Mar 24, 2004

9/11 hearings

BLITZER: Secretary Cohen, thanks very much for joining us. You must be tired after all that questioning on the Hill. We'll continue this conversation.
Our terrorism analyst Peter Bergen has been closely monitoring today's testimony as well. He's watching it all of it. Peter is here in Washington.

Peter, what surprised you, if anything, during these hours of questions and answers?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, there was a lot of focus on the USS Cole, and I think rightly so.

When historians come to write the history of what happened on 9/11, the lack of U.S. response to the USS Cole attack, after all, an act of war that killed 17 sailors and basically almost sank the ship, is a key moment in the history of al Qaeda. We know from detainee interviews right now apparently that the lack of American response to the USS Cole attack really kind of empowered al Qaeda.

Now, that happened, the USS Cole attack happened late on the Clinton watch, and then the Bush administration. It happened October 2000. Clinton was in office for another three months. Then the Bush administration comes in for almost eight months and there's 9/11. Now, obviously, we saw from the testimony today that there were no really good options even if you wanted to respond to the Cole, but the fact is, we didn't, and I think that surely empowered al Qaeda.

And I think just a lot of the debate we saw today about what kind of response we could have taken illuminates the point that the Cole was really a key moment in the history of al Qaeda in the way they saw themselves and the ability to kind of attack the West with impunity.

BLITZER: There was no response after the attack on the USS Cole. But, Peter, there was a response by the Clinton administration after the twin embassy bombings in East Africa, response in Afghanistan, in Khartoum. What was the bottom-line conclusion that the al Qaeda had from that more robust response?

BERGEN: Well, in the case of Sudan, I think it's widely agreed it was a pharmaceutical plant and not a chemical weapons plant, as some of the intelligence seemed to indicate.

In the case of the camps in Afghanistan, these places are made of -- they quickly -- it wasn't very effective. And I want to tell you -- mention three things, Wolf, about why I think bin Laden wasn't there. There was intelligence that he might be there, but, in fact, you know, we evacuated our nonessential personnel from Islamabad, Pakistan, the embassy there, a few days before. We also -- all Westerners left Kabul.

There was a lot of sort of very obvious things that happened that indicated a potential strike was happening. We also know from interrogations of al Qaeda people that they got the word before the U.S. Embassy bombings which happened two weeks before these strikes in Afghanistan to evacuate these camps because they anticipated some kind of reaction from the United States.

So bin Laden, it turns out, was hundreds of kilometers away when these strikes happened. And it had the inadvertent result of turning him from a sort of marginal figure into sort of a cult celebrity in the Muslim world, which was clearly not the intention. But that was the result.

BLITZER: Peter Bergen helping us better understand these historic days today and tomorrow, more testimony, Peter, thanks very much.