TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks is just a few weeks away. Bin Laden is dead, but al-Qaeda lives on. Is al-Qaeda still capable of a major attack? My guest Peter Bergen has been following al-Qaeda since the '90s. He's CNN's national security analyst and a fellow at the New America Foundation. He's the author of "Holy War Inc." and "The Osama bin Laden I Know."
His latest book, "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda," has just been published in paperback. Bergen just spent two and a half weeks in Pakistan, one of the many reporting trips he's made to the region.
Peter Bergen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. As we get closer to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I keep thinking of how much al-Qaeda loves anniversaries, how much they love finishing a job, like they went back a second time to the World Trade Center.
And I would assume they had some kind of, like, anniversary plan in the works, you know, before bin Laden was killed. So I'm just wondering if you have any inklings about what might be in the works, if anything; if bin Laden's death makes a difference to any plans that were in the works.
Mr. PETER BERGEN (Author): You know, Terry, they planned to celebrate the fifth anniversary of 9/11 with something that would have been spectacular and which was the so-called planes plot of the summer of 2006, which was an attempt to bring down seven American, Canadian and British airliners leaving Heathrow with hydrogen peroxide bombs.
And the idea would be, of course, that they would blow up over the Atlantic. The same kind of hydrogen peroxide bombs that were used to deadly effect in the 7/7, July 7th, 2005 attacks in London, which killed - was the largest terrorist attack in British history.
These guys were trained with al-Qaeda in Pakistan. They'd assembled a large amount of hydrogen peroxide. And luckily, the plot was interrupted. So certainly for the fifth anniversary, they were planning something pretty big.
Are they planning something for the 10th anniversary? Well, of course they'd like to, and I think that some of the materials that have been recovered in the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad indicate a desire to do something for the anniversary.
But you know, a desire to do something is quite different from actual implementation, and I think that this is a group that has, you know, not only suffered the loss of its founder and leader, was already in very bad shape before that happened - you know, they've been losing the war of ideas. Al-Qaeda has been losing the war of ideas in the Muslim world for a very long time, long before the events of the Arab spring, in which they played no meaningful role, and long before the death of their founder and leader.
And that does have an effect on their ability to recruit people. Now, that said, you know, small groups of people can create havoc. Even al-Qaeda itself, before 9/11, was a relatively small group. But you know, now their bench has been, you know, thinned out very dramatically by drone strikes and captures of their leaders and of course bin Laden's death.
You know, they will try and show the flag somewhere around the world, to try and attack an American target around the anniversary. I think that's a reasonable expectation. My intuition is that it won't be very successful. It'll be a small-scale attack.
And their ability to do something in the United States I think is very constrained.
GROSS: You produced bin Laden's first American TV interviews for CNN.
Mr. BERGEN: Actually, it was the first TV interview he'd ever done.
GROSS: Oh, okay. And this is the interview in which he declared war against the U.S. And as a terrorism expert, you'd followed him and al-Qaeda ever since. You've written books about al-Qaeda, including your latest, "The Longest War." What was your reaction when you found out that he was killed by Navy SEALs?
Mr. BERGEN: You know, like a lot of people, I was pretty surprised. You know, I'd begun to think that it wasn't going to happen. In fact, I - part of the reason that I'd begun to think it wasn't going to happen is that I was - you know, I knew some people who were involved in trying to find him, and I mean I had talked to them over the years and they consistently said we just don't really have very much, or we don't have anything, really, other than informed hypotheses about where he might be.
And obviously that changed in the summer of 2010, when they started developing the kind of intelligence that eventually led to him. But the history of manhunts is sort of an interesting one. It took the Israelis 15 years to find Eichmann in Latin America, not for a lack of trying. They never found Mengele.
It took - look, it took, you know, the FBI something like more than 15 years to find Whitey Bulger, who disappeared in Boston in 1999, and was eventually found in California. So finding people who aren't making obvious mistakes like talking on cell phones, you know, who have people very loyal to them who are unlikely to drop a dime on them, is hard. So you know, I was - I was pretty surprised.
GROSS: So now his successor is Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had been the number two in al-Qaeda, and you describe him as a black hole of charisma.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Does that matter? Does it matter that he's not charismatic?
