BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs): Good morning, and thank you for joining us early this morning. It's my pleasure to once again introduce to you General Karl Eikenberry, who is the Combined Force commander of Afghanistan. He last joined you here, I think, in December. Wasn't it, General?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Right. Right.
MR. WHITMAN: Yes. And he has been back in the United States for a few days and has graciously agreed to give us some time to bring us up to date on things that are going on in Afghanistan and to take some of your questions. And so I don't want to waste any of the time at all, and get you right up here, General.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Thanks, Bryan.
Good morning. Some four and a half years ago, the U.S.-led coalition began military operations in Afghanistan, with two missions: first, to defeat al Qaeda and their Taliban allies, and second, together with the Afghan people and the international community, to help create the conditions where international terrorism could never again find witting support and sanctuary.
Viewed from the baseline of October 2001, the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, the progress made to date in Afghanistan is significant, but challenges do remain. We are winning, but the war is not yet won.
The coalition continues to attack, disrupt and maintain pressure on al Qaeda and its associated terrorist movements. The Afghan national security forces, both the army and the police, steadily grow in strength and in capability. And ongoing reconstruction projects across the country are improving the lives of the Afghan people.
Still, there is much work ahead, and the international community must remain patient and maintain uncompromising commitment to Afghanistan's success if we are to prevail.
Today that commitment is demonstrated by the growing role of NATO and its 26 member nations in Afghanistan. This summer NATO's command in Afghanistan, known as the NATO International Security Assistance Force, or NATO ISAF, will expand its areas of operation from northern and western Afghanistan to southern Afghanistan.
It is anticipated thereafter NATO will assume responsibility for all of Afghanistan.
But it is important to remember that the United States, as a NATO member, will remain the single largest contributor of troops and capability as the NATO-ISAF mission expands. The United States military will maintain its counterterrorism forces to strike al Qaeda and its associated movements whenever and wherever they are found. Moreover, our military will continue to play a central role in the training and the equipping of the Afghan national security forces, and we will maintain our important contribution to Afghanistan's reconstruction.
In addition to the transition from U.S.-led coalition to NATO- ISAF international military leads, Afghanistan's continued development will be marked by three other transitions. The second transition underway is the increasing emphasis by the government of Afghanistan and by the international community on the non-military aspects of our collective efforts. In essence, these efforts aim to rebuild Afghanistan's middle ground; that is, the civil society of Afghanistan ravaged by three decades of warfare and terrorism.
Throughout Afghanistan's 34 provinces, rebuilding the middle ground remains the primary concern of the Afghan people. A recent poll of Afghans showed that 80 percent see economic reconstruction, not security, as their number one need. To further enhance security and stability, the government of Afghanistan and the international community must work together to improve governance, the rule of law, economic infrastructure and social services.
The third transition is from international to Afghan lead in all aspects of the Afghan state. The growth in size and capability of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police is one of the most visible and important aspects of this transition. The Afghan national security forces, partnered with coalition and NATO units, are expanding their reach and presence more widely within the country.
Over time, they will increasingly play the major role in ensuring the stability of their nation.
The fourth and final transition relates to the need to find cooperative approaches to fight against international terrorism. Afghanistan, Pakistan and the international community are threatened by a common enemy. We have endeavored to adopt a coordinated military approach to address this threat, working to improve our combined operational effectiveness and build mutual confidence.
For example, on April the 19th, I represented the United States at the 16th session of the Afghan-Pakistan-U.S. Tripartite Commission at Rawalpindi, Pakistan. This session, like those before it, served to further cooperation between the coalition, NATO ISAF, Afghanistan and Pakistan military forces. We aim to expand information sharing, communications and personal interactions at all levels of command.
Of note, tomorrow May the 11th will mark the final day of Exercise Inspired Gambit, a military training exercise that for the first time ever involves the combined elements of the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan armed forces.
In my discussion of the progress in Afghanistan, I do not want to discount the enormous obstacles that remain. Most pressing, narcotrafficking and related government corruption could threaten the long-term viability of the Afghan state. However, we should not be daunted by these challenges. Instead, we should take stock of the tremendous progress that Afghanistan and the international community have made to date, and apply that same commitment to the difficulties that lie ahead.
