Eat The Press

Lawrence Wright, playwright.JPG


Twenty minutes into a preview of Lawrence Wright's new one-man show, My Trip to Al Qaeda, a projector bulb goes out. "So this is what the theater's like," he quips.

The New Yorker scribe has written for the stage and screen before, but this week marks his debut as a performer in his own right. The result -- a 75-minute, multimedia monologue about his work writing the critically acclaimed book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 -- is impressive. Wright traveled to eleven countries and interviewed over six hundred people (including federal officials, intelligence agents, and members of Al Qaeda), and, in addition to The Looming Tower, he produced a number of articles for The New Yorker, including a gut-wrenching piece, adapted from the book, about how startlingly close one FBI agent came to unraveling the 9/11 plot before it came to its tragic fruition. My Trip to Al Qaeda offers the audience a glimpse into the process behind this work -- into Wright's emotional journey toward an understanding of what motivates Al Qaeda, what it was like to interact with radical Islamists while still maintaining some necessary detachment, and the toll it all took on him both psychologically and in his personal life.

Wright sat down with us the day after his show officially debuted and on hot on the heels of The Looming Tower racking up yet another impressive award. In the conversation that follows, he talks about how September 11th pulled him into a years-long, all-consuming story at just the point when he was about to quit journalism; how, if the federal government insists on surveilling him, they ought to at least do it competently; and why he thinks the intelligence community is in worse shape than it was on the day that saw the worst terrorist attack in American history.

You've had some experience writing screenplays and writing plays in the past, but it's still unique for a journalist to put on a highly personal show like the one you're doing. What was it about the experience writing The Looming Tower and doing your work for The New Yorker that led you to My Trip to Al Qaeda?

I had seen some journalism done as theater in the past. It's unusual, as you point out, but the journalism was done by actors. In one case it was David Hare, who had contacted me maybe 15 years before. He wanted to use a line from an article I'd written about Jerusalem for his play that became Via Dolorosa. I thought it was such a really interesting idea, and I was interested in his play when he did it. But he wasn't really a journalist.

Then I saw Anna Deavere Smith do Fires in the Mirror at the Public Theater, and I was electrified by that, because there was a real example of journalism and theater meeting. Although Looming Tower, looming threat.jpgshe's not a journalist either, she was acting in the role of one but she was really an actress enacting the characters who were involved in the drama. But both those were influential in my decision to try to put journalism on stage.

After I finished the book, I wanted to do something more personal that would be a way of educating people about what's really happening and why these people are radicalized - how does that happen and what's going on in our own country? Although I addressed these things in my book, I didn't address them personally, and I thought that putting it in a more intimate setting -- a theater -- was a way of talking to people directly about what it's like to talk to these jihadis, where they come from, and how I was affected. The conceit, I guess, is that if you had been in my place, you would've felt this way too. It's more or less the sense that I'm just a representative of the community, going out to try to find out what's going on, and coming back and making a report.

Writing is typically a very solitary activity -- particularly your style of writing, where you don't interject much of your own personality or thoughts into the writing itself. Was it difficult for you to adjust to become a performer? I know you started performing the show last fall at The New Yorker festival, so you've had some time with it, but in the beginning?

Yes, it's a little difficult. It's not my natural metier. I'm not playing another character, but I am trying to play myself convincingly, which is surprisingly hard. There's a lot to be learned in trying to move beyond making a speech or a lecture, to actually making something dramatic, placing it in a theatrical setting, and justifying it as a play, not as a speech. I'm familiar with writing plays -- I've written a couple of them, and I've written several movie scripts, and had a couple of them made -- so I'm familiar with dramatic writing. But this was something new. This was all nonfiction and extremely personal. It was about me, to some extent, as a template for how the country has experienced this tragedy and what I think about what's happened to our country as a result of it. And that was something I couldn't put into the book, and I just wanted to find a different format for it.

Some of what's in your play is at least superficially a little bit different from what you've written. For instance, in interviews you've taken the position that torture is counterproductive, and you report on Ali Soufan, who eschewed torture in favor of developing rapports with the people who he's interrogating. In the play, of course, you say it's naive to think that torture never works. You say, "Of course it does." Is that your visceral reaction -- the part of you that comes out when you're doing this work before the more analytic side of your brain takes over?

