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Secretary Rumsfeld Interview with Wolf Blitzer, CNN

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld
October 28, 2001 12:00 PM EDT

Sunday, October 28, 2001 - 12:00 p.m. EDT

(Interview with Wolf Blitzer, CNN)

Blitzer: Today marks the beginning of week four of the U.S.-led military strikes against targets in Afghanistan, but even before military action began, the Bush administration warned that the war against terrorism would be a long one.

Earlier today, I spoke with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about what the military campaign has accomplished so far, and what may be ahead.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us. Let's get right to the issue at hand. Did the U.S. military underestimate the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda supporters?

Rumsfeld: Not at all. This is going roughly the way we have said publicly that it would go. We said it would be long, we said it would be difficult; we said it would be different and, indeed, it is. There is no question but that part of what's going on is seen, part of it is not seen. It is not simply military, it's also economic and financial, and law enforcement. And we feel it's going very much the way we predicted.

Blitzer: Some people are suggesting, as you know, that there was this underestimating of the enemy, of the U.S. enemy in this particular case, and in part they base it on an October 16th Pentagon briefing. I want you to listen to what the briefer, Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold said on that, listen to this.

Lt. Gen. Newbold: I think the campaign has aided materially, I really do. I think, as I say, the combat power of the Taliban has been eviscerated, and it will progressively over time.

Blitzer: Now, when he says the combat power of the Taliban has been eviscerated, that sounds like it's all over.

Rumsfeld: Yes, it isn't all over. Indeed, they still have some jet fighters, they still have some helicopters, they still have some SAMs [Surface-to Air Missiles], they still have some Stinger missiles on the ground. They still have a lot of very seasoned tough people. Anyone who has ever watched the history of that country, or the effort that the Soviet Union made to conquer the country has to know that these people who have spent many, many years fighting, and they live in caves, and they are perfectly capable of fighting a very tough fight.

Blitzer: How long is this going to go on, in your opinion?

Rumsfeld: Well, I think the very first day, I said, this isn't days or weeks or months, this is a very long process. And the task is to root out terrorists, it's to stop the terrorist networks, and that is a difficult thing to do. It's not an easy thing to do. And it's going to take time and patience. And I must say, I hear some impatience from the people who are, of course, have to produce news every 15 minutes, but not from the American people. I think the American people understand the fact that it's going to be long and hard.

Blitzer: The war against terrorism will be long and hard, but what about doing away with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan?

Rumsfeld: Well, they're there, and we are after them. And we've been doing it very systematically. The first phase of the war was to take out their air defenses, which has been done. They still have some aircraft hidden, and they still have some surface-to-air missiles of relatively short range that are there. But we've done a pretty good job of being able to now function over that country from the air.

The next phase is to assist the opposition forces. We have been doing that in the north and the south. There's been a good deal of activity up around Mazar-e Sharif, and in north of Kabul, as well as down near Kandahar. So, I think that the phases -- I think it was General Franks or I at the very beginning who said the task is to set conditions so that we can conduct a sustained operation, recognizing that they have miles and miles and miles of tunnels and caves that they can hide in, and that makes it a very difficult task. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack to find some senior people in those organizations.

Blitzer: Can those 5,000-pound bunker busting bombs, those precision-guided bombs, get into those caves and destroy those caves?

Rumsfeld: There's no question that we have been systematically working on the caves, and on the tunnels, and on their openings, and we've had some success. Now, the problem is there are a great many of them, so it's going to take some time to deal with them and make them less habitable.

Blitzer: I don't know if you saw the comments this week. I interviewed Congressman Steve Buyer of Indiana. He says if those 5,000-pound bombs can't do the job he would want you to consider using tactical nuclear weapons. Not the strategic nuclear bombs, but the smaller tactical nuclear weapons to destroy those facilities. What do you think about that?

Rumsfeld: I think the 5,000-pound bombs are going to be able to do the job.

Blitzer: So, you're ruling out any consideration...

Rumsfeld: I don't rule out anything, but my answer very simply is, we are not having a problem in dealing with those tunnels in terms of the ordinance. The problem is that there are so many of them, and locating them, it just takes time. And we're systematically working on the problem, just as we are working on the Taliban and the al-Qaeda military, finding concentrations of those people. They're well burrowed in, and the task is to get the opposition forces moving in a way and helping with targeting so that as they force and put pressure on the al-Qaeda, and on the Taliban that we're able to then target them successfully, and that has increasingly been the case.

Blitzer: As you know, during the Gulf War, the U.S. deliberately refused to rule out a nuclear strike, if you will. If it were determined that Saddam Hussein were using weapons of mass destruction, whether chemical, biological, or himself nuclear, what is the U.S. position right now?

Rumsfeld: The United States has historically refused to rule out the use of weapons like that.

Blitzer: Nuclear weapons, and that's the case right now.

Rumsfeld: Uh-huh.

