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Former FBI Agent Details Al Qaeda's Cooperating Witnesses


On Oct. 15, the Hamilton College community had the unique opportunity to hear first-hand from retired FBI agent John Cloonan. Cloonan is a 27-year veteran of the FBI, and among a host of distinctions, served on the Osama bin-Laden unit in New York. He took the audience behind the scenes of his work, recounting several stories of his time with different Al Qaeda witnesses.

The thread that connected all the stories was his belief that treating people humanely, building a rapport, and understanding these people even when it is difficult, is the most effective and necessary strategy. It’s not perfect, he admitted, but he proudly said that he represented the best of the U.S. in treating these witnesses the way that they did. They followed a structural process and gave them the rights of any defendant. 

He also discussed the lead up to the 9/11 attacks, and mulled over whether or not the attacks could have been prevented. He said one could make a reasonable argument that yes, they could have possibly been averted, citing some key mistakes and oversight issues. Years later, he still thinks about it.  

On Wednesday, Cloonan attended a meeting of Associate Professor of Government Gbemende Johnson's class “Government Failure?: The American Administrative State.” The class had recently read part of the 9/11 Commission Report, and Cloonan provided an insider opinion on aspects of the report. He also engaged in a back-and-forth discussion with members of the class on tough topics like cyberwarfare and counter-terrorism.   

Throughout his talks, Cloonan interspersed his more somber discussions with quick wit and humor. He also expressed his hope that, despite the messes and difficulties created, our generation could use our intellectual capacity for good.  

Extended PBS Frontline interview with Jack Cloonan

WAMC public radio interview

WIBX radio interview

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