(Note: Colonel Schweitzer appears via teleconference from Afghanistan.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Colonel, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Hey, Bryan. I got you loud and clear, buddy.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you.
And are we okay technically here?
MR. WHITMAN: We're good to go? Okay.
Well, good morning here to the Pentagon press corps, good afternoon to you, Colonel Schweitzer. This is Colonel Martin Schweitzer. He's the commander of 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. He and his unit, Task Force Fury, are responsible for security and stability operations in eastern Afghanistan. He's been commanding his unit in Afghanistan since January 23rd of this year, and this is his first opportunity in this forum to speak to the Pentagon press corps. And we do appreciate you taking the time to do that today.
He is speaking to us from Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province. And he has some opening remarks that he would like to make that help set the stage for what his unit is doing out there, what the task force is doing, and then we'll take some of your questions.
So with that, Colonel Schweitzer, let me turn it over to you.
COL. SCHWEITZER: Great. Thanks.
Good morning, and thank you for this opportunity to discuss the incredible efforts of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Afghan national security forces, and our NATO partner from Poland, as part of Combined Task Force Fury, 82nd Airborne Division. I'll begin by providing a brief overview of our operations in Afghanistan since our arrival in January of this year.
We've been conducting operations along three lines: fighting the counterinsurgency; enhancing security by assisting with the development of and partnering with the national security forces, which are their army, police and border police; and developing and expanding the influence of the government through governance, projects, construction and in some areas reconstruction.
With respect to the first area, the combined team is fighting the insurgency by first separating the enemy from the population; second, creating effects with the communities; and then, finally, ultimately transforming the environment when the threat can no longer operate within.
On security, the Afghan national security force development and partnering is currently at different levels with different units. For example, the army is much further along than the police and border police. The Army routinely takes the lead in operations, and subsequently the coalition is in a supporting role.
The border police is a new organization currently being formed and at this time not operating independently.
With respect to governance and expanding the reach of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, we are fortunate in RC East, because we work with five governors who bust their tails to govern their provinces. They have many challenges, both with providing for the needs of the people as well as their own personal safety. I can tell you that these leaders demonstrate courage every day.
With respect to our internal operations, 1508 is currently serving in Regional Command South as the theater tactical force. They currently are conducting combined operations with the national security forces and our NATO partners in the Helmand province. These operations have allowed the provincial government to gain access to a once isolated population and begin badly needed humanitarian assistance and reconstruction efforts. 2508 is conducting operations throughout the western portion of our sector, where the insurgents have attempted to establish a shadow government.
Together with the Afghan people and their security forces, the communities are looking towards its government for the future instead of the Taliban. This is a recent and significant shift in that particular province.
2321, our artillery battalion, along with the national security forces are expanding the reach of the government to the people in the eastern portion of our sector by bringing services like police, leadership, health care and education to the people of Khost. Recently, this province has been targeted by the Taliban and others who are taking desperate measures to slow the wheels of progress. They have committed crimes against the people in terms of suicide bombings, school burnings and assassinations. These desperate acts only serve to further separate the Taliban from the people and show that their true goal of ruling is by fear and intimidation.
The best example of this effect is the recent demonstration in the streets of Khost led by the village elders protesting against the Taliban suicide bombers while encouraging support for the government of Afghanistan.
The 508 Special Troops Battalion are closing the mountain passes between Khost and Gardez from the enemy, as well as conducting operations in southern Paktia, allowing the government to engage its people.
In Paktika, on the eastern portion, our 473rd Cavalry Regiment and the 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment are actively separating the enemy from the population. They are assisting the government and the security forces and ensuring a stronger Afghanistan by disrupting the enemy's ability to move into Paktika.
The 3rd Infantry Division's 385th Military Police Battalion is critical in providing the mentoring, coaching and training that contributes to the development of the Afghan National Police throughout RC East. Our 782nd Support Battalion is seen all over eastern Afghanistan, providing logistical support to our paratroopers. They have assisted in the expansion and reach of the government by providing humanitarian relief as well as assisting people who cannot be reached by roads due to the harsh weather and mountainous terrain.
