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Wolfowitz Interview with Jim Lehrer, News Hour

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
March 21, 2002 6:00 PM EDT

(Wolfowitz Interview with Jim Lehrer, News Hour, PBS TV)

JIM LEHRER: And to our Newsmaker interview with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, the number two man at the Pentagon. Welcome.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Good to be here.

LEHRER: On the tribunals or commissions announcement today, what kinds of people, what kind of defendants are they designed to prosecute?

WOLFOWITZ: These commissions are an instrument of justice in pursuing the war on terrorism, and the president directed Secretary Rumsfeld to set these up, or to prepare the rules for them, I think back in November.

We've been working for some four months, and what we announced today are the rules of procedure under which they will work, which I think will ensure a fair trial, but also deal with very special conditions under which some of these trials may have to take place with the use of classified information, the use of information collected from the battlefield.

But the only people that would be subjected to these commissions are non-US citizens who were connected to al-Qaeda or other terrorist movements, guilty of serious terrorist crimes against the United States.

LEHRER: Now, are there any of the people who are in custody now who meet the criteria for these kinds of trials?

WOLFOWITZ: It's too early to say, and I think it's important to emphasize just how long it takes to really get information on these people. As an example, we caught a few years ago, at the turn of the millennium, that man who came across the border from Canada planning to blow up the Los Angeles Airport. Apparently he sat in more or less solitary confinement in Seattle for a year saying nothing and then finally decided to tell the whole story about how he planned to bring this bomb in.

The people we have down in Guantanamo, some of them talk a little, some of them don't say anything, some of them lie and give us misinformation.

And the information that we're collecting in Afghanistan piece by piece is part of that picture, so it's like putting together a puzzle. And we're still in, I would say, the early stages of collecting information about these folks.

LEHRER: But Secretary Rumsfeld, as I understood what Secretary Rumsfeld said today, there is no "a defendant" or no series of defendants waiting to go to trial under these new rules.

WOLFOWITZ: No. We published the rules today because we had really reached the end of a fairly exhaustive process. We decided we had figured out something that we believe really meets the standard of fairness, that is proper for the United States, that protects certain key things that normal either civil courts or military courts couldn't do, like the handling of classified information. But we didn't do it because we have somebody imminently ready for a commission.

LEHRER: What about those 300 people at Guantanamo? Assuming that all of them are not tried under these new rules of today, what is going to happen to them?

WOLFOWITZ: I think it's important to recognize that the people who are in Guantanamo are there because they're enemy combatants seized in a war, a war on terrorism. Most of them probably-- I don't know the exact legal term, but they are not normal combatants in a sense of being in uniform.

There's a lot that's very unique about this conflict. Some of them are in fact criminals. They're not only enemy combatants, they're people who are guilty of being involved probably or possibly in serious crimes of terrorism.

So we need a procedure for bringing them to justice. We also need to handle them as we would handle a dangerous enemy in the course of a war. And these people are actually much more dangerous than that. You know, in past wars you'd take a prisoner and once he was off the battlefield, he was relatively harmless. These... one of these guys got off the plane in Guantanamo swearing he would kill an American before he left. So they're dangerous people, whether or not they go before a military commission.

LEHRER: When will that decision be made? I mean, will these people just be held indefinitely - or is there a process being thought through to dispose of those 300 people one way or another, or is today part of that process?

WOLFOWITZ: I think it's important to emphasize no one will go before a military commission without a Presidential decision on that individual case to do so. There's a very intensive process going on today to interrogate these people, to collect information on them, working with law enforcement agencies from the many different countries from which they come.

I think we've already had three or four or five countries send their own people down to Guantanamo to help to interview their own citizens. And there will be different dispositions I think for different ones. Some of them may turn out to be completely harmless. Some of them may turn out to be the kind of enemy combatant you would want to hold until the end of the war. Some of them may go back to their own country for some kind of trial, and some of them may go to military commissions. We're still in the sorting out stage.

JIM LEHRER: Now, on the military commission - you said -- the President of the United States literally must sign off on anybody who's tried in one of these commissions?

WOLFOWITZ: That is the way the Presidential order is written, yes.

LEHRER: And then once this... okay, let's go through some of the specifics here. The commission is from three to seven members, right, at any given time?

WOLFOWITZ: That's right.

LEHRER: And they're U.S. military officers?

WOLFOWITZ: They are, all of them with judicial experience. I mean people should bear in mind we have a regular system of military courts that all of our servicemen and women are subjected to if they're accused of a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and it's the same kind of personnel who are on these tribunals, these commissions.

LEHRER: Will there be lawyers?

WOLFOWITZ: They have judicial and legal background. I imagine most of them will be lawyers.

LEHRER: Each defendant has the right to, will be appointed a military defense lawyer, right?

