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Terrorism, Assange and Iraq with New York Times London Bureau Chief John F. Burns

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

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HH: As promised, time for our quarterly or so conversation with New York Times London Bureau chief, John Burns, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. John Burns, Merry Christmas to you, thanks for staying up late in the U.K. for us.

JB: Same to you, Hugh.

HH: Let’s begin with the fact that today, a dozen arrests across Great Britain on terrorism suspected charges. In your newspaper at this hour, there’s a story that closes by saying British authorities have more than 100 terrorism cases under investigation, thirty are urgent, ten are considered to be imminent. What are you hearing about all these things, John Burns?

JB: Well, as of right now, we don’t really know what this latest conspiracy, if it was that, is all about. But it’s certainly an unpleasant circumstance immediately before Christmas. The police are saying that it is not, as far as they can see, one of the apprehended Christmas plots of which intelligence and security agencies across Europe and the United States have been warning, that it was a longer range thing than that. But it’s just a reminder that Britain, in particular amongst European countries, have a serious terrorism problem, and that they have a lot of trouble keeping up with it.

HH: Now you wrote a couple of stories on the Swedish bomber in Stockholm. As he was living in Luton just prior to his self-immolation and the havoc he caused on Stockholm, any word whether these arrests are connected to him?

JB: They have said not. This seems to be, if you will, a kind of standalone thing. But the fact is that al Qaeda have their followers, supporters, associate cells in, widely spread in Britain. The domestic security agency, MI5, have between four and five thousand people working for them, and that is an increase of something like 50% since 9/11. So they’ve really increased their resources, but the director of MI5, Jonathan Evans, made a speech recently in which he said that there’s, in effect, more business than they can keep up with. They have to prioritize. And inevitably, when that happens, of course, people slip through the net. In fact, the worst terrorist attack that ever occurred on British soil, which was the 7th of July, 2005, the so-called 7/7 attacks, in which 52 people were killed in the London transit system by four suicide bombers, two of those four bombers had crossed MI5′s radar, but were considered to be peripheral to other plots, so they slipped through the net. And there’s always the worry that some others may do the same.

HH: Now John Burns, Great Britain has been governed by a new coalition, half year old at this point. Do they strike you as on top of this particular set of homeland security issues, or still in the learning mode?

JB: I think they’re pretty candid about this, that this is a continuing problem, that it’s not likely to relent at any time soon, that luck is a large portion of this, as it is in all parts of life. But you just work hard, and hope that that and luck will see you through. Fortunately, and the recent suicide bombing in Sweden, is a pretty good indication of this, as was the Detroit airline bomber last Christmas day that your listeners will remember, the attempt to knock down an American airplane as it approached Detroit on Christmas day. One of the common features is that the al Qaeda-related plotters are very often incompetent. And the chap who blew himself up on the main shopping street in Stockholm a week ago Saturday, in the middle of the Christmas shopping rush, carried three bombs into the center of the city, one of them a car bomb, one a bomb in his satchel, and another one a belt bomb. And in all of this, as he advanced on the busiest department store in the city, all he managed to do was to kill himself. He actually lightly wounded two other people. So we can’t assume that these people, and I don’t think the intelligence and security agencies do, will always remain that incompetent. And some of the people we talk to here in Britain in the security agencies are saying that as the center of Islamic terrorism moves under American pressure, American military pressure, from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where we believe Zawahiri and bin Laden are, to Yemen and Somalia, so, too, a greater sophistication is entering into this, some of it directed, they believe, by this Anwar al-Alaki, a figure who will be familiar to your American listeners, the American-born cleric of Yemeni origin, who is the new bin Laden. And this guy is undoubtedly smart. He’s quick, he’s modern, he speaks perfect English, so he’s a major recruiting agent, if you will, for al Qaeda in the English-speaking world. The sense is that the whole operation is becoming a little bit more sophisticated, and we may see less of the kind of blundering that has so far spared us more terrible outcomes than we’ve seen – the Detroit airliner bombing, the Trans-Atlantic airliner bombing plot, which came to court in the U.K. over the last 24 months with eight people sent to jail for life. That was the plot to knock down seven American airliners over the Atlantic on a single day. The suicide bombing in Sweden, a whole series of apprehended plots in Britain and elsewhere across Europe…you know, as I say, luck and the incompetence of the plotters, and no doubt a good deal and proficiency and hard work on the part of the intel security agencies has in effect preempted the vast majority of these plots, thank God. How long they’ll be able to go on doing that if of course an open question.

