A Conversation with Oliver North
THE JERICHO SANCTION
Q: Why did you choose The Jericho Sanction as the title for this book?
A: Because the ultimate catastrophe in the Middle East is going to be a nuclear exchange. The Jericho Sanction is the real-life code name for an Israeli preemptive strike against any hostile nation threatening to attack the Jewish state with a weapon of mass destruction. It takes its name from the Jericho nuclear missiles the Israelis will use to carry out such a strike. Itís the ultimate sanction and part of the Israeli survival plan. And thatís the real reason why we went to Iraq. Letís not kid ourselves here. The thing the Israelis were most worried about was the possibility that Saddam Hussein was going to take a weapon of mass destruction and detonate it in Haifa or Tel Aviv. And they would respond the only way they could: No one should have any doubt about whether that fear, on the part of the Israelis, still exists today. It does. Only now itís focused on Iran.
Q: How many days were you embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq?
A: We went over there at the end of February and we stayed with our units continuously from March 20, when the war started, through the final days of major combat operations, at the end of April. The very first casualties of the war happened right next to me ten minutes after the war started -- and I was there walking through Saddamís palace in Tikrit when it all ended.
Q: How did your most recent experiences in the Gulf impact whatís in this book?
A: The Iraqi facilities, Israeli and U.S. intelligence capabilities, and much of the technology described in this story are all based on real experience. For example, the description of the Salman Pak area is based on what I saw on the ground at Salman Pak this past April. The CH46 squadron in the book is the one I was with during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The facility near At Tanf is identical to one I visited in western Iraq. And the descriptions of downtown Baghdad are all based on what I saw while I was there. I always carried a map and a GPS unit with me so I could get my time distance factors down perfectly. Although I changed some names, in part because Iím still bound by the non-disclosure agreements I signed years ago, the capabilities of the equipment and weaponry described in The Jericho Sanction -- the tracking devices, satellite downlinks, and communications equipment -- are all dead-on accurate.
Q: Did the plot line or the characters in your latest novel undergo any changes after your return from the war in Iraq?
A: The plot line and characters didnít change much. But, as with Mission Compromised, there is a wrinkle in this novel that prepares readers for the next book in the trilogy. And itís based on something we saw out there thatís very real: the role of Syria, Iran, and third parties like the
Russians, in all of whatís happening right now. What weíve seen since the book was finished and the war ended is not at all unusual. We still donít know where Saddam Hussein, and his sons Qusay and Uday, may or may not be. And itís amply evident from this book why these guys would have the capability of literally disappearing.
Q: As somebody who has been both an analyst of the situation in the Gulf and a correspondent on the ground in Iraq, what do you personally see for the future of the region?
A: Thereís no doubt in my mind democracy will eventually prevail, but itís going to be a long tough struggle getting there. You have three groups shooting Americans in Iraq right now. The first is composed of the criminals Saddam released just before the war began. (What we now know is that he murdered all the political prisoners he was holding and turned loose countless murderers, rapists, killers, robbers, and thieves.) The second are the ďJihadists.Ē For the most part these are people who flocked to Iraq from other Middle East countries including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, and the Sudan. Thereís all kinds of evidence that theyíre attacking Americans primarily at the instigation of Iran. The third group is what I call the ďSaddamites.Ē These are the Baathists who have lost an awful lot with Saddamís fall from power.
If I was running the railroad, and Iím not, Iíd immediately start training the Iraqi army to deal with the Baathists, because the Iraqi people donít like them any more than we do. An Iraqi police force, separate from the military, needs to be brought on line to deal with the criminal element. And U.S. military capabilities, along with those of our allies, the British and Australians, must be brought to bear against the third group, the terrorists and Jihadists.
Q: So how do we go about tackling this last group?
A: We have got to find a way to engage better intelligence more quickly against them. There are probably less than ten thousand of these Jihadists in the region but theyíre very actively supported by the Syrians (at Iranís behest) in Lebanonís Bekkah Valley, and by the Iranians themselves.
Q: Youíve said the relationship between the U.S. and Israel in this story is very much like the real relationship that exists between the two countries. What do you mean by that?
