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Robert Heibel: Intelligence and counterterrorism

Robert J. Heibel is the Director of Mercyhurst College's Research/Intelligence Analyst Program in Erie, Pennsylvania, which trains students for work in the intelligence field. He is a retired agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where he served as the Deputy Chief of Counter-Terrorism. Mr. Heibel joined the chat room from Pennsylvania.

CNN: Can you give us an idea what authorities are doing now to determine who carried out the attacks and how it was done?

HEIBEL: I think we are seeing, right now, in the national news an investigation that is being done specifically by the FBI to follow up on logical leads. And the points of origin of these flights will be a prime target. Already the FBI has executed searches in Florida and apparently some type of flight manual in Arabic has been discovered in Boston in a car at the airport. Also there is speculation that three of the participants may have come through Canada through Maine and flown to Boston.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: What options is the U.S. looking at now?

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HEIBEL: Their option of course is to collect all the information on the perpetrators that will be done through the investigation. The investigation may very well lead back to the perpetrators. Everyone is talking about Osama Bin Laden. If we look at prior investigations of this type over the past 10 years, we see that the FBI has had a high success rate. Unfortunately, it is reaction after the fact except in a few cases.

The question that comes up is: Was this an intelligence failure? And the answer is not as obvious as it might appear. If the perpetrators are in fact Islamic extremists, by the very nature of their organization, there's a real law enforcement security penetration problem. In all likelihood they grew up together, they are related somehow, members of the same tribe and they have a common fervor and hate for Western society. It is not just a matter of saying let's put five agents undercover and penetrate the group. It is a very difficult operation. It takes a great deal of planning and preparation.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Heibel, do you think it is possible that further attacks could occur?

HEIBEL: I believe that it is possible that further attacks could occur, and that will depend in part upon the perpetrators and if they feel its necessary to further embarrass the U.S. The goal here, like most terrorist actions, is to coerce or to intimidate you as a citizen and your government. The goal is not to win you over to their side. They could care less what you believe. Yes, it is very possible.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Could accomplices to terrorists, or other terrorists still be in our country?

HEIBEL: There's a good likelihood that a support cell or an intelligence cell exists in the U.S. and when I say "cell" you need to understand that terrorist organizations are designed with a cellular structure so that they have little knowledge of other cells and in this way are not easily penetrated when others are arrested.

CNN: In your experience, do you think there is any way it could have been avoided?

HEIBEL: As I look at it, other than the airport security, I think the two weak points were with, first, getting on board the aircraft. From what I know about the security technology, it is not designed to identify non-metal objects. So in this case, it would be easy for a person to take on board a plastic knife that would be very effective for slashing. Another fatal flaw was in their ability to gain access to the cockpit. And I think the perpetrators began to arbitrarily slash stewardesses and passengers, and in response the pilot or co-pilot or navigator opened the door to find out what was going on, and the hijackers gained control of the cockpit.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are there any indications so far of biological warfare?

HEIBEL: I have heard nothing to that effect. But that doesn't mean they wouldn't use it if they had it. And that is evident in the callousness of this attack, where we're looking at casualties in the tens of thousands.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Going forward, what would you personally suggest to our government to prevent this from occurring again?

HEIBEL: Certainly airport security has to be upgraded. I'm not aware of technology, but I'm certain that there are devices out there that could do a body scan. The problem of course is cost and the number of airports that would be involved. I believe the American public, particularly travelers would be willing to stand in line if they knew their security is at stake. Something else that would happen is that the air marshal service that existed when many flights were being hijacked to Cuba in the '60s and '70s would be reinstituted. This would place armed law enforcement officers on the flights. In this particular case, on these four flights, it would appear that an air marshal properly armed might have been able to stop this attack.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you believe these terrorists had inside information, especially striking the Pentagon?

HEIBEL: I think that there is a great deal of information out there in the public domain, and it wasn't necessary for them to have inside information to identify the most crucial area of the Pentagon to strike.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: President Bush has stated anyone harboring these criminals will be held accountable the same as the criminals - What exactly does this mean?

HEIBEL: I believe that warning is directed specifically at Afghanistan and its Taliban government, which is currently sheltering Osama Bin Laden and continually denies that he is involved in terrorist activities.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does it concern the FBI that retail software such as Microsoft's Flight Simulator can provide enough training for someone to pilot a commercial airliner?

HEIBEL: It may be a concern to the FBI but I doubt they would ever be able to do anything about it as far as restricting its sale. At least at this point.

CNN: Many have charged that yesterday's attacks reveal a major flaw in American intelligence. Are such criticisms warranted? Have we neglected to devise a plan to prepare for such a day?

HEIBEL: I think that goes back to my prior answer. Yesterday was an intelligence failure, but the dilemma is the inability of the intelligence community to gain access to sources which can give them information on intentions That goes back to lack of human sources.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

HEIBEL: I think that yesterday we lost our innocence and naivete and the American public in the future will be much more aware of the effects of terrorism that they see in other countries and no longer be able to separate themselves from what is happening in those countries. And without a doubt, we are at war.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today

HEIBEL: Thank you very much for your participation, and I look forward to chatting with you again sometime.

Robert Heibel joined chat room via telephone from Pennsylvania. CNN provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Wednesday, September 12, 2001.

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