I don't want to be reactionary on the subject of torture. Torture does work in some cases. But the point of that story about Zawahiri [being tortured in prison after the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat] is that, in other cases, it's a catastrophic failure. The Al Qaeda movement - it's particular appetite for carnage - I think can be accounted for to a large extent by the torture that took place in those Egyptian prisons, Wright - head cut off hotel room.JPGand Zawahiri is a perfect example of it. So yes torture works sometimes, but at what cost? That's the point I'm trying to make.

We captured Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and tortured him. Only one person has been arrested because of that capture of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, and that is a guy named Iyman Faris, the guy that was going to take down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch. And he was arrested and I think convicted. So under torture, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed gave up a guy who was going to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch, if that's conceivably possible.

We also captured Ibn Sheikh al-Liby and tortured him, and under torture he said that Al Qaeda was working with Saddam Hussein and that Saddam Hussein was creating weapons of mass destruction. On the basis of that information, we went to war in Iraq! So -- weigh out those two things. On the one hand we stopped Iyman Faris from attacking the Brooklyn Bridge; on the other hand we went to war in Iraq. I would argue that, on balance, torture hasn't done us any good.

You're one of a few people in the country who's really dug into Al Qaeda, and the plot of 9/11, and has dealt with these episodes of torture and their consequences. How would you evaluate the sophistication of the public discussion and the media's discussion of torture -- whether it works, when it works, if it works in the past, whether it should be the official US policy.

I think that politically we dodged the debate. There was a moment when McCain and Lindsay Graham were leading this effort to really stop torture as an instrument of American policy. And they stopped short. So as long as there's that big loophole, people are going to exploit it.

And we celebrate torture in our media. I think what's missing from the debate is the realization that we've made catastrophic mistakes based on torture -- based on information we've gained from torture -- and we've lost so much goodwill and political standing in the world because of our use of it. And it's in no way commensurate with the good things we might've reaped from it. I don't know that there has Wright Photo for show - from NYT.jpgbeen anything really good other than Iyman Faris. But nobody's shown me the product that would justify that kind of behavior at the expense of our moral standing in the world.

In the play you recount a couple instances while reporting the book when you lost your temper -- once in England when some Islamic radicals were endorsing the beheading of aid workers in Iraq, and once in Egypt when someone suggested to you that Osama bin Laden was working for the CIA. How difficult was it for you to maintain your sense of objectivity and to keep your emotions in check in the course of writing this book? You've interviewed hundreds of people over many years [who were] closely connected with Al Qaeda and terrorism.

It was hard, especially in the first few years where emotions were still really raw and my own were still very much on the surface and it was hard to keep them from disrupting the interview process sometimes, because [there] was a lot of defensiveness and anger on both sides. I wasn't innocent of that either. So I tried to maintain a professional demeanor all the way through, but, you know, honestly, there were times when I just simply couldn't.

And also I was very much alone. It was rare to see other Americans -- or even very many Westerners -- in the environments that I was in. And so people took the opportunity to vent their emotions on me, because there were just not very many other opportunities for that. I've had fingers wagged in my face for five years. I really don't want to see any more wagging fingers.

You can't just take that again and again and again without beginning to get angry about it, especially when you feel like the truth and history are being distorted in the service of really pernicious lies.

As one of the few Americans in the parts of the world you were traveling in, what was your reception like? It sounds like, on occasion, you got these flashes of candor from people, which is kind of the opposite of what you'd expect, I'd think.

I don't know. First of all, it's always surprising to me how people will talk to the press -- no matter who they are. That's what keeps us in business. If that instinct wasn't almost universal, we wouldn't have an opportunity to do our craft.

I was never frightened. There were times that I took precautions. Sometimes, I would trade cars every week or something like that -- just try to keep a low profile. I was mindful of - like when I was in Wright - Intelligent enough.JPGPakistan, the first person I interviewed when I got to Pakistan was a guy named Khaled Khawaja, who Mariane Pearl holds partly responsible for Danny's death. And yet it was pretty apparent to me that the reason Danny Pearl developed a relationship with Khaled Khawaja [was because] he's a great source, and he turned out to be very valuable to me. He insisted on meeting in my hotel room, although he apologized. He wanted to bring me to his home, but if I would get my head cut off, he would get in real trouble. So I said, "I agree with you. I wouldn't want to see you in trouble."

