by Edward Jay Epstein

Jesse Kornbluth: Good morning. I'm Jesse Kornbluth of AOL New York. Joining us now is Edward Jay Epstein. Ed is a brilliant historian of terrorism and conspiracies, starting with the Kennedy assassination. Ed, what was your initial reaction to the World Trade Center attack?

Ed Epstein: I was amazed that an airplane could cause a building to collapse, then I found out the jet fuel basically caused an explosion. What you have here is a new weapon; it is a piloted missile. What you have is hundreds of tons of highly combustible fuel. It can be aimed with great precision, and it is very difficult to defend against.

Jesse Kornbluth: You have a vast network of international sources -- you're one of the best-connected writers I know. When you thought,Who did this? what did you come up with?

Ed Epstein: First of all, I don't think "Who" is that important a question. It requires very little resources to commandeer an airliner -- a plastic credit card, a knife and a few people who are suicidal. What this means is, no matter who we kill, other people are going to be copycats. Copycats will understand that it takes very little to commandeer a plane, perhaps less than it takes to organize a car bombing. It doesn't have to be four coordinated planes to attack. Just one. At the present time, we have no defenses to boarding an airliner or chartering one. You don't need a certified pilot. You simply need to train a suicide pilot. He doesn't need to know how to take off or land. He just knows how to punch in a few coordinates and fly.

Jesse Kornbluth: So a massive military response won't solve the problem?

Ed Epstein: It might solve many other problems, and I am all for it. But the real problem is, suddenly, that there are literally thousands of missiles that can be commandeered with relative ease. And unless we have a defense, we can expect, no matter what ringleader or organizer we arrest and kill, we will not stop other people from replacing them. Its like killing a high-level drug lord and not expecting someone to take his place.

Jesse Kornbluth: Okay, Ed, so where is a real solution?

Ed Epstein: The real solution is to deprive terrorists of this new weapon they have found, which will require radical reorganization of air travel.

Jesse Kornbluth: Can you be specific?

Ed Epstein: Well, for one thing, you can have sky marshals, two, four of them, sitting up between the pilot and the passengers. For a more radical solution, you can take the controls away from the pilots, like on the space shuttle, and have the air controller on land take over the control of the plane and bypass the pilot.

Jesse Kornbluth: That sounds expensive -- in a way that airlines have historically resisted. Far more emotionally satisfying, I'm sure, is footage of a terrorist camp blowing up. Do you think we have the will to take the steps you outline?

Ed Epstein: I think it is really a question of necessity. As soon as another plane is hijacked and used as a piloted-missile in this same situation, we will realize that we have to take these steps. Now terrorists don't need camps. All that is required is someone crazy enough to die.

Jesse Kornbluth: So you think this is not the last of this kind of attack?

Ed Epstein: I hope that it is the last we ever see of this, but I fear, since it has been proven to be successful, that they will attempt to try this again.

Jesse Kornbluth: Compare this threat to the threat the Bush administration says we face from missiles. Which threat do you see as the greater one?

Ed Epstein: commaneered Airplanes, Think of it -- a plane doesn't have to be commandeered near its target. It can be commandeered from Canada, UK, anywhere -- North Korea. The Pariah don't have a single missile. So, clearly, this is the great threat. I don't think it is that expensive, since airplanes already have electronic controls, they are now controlled by [signals]. So I don't think it would be expensive.

Jesse Kornbluth: Let's talk about the social consequences of yesterday's attack. You've written about American intelligence agencies. Do you see a revamping? Do you see a curtailing of our freedoms? What's ahead?

Ed Epstein: When we look at intelligence, services involved in an intelligence-gathering operation, such as the CIA or NSA, they are basically looking at a conventional enemy, such as a country. There is what is called traffic, such as radio frequency -- they look for a change. And when the traffic goes silent, they can warn that something is likely to happen, as they did in Pearl Harbor. When you're dealing with an unconventional source of an individual or a group of individuals, there might be no traffic. They might write letters to each other. They might use code words that they do not repeat with enough frequency so they are decipherable. In other words, basic tools we have do not work against a small group of individuals. There are some tools that do work, such as penetration or recruiting one of their group to be our agent. This can be very difficult.

Jesse Kornbluth: So let me ask: Can we ever get good intelligence about these small, independent terrorist groups?

Ed Epstein: It is not as likely as getting it from an organized country, as in a bureaucracy. It is much easier working against the KGB.

Jesse Kornbluth: Given that, Ed, it seems that a strong defense such as you outlined above is our best course. Yes?

Ed Epstein: What you have to do is take potential weapons out of their grasp. And the airliner, including chartered airliners and private, now all have to be considered weapons, and highly effective weapons, within their grasps.

Jesse Kornbluth: Ed, you are a smart, careful guy. Will this event change the way you live?

Ed Epstein: Not by my volition. But if airlines become twice as expensive, or if the delays become two or three hours, I will change my schedule.

Jesse Kornbluth: Edward Jay Epstein, thank you so much.

Copyright 2001 America Online, Inc. All rights reserved. Portions of this transcript may be edited by AOL to correct spelling, punctuation and/or remove any material that violates AOL's Terms of Service.

[back to archive]

if you have any comments please reply below:
your email:

Questions? Email me at
This website is still (heavily) under construction. The webmistress can be reached at