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interview: warren rudman

[Where were you] on Sept. 11, 2001?

I had just got into a cab to come from my apartment up on Pennsylvania Avenue, down here to my office, and the cab driver knew me, and said, "Senator, listen." He had public radio on, and the report of the first strike, and we got tied up in traffic. Then, the report of the second strike. And I mean, I was trying to get a handle on what was going on here. Was this an accident?

Then of course a second strike, and the description. I thought to myself, you know, God help those people. Thousands are going to be killed in those buildings. Then, of course, I thought of our Hart-Rudman report, and what we had predicted, and unfortunately, we were all too right.

You weren't surprised that the buildings were attacked?

No, I was not.


Because in three and a half years of deliberations, traveling around the world, talking to foreign leaders, foreign intelligence services, all the United States experts, academics in this country and abroad, [we] came to the conclusion [that] (A) there are large groups of people in this world who are terrorists who didn't like us, didn't like what we stood for, didn't like our policies; (B) they had the capacity to hurt us; and (C) when they could, they would.

about warren rudman

A former U.S. senator, Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) chaired the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1997 to 2000. Together with former Senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), he also chaired a bipartisan commission that studied issues of national security for more than two years and issued its findings in January 2001. Rudman tells FRONTLINE he was not surprised by the Sept. 11 attacks and points to a failure of U.S. intelligence. However, he argues that although intelligence agencies may be able to assess security threats, they are rarely able to predict terrorists' intentions. This interview was conducted mid-September 2001.

Hurt us is one thing. But this is in a qualitatively different. ...

Not really. In fact, if I may say so, I'm delighted it wasn't worse. We predict in our report that in this period of time we're talking about -- the early part of this century -- that there are two types of weapons that we have to be very concerned about, not from governments but from terrorist organizations: weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, biological and chemical. And we spoke of weapons of mass disruption -- high explosives, incendiary devices -- that could inflict damage on large numbers of American citizens. Those are exact quotes from our report.

... [We spend] $10 billion a year or so on the counterterrorism budget. [It] didn't stop anything.

I'm not sure you'll ever stop it all. But you've got to find a way to stop some of it, and you've got to find a way to respond to it in a better way than we normally do. Although, quite frankly, what happened in New York, I'm not sure any response would have saved any life. People probably died in the early minutes of that conflagration.

But we have to be able to respond to other kinds of things that could happen in this country, in places that are not as well equipped as New York, to handle these things. And it is a serious problem. There are three aspects of this. There is prevention; there is protection; and there's response.

But isn't that what the CIA, for instance, or our intelligence apparatus is supposed to do -- prevent, predict? ...

Well, Lowell, you're old enough to remember a few items in history, and let me just point a few things out to you.

The U.S. intelligence service, the German intelligence service, the KGB, the Japanese intelligence -- all intelligence organizations, for many years, have been very good at two things: assessing threats, and assigning the capacity or the capability, if you will, of those threats to inflict damage on you.

They have all been very bad at predicting, with certainty, what will happen, based on intelligence. There are successes, and you never hear about those successes. But, unfortunately, this is kind of a zero-sum game. If there are 10 attacks planned and you thwart seven, and three work, you lost.

And anybody who believes that intelligence, even with beefing up human intelligence, will be good enough to predict that, [and] these shadowy organizations can be penetrated in a way that we will be able to, with impunity, determine what they're going to do and where and when they're going to do it -- they're just whistling in the cemetery. That is not going to happen. That is not the solution to this problem.

If there is a solution to the problem, the solution is as President Bush talked about it in his speech to the Congress. It's to go after these people and their hosts, and to eliminate these threats in any way that you can. We're going to have to do that -- eliminate them.

It's war?

It sure is.

And part of war is also understanding who your enemy is.

Correct. ...

Well, in the streets of some places in the Middle East, this has not been greeted, necessarily, as something to be ashamed of.

Not surprising. Look, the fundamental question is, why did this happen? The American people, I think, now understand what we've written about in our report. There are large numbers of people in this world who don't like us, who would like to hurt us, who don't like our culture, don't like our freedom, don't like our kind of government, don't like our foreign policy, don't like us at all -- and given the chance to hurt us, they will. Those are the plain, unvarnished, unhappy facts.

