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LEGAL VIEW WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD

Former SecDef Robert Gates Writes Memoir Critical of Obama Administration; Manhattan D.A. Files Charges Against Cop, Firefighter Disability Scammers; Vietnam-Era Theft of FBI Records Comes to Light

Aired January 8, 2014 - 11:00   ET

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


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A have three layers of fleece-lined pants.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Things are freezing on my body that I didn't know were possible to freeze.

MOOS: Probably somewhere south of her "polar plexus."

Jeanne Moos, CNN --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the polar vortex.

MOOS: New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: But we're in for a big warm-up, and that's a good thing.

Thank you for joining me today. I'm Carol Costello.

LEGAL VIEW with Ashleigh Banfield starts now.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: President Obama's ex-defense chief, suggesting the commander-in-chief didn't believe his own war strategy.

And if you think that's bad, wait until you hear the bombshells about Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

Also, this hour, maybe the worst scam ever by some of "New York's finest," heads down through the door, ex-cops and firefighters accused of collecting millions in disability benefits based on a big lie tied to 9/11.

And long before anyone ever heard of Edward Snowden, a low-tech, high- stakes break-in at the FBI revealing reams of damning documents about underhanded FBI spying tactics and dirty tricks.

We'll find out who was behind it, and then what Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had to do with the whole break-in.

Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It is Wednesday, January the 8th. Welcome to LEGAL VIEW.

It has not even hit the bookstores yet, but former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' no-holds-barred memoir is shaking Washington like an earthquake. Everyone is talking about "Duty -- Memoirs of a Secretary of War" -- "Secretary at War," which is due out next week.

The Republican, Gates, delivers some scathing assessments of President Obama, senior White House officials and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but his sharpest barbs are aimed at Vice President Joe Biden.

Jim Acosta now with some of the juicy details.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSECORRESPONDENT: At his farewell ceremony in 2011 after serving nearly every president since Richard Nixon, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates left the Pentagon hinting he had issues with Washington.

ROBERT GATES, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: I've spent a good deal of time venting frustrations with the Pentagon bureaucracy.

ACOSTA: As it turns out, that wasn't the half of it.

In his new memoir, "Duty," hitting bookshelves next week, Gates launches a blistering attack on President Obama.

"His White House was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon," Gates writes in one excerpt.

On Afghanistan, he says, "The president doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."

He goes on to say, "Suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials, including the president and vice president, became a big problem for me."

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think people -- his words will have a significant impact.

And, frankly, I'm a little surprised, because a lot of times people are not quite as candid as it appears that his book is.

ACOSTA: How's this for candid?

On Biden, Gates writes, "I think he's been wrong on nearly every foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."

On former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gates said, "Hillary told the president that her opposition to the 2007 surge in Iraq had been political."

Considering Gates' place in history, sitting in the White House situation room with Mr. Obama, Biden and Clinton during the killing of Osama bin Laden, the memoir is seen by some critics as an act of betrayal.

That's despite Gates' assessment that the bin Laden mission was "one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House."

LARRY KORB, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: You owe your loyalty to that man or woman in the White House.

And if you can't handle it, you leave and you are quiet, but Gates wanted to have it both ways.

ACOSTA: Back at that farewell ceremony in 2011, the president praised Gates as an example of service to country.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The integrity of Bob Gates is also a reminder, especially to folks here in Washington, that civility and respectful discourse and citizenship over partisanship are not quaint relics of a bygone era.

ACOSTA: According to the excerpts from the book, Gates offers some kind words for President Obama, Vice President Biden and former Secretary of State Clinton, but it's clear the White House does feel stung by this memoir.

According to a statement released by the White House, the president disagrees with Gates assessment of Vice President Biden.

And the White House is planning what may be perceived as a show of support for Biden, allowing still photographers to observe the president and the vice president having lunch, later today.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: Jim Acosta, live for us, thank you, at the White House.

And joining me now with more on this bombshell from Robert Gates is Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. And, Barbara, you're the perfect person to speak on this. You covered him as the defense secretary.

He seemed to always be known as a very mild mannered person, not outspoken. You traveled with him. You probably know him best out of anybody on the CNN staff.

Does this come as a complete surprise?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Not as a complete surprise.

I have to tell you, outwardly, publicly, Bob Gates, the consummate loyalist, the team player, always a little bit of that CIA operative -- he served as director of the agency -- keeping his poker face about what he really thought. He thought that was the best way to get things accomplished.

But often, and especially when it came to the troops, we would see the emotional side to Bob Gates. So, I have talked to a lot of people, and what they're saying, the content of his criticism, not a surprise. The emotion, being willing to put it out there publicly and be so emotional in this book, that's what's taken people by surprise.

I don't think people expected that from him at this point. It's not the Bob Gates that we saw publicly for so long, so that may be part of it.

