(Interview with NBC, Meet the Press)
Russert: But first, some tragic news. Two Marines are dead, five are injured in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. With us, the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Secretary, welcome.
Is there any evidence that this helicopter came under enemy fire?
Rumsfeld: There's not. It appears to be, at the moment, a mechanical problem of the helicopter, and, as you say, there are two dead, two critically wounded, and all of them now have been removed to a hospital.
Russert: And being treated. Are their chances of recovery -- are you optimistic?
Rumsfeld: Oh, indeed I am. They're the two critical ones. Of course, it's a difficult situation, and your heart just breaks every time something like this happens.
Russert: Osama bin Laden -- President Musharraf of Pakistan suggested the other day he may have died of a kidney ailment. Any evidence of that?
Rumsfeld: I have no evidence of that. You know, the reality is he could be there, he could be alive, he could be in Afghanistan, he could be somewhere else. We're looking for him. I think we'll find him --
Russert: Where else could he be?
Rumsfeld: Well, there are a number of places that are speculated about. He had spent time previously in Sudan, in Somalia. He has connections in Kashmir and in Chechnya. He came from southern Saudi Arabia, on the Yemen border there, so there are any number of possibilities.
But I don't think there are a lot of places that would like to have him right now.
Russert: Can we have closure, can the American people feel that the war on terrorism has been successful, without capturing Osama bin Laden?
Rumsfeld: Oh, indeed, yes. I mean, our goal is to prevent terrorist attacks on our country and our people and our friends and allies and our forces overseas. Osama bin Laden and Omar are not currently functioning effectively, leading their terrorist networks. They're being driven. They're running, they're hiding, and we're after them.
The reality, though, is that the networks still exist around the world, and we know that, and we simply must deal with that. And fortunately, because of the wonderful cooperation we're getting around the world, an awful lot of people are helping. People are being arrested, people are being interrogated. Intelligence information's picking up.
Russert: The caves in Afghanistan. "The New York Times" reported this the other day: "Many Pashtun tribal leaders in eastern Afghanistan have balked at cooperating with American special operations forces in the hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, weapons caches, and intelligence that could provide future terrorist attacks, military officials said. 'There are areas of the country where we have not been able to garner much assistance, and this is one of them. It's always helpful for someone local to show you the ins and outs.'"
Do we need more American troops on the ground to visit those caves?
Rumsfeld: The way it works is this: Your first choice is to work with people who are from that area in Afghanistan, and we've done that very successfully in any number -- in the vast majority of the country.
There are -- that's correct, the report. There are places where the local people were quite pro-Taliban, pro-Q. They're not willing to cooperate, so we've used Afghanistan troops from other parts of the country, to some extent, along with U.S. forces.
In any instance where we don't have local Afghans or Afghans from another part of the country, we're using U.S. forces and coalition forces -- there are other nations that are participating with us -- and we're -- we will use whatever we need to use to get that job done.
Russert: More Americans?
Rumsfeld: You bet. We're doing it now.
Russert: Should we have put American troops on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan to prevent Osama bin Laden from crossing that border?
Rumsfeld: You know, if you had -- let's, for the sake of argument, say instead of having what we have there in American troops, we had 100,000 or some large number, 200,000, and let's say you pushed through one portion of the country. There are porous borders all around that nation. The people would have gotten out anyway, to the extent they're going to get out.
What we did do is we got the Pakistani army to agree to do the best they could to seal that border. We have U.S. forces with the Pakistani soldiers. We have U.S. forces along the Afghanistan border, inside Afghanistan in key passes, and we have intelligence assets tracking what's going on. I don't quite know how one could do more than that, and I don't see the concept that additional U.S. forces would have made any difference.
Russert: "The New Yorker" magazine revisited a subject that we talked about in December, and they insist that in November, and this is the article, "In interviews, American intelligence officials and high-ranking military officers said that Pakistanis were indeed flown to safety in a series of nighttime airlifts that were approved by the Bush administration. The Americans also said that what was supposed to be a limited evacuation apparently slipped out of control, and, in an unintended consequence, an unknown number of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters managed to join in the exodus."
The point being in November, Pakistan was able to airlift people out of Afghanistan. Did that happen?