We have interviewed some of those people and what they say is that in their countries, Egypt as an example, we have an oppressive government that has left the people in poverty. You, the United States, have given them -- I believe the figure is close to $50 billion since Camp David -- mostly military assistance. So you are the friend of our enemy -- our government. Is this a policy problem?

Well, of course, but that's their point of view. There's been a reason for America's policy towards many countries. It's been in our own enlightened self-interest to have strong allies in the Middle East besides Israel. It's important that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, and others, are friendly to us. And that doesn't mean we sign on to everything they do. But the world isn't very pretty out there.

But these terrorists are more than just people who disagree with our policies. These are fundamentally very, very sick people, who believe it is all right to take thousands of lives because they believe that their basic beliefs and geopolitical views are not being observed by the United States government.

Well, I might say that about Osama bin Laden, or this gentleman, [Imad] Mughniyah in Hezbollah, or Hamas.

Or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. [Or] Islamic Jihad.

But [the leadership] aren't the suicide bombers. The people who are piloting the airlines, the people who are blowing themselves up -- they believe that we are the enemy. Are they just insane? Are you saying we just have a bunch of insane people out there?

Oh, I think they are essentially borderline insane; absolutely. To do what they did? Of course they are.

We can't institutionalize them. We're going to have to eliminate them?


That's the difference now. We've gone from law enforcement, if you will ...

This is no longer a law enforcement [problem]. Twenty people die; it's law enforcement. Six thousand die; it's war.

OK. You're [chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board]. So you see everything that goes on in the U.S. intelligence community.

Well, pretty much.

We have talked with people in the FBI and other agencies who say that in the six months leading up to this event, there had been a struggle going on here in Washington, related to the ... wiretap situation. ... [Some say] that that system ... resulted in a decrease in our electronic surveillance of these groups.

Yes. Well, I'm not going to corroborate that, confirm it tonight. I'll make an observation.

Are we wrong?

I'm not going to comment. I believe that we have to take a strong look at some of the protections that we've built into the system in case of foreign intelligence and foreign operatives. ... We're a great, open country, and our Constitution applies to everyone, whether they're a citizen or not.

But I think there are some instances with foreign agents and whatnot where we need wiretap information, and we're going to have to change the rules. And I say that as someone who is very, very concerned about issues of privacy.

We've talked to people in the [Drug Enforcement Administration] who have experience in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and so on, in the late 1990s. Many people, including some CIA people, say these people know more on the ground, actually, than our own intelligence people because they're looking for drugs and they have informants. They say they had a number of opportunities, one involving Mr. bin Laden's dialysis treatments, where they could have eliminated him. But they were told, through the CIA and the U.S. Embassy, not to do it.

Number one, I'm not sure I believe that. Even though they said it, I'm not sure I believe it. Number two ...

Why do you say that?

Because I know a lot of people in government who make up stories about their great exploits. That's why.

But having said that, we've had a policy for a long time about assassinations, and I suppose the policy was put in place for a good reason. I don't think the policy even applies in this kind of a situation. ... We're not talking about going and eliminating a king or a prime minister. We're talking about eliminating a terrorist. That's different.

So the gloves are off?

Well, if the president's to be believed -- and I believe him -- the gloves are off. He said you're either [with] us, or you're with the terrorists. That's pretty clear.

So when your former colleague, Senator [Richard] Shelby (R-Ala.), says this was an intelligence failure ...

Well, of course it was an intelligence failure. By definition, when something bad happens to you, and you didn't know about it, it's an intelligence failure. The more important question is, is it something that we likely should have found out? I say no.

Look. U.S. intelligence knew in November of 1941 that the Japanese fleet was moving about the western Pacific. I mean, they were watching the fleet. They couldn't quite figure out the intentions until December 7. In Europe, in November of 1944, American intelligence and British intelligence knew the Germans were massing forces in and around the Ardennes. They didn't know why until the Battle of the Bulge.

