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Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview With The Sun Sentinel

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
November 27, 2002

(Interview with Tim Dodson, Sun Sentinel, West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Q: Mr. Deputy Secretary, Iraq has accepted the United Nations' ultimatum on weapons inspections but the threat of war still looms large. Should the United States be focusing attention and resources on Iraq while still engaged in a life and death struggle with al Qaeda?

Wolfowitz: Iraq is part of the war on terrorism as the president has said, as Secretary Rumsfeld has said, and part of what has focused our concern on these countries that the President described in the State of the Union message as axis of evil countries, the potential for these countries to put the world's worst weapons in the hands of the world's worst people. But you can't just treat one problem in isolation. They're part of the overall problem. But we have the resources to do both.

Q: In terms of defeating Islamist terrorism do you think it would be more fruitful for the United States to throw itself completely into resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before contemplating military action against Iraq?

Wolfowitz: No. I believe that we should do everything we possibly can to bring about a peaceful resolution of that conflict, but we've been at it for 50 years. There's still a long way to go. If the suggestion is we put off all other problems for another 50 years, it doesn't work that way. The world doesn't work that way. And the biggest problem we face resolving that problem as the President pointed out in his June 12th speech is the need for credible leadership on the Palestinian side so that we can get negotiations going. We're working hard at that, but I don't think one problem can wait on the other, nor can efforts on the Arab-Israeli conflict wait on a solution to the Iraqi problem.

Q: So clearly you feel that we can deal with al Qaeda, deal with Iraq and deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simultaneously?

Wolfowitz: I think we have to. The world doesn't come at you in an orderly fashion. It hits at you all at once.

I do think, by the way, that progress on each one of those things contributes to progress on the other, and in that sense I think it's part of the strategic approach to the issue that success in one area builds success in other areas.

Q: It appears Osama bin Laden is still alive. It seemed at one point that the United States had him cornered. How did we let him get away and what have we learned from that failure?

Wolfowitz: It's sort of a myth out there that we had him cornered at Tora Bora. There is a -- Nothing is absolutely certain about these groups and even the related audiotape is I think the experts said 90 percent likely to be Osama bin Laden. That says it's ten percent possible that it's some kind of elaborate fake.

We're dealing with people who don't work out in the open. We're dealing with people who hide. To me frankly it's a marvel that General Franks' people were able to get into Afghanistan as quickly as they did, to get up to Tora Bora as quickly as they did. If we had waited as some armchair strategists seemed to suggest until we had 100,000 troops surrounding the area, then a lot more than just one guy would have gotten away.

Q: What do you make of the fact that it was an audiotape whereas in the past he's always used videotapes? Do you think that suggests that he has either changed his appearance or had it changed either by illness or injury?

Wolfowitz: I certainly think it's significant, and I suppose maybe that's the reason why some of the experts say it's 90 percent and not 100 percent because it raises that question. It also does clearly raise the possibility that he's sick or ill and it would be demoralizing to his followers if they could see what he looked like physically. I don't know. I just know that there are a lot of bad guys out there. He's not the only one. They're still very dangerous.

Q: Why did the United States commit so few of its own troops in that effort at Tora Bora? Why did we rely primarily on Afghan fighters who have proven, later proved to be untrustworthy. But shouldn't we have known in the first place that they would be untrustworthy?

Wolfowitz: There are two basic points. Number one, I sort of marvel at what people think we should have been able to do when we had just barely -- that conflict began on October 7th. I think Kabul fell at the end of November and this operation was the first week of December in the highest mountains in the world. We were moving about as fast as it was possible to move.

Secondly, General Franks from the beginning had very much in mind not going in with 100,000 troops and very quickly having the whole country hostile to him. You have these tradeoffs. There's no perfection in an operation like that. But I think he did absolutely the best he could on the time constraints he was on. Moreover, I think it's very important that we be careful not to have too much presence.

Q: Senator Bob Graham and others say the FBI is unprepared to thwart new terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Do you agree with that? If so, what should be done to improve preparedness?

Wolfowitz: I'm not really sure what he means by that. If he means there might be terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, the U.S. can't prevent them, I'm sure that's true. This is not an area where we're going to achieve perfection. In fact I believe one of the reasons why it's very important to take this fight to the enemy is there's no way you can defend against every possible terrorist threat. I believe the FBI has done a lot of self-examination in the last year. I think there have been a lot of changes made, I'm sure there will be more made. I think we're making progress.