Rumsfeld: I do not believe it happened. I can't prove a negative, but our people have checked to the extent that it is possible to check. We have had enormous numbers of aircraft and intelligence sensors in various ways watching that area. No one that I know connected with the United States in any way saw any such thing as a major air exodus out of Afghanistan into Pakistan.
I have read these stories, I've heard these stories. I've never been able to run them down. No one has ever been able to run them down and prove them, and I doubt them. I think they're not true.
Russert: At the Republican National Committee meeting, Karl Rove, the senior political adviser to President Bush, gave a speech where he said the president would be able to point to the war on terrorism as a way of rallying the troops, in effect, in the midterm elections this November. The headline: "GOP touts war as campaign issue."
The Democrats are hopping mad, saying this is supposed to be a bipartisan effort. Is it appropriate to inject the war on terrorism into the political campaign?
Rumsfeld: It has been a bipartisan effort. While the Pentagon was still burning, Carl Levin and John Warner came in and joined me in a press briefing to the world on what had taken place. From the outset, it has been a bipartisan effort, and it is today.
Russert: Should it be used as a political issue in the midterm campaign?
Rumsfeld: Oh, gosh, I'm not into the whole political side of this. I've been busy with the war. I think that any president's record is subject to discussion in a political campaign, and so are congressional records, and that's what's going to be taking place. And to the extent things are going well, it's probably an advantage. To the extent things are not going well, it's probably a disadvantage, but I don't think it is a political issue at all.
Russert: During the campaign, the Republicans -- Governor Bush, Dick Cheney -- said that the Clinton military was hollow, it was not ready to be deployed. In hindsight, the Clinton military, the military that you inherited from the Clinton administration, has done a pretty good job, hasn't it?
Rumsfeld: The United States military has always done a good job. There's also no question but that it's a -- the greatest military force on the face of the earth.
Russert: And was prepared to do a good job.
Rumsfeld: It is also true that when one -- during a president's term of office, what he does with the military has very little effect during that period of time. Each president inherits what was done in preceding periods, and it is true, as President Bush has said, that we did need to increase the pay for the men and women in the armed forces, and I'm glad to say that the president and the Congress have done that, and they've received an increase that's much more competitive with the private sector.
The infrastructure had decayed and it is still decayed, and it will take now probably six, eight, 10 years to get it back to the place that it ought to be.
We do need to transform, and we're working on that, but these things take time to do. It takes time to run down a great military, and it takes time to build one back up.
Russert: Military tribunals -- very controversial when first proposed. Have you given some second thoughts to that?
Rumsfeld: Well, I wouldn't put it that way. I've given a lot of thought, but I wouldn't say second thoughts.
There's been a lot of discussion and debate and articles on this, and I think it's been kind of useful. It's kind of informed the public debate and consideration of it, and my impression is that the overwhelming majority of the people now who look at this concept agree that it's got a role.
We have the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which produces a just decision, and we have the Criminal Code of the United States, which produces a just decision, and throughout history, we've had military commissions, and the president thought -- properly, in my view -- that we may very well need commissions in this situation.
Now, he's not assigned anyone to be tried in a military commission yet, but there are distinctive things about this conflict that suggest that it may very well be a useful way of achieving--in a different way, achieving also a just decision, and I think it's a good thing.
We've been fashioning exactly what the rules and procedures might be, and we're not quite ready to announce them. We will be well before anyone's assigned.
Russert: John Walker, the American Taliban, his parents said that they have a lawyer for him, that they tried to communicate with him, the lawyer tried to communicate with him, all unsuccessfully because the United States government wouldn't allow it.
Rumsfeld: I don't want to get into a particular case, but the situation is that it's my understanding he has not asked to have a lawyer. He has been receiving excellent medical care. He's been receiving good food, and he was wounded. He's being treated properly, humanely, as are the other detainees, and he is going to be transferred to the Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of--
Rumsfeld: Oh, very soon.
Russert: The next day or two?
Rumsfeld: I don't know. It depends on when airplanes can pick people up and transport them to the proper place here in the United States, but I would think in the immediate future, several days. And he'll wind up, probably, in the northern district of Virginia and will be part of the U.S.--we have a just criminal system in the United States, and people do get treated right, and I think any suggestion to the contrary is basically coming from people who are not well informed.