An act of betrayal or an act of emotion? If he was so seething and so angry during all those years, why did he stay? That may be the question a lot of people want to ask him.

BANFIELD: That emotional part, you touched on something very strong, because on something that he actually just released today in "The Wall Street Journal," he talks about how on some of the times when he was before congressional hearings, he was so angry at the partisanship and just the myopathy of the congressmen that are asking questions that just served their purposes and were perhaps not the country's purposes.

He said," I may be the secretary of defense, but I'm also an American citizen and there is no" -- I have to say SOB. He says it full on. "There's no SOB in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find someone else."

That's what he says he felt like saying and doing, folding up his briefing book and walking out of those hearings.

Did anyone ever get the sense that actually felt that way? Did he ever actually belie those emotions?

STARR: Well, certainly not to the press corps or publicly.

But, I think, look, every secretary of defense, every one of them that I've covered and all the people at CNN have covered, they get exhausted.

They get tired. They get emotional. They get frustrated and upset with the Washington bureaucracy.

I think everybody thinks about throwing their hands up in the air and walking out the door.

How close was Bob Gates to doing it? And perhaps the real question is, if he was so upset, again, not just why didn't he go through with it and resign, but if he was so upset and he stayed, can he assure people that he was giving President Obama his best dispassionate advice as secretary of defense?

Could he do both those things? Could he be upset and still be effective?

The one thing that there is no question about Bob Gates is his emotions were tied to the troops. He was very publicly emotional in Afghanistan when he visited Iraq, when he talked to troops, when he saw wounded troops at Walter Reed?

BANFIELD: But that's not unusual. That's not unusual. I don't think I have ever seen a SecDef not emotional when they talk about troops or certainly entirely allied with troops, it feels as though.

But what was surprising, perhaps, and enlighten me, Barbara, a sitting president, memoirs are memoirs, but they don't usually target your boss as he's still in the office.

STARR: They don't. He -- you have to, I suppose, decide in your own mind when you do these things, you serve a commander-in-chief. You serve a sitting commander-in-chief. How comfortable is he with what he did?

There are sources that have told CNN, sources that know Bob Gates very well, that he's very comfortable with it, that he is essentially a historian, and that he wanted to tell his version of events while they were still current and relevant.

He presumably doesn't expect to serve in the Obama administration again, so he pays no particular price for it.

There will be a lot of public discussion about whether this, again, is that act of betrayal.

He's got the First Amendment right, Ashleigh. He can say as he chooses. And that's as it should be, obviously.

But it doesn't mean Washington isn't going to talk about it an awful lot.

BANFIELD: I think that's what the speaker of the house actually even said. He's got his First Amendment rights to say anything he wants.

But a lot of people are talking about timing as well as the content of what he had to say.

Barbara Starr, excellent work as expected and as delivered, thank you.

STARR: Sure.

BANFIELD: There are certainly some bad apples in every bunch. Your mom said so when you were growing up.

Now, guess what? It is true inside the New York city police department, fire department, some of these officials accused of stealing and cheating your money, folks.

And the charges and the lies are tied to the September 11th attacks. We'll explain in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: As scams go, the allegations you are about to hear are pretty big, shocking even, in their brazenness and I'm quoting the Manhattan d.a. when I say that, because he's charging dozens of retired New York city police officers, including this martial arts instructor, with faking PTSD, to claim millions of dollars in undeserved disability payments.

The man you are looking at allegedly claimed that he was too mentally traumatized to hold any kind of job, but there he is with his mixed martial arts job.

So, that's the brazen part. Now, here is the shocker. Many of the accused scammers, also a group that includes ex-firefighters and others, claimed that they were scarred and incapacitated by 9/11.

Our Susan Candiotti has the details and some pictures that may be very hard to explain.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The accused New York city police officers and firefighters were supposed to be disabled, unable to work, suffering from severe depression and anxiety, more than half claiming post-traumatic stress after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But photos filed by prosecutors paint a very different picture, this retired officer flipping the bird on a watercraft, this defendant playing basketball and this one deep-sea fishing.

The retired cops, firefighters and alleged ringleaders pleaded not guilty. Defense lawyers say photos don't prove anything.

JOSEPH CONWAY, DEFENSE LAWYER: If you have somebody fishing on one particular day, that doesn't mean they do not have some kind of psychological illness.

CANDIOTTI: But prosecutors contend it was massive fraud. A Social Security disability scheme designed to rip off taxpayers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, dating back to 1988.

CYRUS VANCE, MANHATTAN DISTRICT ATTORNEY: This fraud not only forced federal taxpayers to finance the lifestyles of New York scammers, it also took away, importantly, from the already limited resources we have for people who actually suffer from psychiatric disabilities.

