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Former CIA No. 2 sees nature of terrorism threat to U.S. changing

STORY BY JOSEPH W. FENTON, (Week of September 8, 2011)
Photo: Richard Kerr, former U.S. deputy director of the CIA

The man who was U.S. deputy director of central intelligence a decade before the 9/11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks says he believes the United States a decade later is more secure, but that terrorism danger is shifting from larger networks such as al-Qaeda to smaller cells and home-grown terrorists.

Richard Kerr, 75, who helped establish the CIA’s first counter-terrorism center and now lives in retirement here on the barrier island, reflected on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and his 32 years with the CIA in a rare interview with Vero Beach 32963.

“I think we are more secure, but it only takes missing one thing and that’s a big disaster,” said Kerr, as his chocolate lab, Chloe, dozed at his feet.

“The nature of terrorism is changing,” said Kerr, who joined the agency in 1960 at the height of the Cold War. He said the May death of Osama bin Laden damaged al-Qaeda and the susequent killing of the terror group’s second in command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, by an armed drone in Pakistan further hurt the organization.

Still, Kerr said he is more worried about home-grown and small groups such as the Moroccans who bombed four Spanish trains in 2004, killing 191 and injuring 1,800. “They are hard to ferret out because they have no main structure around them,” he said.

In the Spanish attacks, the suspects played soccer together and were loosely connected. “Intelligence is best when it deals with countries and big networks,” he said, adding it is more difficult to collect information on smaller more disjointed groups.

Kerr, who retired from the agency in 1992, said he believes the 9/11 attacks gestated over decades and were given a major psychological push by the mujahedin victory over the Soviets in 1989. A lack of U.S. response to attacks also emboldened the terrorist community.

“I look at that period (1970s and 1980s) in hindsight as the terrorists beginning to test the U.S. reaction,” said Kerr. “The jihadist defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1989 was also a critical juncture for world terrorism.” He noted that conflict drew many jihadists from Saudi Arabia, including bin Laden.

“The U.S. saw it as a U.S. victory over the Soviet Union because the United States was supporting the jihadists. The jihadists saw it as their victory over one of the world’s two super powers.”

Terrorism is not new, said Kerr, and existed long before it was imported to the United States. He pointed to the long history of terror plots dating back decades and including the attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics,  the hijacking of the Achille Laro cruise ship in 1985 and the Hezbollah attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 American servicemen in 1983 as examples.

“Up until 9/11, Hezbollah killed more Americans than any terrorist group,” he said.

The U.S. response was minimal, Kerr said, through the 1980s and 1990s to terrorism. He ticked off incident after incident: the Lockerbie, Scotland bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1990s bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 in Yemen.

For many years, he said President Regan’s decision to bomb in 1986 to Libya for an attack on a Berlin disco frequented by American military personnel was “really the only response” to terrorism that increasingly targeted Americans.

That changed with the embassy attacks following the Clinton administration’s decision to attack terror bases in Afghanistan in retaliation for the embassy bombings.

“There were heavy casualties,” Kerr said, “ending in 2000 with the attack on the U.S.S. Cole.”

“The U.S. never looked at them as a whole,” said Kerr, adding he believed the people who monitored the terror groups in the intelligence community understood the growing escalation and momentum of the attacks.

Yet, the nation didn’t look at them as acts of war.  “We treated those as legal violations of the law, Kerr said. “We investigated them as if they were bank robberies.

“We didn’t see it as bin Laden saw it. He was seeing a U.S. that looked like it didn’t take this seriously.”

The sporadic terror attacks also didn’t strike a chord at home. “The country never mobilized to deal with terrorism prior to 9/11,” Kerr said.

That’s because the general American population was far removed from the deaths.  The incidents happened in places many people couldn’t pinpoint on a map and they were generally targeted at the military or civil servants.

Those killed in terror attacks were soldiers, sailors or government employees and many people viewed that was the price of serving overseas, Kerr said. “It was overseas and there is risk of attack abroad,” he said. “It wasn’t an attack on the homeland.”

That laissez-faire view changed when hijackers flew into New York and Washington.

The images seared into the American public’s mind was just as dramatic  for this generation as the attack on Pearl Harbor was for another generation.

Kerr watched the events unfold from his home on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

“My first thought as an intelligence officer was who was responsible,” Kerr said. “Is more coming? What is our response going to be? There was no question in my mind that it was bin Laden and his group.”

“How in the world did we miss this?”

Kerr said that part of the answer is found somewhat in the differences between this country and the culture of the hijackers.

Kerr said the idea of nearly 20 men going on a suicide mission in four different flying bombs was alien to most Americans. “If you can’t imagine it, how can you plan to stop it?”