Blitzer: Let's move on and talk about what some critics are saying, you're playing into the hands of the Taliban by allowing this pounding, some of the errant weapons that go astray killing civilians to coalesce support for the Taliban within Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld: Well, we get all kinds of scraps of information, intelligence, we get it from people on the ground, and we get it from people who are leaving the country, we get it from various other sources, and our information is that that's not the case. That there are all kinds of-you can find information across the spectrum, intelligence information, but one of the things that we're increasingly seeing and hearing is the fact that the Taliban and the al-Qaeda are systematically using mosques, and schools, and hospitals for command and control centers, for ammunition s storage. They're playing artillery and tanks and armored vehicles in close proximity to hospitals and schools in residential areas. And the people who live in those residential areas, and the people who are in those hospitals and schools don't like it. They are increasingly dissatisfied with the Taliban for putting them at risk. And, as you know from your experience covering the Pentagon, the United States of America is very careful about collateral damage. We have weapons that are undoubtedly more accurate and more precise than probably any country on earth, and we are careful about what we do. Notwithstanding that there are going to be people who are going to be killed, but the weapons, the ordinance that's being fired, is not only being fired from the air by the United States and coalition forces, it is also being fired from the ground by the Taliban and the al-Qaeda. And that ordinance has to come down, and it hits people, and it kills people. And so to show a dead person and contend that it necessarily is the United States is just plain false.

Blitzer: So this strategy that they have, as you describe it, put their weapons, their military within civilian areas, will that deter the U.S. from going after those targets?

Rumsfeld: Well, it complicates our problem. We clearly are being sensitive about collateral damage, and recognizing that it can cause a problem with the feeling about what's taking place. We have to be more careful. And that means you can use only limited types of ordinance, or limited types of platforms, aircraft. In the event that it is in close proximity to residential areas, and even then, of course, weapons are not perfect. Our weaponry, probably the best is probably 85-90 percent reliable. It's a heck of a lot better than automobiles and bicycles, but nothing is perfect. So there are going to be instances where-there was a case where we hit a warehouse that the Red Cross has some things stored in. Fortunately, no one was killed. But I think this happened in the last day or two.

Blitzer: You probably saw the comments that President Musharraf of Pakistan said on Saturday, and I'll put it up on the screen, he said military action must be brought to an end as soon as possible, unable to achieve its military goals in a certain time, we need to switch to a political strategy. It sounds like he's being impatient with the U.S. military strategy.

Rumsfeld: Well, there's no question but that he has a very difficult problem. He's doing, in my view, an excellent job in dealing with a complicated situation. He says it should end as soon as possible. Of course it should; nobody wants to go on longer than is necessary. We would all like it to end as soon as possible. The problem you're facing is that thousands of Americans and, indeed, people from another 50 or 60 countries were killed in the United States on September 11th. Many thousands more are at risk today from terrorist networks. It's our job to go out and root out those terrorist networks. The problem in the world is not the United States of America; the problem is terrorists. And the president, properly, said we're going to go after them, and we are. And we're going to find them and root them out, and stop them from engaging in those terrorist acts.

The situation for Pakistan is something that we're respectful of, and interested in, and anxious to have him be successful in managing. He's been very, very helpful to us.

Blitzer: As you know he'd also like you to pause for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts November 17th.

Rumsfeld: Of course, the fact is that there have been-the Northern Alliance and the Taliban fought through Ramadan year after year, there was a Middle East war during Ramadan. There is nothing in that religion that suggests that conflicts have to stop during Ramadan.

Blitzer: So the U.S....

Rumsfeld: You can be certain that the Taliban and the al-Qaeda will continue right on with their repressive ways, and attempting to take advantage just as they do today by putting ammunition storage in mosques.

Blitzer: So the U.S. will not pause or change in any way because of Ramadan?

Rumsfeld: The United States does not announce what we plan to do in advance.

Blitzer: Okay. What about reports that you want to see the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban forces in the North, take Mazar-e Sharif in the northern part of the country, but not move on Kabul, out of concern that the Pakistanis would not be happy about that?

Rumsfeld: That's not true. The military effort by the United States was designed in the first phase to go in and try to take out the air defense radars, and to create an environment where we could provide humanitarian assistance, and where we could provide effective air-ground support for the opposition forces, both in the North and the South, including the Northern Alliance, and including the forces arrayed against Kabul. We are now doing that. We are doing it with respect to Mazar-e Sharif, we're doing it with respect to Kabul, we're also doing it with respect to Kandahar. And we have been very energetic in assisting the Northern Alliance forces that are arrayed against Kabul, as well as Mazar-e Sharif, and indeed down in the Kandahar area.

Blitzer: What's stopping you from letting those Northern Alliance forces go into Kabul right now?

Rumsfeld: I think there's a misunderstanding. The Northern Alliance forces are not stopped. They have not been stopped. They are not currently stopped. And they will not be stopped in the future.

Blitzer: But, are you doing enough to help them?