CANDIOTTI: Authorities charged four masterminds with recruiting and coaching applicants on what to tell doctors, even duplicating forms, sometimes in the same handwriting. "I am unable to perform any type of work activity in and out of the house," matches another form word for word.

Documents charged the accused ring leaders got kickbacks when defendants received their disability checks. They were also warned not to withdraw too much at once to avoid suspicion.

Authorities say videos and wiretaps will help prove their case. The man in the middle demonstrating martial arts is a retired officer, allegedly on permanent disability.

Susan Candiotti, CNN, New York. (END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: Pretty surprising when you see the pictures and you hear the details. They are all allegations at this point. That's why lawyers weigh in. For us, today, our defense attorney and CNN legal analyst, Danny Cevallos is here and defense attorney and HLN analyst, Joey Jackson also is here.

Pictures often scream a thousand words.

(CROSSTALK)

BANFIELD: But do they prove anything, Danny?

DANNY CEVALLOS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: There was a time when Joey and I probably had to hire some gum shoe private investigator to wait in the hedges and get a picture of people doing - engaging in activities, who were claiming they were injured.

But nowadays, you look at those pictures, and I have no doubt they come from Facebook, Twitter, social media. That part of the job is completely gone now. If you want to get photos of people engaging in activity when they are claiming a disability -

JOEY JACKSON, HLN LEGAL ANALYST: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, everything.

CEVALLOS It is shockingly easy now. Maybe that's the price of being social in America now - you've gotta put yourself out there, and that's what I'm betting these people did. Nary a thought to the fact that they might get caught.

BANFIELD: I do believe that one of the terms you used earlier was nudniks (ph)?

CEVALLOS: Yeah, these nudnicks (ph) are out there, riding around -

BANFIELD: That a legal term?

CEVALLOS: Yeah, of course!

(CROSSTALK)

JACKSON: For the defense, if I may, the Long Island railroad did the same thing when there was a disability fraud there and there were dozens of people who were indicted as a result. I happen to represent one of those people. Things did not go well for her in addition to a number of other people.

However, some of these are defensible. The first thing to establish here, Ashleigh, very important: there is a distinction between a disability and an occupational disability. In other words there are certain things you may be able to do as a matter of course in your regular life, walking for short periods of time, even running for some period of time. That doesn't mean you could comport with the job requirement that would be required to chase bad guys, jump over fences, lunge, sit for long periods of time. That distinction will be very important, notwithstanding these pictures.

BANFIELD: Devil will be in the details for over 100 cases at this point. I think it's 104 or so cases that they are going to have to investigate at this point. I wanted to highlight a couple of them, because they seemed terribly egregious to me, and I'm the layman here. One of them is a lawyer and former FBI agent and the chief of the rackets bureau in the Nassau County D.A.'s office. He is 83 years old.

Another one, a disability consultant, who you would think would know better, a union official and a retired police officer. Does that change the metric here? Either of you can weigh in on this. When you are talking about the kind of person you are charging as opposed to just the charge that's defensible?

JACKSION: Great question.

CEVALLOS: Yeah, I would say in many cases nowadays, we charge certain people with a heightened sense of duty, whether it be doctors or police officers.

BANFIELD: You owe us more!

CEVALLOS: Sure, more -- even if not legally, than morally, they tend to owe us more. I think that's the way the public views it. It makes them more appetizing defendants because believe me, this kind of thing is going on everywhere - this kind of disability fraud - because we have a system where if you make a subjective complaint, literally the words that come out of your moth at the doctor's office can affect what your benefits are going to be. If they can prove that those were coached, I think that goes a long way.

BANFIELD: In the last five seconds (ph) to the 9/11 part of it. That also ups the anger.

JACKSON: It does - and that's big when you look at a jury pool. At the end of the day, you have jurors that have to evaluate this case. If the jurors are not sympathetic to your cause, and if they're poisoned by having learned that these were abusive claims and everything else, it becomes problematic. And finally, to Danny's point, when you have people who are in positions of authority, you have the element of knowledge. It is hard to claim from a defense perspective my client had no idea this was occurring. Defensible but very difficult to defend.

BANFIELD: All right, well stick around, because when they say time heals all wounds, this will be a really good one for you guys to chew on a little bit later.

Coming up, an extraordinary confession has come from five burglars. We're burglars. We did it. We are coming clean. It was 40 years ago. They stole secret FBI documents from an FBI office that they pried open. They also helped blow the lid off of J. Edgar Hoover's vast spying on U.S. citizens and stuff back then people called dirty tricks. Sound familiar? Going to tell you all about this in a moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Decades before Edward Snowden showed the world the breathtaking scope of the United States government surveillance, there was a tiny group of Vietnam-era peaceniks who really broke new ground there. They were convinced they were being spied on by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. What did they do? They pulled off a break-in that is only now being fully revealed detail by riveting detail. "The Burglary" is the title of a new book by one of the first reporters that received the smoking gun documents that were mailed to the press by the burglars. Those things were pilfered almost 43 years ago, March 8th, 1971. Betty Metzger, the writer, persuaded five of the eight people involved to speak out about what they did and why they did it. You're going to hear three of them in this video report from the New York times.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the spring of 1970, the war in Vietnam was raging.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: American battle deaths in Vietnam now number 40,142.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At home, anti-war protesters and law enforcement officers were violently clashing.