“9/11 caused us to change our view and the way we reacted,” Kerr said, noting that terrorism finally washed ashore in this country and the nation’s response was to declare war on it.

“We changed fundamentally,” said Kerr. “We took the battle to them with Bush in Afghanistan and to some extent in Iraq.”

The images of the collapsing towers and smoldering Pentagon rubble altered the national psyche.

“Most Americans became much more accepting of the CIA and FBI becoming much more aggressive,” Kerr said. He said both agencies started taking pre-emptive action and most people had no problem with greater government involvement in their domestic lives.

“The 9/11 attack was beyond our ability to imagine,” Kerr said. “We had done games on how you could attack the U.S.”

Typically, scenarios involved nerve gas or “dirty bombs” (nuclear), Kerr said. “I don’t think anyone thought of a suicide pact and using airplanes as bombs.”

Kerr said it was not beyond belief that someone would have outlined that scenario. However, he pointed out that that there had not been a hijacking in years.

“9/11 had caused us to think in a much broader realm,” Kerr said. “The difficulty is how you get government to react to scenarios of things that might happen.”

For example, he said, it is not beyond believability that someone could smuggle in a nuclear device into the United States in one of the millions of containers shipped through the nation’s ports each year. Checking all the containers would be impossible and tremendously expensive, he said.  

“But are you willing to put that much money into our defense,” he asked? “My guess is that we are doing some of that.”

The CIA changed a lot after the 9/11 attacks, Kerr said. “Look at the bin Laden cell.” He said the government is conducting “very creative activities” to track terrorists, their money and their locations.

Prior to 9/11, Kerr stressed there was more second guessing and risk assessments about whether the action would have a high or low chance at success.

“Extraordinary planning when into the killing of bin Laden,” said Kerr.

Kerr said his reaction to bin Laden’s death was simple. “My God why did it take this long,” he said. “He was right underneath our noses in the middle of a Pakistani military compound.” He said the intelligence community fears involving the Pakistanis because once they are included there is a feeling the operation is compromised. 

“Given the information we had we had to do something,” Kerr said of the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden’s compound. “Not making a decision was not an acceptable response.”

The bin Laden operation also showed how the nation’s view of terrorism has shifted.

“Prior to 9/11, the idea was to go in and kill a terrorist,” said Kerr, adding a terrorist’s family never would have been part of the equation. “Now, we accept that as protecting our national interests. Prior to 9/11 that was not an acceptable action. But the rules have changed.”

“They’re as careful as anyone can possibly be before they do a strike against an individual,” said Kerr.

Kerr compared the nation’s response to the 9/11 attacks in much the same fashion as it responded to the Cold War following WWII.

 “The Cold War mobilized the national industrial complex,” said Kerr, noting satellites and planes were built for one reason: to spy on the Soviets. “We developed an entire industry aimed at the Soviet Union,” he said. “We felt the Soviet threat had to be met with a major response.”

Kerr estimated that at the height of the Cold War “several hundred thousand people were employed keeping track of what the Soviet Union was up doing.”

“It was huge,” he said. “We literally mobilized the country for 50 years.”

“We fought through surrogates. We had a lot of firefights but they always involved third parties. We lined up against the Soviets with a third party,” Kerr said, pointing to the Nicaraguan Contras as an example.

Kerr brought the discussion back to the 1989 and the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. When that happened, he said, the U.S. had a lot of people analyzing other countries.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rapid disintegration of its Eastern Europe sphere of influence, the United States relaxed and cut its intelligence community. “It’s human nature to relax,” he said. “We had expertise in every country but it was very thin.”

That could explain why the Bush administration’s insistence on Iraq having weapons of mass destruction in 2002 was wrong.

After the first Gulf War in 1991, Kerr said, information obtained at that time was used to create a baseline for intelligence on Iraq. “We made some assumptions that were erroneous. We did not have fresh information. We had fragmentary information. We also had information that was fabricated.”

Kerr said the intelligence was based on assumptions, prior history, and fragments of information put together because they made sense.  “I think we lived off old information,” he said.

Kerr said there were many reports Saddam Hussein was in the market to develop nuclear weapons, but there was no proof he actually did.

The analysis was not rigorously challenged, Kerr said. “What you don’t know is just as important as what you know in intelligence,” he said. “It’s a very hard thing for an analyst to say what they don’t know.”

The system is better now, Kerr said, pointing to recent changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

“We did pretty well understanding the social instability,” he said, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean knowing when it is going to boil over.”

“Tunisia which started it all had a well-educated population but not enough jobs,” he said. “The flash point was a man setting himself on fire. Who could have predicted that would trigger the protests?”

Kerr said his biggest concern in the Arab world is Syria and the unrest there. “There is a real split between tribes and religion and it could become a Middle Eastern version of Somalia,” he said.