Mr. BERGEN: That's being generous. I think it does. But, you know, bin Laden is sort of a war hero - I mean, whatever else bin Laden is, he wasn't personally a coward in the war against the Soviet Union. He fought on the front lines for weeks, months, years against the Soviets in a very, very dangerous war.
There's no record of Ayman al-Zawahiri having fought in that. Ayman al-Zawahiri has been in prison for a while, which gives him a certain amount of, you know, street cred. But you know, he doesn't - I've interviewed multiple people who know bin Laden - even people who have turned against him who were once his friends tend to have a pretty universal picture of what he's like, which is, you know, modest, retiring, unassuming, kind of thoughtful, lots of things that don't fit with a mass murderer, which of course he is as well.
But you know, and I've also interviewed people who know Ayman al-Zawahiri pretty well and they say he's a prickly, you know, irritable, irritating, not a happy camper. You know, when his videotapes or audiotapes get released, you know, that they get released to a general, you know, collective yawn around the Middle East.
So you know, that wasn't true of bin Laden. It was bin Laden who founded al-Qaeda. It was bin Laden whose ideas it was to attack the United States. And one of the things I try and address in the book is the conventional view that Ayman al-Zawahiri was sort of the Karl Rove of the operation, the real brains to bin Laden's George W. Bush. And in fact that's not true at all.
And it may not even be true for Karl Rove and George W. Bush either. I mean, it turns out that bin Laden was the guy who essentially said we should attack the United States. Ayman al-Zawahiri was certainly somebody who's an intelligent man, a surgeon by trade, but somebody who was brought along for the ride and who really became - you know, had once been one of bin Laden's mentors. But over time bin Laden sort of marginalized him and turned him into a follower, albeit an important one.
GROSS: What surprised me a lot in reading your book is that you say bin Laden kept al-Zawahiri in the dark about the 9/11 plans until the summer of 2001. Why wouldn't he have told Zawahiri?
Mr. BERGEN: Yeah, I mean, it's an interesting question, Terry, because it really - you know, Zawahiri wasn't the - you know, we kind of portray him as the number two in al-Qaeda, which he certainly has been in the past, but before 9/11 he was the number three and not a very important one.
There was a guy called Mohammed Atef, who was the military commander of the group, who was killed in a Predator drone strike in November of 2001, and he was really bin Laden's sort of alter-ego. He was the guy who was clued into what was happening on 9/11.
And bin Laden is a very paranoid and disciplined and secretive guy. And until Zawahiri formally, you know, became part of al-Qaeda in June of 2001, he just wasn't given a heads-up.
And we have, by the way, Terry, the founding minutes of al-Qaeda's first meetings, and Zawahiri is notably absent from those meetings. You know, when I wrote my first book on this, "Holy War Inc.," in 2001, you know, I subscribed to the view that Zawahiri was really the brains of the operation.
But as the reporting has gone on over time, it's become clearer and clearer that that was not the case.
GROSS: You actually in your book make him sound like he's a real bore. (Chuckling) You know, like he's very pedantic and long-winded, and people don't really like listening to him.
Mr. BERGEN: Yeah, he's a bore, and he's writing, you know, memos to people in Yemen saying why did you spend $450 on a fax machine, and you've got to get better accounting for your money. I mean, he's - you know, bin Laden was a bigger picture guy, and Zawahiri is not a - he's not popular even within the Egyptians that make up his own jihadi group.
GROSS: We've been talking about the new head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Zawahiri is Egyptian and, you know, he, as you point out in your book, he's always been obsessed with overthrowing the Egyptian government, perhaps more interested in that than in attacking the U.S. And now the Egyptian government has been overthrown but not by al-Zawahiri's people, by people who wanted a more democratic society.
But last week, tens of thousands of Egyptian Islamist extremists poured into Tahrir Square, and they want an Islamic state. And it was a really big turnout. So what does it say to you that there were more extremist Islamists than the Muslim Brotherhood who turned out for this rally in Tahrir Square?
Mr. BERGEN: I mean, what it says to me is Egypt is a pretty large country. I mean, I think the population is 60 million. So I mean if you can generate tens of thousands of Islamist sort of extremists in a demonstration, that's not entirely surprising, and you know, after all, Cairo is a city of, what 12, 13, 14 million people.