Russert: The Philippines--650 American troops on their way to the Philippines, including some special op forces. What specifically is their mission?
Rumsfeld: The--I think that the president of the Philippines and the Ministry of Defense of the Philippines have put it exactly right. I doubt that it will be 650. I suspect--I'd be surprised if it was over 600, but there are really two things going on or that will be going on. One is we are working with the Philippines shoulder to shoulder to provide training in a whole host of techniques and things that are appropriate to chasing down terrorists.
You know there's two Americans that have been hostages there for some time--
Rumsfeld: --and the Philippines do have a problem with a terrorist network, and so we will have a number of people participating in that process of joint training and, second, there will be an exercise taking place for a finite period of time elsewhere in the Philippines at some point, and I think that it's--we look forward to it, and we've had a good long military-to-military relationship with the country. There's no mystery about it.
Russert: All training advisory, no joint combat operations?
Rumsfeld: The--it's my understanding that the Philippine constitution prohibits having combat forces of other nations--
Russert: Will we seek to rescue the missionaries?
Rumsfeld: Who's "we"?
Russert: The United States and the Philippines.
Rumsfeld: The Filipinos have four (thousand) or 5,000 troops on Basilan Island, trying to rescue the missionaries.
Russert: Will the United States assist them in that effort?
Rumsfeld: We will be participating in training with them in various ways, yes. We certainly are anxious to have those missionaries released or recovered.
Russert: China. A Boeing 767 plane provided, sold to the Chinese government for use by their president. It was discovered by the Chinese to have wiretaps in it in the headboard of the bed, in the lavatories. What do you know about that?
Rumsfeld: I have no knowledge of it.
Russert: Have you heard from the Chinese about it?
Rumsfeld: I have not.
Russert: Was it an attempt by the United States to eavesdrop?
Rumsfeld: I have no knowledge of that subject at all.
Russert: No one knows anything?
Rumsfeld: I didn't say no one knows anything.
Russert: Who does?
Rumsfeld: I have no idea. If I have no knowledge, how could I know who does?
Now, Tim, let's get serious--
Russert: I'm trolling. (Laughs.)
Rumsfeld: --you asked me. You asked me and I answered. I have literally no knowledge of that subject.
Russert: Will that be a problem for U.S.-Chinese relations?
Rumsfeld: I doubt it.
Rumsfeld: Oh, look, we've got two big countries, we have lots of interests in common, and I suspect that life goes on.
Russert: Saudi Arabia now is saying that we may, in fact, have to leave Saudi Arabia, leave Prince Sultan airbase--
Rumsfeld: Let me just correct that. I think more precisely it is that a newspaper has reported that Saudi Arabia might say that. To my knowledge, the Saudis have not said that. To my knowledge, no newspaper has reported that the Saudis have said that.
There was one newspaper article that has been copy-catted by other people suggesting that that's going to happen or that someone thinks that might happen. But to my knowledge, it has not happened--
Russert: So we're--
Rumsfeld: --and I would think I would know.
Russert: --the U.S. military's in Saudi Arabia for a long time to come?
Rumsfeld: Look, we are always in countries at the pleasure of the host country. That is the way it is anywhere in the world, it's the way it is with forces that are here in the United States. We generally have arrangements with them. This is a very long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia. How it will evolve in the future is, of course, up to the Saudis.
And--and--but I've not been told that, nor have other people in the United States government been told that.
Russert: Before you go, I was at the White House Wednesday and Thursday. I heard the president refer to you as a matinee idol. I picked up--
Rumsfeld: He likes to joke.
Russert: --I picked up "The National Review," and let me show you the cover: "The Stud: Don Rumsfeld, America's New Pinup."
How is your wife dealing with this?
Rumsfeld: Joyce is amused by the whole thing.
Russert: She gets it. (Laughter.)
Rumsfeld: She thinks it's all a passing phase and life will go on.
Russert: Sixty-nine years old, and you're America's stud?
Rumsfeld: Come on. Get on to something serious, Russert.
Russert: On to Enron. Thanks for the segue. (Laughter.)
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, thanks very much.