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Andrew C. McCarthy (@AndrewCMcCarthy) is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, contributing editor of National Review and author most recently of essential books on the threat of Islamic supremacism including Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad, The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America and Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.
In addition to being one of the nation’s foremost national security analysts and legal experts — formerly serving as Assistant U.S. Attorney in the vaunted Southern District of New York — he is one of the most humble, insightful and devoted patriots I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
In Part I of my in-depth interview with Andy McCarthy, we discussed his experience prosecuting the jihadist mastermind of the first World Trade Center attack and what it taught him about the Islamic supremacist threat America faces, the primacy of religion for Muslims in the Middle East and in the West, why Islamic supremacists choose jihadist savagery over assimilation, willful blindness in American national security and foreign policy regarding the nature of the jihadist threat, folly in American foreign affairs from Syria to Libya, and the imperative to collapse the Khomeinist Iranian regime.
What We Discussed
- How McCarthy, an Irish Catholic kid from the Bronx became one of the nation’s foremost legal experts on jihad and Sharia law
- The prosecution of the Blind Sheikh and his terrorist cell over the first World Trade Center attack and plots to destroy other New York City landmarks
- McCarthy’s impressions having sat face-to-face with some of the world’s most evil jihadists, and why their portrayal as genocidal maniacs is wholly inaccurate
- The strength of religion over other animating factors when it comes to jihad, and the West’s projection and mirror-imaging
- Why Islamic supremacists do not want to assimilate into Western culture or adopt Western principles such as freedom of religion and individual liberty
- The willful blindness and arrogance of America’s national security and foreign policy establishment over Islamic supremacism and the Middle East
- Whether America is better off in homeland security and foreign affairs almost 17 years after 9/11
- McCarthy’s belief in the Bush Doctrine
- What America’s national interest is in Syria
- McCarthy’s fear that America will be unwilling to engage in future wars of necessity given the expense in blood and treasure of the last two decades
- What McCarthy would do if he were counterjihadist czar
- The West’s disastrous record of colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots
- The disaster of Iran Deal and the imperative to collapse Iran’s Khomeinist regime
- The Pizza Connection case
- Omar Abdel Rahman, aka the Blind Sheikh
- Al-Azhar University
- El-Sayyid A. Nosair
- Lynne Stewart conviction
- Sharia and Islamic culture
- FBI-CIA squabbles and intelligence failures
- Courts for dealing with jihadists
- McCarthy on Syria
- Stephen Coughlin
Thanks for Listening!
Check out other episodes at benweingarten.com/bigideas.
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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ben Weingarten: I want to start by talking about your life’s work, which really focuses on arguably the greatest threat of our time, and a long war that we’re gonna be engaged in it looks like for decades. And I’ll start here: How does an Irish Catholic kid from the Bronx end up, arguably, the nation’s foremost expert on jihad, Sharia law, and this threat that faces us.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Probably by showing up for work the wrong day. Yeah. I think it’s interesting. The great thing about being a lawyer and where I’ve been fortunate to be able to practice law is that you never knew, especially in the US Attorney’s office in Manhattan, the Southern District of New York — which is, I still think, the premier law enforcement office, I like to think in the world, but certainly in the country. But the great thing about it was you never knew on any given day what kind of case would fall into your lap or what kind of thing would come into the office.
And when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, I was actually thinking at that point in time that I had had such a good run. I had been a prosecutor since about 1985, and I had great organized crime cases including working on — one of the first things I did in the office as it turned out was to work on the longest federal criminal trial in American history, the Pizza Connection case. And I had a series of really terrific cases. If you like criminal law practice, I had great cases in the years that went after that, and I had by then sort of been a supervisor and done all the things that check all the boxes that you checked, and I was thinking about moving on.
But the World Trade Center gets bombed in February, late February of 1993. And it turns out that our legal architecture is not up to the task of prosecuting international terrorism, which is fortunate. The reason: Your law becomes robust in the places where you are challenged. And we really had not had in a systematic way international terrorism as a problem in the United States, the way, say, Israel had it, or Ireland had it and India has it, other places had it. So were kind of struggling for a paradigm. What you always wanna do in these prosecutors’ offices is you figure out what kind of a crime challenge you have, and you fit it into a template of what you’ve done before in part because you not only wanna structure the case well, but you need to predict… What people are gonna be sentenced, who’s gonna cooperate and the like. We didn’t have anything like that for international terrorism. The closest thing we had was enterprise cases like racketeering cases in the international crime context, and that was my… For want of a better word my area of expertise.
At the time I took over, I was asked to take over the investigation of the Trade Center bombing in the aftermath because what we found was almost immediately after the Trade Center was bombed, the same jihadist cell planned a more ambitious attack in Manhattan where they were gonna hit multiple targets simultaneously, if they could. And the people who had caught the original Trade Center case, which just involved the bombers, were in a position of having to investigate the case and get ready for trial on a very short date, which was not practically possible with a continuing investigation where they were planning to kill a couple of hundred thousand people if they could.
So I ended up inheriting that case. So I became versed in what we were dealing with of necessity because I had the case. I thought the only sensible way to do that case was to do it like we always did these cases in the Southern District, which was not to address the bombing, but to address the enterprise that was behind the bombing. And that turned out to be an ideologically based Islamic supremacist network that we called a cell back at the time, which was really run by the guy who was regarded not just in the United States, but internationally as one of the leading, if not the leading Sunni jihadist Sharia authorities. So the only way to do the case was to try to understand what was motivating them.