And you know, this is a strain of thought that has existed in Egypt since - you know, arguably since the 1920s. You may recall, Terry, the Luxor massacre, where a group of Egyptian Islamist terrorists killed 56 tourists in 1997. They stabbed them to death, hunted them down in the pharaonic ruins of Luxor.
That effectively ended the extremist movement in Egypt because the popular revulsion in a country where tourism is such an important part of the economy was just off the charts. And a lot of the more extremist elements actually negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the government, which has held to this day.
And so it's sobering to hear about this meeting, about this demonstration in Tahrir Square, but you know, I spend a fair amount of time in Egypt, and I'm pretty confident that most Egyptians aren't begging for a Taliban-style theocracy, and we're going to have an election, and the Muslim Brotherhood will probably do reasonably well.
But at the end of the day, if they get more than a third of the vote, I think they'd be very surprised. And so, you know, there are a lot of other forces in Egyptian society, and I think Egypt has suffered a great deal from the extremists. Something like 1,200 Egyptian civilians, police and military officers died in the violence that took place from, you know, in the early and mid-'90s.
And Egyptians remember that, and I don't think they have any great nostalgia for that. So I'm - you know, the revolution happened, and the whole thing about revolutions is that no one really knows how it will turn out. So I'm not going to predict how it will turn out because no one knows, including the people involved.
But I'm skeptical of the notion that somehow, you know, we're going to get a large demand for a Taliban-style Egyptian state.
GROSS: Do you think that al-Zawahiri is involved at all with the Islamic extremists in Egypt who are trying to show their force now?
Mr. BERGEN: Only rhetorically. I mean, he's released, I think, six video -audiotapes and - a mixture of audiotapes and videotapes since the Egyptian revolution that specifically addressed the Egyptian revolution. And he's called for an Islamic state, which is his way of saying a Taliban-style theocracy.
So certainly rhetorically he's trying to insert himself, but I don't think there's any evidence of him having any direct contacts with anybody in Egypt for, you know, for years and years and years and years.
He has family members who are still there, some brothers, some of whom have been in prison. But I would be very surprised if he had any direct dealings with anybody in Egypt right now.
GROSS: So there's a quote I really like from the end of your book "The Longest War," and this is very relevant to what we're talking about in terms of, you know, Islamic extremists in Egypt. And this is a quote from Anwar al-Awlaki, who is a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
And this quote is about you. He says for a so-called terrorism expert such as Peter Bergen, it is interesting to see how even he doesn't get it right this time. For him to think that because a Taliban-style regime is not going to take over following the revolutions is a too-short-term way of viewing the unfolding events.
And he goes on to say that he thinks it was wrong that al-Qaeda viewed the revolutions in the Middle East with, quote, "despair." Instead, he says, quote, "The mujahedeen, the holy warriors around the world, are going through a moment of elation. And I wonder whether the West is aware of the upsurge in mujahedeen activity in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Arabia, Algeria and Morocco."
Do you agree with him at all that the chaos, or you know, the overthrowing of the pre-existing governments in some of these Arab countries as a result of the Arab spring in the long run is going to benefit the Islamist extremists?
Mr. BERGEN: Mostly I don't agree with him. I mean, that's why I wrote - I wrote a piece for CNN which he was responding to, making that point, that al-Qaeda and its ideas and its foot soldiers were notably absent in all these revolutions. And he was sort of pushing back on that idea.
The one exception is where he is, in Yemen. Clearly al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is benefiting right now from - I mean, Yemen was chaotic before the revolution there, and it's becoming more so. And certainly in southern Yemen we're seeing al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-like groups taking advantage and moving into some smaller cities in southern Yemen.
So in the case of Yemen, yeah, there is some element of truth. But I mean, will al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula be able to play a significant role in the Yemeni future? I doubt it. I mean, we're talking about a group of 300, 400 guys.
So you know, they may benefit from it in the short term, and that's not good for the United States and not good for Yemen, but you know, in the Middle East writ large, I don't see al-Qaeda being able to take much advantage of any of this.