Rumsfeld: Well, my goodness. I've just explained what we're doing. We're dropping thousands of pieces of ordinance to assist them in addressing the Taliban forces that are arrayed against them, both there and over at Mazar-e Sharif, and down in Kandahar. The thing you're reading in the paper that the United States for some reason is restraining these people is just factually not true. We're providing food, we're providing ammunition to the extent we can, we're encouraging them, we're providing air-ground support. We're taking targeting information from the ground to increasingly greater effect. And it's having the effect of damaging the Taliban and damaging the al-Qaeda military capabilities opposite those forces.

Blitzer: As you know, Abdul Haq, the guerilla leader, Afghan guerilla leader was executed in Afghanistan this past week. Was he on a U.S. mission in Afghanistan?

Rumsfeld: Not to my knowledge. He of course was an Afghan who had been involved previously, who had been living out of the country, had decided to come back to the country and get re-engaged, which he was en route to do, and clearly was killed, captured and killed by the Taliban.

Blitzer: Some reports suggesting he was working with the CIA, trying to foment opposition to the Taliban.

Rumsfeld: Well, there are all kinds of people working with agencies of the United States government trying to create opposition to the Taliban, and that's happening all across the country. There's no question but that we're engaged in those kinds of activities.

Blitzer: Has the U.S. government now signed off of this new policy of targeted killings, as it's called, going after suspected terrorists and executing them, killing them, assassinating them, whatever words you want to use?

Rumsfeld: Well, I'm not a lawyer, but I can tell you this, that it is not possible to defend against terrorists at every single location in the world, against every conceivable type of technique, and at any given moment of the day or night. The only way to deal with the terrorists that has all the advantage of offense is to take the battle to them, and find them, and root them out. And that is self-defense. And there is no question but that any nation on Earth has the right of self-defense. And we do. And what we are doing is going after those people, and those organizations, and those capabilities wherever we're going to find them in the world, and stop them from killing Americans.

Blitzer: Even if it means assassinating them on the spot?

Rumsfeld: I wouldn't even think the word was appropriate. I don't know, I'd have to get a dictionary and know what the difference between what I'm saying and you're saying is. But, if the question is, do we have a right to defend ourselves by going after people who murder thousands of Americans in a preemptive way, to defend ourselves, you bet your life we do, and we're doing it.

Blitzer: What about Mohammed Atta's two meetings that he had with a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Prague, before the September 11th attack. Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader of the September 11th terrorist attack. Does that suggest to you that Iraq was involved somehow in that September 11th attack?

Rumsfeld: I guess I'm kind of old fashioned, I like to talk about things I know something about. And what we do know about Iraq is that Iraq has been a nation that has been a nation that has been engaged in terrorist acts. We know they have been a nation that has harbored terrorists, and facilitated and financed, and fostered those kinds of activities. We know they have occupied their neighbor Kuwait, and we have thrown them out. We know they have imposed great damage on their Shiah population in the South, and on the Kurds in the North. We know they have used weapons of mass destruction against their own people, as well as against some of their neighbors. That regime is a bad regime, it is a regime that is a dangerous regime. What the meaning was in this particular instance is something that I think we'll have to unfold, and learn more about.

Blitzer: So you don't see that necessarily as a smoking gun linking Iraq to September 11th?

Rumsfeld: As I say, I like to talk about things I know something about. And that's something that's in a state of evolution in terms of understanding what actually took place.

Blitzer: I know our time is running out, but a quick question on Saudi Arabia. The criticism is they're not sharing information, they're not freezing assets that the United States has frozen of groups associated with al-Qaeda, they're not allowing the U.S. to launch strikes from Saudi soil. The criticism of Saudi Arabia is that they're a fair weather friend.

Rumsfeld: I don't know where this is coming from. I met with the Saudis when I was over there very recently. My impression is that they've been very cooperative, they've provided enormous assistance in a variety of different ways. They have over the years; it's been a good relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Of late I've read a series of article to that effect. But, my attitude is that they've been very helpful, they are being helpful today, they have a complicated problem. Most of the countries in the region do. They have to measure what they say. Some countries are more helpful publicly, and others are more helpful privately. My attitude about it is, we want help from all of them, and we want them to do it in a way that's comfortable for them. To the extent we start saying, everyone has to help on this, or everyone has to help publicly but not privately, we hurt ourselves, we hurt our goal, our target of trying to end these terrorist networks. So I'm very respectful of the situation that Saudi Arabia has, and I, and I know others in our government are very appreciative for all that they're doing to help.

Blitzer: The anthrax letters that have been mailed here in the United States. Do you suspect that that's the work of domestic American groups, terrorists here in the United States, or international terrorists?

Rumsfeld: I'm without a view at the moment. There are a lot of very fine law enforcement people who are pursuing that, as well as public health officials. And in my view they're pursuing it as aggressively as is humanly possible. And speculation on my part, or frankly on the part of others, it seems to me is not terribly useful.

Blitzer: Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us.

Rumsfeld: Thank you.