Ben Weingarten: You didn’t have the benefit of having the freedom to be willfully blind because you were doing your job.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Well, I didn’t think about it at the time because I wanted to believe — just like we were saying as a government — I wanted to believe that we didn’t really have a religion-based problem of any kind. And look, I had as much depth in Islam as any reasonably well-educated person in the United States, which is to say not a whole lot. I think it would be extravagant to say I had an awareness of it at a “10,000 foot level.” I don’t even think I had that. I wanted to believe what we were saying as a government, which is that there were a couple of dozen knuckleheads in Jersey city, and if we could get them contained, that would be the end of the problem. And that was not… If you think about it, that was not an unreasonable position to take because it’s not like we had had a spate of terrorist attacks in the United states. If somebody had called the FBI on February 25th, the day before the bombing in 1993, and said, “We’re gonna blow up the World Trade Center tomorrow, the response probably would have been, “Well, let us know how that works out for you.” You know… Now, of course, it would set off… We’d be grateful to have a heads up. But it wouldn’t be inconceivable that it could happen. But I wanted to believe what we were putting out as a government.
The thing is, and this is a great thing about a jury trial, I’ve said every bad thing that you can say about regarding and dealing with terrorism as a law enforcement problem rather than a national security problem. Here’s the good part in a courtroom: You can’t get away with what you’re saying from the podium in the press room at the White House, or from the podium at Main Justice. You have to actually convince people if you’re gonna get them to convict criminals of very serious offenses, not only what happened, but why it happened. Part of that is ’cause you have to prove intent. But also part of it is because convicting people is not an easy thing. I mean I tried to get people to do it for 20 years, and we have a very high batting average, but it’s because in most serious crime cases, the jury is satisfied that it knows what happened and why. And in these cases, you have to show them what happened and why.
So the only way that you could honestly show them why this happened was to show that there was a causal nexus between Islamic doctrine, as literally, it appears, mediating forces of great influence like the Blind Sheikh, who in Washington and in other places in the media, they tried to paint into a wanton lunatic killer, but who I quickly learned had the influence that he had over the enterprise because he was a doctor of Islamic jurisprudence, graduated from Al-Azar University — which is the center of Sunni learning since the 10th century. He was a globally renowned authority in Sunni Sharia jurisprudence. So I probably shouldn’t even say Sunni, I should say Sharia jurisprudence because he had his own interpretation of it, but he obviously understood all the different schools and all the different doctrines. So you had these doctrinal commands in the text. You have these mediating influential forces in, by the way, a religious framework that have… I’m a Catholic, so I guess I can speak to this. One of the interesting things about Catholicism is you have a Pope. So whether you agree with the Pope or you disagree with the Pope, is it relevant? The Pope gets to be Pope. And what that means is when he speaks ex cathedra, he can speak authoritatively. So you would not have the problem in Catholicism that you have in Islam of an authoritative voice that can marginalize interpretations of the faith — that, for example, this particular interpretation of the faith is a violent one, and that takes jihad in the classical traditional interpretation of jihad as “military action to further the faith” and actually to implant and spread Sharia. They don’t have anything like that. So somebody like the Blind Sheikh is always going to be powerfully influential, even if we don’t like to believe that, with lots and lots of people among the 1.6 billion, or however many Muslims there are in the world.
We got to prove in our case, unlike what they were saying in the media, that there were these commands in the scripture. There were these very influential mediating factors, and there were presences like the Blind Sheikh, and there were young muscle men who were activated, animated mainly by the influences, but also by the fact that they were planted in the most sacred scripture of Islam. I think religion can motivate in a way that — we talk about ideology all the time — most people won’t kill for their ideology. These people were willing to commit mass murder for it. And I think as the West gets more and more remote from religion, we find it harder and harder to believe that people can be motivated this way, but they can… It’s powerful, influential or a powerful animating factor. So anyway, we got to prove that in court because we had to prove it in court. Because if we didn’t prove it in court, then the people wouldn’t have been convicted. So the great thing about a courtroom is, it’s not politically correct. A bad thing about it is you have to take your enemies who are trying to destroy America and trying to mass murder New Yorkers. We tried our case about six blocks away from the World Trade Center. But you have to give them all of the Grade A due process that you give to any American accused. So you have to presume them innocent, and you have to give them all the benefits of our legal system. So there’s a lot of downsides to doing it that way. But the one upside is, I think, that we got a more reliable demonstration of what it was that we were up against, then most people became familiar with, if their only exposure to it was the media with the filter of whatever the government was saying about it publicly.
Ben Weingarten: You mentioned the media portrayal of the Blind Sheikh as someone who was just a crazy, I guess, genocidal maniac, thereby kind of marginalizing the fact that he was actually a human being who was rational in his own way with agency. And as you said, was an authoritative scholar at the seat of Sunni Sharia jurisprudence in the world. You’ve sat face to face with the Blind Sheikh and with his co-conspirators. And I think they’re a fine proxy for any of the Sunni jihadists that we are dealing with today. In other words, what you saw is still relevant today. What were the takeaways that you have from sitting in a room and dealing with these people? What are the insights the average American wouldn’t know because they’ve never sat face to face with these people.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Well, group dynamic works across cultures. I think you can fairly say that in that group. And we had 120 defendants and many co-conspirators outside the people who they actually were able to bring to court. So you had like you have in almost any group: You had a core of true believers. You had kind of a ring around them of people who were just looking for a reason to make mayhem. And if they hadn’t found jihadist Islam, they probably would have found something else. And then you have kind of an outer ring of “convince-ables” who are brought on board for a variety of reasons — most prevalently, the pull of religious doctrine. So you have young people who are confused, and some of the aimless, but religion is a powerful factor in their life. And the pull of a fire-breathing doctrine is very seductive, especially if they’re living in a culture, which is kind of hostile — at least indifferent, if not hostile to religion. In that way, they were like other gangs or criminal enterprises.