The four PRTs are absolutely magnificent in creating effects with the population while helping develop the capacity to govern. This ad hoc group of Americans, led by great Navy and some Air Force personnel, are doing selfless work, creating long-lasting effects in Afghanistan that will enable this country to sustain itself in the long run.
Finally, the Polish Battle Group: This is an infantry battalion that's being integrated into operations in RC East. This proud formation is well-trained and led, and it's going to be a privilege to serve with them.
Before closing, I'd like to briefly highlight the invaluable contributions of the Joint IED Defeat Organizations, sometimes referred to as the Counter-IED Task Force. In spite of increased IED attacks, the number of IED effects has decreased significantly due to the efforts of this unit. Simply stated, they are saving lives every day in Afghanistan. Their contributions can best be measured in the following way: More sons and daughters will return safely to their families when this deployment is over. And this organizations can take great pride in its contribution to that metric. I'll now take your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, Colonel, thank you for that overview. And we do have a few questions here, so we'll go ahead and get started.
Q Colonel, can you tell us a little bit about the type and the frequency of Iranian-style weapons that you are seeing coming across the border, and whether this is either increasing or leveling off?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Yeah, you know, frankly I think there's -- there may be even another question in that, so let me just kind of answer this in the following manner.
We've only seen a few number of specific weapons that we think are from Iranian origin. But frankly we've seen weapons that have a lot of origin from a lot of different countries since we've been here in January. And so did our predecessors, the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. So I -- you know, whether there's an increase or decrease, I'm not able to effectively measure that particular question.
I don't -- there's also a set of discussion points that I know is happening external on an increasing and enhanced Iranian influence and you know, how much is the Iranian government contributing to that? Look, I don't know that answer. Is there an Iranian influence? Well, we think that there is a -- that there may be an Iranian presence throughout the battle space. But is it state-sponsored? Is it state-sanctioned? I have absolutely no ability to link that together at this time.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead, Ken.
Q Colonel, Ken Fireman from Bloomberg News.
Your brigade is, I believe, on its third recent deployment. I believe you were deployed once before to Afghanistan, and also to Iraq before this most recent deployment. Are these deployments taking any kind of toll on your brigade in terms of readiness or morale or any other issues?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Yeah, let me just clarify something that you may not have exactly accurate. We're the 4th Brigade Combat Team. We were stood up in January of `06, January 27th, and our effective date of sourcing from the Department of the Army was the 16th of June of `06. So the brigade itself has not deployed, and this is the brigade's first deployment. There are -- one of the battalions has deployed to Iraq on a four-to-six-month mission in support of a particular mission profile about a year ago.
So there's -- this brigade -- I -- you know, it's hard for me to measure, you know, what's the amount of stress on the individual soldier. I can tell you this -- that the rotations that are ongoing right now and with the increased -- the recent talk of the extensions and all this stuff, you know, I've been doing this for 22 years, and this is kind of how I look at it. The Department of the Army senior leadership has determined a 15-12 cycle -- 15 months deployed, 12 months come back home station.
I'm pretty confident that there's a lot of smart guys like Dr. Chu and other folks in the building who put a lot of rigor and analytical analysis into this thing to determine what is best for the service and what is sustainable. They've come up with 15-12; I'm absolutely confident that that's going to work and that'll manage the pressure and the stress on the force.
MR. WHITMAN: Joe.
Q Sir, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. What could you tell us about the cooperation with the Pakistanian forces on the eastern side of the border?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Yeah, that's a great question, and again, I will only speak from the area that I'm operating in, the P2KGL, and that's the southeastern portion of RC East.
In my opinion, we're pretty fortunate. We run border-flagged meetings about every two weeks with the brigades from Pakistan at selected sites with the Afghan National Army brigade leadership, the Pakistan brigade leadership and the coalition forces. And over the last three months -- really, over the last eight months with the Spartan Brigade from the 10th Mountain that was here before us -- but over the last three months, we've continued to expand the communication, the coordination to create effects in the disputed border area where the enemy may be moving back and forth to take advantage of seams between the two countries.
