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Improving National Security

Aired July 25, 2003 - 20:28   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: To make the U.S. safer from terrorism, a congressional panel recommends plenty of changes. The panel released its report on the September 11 attacks yesterday. Some of the changes are already in place, but are they enough to prevent another attack?
National correspondent Bob Franken reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The latest 9/11 report criticized a lack of emphasis on a process designed to protect the homeland from the terrorist threat. The Bush administration claims it has already changed the emphasis, for starters with the creation of a Homeland Security Department.

(on camera): It is a massive attempt to consolidate various federal agencies scattered throughout the government, to put them under one roof, so they're talking to each other, instead of past.

STEPHEN FLYNN, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: This is a huge challenge, essentially taking a society that's been on a two-century joyride, not having to deal with enemy boots on our ground, to deal with the threats.

FRANKEN: Among other changes: greater cooperation with state and local officials on homeland security, a new focus on domestic terror, and a major change, a new intelligence clearinghouse, with a new chief, to make sure information is shared. It is just months old and it is unclear if it is working yet as intended.

The threats in the United States are now recognized everywhere. The solutions are not as easy to find.

Bob Franken, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: For more on homeland security and the intelligence community, we are joined by former CIA agent Robert Baer. He is also the author of "Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul For Saudi Crude."

He joins us from Washington, D.C. this evening.

Good evening. Nice to see you. ROBERT BAER, AUTHOR, "SLEEPING WITH THE DEVIL": Thank you.

O'BRIEN: As we heard in Bob's report, the newest terrorist threat integration center is under the arm of the CIA, not under the Department of Homeland Security, which is what was actually recommended in the congressional report. Is this a big mistake?

BAER: Not a big mistake. It's a mistake.

I think the problem is, what we really have to do is integrate information from the CIA and the FBI. That was why these terrorists got through the screening in -- for September 11. And if we could combine their databases, we'd be better off in a more sure way.

O'BRIEN: Which hasn't been done yet. Do you think in some way the administration jumped the gun by creating this Office of Homeland Security that actually doesn't meet the goals that were laid out in this hefty congressional report?

BAER: Well, it didn't jump the gun so much as the administration had to react quickly for political reasons. The Americans wanted -- the American people wanted to be reassured, and they are now. But it is a question of fine tuning it. Remember that the CIA comes from a very different culture from the FBI. The FBI collects information on criminals. The CIA collects intelligence. You have to find a way to unite these two services.

O'BRIEN: Other areas where the goals have been missed, I think it is fair to say, so far no cabinet level intelligence czar. Do we need that?

BAER: We need an intelligence czar. We need somebody to go and mandate changes inside the CIA, force the CIA to share completely with the FBI, and vice versa. Remember, the FBI and the CIA are Cold War institutions. They need to catch up, and one way to do it is have an intelligence czar.

O'BRIEN: No national watch list of suspected terrorists. By some counts there are a dozen lists. How critical is that to fix this problem?

BAER: It is a -- it is a failure. It is a gap that terrorists can slip through. Look, the first line of defense overseas is the CIA, collects information on terrorists. The second is the State Department, which does visas. The third is immigration, which screens people coming in. And once they get on the ground, it is the FBI. You need to combine all these databases so they have a common reference to track people.

O'BRIEN: The FBI would argue that there has been progress, that they've doubled the number of agents, that they've overhauled their computer system, they've actually created these regional task forces. But they still lag in what you say is the most critical thing, the ability to communicate with each other, and that was sort of the most damming thing in this congressional report. Can this be fixed and how long potentially could it take? BAER: It can be fixed. There are technical ways the CIA can take information from very sensitive sources, sanitize it -- at least put the names on a list to give to the FBI without compromising its sources. The FBI can do the same thing. It is a matter of having one person overseeing this whole community, with the power to make changes as needed.

O'BRIEN: Much has been made, as you well know, about these 28 pages that have been excised out of the congressional report, with much speculation pointing to Saudi Arabia's role in potentially funding the 9/11 hijackers. And I want to read to you briefly what the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. said. He said: "The idea that the Saudi government funded, organized or even knew of the September 11 attacks is malicious and blatantly false. It is my belief that the reason the classified section that allegedly deals with foreign governments is absent from the report is most likely because the information contained in it could not be substantiated." Do you think this is a fair rebuttal?

BAER: No, it's not. My understanding from the 28 pages, people who have seen it told me that it is not the smoking gun against Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, it shows gaps in Saudi intelligence. They allowed these movements to operate in Saudi Arabia. It is negligence on their part. I think the only way Saudi Arabia is going to be able to overcome this is to come clean on the Saudis involved in the 9/11 plot. Until they do that, Muslims in general will be accused of this, this attack. Saudi Arabia is going to be under suspicion. And it is a matter of Saudi Arabia deciding that it has to cooperate with the United States, which it has not fully until today.

O'BRIEN: Bob, one final question for you. Do you think that the Homeland Security Agency can plug all of these holes that have clearly been laid out in this congressional report?

BAER: I think it can. By the way, it is a great report. It lays out the details. It tells us how we can fix it, and it should be acted on and we should build on homeland security. We're going to be a lot safer if we do.

O'BRIEN: Former CIA agent Robert Baer, thank you for joining us.

BAER: Thank you.

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