But people need to understand, too, there's an overwhelming amount of suspicious activity and it's not a trivial matter to sort out among all the many different things, which are the indicators you should focus on. But we have our job, the FBI has theirs. We do our best to coordinate between the two of us.

Q: Is there any way within the law that you can provide direct assistance to the FBI? That the military can?

Wolfowitz: Well the law allows a great deal of cooperation. There is a great deal of cooperation. And there's a good deal of exchange of information. But on the whole if it's a domestic law enforcement matter they have the skills, they know what the laws are, and frankly, I don't think the American people want to see the military performing a domestic law enforcement function, but there are a lot of folks handing off this information both ways.

Q: Is this really a domestic law enforcement function or was this a war in which we have enemy combatants on our own turf?

Wolfowitz: That's a very good question. It's in some ways both. But let's say when it comes to doing a wiretap on a domestic suspect I don't think people want the Defense Department doing that. On the other hand if we pick up through our intelligence sources that there's some bad actor coming into the United States, we will very quickly alert the FBI to make sure that they get there (inaudible). I recall just in the last couple of days being involved in precisely one of those kinds of handoffs of information from DoD to the FBI and [inaudible].

Q: It's been reported that so-called suitcase nukes are missing from the old Soviet arsenal. It has been reported over the years. Is that a serious concern? And if so, what is the U.S. strategy for dealing with that?

Wolfowitz: The general proposition that there's a large amount of potential nuclear weapon material in the former Soviet Union, mostly in Russia, in various forms is a matter of real concern. It actually goes beyond the issue of suitcase bombs. Even nuclear spent fuel from reactors can be a problem.

We are spending a lot of money, a hundred million dollars every year, to help the Russians and to encourage, motivate the Russians to put as much of that as possible -- to secure it as well as possible and to get rid of as much of it as possible as quickly as possible. When you start out with an inventory as they did of some 40,000 or 50,000 nuclear weapons, it's going to be with us, unfortunately, the problem, for quite awhile.

I think the most important thing is to make sure that what is there is [inaudible]. We've made real progress.

Q: Is any of that stuff in any of the old Soviet republics that perhaps aren't as cooperative with us as Russia is?

Wolfowitz: It was originally. I was in the last Bush Administration, the first President Bush undertook a major initiative [inaudible] failed coup in the Soviet Union announcing that we were going to get rid of roughly 10,000 of our nuclear weapons and encouraged the Russians to respond. Our principal objective was to encourage them to get their nuclear weapons out of some of the more remote Soviet Republics, which they did do. They responded positively, they got rid of a lot of stuff. Then over the next ten years through three Administrations, the first Bush Administration and the Clinton Administration, the Ukrainians and the Kazaks and the Byelorussians were successfully persuaded not to try to hang onto those things that were on their territory. So it's now all concentrated in Russia and that's a very important [inaudible].

Q: It's been suggested that U.S. troops be deployed along our borders to assist the border patrol in keeping out illegal immigrants. Do you think that's a good idea?

Wolfowitz: I think there are -- We do, by the way, particularly on our southern border, land and sea, play a major role in helping law enforcement authorities keep out narcotics traffic. I think that is an appropriate role for the Defense Department within the limits that we perform them. I'm not so sure that it's either a wise use of what are after all some pretty valuable resources. Or the right role for the military to be involved in controlling illegal immigration, although I can see that that's an issue and a problem, but there's a solution to it that can be done by having more manpower. There's no intrinsic reason why that should be military manpower.

Q: We've heard a lot about modernizing the military to fight 21st Century wars, but the Bush Administration's defense budget seems heavy on older types of weapon systems -- tanks, bombers and so on. Why is that?

Wolfowitz: We've made some major moves, this is the first year, in getting rid of some of our older systems. We got rid of four Cold War nuclear Trident submarines. We're converting to 21st Century long-range Tomahawk launchers. We met with some difficulty and actually killed the heavy artillery piece, the Crusader. It's a marvelous artillery piece but it really is more of a Cold War system. We put the money into other Army artillery systems that are very much linked to the [system of systems]. So there is a lot that's changing.

