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Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Telephone Interview with the New York Times

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
March 21, 2002

(Telephone Interview with Tom Shanker and David Sanger, of the New York Times)

Q: Before we start we're hoping to do this on the record as we discuss Indonesia, knowing it's a great interest of yours and of ours as well. If you feel the need to go on background we can certainly do that, but is on the record. Okay with you?

Wolfowitz: On the record is fine, and we're actually taping it on our end. We have to disclose that.

Q: That's perfectly fine.

Q: If you feel like there's something we need to know that you can't attribute, feel free. We would rather have truth than quotes. (Laughter)

Q: But so clearly Indonesia is an interesting scenario as the Pentagon and the Administration view the next step in the war on global terror, its links to al Qaeda, the indigenous terrorism there. We were just curious if you could discuss that and really what the plans are as you move into the next stage.

Wolfowitz: I'm happy to. Let me start by setting some context because I've been struck that even highly educated people in this city, even with all of the focus on relations of the Muslim world that has developed since September 11th, are surprised when you tell them that Indonesia has the largest population of any country in the Muslim world.

Q: They weren't reading us, Paul.

Wolfowitz: They weren't reading you.

Well, I was about to actually throw a big bouquet in the direction of the New York Times. You had a fantastic piece on Saturday about this remarkable man who I've known for a long time, Nurcholish Madjid, who is one of the leading Muslim figures in Indonesia. He is so prominent that he was actually, they talked about drafting him for President back after Suharto fell.

Q: I remember that.

Wolfowitz: One of the quotes in your article a week ago, I guess, it was from Jakarta, has him saying that the major religions in the world have more in common than differences. "We all come from the same fountain of wisdom, God."

That is the polar opposite of the criminals that we've been going after who are claiming to act in the name of Islam and it is the overwhelming view of most Indonesians. I mean a variation on that. Most Indonesian Muslims, not to mention the many other religions that are represented in that country.

I think it's terribly important for Americans to understand that context because coming to it all of a sudden after September 11th and hearing the word Muslim and hearing the word terrorist, people really jump to some rather crazy conclusions. I think we have a great ally not only in the government of Indonesia but in most of the people of Indonesia and I think it's a key part of our overall strategy as I have said a number of times, is to reach out as much as we can to our many allies in the Muslim world, and there are probably close to 200 million of those in Indonesia.

Q: The President when he had his press conference about a week ago I asked him a question that basically said we have a category of people who have been very helpful on terrorism and in some cases have invited the U.S. in to help, and you would put the Philippines obviously in that category and Georgia and others.

Then you have a grayer area of people who have been allies but clearly have not yet invited us in and I think Indonesia would be in that. Now he didn't go down the road of following Indonesia very far, and I can understand why in a press conference he might not want to. But there is this sort of disconnect that you have a very active operation in the Philippines where we have been invited in, but as people talk to you about where the cells are that people are concerned about you hear more about Indonesia.

So I'm wondering whether the Philippine model or some other model is what you have in mind.

Wolfowitz: First of all just to say quickly, the Filipinos have, as you said, invited us in. They have welcomed our assistance to their forces in training and it's not a trivial difference --

Q: No, I understand.

Wolfowitz: We're not talking Philippines here.

Q: Right.

Wolfowitz: The huge difference between the Philippines and Indonesia is in the Philippines there are known locations like Basilan Island where known terrorist groups linked to al Qaeda are operating and where the Philippines armed forces have great difficult getting at them. There is no comparable problem in Indonesia.

The Indonesian problem is much more to be analogized to the situation of most of those 60 countries where al Qaeda has a presence including the United States and many if not most European countries, where if they had that kind of -- If you knew where they were it wouldn't be a militarily difficult proposition to go after them. It's much more - really a law enforcement challenge. That's really the context in which most of our discussions with the Indonesians are taking place. In fact on the counterterrorism subject all of those things are being done through law enforcement types of channels.

Bob Mueller, the head of the FBI, was just in Indonesia last week I believe and had some pretty complementary things to say about the level of cooperation we're getting from them.

So I think it's a very important difference. The Philippines is one of those countries that has places where they need to be more militarily effective if they're going to go after terrorists. It's not a military problem in Indonesia.

Q: So the congressional restraints on mil-to-mil ties, Mr. Secretary, to you do not represent a hindrance to helping Indonesia combat terrorism?