Thank you, and I'd like to take your questions now.
Q General, considering that there seems to be have been some spikes in violence lately, are you seeing increased collaboration between al Qaeda and the Taliban? And do you think this is going to have an impact on how quickly you can turn over some sections of the country to the NATO force? It appears as though there are also -- there's a very slight increase in the number of U.S. troops that are there -- twenty to twenty-three-ish thousand. So is this a trend we're going to see?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Lolita, the -- first of all, with regard to the security in Afghanistan, it's uneven across different places of Afghanistan.
For instance, in eastern Afghanistan, right now in Nuristan and in Konar, in the eastern sectors, where we and the Afghan national army are conducting offensive operations and have economic reconstruction projects moving forward, the security there is much better than it was a year ago in the southeast of Afghanistan as well in the main, as the government of Afghanistan continues to expand and strengthen good progress there.
In southern Afghanistan, there has been increases in incidents of violence that have occurred over the spring compared to last year's baseline.
Several points there I'd make that are important to understand, and when we talk about security in Afghanistan more broadly. First of all, important that violence in Afghanistan is not all attributable to Taliban, not all attributable to international terrorism. Indeed in the south, if that's the area that we'd want to focus on right now, you have challenges of criminality, you have challenges of tribal fighting, you have narcotrafficking, and indeed you do have a Taliban influence there.
What I would say is that in southern Afghanistan there is several districts that are located in northern Kandahar province -- and, Tom, maybe you want to point to those -- in northern Kandahar, in northern Helmand, and in Oruzgan, where it's fair to say the Taliban influence in certain areas is stronger than it was last year. Important, as we talk then about how we'll proceed ourselves and how NATO-ISAF will proceed over the summer and through the fall, back to different sources of violence, I would tell you, and as I said in my opening remarks, that the solutions to these challenges are not necessarily in the main in the military domain.
What will happen over the spring and the summer and the fall as NATO continues to expand its presence and then takes over the mission in the south, well, several things. First of all, President Karzai has had great success over the past year of continuing to improve the quality of the governors throughout Afghanistan, but especially in southern Afghanistan. There's been improvements that are being made now with the Afghan National Army. As they gain more strength, there'll be more presence of the Afghan National Army in the south and spreading out to more bases, partnered with our forces, partnered with NATO forces.
Importantly, the police reform continues to move forward. So more police being stationed in the south; but as well, police reform, as it starts to take hold, there'll be improvements in the quality of the police. And then, I would also say, there'll be more reconstruction efforts that are taking place. And very importantly, as we talk about NATO-ISAF transition, as we proceed through the summer, NATO, at the end of transition, which could occur -- the expansion should occur perhaps by the end of July, at that point in time, NATO collectively will have a much larger presence on the ground in southern Afghanistan than we do to date.
So increase of violence in the south -- the enemy's changed tactics. I am confident, over the course of the spring and the summer and the fall, with these transitions that are under way, of which NATO ISAF will play a very important part of those transitions, that the situation will improve by the end of this year.
Q General, could you please forecast U.S. force levels in Afghanistan over the rest of this year? And then could you also say how long do you anticipate U.S. forces would need to remain in the country in significant numbers?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: The -- I wouldn't want to -- I would not want to speculate on numbers. The first immediate piece that we're looking at is the transition here to stage three and the NATO ISAF assumption of the command in the south. And then after we get that piece set, there will be adjustments that take place as NATO then starts to look hard at the final stage for transition.
As I said in the opening remarks, the United States will be the largest contributing troop country to that entire force. We will be the largest provider of critical capabilities, such as helicopters, close air support, intelligence capabilities. But I would not want to speculate on numbers at this time. At some point here, as we look at each one of these transitions, I'll be making specific recommendations to General Abizaid, who in turn of course will be going to the secretary of defense with those recommendations.
Q Just to follow up for a second, because the 23,000 -- I think a lot of people thought you were going to be lower than that right now. I mean, do you think it's possible that you remain at around the current level for the remainder of the year?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: I wouldn't want to speculate on that. And there will be force adjustments that are made.