But the way that they’re very different, and I think this is part of the tragedy of our government policy in these years, because this was knowable, and people chose not to know it in Washington… A lot of times, I think we think that they just don’t understand in the Sharia cultures what a liberty culture is like. And if we could only show them freedom and what the array of choice is that it makes available to you and the prosperity that it can bring, then they’ll begin to understand it and it’ll be life-changing. And what I found — notwithstanding the current of that thought in the West, which I think is still the way most opinion elites in the West think of this — what I learned was that these people were not unsophisticated. They certainly got the West, and it wasn’t that they didn’t understand it. It was that they didn’t want it. They had their own culture and their own norms, and it wasn’t that they didn’t understand ours. They thought that they were superior to ours. I think when we approach these cultures, you have to understand number one, that if they’re going to change, it’s gonna be internal, organic change for the most part, and that there are certain people that we are directing our efforts to who are not ever… They’re irrevocably, implacably opposed to us. And if we treat everyone else — they’re almost like the noble savage, or we’re the knowledgeable people in the West. We know how the world is supposed to work and how life is supposed to be lived, and we need to teach them that. And what I think you find in a lot of these cultures is that’s off-putting to people. They don’t think that you’re here to help them. They think you’re here because their way of doing things is inferior and backward. Now, as it happens, I think it is inferior and backward. But what’s important to understand is we think of freedom as the engine of prosperity, and it’s kind of in the DNA of the American character. We think of it as essential to the Enlightenment, this idea of not only freedom, but self-criticism, innovation, etcetera. And we project as if everybody thought of things that way. And we’re dealing instead with a culture that thinks that for very logical reasons, if you believe that Sharia, which is the Islamic law, the path basically is what it means.
Ben Weingarten: Path to dominance, ultimately. A totalitarian system over the world.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Well, it turns out to be dominance. Yes. But I mean what they think of is it’s the path in the sense of it’s the way that Allah wanted life to be lived, which just happens to end in everybody being a Muslim. So you do get domination in effect. But the point is, if you’re looking at it from their perspective, they believe Allah is sheer will, and that without Allah we wouldn’t be here. So we owe everything to Allah. We don’t question Allah. And Allah gives you this gift, which is the blueprint for how human life is to be lived. They’re not interested in innovation. They’re not interested in freedom. They’re not interested in questioning their basic premises because they think it’s not only an affront, it’s blasphemous if you’re wired the way they are.
So now we look at that and we say, “Man, that’s crazy. That’s like, everything was set in stone — it started to be set in stone by the eighth century, and the gates of itjihad were closed in the 10th century. So for a millennium, it’s virtually the main pillars of Islam and the main areas where people could question things in life were basically settled for a millennium. And they are very hostile to ideas of innovation and self-criticism because they think it’s code for, “Here’s a way to violate Sharia. Here’s a way to turn your back on our norms.”
And I think that when we interface with Muslim cultures, we don’t get that part of it. And I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no progressive movements in Islam. I think there’s very vibrant progressive movements. But you can’t pretend, even though we do, that this interpretation of Islam, which is literalist, and which has had the backing of immense scholarly work and influences going back 13, 14 centuries, to pretend that this is just a fringe movement. If you just open your eyes, everywhere you look in the Muslim world, where there’s progress, it’s progress that’s had at the cost of fighting back what can only be a mainstream part of the culture if you have to fight it that hard. So I think that we make a big mistake both treating them as if they’re stupid, when in fact, it’s not a question of that. It’s a question of they don’t accept our way. They have a different way of looking at the world, and they think it’s superior. And I think we also make as big or bigger a mistake by treating a movement that may not be a majority of the Muslim world, but certainly as a sizable plurality, to treat it like it’s a fringe is very off-putting.
Ben Weingarten: I think it bears noting also, you talked about the fact that if you were to basically strip out all of the violent verses let’s say, that is in effect blasphemy, not only because Allah’s word is taken as truth within the religion, but also because the violent passages come later in the canon of Islam, and the later verses that conflict with the earlier peaceful ones, abrogate those verses and control. So it’s pretty tough to reform a system where if you are a reformer, that is, you’re going to interpret away the violent verses which are considered more truthful than anything else in the world and have to be accepted… You basically put a fatwa on your head. And I guess the question would be, would it be fair to say that those… You talk about a vibrant reform movement, and those who are more progressive in the sense of moving away from the kind retrograde, backwards life. Would it be fair to say that they are actually the “extremists” within their religion because they are straying from the classical authoritative interpretation, doctrine in the religion, and actually, the jihadists both violent and peaceful, overt and covert, are actually mainstream within their thought system.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Well, I think it’s more complicated. I think they are the radical element. I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think it’s fair to call what we like to call “the radicals,” who we’re really calling Sharia supremacists — it’s fair to call them extremists. But I think what the media never wants to talk about is, “Well, what are they extreme about.” Because what they’re extreme about…Robert Reilly wrote this terrific book, which the name of the book escapes me, but the theory of it is very interesting. His thesis is that there was a vibrant tradition of self-criticism and self-criticism of the kind that in the West led to the Enlightenment, of analysis, of robust debate, a lot of contention about what the standards and principles of Islamic thought meant, and that this was basically… It was a big fight that took place between about the 9th and the 11th centuries, and that the Averroes of the Islamic world lost. The rest is history.