(Line dropped)

Wolfowitz: Give me the question again, I think I got it all, but --

Q: Sure. As you describe the problem in Indonesia as being one that's basically law enforcement, I was just wondering whether you think that congressional restraints on mil-to-mil ties with Indonesia are in any way a hindrance to pursuing Administration objectives on the terror war there.

Wolfowitz: We're working quite closely with Congress and consulting quite closely, and the concerns that the Congress has are concerns that we share, and frankly they're concerns to some extent, maybe more than some extent, are concerns in Indonesia about some of the abuses of the past.

But I think we also have been trying, working with the Congress to find ways to work forward with the Indonesia military in a context that we believe strongly that they need to reform. But it's also a critical national institution in that country and the more we can deal with them and have influence with them the more I think it helps our overall relationship and therefore obviously does have some application to the dealing with terrorism.

The trick is to find ways to move forward that encourage reform in the Indonesian military rather than seem to turn a blind eye to some of the past problems, but at the same time I think we've seen in the case of Pakistan for example that it doesn't really do any good for any of our objectives -- whether it's human rights or counterterrorism if we cut ourselves off nearly completely from the military authorities, especially in countries where the military still has a significant role to play.

Q: Sure. But just to ask another question straightforward, there's been so much speculation about asking whether American troops can go there or considering an invitation. Are there any plans right now to send American troops to Indonesia?

Wolfowitz: No there aren't, and quite frankly I can't conceive of the circumstances in which that would be called for.

There are two major sensitivities that we are acutely aware of. One are the ones that are alluded to in your reference to Congress and it's not just congressional concerns, as I said, it's the basic need for military reform. But the other is a deep sense of national pride and independence on the part of the Indonesians, and if we want their cooperation and their cooperation is essential to success, we can't look like we're interfering in their internal affairs. As I said at the beginning, they don't -- Pardon?

Q: At times they haven't even wanted military humanitarian aid.

Wolfowitz: I think that's an example of the distancing that has taken place because of some of the problems of the past has made it -- I think in normal circumstances we could easily get back to where humanitarian assistance would be welcomed, but we've got to get a better basis, a better relationship before we can get to there.

In many ways in the past they've shown a considerable level of confidence. They have the capability, I think, to deal with their own problems.

Q: How much of this is a concern about the sensitivities of the Indonesian military and how much is it a concern about not undermining Megawati herself, who --

Wolfowitz: When I say concern about not appearing to interfere in their internal affairs, I certainly mean not giving any cause for that very small element that really does represent extreme Islam a chance to characterize what's taking place here as a war of the United States against Islam or even worse, a war of the United States against Indonesia. It is emphatically neither, and we have made it clear over and over again, it's neither. I think what Megawati and her government have to be able to do is to make it clear that whatever actions they are taking, they're taking in pursuit of Indonesia's interests, not because the United States is pressuring them to do something on our behalf against Islam and we are not.

Q: What have you learned from the arrests that happened in the Philippines of these three Indonesians, one of whom seemed to be a member or a treasurer of Amien Rais's Islamic party. But they seem to be, some of them may have had some explosive equipment, but they seem to be part of this Singapore-Indonesia-Malaysia cell that you've been concerned with.

Wolfowitz: I think it's one of the things that's raised the level of concern in Indonesia about the possible recruiting that al Qaeda may be doing there, and it isn't surprising in a country with 200 million Muslims that al Qaeda might find some recruits. I mean they found some in the United Kingdom, as I recall.

And I think the reaction in Indonesia has been a very healthy one of being quite concerned that their own people have gotten involved in these sorts of movements. But again, it's very misleading to suggest that this is a widespread problem or one where we're not getting, I think, a pretty good level of cooperation.

Q: It's been suggested to me that until September 11th happened we didn't even know about this main Islam Jemaah group that, certainly I didn't know about it but I didn't know whether you folks did, but the most extremist of these groups that we seem most concerned about didn't seem to show up on anybody's radar until September 11th.

Wolfowitz: You know we're learning an awful lot since September 11th, all over the world about all kinds of things.

Q: Were you aware of them before then?

Wolfowitz: I was not and I don't know that we as a government were. I know that we, for example, learned things in Afghanistan that helped lead us to the cell in Singapore and I think that in turn has developed a lot of the knowledge that we have.

