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Special DoD News Briefing on Operations and Mission in Afghanistan

Presenters: Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, Commander, Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan
October 19, 2004 3:00 PM EDT

Tuesday, October 19, 2004 3:00 p.m. EDT

Special DoD News Briefing on Operations and Mission in Afghanistan

            STAFF:  Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us this afternoon.  A man who really doesn't need any introduction, but we rarely see his face in this room, but often his voice as he joins us from Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Barno is here in Washington and he's graciously given us some of his time to discuss the current operations in Afghanistan.  I did promise him that I would have him out of here at 3:30, so we will get started right away.

 

            Thank you, sir.

 

            GEN. BARNO:  Well, great. I've got a brief opening statement here today and then we'll be able to take your questions.

 

            First, I'd start off by saying that the Afghan election on October 9th of this year represented a significant milestone on the country's road to a brighter future.  Across the nation, the Afghan people went to the polls and cast their votes in the first election in more than 40 years, in the first truly democratic election in Afghan history, a monumental accomplishment by any measure.  After suffering decades of war and oppression, Afghanistan experienced the freedom of choice that democracy brings.

 

            Through their success with the election, the Afghan people demonstrated their courage and resolve to the world.  Voter participation on that historic day was inspiring by any standard.  Current projections indicate that the total number of voters will reach nearly 8.4 million, including more than 800,000 voting from Pakistan and Iran.  The Afghan people accomplished this in the face of terrorist propaganda and threats of intimidation and violence.  These efforts will forever remain a testament to the will and perseverance of each Afghan citizen, man and woman, that made their voice heard that day in a call for freedom and democracy for themselves and future generations.

 

            There are many stories emerging from election day that help illustrate the Afghan people's commitment to this process, and I'll take this opportunity just to pass on a few of them.

 

            The first Afghan citizen to cast a ballot on election day was a 19-year-old woman who had been a refugee in Pakistan.  She's representative of a brighter future for those once forced to flee from tyranny and oppression in Afghanistan's past.

 

            In northern Afghanistan, women at a polling station in Kunduz refused to move when a rocket landed 200 meters from where they were waiting to vote.  To leave, they said, would mean the rockets and the people who fired them would win.  These women would not give them that chance.

 

            In southern Afghanistan, in the Meruf (ph) district of Kandahar, there was a report of lines of voters stretching nearly 2.5 kilometers throughout Election Day.  High in the mountains of Bamian Province, a Joint Electoral Management Body -- or JEMB -- worker reported that voters began arriving at the polling station at 3 a.m., in cold temperatures, in a foot of snow, and waited for almost four hours for the station to open.

 

            Witnesses elsewhere in the country saw elderly people walking and being ferried in goat carts, amputees on crutches moving towards polling booths, and then late in the evening, elderly adults running to cast their vote before the polls closed, and all across Afghanistan, citizens dressed in their very finest clothes for this special occasion.

 

            These snapshots are part of the broader portrait of Afghan resolve, the determination of their people to finally be free.  By gathering peacefully, waiting patiently and casting their individual votes, the Afghan people determined that their future would be one of their own choosing and not one forced on them by others.  They delivered a clear message to the terrorists who sought to deny them that future, a message that has been heard around the world.

 

            Though many organizations contributed to safety and security of this historic election, I would like to make special note of the contributions made by the Afghan National Police and the Afghan National Army.  They deserve great recognition for their efforts around the country as they shaped conditions that permitted their fellow citizens to cast their ballots, an environment free of violence and intimidation, this despite many predictions to the contrary.

 

            In the week leading up to the election, often with the assistance of vigilant citizens, these Afghan security forces, along with coalition and NATO forces, discovered and stopped dozens of potential attacks, seized nearly 60 improvised explosive devices, recovered rocket-propelled grenades, artillery rounds, mines and explosives, and arrested 22 individuals carrying weapons, munitions or explosive devices.

 

            The overwhelming success of their efforts and of the election as a whole represent a significant defeat for the Taliban and al Qaeda, and a significant victory for the millions of Afghans who chose to embark on a great journey to freedom and self-determination.