As we’ve seen. We’ve seen these sort of spikes of jihadist violence in the ensuing centuries from time to time, probably more so in the last half-century in the sense that it’s the first time, I think that you had this fundamentalist ideology married up with both fabulous wealth from the Gulf and weapons of mass destruction that were capable of killing historically unprecedented numbers of people. So the threat in the last half-century, the dynamic of what causes it doesn’t change. But the possibilities of its danger heightened because of the conditions of the last half-century. But what Bob’s book actually shows — and he’s not the only one that’s written this, but I think he’s written it the best — is that there is this tradition which was snuffed out. And if you wanna have an evolutionary tide in Islam where it forms into something that can marginalize violent jihadism, then that has to be revived.
The problem is for us, again, it goes back to what we said before: To me that has to be an organic phenomenon. And there may be some things that at the edges that we can do to try to nudge it along. But when you’re talking about the belief system of 1.6 billion people, people who do not accept the belief system are not gonna be the ones to pioneer change in it. That has to come from within. Islam could change in a lot of ways that I think would be great. I’m never gonna be a Muslim. So if I’m telling the Islamic world, “I’m never gonna accept your view of spiritual life of what we should do in this life,” why on Earth would you listen to me about what you ought to do with your belief system? I’ve always been thrown by that. In the ‘90s it used to drive me nuts some of the stuff that would be said from the podium at the Justice Department, or what the Clinton administration — and I don’t mean to just hit the Clinton administration. The Bush administration did the same thing…
Ben Weingarten: It’s a bipartisan issue.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Right. But why on Earth… And I’m one of these conservatives who really liked Janet Reno because I knew her, and I actually got to work with her in connection with these cases that we did, but I used to wonder, why on earth would anyone think that Janet Reno knows more about Islam then the Blind Sheikh when they would talk about these crazy radicals and they’re not representative? How would you know whether they’re representative?
We saw things… This is a little bit of a sideline, but I think it was powerful, at least for me. We would have… During the trial, we had an extraordinarily long defense case. The trial took almost nine months, and I think the defense case took about two months, which is…most federal trials from beginning to end last about four weeks. So this was a defense case that was twice as long as the normal trial. And during the defense case, people would come in in the nature of character witnesses for the defense. And two or three times, 20 years ago now, but you would have a witness come on the stand who was there to testify to the good character of one defendant or another, and some question about Islamic doctrine would come up. “What’s jihad? What’s Sharia?” That sort of thing. And the person on the stand would say something along the lines of, “Well, I wouldn’t be competent to answer that question. To get a read on that you’d have to ask someone like him.” And then they would point to the homicidal maniac in the corner of my court room, the Blind Sheikh.
The interesting thing to me about that was: Number one, there wasn’t anybody on the planet who was aware of this trial, who didn’t know what the “Blind Sheikh” was on trial for. And number two, he had famously given speeches that said things like, “Why do we fear the word terrorist? If a terrorist is someone who does what he must do to propagate the faith, then I’m a terrorist, and I’m proud of that label, and I wear that label.” He bragged about the fact that he gave the fatwa that approved the killing of President Sadat in Egypt. So nobody was under any illusions of who this guy was. Right? And yet here you had these people who, they wouldn’t…They wouldn’t hurt a fly. I mean, they were literally, when people say, “moderate Muslims,” these were moderate people. They were not terrorists. They were just normal everyday people who happened to know one of these guys in some other context outside jihad and were good enough to come to the court room for them and say, “Oh yeah, he’s a great guy.” And yet in important interpretations of doctrine of their own religion, which they probably didn’t give two-tenths of the second thought to, most days, they were willing to cede authority to this guy who was a renowned terrorist.
So I thought it was very powerful to see how people who were not terrorists, and not Muslim extremists, nevertheless deferred to him in his interpretation of his faith because of what his academic credentials were. And because of what is really his universal renown was. Among Muslim scholars, there were plenty of people who would say the Blind Sheikh is just wrong about that. There were none of them who would say he was an idiot, or he was a lunatic or what he said had no basis in reality.
When we first came to the case — this is the other story worth telling — he ended up not testifying. But we didn’t know he wasn’t gonna testify, and they never have to tell you until the end. So we had to get ready for him. And he was a very prolific writer and speaker. So we had a pile of his written work and his speechifying, and we combed through it and we scrubbed it. And I knew — you talk about Irish Catholic guy from The Bronx. I knew that I was not stupid enough that I was gonna get into a theological debate about Islam with a scholar such Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Blind Sheikh. But I did think that if there were a place or two where I could nail him, where I’d be able to say “The doctrine says x, and you said y,” that if we could find two or three spots where that happened, that would be good. Well, the problem was when we scrubbed his work, every time he said a scripture said something, it turned out that it said what he said it said. Now you could argue that it said other things too. And in terms of completeness, he left out stuff that was inconvenient to his worldview. Although I didn’t think there was a whole lot of that either, to be honest. But the thing was, there was no place where you could say “He said x,” and the scripture, when you checked, it actually said y; or the hadith actually said something different from what he said. And to me, that was… If you combine the fact that he was very influential with people who weren’t terrorists, and the fact that you couldn’t find a place where he talked about doctrine, where he got it wrong, that spelled trouble to me. And I think if other people…
I mean we had the misfortune, this is like a quirk of history, but almost day-for-day when we were on trial, there was another case going on in California, some guy named OJ Simpson. So in fact, this is actually pretty funny. We were having an argument in the office — our jury, came in and convicted everyone on a Sunday — so we’re having an argument on Monday about whether I should go on Nightline to debate what it all means with Lynne Stewart, the Blind Sheikh’s lawyer.
