(Interview with Sam Donaldson at Radio & Records' Talk Radio Seminar, Marriott at Metro Center, Washington, D.C.)
Donaldson: I today have the pleasure of talking to someone in person, no phone calls, although you'll have a chance to talk to this person and ask questions later on. She's, I think, more famous since September 11th than any of us in this room, even more than I am.
I want to read you something that somebody wrote recently about her in the Chicago Tribune, Michael [Killian]. He said, "If there's a pretty face to be put on the increasingly grim and frustrating anti-terrorist war in Afghanistan, it is that of a six foot tall former political campaign press secretary and mother of three named Victoria Clarke."
Ladies and gentlemen, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Victoria Clarke. (applause)
Clarke: Thank you.
Donaldson: How does it feel to be not only famous but to be loved by the American people?
Clarke: Well, loved by my mother anyhow and Michael Killian.
It's not about being famous. It is about being part of something that is extraordinary. This time last year actually I was very happily in the private sector running the Washington office of Hill & Knowlton, taking care of my three kids, seeing my husband occasionally, and made an absolute pledge to my husband I was not going back into government, had done that.
He goes off to Florida for a week with the kids to Disneyworld and comes back and I have a new job. And I did it at the time because the challenge was so incredible, trying to bring the Pentagon into the 21st Century. When you sign up in the Pentagon you absolutely know that the chance, the likelihood of there being some sort of conflict is pretty high. It's the nature of our business. We all clearly thought it was something on the lines of Kosovo or Bosnia, something like that. It never occurred to us that someone would fly a plane into the side of our building.
But since then, much as I loved my job before, since then the importance of what we're doing, the focus of the mission is so extraordinary, I now find myself saying what I never thought I would say before, which is I have such a great time doing my job that I can't believe they pay me to do it.
Donaldson: You are someone who's come to this job with a great background. Photo clerk at the old Washington Star.
Clarke: Right. Great newspaper.
Donaldson: Press secretary for Senator John McCain, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Public Affairs. You were a campaign spokesperson for George Herbert Walker Bush. But in 1992. What happened there?
Clarke: A lot of things.
Donaldson: A great career in public relations and other fields. Hill & Knowlton, and then back to the Defense Department.
I have to say though, that the same Michael Killian in the Chicago Tribune wrote this. "Reuters defense correspondent Charles Aldinger," is that the way you pronounce his name?
Donaldson: I haven't met Charles. "The dean of the Pentagon press corps says that getting answers at Clarke's military briefings is akin to trying to get blood out of a turnip." (laughter)
Do you plead guilty to stonewalling?
Clarke: It's a healthy competition. It's a healthy competition.
There is obviously, the media and the military in a relationship is a big focus, as it should be, and there is always tension. What's interesting is we have the same end game, if you will. We want to get out as much news and information through as many vehicles as possible because we firmly believe and know the more the American people understand, the more they're engaged, the more they are aware of what's going, the more support we have, which is very important to us. For the Charlie Aldingers of the world, it's his business. He wants to put out as much news and information as possible it's his business and his responsibility.
Where the tension comes in is how much news and information can we put out without putting people's lives at risk, without putting military operations at risk; and his challenge is to get it out quickly, get it out accurately. So it's a constant tension. I happen to think it's very healthy.
Donaldson: Well, I'll only say that many people in the press corps tell me, because I did a little research, that whereas some of your predecessors will try to get the facts for you, and as you say, we can't release these facts because it affects military operations or sources, we won't. But that your main concern is the message itself. Focus on the message more than the facts.
Clarke: I don't think you can separate the two. The message for us is telling people day in and day out what is happening with this very unconventional war. All the people who have worked in the Pentagon for a long time, whether they're on the military side or the media side, always have a frame of reference, if you will. Gosh, in the Persian Gulf War we did this. In Kosovo we did this. Some of them, in World War II we did this. One of the things we have to do every single day is communicate that this is a very unconventional war. It's unlike any war we've ever fought. So we have to go out there and demonstrate that it's not just about the military. It's about economic efforts. We talk about the economic efforts, freezing assets so the terrorists don't have funding. It's about diplomatic efforts, getting a lot of different countries involved in different ways. It's about legal efforts and it's about military effort. So we just keep pumping out the information.
If at the end of the day people have a growing sense and awareness of what an unconventional war this is, then we've succeeded. From what we hear and what we see, and I'd love to hear from the audience what their listeners tell them, there is a very good awareness among the American people of what a strange, unconventional war this is and what a challenge it is.
Donaldson: Let's talk about some of the issues. Then of course you will weigh in with a comment or a question or as Secretary Clarke say, let he know --
Clarke: Insults --
Donaldson: I'll play the role of John McWethy or David Martin. First question, could the military have gotten involved in trying to find Daniel Pearl, and if not, why not?
Clarke: Well, everything's always more complex than it looks from a distance. From your question you understand the issue of Danny Pearl has very much been laid on our back, the United States government back, by the State Department and the FBI got involved, so it's very, very appropriate. We've been aware of what's been going on, but it's very much been the lead of the State Department which is appropriate.
One of the ways I encourage people to think about it is, say something happened in the United States where someone from another country was kidnapped here, taken hostage here. These sorts of things are happening. We of course would want to work closely with the government where the person came from, we would want to work closely with their law enforcement officials as appropriate. I don't know that we would want their military charging up and down our streets. So it's a very complex situation, it's a very sensitive situation. It's still a sensitive situation because the United States government is working very closely with the Pakistani government trying to run down the people who did that to Danny Pearl.
It's just Sam Donaldson and I have talked about this before and I won't say I knew him well, but I did know Danny Pearl. One of the advantages of working this town for over 20 years and having as many jobs as I've had is that you work with a lot of different journalists and I had the opportunity to work with him occasionally back in my USTR days and a couple of other places and he was extraordinary. He was an absolutely extraordinary young man and it really brings it home when you know the person and it is just awful what happened.