GROSS: So you just spent two and a half weeks in Pakistan. You got back last week. Were you finding that there were any conspiracy theories about bin Laden's association that didn't bear any correlation to reality?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, I was in Abbottabad, where bin Laden was killed. And you know, pretty much everybody that I spoke to didn't believe that he actually lived there.
Mr. BERGEN: Yeah, including quite educated people. So you know, Pakistan is a country that I'm very fond of and spent a lot of time. But it is a country where conspiracy theories have, you know, kind of have a life of their own.
And unfortunately, you know, some of our own activities, some of the United States' own activities in Pakistan have fed those conspiracy theories. So when you have a CIA contractor kill two people in broad daylight in a major Pakistani city, as happened earlier this year, that feeds into every conspiracy theory Pakistanis have about their country being sort of awash in CIA agents going around doing stuff.
When we have a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad that was designed to try and get DNA from bin Laden's family, that feeds into conspiracy theories that Pakistani clerics have said that vaccination programs are, in fact, you know, some kind of Western plot to undermine Pakistan.
So you know, we have - you know, some of the - yeah, there are a lot of conspiracy theories in Pakistan, but we've done some things that, you know, tend to sort of feed them or fan the flames.
GROSS: Well, you know, that vaccination program, I was wondering about that too, because like here in the United States, there used to be some medical experiments that had kind of nefarious underpinnings.
But you know, to read about this vaccination program that was set up with the secret purpose of getting DNA from bin Laden family members, it makes you wonder whether medical workers in foreign countries are going to be more suspected now of being affiliated with the CIA, and you know, whether there'll be distrust. And there are so many medical workers who risk their lives in the hopes of doing good.
Mr. BERGEN: Yeah, I mean it's enormously unfortunate. And as you know, Terry, I mean in the 1970s forward, the CIA stopped using journalists as cover, I mean stopped - you know, so I mean the CIA has had its own internal standards about these kind of things that I think that this - I haven't looked into it in great detail, but I mean I think that this is, you know, seems ethically quite dubious and wasn't successful anyway.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BERGEN: You know, they never got anything from it. And the whole notion that somehow you're going to knock on the - you know, bin Laden's compound door and that all these kids from the bin Laden family would sort of automatically be produced I think was wishful thinking and it didn't happen.
GROSS: So you spoke to people in Abbottabad who did not believe that bin Laden really lived there during the final years of his life. Did you say anything? Did you offer evidence?
Mr. BERGEN: You know, this is like people who believe in UFOs.
GROSS: Uh-huh. So what did they think the attack on that compound was then?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, a lot of people say it was a Hollywood production, whatever that means.
GROSS: Hmm. Okay.
Mr. BERGEN: You know, it's sort of dumbfounding, but...
GROSS: So that would mean they don't think he's dead either.
Mr. BERGEN: I mean, you're trying to engage rationally with this right now. And so that's...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BERGEN: You know, if people hold these kinds of views, it's like believing that - you know, Mullah Omar firmly believed, and he told the Voice of America...
GROSS: He's the head of the Taliban, yeah.
Mr. BERGEN: The head of the Taliban, that, you know, the Jews were behind the Trade Center attacks on 9/11 because of the 4,000 Jews who didn't show up for work that day, supposedly. It's a pretty common kind of conspiracy view in the Middle East.
Now, the United States is not immune to conspiracy theories. Seventy percent of Americans were persuaded, partly by the Bush administration, that Saddam Hussein had had a personal role in 9/11 itself. And the investigation into 9/11 was the largest - was the most comprehensive criminal investigation in history; 167,000 people were interviewed. You know, tens of - you know, an extraordinary amount of man hours and money and effort was put into trying to determine who had done it.
And you know, the investigations and investigators repeatedly found there was no evidence for Saddam Hussein being involved. So you know, there are conspiracy theories everywhere. And that's not an excuse for them, but it, you know, it seems to be part of, you know, human nature.
GROSS: So some people who live in Abbottabad don't really believe that bin Laden lived there. Now, right near where bin Laden lived is a Pakistani military academy, and a lot of Americans don't believe that the people in that Pakistani military academy didn't know that bin Laden was living so nearby. Did you learn anything about that during your trip to Abbottabad?