A: When al Qaeda attacks us we say weíre going to go after them with everything weíve got. And we do. There is a radical element in the Middle East that has made it perfectly clear they have absolutely no intention of allowing the state of Israel to exist. But when the Israelis go after them in the same way weíre going after al Qaeda -- when they go after Hamas or the al Aksa Martyr's Brigade -- people in our country and many in Europe get upset and say, ďNo, you canít do that.Ē Basically what weíve got is a double standard. Itís no secret the Israelis have long had a program of extra-judicial assassination aimed at terrorists. We constantly try to get them to stop. But whatís the difference between what Israel is doing and what we did in Yemen last November with the Predator? Itís clear to me the U.S. is in a bit of quandary right now. On the one hand, given our system of justice and values, weíd prefer to put these people on trial and have the sentence carried out in accordance with the ruling of a jury. But weíre also willing to send a Predator unmanned air vehicle (UAV), guided by a CIA controller, to launch a Hellfire missile from 25,000 feet and blow six suspected Al-Qaeda operatives right out of their car.
The final book in the trilogy will be about U.S. capabilities and where I see us going. And itís the natural successor to this story. The wrinkle at the end of The Jericho Sanction is that one of the Iraqi nukes goes missing. In the next book it will turn up and eventually find its way to the United States. By the way, there are many people who believe Iran currently possesses nuclear weapons acquired from Russia as the Soviet Union was collapsing. The scary thing is they might have more than a dozen of them.
Q: U.S. military personnel have been killed almost every day since the President declared major hostilities in Iraq over. The repeated attacks on American patrols and individual soldiers have prompted a lot of people to start worrying about the U.S. getting involved in a Vietnam-like quagmire. What do you see as the major difference between Vietnam and the situation in Iraq today?
A: South Vietnam was a country that had been invaded by a hostile neighbor. That hostile neighbor, North Vietnam, had taken charge of the entire operation being fought in the South: both the guerilla war and the conventional war. Thatís not the case here. Thereís no doubt the Iranians are doing everything they can to influence the course of terrorism, throughout the Middle East, but theyíre not running a coordinated guerilla war. Instead what you have is a very strange congruence of Iranian imams and mullahs, schoolteachers in madrasses from places like Saudi Arabia, and guys like Usama bin Laden who are willing to take Saudi oil money, kill Americans, and still profess to be avowed enemies of the Saudi government. Although theyíre willing to take advantage of all the opportunities they can get from the Iranians, theyíre not really working for the government in Tehran.
Do the Iranians provide safe haven for terrorists? Yes. Do they provide overall guidance? Certainly. Are they coordinating every individual attack against Americans? No. In Vietnam
A criminal might have killed the GI who died yesterday; a Baathist might have killed the GI who died the day before; and a Jihadist might kill the GI who dies tomorrow. None of these groups are coordinating their activities. The way to deal with them is exactly how I described: for the criminals you need an Iraqi police force; for the Baathists you need an Iraqi National Guard trained and fielded with Iraqi officers in command; and for the terrorists you need direct U.S. military intervention similar to what we recently did to that convoy at the Iraqi/Syrian border.
Q: In the opening minutes of the war you and your producer, Griff Jenkins, were riding along on the night helo-borne assault against Saddamís forces in the vicinity of Basra. As the attack commenced, one of the CH-46E helicopters in your flight crashed, killing all the U.S. Marines and Royal Marine Commandos aboard. The incident received significant coverage here at home. What was going through your mind as that was happening?
A: I was in helo 1 with the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Driscoll. Griff was in helo 2, and it was helo 3 that went down right beside us in a terrible ball of fire. To me it looked like the downed bird was the one with Griff aboard. That seemed to be confirmed when we landed at the Royal Marine pickup zone and the spot where Griffís bird was supposed to set down remained empty. I didnít realize until a few moments later that the bad weather had forced the pilot to land several slots over from where he was originally supposed to be. Until that moment I was sure Griff was dead. I thought I was going to have to explain to his wife and daughter what had happened to him. Itís a terrible feeling to be glad someone else died if it means your friend is alive. Thatís happened to me in every war Iíve been in.
Q: Were there other similar experiences during your days as an embedded reporter?