 

            With that, I'd be happy to take your questions. Yes? Right here.

 

Q:  General, Afghanistan has reemerged as the world's top opium producer.  Will U.S. troops actively participate in the eradication of the poppy crop?  And if not, could you specify what precise role U.S. troops will play?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  We're assessing exactly how the military's role may be reshaped as we go into this coming year, given the significant threat that drugs is very, very clearly, without any argument, making to the future of Afghanistan.

 

            As we look at our mission in Afghanistan for the coalition military, of which the U.S. is a significant part, clearly we have a full plate right now, with actions we're doing around the country in counterterrorism, with working to build Afghan security forces, with assisting in the reconstruction through our provincial reconstruction teams now, 14 of those in the coalition across the country.

 

            However, we also recognize that the threat of narcotics, particularly as we go into this coming year, is very significant and threatens our overall strategic objective.  So we're assessing right now how the military will be able to re-look what our current roles are, within our capabilities and our missions, to provide further assistance in that fight.

 

Q:  Just to follow up --

 

GEN. BARNO:  Sure.

 

            Q:  -- you didn't say one way or the other whether U.S. troops will directly be involved in eradicating. So that is something that is under consideration now?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  I think -- to speculate a bit, I think eradication for U.S. troops would be less likely. I think we will play larger roles in assisting in other aspects of the drug fight, particularly in the interdiction aspect of it.

 

            Q:  General

 

            Q:  General Barno, no surprise that we would ask you this question.  Can you share with us, as broadly as you can or as detailed as you can, your current thinking about the importance of getting Osama bin Laden?

 

            And let me ask you a couple of specific questions.  In terms of the war on terrorism, is he symbolically important, as Ambassador Khalilzad said last week, in terms of the broader network? Is he still a threat to the security situation? Do you feel he's a threat?

 

            Do you feel that it's important to get him still?  And, do you still believe -- as I believe you said in January -- that you will bring this situation, I think your words were, "to a close by the end of this year"?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  Well, I think the first think I'll tell you is I retired my crystal ball, and I don't make predictions anymore in terms of when we're potentially going to get any of the figures out there that we pursue everyday in Afghanistan.  The leadership of the terrorist organizations, which Osama bin Laden is obviously the preeminent member out there, are important targets.  And we have a very focused effort daily, 24-7, 365 to find them and to bring them to justice.  And we have nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks who we owe that to.  So, he is an important target, but I would also tell you that I don't see any indications that he is in day-to-day command and control, as it were, of the al Qaeda organization or of the other terrorist groups that work with him, certainly in the Afghanistan Pakistan area.

 

            Q:  Could I just follow up briefly then?  When did that situation in your mind evolve to the fact he's no longer in control?  It's generally accepted, I think, that al Qaeda has morphed into some worldwide organization.  Is it now harder to get him because of that?  Is he less important actually?  Would it have been better in hindsight to have gotten him sooner after 9/11?  Would it have been easier at that point?

 

GEN. BARNO:  Well, it's hard to go back to the past and reconstruct pieces, especially since, you know, it precedes my time in Afghanistan.  Clearly, the terrorist organizations continue to morph and adapt.  Al Qaeda, the foremost among those. We continue to look at ways at breaking down their networks, and we've had great success in disrupting their operations in the area of Afghanistan, and I would include here not only al Qaeda but the Taliban and the Hezb-i-Islami that's led by Hekmatyar.

 

            The election itself and the great success we had on election day I think point that out pretty clearly.

 

            Q:  Can I follow up on that?  There have been a number of people that were detained at Guantanamo Bay who have been either captured again in your theater or have been involved in terrorism.  Can you tell us what those numbers are and what you think needs to be done to prevent that from continuing to happen?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  That doesn't sound like a follow-up.  It sounds like a whole new question.

 

            Q:  Well, it's related to terrorism and people involved in al Qaeda.  (Scattered laughter.)