WOLFOWITZ: Each defendant will be given a counsel free of charge. It will be a military lawyer, and each defendant will have a right, if he wants to, to hire his own civilian lawyer from a very large number of civilian lawyers that would be available.

LEHRER: Presumption of innocence?

WOLFOWITZ: Presumption of innocence, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, two-thirds majority required for conviction, unanimous verdict required for death penalty, automatic review of every sentence.

LEHRER: Call his or her own witnesses?

WOLFOWITZ: Right to call witnesses, right to discovery of information, right to revealing the evidence the prosecution is going to bring. I mean I thank you for going through that whole list. I mean -- it gives you some sense, too, I think of how careful this process has been.

LEHRER: Now, the decision, they will be open to the public, right? I mean they will be open trials, except if the presiding officer decides on a couple or three reasons he or she can close them right?

WOLFOWITZ: Either to protect classified information or to protect the security of the proceedings. But the directive is to be as open as possible.

LEHRER: Now, the security of the proceedings, explain what the dangers are there about the security of the proceedings. What does that mean?

WOLFOWITZ: It means that we're dealing with people who are -- have made it very clear and -- I shouldn't say necessarily, we presume they're innocent until proven guilty -- if they're there, it's because they're accused of being involved with showing the most murderous kind of intent. One of the judges who was involved in one of the terrorism trials earlier in the '90s still has around-the-clock protection because...

LEHRER: It was the first World Trade Center trial, right?

WOLFOWITZ: It was. Yes.

LEHRER: He's still under protection.

WOLFOWITZ: He's still under threat. One of the reasons to have military officers serve on these commissions is we believe they're the kind of people who know how to deal with that kind of threat, who won't be intimidated by it, but it could turn out to be dangerous duty.

LEHRER: Some people raise some questions about the classified inromation, the national security. Anyone could close this; say "hey, that's classified, let's close this." Is there going to be anything in the directives that will lean towards openness or lean towards closeness? What can you say about that?

WOLFOWITZ: Exact rules of evidence are still being developed, but I think that the fact that the lawyers will be military officers who are cleared to see all the evidence is a great protection.

LEHRER: Including the defense lawyer?

WOLFOWITZ: The defense lawyers, absolutely. If he hires a civilian defense lawyer, one of the qualifications will be that he can be cleared at least to the secret level.

Let me say the other side of the coin. We have, I think, leaned very far in an effort to be fair. It's very important to make it clear too, if anyone goes before this military commission it is going to be because we have every reason to believe they are involved in some of the most terrible crimes every committed against this country. And we cannot rule out the use of classified information. We can't rule out the use of information that may be collected on a battlefield in Afghanistan that doesn't meet our normal police standards of the chain of evidence - of knowing exactly who held it at which point along the way. That's why the President created this special instrument.

We're dealing with a special breed of person here in a very unique circumstance in a very unique war.

LEHRER: When we say a special breed, just so we understand, are we talking about people like Osama bin Laden and the people around him and Mullah Omar, these people in fact are still alive and in fact are caught, is this particular process, particularly reserved for them, in other words, the top dogs in all of this?

WOLFOWITZ: You know, it would be very presumptuous for me to presume how the president's going to decide. I think you can see already from the way we've proceeded, that this is a fairly special instrument that's probably, I assume reserved for special cases. Mr. Moussaoui was submitted to a --

LEHRER: He was supposedly, could have been the 20th hijacker, right?

WOLFOWITZ: That's right. The decision was made to put him into a regular civilian court process. And I don't know of the 300 people we have in Guantanamo, or the roughly 300 in Afghanistan, how many of them will turn out to be clearly culpable of very serious crimes.

LEHRER: As you said, two-thirds a vote of the commission, of any given commission is required for conviction -- unanimous for death penalty. What are the other possible punishments below the death penalty?

WOLFOWITZ: Essentially various forms of incarceration.

LEHRER: And that is up -- there's not going to be any rules on that? I mean there're not going to be minimums, maximums; it's going to be up to each individual commission to decide?

WOLFOWITZ: I wouldn't rule out that we might set some rules and certainly rules will develop. I mean we're going to operate in a way that common law courts, which is our court system, operate, which is you meet our justice in an equal way. If you start with one set of punishments for one kind of individual, that will probably set a standard for others. But we don't do this on pure theory; we're going to do it on cases.

LEHRER: Now, the review process: The trial is over, there's been a conviction, it's automatically reviewed by the secretary of Defense, is that correct?

WOLFOWITZ: It's automatically reviewed by a panel of senior judicial officers who are either from the military judicial system or are civilian judges who are called back to active duty.

LEHRER: They have the authority to toss it out, reverse it?

WOLFOWITZ: They do. And if they rule not guilty... if a decision... excuse me. They have an authority to review a decision, and the review then goes to the secretary for decision. If the commission itself passes a verdict of innocent, that's the final say.

LEHRER: There cannot be any retrial?

