The Weekend Interview with MICHAEL MUKASEY: Two Decades of Pursuing al Qaeda – WSJ.com
Two Decades of Pursuing al Qaeda
When 9/11 happened, Judge Michael Mukasey—later U.S. attorney general—knew all about a free society’s vulnerabilities to mass terrorism.
THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW SEPTEMBER 10, 2011
By JAMES TARANTO
Michael Mukasey was at the doctor’s office on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. When he heard about the attack on the World Trade Center, he asked: “Is this our guys?”
The answer: “We think so.”
That opinion came not from his physician but from the U.S. marshal who headed then-Judge Mukasey’s security detail. Six years earlier, the veteran federal jurist had presided over the conspiracy trial of 10 al Qaeda terrorists. Among the defendants was “blind sheik” Omar Abdel-Rahman, arrested after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed seven. By 9/11 Judge Mukasey was already acutely aware of the threat to which many Americans first awoke that morning.
He had also found it necessary to take precautions considerably more intrusive than the occasional airport pat-down. When he was assigned to the terror trial in 1995, the U.S. Marshals Service advised him to accept a security detail: “I could have turned it down, but they said, ‘Well, let’s do it on a trial basis for a while.’ . . . It wound up going for 11 years.” The marshals had a room in his apartment building and accompanied the Mukaseys everywhere they went. “It’s kind of hard to have a frank personal conversation with your wife in the car,” Mr. Mukasey says. “It has a certain inhibiting effect.”
I visited Mr. Mukasey this week at his 46th-floor law office in midtown Manhattan to hear about his experiences both before 9/11 and after, including his term as attorney general for the Bush administration’s final 14 months. He’s quick to remind me that even before 9/11, the 1993 attack was not a one-off. The trial over which he presided involved “an overarching conspiracy that included everything from the killing of [Jewish Defense League founder] Meir Kahane in 1990 by El Sayyid Nosair, to the ’93—what we now know as the first World Trade Center bombing—to a plot in ’94 to blow up various landmarks around the city: the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, the U.N.”
Evidence in the trial included conversations recorded by a government informant who had infiltrated the terror cell. One exchange sticks in Mr. Mukasey’s mind for what is says about both the terrorists’ mindset and America’s vulnerability. The informant and one of the defendants were walking along a New York street “looking for a piece of electronics that they could use as a detonator. The [defendant] starts to talk about, ‘Look at this society—how open it is. You can get anything here. You can get these electronics, you can get’—he segues from that to Playboy magazine and pornography and the whole span of things that are available in an open society. It was a combination of awe and contempt—awe at the openness and contempt at the notion that people could do anything they wanted. . . . The bottom line is we were ripe for plucking because of all of this.”
What makes a free society ripe for plucking is not chiefly its vices but its virtues, including the protections it affords to those accused of wrongdoing. America was not on a war footing until after the mass casualties of 9/11, and neither was Judge Mukasey: “Obviously we were treating it then as a crime, which was really the only frame of reference we had. . . . At the time, I think a lot of people felt—and I was probably among them—that it proved the suitability of federal courts to handle terrorism cases.”
He ultimately changed his view, in part because al Qaeda acquired valuable intelligence from the trial over which he presided. In a conspiracy case, Mr. Mukasey explains, “the government is required to name all the unindicted co-conspirators that it knows about, and it serves a list. It was later found that that list had found its way to Khartoum within 10 days after it was served.” The Sudanese capital was then home to one of those unindicted co-conspirators, Osama bin Laden. “So bin Laden knew not only that they knew about him but also who else they knew about.”
Mr. Mukasey had other reasons to oppose the Obama administration’s plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other top al Qaeda detainees at the New York courthouse where he once sat. “Just logistically, it would have meant shutting down Lower Manhattan for a huge period of time. . . . It would have put a target on New York City that was already there, but it would have painted it in neon.”