We'll also -- remember, beyond our -- beyond the mission of the support for NATO ISAF, that a member of NATO ISAF will have the counterterrorist mission. We also have the mission of the training of the Afghan national security forces, with NATO probably playing an increasing role there. But there's a set of variables that still remain before I could go back with a very specific recommendation on force levels.
Q General, can you bring us up to date on the hunt for high-value targets, like bin Laden, Mullah Omar, other remnants of the Taliban regime?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: The -- I'd tell you that the campaign against al Qaeda goes on in an unrelenting way, in a very focused way, by our forces in Afghanistan and by the other elements of the United States government that are partnered in that endeavor.
We've made very good progress, I think, over the course of the past year in continuing to strike the network of al Qaeda wherever we find it. There has been disruption that has occurred within their middle leadership and some of their higher leadership, but the fight goes on.
Q General, you've undoubtedly addressed this before, but I'm still trying to understand the sort of dividing line between the NATO force and your forces, the counterterrorism mission versus the mission that they're undertaking. Will they be doing offensive operations -- NATO, that is -- in the south? And will they be going after, for example, Taliban elements that might still be there?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: The NATO mission is to further stability in Afghanistan, and an array of missions that go with that, missions that we within the coalition are conducting every day. Part of those missions in terms of stability operations does have to do with fighting the enemies of the state of Afghanistan, of which Taliban is included, of course, in that group.
For the United States, we will maintain, even as the NATO ISAF mission proceeds, though, this capability to strike against the -- as we say, the high-value targets or the al Qaeda structure. We will maintain that capability ourselves within Afghanistan.
Q Does that mean that -- I mean, I know this is somewhat of a fungible definition, but that you wouldn't go after Taliban concentrations of people? I mean, is that what you're saying, that you would focus primarily on al Qaeda and not worry as -- or leave to NATO the job of containing Taliban?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: No. Let me emphasize again that the United States -- there is no distinction between the United States and NATO. Our forces, when the NATO ISAF transition -- as it continues, we will have combat forces in southern Afghanistan under NATO. We will have the large part of the combat forces in eastern Afghanistan under NATO. And like NATO, all of those forces are committed to the fight against the enemies of Afghanistan.
Q Sir, you said that the enemy has changed tactics. Could you elaborate on that? And could you also discuss -- I think 2005 had a dramatic increase in U.S. casualties in Afghanistan over the previous years, what the reasons were for that and how you're addressing it?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: The enemy has changed its tactics over the past year.
We've seen the enemy has shifted to increasing use of improvised explosive devices. There's been an increase in suicide bombings; albeit in Afghanistan with the baseline that you begin with for suicide bombings is quite low. So total numbers not -- total numbers have increased, but relative to a low baseline there.
So the enemy has changed tactics. Why has the enemy changed its tactics? Well, first of all, going back to last spring and summer, when Taliban masked its forces, especially in the southeast and the south, and they were discovered by coalition forces and the Afghan National Army using our capabilities, we were able to deliver, in several instances of the course of the spring and the summer, some very decisive defeats to those Taliban forces that had masked.
I think that the enemy's adapted to that now and is much more cautious about trying to mask forces. So a preferred tactic then is improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers. We concentrate when we talk about incidents that are occurring out there; we talk about those. But look at the other aspects of what the enemy's doing right now -- the enemy intimidation campaign against moderate religious leaders, intimidation campaign against moderate tribal leaders who support the state of Afghanistan.
We find the Taliban burning down schools and coercing in certain instances and districts the closure of schools. What does that tell you about the enemy? What it tells you about the enemy when you look at those tactics is what the enemy fears is a continuing strengthening of the state of Afghanistan. The Afghan people in 2004 and 2005, they voted in overwhelming numbers for a new state of Afghanistan, and what the enemy is clear from the use of those tactics, that's what they fear, that building of the middle ground of Afghan society.