So from my prism over the last three months, the coordination has been pretty significant, trust is starting to develop, in particular between -- with the Afghans and the Pakistan forces, and that's incredibly important in this global war on terror and the fight that's ongoing. So in short, it's been pretty effective to date, and we expect it to continue to expand.
MR. WHITMAN: Colonel, we're going to continue to move on. We have lost your picture, but we have good audio, and so we're going to continue here.
Joe, did you have -- do you want to follow up on that?
Q Yeah, if he can repeat his answer.
MR. WHITMAN: His answer, the entire answer?
Q If he can.
MR. WHITMAN: Colonel, there's a desire for you to recap that answer again, if you could.
Q (Off mike.)
COL. SCHWEITZER: Okay. Sure.
The bottom line is there's been enhanced coordination and cooperation with the forces on the other side of the border from Pakistan, and it's been executed through a series of border-flagged meetings at the brigade and battalion and company levels that has enhanced the communication and coordination to create effects against the threat that periodically attempts to operate in the seam between the two countries.
MR. WHITMAN: Very good. Appreciate that. We do have your picture back now, and so we'll continue on here too.
Go ahead, Courtney.
Q Colonel, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News. We've heard a lot about this spring offensive. We've been hearing about it for several months now. Has it begun? There's been sort of some incongruent reporting that -- whether it has begun or it has not or whether the U.S military and ISAF were offensive before the Taliban had their chance to begin the spring offensive.
And then also, can you give us sort of a status update in your area? Since the spring offensive began, are you seeing attacks going up and down and some hard statistics to back that up?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Courtney, let me see if I can answer it this way. I mean, I hope this is their spring offensive because it's not very effective. You know, I think what's occurred over the last three months, really what's occurred over the last eight months with the application of forces and the integration of the national security forces in areas where the enemy was trying to establish a sanctuary -- I think you combine that with good governance -- and the five governors in my area, going down there, getting with the population, and offering them an ultimate vision, versus just go to the Taliban or go to al Qaeda or go to Hekmatyar Haqqani. You know, those guys who just -- you know, basically they're hoodlums. But to -- instead of going to that avenue, the governors have been getting down to the people to offer them what the government can do for them.
And I give you that backdrop because their spring offensive -- we do -- we have seen an increase of some attacks. I would not categorize or qualify or call this a spring offensive, a coordinated attack or anything along those lines. It's exactly what we had predicted if the enemy was unable to command or control their forces, if the enemy was unable to properly organize. I think the Pakistan forces have something to do with that, with what's going on on their side of the border, and I think the Afghan forces, the use of the governors and partnering with the coalition forces has also created an effect that's prevented them from doing this big spring offensive that they've been touting.
There are increases -- some moderate increases in, you know, small attacks in some -- you know, catastrophic kind of events that they're trying to create, but we knew that would come with the good weather. Frankly, we're pretty convinced that the type of suicide attacks that have occurred, which are absolutely un-Afghanistan -- I mean, Afghans don't do that -- that's a real indicator to us and to the Afghan formations of the amount of desperation that the Taliban currently is incurring. They did not want to go to the suicide. They're trying to get to the hearts and minds of the people as well, and they're losing it when they start murdering the civilians, when they start murdering the kids.
So I guess that's how I'd answer it. No, we don't think this is an effective offensive. I kind of hope it is, because if that's as good as they got, we're in pretty good shape, and the Afghan national security forces are going to get to develop their capacity over time without being interrupted by this threat.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead.
Q And do you have any statistics to give us an idea -- I mean General Votel spoke with us last week and he mentioned -- he spoke about, you know, trends of attacks. But do you know any hard numbers, I mean numbers of attacks per week now versus a month ago or three months ago, or anything to show a trend?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Yeah, Courtney, what I'll do is -- I don't have that at my hand, but I'll have the PAO send -- my public affairs team send something back to the folks back there with some of the hard data that's at their fingertips.
But I can just generally tell you there's been a -- it's a modest increase from what we've currently been experiencing over the last three months. If I compared this time to what's occurred last April this time, I would tell you the border activities and border actions have been significantly reduced, and that's much -- in part, too, the fact that we've increased two brigades here, plus the introduction of the Polish battle group. So along the border, those activities have decreased.
