United States Department of Defense United States Department of Defense

News Transcript

Press Operations Bookmark and Share

Transcript


Secretary Rumsfeld Interview with the Washington Post

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld
January 12, 2002

(Interview with Fred Hiatt and Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post)

Rumsfeld: -- Anything that I say that I shouldn't have is off the record. I want you to understand that right now, up front.

Q: We can be a good judge of that.

[Off the record portion deleted.]

Q: Let me start with a sort of general one which I think will be on the record which has to do with the country's attention to this war and the administration's attention to the war.

You've been very clear that it's a long thing, it's not going to be over soon, it's not going to be easy, but -- and the president has said every day of my term is going to be --

But when you look at newspapers in Washington and there's the Enron scandal and there's politics and --

Rumsfeld: Uh huh.

Q: Do you sense any slackening not of support but of attention? And does that concern you over time in terms of support down the road?

Rumsfeld: I tend to think about and focus on things I can affect and I can't affect that, so I really haven't considered it much.

In the last analysis the American people have a pretty good gyroscope and they'll figure out at what point in this activity they need to increase their interest and attention.

There's no question but that the television images and the headlines on bombing and things happening on the ground, conflict, ordnance being seized from one side or the other is more notable from the news standpoint and therefore it tends to sustain attention.

The reality is this isn't how this works. It is going on today with every bit as much intensity as it was last month, the month before, and indeed every day since September 11th.

As I've said, there's always going to be things that are happening on the radar screen and things happening below the surface that people aren't going to see. That's just a fact. There's nothing anyone can do about that except live with it and go about the task.

We're gathering a great deal of intelligence information and from the closing of bank accounts, from the changed behaviors of people as a result of countries deciding that they prefer to be on the anti-terrorism side unambiguously than ambiguously or even on the pro-terrorism side. As they do that, they do things they haven't done previously. They go out and find people and put them in jail and talk to them and tell us about them. The interrogations that are going on with these hundreds and hundreds of detainees is producing information, linkages with other people who are of enormous interest to us. Indeed, in some cases other people that we already have in custody, and in some cases information about people we don't have in custody.

You get a whole set of things happening across the spectrum and for the most part not kinetic, which my impression of the American people, after living a lot of years, is that sure, the pendulum swings, one side a little too far and the other side a little too far, but at a certain point it gets centered, and they figure it out and they get it. They understand that this path is inherently a difficult one and one that takes time. And I think the linkage -- the potential nexus between terrorists, terrorist networks, and weapons of mass destruction is something that is sufficiently -- the size of that thought and the weight of that adds an impetus, an urgency to what it is we're doing, and I think people understand that.

It isn't something that suggests that the sky is falling or that the world is going to end. It is simply that we have to recognize we're living in a time when there are enormously powerful weapons on this earth and that there are people who, a lot of people, thousands of people, who have been very carefully trained in terrorist activities and developed skills on how to do it, and have precious little interest in preserving their own lives. We have always known that if someone's willing to give up their own life that they have a, for the most part, have an ability to take other lives. They aren't inhibited by the kinds of cautions that normally affect the rest of us.

Q: And the only way to respond to that is to --

Rumsfeld: There is no choice. We simply cannot defend in every place at every time against every technique. All the advantages would be the terrorists' in that regard. Therefore you have no choice but to go after them where they are. And to the extent you're able, preempt them. And to the extent you're not able, disrupt them -- their communications, their bank accounts, their ability to move from state to state and country to country. The heightened awareness, to use the president's phrase, that people are demonstrating.

Think of how people are behaving on airplanes. Their situational awareness, to use the military term, is notably different since September 11th. And that's true not just there. It's true in villages and towns across this country and other countries. As a result, more information comes in.

There are just an awful lot of things happening out there that are good and positive in terms of disrupting terrorists and terrorist networks and in terms of helping us put the pieces of this puzzle together.

[Off the record portion deleted.]

Q: But prior to that, I'm just saying you are -- you're not thinking about how to maintain people's awareness of the need to stay on these things.