 

            GEN. BARNO:  Very well. I can't give you numbers on the connection between individuals that were released and those that may be reengaged in terrorism.  We have had several visible examples of that here that -- particularly in Waziristan here, in Pakistan.  This is an imperfect process.  We work very hard to identify not only who needs to be taken in the front end of the process, but who we can remove at the back end of the process and return to, you know, civilian life as it were or return back to what they were doing before, and we'll always work to do that.  We don't want to be holding hundreds and hundreds of people if we can return them back and they're no longer a threat to U.S. forces.  But any decision on that, even though it's worked through a very, very comprehensive process, is going to be imperfect, and there are going to be those that should not have been released.

 

            Q:  General, can I follow up?

 

            Q:  General

 

            GEN. BARNO:  go ahead, Jim.

 

            Q:  -- a wholly unrelated question.

 

GEN. BARNO:  Let's go.

 

            Q:  Tommy Franks today wrote in an op-ed piece that neither manpower nor attention was diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq when the war started in Iraq.  As the commander on the ground, can you tell us whether the war – the substantial effort in Iraq has any way distracted or detracted from your ability to do what you need to do in Afghanistan?  And how many troops do you have there?  And given the fact that you haven't captured bin Laden or Mullah Omar, why wouldn't more troops than what you have there now help you do the job that you need to do?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  On the first part, I would say that -- I've been in Afghanistan just over 12 months now.  I have not had any instances during the time I've been there where I have had any limitation on what I needed as a result of ongoing operations in Iraq, as I've seen it.  We brought in additional troops on a number of different occasions for specific operations that went above and beyond our normal troop strength in Afghanistan.  Just during the election, we brought in a battalion from the 82nd Airborne to give us some additional flexibility going into last Saturday's election.  They're still in-country. We'll rotate them back out here in the not-too- distant future.  So we've had a lot of flexibility to be able to bring in additional troops to meet specific missions.

 

            Regarding our overall numbers there, rough number right now, about 18,000 U.S. and coalition troops operating in Afghanistan, and those numbers fluctuate up and down based on troop rotations and other selected missions.  But that has been a good number for us.  In fact, I would argue that our light footprint is an advantage, in many ways, in Afghanistan, and has really produced some positive aspects in terms of how we operate, how we interact with the local population, the tactics we use to embed ourselves in communities and neighborhoods, and work Afghan security forces and the Afghan government perhaps a little bit differently than we would do if we were even larger.

 

            Q:  And you couldn't use, say, double the number of troops?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  I think that would be counterproductive, quite frankly.

 

            Q:  General, as you know --

 

            GEN. BARNO:  The unrelated question first.  Go ahead.

 

            Q:  As you know, Yunus Kanuni and other candidates have talked about problems with that electoral process.  It was not overseen by the U.S. military; it was overseen by the U.N., but your people were there.  Have you had any reports of any of that kind of activity, any problems with people double-voting, that sort --

 

            GEN. BARNO:  We've seen all the reports, starting on election  day.  And again, the international observers who were present said there were no technical problems that would give any indication that the results of the Afghan election would be anything else than fully validated. So I think that's a pretty accurate assessment.

 

            We, as you point out, were not directly involved in the bona fides, I guess, as it were, of the process for the election.  But the minor technical problems I've seen, the issues with the ink on the thumbs and that, were relatively limited in terms of the area that they covered in the country.  It was not widespread across the whole country.  It was corrected very early in the day.  So I don't think there's any particular concerns that have caused me to have any doubts about that.

 

            Let me go here to the front.

 

            Q:  Yes.  On the opium issue, again, you said you already have a very full plate. Would you be looking at additional manpower if you took on a (n) interdiction mission there?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  What we are assessing is that if we were to provide a role to better enable some of the existing forces, the Afghan special interdiction forces that are trained by the United Kingdom right now -- if that force is expanded, which is all a very likely possibility, if we were to be able to provide more supporting roles in terms of intelligence capability, would we need some additional resources in country to do that? We're in the midst of looking at that right now.

 

            All the way to the back corner.

 

            Q:  Have you come across any evidence of cooperation or coordination between Zarqawi in Iraq and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  I don't have any direct linkage into what Mr. Zarqawi is doing in Iraq, obviously, since it's outside of my battle space in the Afghanistan arena.  That's being looked at.  Obviously, he's been out in the last couple days on television or through the media, stating that he is tying himself to al Qaeda as an organization right now.  We'll see if in fact that plays out in the course of events. But I don't have any direct information on his particular network in Iraq.