In 1990, we were aware Saddam Hussein was making unusual movements of armored forces in his country, in various places. We didn't know why until he invaded Kuwait. Well, you know, how many times does that have to happen before you realize that intelligence on intentions is very difficult to ascertain?

But at the time of Pearl Harbor, it was decided not to have an investigation, not to point fingers, [to] wait till the end of the war.

That was wise.

At the end of the war, there were hearings.

There were.

As a result of those hearings, we created what?

Well, we created a whole bunch of things.

We created the Central Intelligence Agency.

... But understand the duties of intelligence agencies. We have to know about people's capabilities. We have to know about their capacity to injure us. We would like to know their intentions. But I will repeat to you: We do find out intentions some of the time, but not all of the time. And in this business -- it's a zero-sum business -- if you don't find it all the time, then what happened in New York is what will happen again, chilling as that may be.

Some would say that this is all the result of our policies -- starting in, let's say, 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union and the triumph of our system, and then our ability to conduct a war in the Persian Gulf, where we took very few casualties, and inflicted huge casualties on an Islamic population, civilian and military. [Some would say] that this is the payback, after 10 years of prosperity and dominance.

Could well be, could well be. I don't think anyone can rule out this incident having the participation of a state sponsor. I do not believe that, necessarily, this is just a terrorist organization, be it Osama bin Laden or the network of other organizations that work with him. This well could have the involvement of foreign intelligence services, and I'm sure we're looking at all of that now.

Well, there's some indications. Israelis, in particular, although they have some interest in this obviously, are saying now that it looks like there may be some Hezbollah involvement, looks like there may be some Iraqi involvement, and they're also pointing their finger at this man, Zawahiri, who's an Egyptian ally of bin Laden's.

... Mossad [the Israeli Intelligence Service], according to the press, had told American authorities that there were a large number of people that they believed were terrorists, who they had information were making their way into the United States. That's very important information. What do you do with it? Well, you try to locate these people. We've got 3.5 million people a day crossing our borders. 380,000 vehicles. You know, 58,000 containers on ships. It's very hard, with that kind of raw information, to target it.

I'm not making apologies for the intelligence community. They can defend themselves. I'm not part of the intelligence community. I'll make this observation: If we think that intelligence is going to give us the weapon to prevent this from happening -- all the time -- we're wrong.

That's not my question.

I know it isn't your question.

I'm not beating that question to death. I think that it's clear that they may have an impossible assignment or expectation.

We do very well, by the way. America does very well. We thwart a lot of things from happening, but you don't read about ...

But it's not the movies, and it's not Bruce Willis.

No, it's not.

This is a Bruce Willis movie with a bad ending.

Right, exactly.

The question is: Is there something about our policies that have been politically untouchable? We need oil; we need to back Israel. It's hard to raise these issues, because people want low gasoline prices, or people want absolutely support for whatever government is in Israel. You know that on the street, in Lebanon or Jordan, or Saudi Arabia, Sharon is seen as a mass murderer because of Sabra and Shatila.

Are you telling me there are people who disagree totally with our foreign policy? You bet there are. You bet there are. And is it a potential contributor to this problem? You bet it is. Question: What do we do about it?

Do we have a debate?

Well, I'm sure, at some point, there will be, but I don't think right now. I don't think any Americans are in the mood to discuss whether our foreign policy should be changed so this won't happen to us again. I think they're too angry, and with good cause. ...

Oh, there are many people who are very angry. The question is, what we do in response to this could make things a lot worse.

Yes. With all due respect, I think if we changed our foreign policy in many ways in the Middle East, it wouldn't make a damn bit of difference. These people hate our culture, they hate our religion, they hate our democracy. They hate us.

"These people." Who are you ...

I'm talking about the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organizations.

The organizations?

That's right.

I'm talking about the people ...

Well, they seem to be able to recruit the people. They got the guys to fly and commit suicide, and they seemed to be fairly educated people. So evidently these are fundamentalist terrorists themselves. So it's the organizations and the members of the organizations.

But, they are getting their members from the population.

Absolutely. Just like Adolf Hitler was able to recruit well-educated people from great families and bring them into the SS and commit some of the most horrible atrocities in the history of the world. Same thing. You explain it. I can't.

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