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Assistant Secretary Clarke Interview with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News

Presenters: Victoria Clarke, Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
April 04, 2002 10:00 PM EDT

(Interview with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, "On the Record")

Van Susteren: Now, a first-hand assessment on the war on terror. Joining me is Pentagon Spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.

Victoria, thank you for joining me this evening.

Clarke: Thank you.

Van Susteren: Torie, in looking at our efforts in the military in Afghanistan, what should the American people look for in terms of gauging success? I know body count isn't fair, but how should we decide whether the military is successful or not?

Clarke: Well, what we do is, we go back to October 7th, which was the day we started the military operations in Afghanistan, and we're actually coming up on the six-month anniversary of that. And we say, these are the objectives we laid out: we want to root out the Taliban and Al-Qaeda; we want to get the Taliban out of control of the government; we want to provide some safety and security so you can bring in humanitarian aid, which is desperately needed in Afghanistan; we want to prevent Afghanistan from being this free-ranging haven for terrorists that it was.

We still have a long way to go, but if you look at those benchmarks, if you will, the Taliban no longer runs the government. We have the Afghan Interim Government, which is trying to get the country up on its feet. We still have a ways to go, but we've pretty seriously debilitated and degraded the capabilities of the Al-Qaeda to operate in Afghanistan. We've surfaced some very important intelligence information that will help us piece together efforts to prevent future terrorist attacks. There are still pockets of resistance. It's still a very dangerous place, but we're making progress.

Van Susteren: But I remember early on that the president and even the secretary said, this was going to be a long operation. When you talk about long operation, do you mean in Afghanistan, in the area, or are you talking about worldwide, because we hear about pockets worldwide.

Clarke: Sure, we're talking about both. There is a global war on terrorism. If you talk about Al-Qaeda alone, it has cells in 50 or 60 countries. Afghanistan just seemed to be one of the places where it was operating the most freely, but in Afghanistan itself, we still have a long ways to go. I can't put a date on it, but there are still pockets of Al-Qaeda and Taliban. There are still efforts by some of them to regroup and come back. So we still have a ways to go.

Van Susteren: The other areas of the world, we have the resources to do them, are we focusing only on Afghanistan now, and we'll look to them later?

Clarke: No. We're looking for ways to work with other countries, and there are literally dozens and dozens and dozens of countries that are united with us in varying degrees in this global war on terrorism. So, for instance, Yemen, Georgia, the Philippines, we have plans underway and we are actively already helping them with training, and intelligence, and some equipment, so they can combat the terrorists in their own backyards.

Van Susteren: Does it make you crazy when you wake up in the morning and read the newspaper and see how the media reports the war?

Clarke: Not at all.

Van Susteren: So you have no problem at all with any of the reporting. The media gets it?

Clarke: I wouldn't say we have no problems, but we're blessed by the fact that most of the people who cover the Pentagon have been there for quite some time. They're very serious journalists who were covering the Pentagon and these issues prior to September 11th, and they take their work very seriously. They understand the balancing the needs, the need to protect operational security, the very fact that the information we're dealing with can and does put people's lives at risk. So they tend to be very good, very responsible, have very few problems with the coverage.

Where we do get into challenges sometimes is, we have the interlopers. Now, when the war is a really hot topic, what a shock, people like to come in sometimes and Bigfoot the stories, or people --

Van Susteren: Meaning what?

Clarke: -- who aren't even near the Pentagon -- well, if it's the number one story for weeks on end, you might have correspondents who have not covered military affairs before, who don't really understand what it is they're dealing with.

Van Susteren: Where were you on September 11th?

Clarke: I, first thing in the morning, at 8:15 in the morning, starting a normal meeting with my staff to go through the issues for the day. And I've told people, we were talking about some incredibly tricky issue that we were going to have to address that day on Macedonia, and somebody points to the TV screens in the room and says, well, this is the story of the day. And that was when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. And then, all the operations --

Van Susteren: Did you think that was a military story, or a military issue at that point?

Clarke: Well, the first instinct most people had, myself included, was from what we were hearing on the television from New York was, the first one seemed like it might have been a commuter plane, or one of the weather planes that was up, those sorts of things. The minute the second one hit we all knew instantly that this was not an accident, that it was terrorism, and we instantly knew, because all the communications that you'd want spinning up were spinning up that it was commercial airliners and it was a terrorist attack.

Van Susteren: So then what happened, I mean, eventually your building got hit?

Clarke: We were -- several of us were in a command center, and in contact with the other agencies, doing all the things that you'd want your government to do. Secretary Rumsfeld was still in his office, he was getting a briefing on another matter, he was going to be joining us. And we're in a room with no windows, we've got tons of screens up with different agencies, all the different networks, and felt this enormous thump and a big noise.

And just to show you how unfathomable it is of a commercial airliner hitting your building, even though that's what we were dealing with, as a matter of our business, and we knew that's what had happened in New York, when we felt this enormous thump our first instinct wasn't another commercial airliner. I said, it must be a car bomb. And somebody else said, it's a bomb of some kind. And, I kid you not, one guy sort of points to the ceiling and he goes, no, it's the heating and cooling here, it happens all the time. That's how unfathomable it is.

Van Susteren: Then of course, on October 7th things changed dramatically. I mean, I assume there's planning up until then, but we started bombing on October 7th.

Clarke: Extraordinary amounts of planning, again, if anybody has any doubts about how fabulous the military is, think about that. September 10th the last place in the world that anybody would expect that we would be having fighting going on and U.S. forces is Afghanistan. So we have very little presence in the area, we have nobody on the ground. Within a month, barely a month, we have started the military operations, and very quickly got to where they were very successful, productive military operations.

Van Susteren: One last question. Secretary Rumsfeld, he's become quite -- not only very successful in his job, his Cabinet job, but also a star. People like watching him. What's it like working with him?

Clarke: It's great working for him. It's very clear, it's very direct. A lot of places I've worked, after the principal, the head of whatever it is, says something then there's often the little clash out in the hallway saying, well, what did he mean by that and what does he want us to do. He is very clear, he is very precise. And we hear a lot of that from the American people. It is unusual for the Secretary of Defense to have such a public role. And he really is the spokesman for the war effort. It is unusual, some of the sort of conventional wisdom people question and say, is that a really good use of his time. We think it's one of the best uses of his time. And the American people really appreciate that he is straight with them, he's honest with them. He and the president have said repeatedly how difficult this would be, that it's going to be long and hard. They appreciate that kind of honesty.

Van Susteren: He sure doesn't beat around the bush, does he, when he speaks.

Clarke: That's for sure.

Van Susteren: Boy, he's plain spoken. Anyway, Torie, thank you very much for joining us.

Clarke: Thank you very much.