Again, it's a very good opportunity to repeat that the problem here isn't one of having military capability to go after people, which is the problem in some remote areas of the Philippines. The problem is, as in Germany or the United States, finding who these people are and where they're located, and once you do that then it's a matter of arresting them.

And we've had, by the way, in at least one significant case that I know of, great cooperation from the Indonesian authorities in locating and arresting and rendering one particularly dangerous person to his home country.

Q: Who was that?

Wolfowitz: I think there's good reason not to get into too many details. But it comes to my mind that we've had, I think, significant cooperation where we've had specific cases to --

Q: But it was not an arrest in Indonesia, it was an arrest elsewhere.

Wolfowitz: No, it was a non-Indonesian whom they arrested and deported.

Q: And this is since 9-11?

Wolfowitz: Oh, yeah.

Q: Is there any evidence that al Qaeda fleeing Afghanistan are making their way toward Indonesia because of its islands and archipelago and places to hide?

Wolfowitz: I am not aware of any evidence that that is taking place. There is a lot that we don't know about how these people are sneaking out and where they're sneaking to. But to the extent that we are getting indications of where they're going or what routes they're taking or names like Iran and Yemen and even Pakistan and sometimes the Caucuses pop up, I have yet to see even a fragmentary report that suggests Indonesia as a terribly safe location for them at this time.

It's very easy, and I think it's worth repeating. Because Indonesia is predominantly Muslim -- and by the way you have to say it that way because it's not a country that has any state religion. Islam is not the state religion and tolerance is enshrined in their constitution. But because it's predominantly Muslim it's very easy for even the slightest thing that's said on the subject to get amplified in ways that are kind of inflammatory.

Q: So when you say there was really no consideration and you can't imagine there would be consideration given the political concerns you've mentioned and the concern that you can't, an individual place to get at, could we fairly say from that you folks have pretty much taken off the table doing a Philippines kind of consulting/training operations of the military type with the Indonesians?

Wolfowitz: You know I get in trouble here because we never take options off the table, but I can tell you there is no such option on the table, and I have trouble conceiving of how that would make sense.

I can think of all the ways in which it would be counterproductive --

Q: That could blow up on you.

Wolfowitz: Yeah, and I can't see where it's necessary.

What would be useful, and I don't want to mislead you here. What would be useful, what we are exploring mostly internally and in consultation with the Congress is ways to modestly move forward in our military-to-military contacts with Indonesia to help them be more efficient, to help them undertake some of the reforms they need to undertake and to give us more contact with this enormously influential institution.

Q: Would this be the plan of doing the limited contacts on counterterrorism and on counternarcotics?

Wolfowitz: Or maybe even on more modest things like humanitarian relief. I mean there are hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people in Indonesia. It's a big problem for that country. It's largely a civil problem, but if there are things that we can help train their military to do that help deal with the humanitarian aspects of that problem, for example, I would think that would be on the table.

But because of where we started from and because of their sensitivities we're really moving very carefully.

Q: We'd be remiss if we had you on the telephone and we did not ask you an Iraq question. I know how eager you are --

Wolfowitz: -- run out of time. (Laughter)

Q: One quick one.

Cheney is now back. He got the predictable public response, and I thought you said that you thought that privately he might have gotten a somewhat different message. Then Condi has said to us a couple of times recently that if there was going to be an inspection regime moved the next step it would have to be so incredibly intrusive because you've had them out for three years. She said she couldn't even imagine what its scale would be. All of which leads us to ask you, with Cheney back, what's the logical next step now? Is it inspection? Is it elsewhere?

Wolfowitz: I'd say the logical next step is to sit down with him and get a very thorough account of what he thinks he's heard and how he evaluates it, and really I also wouldn't want people to think that he went there solely to talk about that issue. He went there really to talk about a very wide range of issues and he didn't go there with a specific American proposal that we were trying to get people to sign up to.

There are a lot of aspects to Iraq policy. There's the whole issue as you alluded to in that reference to Condi about weapons of mass destruction. There are issues about how we can encourage the democratic opposition against pretty fearsome odds there. There are issues about how we manage sanctions and those controls. So I think all of those -- We look at that stuff on almost a weekly basis and it's all in the framework of what the President said in his State of the Union message which is we have a serious problem here and we haven't decided all the full strategy for dealing with it but it's not something we can put off for another ten years.

Q: Thank you so much for your time today.

Q: Thanks a lot.

Wolfowitz: Thank you.

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