BONNIE RAINES, FORMER ANTI-WAR ACTIVIST: It felt like a nightmare was unfolding. I took what was outrage and horror about what was going on, and I realized I had to take it somewhere.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bonnie rains worked at a daycare center in Philadelphia. Her husband, John, taught religion at Temple University. They were the very picture of a golden couple.

RIANES: We had an eight-year-old, a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old. We were family folks who also wanted to keep another track active in our lives, which was political activism.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That activism attracted the attention of the FBI, it's director, the powerful and feared J. Edgar Hoover, received the anti-war movement which ranged from radical revolutionaries to peaceful protesters, as a threat to national security.

RAINES: At one rally, I had one of my children on my back, and not only did they take my picture, but they took her picture.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Protesters like the Raines became increasingly convinced the FBI was conducting a covert campaign against them, tapping their phones and infiltrating anti-war groups.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We knew the FBI was systematically trying to squash dissent and dissent is the life's blood of democracy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Determined to get proof the FBI was crossing the line, fellow activists and Haverford physics professor, William Davidon hatched a plan. He reached out to the Raines and six others, including a social worker, a graduate student, and a taxi driver named Keith Forsyth.

KEITH FORSYTH, 1971 FBI HEIST PARTICIPANT: We agreed to meet someplace where we could talk. He said, what would you think of the idea of breaking into an FBI office? I looked at him, and I'm like, you're serious, aren't you?

I was pretty vehement in my opposition to the war, and I felt like marching up and down the street with a sign was not cutting it anymore. It was like, okay, time to kick it up a notch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The crew decided to break into a small FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania.

FORSYTH: Once I got over the shock of thinking this was the nuttiest thing I had ever heard in my life, it was like, this is a great idea because we are not going to make any allegations. We are going to take their own paperwork, signed by their own people, including J. Edgar Hoover, and give it to the newspapers. Let's see you argue with that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the Raines' third floor attic, the team divvied up responsibilities and assigned tasks. They hung maps to learn about the neighborhood, planned escape routes, and took extensive notes on the comings and goings in the building.

FORSYTH: I signed up for a correspondence course in locksmithing. That was my job - to get us in the door. Practiced several times a week. After a month, you get pretty good.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bonnie was assigned the job to go inside and casing the office.

RAINES: I was to call the office and make an appointment as a Swarthmore student doing research on opportunities for women in the FBI. They gave me an appointment. I tried to disguise myself as best I could. I went to say good-bye, and I acted confused about where the door was. That gave me a chance then to check out both rooms and know where the file cabinets were.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bonnie discovered there was no alarm system and no security guards. She also found a second door leading inside.

JOHN RAINES, FORMER TEMPLE UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR: When she came back with that news, we became convinced, yes, I think we can get this done. We had more to lose than anybody else in the group, because we had these kids.

B. RAINES: We faced the reality of if we were arrested and on trial, we would be in prison for very many years. We had to make some plans for that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With a solid understanding of how they would conduct the break-in, they now needed to figure out when. J. RAINES: March 8th, 1971, Frazier and Ali were fighting for the championship of the world. We had the feeling that maybe the cops might be a little bit distracted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: While the crew waited at a nearby hotel, Forsyth arrived at the office alone.

FORSYTH: Pull up, walk up to the door and one of the locks is a cylinder tumbler lock and not a pin tumbler lock. I just about had a heart attack. Bottom line is I could not pick that lock.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They almost called it off but the second door Bonnie noticed gave them another chance.

FORSYTH: At that point, you know you are going to have to wing it. Knelt down on the floor and picked the lock in 20 seconds. There was a deadbolt on the other side. I had a pry bar with me, a short crowbar. I put the bar in and yanked that sucker. At one point, I heard a noise inside the office. I'm like, are they in there waiting for me? Basically said to myself, there is only one way to find out. I'm going in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Next, the inside crew walked into an empty office wearing business suits and carrying several suitcases. They cleaned out file cabinets and then made their way downstairs to the getaway car and drove off unnoticed.

The group reconvened at a famhouse an hour's drive away and started unpacking.

FORSYTH: We were like, oh man, I can't believe this worked. We knew there was going to be some gold in there somewhere.

J.RAINES: Each of the eight of us were sorting files, and all of a sudden we hear one of the - oh! Look! Look at this one! Look!

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: The incredible stuff. Well, there is a lot more on this.