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FBI Launch Worldwide Man Hunt For Suspected Terrorists

Aired September 5, 2003 - 19:32   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: A worldwide man hunt launch by the FBI. Four men, have you seen these men, believed to be responsible for planning terrorist attacks against the U.S. They are now wanted for questioning. Some of the information concerning the four reportedly came from interrogation of al Qaeda detainees.
And that's what we want to talk about right now. As the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks approaches, there's concern about possible new attacks by al Qaeda. Officials say there's been an uptake in intelligence recently signaling potential new strikes by groups. How real is the threat? That's question.

Joining us now from Watertown, Massachusetts is Jim Walsh. He's with the Belfer Center for Science and International Allairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy school of government. Jim, good to see you as always.

I'm a little confused. Back in July 2002, the government reports talked a lot about these possible al Qaeda sleeper cells and the numbers went up into the hundreds. This latest FBI briefing we didn't hear anything about sleeper cells. What's going on? Have they all suddenly disappeared?

JIM WALSH, BELFER CTR. FOR SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: It's a great question, Anderson. This is one of those rare cases where the headline is not the news. The headline was saying, we're concerned because there may be sympathizers providing indirect support to al Qaeda, particularly in foreign countries, but the real news here is that the FBI has done a complete 180, a turnabout, on what it had been saying.

Back in February it had been saying that there were as many as 5,000 al Qaeda terrorists and sympathizers in the U.S. and Senator Saxby Chambliss from Georgia cited that figure in talking about terrorism. Suddenly those 5,000 appear to have dwindled to a tiny, tiny fraction and none of them are sleeper cells who pose a, in the words of the FBI, an imminent or direct threat.

I think there was perhaps some stoking of the fires earlier this year, but we have a more sober view of it and to tell you the truth, most analysts did not treat that 5,000 figure seriously. They were highly sceptical.

COOPER: The FBI also talked about a shift in strategy, basically, going from arresting suspects to just monitoring them. Why the shift? WALSH: Well, they say the shift reflects new tactics. I think the shift simply reflects two things. One, there aren't a lot of terrorists in the U.S. in sleeper cells that pose an imminent threat. Again, that's what the release said today, they are not about to strike.

And secondly, they don't have the evidence. If they had the evidence to go in and take people to court and get them off the street, my feeling is they would do it. But clearly they don't have that and they don't feel that they the threat that they thought six, nine months ago. So, I think that's the reason for the change in tactics.

COOPER: So in essence, you're saying the FBI, I mean, they can call it a shift in strategy, what it really is just kind of, reacting to the reality of events?

WALSH: Exactly right. That's exactly right.

COOPER: All right. There have been reports, sort of unsourced reports, that some of this information about these four people this that they are searching for right now came from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who apprehended by the U.S. is being interrogated. How reliable, do you think, any information they could be getting from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed would be?

WALSH: That is a good question, again, and tough to answer. You know, Peter Berg and myself and others have wondered, would we get any good information from these al Qaeda folks once we captured them. After all, these are folks willing to commit suicide for their cause, so a lot of us were skeptical we didn't get any good data from them.

We have interviewed a lot of folks and there have been a series of warnings, states by the FBI and others where they have sourced that data to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed or to others interviewed in Guantanamo or other captives.

My guess is some of the information he's providing is probably good, some is probably disinformation, some of it remains to be verified. The problem here, is that the FBI is not telling us what Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's track record is. In other words, if he's given us 20 pieces of information, have ten of them turned out to be right? Have 15? Have 3? We don't know how reliable he is as a source. The only thing the FBI is telling us is he is the source. I wish we had some more data here.

COOPER: Some day a book is going to be written about one of these interrogators and it's going to be a fascinating read to just find out how this information was gleened or wasn't gleened as the case may be. Thanks very much for joining us tonight.

WALSH: Thank you Anderson.


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