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This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Wednesday 12/9/01

We are joined now from Yale by the former Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbot. We're joined on the phone from the States by Senator Wayne Allard, who sits on the armed forces committee and here in the studio is Dr Muhammad Al-Massari, who is a Saudi dissident. Strobe Talbot, billions of dollars spent on defence intelligence and this attack was apparently unpredicted. How could that happen?

It is very difficult to predict something like this, obviously and by definition. I think, though, it is a rush to perhaps unfair judgement to call it an intelligence failure. It is certainly not premature, though, to say we are going to have spend a lot more of our intelligence assets, and when I say "we" I mean not just the United States, directed at this kind of target. Up until now, this kind of threat┐we have been aware of it, we've experienced it, no where this kind magnitude but it's been on the margins of what were seen as the principle threats of security of this country and the civilised world. Now we see it as a central threat and have to treat it as much.

Senator Allard, you sat on the intelligence committee and we have heard there that precisely this threat was warned of in earlier assessments. Did you ever come across any such suggestion?

I was part of some hearings where the suggestion was made and obviously it is hard to evaluate just the likelihood of something like that happening. I think it is a shock to all of us, even though at one time we talked about various scenarios that terrorists may use to try and cripple the United States in some way. One way or another, we always seemed rather removed. Then there is always the issue of how far to do you go to limit the freedom that everybody enjoys. We tried to make a decision of what seemed practical, What seemed practical two days ago, or maybe seemed not practical two days ago, seems very practical today and I think America in many ways has lost its innocence due to the tragedy yesterday and the sorrow that we're suffering today.

How clear were the warnings you got on the intelligence committee?

They weren't clear, they were just speculations, suggestions at what could happen. Then you are faced with, what is the likelihood, what's a reasonable approach to try and defend yourselves?

Were they at all close to what actually happened, these warnings?

They were similar in scenario. They weren't exactly, but similar. Like I say, this is a changed world after yesterday. A lot of our friends and a lot of Americans realise how dangerous the world can be, particularly when you have a terrorist group out there that may target one community or building or even the country.

Strobe Talbot┐

This is based on my experience when I was in Government and devoid of any inside knowledge of what has happened in recent days, but warnings are more or less constant fact of life. People like the Senator and people in the executive branch and in the intelligence community are getting them all the time. You are constantly in the position of having to figure out how much importance to attach to today's warning as opposed to the one you got a week ago - a lot of cries of wolf, wolf. Then of course the real wolf comes along and everybody wishes they'd paid attention to that one. You have to keep that in mind as a point of context.

The scale of this attack was so gargantuan, so grotesque that you can hardly imagine anyone taking it seriously before it happened, presumably?

In addition to the obvious inadequacy of the intelligence gathering, processing and the policy response to the intelligence, there was also a breakdown in the security procedures for air travel. Maybe I am the only person who feels this way, but an awful lot of folks looking back over the last several decades think of aircraft hijacking as a problem that was not solved, was greatly diminished quite a number of years ago. I think an additional shock here is that these characters were able to synchronise their hijackings of multiple aircraft. Many of us just didn't think that was possible in this day and age with all of the precautions.

Who do you think the initial finger of suspicion points towards?

If you are asking me, I would say there is no question who is at the top of the list and you have mentioned it already in this broadcast and that is Osama Bin Laden. I also think it is extremely important to have conclusive proof, for all kinds of reasons. I suspect when we get conclusive proof it will be a lot more than one mastermind, given the magnitude of what was pulled off here.

Dr Muhammad Al-Massari, Osama Bin Laden is a Saudi dissident, as indeed you are - I'm not suggesting that you have an identity of views. Do you think he was behind this?

As the gentleman said, it is not clear yet. The level of sophistication is a bit out of the reach of Osama Bin Laden but it is not completely impossible. Let me maybe correct a couple of points you mentioned. The first point you mentioned is undeclared and unethical. I would say it is declared. He declared war and the US is engaged in war against Iraq. When Mr Bush yesterday said it is war, I said "hello, good morning, wake up, it is war long ago." Number two, ethical. We should not go in this ocean of ethical problems because there are many unethical things in the Middle East.

Are you trying to justify this?

No, no. It will be unjust towards the listener to think that was going in Iraq, and what Mrs Albright said a couple of years ago, that it is justified to have half a million Iraqi children killed to content Saddam Hussein. So there are plenty of unethical problems. It is better we don't go into ethical problems today

Would you like to explain to us what you imagine these, we assume young, men thought they were achieving?

They feel they are engaged in war against the United States, which is involved in war activities in Iraq, and supporting Israel in past and future and now, in future hopefully not but now, specifically under Mr Sharon. So they are full of rage and anger and full of feeling they are justified to counteract the act of war by the United States by their own. But I said this will lead us into dark areas of ethics which I am not┐think it's the right time at the moment. It needs more relaxed attitude later down the road.

Senator Allard, when you hear that point of view expressed, it may baffle us in the West, but when you hear it expressed like that, how do you think a country goes about dealing that sort of threat?

We will deal with the threat and we will put a face to whoever the perpetrators were of this tragedy. I am confident of that. America never viewed it was a war with anybody. We do realise that there is some people that hate America, they hate freedom and hate our prosperity but we never, again, consider ourselves at war. After yesterday many Americans now consider what happened yesterday an act of war and there is some discussion in the American community as well as among politicians as to how far do we go in engaging in an act of war.

How far do you think you should go?

Are you talking to me? I think we need to identify the perpetrators, make sure we know who they are and then I think we need to respond in a direct and appropriate way and I think it may very well necessitate military action and I think we take it if necessary.

Strobe Talbot, when you look at this attack, the most remarkable, horrifying characteristic the is resolution of the assassins and their total ruthlessness. This is a new enemy for the United States isn't it?

It is new at this level. We have experienced terrorism in the past. Would you mind if we went back to to the earlier exchange. I found what was said by your guest in London to be nothing short of grotesque and perhaps at another time we can delve into those areas he calls 'dark areas of ethics'. I think he's not shed much light there. But I do think that precisely because the United States has been on the frontline of the search for peace in the Middle East, and has overall been a indisputable force for peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict, it will be important for the Bush administration, as it calibrates its response to this outrage, to take account of the implications of its response for the Middle East peace process. What I attach more importance to than what was just said in the show is the fact there were a lot of Palestinians, including a lot of Palestinian young people, out cheering and celebrating when this horror happened. That is just a fact of life and part of the mix in the Middle East that the United States, through its diplomacy and political influence, is trying to change.

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