(Interview with Wolf Blitzer, CNN Live Today)
Q: And I am here at the Defense Department, at the Pentagon, with the Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us. And I want to get right to the issue of the day Operation Anaconda in eastern Afghanistan. Is it all but over?
Rumsfeld: No. These things are not predictable, really. There are still any number of al Qaeda and probably Taliban located in those caves and tunnels and in very well entrenched positions, dug in. They've got a lot of ammunition. The weather's terrible today. And so the level, the intensity of the battle has calmed down. To the extent people try to get in or out of that area where they're contained, we're dealing with them. And we're still continuing to bomb, and there's some ground fire coming out from the al Qaeda, but it's relatively modest at the moment.
Q: The weather is a significant factor, because you really can't go in and provide the kind of close air support for those U.S. ground forces in bad weather.
Rumsfeld: That's exactly right. We can still drop so-called GPS weapons, smart weapons, precision weapons. But in terms of actually flushing people out and then using things like the AC-130 with 105 howitzers and 40 millimeters, and you can't do that.
Q: Give our viewers a sense of the scope of this battle. How many al Qaeda and related fighters are there, do you believe, and how U.S. and coalition fighters are fighting them?
Rumsfeld: Well, it's not clear to me I want to tell the world how many people have doing it. But we do have a large number of Americans, you know, many hundreds. And we do have a good number of Afghans, and we have four or five other countries engaged in this. And they are well arranged around the entire area. They spent weeks beforehand gathering intelligence and observing. It's very difficult to know exactly how many al Qaeda or Taliban are in there because of the fact that they do have tunnels and caves. And that makes it very difficult to estimate it.
Q: And you say they're getting reinforcements. They're getting supplies, obviously. But are other fighters coming in to the area?
Rumsfeld: I don't believe they are getting reinforcements or supplies. They do have a very large cache of supplies and weapons and ammunition inside those caves and tunnels. So they're not without ammunition or food or water. They're well supplied and well disciplined. These are very well trained fighters. These are hard dead-enders. These are hardline types.
Q: Now when you say dead-enders, tell our viewers what you mean by that.
Rumsfeld: Well, I mean we'd be happy to have them surrender. But we haven't seen anyone coming in and surrendering. We've seen them try to sneak out, and we're stopping them. And we've seen some people trying to sneak in, small numbers, ones, twos, threes; nothing like tens, or twenties, or thirties. These are very small numbers. And, of course, it's very rough terrain, extremely cold. It's up between eight and eleven thousand feet where most of these battles are taking place.
[Clips of Engagement]
Just trying to breathe up there, for people who were acclimated to that altitude, is not easy.
Q: Well, you say they're dead-enders. That means they're ready to fight to the death.
Rumsfeld: Well, we won't know that till they're dead. But thus far we've not seen them surrender.
Q: Does that mean that the U.S. rules of engagement in dealing with these so-called dead-enders has to change, because if someone wants to surrender, you don't know if that person is wired with a bomb ready to commit suicide and kill a lot of U.S. troops in the process?
Rumsfeld: Well, we've had that happen, as you know, although they've not killed large numbers of U.S. troops in the process. But we have had people come out with grenades and various types of explosives taped to their bodies, not in this operation, but previously. And our folks are trained to deal with that. If people want to surrender, we have ways of letting them surrender without putting our people at risk that they're going to be blown up.
Q: There's some speculation from local Afghan commanders that Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahari, may -- may be part of these fighters.
Rumsfeld: You can find some speculation from Afghans, Americans, coalition partners, neighboring countries about where those folks are on any given day. And my attitude is I'm not going to not chase those speculations.
Q: You still don't have a clue where Osama bin Laden is?
Rumsfeld: I didn't say that.
Q: You do have a clue?
Rumsfeld: No, I didn't say that either. I'm not going to talk about whether we have good intelligence or bad intelligence on that subject. We're looking for him. We're ultimately going to find him. Wherever he is, he is not happy. He is not able to effectively run his safe haven in Afghanistan. And our goal was to take the Taliban government out and to make sure that Afghanistan was not a sanctuary for terrorists and for the training of terrorists. And it is not today.
And so at least that much of our initial goal has been accomplished very successfully.
Q: Were you surprised by the degree of resistance that these al Qaeda fighters had? In other words, was there an underestimation of the battle?
Rumsfeld: No. I mean, if you think of these, these are the people who took plastic knives and box cutters and flew airplanes filled with themselves as well as American citizens into the World Trade Center and this building you're sitting in. Why would one be surprised that they're determined, well-trained, clever, capable of using modern technology that they never could have developed, but is made available to the world today to kill people. No, I'm not surprised that they're determined and well trained. We've read their terrorist training manuals.
Q: But in part, they're dead-enders. They're ready to fight to the death because they're not Afghans. They're Arabs; they're Chechens; they're Pakistanis; they're others presumably with no place else left to go.