We're seeing a bit of a spike on the interior, as we also had expected. It's not surprising, because as we cut off and disrupt the access back and forth between the border area, that's a lot of their C2 sourcing, so the folks that are on the interior are having to move around.
I think the last component to that modest increase within the interior is the fact that we've got two brigades in the battlespace. You know, we've put in an extra 5,200 soldiers out there and sailors, airmen and Marines, to get after it. And it's kind of like a contact sport, when you put more people on the field, you're going to bump into more people, and that's kind of what's happening.
MR. WHITMAN: Al, you got a four-partner for us?
Q Two or three. Colonel, this is Al Pessin from Voice of America. I wanted to ask you to expand on two things from your opening statement. One is where you talked about the shadow government that the Taliban is trying to expand in one area. Can you tell us about that and what you're doing about it?
And the other is about the Joint IED Task Force. I think you said more attacks but less effective. And I'd appreciate if you could expand on that.
And we're all dying to know what P2KGL is.
COL. SCHWEITZER: Okay. Great. The P2KGL -- and I'll take this back to front, if I can. The P2KGL is just the first letters of the initials of the provinces that we operate within. So we've got Paktika and Paktia, Lowgar and Khost and Ghazni. Those are the five areas that we operate within.
Reference the IED Task Force and its effects -- and just I'm going to ask that you bear with me on this. What I don't want to do is provide any of the specifics of the number of IED attacks the enemy has attempted versus the number that has actually been prosecuted or executed, and then subsequently what were the effects of those. I can just tell you I'm being absolutely frank and 100 percent honest that there is a significant difference between what they've attempted to do and what they've been able to do.
The enemy is also taking buck, and so when they're measuring this and we start giving numbers, they start putting it into their little calculations and figure out what they can do to ramp up and ramp down and modify. And that's why there's probably not the hard data at your hands, but we track it pretty closely. And I can just tell you this: that we're able to operate freely throughout our battle space, despite the attempts of the enemy to use those particular -- that particular tool.
And the problem is, you know, it's really frustrating. We understand; come after us. We understand that. We're the uniformed personnel, uniformed members. But the enemy's going after the civilians and the soft underbelly of the Afghan population.
We're very fortunate in Afghanistan that it is an un-Afghan-like type of tactic. And it is not accepted or received well, and it is backfiring on the enemy on their IO, and this is IO fratricide. And unfortunately they're still continuing to do it, but fortunately, you know, JIEDDO and all those great Americans are getting after it and reducing the impact of it onto all the formations, as well as the Afghan national security forces.
Reference the shadow government -- look, you know, there's this perspective that the enemy's going back and forth, and then it comes back when it's -- when they're ready to operate, you know, in the nice weather. I think we have a different look at this battle space. There is a lot of transmovement back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. There's also a certain number of people that stay dormant and then when instructed, come alive and try to start influencing the government and the governance activities at the provincial and district levels.
So we'll take, you know, Ghazni, for example. That's in the western portion of the battle space that we're currently operating within. It's led by a great governor, Governor Pathan. The shadow government that they've tried to erect there out of Andar and Qarabagh and Giro, which are some districts, what we've done to counter that is, move forces in. But it's just not coalition forces, because that's a U.S. solution to an Afghan problem. The best thing that we're finding out is putting Afghan forces, Afghan government, and the U.S. forces facilitate and assist with the security.
So for example, this is how you counter what's going on in Andar, and then I'll give you the specific example that kind of says, you know, two plus two does equal four. We've put a combined team down there in Andar, which is one of the historically troubled districts. This combined team was made up of Afghan national security forces, Afghan national army and Afghan national police.
They went and they did the inner cordon and inner security. Our forces did the outer security. They then brought in the governor and the district governor. And they ran what they call a shura, and that's a meeting with all the village leaders, to identify their problems, to see if we could bring needs -- we being the Afghan community -- bring needs back down to that particular district.
