TOPICS > Politics

Failure to Communicate

June 3, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Some perspective on the CIA disclosure from former Senator Warren Rudman, a former Republican Senator from New Hampshire. He was a member of the Senate’s Select Intelligence Committee and he also headed a commission that warned last year of a major terrorist attack on the United States and Robert Baer; he served 21 years as a case officer in the CIA Directorate of Operations. He recently wrote of those experiences in a book, “See no Evil: The True Story of a Ground Officer in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.” Mr. Baer, how important is this tale we just heard?

ROBERT BAER: I think it’s the key to the investigation of who missed what. The fact that you had two terrorists with Attas in the same house and there was no follow-up in the United States, somebody dropped the ball along the way — whether it was the FBI, the CIA, an individual, an organization, is going to be the main focus of the investigation at this point.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it, Senator?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Well, I see it in somewhat similar terms although I must say that, you know, it’s a marvelously written story but they do have the advantage of hindsight. The problem we have is not too little information, it’s too much information. At the time that this report was sent back to CIA headquarters, who knows what else was going on?

I mean, these were two names of two people with one of many terrorist organizations. It probably stayed buried in the bowels of the analytical section and it wasn’t until August they suddenly realized what they had. That is the problem with investigating these terrorist organizations. We have tons of information but we don’t have the analytical skills yet to determine what’s important and what isn’t.

JIM LEHRER: You’re nodding, Mr. Baer.

ROBERT BAER: I agree with him. It was missed because the information system at the CIA and the FBI are not coordinated; they’re not put together. I’m not sure how this information was sent in from Malaysia, but if it went in a certain channel, it might not have been disseminated throughout the CIA even or the FBI. Remember the CIA is still reeling from Rick Ames, the spy. And after that, they compartmented all their information.

JIM LEHRER: So nobody could get anybody else’s, everything you need to know and worse, right?

ROBERT BAER: The CIA was on top of bin Laden with the system it had. We were suffering from Cold War problems of sharing information. We have to overcome this.

JIM LEHRER: The layman would say to both of you then what’s the point of collecting the information if we haven’t figured out a way to use it.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Look, we collect every day thousands of bits of information, everything from terrorism to possible nuclear or biological threats, transnational crime. The problem is there is so much information from agents like this gentleman who did it for 20 years and from electronic intelligence that we have yet to find a way to take this information and put it into a form that the prioritization can happen. That is the problem.

JIM LEHRER: Why have we been unable yet to find a way, Senator?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Well, it seems to me that this is not unlike everything else in life. It probably took September 11 to wake up the country, the government and the agencies that we’ve got to change the way we do business. By the way, I don’t think this was a matter of rivalry. I’ve watched good sharing between the FBI and the CIA. I think it’s a question of information not getting to the right people at the right time. It wouldn’t be the first time.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read it? You read it as a rivalry problem or just –

ROBERT BAER: It’s a rivalry problem because we can’t get into FBI computers to follow these people. We don’t know what the FBI did to follow up on this. If you read the article closely, it says that the CIA told the FBI, but apparently there wasn’t a written message. That needs to be sorted out right away.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, they were told, they were just told orally by somebody.

ROBERT BAER: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Some CIA guy told some FBI guy and nobody wrote it down.

ROBERT BAER: He said, look at this, you guys better take care of this. We don’t know what happened at that point — if that’s the way things were. It may be an FBI problem at this point.

JIM LEHRER: Based on your experience, is that how things work? Could that have happened in this case? I know you don’t know the facts, nobody knows them, but does that sound plausible to you?

ROBERT BAER: Yes. Let me explain the way it works. When we send messages in from the field you put what we call a slug line on there and it says where to send the message to. If that gets out of line it may go to the wrong office. Someone may get the message– it’s hard to believe, I know. But they may get the message, say I don’t know what this is about and get rid of it. It’s a glitch like that that we need to overcome that the committees need to look at, need to fix.

JIM LEHRER: Now do you think it can be fixed?

ROBERT BAER: Yes, I think it can be fixed.

JIM LEHRER: But there are thousands of people gathering millions of pieces of information. It would seem to me that somebody has to invent something new here. Am I wrong about that?

ROBERT BAER: No. You’re absolutely right. First of all, we should look at this as a CIA success. Whoever was in Yemen that sent the original report to Kuala Lumpur and from Kuala Lumpur put the surveillance on these guys should get a medal at the CIA.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: It wasn’t the gathering of intelligence; it was the analyzing of the intelligence. That was where it broke down.

JIM LEHRER: Getting the information to –

ROBERT BAER: Somebody sat on the desk that didn’t realize the significance of this, didn’t have the experience. We don’t have the analysts in the right place. But the CIA did do a good job in collecting this stuff. It was caught melding it with the FBI.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, what do you say about this idea? Now we know about all of this, should we go even further in finding out who it was, if it’s a who, or if it’s a system or whatever, where were the mistakes made? Do you see that as an unpatriotic thing to do at this point?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I think if it’s handled responsibly, and I have great faith in the leadership of the two committees on the Hill, they ought to find out specifically the track of that information, how it got into the agency and how it was disseminated. There may be things about this that the “Newsweek” reporters, as intrepid as they are, don’t know and that the Congress will learn. But let me just make an observation.