Ben Weingarten: And future lawyer to other jihadists.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Yes, and future defendant. As it turned out Lynne was later convicted for helping the Blind Sheikh get messages out of prison for material support to terrorism. But on that Monday, we’re arguing, “Should I go on television?” And I’m, of course, chomping at the bit to do it. Other people in the office are saying “The government only speaks in the court. We won the trial. We don’t need to go debate it.” And while we’re having this back and forth, we got a call from a Koppel’s producer who says “Never mind. It turns out Judge Ito got a note. There’s a verdict in the OJ Simpson case. So it turns out that they had their verdict, I think it came in on Tuesday, but they decided instead of talking about our case, they would talk about what would the verdict be in the other case.
So not many people, you know we didn’t have race and sex and drugs, and rock and roll. We just had the future of civilization going on in our courtroom. But not many people got to witness or really paid a whole lot of attention to what went on in that trial. And I think that’s a shame in the sense that unlike the first Trade Center case, which was really a forensic — it was a phenomenally well done investigation and trial. I don’t mean to denigrate it in the slightest. But the nature of it was different. The first case was a forensic proof that four guys committed the bombing. Our case was directed at the enterprise that caused the bombing and plotted these other things, and it wasn’t forensic at all. There were parts of it that were, but what it was about was, “Here is the guy who is the definition of the threat that America faces, telling you what the threat is and giving you the rationale for it.” So if you paid any attention to it, and you saw the influence that he had on other people, you would have a pretty good idea of exactly what we were in for. Now that this threat had trained its sights on us.
Ben Weingarten: Every year that passes from 9/11 on on the anniversary of that horrific day, I find my profound sadness — and I think back to…I was in school at the time, I was in junior high school. And I never will forget a day in which you heard people being called to the office. I grew up in New Jersey. You heard people being called to the office, knowing that they’re being called because some catastrophe is happening in New York and their parents work in New York. And you don’t know what the fate is gonna be. And thankfully, there were very few victims from my school, but one victim is enough. I find that profound sadness turning more and more to anger over the years, and anger over the fact that it feels to me as if we’re almost 17 years on now, we’ve learned nothing. We’ve unlearned lessons that we should have learned. The Islamic supremacist global movement continues to build, fighting us in every single sphere, using every element of power, using our own weaknesses against us — the things that make us great are some of the things that they exploit. And it’s a unique threat to exploit us. What is your take on the idea that 17 years on we’re worse than we were that morning, or the day before?
Andrew C. McCarthy: I guess I’m a contrarian because I’ve said a number of the same thing that you just said, but maybe it’s because I come to this as somebody who was in it for eight years before that happened. I kind of felt like 9/11 was the event that caused the rest of the country to catch up with where I was by the end of ’93, ’94, when I had finally educated myself enough to competently go in and represent the United States. My perspective on this is not kind of like a pre-9/11 versus post-9/11. Pre-911 when people say that they’re talking about exactly what you just mentioned, which is the era right around 9/11. I’m looking at it what we were in 1993 and where we are now.
From a security standpoint, from a Homeland Security standpoint, which I’m involved and invested in all the policy stuff that you just articulated as much as anyone. But the Homeland Security piece is still the most important piece of all. People wanna throw stuff at me when I say, I really couldn’t care less what happens in Syria. It’s not that I’m cold and I don’t care about people being killed, but Muslim sects have been killing other Muslim sects…
Ben Weingarten: From the seventh century on.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Right. I can’t get myself whipped up over one set of America’s enemies, fighting another set of America’s enemies. I care deeply about what happens in our own country. And I must tell you that from where we were at from a security standpoint in 1993, and then flashing ahead where we were on September 10th, 2001 to where we are now, we are so much better off security-wise than we were in ’93. It’s like night and day. And I don’t mean to suggest that everything that we’ve done is good. In fact, a lot of the… 9/11 may have happened because of self-induced hamstringing that was done by the Justice Department in terms of the wall of separation between the intelligence side of the FBI’s house in the law enforcement side, which was a incredibly ridiculous over-reaction to a hypothetical problem that could only seize people who looked at this as a law enforcement issue rather than a security issue.
Nevertheless, in 1993, it became… Let me just give you one story to give you a sense of this. In ’93, it became clear that one of our defendants Sayyid Nosair — who killed Meir Kahane in one of the most famous homicides in modern New York City history — he was going to say that he had been allied with the United States and the CIA in Afghanistan because our main charge against defendants was seditious conspiracy, conspiracy to make war against the United states. So he wanted to argue, “I couldn’t be at war with the United States ’cause I was aligned with your CIA.” So because that was going to be his defense, I had to bone up. First of all, I had to find out what happened in Afghanistan. Like what exactly did we do, which the intelligence community still didn’t wanna talk about… Even though it had been regarded as a success. And I’ve written on this, I wrote a lot about it, my first book about how much of a success it actually was. I think it’s overstated, let’s just put it that way. But I had to get a briefing because — this was not easy to tell the intelligence community either…This is the problem when you treat a national security problem like a law enforcement problem. I had to explain to them, “Either you guys tell me what happened, or the court is gonna order you to tell everybody what happened.” So the only way I can protect — and prosecutors have to do this all the time, but the intelligence community is not used to dealing with this — the only way I can protect the national defense information that the United States needs to keep secret, the only way I can defend that effectively is if you tell me enough so that I can go into court and say, “Here’s what we can tell them, but here’s what we can’t.” So anyway, I had to get a briefing from the CIA about what happened in Afghanistan, and they called me, and they told me they’d be delighted to come up and brief me about Afghanistan, as long as the FBI was not in the room.