WOLFOWITZ: It cannot be retried. There's no double jeopardy, in other words.

LEHRER: And then it eventually goes to the President to sign off on the conviction? Or that's the final review?


JIM LEHRER: Now, is there any review beyond that? Can a defendant take it into the -- a defendant cannot take it into the federal court system, is that correct?

WOLFOWITZ: We don't believe so. I mean you know, in our system, you can take anything to a court and it's going to be up to the federal court system to decide what their view is.

But we believe this is a clear exercise, a clear and correct exercise of the President's war power and certainly in the past cases we've had and this is unique in many ways, it's worse than the past cases we've had, and this is unique, this is worse and in the past cases there has not been a judicial review.

LEHRER: Are you satisfied, as an individual and as an official of the United States Government, that this process that was outlined today is in keeping with all of the traditional judicial standards of the United States of America in the way to treat people accused of crimes?

WOLFOWITZ: I believe we've done absolutely the best job it's possible to do in setting up these basic rules. Obviously implementation is another major part of the process. You can have the best rules in the world, if you don't implement them faithfully and properly, then that becomes a problem. I don't think it will be. I think we have done, I think, a procedure that truly does meet American standards and American values.

LEHRER: A couple of other quick subjects: Afghanistan, there were reports in the last couple of days that the United States has been opposed to the expansion of the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan beyond Kabul and that the Pentagon in particular was opposed to that, despite the pleas of the interim head of Afghanistan, Mr. Karzai for that. Why? What's the problem?

WOLFOWITZ: There's no doctrinaire position here. I think we all agree on a common objective, which is that we want to see a stable Afghanistan that doesn't become a sanctuary for terrorists, and we want to see this I think quite remarkable start that the Afghans have made at establishing a degree of consensus on a central authority, we want to see that work.

There are a number of different ways to establish security. It's a challenge right now, quite frankly, to make sure that we have the continuity that we need in Kabul. We've been talking with the Turks who were supposed to take over the lead from the British.

They haven't quite agreed to that yet and to be honest, both the Turks and the British have great reservations about getting outside of Kabul. It doesn't mean that we aren't going to look at those other situations. And one of the keys, I believe, to providing that security is moving as rapidly as we can to train up an Afghan army or Afghan police, Afghan security forces that can directly apply the rid of the central government to those provinces.

LEHRER: As you know, there are widespread reports from independent American press people on the ground and others that there is widespread lawlessness outside of Kabul. How serious is that, and how much of a concern is that?

WOLFOWITZ: I suspect if you went back 30 years or 60 years or 100 years, you would find widespread lawlessness. I don't mean to make light of it but Afghanistan is a big and wild country, and it's now suffered 25 years of ravages of civil war.

There isn't going to be any magic solution, including putting peacekeepers in individual cities around the country. It is a problem; it's something we're concerned about. It's something that affects the delivery of humanitarian aid and supplies, but it is, I think, fair to say that the situation in Afghanistan today is so much better than it was eight months ago, and we've got to keep working to make it better.

LEHRER: Finally, the subject of Iraq. You're well known for your views about Saddam Hussein and a strong supporter of the President's view that he should be removed from power. Vice President Cheney came back from his trip, he said that, we just quoted it in the News Summary, that he said that the many Arab leaders could share the concern about weapons of mass destruction but did not share the U.S. desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein, said it would cause instability in the region. How do you read that?

WOLFOWITZ: I think, obviously, for people who live in that region, it is a difficult situation. I would not expect Saddam's neighbors to be the first people to raise their hands to say, "You've got to take tough action against him." I think they look to the United States to lead, and I think the President is leading very clearly.

What he has done so far is to state the nature of the problem, which is that here is a man with declared hostility to the United States, declared willingness and eagerness to kill Americans, who supports terrorism, who has weapons of mass destruction, is developing new ones.

What the President has said is that's not an acceptable situation and it's not something we can just continue living with forever.

What that State of the Union message and the things he said since have been is kind of an invitation for other countries to come and tell us, okay, what would you do about the problem and I'm sure Secretary Cheney heard a number of things in private in his discussions that will probably remain private.

LEHRER: But in public, you know, from Jordan, from Egypt on to just to every place he went, there were public statements saying, "okay, but lay off, you know, we've got enough problems over here with the Israelis and the Palestinians, don't make our area even more unstable." Is that going to change anybody's thinking in Washington?

WOLFOWITZ: I think we need to wait and hear exactly what the Vice President came back with. But, you know, I don't want to make light of their concerns, I don't in any way, I mean they face a serious problem.

But if you were asking someone who is under threat from a serious criminal, what should you do about him, I don't think you'd expect that person to go out in public and say, "well, I think the law enforcement agencies should come and deal with him." I think they'd want to know what the law enforcement agencies are going to do.

LEHRER: All right. Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.

WOLFOWITZ: Thank you.


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