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NEW YORK: Distinguished British journalist Robert Fisk, an outspoken critic of the US-British war in Iraq, has a large following in the United States, as was demonstrated when he launched his latest book The Great War for Civilization in New York the other day.

Mr Fisk gave a unique and enlightening insight into the events of September 11 and took American media to task for having failed the American people in the run up to the Iraq war.

Mr Fisk, who has met Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on three occasions, recalled his conversations with him in 1993 in Sudan and Afghanistan, and said one of the purposes of the attacks of Sept 11 might have been to turn the innocent against the innocent and not just Muslims against the West.

He also spoke about a revealing radio interview immediately following the Sept 11 attacks when he encountered American lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who, when Mr Fisk said that “we must ask the question Why?, retorted angrily “To ask the question ‘why’ means that you are sympathetic to terrorists hence you are anti- American and being anti-American you are anti-Semitic.”

Here is a partial transcript of Mr Fisk’s talk:

“In 1993 when I met bin Laden in Sudan, the last words he said to me were: Mr Robert, from the mountain from which you are sitting we destroyed the Soviet army. It helped bring down the Soviet Union ...” This may be a bit of an exaggeration but there was a certain element of truth in there. Then bin Laden said: ‘I pray to God, Mr Robert, that He permits us to bring America down into the shadow of its self.’

On September 11, I was crossing the Atlantic — going to New York. I was on the satellite phone with my business centre office in London. I heard about the attack, I told the attendant to tell the captain that there was an attack going on against the United States of America, aircraft have gone into many buildings — the stewardess stood there and asked where are the planes coming from? I said we do not know, could be from anywhere, Latin America, Europe, wherever. Then the captain came. We went around the plane together to look around for passengers we didn’t like. I noted down 13, two in business class, the rest in economy. The attendant had 14 seat numbers. Of course they were all Muslims, some reading the holy Quran, praying with worry beads. They were dark skinned, they were all Muslims, they looked at me suspiciously. Because I was looking at them suspiciously I realized suddenly that bin Laden has turned nice liberal Bob into a racist. I was going around racially profiling the passengers on the aircraft. I realized that one of the purposes of the attacks of Sept 11 might have been to turn the innocent against the innocent, not just Muslims against the West.

And I remember that night when I returned to Europe, I ended up on Irish Radio which had me along with Harvard Prof Alan Dershowitz, and when I kept saying “We must ask the question Why (these attacks) — to which Mr Dershowitz responded “to ask the question ‘why’ you are a dangerous man you are sympathetic to terrorists, hence you are anti-American and being anti-American you are anti-Semitic’.

It struck me as odd that when a crime is committed on New York streets the first thing is to look at the motive, but the first thing you were not allowed to do was to ask for the motive..... you can ask about gays, lesbians, etc., but not question US relationships and the Middle East, whether it be relationship with Israel or the Arab world. But the first thing you were not allowed to ask was “Why”. And that night the BBC put one guest on its programme who said that my asking why was the worst bad joke of the year. I think it should have been the first question that should be asked. Not asking why would allow the president of the US to change the world forever. I don’t believe it did. I don’t think we should allow 19 killers to change my world forever. I think Bush got away with it.

And I think that by and large for many months Americans were prevented from looking for the motive. By the time they could look for the motive, we were bombing Afghanistan and saying there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And then defeating Saddam Hussein. And so it goes on and on. And it seems somehow that modern-day politicians with, in many cases, the help, I’m afraid, of journalists, are able to continue to bamboozle people. ‘We’ll explain it tomorrow’, ‘that’s too secret to tell you,’ secret intelligence officials insist. Look at The New York Times’s first paragraphs over and over again, “According to American intelligence officials.” “American officials say.” I think sometimes The New York Times should be called “American Officials Say.” Just look at it tomorrow or the day after. Or the L.A. Times, or the, not the San Francisco Chronicle, it’s not much of a paper anymore unfortunately, but The Washington Post.

You know the cozy relationship between American journalists and power is very dangerous. You want to look and see what that relationship is like. The osmotic, the host and the parasite together. You only have to look at a White House press conference, ‘Mr President, Mr President?’ ‘Yes, Bob. Yes, John? Yes, Nancy,’ that’s the relationship. Journalists like to be close to power. They know that if they want to be close to power, they mustn’t challenge power. And that goes back to the Amira Haas definition of journalism, of which I am a total devotee: you must challenge power all the time, all the time, all the time even if the politicians and the prime minister, even if your readers hate you. You must challenge power. And that includes bin Laden power.