HH: Talking with John Burns, London Bureau chief of the New York Times, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner for his vast archive of reporting from around the world. John Burns, against that incompetence, there is that very unsettling story of the Prince and his spouse being, you know, cut off and left to the mob’s tender mercies a week ago.

JB: Yes.

HH: How unsettling is that to long time security watchers like…

JB: Well first of all, we have to say we’re talking about really apples and oranges here. That operation was in the hands of a special royal security detail, which is part of Scotland Yard, the Metropolitan police in London. And it was clearly mishandled, and the commissioner of Scotland Yard faced demands for his resignation over that incident, the attack on Charles and Camilla, which you know, came very close to something very much worse. Camilla got poked through the window with a stick, and goodness knows what else might have happened if the security detail hadn’t got that Rolls Royce out of that mob pretty quickly. But that was only part of a much wider mayhem across London that day, and on other days protesting against the Cameron government’s austerity program, particularly its decision to increase pretty steeply college fees in Britain. But we’re talking in terms of terrorism, we’re talking about something else. We’re talking about agencies like MI6 and MI5, if you will, like the CIA in the United States, the FBI, which have dedicated experts working on terrorism.

HH: Now the word on everyone’s lips is Mumbai, and that they want to try a Mumbai somewhere else. Is that what you’re picking up as well, John Burns, from your…

JB: Yeah, well they’ve warned about, of that. They’ve picked up some signals in the late summer, early autumn, that there was some kind of a plot, it was very vague what the details of it were, to mount something like that. And of course, it’s extremely difficult to prevent against it. What do you need for that? The guys who attacked in Mumbai, you know, they attacked with Kalashnikov rifles, and pistols, and some explosives. A group of, I’ve forgotten how many there were, but they were a pretty small group, and they killed, what, 160-170 people?

HH: Right.

JB: A small group of dedicated people, God knows America knows this from 9/11, a small group of dedicated people can have an absolutely devastating effect. So yes, there is a concern about that. There has been a concern that something like that might happen in the run up to Christmas. The plot apprehended today, according to the people we have spoken to, doesn’t appear to have been that. They’ve said it wasn’t, apparently, a Mumbai style plot, and it wasn’t specifically a Christmas plot. But unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more than that, because the intel people are being very careful not at this point, they say it’s a continuing operation, there may be further arrests.

HH: A minute to our break, John Burns, and then we’ll come back and talk more specifically about Richard Holbrooke and others. But with the Olympics looming, I wonder if the United Kingdom regrets having won that competition given what kind of a target it’s going to present.

JB: (laughing) Well, I’ll tell you a lot of people in the United Kingdom regret it, because it’s so expensive. It’s costing an enormous amount of money. And of course, the Olympics were won before the recession really hit in the late summer, early autumn of 2008. And it’s involved building a lot of stadiums across London in particular, which look like they may end up being redundant afterwards. So that’s…and then as you say, there’s the security problem, which is an enormous, enormous problem.

- – - –

HH: John Burns, I read with great interest your reminiscence of Richard Holbrooke, and just wanted to spend a minute. I didn’t realize you were that close to him, that you had worked side by side with him. And quite an interesting character and diplomat.

JB: Yeah, well as I said in that piece, it was always something of a mystery to me that Richard had quite a body of people in the State Department and other agencies in Washington who didn’t really like him very much, thought he was egotistical, selfish, sharp elbows. He was never like that with me. And most reporters who worked with him had an enormous regard for him, because of his manifest competence and range. I mean, he was arguably the most distinguished diplomat the United States has had probably since George Kennan, the author of the containment policy against the Soviet Union at the depth of the Cold War. But there was something else about him that we particularly liked, speaking for myself and I think for many in my profession, which was that we talk about using the shoe leather. That’s getting out and about, and going and experiencing things at first hand. It’s not easy for diplomats to do that very often in places of conflict. But Richard did this. He got out and about. And he got his hair mussed and his boots dirty. In my case, the part of my experience with him that I wrote about that weekend, was when at the worst part of the Bosnian war, the siege of Sarajevo, there was a knock on my door late one afternoon. And who’s standing at the door, this was just before Christmas in 1992, which was you know, the real bottom of the siege of Sarajevo, the worst moment – sniper fire, artillery fire, mortars, the city being reduced to rubble. And there’s Richard Holbrooke standing my door with a sleeping bag and a backpack saying can I sleep on your floor. By this time, he’d already had an extremely distinguished diplomatic career going back to Vietnam. And he went on to be the peace negotiator who brought an end to all of that mayhem in Bosnia with the 1995 Dayton agreement. So I think he’s going to be sorely missed.

