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Terrorists set to go nuclear, author warns

Ottawa Citizen | September 10, 2007
Donna Jacobs

Ron Kessler, the New York Times bestselling writer with extraordinary access to the CIA, FBI and White House, says his top worry is a nuclear strike on the U.S. by al-Qaeda.

"It would be the real thing," he says, "a nuclear device brought into the country in a small package. It may not be a dirty bomb, but a real device that could kill hundreds of thousands of people.

"I've just interviewed (FBI chief Robert) Mueller," he told the Citizen recently, "and he talked about (a nuclear strike) as his biggest concern. It's something he wakes up thinking about at night."

Interrogations of al-Qaeda members -- current and previous interrogations -- have revealed it is not only planning nuclear attacks, he says, but that New York City and Washington, D.C., "are still the No. 1 targets."

"It's fairly easy for them (al-Qaeda) to get nuclear devices," says Mr. Kessler, "either out of Russia or from their own scientists."

The FBI's Mr. Mueller told him: "One way to obtain a nuclear device (is to get one) that's already been constructed from one of the former Iron Curtain countries. The other way is put together the fissile material (with expert help) and do an improvised nuclear device."

Says Mr. Kessler: "When we went into Afghanistan, we found al-Qaeda were already working on biological weapons."

He adds: "Clearly, withdrawal from Afghanistan or Iraq will give al-Qaeda a safe haven so they can attack us more and will demonstrate to the world that we are a paper tiger, as Osama bin Laden said."

The former investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, who has been writing books on spying and intelligence since the 1980s, lives in Potomac, Maryland, outside Washington. However, he has a strong Canadian connection.

Mr. Kessler's mother, Russian-born Minuetta Schumiatcher Kessler, was an acclaimed concert pianist and composer who grew up in Calgary and received that city's "Gold Key."

"I love Canada," he says. "I loved coming to Calgary for summers. The clan is in Calgary, in Vancouver, and my aunt lives in Regina. My Canadian background is always dear to my heart."

A native of the Bronx, Mr. Kessler's interest in the CIA and FBI took still-sharper focus after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"By the way, on 9/11," he says, "I had an interview scheduled with the FBI just after the plane went into the Pentagon. I was driving towards FBI headquarters, along the Potomac River, when I saw this billowing black smoke from the area of the Pentagon. I put on the radio and bravely turned right around and went home."

In the November 2000 presidential election, he says he supported Al Gore. "When I saw (George W.) Bush in the debate, I was not impressed. I thought Gore was doing better. Of course, their track record is the one you should focus on -- I was too focused on the debate. I voted for Gore.

"But then after 9/11, being so clued into the threat -- what's necessary to stop plots -- I just became totally impressed by what Bush was doing. I not only became a Bush supporter, but an outspoken Bush supporter.

"I felt this comes down to our survival and that's more important than anything, including whether I lose friends, or not. And I did lose friends."

He says that a few days after the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Mueller was briefing Mr. Bush. The president asked: "What are you doing to stop the next attack?"

"It totally changed the FBI's direction from prosecution to prevention," says Mr. Kessler. "That's the major reason we haven't been attacked."

It hasn't been for terrorists' lack of effort: "Hundreds of attacks have been foiled," says Mr. Kessler. "Since 9/11, 5,000 terrorists worldwide have been rolled up by the FBI and CIA with the help of foreign intelligence services.

"But the nature of the threat -- everyone in this business recognizes this -- it's so easy to smuggle something in. No matter how good your intelligence may be, it's also incredibly easy to blow something up."

He has had sources in the FBI for about 20 years -- starting in the 1980s while he was working on Spy vs. Spy: Stalking Soviet Spies in America, a book about the FBI's secret counterintelligence program.

"The FBI liked it and started co-operating and that made the CIA more comfortable in co-operating on a book about the CIA, Inside the CIA: Revealing the Secrets of the World's Most Powerful Spy Agency. It's the only book written with the CIA's limited co-operation."

To write The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency, he was given, he says "unprecedented access."

When he finally got the Bush White House to co-operate on the first Bush book (A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush) published in 2004, the president didn't speak with him directly. Mr. Kessler was given access to his top-echelon people, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Chief of Staff Andy Card, Bush counsellor Dan Bartlett, Bush assistant Margaret Spellings, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and the president's close friend and assistant, Clay Johnson.

Mr. Kessler estimates he's been to the Bush White House 40 times. (Mr. Kessler's website, www.ronaldkessler.com, contains highlights from a number of his 16 books.)

Besides a nuclear attack, he says, "I worry that we're going to lose the war on terror because of the press, which misleads people into thinking the government is the enemy instead of the terrorists. The press keeps running stories about how government is spying on Americans, and the truth is they're trying to stop terrorists, not spy on Americans.

"I worry that Congress will start peeling back important measures that allow us to catch terrorists, like the Patriot Act. Or that Democrats will come into power and do the same thing."

Besides misleading the public, he says, some media suppress news. He cites the New York Times, which, in June, buried on page 37 the news that the FBI had foiled a plot to blow up New York's JFK Airport.

"They (journalists) will try to come up with ways to diminish these successes. It's like they" -- a small laugh -- "wish the FBI had let (the terrorists) get to the point of actually detonating something and then they'd be happy."

He predicts his new book, The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack, which is to be released on Nov. 13, "will create a media stir."

"I love exposing myths," he says, "and one is Bush's portrayal in the press -- that he's a fool, that he doesn't listen to anyone or any countervailing views, that he is a bigot, that he is a monster and a threat to humanity.

"And the truth is, he is someone whose closest friends include many blacks and Hispanics, who obviously put blacks in the highest positions in government, who is very tolerant of different religions and cultures. He is very smart. I judge people in part by the friends they have. I've never met a smarter bunch of people than his friends. Most importantly, I understand the out-of-the-box thinking he's engaged in to come up with ways to protect us."

Mr. Kessler's new book carries the endorsement of the U.S.'s top spymasters:

"A powerful and brave book," says R. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA. "Kessler makes it clear that if we win this war, it will be because of the FBI and CIA professionals who have protected America since 9/11. If we lose the war, it will be because of distortions by the mainstream media, those who leak operational secrets to them, and politicians who undermine those who are trying to protect us."

Robert Grenier, former director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, describes Mr. Kessler as "unique in his ability and willingness to tell the unvarnished truth about what it will take to protect America from the next major terrorist attack."

The book will be excerpted by NewsMax Magazine, the largest conservative monthly in the U.S., with a readership of 600,000. Mr. Kessler is chief Washington correspondent for NewsMax.com, whose visitors number two million a month, making it the largest conservative website.


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