One of the real problems with all of these kinds of stories is the American people may come to the conclusion, if we get everybody with IQs of 180 at the CIA and the FBI, and somehow we spend billions of dollars on new artificial intelligence computers, we’ll be able to prevent all acts of terrorism. We won’t. That is not the way it works. We are never going to be able to prevent all acts of terrorism. I told your producer this afternoon: in baseball, if you batted 500, you’d be in the hall of fame your first year. In intelligence if you bat 750, you lose. And that’s what people ought to understand, that intelligence is not going to solve our problem.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of Mr. Baer’s point a while ago, that the CIA operative who found out this information deserves a medal.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I agree totally. These people do this at great risk. They have to go to places where they are in danger. They find out the information, they send it back. But, Jim, on the day that this information came back to CIA headquarters it was one of thousands of reports that came in from the field. What we have to now do in the field of counter-terrorism is find a way to make sure that that is gathered in one place and that’s important.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Baer, your former boss, George Tenet, was accused today by Senator Shelby, a ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, of being in denial about all of this. How do you read that?

ROBERT BAER: I think he’s defensive. He’s got to be defensive at this point. But he cannot come out in public and say, listen, there’s parts of the system that are broken, have been broken for years. It’s too complicated for me to explain to you and blah, blah, blah.

JIM LEHRER: Why can’t he do that?

ROBERT BAER: I think that the intelligence matters should be kept secret in an investigation like this. I think a blue ribbon commission should look at it, then come out and say what it can say. This should not be fought in a battle day by day in the media in the public. We don’t know what happened on these two guys that got into the United States. We don’t know why it fell between the cracks. I think we should wait and pass judgment on George Tenet and the CIA until we know this.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t think we should be reading it in “Newsweek”?

ROBERT BAER: No.

JIM LEHRER: How do you think…you heard what Dan Klaidman just went through the whole thing. You’ve read the piece.

ROBERT BAER: It’s a fantastic piece.

JIM LEHRER: It’s a fantastic piece. You must have thought the same thing and everybody else, where in the world, what kind of leak must this have come from.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I don’t think that’s too difficult to figure out.

JIM LEHRER: Help me.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: If you read the story carefully, there are people in the FBI who are very angry at people in the CIA for not getting information to them more rapidly. They’ve been on the point of the sword for the last week for fouling up. If you read it, you can almost read that somebody within the FBI told them this story.

ROBERT BAER: Somebody got the chronology, picked out the point that this information was available in January 2000 and ran with it and leaked it. I don’t think that’s where we want to be is fighting this in the public. I really don’t. I think it’s a mistake.

JIM LEHRER: That’s an awful place to be. So it was the FBI’s week to be on the griddle last week. Now it’s the CIA’s.

ROBERT BAER: You can only suspect the worst.

JIM LEHRER: Now what happens? What does the CIA do to protect itself from this?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I hope nothing. I think that George Tenet has to take this on the chin. He’s a very competent guy. He’s done a lot to improve the agency. We’ve got a long way to go. This country is finally coming to the realization that in the open society that we live in, it is becoming very difficult to protect ourselves against the kind of terrorism that we inevitably are going to face. And to try to just assess blame on people and to make the conclusion that somehow had this information got to the right place we could have prevented the 11th, that is a long leap.

JIM LEHRER: But we’re in a blame game. We’re right in the middle of it. That’s what we’re talking about now. How do you end the blame game, Mr. Baer?

ROBERT BAER: It’s…the system is broken. The fact is if the FBI had been notified that these 19 people were potential terrorists, at the end of the Newsweek article it says very clearly, the best we could have done is follow them to the Boston Airport or to Newark or Washington Dulles and called up the FBI offices at the other end. I mean what does that get us? We don’t have the system to fight terrorism right now. We have to make a decision what we’re going to do — what authority we’re going to give the CIA and the FBI; it’s a new game.

JIM LEHRER: You used the term blue ribbon committee. The Senator is using the existing committee.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Or both.

JIM LEHRER: Or both. Do you have any strong feeling Mr. Baer about whether it should be a blue ribbon committee?

ROBERT BAER: Blue ribbon. It’s too big of an issue.

JIM LEHRER: Get it out of Congress.

ROBERT BAER: We have to regain the trust of the American people and do it by senior politicians, senior academics whoever is trusted in the United States to look at it closely and get it off the Hill.

JIM LEHRER: Get it off the Hill?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: You know, I would not have said that up until a couple of days ago but I am very concerned with these attacks on various members of the FBI and the CIA. They don’t need that right now. Everybody has tried very hard to get this thing straightened out. If we want to have a blame game in these hearings, then we are not going to have very productive hearings.

JIM LEHRER: You smell that coming?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: Well I saw inklings of it in the last couple days. If Senator Gramm and Shelby and Porter Goss and Nancy Pelosi decide to find out the facts and not get involved in a scapegoating contest, then these hearings can be very useful.

JIM LEHRER: You’ve of course been involved in this.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I have.

JIM LEHRER: You have been involved in everything. You’ve been involved in Senate hearings; you’ve also been on the outside as well.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I have.

JIM LEHRER: Which is the most effective?

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I think the blue ribbon commission would have the one advantage of no partisanship whatsoever. I think that would be the single advantage. Believe me, they can pull that off if they want to. The question is how badly do they want to? Only time will tell. Those hearings are going forward. The question is: will they be useful to the country?

JIM LEHRER: Speaking from our past experience from the inside and whether it’s Congress or somebody else investigating your work or your kind of work, where do you think your folks would have a better chance of getting a fair shake?

ROBERT BAER: Blue ribbon commission.

JIM LEHRER: Blue ribbon commission.

ROBERT BAER: Yeah, we don’t want to decide it’s one agency’s fault and rip it apart because we’ll be a lot worse off at that point than we were before September 11th.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN: I mean, when you get to the point where Bob Mueller who took over the FBI the day before, I believe, September 11, is now being assaulted by various people around the country in the media and in the government for somehow letting the country down, I mean that is the height of absurdity. We don’t need this at the time when our focus ought to be on protecting the American people from a reoccurrence. That’s where our focus ought to be.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, gentlemen.