HH: There are some people in history who never get to the top of their greasy pole as Disraeli…you think of Curzon, or you think of other people in the American foreign policy service, and Holbrooke and Kennan are two of them. Why is that? What do you think is it that keeps some people from getting their due? A lot of people thought he should have been secretary of state under Obama and before that, under Clinton.

JB: Well of course, in the case of Obama, we know what happened there, that Hillary Clinton took the job. And I think that that made it a lot easier for Richard, who had, there’s no doubt, felt that that would be the fitting end to his career, the apogee of his career. But I think that he understood first of all that Hillary Clinton was a manifestly qualified person for that job, and that she of course had political credentials that he did not. So I think he found that easy. And besides, he got this job, which is right at the cutting edge as the president’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. I suppose if you look back as to why he didn’t get the job of secretary of state under President Clinton, there was always this cadre of people who didn’t like Richard very much, or who felt as I said that his elbows were too sharp, or he was too egotistical. You know, what do they say? It’s the tallest puppy that gets their head cut off? It was a complicated story. But as it happened, in some ways, that played to his strengths. I mean, he was involved in negotiations over, you know, we don’t need to count them, enumerate them. But from Vietnam on, he was crucially involved in attempting to rescue, in many cases, America from a bleak situation indeed. And he was extremely good at that. He was very good at it in Bosnia. I think he was very good at it in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although there were plenty of people, we know that General McChrystal was one of the, who didn’t particularly like him. So in effect, you might say the same is true of many a correspondent I could mention who are excellent foreign correspondents, but wouldn’t necessarily make excellent foreign editors or managing editors.

HH: Sure.

JB: You know, and I can say of myself, I think that I’m a better foreign correspondent than I would have ever made an editor. And that’s the way my career has worked out. And I think in a way, things work out the way they’re supposed to work out, and Richard had a rich, and highly rewarding for himself, as for America, career. And you know, all evil shed away. If he were listening to this now, I think he’d say it was a life well lived.

HH: Now I want to switch over to Julian Assange, from the quintessential public servant to the quintessential public nuisance.

JB: Yes.

HH: Now you’ve covered this extensively in the New York Times. Now there are people who contend that Assange is a victim. I don’t know how they get there, but you’ve reported on that. From your extensive reporting on this, do you think there’s any conspiracy to get Assange? Or is it all coincidence that he’s been brought up on these charges in Sweden when the United States is still trying to figure out what to do about him?

JB: Well, I think if one is going to be fair about this, you’ll need to say to that in general two things. Number one, there’s a very big constituency for Julian Assange around the world as I have learned from my email inbox, much of it vituperative, that believe he’s doing important work, God’s work, some people would say, and that anything that disturbs that is the work of the Devil. It’s very difficult to reason with people like that. There are others more moderate who reasonably, and in face of the circumstances, suspect that there might be some kind of political manipulation of the Swedish, and now British, judicial systems. The suggestion of course is that the CIA is in some way involved in trying to get Julian Assange on a hook for sexual misdemeanors in Sweden. It is, at the least, you’d have to say, an interesting coincidence that when he’s challenging the United States government, he ends up on these, on suspicion of, not yet charged with, but facing allegations of sexual misdemeanors. I understand that. And the onus is on the Swedish government, and on the lawyers in the British courts are acting on behalf of the Swedish government in an extradition proceeding, to meet that. As for my impression from the reporting I have done, my sense is, having talked to the prosecutors, having talked to many of Assange’s own associates, having talked to one of the two women involved, and spoken to friends of the other, my feeling is that what we can say is that as so often happens in fleeting relationships of this kind, things went awry. Just what exactly went wrong is a matter to be settled in court. But my feeling is that whatever happened there was much more a personal matter than it was a political matter, and it was also a question of Assange going to a country which has very, very finely calibrated laws on sexual misdemeanors. You would expect this, wouldn’t you? The women’s movement in Sweden has been extremely strong for thirty years. And they have had a major impact on Sweden’s sex laws, if you will. For example, prostitution, I was told the other day by a prominent attorney in Stockholm who deals with these things more or less full time, is down by over 90% in Sweden, because they passed a law in 1999 saying that it is a criminal offense for a man to purchase the services of a prostitute whenever and wherever he does it. It’s not illegal for a prostitute to sell her services. Now that’s a pretty tough law. But all of their laws relating to sexual activities or sexual misdemeanors are similarly tautly drawn.