 

            Q:  Or any connection to the al Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  There's nothing I can really put my finger on right now in that arena.  So again, based on his announcement, we'll have to see.

            In the back row.

 

            Q:  Sir, I'd like to ask you about General Jacoby's report on the handling of detainees in Afghanistan.  I wondered if you could tell us what the findings were and whether you have plans to release that report.

 

            GEN. BARNO:  As you note, the report has not yet been released.  It's in a review process right now, which is primarily back here in Washington, D.C., at the moment. When it does get released, what I have promised our media in Afghanistan -- on several occasions I would sit down, face to face, with them and answer all their questions on the report and give them a briefing on certainly the unclassified aspects of it. So that's still some time in the future, to be determined.  But I intend to be out and to be open to any questions on that once we do release it.

 

            Q General, I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about the strength of the Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan now.  And also, if you could give your sense of recent comments by a Canadian general who estimated that the Western forces would be in Afghanistan for the next ten to 20 years.

 

            GEN. BARNO:  Well, on the second part, I did not see that report.  Are you referring to General Hillier, the Canadian general?

 

            If so, he was my counterpart in the NATO force there in Kabul for about six months, but I've not seen what specifically he has said, so I'd be averse to commenting on it.  In terms of the strength of al Qaeda and Taliban, I'm not sure if you are referring to numbers or are referring to their capabilities.  But here's one thing that we're doing right now, which is what do we think the meaning of the Afghan election was from the standpoint of the fact that the Taliban threatened; they cajoled; they intimidated; but when election day came, they essentially were absent from the battlefield.  They were not out there except in very very very small numbers across the country.

 

            Number one, that's a huge face loss for them for their role in that part of the world.  The big -- not only is it a big defeat to have the election take place, despite all their threats against it, and their specific targeting of the election process, but it's also a big defeat for them to make all of the threats they've made and then essentially not show up to follow through on any of those threats.  We're very happy about that, but it really leaves us some questions about their credibility inside of Afghanistan.  I think they're very vulnerable right now to the possible outcome here of a Taliban reconciliation program that would identify a certain number of criminal Taliban, maybe the top hundred or hundred and fifty, who are very serious individuals who have had their hands dipped in blood for many many years.  But then there's also a rank and file Taliban, and we get lots of indications through out services, our security elements, our military forces, Afghan security forces that many of these people in the rank and file want to come back into the mainstream of Afghan life.  They want to join this political process.  They want to join the economic development of the country.  They can see which way all the arrows are pointing, and they don't want to be living up in the mountains in the snow with an AK47 anymore.

 

            Q:  Anything in terms of the numbers?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  In terms of the reconciliation, I think -- my take is the bulk and the rank and file would want to come out of the hills and rejoin this very positive direction in Afghanistan.  That's going to remain to be seen when those waters get tested here, I think, over the next six months.  The new government, once it's elected I suspect, will look very seriously at that as a way to help redress some of these internal conflicts in the country.

 

            Again, criminal elements still are going to have to be brought to justice, but these rank and file, these foot soldiers, I think there's great opportunity there.

 

            Q:  (Off mike.)

 

            GEN. BARNO:  I'd be really hard-pressed to say.  We don't do good censuses on the Taliban, and so it's very difficult to put any numbers on that.  I think the number I've used before is a couple of thousand.  That's probably a good ballpark number.

 

            Q:  Well, first part, can you say whether you still believe bin Laden is in Pakistan, in western Pakistan?  And also, can you update us on the cooperation with the Pakistanis? Two months ago it seemed like there was a lot more activity, lot of Pakistani military and security forces on that side of the border. It seems to have died down at least --

 

            GEN. BARNO:  Well, the second part of your question, not so.  The Pakistanis have been very, very active, starting in about March and running right through, you know, when I left there a couple of days ago, primarily in south Waziristan but also now moving into north Waziristan.  They've moved units from the Kashmir into this area.  So they're taking it very seriously in terms of bringing experienced combat formations into fight the guerrillas or the terrorists.