Mr. BERGEN: There's no evidence that Pakistani officials or military officials or government officials knew that bin Laden was there. There's just no evidence. You know, let's look at it from bin Laden's point of view for a second because we tend to look at it from everybody else's point of view. Why would he let anybody know where he was except the people that he trusted, you know, completely with his life? And, you know, bin Laden after all has been calling for attacks on the Pakistani government for years. And, in fact, President Musharraf, the former leader of Pakistan, was the subject of two very serious assassination attempts by al-Qaida or groups that, you know, in al-Qaida's orbit. So, you know, it doesn't, it fails the common sense test that he was, you know, had some, there was some sort of official collusion in bin Laden's presence there.
GROSS: There's quite a level of distrust now between Pakistan and the U.S. Pakistan, it's my understanding that the government and the military really resent that the U.S. went and raided bin Laden's home and took him out without letting the Pakistani authorities know that this was going to happen. One can easily understand the U.S. reticence to do that, since the Pakistani - there might've been people in the Pakistani intelligence or military who could have leaked that. But how much do you think the bin Laden assassination has hurt relations between Pakistan and the U.S.?
Mr. BERGEN: The high point of the relationship was in 2009. General Kayani, the head of, the chief of army staff who was effectively the most important person in the country, came over to Washington. There were some big discussions about the strategic partnership between the United States and Pakistan. Everybody was really gung ho about it. But the Raymond Davis affair, where the CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in broad daylight in a big Pakistani city in January, the amplification of the U.S. drone campaign against targets inside Pakistan and then, of course, the bin Laden raid, which was done without their, you know, giving the Pakistanis a heads up about it. All that has come together to create a kind of perfect storm of, you know, national humiliation.
A lot of this is about national sovereignty, whether it's a CIA contractor going around shooting people, whether it's the drone program which we, you know, we do have some of Pakistani cooperation but, you know, they want the drones to be ratcheted back and fewer of them. And then, you know, I think that we've reached a point with the drone program where we, you know, it's a tactic that's been pretty useful. But if, you know, if the cost is we've got 180 million people who just hate us more than any other country in the world and that's where the Taliban and al-Qaida and many other groups are based, I think that's a pretty high cost to pay. And I think that we should, you know, try and do something with more cooperation with the Pakistanis. You know, and the quid pro quo from their side would be they would have to take more public ownership for something.
Right now they're in a sort of strange position of benefiting from it to some degree because it does take off members of Pakistani Taliban who are attacking Pakistani state, and at the same time decrying it. But anyway, yeah, the relationship is bad and it's, you know, some of the people I saw in Pakistan said it's never been worse. But I think elites on both sides, of both countries understand that we need this relationship to work for all sorts of reasons.
Mr. BERGEN: Well, I would say there are two or three reasons. First of all, Pakistan is a country with nuclear weapons. It's going to be the fifth largest country in the world in 2015 in terms of population. I mean we just, we can't just, you know, not have a relationship with this very important country. Secondly, al-Qaida and the Taliban and many other groups are headquartered in Pakistan and we need their cooperation and help going after Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, going after Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida.
And we've also had a partnership with Pakistan that goes back a very long time. And I think that we kind of owe it to ourselves and they owe it to us to kind of make sure that that is a healthy partnership.
GROSS: You have a front page article in Foreign Affairs about the drones, the U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan that have been aimed at the al-Qaida leadership. As you've pointed out, these drone attacks are very unpopular in Pakistan. You put together a database, an open-source database to figure out how many of these drone attacks have been effective, how many al-Qaida leaders have been killed in them, how many family members, how many unaffiliated people. What have you been trying to learn through all of this?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, there's been a great deal of heat around this discussion and not very much light and, of course, it's highly secretive on the U.S. side. So we just did something very simple. My colleague Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation, you know, we looked at all the open-source about these strikes. Now the strikes are very public events. You know, they're not, the program may be secret but the event is, you know, when somebody blows up and something falls out of the sky and kills people, it's a public event. It is covered by the local media. It is covered by - and, you know, there are a lot of very serious reporting organizations in Pakistan, NPR obviously, CNN, New York Times and some good Pakistani newspapers. And they report on these drone strikes in a fairly accurate and responsible way.