Donaldson: The parallel you gave about another country's citizen being kidnapped here may be entirely rational, makes complete intellectual sense. But I get the sense from the listeners that I have that they see the United States as the 850 pound gorilla which can and should do whatever we want in the world and when it comes to one of our citizens being kidnapped -- as in the Philippines at the moment, we can come to that -- we should move.
Clarke: I completely understand and appreciate all those instincts. But we are the 850-pound gorilla and I like to think that those of us who help deal with that gorilla do it very carefully and very appropriately.
Donaldson: Let's talk about the Philippines and the war on terror. We have military troops there helping, trying to get a particular gang of terrorists who are holding Americans as well as others. How do we do that?
Clarke: Well, we do it under the fact that it's a global war on terrorism. We've made it very clear repeatedly, sometimes we're more successful in getting this word out than others, that this war is not just about Afghanistan, it is not about one man, it's not even about one network. But if you talk about al Qaeda it has literally hundreds of cells in conservative estimates 50 or 60 countries around the world. There are clear connections between al Qaeda and the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, and we have made a commitment to the world and dozens and dozens and dozens of nations around the world including the Philippines have made a commitment to us that they're united with us in this global war on terrorism. It will be done differently in different places depending on the circumstances.
In the Philippines one example, we have a very long and good relationship with the Philippines and we had even before September 11th given them training and assistance on counter-terrorist efforts and that's what we're engaged in right now.
The Philippine constitution says there will not be troops from other countries engaged in combat on their soil, and that is not what we're doing. We're providing training and assistance so the Filipino army can do a better job of pursuing the terrorists including the people who are holding the Burnham's hostage, the missionaries who are hostage. And that clearly heightens our level of concern.
Donaldson: How far do we go? The President originally declared war on terrorism globally. He had appraised groups that have a global reach, but as we saw on September 11th, if you can get on an airplane you have a global reach. The IRA is considered terrorist by the British. In Sri Lanka the Tamuls are terrorists to the [Ceylonese] government. In Chiapas there are people that (inaudible) considers terrorists. Do we go after all of them? Or do we pick and choose and say well the IRA, no. Jasser Arafat, no. Although the Israelis have declared him a terrorist for years and we used to agree with them.
What do we do? In other words, what did he mean by everywhere?
Clarke: One of my many jobs in town was working for the National Cable Television Association for the trade association. And one of the fundamental rules if you worked in a trade association is you never get ahead of your board. One of the fundamental rules of working in the government is never get ahead of your principals. And where we go next and what we do next in the war on terrorist are presidential decisions. It's for him to decide. It's for him to talk about it when he wants to talk about it. So we are very careful, I'm extraordinarily careful not to get out ahead of anybody.
But what you're saying about these people call these folks terrorists, these people call these folks. One of the things we're involved in the 21st Century is acknowledging the fact that it's a very different world. The context of the world in which we find ourselves is extraordinarily different than it was even ten years ago, so definitions and terms and vocabulary, we are working through those, and we're looking carefully at all situations to determine what kind of threats does this pose to the United States? What is the appropriate action? So we're walking carefully through exactly those sorts of issues.
Donaldson: No blood from the turnip on this one, right? (laughter)(inaudible) I must say.
About Iraq. I think I've already learned if I say are we going to strike Iraq you can give me basically the same answer you just gave me.
Clarke: -- a little bit.
Donaldson: The question will be different.
If the President comes to the Defense Department tomorrow and says all right, we've made the decision, I'm the Commander in Chief, do it. Do we have the forces and capabilities to go it alone? Now this is not a diplomatic question about whether it's advisable to go it alone. I'm asking a military question -- Can we do it?
Clarke: To show you how careful we are, one of the reasons I won't answer the question the way you phrased it -- (laughter) -- because hypothetically speaking, let's say if you had said if the President decided, as we like to say Indiana. The President decides we're going to go after Indiana.
Clarke: He's declared it a terrorist state.
Donaldson: Why does he (inaudible)
Clarke: You'll see the purpose of my -- Do we have the resources, do we have the capabilities, could we do it? And I would say the answer to the question would be very hypothetically speaking of course. Whatever the President decides to do, whatever commitment, we have the troops, we have the resources, we have the means. And I promise you somewhere in the country the net day a story would appear, "Clarke says that DoD ready to attack, invade Indiana." You have to be extraordinarily careful.
I'll give you another example. Gosh, six, seven weeks ago, maybe less, Secretary Rumsfeld sat down with a handful of radio correspondents, including a radio correspondent from the BBC, we are big fans of radio. They were talking a lot about the detainees at Guantanamo. The Secretary went on for 10 or 15 minutes about the detainees at Guantanamo, that they get culturally appropriate meals, that we had a Muslim chaplain there, that they got exercise every day, that they are getting extraordinary medical treatment, that they were going to be allowed to correspond with their families back home, and all of these things. He went on at great length about this. Questions were asked about it and those sorts of things.
The BBC reporter pressed him on it and said don't you have any concerns about these detainees. The Secretary said no, I don't have concerns, because, and he repeats again the culturally appropriate meals, the medical treatment, the exercise, those sorts of things. Well within 24 hours glaring headlines in certain places overseas, Rumsfeld says he has no concern about detainees. It's just extraordinary how careful you have to be with your words.
Donaldson: Don't print reporters -- (laughter)
I think that your carefulness not only might be a headline to quite suggest we're going to strike Iraq, but there might be a headline --
Clarke: I didn't say that. You have a lot of witnesses. I did not say that. (laughter)
Donaldson: That's why you were careful. But you might, but you also might see a headline which says Clarke suggests that 120 billion --