It's also important to remember that you don't immediately give up all the capabilities that were useful ten years ago. Life doesn't change that way. We're focused really on modernizing or transforming the leading edge of our forces and I think that's the way most military transformation has taken place.

Q: We haven't heard much about the missile shield lately. Has that idea been shelved for the time being?

Wolfowitz: I never heard it described as a shield except by people who wanted to shoot it down. [Laughter] The idea that you can have a sort of guard-all stealth that will stop anything come in is wrong. But that you want to have the ability to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles is very real.

I was in Israel during the Persian Gulf War part of the time at President Bush's direction as part of the effort to persuade the Israelis to stay out of that war. It helped that we had some capability to shoot down incoming missiles but it was not a good thing that that capability was pretty primitive.

Ten years later we now have a much better ability to shoot down those short-range missiles. Fortunately if there should be a war with Iraq we will be able to handle those better than we could before.

What we're working on now, we're much better able to do it because we're no longer under the constraints of the ABM Treaty is how to shoot down the longer-range missiles that fly faster. But we've made real progress. But the goal isn't a shield. The goal is to make it more difficult for enemies to attack us and hopefully maybe discourage some of these countries. That takes a large chunk of national resources, and to totally [inaudible].

Q: Tensions along the India-Pakistan border have eased a bit lately, but it remains obviously a dangerous place. Is the United States doing all it can to prevent war there?

Wolfowitz: We're doing everything we can think of because we recognize it is a very very serious danger. In some ways our stake in preventing war between those two countries, which was already big enough before September 11th has gone way up because of the importance of cooperation in that part of the work, with Pakistan dealing with terrorism. It's a tense situation. There are elements of cross-border terrorism [inaudible]. But we have put huge efforts. Secretary Powell has gone out there several times. My boss, Secretary Rumsfeld, has been out there several times. The President has been in frequent touch with the leaders of both countries. And you're right, they seem to be stepping back their confrontation somehow and that's a very good thing. But we really have to keep at it.

Q: North Korea is another potential trouble spot. Should we use a carrot or a stick to get the North to hand its nuclear weapons over?

Wolfowitz: I think we need both and I think maybe [over] the last eight years we used a little too much of the carrot. We entered into an agreement with them with very big rewards and in turn they were supposed to stop their nuclear program. It turns out they didn't. They hid it and took it underground, so to speak, and were going in another direction that was very dangerous.

But what is fundamentally needed is for that country to face up to the reality of the complete failure of that regime. I'm a little bit hopeful that perhaps in the wake of the shock throughout Asia including China of what the North Koreans have now done most recently that we may be able to get a concerted diplomatic pressure on North Korea for a fundamental change. That could be.

Q: Should we be concerned that an Islamic party has won the election in Turkey, a country that we're obviously going to need the friendship of if we go to war in Iraq?

Wolfowitz: Turkey is an incredibly important country not just in the event of a conflict with Iraq. It's important because it's one of the few Muslim majority countries in the world that does have a democracy. The party you mentioned was elected democratically. We have to accept that notion.

I don't think its victory reflects any kind of Muslim extremism in Turkey. In fact in many ways it was more a vote against what I think was seen as the corruption of the old party, in many ways a vote for reform.

The new party is saying that it is a very moderate, tolerant party that isn't going to challenge the secular basis of Turkish democracy. We'll see. If the optimists are proven right this may be somewhat to the Muslim world what the Christian Democratic party is in Germany or Italy or the Western European world. That wouldn't be a bad development. But we do have to watch it carefully, it's important. But I am not discouraged by it.

Q: I'll close with a sort of a personal question or at least semi-personal. You are generally regarded as the leading hawk in the Administration. Is that a fair characterization?

Wolfowitz: I don't think so. For one thing I don't think there is any deep division in the Administration. I understand why people write about it that way and sort of dramatize the policy. The truth of the matter is that we have some pretty lively debates inside the Administration. The President encourages that. I've known him now for the last four years, going back to when he was Governor. He thrives on encouraging people to argue in front of him. He is very comfortable after hearing arguments to make decisions on what he wants to do. We're all delighted to salute smartly and follow a single policy, because there's just no question that this country is powerful and effective and has a clear single policy. There's a point at which debate has to stop and we need to march forward.

I feel very privileged to be part of this Bush-Cheney-Powell-Rumsfeld team. It's a terrific team.

Q: Thank you.

Wolfowitz: Thank you.