But I was for the most part seen as someone that was trying to get at the truth, and even though there were oftentimes such enormous divides that it seemed like there'd be nothing -- I mean, the last day in Egypt, I had an argument with Esam El-Arian, who was one of the Muslim Brothers' head chiefs, and he had just gotten out of prison, and he and I had a really noisy argument. I just had it. I was just fed up at that point with the Islamist bullshit. And I was just not in the mood to brook anymore of it, so we really had a very ugly argument. And he's one of the better people in the Muslim Brothers; it could be that he's someone that we could look to work with [trying] to establish democracy in Egypt. But it's just sometimes there's just no common ground, and it's hard to pretend that there is.

Let's talk about some of the challenges reporting this book in the US. At one point in the play you reveal that you got a visit from an FBI agent and an FDA official working on the Joint Terrorism Task Force. They asked you about some phone calls you'd been making, and you in turn asked how they knew who you'd been calling. Have you ever been able to get an answer to that question?

I've pursued it, but I've not really been able to. What I understand is that the NSA would be developing leads, and they'd send them out to field offices, and they'd go out to these different joint terrorism task forces. There are 56 FBI field offices, and there are joint terrorism task forces in practically every one. So people pick up the leads, and one of the leads was mine.

But what was really mysterious to me was that my daughter was the name on the lead, and she's not on any of our phones, especially not my office phone. So I couldn't figure out how they would've gotten her name. This was well before the disclosures about illegal wiretapping, but the obvious conclusion that I drew was, "Are you listening to my calls?" And they wouldn't respond to that.

That must've been distressing for your daughter.

No, actually she thought it was pretty amusing. She hasn't had any fallout from it, but she might. It's the kind of thing that she might have trouble traveling. If her name is actually on this link chart as an Al Qaeda connection, she might have her calls monitored and things like that -- just an invasion of privacy. And I won't know to what extent they follow that.

Wright - intelligence worse off.JPGThe thing that's so distressing is the incompetence. It's enough to have your privacy invaded, but you want it done by people who are intelligent enough to discern who's the victim and who's the enemy.

It's clear from the depth of the work, and the play itself, that this story really took over your life for five, six years. How did it affect your personal life, your family?

My family was scared to death, and that really upset me. I couldn't do anything about it, and it was worse for them than it was for me. They couldn't evaluate the level of danger I might be in if I was in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Sudan. They all just sounded like really dangerous places to them. So even when I might be sitting out by the pool in Islamabad in a very nice hotel, they were scared for me. And there were moments that I missed, like my son's engagement. A good friend of mine died, and I couldn't go back for his funeral. There were just pieces of my ordinary personal life that were broken, and that was hard. And being away for so long too -- for such long stretches -- that was very difficult. I just owe them a lot. My wife and I took our first vacation in five years last summer, just as the book was coming out. So I have a lot of payback in that department.

Given how much time you devoted to such an emotional story, has it been easy to reassimilate -- to get back in your normal rhythm?

It's a little hard to get onto a new project, because it's hard to feel the kind of attachment for anything new after -- it's almost like a divorce. I'd like to find something as engaging and important to me as that, but on the other hand I don't want to have my life swallowed up again, so I've been a little stuck, looking around for something that's a great story but one that is not a black hole like this one was.

You've said that when you were writing this book, you wanted to make the story of 9/11 a "human story" and that you "felt obliged to get into this and find out what had happened" because you "didn't trust anybody else to do it as thoroughly."

That's a little bit arrogant, isn't it?

Well, it doesn't appear that anyone has done it as thoroughly.

Well, I knew that I would really give myself to it, and oddly enough, by 9/11, I was getting out of journalism. I felt like I had kind of done it all. I had been a reporter for a long time. It seemed that every time I was coming up with a new story idea, that I'd realize, "Oh my god, I did that ten, fifteen years ago." Wright - Torture doesn't work.JPGI felt like I was chewing my tail. I didn't feel fresh, so I was getting into the movie business. I was planning to direct movies. I was writing scripts for me to direct, and then 9/11 came along, and I just felt I had to report for duty. So I sent an e-mail to David Remnick at The New Yorker, and I said, "Put me to work." And I just knew that I was signing off on this other dream. I didn't know for how long.