So we went from a situation back then where these guys would virtually not even acknowledge each other’s existence, to a period of kind of wary cooperation, to 9/11 happens. And we realize the folly of compartmentalizing intelligence information away from law enforcement information, law enforcement information — not federal law enforcement information necessarily — but people don’t realize the cop on the beat and the person on the street is the biggest force multiplier in intelligence gathering in the world. You can do a lot with eavesdropping and all these techniques we have. Information on the ground is still the most important thing, and there just aren’t that many federal agents. So you need that mosaic of information. So 9/11 happens and all those walls get broken down. And now I think the cooperation is fabulous.
Now, they’re still hamstrung in a way by political correctness and some screwy policy at the headquarters, and political level. And I think the Obama years were not good for our intelligence product because they were committed to a political vision of intelligence that wanted to characterize or describe the threat we were dealing with — the ideological threat — as violent extremism, which is kind of a nonsense term that’s divorced from ideology rather than confronting the ideology, as if by not mentioning it, we could make it go away. So there’s been a lot of downside. But look, for all my criticism of the Obama administration, we didn’t have a repetition of 9/11. We had terrorist incidents, and some of them were terrible. And we had the silliness of, when they didn’t announce the name of the guy for the first day and a half, everybody knew. So we had that kind of nonsense that went on.
But in terms of how, where the rubber meets the road, the agents work together, the intelligent side with the local police with the FBI, it worked remarkably well. And you can’t think that we haven’t had another 9/11 because they’ve stopped trying. They’ve never stopped trying. And it’s frightening when you think about what they could do because 9/11…It’d be very tough to pull off again, but the advances in weaponry and mass destruction weaponry, and how smaller and smaller devices can project more and more power, and they become easier and more accessible to less sophisticated people to assemble… If you think about the challenge that we’re looking at from a homeland security perspective and the job they’ve done protecting us, it’s really something to cheer. And it means that it’s not just something to cheer today. Whether it was the Bush administration, the Obama administration, now the Trump administration, they’ve all maintained that level of security. So I think from that perspective, we’re in much better shape.
In terms of what you’re talking about, I think we’ve had catastrophes. Libya was a catastrophe. Iraq turned out to be a catastrophe. I was in support of Iraq, but I was in support of Iraq — this all sounds like Monday morning quarterbacking — my attitude about this is you’re either for it or against it. And if you were for it then you don’t get to say, “I’m all in favor of the invasion, but I divorce myself from any responsibility for the aftermath” because we trusted the people who did the invasion to do things the right way. Right? So if Iraq is a mistake, I count myself on the mistake side of the column.
But that said, I believe, and I still believe in the Bush Doctrine because I think it’s simple, and elegantly states exactly what has to be the national security policy of the United States, which is: You stamp out jihadists wherever they nest, anywhere in the world without limitation, and you put the challenge to other countries, “Are you with them? Or are you with us?” And that was my attitude about it. I would now put a coda on it and say, “And by the way, if we have to come because you can’t take care of your own mess, if we have to come and take care of it for you because we need to protect the United States, don’t expect that we have to raise our flag and stay in your crappy country for the next 10 or 25 years or whatever, and spend a couple of trillion dollars and basically get nothing out of it.”
Ben Weingarten: And then install a new Sharia-based government in its place as well.
Andrew C. McCarthy: A Sharia democracy. We can have…Condi Rice can talk about all of the wonderful Bill of Rights provisions they have, and we won’t mention like Article One and Two which say, “Sharia is the law of the land and to the extent that there’s any antithetical provision in any other part of law, and Sharia, Sharia governs.” So the rest of it is just a bunch of flowery stuff that the State Department can talk about. But in terms of how life is lived in these places, it’s Sharia. And we delude ourselves into… Sharia democracy is… Come up with some nonsense, self-contradictory term. On the foreign policy front I was against Libya because of what happened in Iraq. I would not have supported Iraq… I thought that what Iraq was was the next domino to fall in a faithful application of the Bush Doctrine, where we said after 9/11, we can’t afford to have these regimes that support terrorism, and we’re gonna deal with them if other countries won’t. And I thought Iraq was the next one and that Iran — I actually would have started with Iran. But I thought Iraq was the next one in a progression. If I had thought that we’re going there to try to turn Baghdad into Bayonne or whatever, I would not have gone for that. And I didn’t in Libya, which I think the fact that we got in there and what we did was a catastrophe.
And I feel the same way about Syria, and I don’t… For the life of me, I hear all this stuff about, “We have to enforce these Western norms.” The Western norm against chemical weapons is one of the great… Look, I agree the Western norm against chemical weapons is one of the great things that’s ever been adopted. I’m glad Hitler didn’t use them. I’m glad they don’t get used in the West. I kinda think the greatest advance in American history is the United States Constitution. And it still says that if you need — particularly if American national interests are not at stake, which they plainly are not in Syria — you need authorization from Congress to make war. So if they think that a Western norm in Syria is worth having American military, combat operations, then go to Congress and get authorization. And I’ll make my pitch against it, and if I lose and I’ll rally around the flag like everybody should. That’s the great thing about America. You get to make your pitch. You lose. We have a decision, and then people should get behind it, especially if it’s us against the world. I’m not talking about a domestic dispute. But they’re not even doing that. So you can talk all you want about the norm of anti-chemical weapons. I’m more interested in the norms of the Constitution, which to my mind we’re betraying.