Rumsfeld: I'm not. The press things I do tend to be to try to deal with inaccurate stories, confusion, things that are being reported in a way that insofar as I'm able to determine are not exactly how they may have happened, and to avoid creating a new issue which is that we're not dealing with the press and we're not providing the kind of information we ought to provide, because we do have an obligation to provide a certain amount of information. Not state secrets, but -- so we try to do that. It's a tough call, really.

But there isn't any way -- I will say this. There is an advantage to the public interest in national security affairs that results from the way the press have handled what's going on since September 11th. That advantage is you have people who might have been more interested in baseball or basketball or whatever it is in their lives, have allocated a certain amount of their time and their thinking and their focus to national security affairs which I think is a very healthy thing. It's a good thing.

We do live in a very dangerous and untidy world, and we do have a system of government where the people govern, ultimately. They elect the representatives and senators and presidents and vice presidents. And therefore, it's healthy for them to have that awareness, that level of knowledge, that interest, and it's a good thing, the fact that there are these debates and discussions in the national dialogue on those things. I think that's a healthy thing.

If you have confidence in a democratic system and in the American people, the fact that they are interested in these subjects, in my view argues that our country is more likely to make the right decisions with respect to national security issues, which given the risks and potential for surprise and the fact that we have to expect little or now warning for various types of asymmetrical threats, that's a good thing. Our country and our government will be better arranged, better prepared, and better able to deter things that need to be deterred and better able to defend if that's the position we're put in.

Q: Going back to Afghanistan, you said it's still going on very intensive there. What's your sense of the scale of the challenge that still remains there on the ground? Do you think there's still a lot of compounds and concentrations of people? Are there still large areas that need to be gone over and looked at? How much cooperation do you think you're still getting from the government?

Q: What government?

Q: Anti-Taliban forces, let's put it that way.

Rumsfeld: It's hard to quantify it, but first we have a very good relationship with the interim government. They are cooperative, they're responsible, they're finding their way, and they've got five and a half months left is all, and at some point they'll be, one would think there will be some other, there will be a more permanent government.

Their focus is essentially ours. They're concerned about terrorism, they're concerned about the reality that there are pockets of al Qaeda and Taliban that exist. There are not just a handful of pockets, there are more than that. The pockets are not filled just with a handful of people, they in some instances have hundreds of people. We're trying to find them, and when we find them we'll try to stop them.

The task in Afghanistan is, if one reads the newspapers and watches television, is Osama bin Laden and Omar. It's the most natural thing in the world to personalize things.

We've tried from the very first day to not have that be the case. We've tried to tamp that down. The truth is that in each case those organizations will go on just fine without those people. If they stopped today, UBL and Omar, they've got lieutenants who can operate that network and it will go right on. That's a fact.

Second, it's very hard to find people. It's like a needle in a haystack. Look at the ten most wanted and how long it takes -- some people 20, 30 years they're on those lists that are unfound.

But the most important reason why we've tried to depersonalize it is because it is less important than the network.

We have to get up in the morning and say what can we do that will best protect the American people and our friends and allies around the world and our deployed forces from additional terrorist attacks? Without question, the best thing we can do is to gather intelligence and prevent another attack, or plural, attacks, which is more likely the case. That has happened. Attacks have been prevented. Will all be prevented? No. But the focus needs to be to take this treasure trove of information that is growing every day and mine it and organize it and integrate it and disseminate it in ways that we as a country and as a coalition, collection of countries concerned about this problem, do the best possible job to defend our citizens.

So we're continuing to look for UBL and we're continuing to look for Omar. We've got people doing that as we sit here today. I was on the phone this morning with General Franks and Mike DeLong on this subject.

But the other job of doing intelligence is probably going to over time be more important. That's why we're focusing on it so heavily.

Q: What about the criticism you hear here and there that by relying on anti-Taliban forces as much as you did in places like Tora Bora, a lot of al Qaeda people got away through one means or another. In retrospect did you rely on them too much?

