Julie Sirrs Interview

Good Morning America
February 18, 2002

 

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS:

Well, the events of September 11th have been described by some as the worst failure of intelligence since Pearl Harbor. So this week ABC News decided to examine what went wrong, the missed signals. Did the US miss opportunities to prevent the terror attacks? One defense analyst, an expert on Afghanistan and bin Laden, claims that the government did just that. And she says she tried to warn them, but no one would listen. ABC's Jackie Judd begins her story.

JACKIE JUDD, ABC NEWS:

(VO) It was her dream job, analyst for the super secret Defense Intelligence Agency, studying a part of the world she had loved since high school. From a desk in Washington, Julie Sirrs was to follow events in Iran and secondarily in Afghanistan.

JULIE SIRRS, FORMER DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY ANALYST:

I was able to do it as part of my job covering Iran, mainly because nobody particularly cared to stop me, just because no one really especially cared about the issue.

JACKIE JUDD:

(VO) DIA analysts are rarely sent to the countries they cover, in part, because other agencies may have jurisdiction. In the case of Afghanistan, the agency also felt it wasn't safe. But on her own time and at her own expense, Sirrs twice traveled to Afghanistan. She claims DIA officials knew in advance about both trips. Sirrs saw a terrorist training center there, met with Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Masood, who was later assassinated. She returned with what she believed was a treasure trove of information.

JULIE SIRRS:

It was all very significant because we simply didn't know it. But information that did concern Taliban links with terrorism and bin Laden. For instance, the information about bin Laden wanting to assassinate Masood. At one point, for instance...

JACKIE JUDD:

(VO) What followed stunned Sirrs. A security officer met her flight. He confiscated her photos. The DIA and the FBI investigated her. Ultimately, Sirrs' security clearance was pulled and she resigned. She says no higher-ups wanted to hear what she had found in Afghanistan. Her frustration at that turned to horror on September the 11th. Jackie Judd, ABC News, Washington.

DIANE SAWYER:

And Julie Sirrs joins us now. And we should point out that the Defense Intelligence Agency says that she didn't follow procedures for traveling overseas and that the US government had specifically banned travel to Afghanistan because it was too dangerous. It's good to have you with us...

JULIE SIRRS:

Thank you.

DIANE SAWYER:

...Ms. Sirrs. Let me just start with a big question because the CIA director has testified that this was not a massive intelligence failure. Yes, no?

JULIE SIRRS:

I guess I would disagree with that not only because just the fact that it happened indicates that it was a failure, unless it was something that we wanted, which I certainly don't believe. I would say not only--well in two parts. In some ways it is an intelligence failure in terms of a missed interpretation. Basically, the impression I think a lot of US intelligence officials gave prior to September 11th was that we had bin Laden under control; `In a box' was one of the phrases used.

DIANE SAWYER:

And you have said that in part from your travels there, you learned and confirmed that bin Laden...

JULIE SIRRS:

Mm-hmm.

DIANE SAWYER:

...and the Taliban were in extricable, and that the idea that you have bin Laden under control...

JULIE SIRRS:

Mm-hmm.

DIANE SAWYER:

...was loony?

JULIE SIRRS:

It was loony certainly as long as had you the Taliban in Afghanistan not only secure but actually gaining territory and that bin Laden was very helpful for them in that.

DIANE SAWYER:

Now, you traveled around in a burqa...

JULIE SIRRS:

In Taliban...

DIANE SAWYER:

...cover?

JULIE SIRRS:

areas, yes.

DIANE SAWYER:

In Taliban areas. You spoke some of the language?

JULIE SIRRS:

I spoke a little bit of Pashtun, a little bit of Persian.

DIANE SAWYER:

Because one of the things that we've heard too...

JULIE SIRRS:

Mm-hmm.

DIANE SAWYER:

...is that this was simply too dangerous to try to infiltrate Americans into al-Qaeda, into the bin Laden family...

JULIE SIRRS:

Mm-hmm.

DIANE SAWYER: ...and even into parts of the Taliban.

JULIE SIRRS:

Mm-hmm.

DIANE SAWYER:

Was it just too dangerous for the intelligence agencies to be taking the risk?

JULIE SIRRS:

I don't think it would be too dangerous for intelligence agencies because that's the sort of risk-taking activity, I thought at least prior to being hired, that they engaged in, less so for analysts like myself, and--and that's why I did it on my own time. But I would have thought that that was the sort of thing that--that CIA operatives, for instance, would have regularly engaged in.

DIANE SAWYER:

What was the main thing you wanted to tell them after you got back and then suddenly encountered the fact that--that you were the problem?

JULIE SIRRS:

The main thing I--I would have wanted to tell them was how closely linked bin Laden was with the Taliban. US policy seemed to prefer to treat them as two separate issues and didn't seem to realize that bin Laden was vulnerable through the Taliban.

DIANE SAWYER:

They had also been relying on Pakistani intelligence.

JULIE SIRRS:

Yes.

DIANE SAWYER:

Was Pakistani intelligence good?

JULIE SIRRS:

I don't think so. I--I know from an analyst's perspective, without saying too much of what I saw while I was with DIA, that our intelligence on Afghanistan, whether it was coming from Pakistan or other sources, was very poor. And if anything, it seemed to be getting worse over time.

DIANE SAWYER:

Do you have a feeling it's changed radically now? We can count on major changes?

JULIE SIRRS:

I'm not particularly confident in that, no. It seems that most leaders in the intelligence community aren't interested in taking any responsibility or making major changes for what happened, and certainly the sense that I'm getting of what I'm hearing is--is that the Pakistanis aren't providing any particularly good intelligence more so than they had in the past.

DIANE SAWYER:

And a final note on what you did. I mean, they did say it was too dangerous and that travel was being at least curbed if not banned altogether. Did you make a mistake by taking your things--taking it into your own hands and not going through protocol?

JULIE SIRRS:

Well, I--I did actually follow all the procedures. I--I received their permission beforehand, particularly for the last trip, but...

DIANE SAWYER:

So why did they do that to you?

JULIE SIRRS:

...it caused a scuffle.

DIANE SAWYER:

Why do you think they did?

JULIE SIRRS:

I've never really found the true answer to that because the reasons that they gave me I--I know certainly weren't true in terms of not getting permission because I--I have the papers that showed that I did. I think that--that they didn't want the US intelligence community to really understand what was happening in Afghanistan.

DIANE SAWYER:

Because?

JULIE SIRRS:

All I know is what people at DIA told me that the State Department also had a large role in wanting very harsh measures to be taken against me to get me kicked out of DIA, basically. And that, to this day, I'm honestly not sure exactly why other than regional sensitivities, particularly with Pakistan, as we saw even pre--after September 11th, not wanting us to be involved there.

DIANE SAWYER:

Well, again, it is a curious...

JULIE SIRRS:

Mm-hmm.

DIANE SAWYER:

...it is a curious event. And we appreciate your coming in...

JULIE SIRRS:

Well, thank you very much.

DIANE SAWYER:

...to talk with us about it. As we said, all of ABC News is going to be trying to tackle this issue this week and see if we can learn more. Thank you.

JULIE SIRRS:

Thank you.

 

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