HH: Interesting.

JB: I think in all of this you can see more or less the outlines of what happened. It will, as I say, be a matter for a court to determine whether Julian Assange crossed the line. The particularly difficult issue is that he’s being investigated for rape.

HH: Hold that thought. John Burns is my guest. One more segment ahead on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

- – - –

HH: Coming up after the break, ironically, to some extent, Andrew Breitbart will be joining me to talk about his latest adventure in journalism. But Andrew of course, John Burns, publishes everything and lives with the consequences. Assange flees them. As we were saying before the break, he’s been charged with, or not yet charged, but some people are suggesting rape. Do you have sympathy for him? Or is this a person for whom it’s difficult to feel sympathy?

JB: Well you know, Assange said the other day, and it’s hard to argue with this, that without going to the question of whether or not his behavior represented some kind of contravention of Swedish law, he said, and he should know. After all, he’s an expert on these matters. He said there is something like 44 million places on the web, or websites on the internet where rape is mentioned, and over 30 million of them on his name. And he said this is utterly destructive of my reputation. And rape is a very, very powerful term.

HH: Yes.

JB: So we’ve got to understand what’s involved here. Sweden has very tough rape laws. The most serious form of rape is what any of us could understand. It’s, as a lawyer for the two women involved in this case, said it’s a man standing by a tree in the park who attacks a woman. That’s not what we’re talking about. The rape for which the Swedish government wishes to question Assange in Sweden is the least serious of three levels of rape, and it amounts to something that you and I might call kind of date rape. It is when a man uses some degree of force in a relationship, and in a consensual or otherwise consensual relationship with a women, in order to have sex. Usually in the Swedish cases, it involves, as it did in this case, unprotected sex, according to the two women. The problem, of course, for Assange and for many of those people who believe that he’s doing important work is that that is such a powerful term. It’s a term that destroys reputations in an instant. And I think that it needs to be explained exactly what these charges are. There are two other charges, one of which is sexual molestation, and the other one is forceful coercion. That being said, you know, many people are saying why doesn’t he just go back to Sweden and sit down with the police, and answer these questions? Sweden is not the Congo. I mean, there are 192, I believe, members of the United Nations. And there are quite a number of those countries where you and I would not wish to end up in a court, because there is no established due process.

HH: Absolutely right.

JB: But Sweden is not one of those countries. And I think a lot of his trouble might have been avoided if Mr. Assange had simply gotten on an airplane and gone back there and answered their questions. I talked to people who are involved in this case on behalf of the women. And they’re suggesting that if he did do that, if it did come to court, and they’re not sure it would, he would be unlikely to be convicted of anything other than a minor misdemeanor, for which the probable penalty would be a fine. And even that’s not a sure bet.

HH: Well hopefully, he ends up here on national security charges, not there on a misdemeanor. Let me close with a couple of minutes from you, John Burns. Jack Healy, your colleague at the New York Times, wrote about the rebirth of Sadrism in Iraq today.

JB: Yes.

HH: And I’m curious after your long experience in Baghdad and throughout the country, what’s your assessment of the prospects for 2011 in Iraq as we look at the Malaki government?

JB: Were it to involve Mr. Sadr, there is no good news. This guy was a source of villainy right from the get go. The very first thing he did in the period of American occupation in Iraq was he connived in the murder of an ayatollah who was a rival of his, and a rival of Sadr’s father. There was no good news. He’s a man of murderous instinct. And the worst possible outcome in Iraq would be if Muqtada al Sadr ended up sitting where Saddam Hussein was. And that’s, I think, not to be ruled out. It’s certainly not beyond his ambition. So I think we have to worry. If those American troops are drawn down from the 50,000 or so who are there now through 2011 towards zero, unless there’s some agreement for a residual force to be left there, I think you will see the natural political dynamics of Iraq reassert themselves. And there’s a serious risk of a return to serious violence. And I wouldn’t preclude either a return to something like the situation we faced in 2005-2006, when Iraq was on the verge of a civil war. God forefend, I would say, because that would be terrible for Iraq’s people, and it would be a terrible outcome for America after all that has happened there. But I think it can’t be precluded.

HH: John Burns of the New York Times, it is always a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for making time for us tonight from the United Kingdom, and a very merry Christmas, and a start to the new year. We’ll talk to you in 2011.

JB: Thank you so much, Hugh.

HH: Thank you, John.

End of interview.

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