And so we just sort of surveyed every strike and averaged out the number of, you know, militants or civilians killed in each of the strikes. And we found that over time, you know, the civilian death tolls dropped pretty precipitously. It's widely viewed in Pakistan that most of these people who are killed are civilians. That's not the case at all. I think the civilian death rate this year is down at five percent by our calculations. U.S. government officials anonymously, of course, claim it's closer to zero.
And the other - the flipside of this is that we found that relatively few leaders have been killed, maybe two percent of the total are actually people who could be construed as leaders of these militant organizations. So most of the victims are lower-level foot soldiers. You know, we don't - we're trying to - we're not necessarily taking a position for or against in our data. We're just sort of saying what is the actual story here? Because other people can make conclusions based on, you know, is this acceptable? Unacceptable? Is this proportional? Is this not proportional? And, you know, part of that is, you know, the law of war. We're not legal experts on the law of war, but we're just trying to put some data out there that people can actually begin to make some conclusions about.
Obviously, if the civilian death toll was 95 percent that's very different than if it's five percent. On the other hand, you know, last year there were 118 drone strikes and, you know, most of those drone strikes are not killing militant leaders. And so I think a discussion of this is useful, particularly Terry, because we're not the only nation in the world that's going to have an armed drone program. It was only after all like 10 years ago that we were able to start arming our own drones. And so other countries will start using these and we need to be - think through pretty carefully about what kind of precedents we've set.
You know, some of the victims of the strikes in Pakistan - Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistan's Taliban, had killed thousands, literally thousands of Pakistani civilians. And so that has to be sort of one of the discussions here as well. But anyway, the main point is that some of, you know, some of the victims of these strikes are people who've killed a lot of Pakistani civilians, so that has to be part of the calculus here. But you can imagine a day where, you know, Russians start deploying this in Chechnya or the Chinese start deploying this in, let's say, Tibet. I mean the day is not far off.
GROSS: So if most of the drone strikes have killed like lower-level members of al-Qaida and affiliated groups, but some of the main leaders have been killed by them as well, what impact do you think that these drone strikes are actually having on al-Qaida, the Taliban and affiliated groups?
Mr. BERGEN: I think it's putting a fair amount of pressure on them. I mean I think it's decimating the leadership of al-Qaida. On the Taliban, the Taliban is a much larger group of people. You know, David Rohde who was kidnapped by the Haqqani Network, a Taliban group in Waziristan, The New York Times reporter...
Mr. BERGEN: ...says that when he was with these bodyguards from the Haqqani Network, they were very concerned about drone strikes. I mean it certainly had some effect. The counterargument is you'd expect the violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan to be going down if it was having a really major effect because the area where the drones are aimed at is an area where many of the Taliban, al-Qaida-like groups that are doing the violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan are based. But the violence in both countries actually has been going up pretty much as the same time as the drone program has been going up. So I think it has interfered with the ability for Westerners to get training in the tribal regions of Pakistan from al-Qaida or like-minded groups. But it hasn't stopped, there continue to be Germans and Americans and others who continue to try to go and get training in the tribal regions.
GROSS: The drone program is run by the CIA, not the U.S. military. And you suggest that the U.S. should consider transferring the program from the CIA to the military. But isn't the military not allowed to operate in Pakistan?
Mr. BERGEN: It isn't. I mean, you know, I mean the suggestion will probably almost certainly never happen. But it was an idea, you know, basically, how do you make it more transparent and less secretive? And U.S. military is much more open about the drone programs that it is involved in than the CIA. And...
GROSS: Why would that be a good thing? You know, don't you want to keep this stuff secret?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, I don't think, they're not - I mean this is the least - we're talking about it on NPR. It's...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BERGEN: This is as about as un-secret as it gets. I mean it's one of these programs that has a lot of secrecy surrounding it, but in fact it's happening very publicly. And so the era of plausible deniability is, you know, long - we can't, you know, no one's pretending that these mysterious metal objects that come out of the sky and then blow up are anything other than U.S. CIA drones. And so what's the point of - secrecy is in service of policy, not the other way around. And I think that since this is not really secret, why not make it more if any - if the United States officials are correct that it's killing very few civilians, make it more transparent. Let human rights organizations look at the videotapes and try and get an independent assessment. Is this killing fewer civilians than is generally understood in Pakistan, for instance?