Q We were briefed on Afghanistan last month. We were told of Afghan efforts to conduct counternarcotic operations in Helmand province. Can you talk a little bit about what those -- update us on those operations? And if U.S. troops are reluctant or unable for whatever reason to do their counternarcotics operations themselves, why is that? If that's true, why is that?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Well, first of all, with the U.S. military, the -- we are not the lead for what is a law enforcement operation, and counternarcotics is a law enforcement operation. Having said that, that we do provide a great deal of support for those operations. In what domains? First of all, we provide intelligence support for those operations. We provide when those operations are conducted, if there's a requirement for medical evacuation or, in extremis, if close air support would be needed, we provide that.
We provide helicopter support that can be used to deliver counternarcotics forces to the general area of where they might have to conduct operations. So indeed we do provide a very important support role for counternarcotics operations.
Now, as to the government of Afghanistan and the operation in Helmand province, Helmand has traditionally been a province over the last decade where there's been a huge production of poppy. This year was the most sophisticated effort and the largest-scale effort by the government of Afghanistan, very much with us providing planning support and advice, for the government of Afghanistan to take on the challenges of eradication on a quite large scale. So there was a very good effort between a very brave governor in Helmand province, Governor Daoud, cooperating and partnered with the Ministry of Police of Afghanistan and eradication forces, and then backed up by the Afghan National Army, to move into Helmand province and conduct eradication on a much larger scale than has ever been attempted.
Having said that, this problem of narco-trafficking in Afghanistan -- you know, the estimates of the scope of the problem right now -- one forecast or one estimate is that half the size of the licit economy of Afghanistan may be equaled by narco-trafficking. So whether that's exactly correct or not, it's a problem of enormous dimensions.
And this problem, in order to solve it, requires a very sophisticated, comprehensive approach. There's law enforcement. There's a need to provide alternative livelihoods to the farmers of Afghanistan. There's a dimension of eradication. There's public education -- very comprehensive and, I'd also say, very long-term.
You know, the problems that we've seen in South America, the problems that we saw in Thailand -- those problems have taken many, many years to address.
I think that the government of Afghanistan remains committed. President Karzai remains very committed to the battle against narco- trafficking and to poppy production. But it's going to require a very long-term sustained effort by his government and by the international community to prevail.
Q I want to come back to the issue of bin Laden. Many people say that the Taliban now has significantly taken some control in areas across the border in Waziristan. What does -- can you give us your assessment of that, what that means in terms of a safe haven, because by all accounts, bin Laden remains on that side of the border, unless you tell us he's moved back into Afghanistan.
So is it your view that he is, in fact, still getable? Can you get him? Because you don't cross the border into Pakistan.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Barb, I wouldn't want to -- I don't want to speculate on bin Laden's whereabouts. The -- you know, the fight against the al Qaeda network continues. The fight against the network in a very comprehensive sense is the fight that we've got to remain focused on. Bin Laden remains one man -- he does remain a man, though, in terms of the need for us to find him to bring to closure his attacks against the United States and the international community -- that's a commitment that we maintain every day, and we will not rest until we find and capture or kill bin Laden.
Now, about the network that you're talking about, though, and the piece that your questions address to about that broader area of Afghanistan and Pakistan -- Barbara, what I'd say there is that, as I said in my opening remarks, we work well with the Pakistan military and the Afghan military. I think the operational coordination that we've got in place along the border in terms of communications, sharing of information is about as good as it's ever been. The Pakistan army right now in Waziristan is conducting very intense combat operations. They've taken a good number of casualties, and it's against a common enemy.
Q General --
Q What's your assessment, though, of Taliban control along the Pakistani side of the border?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: The -- I'd refer that to Pakistan government authorities to give their assessment. But we've heard public statements that have expressed concern on their part about what they call the Talibanization of the Waziristan area.
Q General, I'd like to get back to this question about IEDs and suicide bombers.
Last week, General Karimi of the Afghan security forces said that the suicide bombings and IEDs have involved Arabs, presumably connected to al Qaeda. Do you have a better understanding about who exactly is conducting these attacks, where the technology has come from? Has it, in fact, migrated from Iraq? And are these weapons becoming as sophisticated and the techniques and tactics as sophisticated as those that have been employed in Iraq?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: The influence of foreign fighters and those foreign fighters affiliated with al Qaeda -- yes, that has a connection to what we are seeing in Afghanistan. I'd highlight again it has a connection to what is being used to attack the Pakistan army in -- within Pakistan.