 

            They've also extended their conventional units down much further south into Baluchistan into border areas to help seal that border during the run-up to the Afghan election -- an area we've never seen their conventional military working in before. They've had tremendous effect in the last six-plus months in disrupting the al Qaeda and foreign fighter networks in Waziristan, and have inflicted a significant number of casualties on them, by all accounts we're seeing.

 

            So I think they've done some tremendous work to disrupt what was a safe haven for both al Qaeda and for their Uzbek and Chechen foreign fighter partners in that area. So that's been a big success story.

 

            On UBL's location, we obviously don't know where he is or we'd have him in custody.  So it's not probably helpful to speculate since we really don't know.

 

            Q:  Sir, talking about troop levels, are you trying to leave us with the impression that you're on the down-slope now, that things are looking good after the election, that the Taliban probably are going to come down out of the snow and surrender?  Or are you pretty much on a plateau out as far as you can see, in terms of what U.S. and coalition troops will be --

 

            GEN. BARNO:  I don't think we know yet.  I think if I were to project, I'd say we're -- we'd stay about where we are.  We're obviously going to rotate out the unit that we brought in for the election itself.  And we'll continue to assess the security environment over there to see if we need to add a few more troops, subtract a few more troops. But I think the $64,000 question may be, here over the next six to nine months, is the Taliban reconciliation going to be rolled out, is it going to take hold, and what effect will that have on this Taliban movement in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani border area as well?  So the ultimate decisions on how many troops you need may rest on how that actually pans out.

 

            Q:  Can I follow up on that?  You mentioned that you thought more troops would be counterproductive.  Could you elaborate on that?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  I certainly think that twice as many troops would be counterproductive.  I feel very comfortable with the number of troops we have in-country right now.  I also, maybe more importantly, feel that I've got the support to be able to bring in additional troops for specific missions.  I can bring in additional air power for specific missions.  I can bring in a Marine expeditionary unit to do a certain operation for two or three months.  So I've had a lot of flexibility as the commander on the ground, based on what General Abizaid has provided, what Secretary Rumsfeld has provided to be able to surge in elements to do things and then bring them back out again.  So with that kind of good flex-force reach-back capability, I really don't see any need to build up the base beyond what we have now, which is being very effective, I think.

 

            Yeah, right here.

 

            Q:  This goes to bin Laden again. Is there any question that he is alive?  General Gary Harrell, the former special ops, he said on a television interview that a lot of his operators think bin Laden's dead.  What's the consensus of the -- is --

 

            GEN. BARNO:  Gary's a good friend of mine so I'd never contradict him, but I think we have to assume, lest we see some evidence to the contrary, that he is alive.  And right now, based on what we see out there, there's nothing that would indicate to us that he has died.  I think we will see some indications if that happens down the road, which it will obviously.

 

            Q Well, what, like with chatter, talking about our leader passing, or –

 

            GEN. BARNO:  I think that would be an event that will be noteworthy and there will be commentary on it.

 

            Q:  On the focused effort, can you give the American public a sense of this 24/7 focused effort to get him?  What does this entail?  How is it different from normal patrols over there?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  We have a dedicated element that works on a daily basis, 24/7, to focus in on the terrorist senior leadership and to develop and fuse intelligence to put all the different pieces we need together to help locate these individuals.  That's probably about as far as I'd want to go with that.

 

            Q:  This unit's in other government agencies?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  A dedicated unit.

 

            Q:  Thank you.

 

            Q Sir?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  Yes, ma'am.

 

            Q:  Would you describe for us -- we all, I think, have a pretty good understanding of Iraq and what that has to look like on the ground when U.S. troops can pack up and go home.  Would you do the same thing for us in Afghanistan?  Because I think it's probably a bit more complicated.