A: On April 6th I was with a flight of two armed UH-1 helicopters sent to do a reconnaissance of Khan Bani Sad airfield, which is northeast of Baghdad proper. While we were overflying the airstrip both helicopters were hit by ground fire and forced to make an emergency landing. In response to our pilotís call for help an AV-8 Harrier came on station and opened fire on Iraqi forces that were approaching our position. At that point there were nine of us on the ground beside an irrigation ditch: a pilot, copilot, gunner and crew chief from each chopper and me. It reminded me of the final scene in the Korean War-era movie The Bridges at Toko Ri, in which William Holden, a downed Navy pilot, and Mickey Rooney, whose rescue chopper is also brought down, find themselves in an irrigation ditch surrounded by Chinese Communists. They both get killed in the end. Our situation wasnít all that different. Our birds were down next to an irrigation ditch and the bad guys were trying to get to us. I turned to this young Marine who was working on the downed bird and said, ďLet me help you. Iíve seen the end of this movie and I didnít like it one bit.Ē The kid had no idea what I was talking about.
Within a short time the Harrier overhead was joined by two F-18ís. Together they effectively stopped the enemy until a Light Armored Reconnaissance unit arrived at our position to protect us, and the birds. After a four-hour repair job we were able to fly out of there.
There were also a couple of other times when the choppers I was riding in took hits. It happened once at Salman Pak and again while flying into the Palace Zone. Iíd be brain dead if I didnít say I had an adrenal reaction to that kind of thing. When a bullet hits a chopper it sounds like a ball peen hammer hitting your car door. Itís an unforgettable sound.
Q: What was going through your mind as all this was going on?
A: Iíve been there before. If you hear the bullet, itís already missed you. But I was in the company of good Marines and they looked after us. Besides, I had a lot a whole lot of people praying for me.
Q: As part of the research for this book, you and your writing partner, Joe Musser, participated in counter-terrorist operations with the Israeli Defense Forces. Can you give me more details?
A: We went on two operations -- one up by Hebron and one in Gaza. It gave us an opportunity to see the kinds of intelligence the Israelis respond to and experience the kind of threat theyíre up against every day. Obviously the hope is that this whole roadmap to peace will make such operations unnecessary in the future, but there are few people on either side who think it will work.
Q: Why is that the case?
A: Because they know there are a lot of people committed to not having it work. And I should point out Iíve never met an Israeli, in or out of government, who didnít believe they could eventually live side-by-side with the Palestinians. But Iíve sure heard from a lot of Palestinians who donít want a single Israeli to be anywhere near them in that part of the world. The leaders of Hamas have vowed that not one Jew should live in Palestine -- and of course, to them, Palestine is everything northeast of the Sinai desert. Iím sure you can find people on both sides who will voice the same opinion, but Iím sure a lot fewer who call themselves Israelis feel that way. And you donít see Israelis strapping on bombs, walking into Palestinian homes, and blowing themselves up.
Q: In The Jericho Sanction you continue to explore an issue that you first raised in Mission Compromised: whether or not government-sanctioned assassinations of top terrorists, and the heads of rogue states, is an option in a post-9/11 world. Is there a nuance to this debate added here that wasnít in the first book?
A: The Israelis are great at these kinds of directed strikes. In The Jericho Sanction there is a realistic scene in which a single tank round is fired into the side of a building that took out seven terrorists on the other side of the wall. Those seven terrorists are now gone -- but tomorrow there will be seven more to replace them. Ultimately you have to ask yourself has this worked to make Israel safer? And you may conclude in the end, it really hasnít. Thatís the crossroads weíre now reaching in this country.
Thereís legislation currently being considered in the U.S. Congress that would eliminate our current prohibition on assassination. Itís still tied up in Committee, but it has been introduced.
Thatís what the next book will deal with: a U.S. procedure for this kind of extra-judicial operation. Once again, people have to ask themselves is this how we want to deal with terrorism? It may turn out itís the only way. But do we the people of the United States want to do this kind of thing? And who makes the decision? The Attorney General? The President? A congressional committee?