The foreign fighters that we see and their presence there, primarily in the area of training, facilitation, providing of technical expertise. We have not seen any kind of significant foreign fighter presence within Afghanistan.
With regard to the tactics, techniques and procedures, we have not seen conclusive evidence that there has been any migration from Iraq to Afghanistan of foreign fighters that are bringing with them skills or capabilities. On the other hand, we have seen a steady increase in the sophistication of IEDs, a increase in the sophistication of tactics, but these are the kind of techniques, these are the kind of skills that, very frankly, in today's information age can be gleaned from the Internet and be gleaned from Web pages and can be improved by a force that's operating against you over time as they continue to adapt their own tactics. But we do watch this very carefully for linkages between the two theaters.
Q And since the IEDs have proven to be the number-one killer of American forces in Iraq, how big a concern are these developments, this increased sophistication in those tactics and techniques?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Well, I'll tell you that as throughout the United States Central Command area, there is a huge devotion of resources to countering this threat, a very comprehensive, very sophisticated program that not only gets at the equipment but, very importantly, gets at the training of our soldiers and, very importantly, gets at improving our intelligence.
For instance, in areas of Afghanistan where the government of Afghanistan continues to advance and the people now start to gain more security, they develop that middle ground, it's in those areas that our IED attacks drop off, because the people of Afghanistan then are very comfortable in reporting elements that are moving into their area that are trying to attack us.
Another point I'd make on IEDs, though, again, this is truly a combined effort. It's not just the United States and our coalition. Increasingly NATO ISAF, very much the Afghan National Army, very much the Pakistan military. And we do have forums that exist and organizations that exist in which we're able to share our own tactics, techniques and procedures and able to compare our own experiences in order to get a firmer understanding of that same enemy that's in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Please.
Q Could I ask you about the thefts of flash drives at Bagram Air Force Base?
It did seem, at least from one of the LA Times reports, is there was some evidence that the initial security reforms may not have stopped the flow of those drives. I wonder if you could talk about that and also talk about any, in general, any steps you might have done to protect informants whose identities might have been compromised by the theft.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: The incident that you're talking about, the disappearance of the thumb drives with information on them and their reappearance in bazaars outside of our military base at Bagram Air Force Base, let me emphasize that we treat that very seriously for a variety of reasons.
One of the questions that you've asked here is in terms of protection of people. For that and many other reasons, we take that extremely seriously. Things that we've done since then, first of all, I can't comment on the details of the investigation itself because there's an ongoing criminal investigation about the disappearance of that particular thumb drive. We have reviewed very carefully our procedures throughout Afghanistan, and we've taken very firm steps to ensure that the policies that we had in effect are being fully enforced, and we've put new policies in effect as well.
Thirdly, of course, we did a very careful review of all the information that we gleaned in from the information that was recovered to do an assessment of any kind of vulnerability that that created, and I'm very comfortable at this point in time that we've taken the necessary steps to provide safeguards to any individual into our own operational security.
But what you're left with here is that with this kind of problem and this kind of challenge, I think all of us that continue to move through the 21st century in the information age, it's a reminder to -- it was a reminder to my command -- I think probably a reminder to all -- that as this technology of information continues to advance, continuing to need in a very disciplined manner to go back and ensure that procedures that are in place are adequate to safeguard your information security.
You know, something as a thumb drive, for instance, as a young lieutenant a few years ago, as I looked at -- was given a weapon with a serial number on it, I knew exactly how to safeguard that. Now we're in the 21st century where a small thumb drive has probably more potency and more needs for protection than that first case I gave.
So this is something that all of us within our command are looking at very hard, and it's going to pose a challenge for us as we move forward and technologies continue to evolve.
Q Do your soldiers treat the thumb drive as carefully as they treat their weapon, and do they have control over that thumb drive in the same way as they do a weapon?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Absolutely.