Rumsfeld: Oh, they've got places they could go. And they've had plenty of opportunity to leave. What it tells you is that they didn't leave; they stayed there and are trying to take back that country and to try to throw out the interim government, and to try to again turn it into a terrorist training camp and a sanctuary. We are trying to see that Afghanistan is not a haven and sanctuary. But we're also working with other countries to see that they aren't, because these terrorists do not have armies, navies and air forces. They don't have countries. They have to find some country that will foster and encourage and finance and harbor and provide sanctuary for them. And we can't let that happen, or else we'll find that they're not only doing what they've done, but they will be -- there's an enormous appetite. We have plenty of evidence that they want chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. We know that. And if we are relaxed and say, oh, well, things are okay now; nothing's happened; we haven't had a terrorist attack for the last six months, therefore we don't have to worry about it. That's nonsense. If those folks get ahold of weapons of mass destruction, we're talking to be talking not about thousands of people, but tens of thousands of people.
Q: How realistic is that prospect that they could get hold of those kinds of weapons of mass destruction?
Rumsfeld: Well, we know they're intelligent; we know they're well financed; we know there are thousands of them. We know that they've got activities in 40, 50 or 60 countries. And we know that there are a number of nations that are on the terrorist list that also have weapons of mass destruction and have weaponized chemical and biological weapons and are working very aggressively toward nuclear weapons.
Now, it does not take a leap of imagination to understand that, with the desire they've demonstrated -- and we have all kinds of intelligence evidence to that effect, that the al Qaeda terrorists want weapons of mass destruction, and the people they've dealt with over the years having those kinds of weapons. It doesn't take a genius to recognize that that is a very serious threat.
Q: Is there a link between these al Qaeda terrorists who still may be at large and the government of President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad?
Rumsfeld: I'm not going to get into intelligence information about where those links are. We know the countries that are on the terrorist list, and that's one of them.
Q: Vice President Cheney's heading to the region, to the Middle East, as you know, in the coming days. A lot of speculation that he wants to talk about Iraq. But can the U.S. effectively launch a strike, a regime change, if you will, of Saddam Hussein's government as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to be worsening, deteriorating? Don't you, in other words, have to calm that down before you try to take on Iraq?
Rumsfeld: My whole adult lifetime, there have been problems between Israel and the Arabs and the Palestinians in that region. It is something that has gone on decade after decade after decade. In the intervening period, we've had a number of wars. And I don't know that that is the determinant.
Q: Because you will need, if you go after Iraq, moderate Arab support from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, other countries that border Iraq.
Rumsfeld: I'm not going to get into the subject of Iraq and what the President might or might not decide. He gave a speech not too long ago indicating his concern about Iraq and his concern about North Korea and his concern about Iran. He's given a number of indications of his concern about terrorists and states that harbor and provide sanctuary to terrorists. But it's not for me to begin speculating along that line.
Q: You look back on these past six months, Monday will be six months since the September 11th attacks.
Q: That's been your biggest frustration?
Rumsfeld: Well, I don't know that I've had a frustration, to be perfectly honest. I've been awfully proud of the men and women in uniform. Your heart breaks when they die. You have to get up every morning and know that there's no road map as to exactly how this ought to be done, because we've never faced this kind of a problem. We've generally been able to go against countries that have armies, navies and air forces, and we know how to do that. That's what this department's organized, trained and equipped to do, as you well know having worked here. So what we're dealing with now is something that requires bringing to bear all of the elements of national power -- our economic power, our ability to close off bank accounts, our ability to get cooperation from other countries to arrest people and gather intelligence, to share intelligence; covert activities, as well as overt activities. And it requires a very close linkage among the departments of our government. It requires a close linkage between us and dozens and dozens of countries around that have just done a wonderful job. And they've suffered deaths as well.
So it is a very complex set of problems. And as I say, there's no road map that you get up and say, oh, this is what you do next. And, therefore, it's taken a great deal of thought. And we're working hard at it.
Q: I just came from the construction site where they're rebuilding that part of the Pentagon that was blown apart on September 11th. They say -- they tell me that it -- the construction manager -- should be ready to go by September 11th of this year. Over the next six months, though, where do you believe this war on terrorism -- six months from now, where will it be?
Rumsfeld: Well, we have to finish up the job in Afghanistan, and that means rooting out the pockets of al Qaeda and Taliban wherever they are in that country, and working with the interim government to see that they can create a reasonably stable security environment so that their people will return from refugee camps and that humanitarian workers can get in there and provide the kind of food and medical assistance that's needed.
One example. The Jordanians have provided a hospital in Mazar where they've treated some 12,000 patients -- men, women and children -- already. I mean there's just some wonderful things happening in that country.
Beyond that, we have to see that those folks and other global terrorists don't have safe haven in other countries. And therefore, we have to continue the law enforcement effort. We have to continue the freezing of bank accounts. And we have to go after these global terrorists, wherever they are, in countries that harbor them. We would be simply driving them out of Afghanistan so they can go to country "X" and begin to do exactly the same thing, to train and to send terrorists around to kill innocent men, women and children in this building and in New York City, or goodness knows where next. It would be a mindless thing to do. That just moves the problem from here to there.
Q: Mr. Secretary, we have to leave it right there. Thanks so much for joining us.
Rumsfeld: Thank you.
Q: Appreciate it very much.