Ben Weingarten: Not to mention, purely on the basis of us needing to show that you’re crossing a red line and thus for deterrent purposes, we’re going to go in and attack your chemical weapons, installations and the like — there’s zero proof whatsoever that our response has been taken as a deterrent on the other side. It’s also unimaginable to me that, for example a Vladimir Putin, if he ever unleashed a chemical weapon anywhere would ever feel scared that we in the West would ever actually do something catastrophic in response that, or that it would necessarily be in our interest to your point, in our national interest to do something massive in retaliation for such weapons usage.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Well, I think that if we had reason to think that there’d be a chemical attack against New York, and that they were preparing it in Syria, I’d be the first one to say…
Ben Weingarten: Destroy it.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Right. But I just think that what is there for us in Syria? I know what all the geopolitical assets that they’re interested in, in America’s role in the world and preserving that and preserving global order, which is very important to American prosperity. I get all that. But you can’t look at things in a vacuum because it’s a dynamic world, and you have to look at both what there is to win and what there is to lose. And what there is to lose — and I’ve been writing about this, this is not a new position. I started writing about this in 2004 when Iraq was still going reasonably well. And what I said then, and I think this has been borne out in the ensuing 14 years, is that there’s only so much support there is in a democracy for military action, particularly as it gets more remote from American interests. And what I’ve always been worried about is, if we do these expeditions where there are no obvious American interests, and it costs us lots of blood and lots of treasure — and we haven’t lost lots of blood in historical terms in these conflicts, I don’t mean to overstate that. But certainly in terms of the dollar figures that we’ve poured in with very little result, other than turning Baghdad or Iraq into it an Iranian satellite…
Ben Weingarten: And enriching some tribal leaders.
Andrew C. McCarthy: But the thing is, what I’ve always been worried about is there is going to come a time when we need to do something that’s actually in America’s national interest, and our vital defense interests to take action. And we’re going to be unwilling politically to do it because of all the…the waste that’s gone on before then. And I think that what we now have is a public that with no discernible advantages, other than what we talked about a few minutes ago, which is the dramatic improvement of our homeland security — and you can’t say that the operations against jihadists worldwide have not had anything to do with that — it’s been a big fact… But nevertheless, this country is not of a mind — now, a 9/11-style attack could change people’s minds in a hurry, but it’s a war-weary country under circumstances where we really…we hadn’t been invested in these conflicts as a public. We’ve basically taken all of the costs of these wars and we’ve imposed them on a few…a bare percent of our population of military families, who bear all the burdens, who go through these multiple tours. And what I think it’s done between the political debate at home, which has been grossly irresponsible, I think, on the part of the left, taking America as the enemy; has been stupid in many instances on nominally right-wing administrations, which are more Wilsonian then right-wing in their approach to foreign policy…I think we basically tap the country out, and there are things that I think we need to do in the way of suppressing jihadist cells throughout the world that if we had a sensible authorization of military force, we’d be able to do that in a way that respected the Constitution, and at the same time kept us out of these insane conflicts, like the one in Syria, where there are no guys in the white hats, as far as we’re concerned.
Ben Weingarten: Acknowledging that neither of us believe there should be czars within a presidential administration, if you were the counterjihadist czar, if that existed, for a day, what would be the call it three-to-five policies that you would push for immediately, either on the domestic side or the international side.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Well, I think the main thing would be I would undo every vestige of countering violent extremism, and I would make it not only acceptable but mandatory that the people who are responsible for national security are familiar with the doctrinal underpinnings of the threat against us. I would also expose them — maybe the biggest thing here, aside from that would be — I think, especially after 9/11, but this was certainly the case in ’93 as well, we’ve been very poor at picking out friends in Muslim cultures. When you have a paltry amount of intelligence, I think the shortcut you try to take is to make inroads in the established Islamic organizations. And the problem was, as in people like me, or Steve Coughlin, or people who know and study this area could have told them, is that most of those organizations are, if they’re not Muslim Brotherhood organizations semi-officially, they’re so influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, whether they’re formally tied or not is almost irrelevant. I would try to cultivate actual authentic Islamic moderates, and they may not be numerous, but the fact that they’re not numerous tells us something important about our security. And I would not be giving entree to these anti-American, essentially anti-American Muslim Brotherhood organizations, which sometimes put on the airs of patriotic Americanism, but they’re actually Sharia-supremacist ideologies in nice suits. They don’t blow stuff up, but they’re almost more dangerous in that sense, in terms of advancing the ideological agenda.
So I would put a premium on understanding the ideological underpinning of the threat. I would make a point of marrying American support to progressivism in the Muslim world. I’ve been, for example, just to be concrete about this — I’ve been a skeptic of Saudi Arabia. But the more I see, the more I think that the new king or the heir apparent, is making all the right enemies, which I think is important. There’s been lurches in the direction of civil rights, and human rights and equality for women that can’t anymore be ignored. There’s a lot of us at the beginning who said, “That’s what he’s doing for show. What’s going on behind the scenes?” Now, I don’t think that anymore. I think, I’m not completely sold ’cause they are the Saudis, but there’s real progress there.
I’ve also, long thought…So I would make a point of supporting the progressive elements in the Islamic world. I would make a price tag of our support, a more pro-Western stance because a lot of these leaders have frequently, especially in Iraq, this, this has been a constant thing where they to your face, say, “We need your help, we need your support.” And then when they go have their democratic election, the candidate that gets elected is the most virulently anti-American candidate. The big issue when Bush was leaving in 2008, the campaign was about who was gonna kick America’s ass out of their faster. I would be very…And I think Trump’s done a good job with this. I think he maybe gets more credit than I was willing to give them at the beginning for the trip to Saudi Arabia because you look at all the things that have happened in Saudi Arabia since he left, and that looks like it’s gone better than I would’ve bet on.