Q You said that Taliban influence on -- Taliban influence has increased in certain areas. I'm just wondering what evidence you have of this and what's causing it and maybe the changing tactics -- what evidence you have of the Taliban resurgence?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Our intelligence and just our presence with the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Army, our coalition forces. The governance of Afghanistan out in the districts gives us a sense that the number of Taliban fighters in certain districts in the northern Kandahar, Helmand and Oruzgan area may have increased over the past several months.
Reasons for that, the reasons for it are very broad. If you get back to the starting point that what our collective challenge is is building the middle ground of Afghan civil society so that people have something firm to stand withon and then have a security perimeter around that, over the period of the last several years, then the need for, in southern Afghanistan, better governance to emerge. President Karzai has addressed that. A police program that is starting to deliver results now in southern Afghanistan but was not delivering the same kind of results, say, last year that the Afghan National Army program was able to deliver.
So it's a question in southern Afghanistan in certain of these districts, once again, it's not necessarily the strong enemy, it's the very weak institutions of the state; that in that vacuum, in that weakness, then, you have Taliban influence able to move in there and, through coercion of the people then to assert that influence.
Once again I'd emphasize, though, that as we look at our plan over the next several months and we look at the NATO ISAF transition, we look at the government of Afghanistan's plans, I'm very confident that we will see improvements in those particular districts of southern Afghanistan.
Q General, are you confident or do you have any concerns about the capabilities of the NATO forces that are coming in, not only their capabilities but the rules of engagement, when they may be faced with a situation where one day or one minute they're involved in stability and reconstruction, and the next day they're confronting insurgents?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Well, as this NATO ISAF transition gets ready to take place in southern Afghanistan, what's interesting is that the forces as they're coming in getting ready for NATO ISAF transition, those forces are currently under coalition command. So the Canadians have been on the ground in Kandahar Province now for several months and operating outside of Kandahar. In fact, the brigade command in Kandahar, the command of the entire Regional Command South is Brigadier General David Fraser, Canadian Army.
The British now are coming into Helmand Province. On the first of May, they just took over the provincial reconstruction team in Helmand, and they've got a very robust battalion battle group that's coming in to Helmand. The Australians will be part of the combined force. They're already operating in Oruzgan Province. The Romanians will be coming into Zabul and initially operating under us.
Why I go through that is, first of all, they are already on the ground and they are proving themselves. The Canadians and the British, and I have absolute confidence of all the NATO forces that are coming in, they will be very capable forces. They have the correct rules of engagement, the second point, to execute the mission. And I'm quite confident that NATO ISAF -- under the very able leadership of Lieutenant General Richards, British Army, a very close colleague of mine -- I have absolute confidence that they will prevail in the south and do well. And they're getting set and well postured to take over the mission for all of Afghanistan when we go to stage four.
MR. WHITMAN: We'll probably need to make Pam's the last question.
Q On the subject of economic reconstruction, why did Afghanistan get so much less? I don't mean to compare it to Iraq, but obviously Iraq gets a ton of it. How much more money could you use in getting the resources -- all the resources that you could, operation- wise, to really build up the economy?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Well, reconstruction is not my particular lead. I've got the responsibility on the military and the security side.
But having said that --
Q (Off mike) -- mission.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Having said that, I would say that the international community needs to continue to be more generous. The pressing needs of Afghanistan right now are roads, its power systems, its water for irrigation, its schools and its clinics. Those are the pressing needs.
And for those kind of investments that are being made, we've reached a point in the campaign where we will get more security dividends by helping the Afghan people to build that middle ground of civil society.
Q Any targeted numbers of what would really do the job for you?
GEN. EIKENBERRY: I wouldn't want to speculate on that, and I'd highlight also that this is a international commitment.
Now, in January of this year, at London, there was the London Compact that was signed between the international community and the Afghan government. It was pledge for the next five years for further -- over $10 billion of pledges given to the reconstruction.
Having said that, over the next several years, I believe that more must be done in terms of economic infrastructure development.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you.
Q Thank you.
Q Thank you, general.
GEN. EIKENBERRY: Thank you.
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