So they coordinated to do all this work, and then they said, come back in another week and then we're going to -- you know, governor will come back down and show you what the solution is to your problems or how they're going to help you out. So they ran this second shura in a school, and all the village leaders as well as the surrounding districts came to this particular shura. And during the shura, the enemy, the Taliban, came and started shooting rockets at the shura. And what we had expected to see, or we thought we may have seen, is a lot of pandemonium, running, getting the kids out of there, getting all the elders out, and then there would just be ANSF and coalition forces left.
What we saw was pretty incredible. We saw that the leaders got everybody calm, took the kids, put them in the school, came back out and continued the shura. They grabbed the microphone, and they said, "That's what the Taliban's doing. It's trying to kill our kids. It's trying to hurt our future. It's trying to affect us. It's trying to prevent our government from governing."
Look, I got to tell you, there's nothing that we could have done more effectively to counter this shadow government that they're trying to get alive, to come up and operational in Ghazni.
And so that's what we're trying to do. We try to create white space between the enemy and the population, with the Afghan national security forces, by separating them. Then we try to bring the governor and the other reconstruction folks down from the PRTs. We try to get the district governors, which is the lower level, and most importantly, the village leaders that represent those families to come together and let Afghans work with Afghans to create an Afghan solution. And I got to tell you, that has been incredibly effective in the last three months.
But frankly, we'd like to take credit for it, but you got to go back to 310, which is the brigade from the 10th Mountain Division led by Colonel Mick Nicholson. He really developed this strategy, and we're just getting the privilege to continue to grow it and expand it as it matures.
MR. WHITMAN: Mike?
Q Colonel, it's Mike Mount from CNN. You mentioned that the attacks are really starting to kind of focus on the civilian population now. Are you seeing any kind of backlash at all from civilians towards the coalition and Afghan troops in terms of anger that you all are doing more, or a lack of cooperation in terms of giving you intel or anything?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Yeah. No, that's a great question. I appreciate it, and I'll tell you an answer, and I'll give you a couple examples.
The first is, we have very pleasantly found -- and are surprised with -- there's not only zero backlash towards the coalition, the ANSF, but there's a demand for the people to get more army and police personnel down in their sectors to protect them from the enemy.
Now look, that statement by itself doesn't seem very complicated. But what's so significant is, it's all these border regions that have got these tribal relationships that are along the border, are stopping to look at other members of their tribe for the answer and looking to their government for help.
We are closely associated with the government forces, and we are enjoying a significant support, we think, from the Afghan population. But it's not because we're the U.S. or we're coalition. It's because we're partnering with the Afghan national security forces, because they're out front in the execution of this. We're trying to do the outer ring, so the Afghan security forces do the contact with their Afghan people.
In three specific examples -- and I highlighted one in Andar, but I'd like to comment on what I said in the opening comment about Khost. You know, Khost is -- it's a pretty developed city in Afghanistan, and it's been a target of suicide IEDs. We think it's going to continue to be a target of IEDs for the Taliban. And you know, it's just not working for them.
They keep doing this with their intention to be to intimidate the population, to have them stop looking at the government, to have them stop asking for the Afghan national security forces to help them, to have them say we're only doing this because the coalition's there. But the population is going: Hey, look, that makes no sense. If you don't like the coalition, hit them. Don't hit my kids, don't hit my family, don't burn my school.
It's inconsistent. So when I mentioned the previous demonstration that the Khost – (inaudible) -- have done over the last three months, but this is the second one they've done in the last six months, and that's pretty significant because, you know, look, this country's been at war for 30 years. The Taliban enjoyed a significant freedom of maneuver up till '01, '02. Now they're trying to come back in and instead of fighting ideas, which their ideas are just death and destruction, they're now really getting to a point where they're using these IEDs and they're targeting the population, they're targeting the kids, they're targeting the schools, they're targeting the medical clinics. You know, it's -- I mean, this is my second tour to Afghanistan, and it never -- I keep getting amazed how durable and commonsense bright the Afghan people are. They know this is a bad deal for them, and so they're the ones who are saying "no more."
It would be nice if, you know, we could say -- you put coalition in there and freedom would come. Here's what you do, you put a coalition force in there and you get the Afghan people to say "no more," and you get them to turn away from the threat, and you get them to turn to their government. And the great news is that word, that now "you" or "your" -- it's not "us" -- it's the Afghans doing it based upon their own decisions what they're seeing occur in the battlespace to their kids.