And then the other thing is, this goes back to the Bush Doctrine because I really think Bush laid out the roadmap to whatever passes for victory these days. He just wasn’t willing to follow it because even if it’s simply stated, it’s hard to do, which is that you have to treat other countries who are supportive of jihadism as if they were enemies. It doesn’t mean you have to invade everyone, but you have to…I like the formulation of “You’re with us or against us.” That means the Erdogan’s of the world have to make up their mind. It also means the Europes of the world have to make up their mind. For example, the biggest threat we have now in terms of terrorism is Iran, which it has been for eons. The only thing that you could say was a bigger threat was the fact that Iran gets a lot of help from Russia and China, which is geopolitical help.
Ben Weingarten: They help the Sunni jihadists as well.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Right. But Iran has backed Shiite and Sunni jihadists. Iran, defies the Washington simplistic vision of the jihadist threat. You know all these guys in the intelligence community, and all these guys in the State Department wanna tell you about the Sunnis versus the Shiites. Well yes, there’s a big divide…
Ben Weingarten: We’re the bigger enemy.
Andrew C. McCarthy: Yes. Right. We’re the thing that makes them put their eternal strife aside because we’re the immediate object of their antagonism. I think you have to deal with Iran. And I’ve always thought the problem in Iran is not the nuclear weapons, although once they have them that changes the geopolitical dynamic in a way that’s not acceptable. But the real problem is not — you know, Israel’s got nukes, France has got nukes. The regime is the problem. It’s not the nuclear weapons. The terrible thing about what Obama did was to enrich that regime in a spectacular way, to the point that while we have had one foot in Syria — thank G-d we didn’t put two feet in like we did in Libya — but while we’ve loped along with one foot in Syria, Iran is funding both sides of the conflict. Obviously, it’s over allies there, and the funding that it’s given for years to outfits like Al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadists, as long as they were anti-American, how were they…Iran is a backward country in terms of its economy. How were they able to do that? We made them flush with the cash…with the funding that they needed to do that.
Ben Weingarten: While they were operating in our own hemisphere of course, building these sprawling, drug-dealing, money-laundering operations in our backyard and on our own soil.
Andrew C. McCarthy: But they can’t grow ’cause they’re a backwards country and they have an authoritarian regime, which means we should stop treating them like they’re 100 feet tall. We have a lot of allies who want to have commerce with them. There’s a lot of human capital, and other kinds of capital in Iran. You can understand why, if people can suspend disbelief and think of them as a normal country, that like maybe someday will have a normal government, you could see that this would be as it was prior to the Khomeini revolution. This would be a regime or a country the West could deal with, and could be a very progressive element in the…progressive force in the Islamic world, although the fact that they’re Shiites would cut against them in that regard. But they’re a backward country with an authoritarian regime. They are living off what we essentially give them. And I think if you put even…Trump doesn’t wanna do this, but he’s come closer to doing it than anyone else has. If you put these European governments and other governments to the test of, “Do you wanna have the American economy open to you? Or do you wanna have commerce with the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world. That’s your choice.” And I don’t think it would take very long. I really don’t.
I think the problem is you have so many special pleaders in the United States. You have these big aircraft companies that make these gazillion dollar deals based on a rapprochement with Iran, and Europe’s got even more of that than we do. So a lot of these economic entanglements — yesterday I was reading the House report on collusion, the whole Russian interference in the election, and one of the things they point to is the way Russia exploits its economic relationship. So Germany gets 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia.
Ben Weingarten: That’s leverage. It’s immense leverage.
Andrew C. McCarthy: And this is the problem that we’re dealing with. The solution here is clear. You gotta put people to the…You wanna choke Iran. Everybody says, “Oh you want war in the Middle East?” I don’t want war in the middle east. I wouldn’t be afraid to have it if we had to have it because it is a threat to the United States. But I want that regime gone. And Democrats used to believe this by the way. I mean back in 1998 or 1999 I know Clinton had to be dragged kicking and screaming to it, but he signed a piece of legislation which made it statutorily true, not just policy-wise true, that the national strategy of the United States was the disappearance of the regime in Iraq. And after Bush invaded, all the Democrats who then had voted for the invasion, then turned around and said, “Why did we have to do this? Because Clinton had Saddam in a box and we were suffocating him, and it was only a matter of time.”
Well this is what we need for Iran. What we need is a policy that says, “Iran is an enemy of the United States and they’re the worst state sponsor of terrorism in the world. We want this regime gone. We are not looking to invade Iran. We’re not taking that off the table either depending on what the threat environment is. But we want you to know, we’re not being cute about this. We’re not being ambiguous about this. We regard you as our enemy, and every lever of American power that exists, whether it’s law enforcement, Treasury, intelligence, military, every single lever that we have of influence — trade relations is going to be turned in the direction of, you are the enemy of the United States.” And I think that should also include whatever we can do in the way of encouraging internal insurrection in Iran. And I would put pressure on this regime. Remember what we’ve done is we funded them, and it’s exactly the opposite — we should starve them until we give the people inside Iran enough confidence that maybe now’s the time. But I don’t see limping along the way we’re doing it.
What sustains the conflict in Syria? Iran sustains the conflict in Syria. If there’s no… If you break Iran away from Assad, Russia’s got a different calculation. Assad is gone. Now that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. The idea of having another Erdogan government or a Muslim Brotherhood government, we saw how well that worked out in Egypt, right? I’m not saying that this is necessarily a solution, but at the same time Iran is our biggest problem. I would have a strategy that was trained on Iran, and I would try to tune out the noise that happens every single time you try to lurch in that direction where they say, “Oh, you’re just looking to have another war, and you’re looking…” No, no one wants another war. No one wants to invade Iran. You can’t tell them we’re never gonna invade you because it may not be true and it wouldn’t be smart to do, but I would be doing everything we can do as a country, making it unmistakably clear that this is not a covert operation. You are the enemy and we want you gone.
Backed Vibes (clean) Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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