, Sophy comes to realize
that Daniel is also not a man who emotionally shows up. When they first met
at an AA meeting, she asked him, `Where do you stand on God?' `Off to the
side,' he answered, `quite a way.' It turns out he stands off to the side
when it comes to getting deeply involved with lesser creatures, too.
For a story that mostly takes place on a remote island over a few days, a lot
happens. Sophy drinks herself into a roaring tantrum at a high society clam
bake. An old lawyer friend who puts her up becomes embroiled in a sex
scandal. One of Daniel's kids runs away in New York. And Will's awful first
wife and his two daughters show up and haggle with Sophy over who owns the
There are also some laughs here of the gallows humor variety, mostly supplied
by Henderson, Sophy's gay friend who arrives to give her support. All right,
despite what I said earlier about Benedict's Raymond Carver-like adherence to
the real, Henderson is a contrivance. It seems like every other gay man in
fiction or on TV these days has to justify his existence by trying to be as
funny as Oscar Wilde. But then again, I was so amused by Henderson's
jocularity that I'm tempted to give his presence a pass.
"Almost" is structured as an autobiographical novel. It's the novel Sophy
writes about her life after she returns to New York and resolves to live more
fully, more aware. Its prevailing tone, apart from Henderson's interjections,
is melancholy, sober. Maybe that's why, despite the fact that it's a small
story, a self-absorbed story, it's a story that also seems in measured accord
with these solemn times.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Almost" by Elizabeth Benedict.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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