Look at the controversy that has raged in this country over military tribunals for those charged with terrorism. If trial by military tribunal generates concern, imagine how much more there would be if we decided to establish a specialized unit, like the Israelis have, to conduct preemptive extra-judicial killings. You have to ask yourself, at the end of the day what happens to these guys when things donít go quite as theyíre supposed to? Or what happens if the threat is nebulous? Letís say youíve got intelligence that somebody is about to try something very bad. Youíre not certain which group is about to strike but you have the ability to target several groups. Do you take them all out? These are tough questions somebody needs to wrestle with before we actually go any farther down the road on which weíre currently traveling.
Q: You are well known as a man of deep faith. How did that faith sustain you during your recent return to the battlefield as an embedded correspondent?
A: I know Betsy and my kids and grandkids were praying hard for me to get home safely. Frankly thereís no explanation for why I was able to ride on helicopters that got shot at and hit day after day except that the good Lord was looking after me again.
Q: There have been suggestions that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to make its case for war in Iraq, much as the Johnson administration did in Vietnam during the Tonkin Gulf incident. Even the envoy sent by the CIA to investigate allegations about Iraqís nuclear weapons program contends the Bush administration manipulated his findings, possibly to strengthen the rationale for war. Whatís your take?
A: My take is that thereís a whole lot less malevolence than there is incompetence on the part of our intelligence services. One of the things this book points to is our extraordinary lack of human intelligence in Iraq. The line used by Komulakov in the book is one that has been routinely offered by intelligence services around the world when assessing U.S. intelligence capabilities: ďYour CIA is more screwed up now than ever before.Ē And it is. This book is pretty hard on the CIA and with good reason.
Q: In the months leading up to the war the White House fed the American public a steady diet of stories about Iraqís weapons of mass destruction that supposedly included tens of thousands of liters of anthrax, thousands of liters of botulinim toxin, hundreds of tons of mustard and nerve gasses, mobile bio-weapons labs, missiles whose ranges had been illegally extended, and even secret facilities for the development of nukes. What do you make of our inability to find any solid evidence of Saddam Husseinís weapons program?
A: People forget Iraq is a big country. We have fewer soldiers, sailors, and Marines in Iraq than there are cops in California (which is about the same size.) You and I both know there are criminal elements robbing banks, killing people, and getting away with it in California.
If that can happen there, itís not unreasonable to think the Iraqis may have succeeded in hiding evidence of their weapons program. Iíve been to the Iraqi desert. How big a hole do you need to cover-up containers of toxins or spores? There are lots of holes still to dig up in Iraq. Eventually I think we will find evidence that Saddamís weapons existed. You have to remember; this was the most telegraphed punch in U.S. military history. The war began in March of 2003 but we actually started getting ready for it in September of 2002. You can hide Fort Knox in seven months.
If Saddam had no biological or chemical weapons, why did the Iraqi army (particularly the Republican Guards and Baath Party officials) have as many gas masks as they did? Why did they have all those atropine injectors? Why were decontamination stations set up all over the country? I think thereís some evidence that the command was given to Iraqi troops to use biological and chemical weapons but they just couldnít get their act together. We came roaring up the road a couple of times and literally caught them trying to get their armor out of their tank parks. Iíve never seen a country with so much military ordnance: artillery, armor, rockets, mortars, mines, and conventional explosives from every country on the planet. It would have been a logistics nightmare just to maintain this stuff. Saddam was to military hardware what Imelda Marcos was to shoes: he never saw anything he didnít like and he bought 1000 of each. There were bunkers and revetments filled with the stuff. I think itís only a matter of time before we find his non-conventional weapons as well.
Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book other than a really good read?
A: America is in a long haul fight against terrorism, most of which comes from that part of the world. Weíre going to have troops in Iraq for a long time to come. It may even be necessary to put American troops in harmís way in many other places to protect us from the threat of another 9/11. We saw after 9/11 that there are all kinds of people who have the kind of courage and character that Peter Newman typifies. This war on terrorism requires the kind of ďcourage under fireĒ during operations undertaken by ďrealĒ people like Peter Newman. The Jericho Sanction doesnít use their real names, but those who read the book will come to know the people who are just like the people who went up against Peter Newman -- or people just like Newman himself.