In order to justify that statement that I made, I knew that I would be able to... I'm an intensive researcher, and so if I'm given a project that I'm really committed to, I know that I'll dig deeper than most other reporters, just because it's my nature. I don't mean to sound arrogant about it, but I'm really drawn into going into things in depth, and this is one of those things that I thought it was worth giving as much as I had to.

Certainly it seems like you've gotten at this story at a level of depth and a level of sophistication that other people haven't, and from a different angle -- focusing on the personal psychologies of a lot of the key players. How do you think that the news media has handled these stories -- both the 9/11 plot and the war on terror more generally? How do you think the sophistication of the portrayals of the key players has been and of the failures leading up to 9/11?

Let me disaggregate the media as a term. There were some wonderful reports -- some great efforts -- that were done by different media -- right after 9/11. I thought the Times did a tremendous job of covering 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. It was really deeply involved in it. Der Spiegel was unbelievably good, especially in uncovering the details of the Hamburg plot. They did a much better job than the police forces did. It was just really a splendid example of team journalism. The Wall Street Journal did some really good reports, and they had that amazing good luck of coming upon Zawahiri's computer.

So in many cases, I think the media did a better job than intelligence agencies or police agencies - at first. But by the time I got out into the field, the story had kind of passed -- even a story that big, it's hard to imagine. It was like a storm that'd passed through, and I rarely saw any other reporters when I was out in the field. There were plenty of wonderful reporters, but the story had moved on. So the retrospective that is so essential to trying to understand the events in historical perspective - I felt like that's where the failure occurred. The immediate reaction -- I thought the press, and many people in the press, covered themselves with great honor. But it was the long term effort that seemed to me where the press failed, the government failed, the police agencies failed. That's been the disappointment to me. There hasn't been a true effort to understand and assimilate the lessons of 9/11.

You seem to think those lessons haven't been learned, that this is something that could happen again.

Especially in the intelligence community. I think the intelligence community is a disaster right now. It's worse off in many respects than it was before 9/11.

For instance, one of the heroes of my book, Ali Soufan, was one of nine Arabic-speaking agents in the FBI on 9/11. There are fewer now. The FBI claims they have 25 Arabic speakers. I've talked to some of these guys. They went to Middlebury College for nine weeks to study Arabic, and they can order breakfast, but they cannot interrogate a suspect.

In the 38,000-member FBI, there are 12 Muslims. Now if you go up on the seventh floor of FBI headquarters in Washington -- an organization that made its name fighting the mafia and the IRA to some extent -- who do you find there? Irish and Italian Catholic guys. They couldn't exist without them. And it's no wonder they were successful in fighting those other organizations, but they're not gonna be Wright - People will always talk to the press no matter who they are.JPGsuccessful in fighting Al Qaeda. As long as the head of their counterterrorism unit, for instance, [is] able to testify under oath that he doesn't know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, and that he thinks that's an irrelevant question, there's always going to be a failure of imagination -- an inability to connect the dots. That's inexcusable. It's a catastrophe. We're really handicapped because of this systemic prejudice against Muslims and Arabs. I talked to the head of the Army's translation team, and a lot of Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans came forward after 9/11 to offer their services to various branches of government. And the Army was one that really took them up on it, and what happened? They went to Iraq and became translators in the most dangerous imaginable situation. After four years of serving their country, they can't get a job in American intelligence because they're considered a security risk. Well, there is a security risk -- ours. Because we're afraid to trust the people who could help us.

So it sounds like you're a little concerned --

I'm upset! I'm upset with the state of American intelligence. I think it's inexcusable. We've added an entire new tier of bureaucracy -- the directorate of intelligence. We've created a whole new Department of Homeland Security. Has either of those things made us safer? No. Have they added to the vital store of intelligence? No. What would do that? It's skilled people on the ground. That's where we've failed. So bureaucracy is not going to save us.

So you don't think a reorganization was necessary after 9/11. [The government] could've done a lot more with what was already in place as far as integration.

In my opinion. It's not as if the reorganization has succeeded in creating this unity of purpose among the different intelligence agencies. It hasn't. And it's not as if it's reinvigorated the morale among the intelligence community. The opposite is true. There's never been a greater state of depression -- of futility -- that people who are working in American intelligence feel as they do today. We are really at a low point, and I think that it's got very frightening implications.

Photo above: Palestinian youth and Israeli tank, from "My Trip to Al Qaeda," from the New York Times.

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