Rumsfeld: In every conflict a lot of people get away. It doesn't matter how you do things. If you have a lot of people on the ground -- if you're in a country like Afghanistan and you have borders with six countries, seven I guess counting China, I'll have to go back and recount. And very porous borders, rugged country, people are going to -- these tribes shift back and forth. They're nomads. They've been doing this for hundreds of years.

Second, you have a country where they tend not to like foreigners. So your question is how heavy a footprint do you want? Do you want to turn them against you by being too physically present, too much presence? And have them feel that you are the problem as opposed to the Taliban and the al Qaeda. Or do you want to try to use to the extent you can anti-Taliban forces, which we've done, and our forces as well, which we have done.

So if you think about it, along the Pak border we've got the Pakistani army, we've got our forces. Inside the Afghan border we've got Afghan forces and our forces. And we're using multiple types of intelligence gathering.

So I guess I am persuaded that the way we've done it, this combination, has been very workable and probably I would say almost certainly, have had vastly more advantages than disadvantages relative to the alternative.

Q: When you mentioned terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, my thoughts go right to Saddam Hussein. I know you can't talk about decisions the president hasn't made, but to what extent do you think it matters whether there can be proof of a link to September 11th? And to what extent do you think that people who talk about the Afghanistan model working in Iraq are blowing smoke or making sense?

Rumsfeld: I don't think in my position that it makes sense for me to get into subject like that.

[Off the record portion deleted.]

Rumsfeld: What do you do, editorials? This is what this is about?

Q: Yes. And columns.

Rumsfeld: So you do use columns.

Q: I have a column Monday that I will use some of this.

Rumsfeld: If any of it has been on the record.

(Laughter)

Rumsfeld: I was thinking it was all editorial.

[Off the record portion deleted.]

Rumsfeld: Thank you. It's helpful. I am very interested in these subjects, needless to say, and I think they're important.

Q: And we're very serious about getting it right.

Rumsfeld: And I appreciate that. I don't have time to read all the editorials in the world but my impression is you folks have been serious about the subject. I just got a blip this morning -- not you, on a newspaper article, but I don't recall any blips in my head about Washington Post editorials --

Q: I just wanted to ask about the agreement that had been made recently on basing rights in places like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and to what extent you think that as a result of those the United States is essentially committing itself to backing the security of those countries. Are we now entering into, inevitably into a longer-term security relationship with those countries? How much are we committed to defending them in some way?

Rumsfeld: Let me make a couple of comments on the record. One, if you think of what happened after World War II, everything changed in the world. Enormous things changed in the world. Relationships, connections, institutions, just enormous change in how the whole world was arranged. I suspect that when this is over we're going to find there will be significant changes in relationships and in maybe institutions.

But if you think of the things that have happened just since then, there have been any number of relationships that have become stronger. I'm looking at our country, but I'm sure it's true of other countries as well. And I think that's a good thing. I think that the new security circumstance of the world suggests that that's a healthy thing.

I'm not wise enough to know how those things are going to play out, but if you look at the decision made by Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, it's a big decision. Is it as big as Ataturk's decision to turn West instead of East? Time will tell, but it is a significant shift in circumstance in that part of the world.

Central Asia is a part of the world that of course is still coming out of its Soviet Union set of relationships and trying to find their legs in ways, and the NATO Partnership for Peace and the relationship for example between NATO and Ukraine, which is a distinctive one; and our relationships with those countries are different. Clearly the relationship that Russia has with them is different.

We met with the prime minister of Poland here this week, and he'd been to Russia very recently, and the comment gets made that Poland's relationship with Russia is actually better today, now that they're in NATO, than it was previously.

[Off the record portion deleted.]

Q: Thank you very much.

Rumsfeld: Thank you.

Q: Just to reiterate, I know you don't spend a lot of time reading editorials, but all fall when the pundits in late October were saying oh, they've lost the war and this guy was writing editorials saying sometimes it takes more than three weeks --

Rumsfeld: Oh, good for you. Good for you.

Q: So we do want to get it right, and any time --

Rumsfeld: They were counting eight, nine, ten, bang, it's over. Good for you. Thank you.

Q: Call us any time.

Rumsfeld: Okay, appreciate it.