November 28, 2003 | Broadcast

Wolf Blitzer Reports

The president gave the troops a short-term boost and didn’t hurt his own image in the process. But as the conflict in Iraq wears on, along with the war against terrorism, will the Baghdad trip make a difference? Joining me from our Washington bureau is former CIA director James Woolsey to weigh in on this. Mr. Woolsey, good to have you back with us.

JAMES WOOLSEY, FRM. CIA DIR.: Good to be with you, Miles.

O’BRIEN: About 24 hours ago as this was first breaking, we were talking about this and you were rather effusive in your praise of the move. Still so?

WOOLSEY: Still so. There is a long tradition of American presidents visiting war theaters on holidays. Eisenhower did it, Johnson did it, Nixon did it, President Clinton did it in Kosovo. So, I think it is a fine tradition of the commander-in-chief. This one was more dramatic, because of the secrecy and risk involved into flying into the Baghdad airport, but I think it’s a big plus.

O’BRIEN: But for you it is clear where the risk benefit analysis ends up?

WOOLSEY: Yes, I think so. They had one of the best aircraft in the world in terms of having counter measures against things like shoulder fired, man-portable surface-to-air missiles. And they came at night with no lights. There was some risk, I think, but Air Force One is just about the best trained crew in the world for flying that kind of aircraft. So, I think it was certainly an acceptable risk, and I think the president was wise to do it.

O’BRIEN: And you have to admire their ability to keep a secret on this one.

WOOLSEY: You do.

O’BRIEN: Given what their line work is.

WOOLSEY: You do. My line of work once was that. I am all admiration for a major undertaking by a head of state like this that can be kept secret for that amount of time. Bravo!

O’BRIEN: And would you have suggested it would have been a good idea had this been brought to you in advance?

WOOLSEY: Certainly. I think any of us who have been involved, even as minor advisers occasionally, which would be the maximum role I’ve had, really want to see success here. Particularly, anyone who has admiration, as I think most Americans do, for the way our military has performed over there, would think this was exactly appropriate. This was a good thing for the president to do.

O’BRIEN: Let’s shift gears for a little bit. I’d like to get your assessment on how things are going on the ground in Iraq. One of the things that comes up time and again, is the lack of ongoing actionable, is the term, intelligence that is usable by the troops on the ground. Do you get the sense that that is improving at all?

WOOLSEY: I think it’s beginning to improve a bit. We should have gone in with hundreds, maybe thousands of Iraqis who had been trained ahead of time going in with us to work with us, whether as spies or guards or as infantry alongside us. We didn’t, even though Congress appropriated nearly $100 million for training them back in 1998 because the State Department and CIA were very much opposed to that. They made some other preparations, but not nearly what would have been possible if they had proceeded with training.

So I think it’s getting better. We’re training people on the ground there now. My friend Walt Slocum has been involved in help train the new Iraqi army. Another group is training Kurds.

O’BRIEN: …significant intelligence activity that have led to some arrests and uncovering some plots by, apparently, al Qaeda. Do you have the sense, as far as intelligence goes, focusing in on al Qaeda, that is improving and authorities all around the world are focusing properly on it?

WOOLSEY: Well, yes. Arrests in Britain, arrests in Italy and elsewhere shows that the law enforcement and intelligence people are doing their job, but al Qaeda now may be rather thin in terms of management, because we’ve arrested or killed a fair number of their senior people.

Some of these may be local groups that are similarly inspired and have some kind of tie with the remainder of al Qaeda. Some of this may be state-sponsored. I remain very suspicious of the Iranian government in these matters. They don’t have hesitancy about working with secular groups or Sunni groups, even though they are Shiite. The Mullahs, who control the instruments of power in Iran are a big threat.

We don’t know in any one case whether it is remnants of al Qaeda or the Iranian intelligence service or some freelance Islamists off on their own. Each of these will get clearer in the fullness of time. Those three groups, generally, are all going to be problems for us for some years.

O’BRIEN: James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Thanks for your time. Appreciate it.

WOOLSEY: Good to be with you.