 

            GEN. BARNO:  Well, we're obviously at a much smaller troop level over there, with 18,000 forces coalition in Afghanistan right now.  In addition to that, there's about 6,500 NATO troops surged up about another 2,000 for the election to about 8,500.  We're there, as I characterize it, in-country essentially as guests of the Afghan people.  The Afghan people are our center of gravity for our operations in Afghanistan, and we'll be there as long as we need to be to get the mission accomplished.  And as the Afghan people grow politically, as the nation grows economically, as they get fully up on their own feet, as their security forces get stood up now -- and we're looking for ways to maintain the quality but speed that process for both police and the army -- I think when those factors intersect we'll be looking at, you know, how we can adjust U.S. force levels.

 

            The other unknown right now are, going back to the issue on Taliban reconciliation, is how will the Taliban terrorist organization change as a result of this great success of the political process, and will that in fact provide some opportunities to adjust U.S. force posture over there?

 

            Q:  If I could just follow up.

 

            GEN. BARNO: 

 

            Q:  Let's say all of that happens, Taliban reconciliation goes well, you pull back the bulk of U.S. forces.  What do you about that continuing hunt for al Qaeda leaders and -- (off mike)?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  Well, I think clearly that there will be an effort that will continue until those elements are brought to justice and the terrorist networks are shattered in that part of the world.  Again, al Qaeda itself is a global network, not simply a network that lives in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.  So that's a much broader effort than simply what I'm involved with.

 

            Yes?

 

            Q:  General, you talked about -- went into some detail about what the Pakistanis are doing in disrupting some of these terrorist networks in Pakistan. Could you go into the same amount of detail as to what U.S. forces are doing in Afghanistan to disrupt some of those networks?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  Oh, absolutely.  I mean, it's an ongoing day-to-day effort, ranging from patrols that we operate along the border checkpoints with Pakistan, to intelligence and surveillance platforms that we have flying over that area looking down to see who may be crossing the border, to gathering intelligence on enemy cells that are operating in particular at the border areas but in other parts of the countries as well.

 

            In addition to that combat-focused effort, we also have a very robust reconstruction-focused approach which is through our Provincial Reconstruction Teams. A year ago today we had four of these so-called PRTs in Afghanistan.  Today we have 14 of them just under the coalition, another five in the north under NATO. So that program has exploded intentionally because of its ability to help extend the reach of the Afghan national government, also deliver reconstruction, good governance and security out to many of these provinces.  And we targeted specifically the south and east of the country. Where last year at this time we had one PRT down there, now we have got across that south and east over a dozen PRTs.

 

            So it's a multifaceted effort, but it's not simply hunting terrorists in the hills; it integrates the reconstruction, the working with the village elders.  I've got lieutenants out there that are going and having tea with village elders and doing village assessments; and then that afternoon and evening getting ready for a night operation to take down a compound that they've got intelligence on a terrorist who's been operating to make an improvised explosive device; then the next day they'll be going down the road to another village to sit down with the local shura and decide what kind of reconstruction needs they have for (wells ?) and for schooling.

 

            So it's a very complex, interrelated puzzle. And the youngsters out there, the young buck sergeants, the young platoon leaders, the lieutenants out there on the ground have taken this to heart and are making this thing work on the ground.

 

            STAFF:  We have time for about one more.

 

            GEN. BARNO:  In the back.

 

            Q:  Again on the south and the east.  I've been told by officials here that the places where the insurgency is strongest are the areas where the U.S. troops are thinnest on the ground. Do you think specifically in those areas you could use more?

 

            GEN. BARNO:  We've actually ramped up our U.S. and coalition force presence going into the elections in a number of these areas that were previously viewed as Taliban strongholds.  You know, Oruzgan Province today, we have a Provincial Reconstruction Team, we have an infantry battalion.  A year ago, there was nothing in Oruzgan Province. Zabol Province, we have a Provincial Reconstruction Team, we have an infantry battalion. A year ago there was nothing in that province. So these are areas where -- you know, I think your information is probably a bit dated -- where six months ago or so that would be true, but today the areas where there is the biggest Taliban presence are also areas where we've got significant U.S. presence, not just combat presence, but that reconstruction and security presence as well.

 

            STAFF:  Thank you.

 

            GEN. BARNO:  Okay.  Thanks, folks.  Great talking with you.

 

            Thank you.

 

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