MR. WHITMAN: We've got time for about one more.
Go ahead, Luis.
Q Colonel, it's Luis Martinez with ABC News. You mentioned the need for Afghanistan security forces in your battlespace. Is there more -- a greater need for Afghan police than Afghan army, and if so, what is the requirement that you need? And how much longer will it take to get you what you actually need in those provinces?
COL. SCHWEITZER: Okay. That's great, and that's, you know, part one of the major lines of operation that we're working. And let me answer the last piece first on time because I know that's a hot-button issue.
I can't give you a time, it's conditions-based. And you know, that may not be as comforting to hear, but it's a fact. I'll just give a background. I was here in 2002. In 2002, there was one Kandak battalion that worked with my battalion, 3505 from the 82nd, and it was a set of unique operations that we performed together. Today, there are four corps and eight brigades. It's around 30(,000) or 35,000 soldiers in the ANA. The police and the border police, I think, make up around 60(,000) or 70,000. Don't hold me to that because I don't have the exact figures in my hands, but although that's a number, the training capacity is significantly lower than that of the army right now.
And so it's take about four years for the Afghan national army to become one of the most respected institutions in Afghanistan, which it's becoming, if it hasn't already become that, and we get that from the people. I mean that's where it really counts, because when we show up, they want -- they ask, "Where's our army? We'd like our army here."
But the police development is -- it's the focus of Task Force 82. It's one of the focuses of Task Force 82, my higher headquarters over the next year, as well as with Task Force Phoenix, and you combine security training command out of Kabul. We're putting a significant amount of effort of both training and partnering, and I want to emphasize that we're partnering because that's where you actually take what they're learning and applying it in the field, partnered and integrated in with U.S. formations.
And so that -- you know, that's what we're doing to develop that particular capacity. I know that you're really looking for me to say, okay, so how is that going to take. I can't give you that answer. I can tell you it's going to be a little while because you got to go through this whole cycle of storm-norm-form, and then be able to employ that capability in the battlespace independently.
If you're looking for some percentages, we've got the -- you know, the brigades that I get the privilege to work with -- already one of my battalions has been subordinate to a brigade operation from the Afghan National Army. We're going to be doing a series of operations here in the very near future, where my headquarters is going to be subordinate to the corps commander, and that's not just lip service. I mean, they're going to do the planning, they're going to do the rehearsals, they're going to have a mentor team not from my headquarters but from another headquarters that's assisting them as they develop this particular set of skill sets and capacities.
I got to tell you, I'd have never imagined that four years ago when I was here, never. And now I'm going to be subordinate to one of the corps here in Afghanistan for a series of operations, which I think is phenomenal. The ANP is not there yet, and the ABP is brand-new, so we've got a lot longer time with the border police than we do with the national police.
MR. WHITMAN: Well, Colonel, we have reached the end of our time. But this has been extremely useful and valuable to us, and we appreciate you taking the time this afternoon to answer our questions and to give us an overview of what your unit is doing there.
Before I bring it to an end, let me just turn it back to you in case you have any closing comments or thoughts that you'd like to make.
COL. SCHWEITZER: I do, thanks.
First of all, it's been a privilege, and I thank you for the questions, and I hope that they were helpful. If they're not, you can contact our PAO, and we'll try to give you more expanded answers. And we do owe you that one set of metrics that we'll get to you.
But finally -- look, as always, I'd like to thank two groups of people: the service members and their families. The troops can't thank them enough for their incredible daily performances of heroism, taking care of each other while assisting with providing freedom to 25 million Afghans. And they do all of this without asking for any credit. They just do it because they're great Americans and they're America's treasures.
And to their families, the family members, both mothers and fathers of each service member and their incredible spouses and kids for the contributions and sacrifices they make every day on behalf of our nation. They don't get paid; they just quietly pray for their loved ones to get the mission done and come home.
I stand in awe of both of these groups of people. Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you, Colonel, and we hope that we'll have an opportunity to talk to you again in the not too distant future.
COL. SCHWEITZER: Thank you.
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