And, you know, by the way, the U.S. military is doing joint, with the CIA, drone programs in places like Yemen, which we're not at war with Yemen. I mean another argument against involving the military is that it would kind of amp up the sort of - it would make it more of a state of war potentially between the United States and Pakistan if the U.S. military was in control. But anyway, we wanted to throw an idea out there to kind of get the public debate going a little bit about this. Because right now it, you know, it's a highly, it's sort of paradoxical. It's, the legal underpinnings of this is very secretive and people won't talk about it. Yet, it's a very public event and it's really damaging kind of the U.S. image in Pakistan.
GROSS: More on the subject of the CIA and the military. What does it say to you that the former CIA director Leon Panetta is now the Defense secretary and former military leader General Petraeus is now head of the CIA?
Mr. BERGEN: Well, one thing is obvious; you've got two of the most effective public servants the United States has going into these positions. You know, the CIA has become more paramilitarized, to coin a verb, that that's just a fact over time. General Petraeus, of course, is not the first, you know, general to take over the CIA. Weve seen General Hayden of the Air Force before so it's not unprecedented. And then you've got, you know, Leon Panetta who was in charge of this operation against bin Laden heading the Defense Department. And I do think that it's indicative of the kind of greater lash-up between JSOC, which the Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA, which was highly integrated in this bin Laden raid. And the fact that these two gentlemen are taking over these respective agencies suggests that this trend will likely continue and there are wars that the United States is engaged in and very - they're not, you know, hugely formal declared wars, but clearly in places like Yemen you're seeing the agency and the special operations community cooperating pretty closely, trying to go after al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
GROSS: So you write about national security. You focus on terrorism, you've investigated al-Qaida for years. Are you worried about anti-Islam extremists in the U.S. and in Europe now? I mean it was an anti-Muslim extremist, a Christian anti-Muslim extremist, who killed I don't remember how many tens of people in Norway. And there is a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States. There are states that are trying to pass laws outlawing Sharia law, you know, with the assumption that the passage of Sharia law is a real threat in the United States.
Mr. BERGEN: Yeah...
GROSS: So I just wonder if you're tracking that and what you make of it.
Mr. BERGEN: I mean, I'm tracking it and I think it's incredibly unfortunate. And I think unfortunately I think some people will be cynically using this issue in the 2012 election as sort of a wedge issue. We've already seen it. As you mentioned, certain states that are, you know - I mean Sharia law is not coming to the United States and is not a problem for the United States. And it's just - it's sort of a nonsensical. And the guy you mentioned in Norway, of course, was reading some of these U.S. hysterical anti-Islam folks like Robert Spencer and others and he was clearly influenced by them.
I'm not saying, of course, there's a direct correlation, but there are people who are writing on this issue who just, they've lost all sense of perspective and it's - I think it is dangerous. And you know, as we come to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, you know, I think that there are some factual things that we've just got to understand going into it. One is that there have been 17 Americans who have been killed domestically in the United States by jihadi terrorist attacks since 9/11, which more Americans die in their bathtubs every year. You know, this is, you know, we need a little bit of perspective here.
Secondarily, you know, we at the New America Foundation are developing a database first of all in jihadi terrorism in which we've released. And then also on other forms of political violence. And it turns out that, you know, people motivated by right-wing ideas of - are much more likely to have tried to, you know, produce a radiological bomb in the United States, a so-called dirty bomb since 9/11. And we'll be releasing the results after, you know, around the time of the anniversary.
But the fact is, is that something like 75 people have died in hate crimes since 9/11, according to the FBI, versus the 17 Americans who've died in jihadi terrorist attacks. So we just have to understand that political violence is not something - and I'm sure most people listening to this program will understand that political violence can come from a lot of different directions. And Islamic extremists don't have any special monopoly on it.
GROSS: Okay. Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BERGEN: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and a fellow at the New America Foundation. His latest book, "The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda," has just been published in paperback.
You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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