Q: At what point in your career did you realize you were becoming a terrorism expert? How did that happen?
A: When I was a student at university I made a documentary with two friends about the Afghan refugees in Pakistan in 1983. We shot it on film and it was shown on British television. So that’s how I got interested in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I went back a few times - Pakistan in ‘89 for ABC News as part of a team to interview Benazir Bhutto the first time she was prime minister.
The first Trade Center attack happened in ‘93. Everyone involved in that attack had either fought in Afghanistan or been involved in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. So I went to Afghanistan in ‘93 to do a documentary on the first trade center attack, and that’s when I really got into it. And that’s of course when jihadist terrorism first struck the United States. When bin Laden’s name first came up in ‘96, publicly, I identified him as somebody I thought might have been behind the first Trade Center attack. Now that wasn’t the case, as it turns out, but of course he was behind this larger movement, and we interviewed him in March of ‘97 for CNN. It was his first television interview. I then resigned from CNN in 1999 to write a book about Al Qaeda and bin Laden, and then 9/11 came along and I’d just handed in the manuscript 10 days earlier.
Q: Have there been moments as a journalist where there have been questions that you’ve been afraid to ask?
A: In the case with the interview with bin Laden we have to submit the questions in advance-that was one of the conditions. And so his people excised any questions about his family, money, personal life-and at the end of the day we weren’t there to find out about his personal life. We were there to find out about why he was planning to attack the United States. It wasn’t that we were afraid to ask questions, it was just that he wasn’t going to answer them. Since he was surrounded by a group of heavily armed men, it’s not like you could force him to answer particular questions.
I can’t think of a situation in where there’s been a question that I’d afraid to ask somebody. It’s more what are the situations in which you’re in which would be problematic, and you don’t know what those situations are until you’re in them.
Q: Earlier this month you gave Congressional testimony in which you said the hunt for bin Laden is going poorly. What do needs to happen for it to go better?
A: The hunt for bin Laden is going poorly because finding one person in the world is not an easy thing. Donald Rumsfeld was asked this question and he said, “The world’s a big place.” Unfortunately, that’s true. Bin Laden is almost certainly in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, which a bit like saying we know someone lives in Massachusetts but we don’t know where in Massachusetts they live. It’s a big place. … The next president might appoint somebody to be in charge of finding bin Laden, because right now it’s not really clear who that person is. Is it Mike Hayden, the head of the CIA? Is it General Petraeus, who will now be the head of CentCom? Who’s really responsible for this on a day-to-day basis? I don’t think there is anybody.
Q: Do you think he will be found in the next ten years?
A: He’ll be found in the next 20 years. He’s not making silly mistakes, talking on cell phones, talking on satellite phones. People in his immediate circle aren’t motivated by cash rewards, because otherwise they would have dropped a dime on him already. But human beings make mistakes, and he’ll make a mistake. He has an interesting catch-22, which is if he chooses to say nothing, he becomes an historical figure. If he chooses to say something, he opens himself to detection.
Q: You’ve been both a journalist and author. Do you see yourself becoming more of an academic?
A: Yeah. I’m applying to do my PhD because, why not. I enjoy teaching. So, that’s part of my plan.
Q: Where at?
A: I’m applying at King’s College in London—their war studies department. To do a PhD in American universities, as you know, is quite onerous compared to doing it in the UK.
Q: How would you compare the Kennedy School and SAIS?
A: At SAIS the classes are much smaller. My classes tended to be between 15-20 students, so it’s a bit of a different experience. But the students are not dissimilar. The average age at SAIS I think is 30 - fair number of people from the military and U.S. government, and then some people who are in their early 20s. At SAIS I had one student who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines and going to Fallujah, [Iraq] after he finished, and similarly in this class there’s a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marines who was in Anbar Province and is currently a National Security Fellow. …. Kennedy School of Government is public policy writ large. SAIS is very focused on international relations. If you look at Foreign Policy magazine, for the past several years they’ve started taking a poll from 1,000 people in the field about which place is the best for international relations—SAIS and Georgetown tend to be number one and two because, they’re in Washington. That’s where the sausage is being made. [Harvard is listed as number three in the 2007 rankings.]
Q: You were on Oprah [in January 2006]. Did you get any flak from the academic community?
A: Well, I’m sure the academic community doesn’t watch Oprah, right? Laughs. … How did you find out I was on the Oprah show, by the way?