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Secretary Rumsfeld Interview with NBC Meet the Press

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld
December 02, 2001

Sunday, December 2, 2001

(Interview with Tim Russert, NBC Meet the Press.)

Russert: Joining us now is the secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Secretary, welcome.

Rumsfeld: Thank you.

Russert: The events in Israel just chilling.

Rumsfeld: Indeed.

Russert: Hamas, the terrorist group, has claimed responsibility. The president of the United States has said he will go after all terrorists. Will we go after Hamas?

Rumsfeld: Well, of course, a question for the president, not for me. There's no question but that Hamas has been a vicious terrorist organization for many, many years. There's something about suicide bombers that go against men, women and children that is particularly vicious. I noticed the use of the word "revenge" and "retribution," and that type of thing. It seems to me that there's an even better reason to deal with the problem like that, and that is self-defense. There isn't any way to defend against terrorists at every spot on the face of the globe, or in a country, against every technique and every moment of the day or night.

The only way to defend against terrorists is to go after the terrorists.

Russert: Do you think Yasser Arafat is a terrorist?

Rumsfeld: I think that Yasser Arafat -- it's not for me to characterize him. But if one looks historically, he has been involved in terrorist activities. We all know that. That's been his background. We also know that he is not a particularly strong leader. And I don't know that he has good control over the Palestinian situation. He has not ever delivered anything for the Palestinian people throughout history. It was Sadat and Menachem Begin that delivered the only piece of real estate that's actually been delivered to the Palestinian people. So his record is not a particularly impressive one.

Russert: Should President Bush bring Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon together in Washington, close the door and try to hammer out, point by point, a peace deal?

Rumsfeld: Well, that's been tried by a lot of people. And let me say, that's for the president, for president and for Secretary Powell to sort through. It's not an issue that I'm involved in particularly. But a lot of presidents have tried that. I was a Middle East envoy for President Reagan. And in the last analysis, you cannot simply grab people by the scuff of the neck and put them together and make them live together. It's what happens on the ground that makes the difference. And Israel has a very small piece of real estate. And many of its neighbors have vowed to push them into the sea. And they have a difficult circumstance.

I don't know what the answer is. I think President Bush and Secretary Powell have been very aggressive in trying to assist those parties in sorting something out. So was the last administration. And, indeed, it came quite close, and Mr. Arafat walked away from a deal that, when one looks back, was a very good deal for the Palestinians. And I think that that was an enormous mistake.

Russert: Let me turn to Afghanistan. Major James Higgins, a Marine on the ground there, said that the situation in Kandahar has reached the culmination point. Where are we in Afghanistan, and specifically Kandahar?

Rumsfeld: In Kandahar, the situation is that the Taliban are holding on. Mullah Omar is instructing his people to continue to fight.

Russert: How many are there?

Rumsfeld: It's hard to know. Thousands. But how many, it's very difficult to know. We don't have a headcount. We'd like to know precisely. At the moment, it looks like, at least with respect to one of the elements, the tribal leaders that are threatening Kandahar, that they have considerably more in Kandahar and environs, the Taliban, than he has. So it will take some reinforcement. It will take some assistance from the air. The hope is that they will surrender and save the city and save some of their lives and that they will do that.

The problem is that in most of these situations, there have not been just Afghans, but also outsiders, mostly Arab, but in some cases Pakistanis and other countries, some Chinese, some Chechens. And they tended to be the most determined and the toughest fighters. And in some cases, they have actually killed Afghan Taliban if they threatened to surrender or to defect.

So it is a complicated situation. If they don't surrender, they're going to be killed.

Russert: Mohammed Omar. We will not let him escape, period?

Rumsfeld: Well, let me put it this way. We will do everything in the power of the United States to see that he does not escape.

Russert: We will not allow any arrangement where he would be allowed to let go.

Rumsfeld: We will argue vigorously against any, anyone attempting to make an arrangement that would let him go. We are not physically in control of Afghanistan. The opposition forces that have been opposing the Taliban are the ones that are physically on the ground. We've got some handfuls of people, you know, a thousand or something, 1,500, 2,000, in that range, 1,500 to 2,000 people in a big country. So what we have to do is constantly work with those opposition leaders so that they understand how determined we are that those senior Taliban and senior al Qaeda leaders are not released and that the foreigners are not released to go destabilize another country.

Russert: The search for Osama bin Laden. There is constant discussion about him hiding out in caves, and I think many times the American people have a perception that it's a little hole dug out of a side of a mountain.

Rumsfeld: Oh, no.

Russert: The Times of London did a graphic, which I want to put on the screen for you and our viewers. This is it. This is a fortress. This is a very much a complex, multi-tiered, bedrooms and offices on the top, as you can see, secret exits on the side and on the bottom, cut deep to avoid thermal detection so when our planes fly to try to determine if any human beings are in there, it's built so deeply down and embedded in the mountain and the rock it's hard to detect. And over here, valleys guarded, as you can see, by some Taliban soldiers. A ventilation system to allow people to breathe and to carry on. An arms and ammunition depot. And you can see here the exits leading into it and the entrances large enough to drive trucks and cars and even tanks. And it's own hydroelectric power to help keep lights on, even computer systems and telephone systems. It's a very sophisticated operation.

Rumsfeld: Oh, you bet. This is serious business. And there's not one of those. There are many of those. And they have been used very effectively. And I might add, Afghanistan is not the only country that has gone underground. Any number of countries have gone underground. The tunneling equipment that exists today is very powerful. It's dual use. It's available across the globe. And people have recognized the advantages of using underground protection for themselves.

Russert: It may take us going from cave to cave with a great group of men I know in the United States military, the tunnel rats, to try to flush out Osama bin Laden.

Rumsfeld: We're entering a very dangerous aspect of this conflict. There is no question about it. It is a confused situation in the country. The amount of real estate they have to operate on has continually been reduced. The noose is tightening, but the remaining task is a particularly dirty and unpleasant one.

Russert: If need be, would we put gas into those caves to flush them out?

Rumsfeld: Well, I noticed that in Mazar, the way they finally got the dead-enders to come out was by flooding the tunnel. And finally they came up and surrendered, the last hard core al Qaeda elements. And I guess one will do whatever it is necessary to do. If people will not surrender, then they've made their choice.

Russert: Let me turn to the situation on the ground. This is a headline from the Washington Post, "U.S. talks to Moscow about force in Kabul taken off guard by the arrival of scores of Russian troops in Kabul." Colin Powell spoke to the foreign minister by phone and urged Moscow to avoid abrupt diplomatic and military moves in Afghanistan.

Are we surprised, are we concerned the Russians are trying to reassert their influence in Afghanistan by sending in troops with our permission?

Rumsfeld: Actually, I did receive a call from the minister of defense on the subject indicating that they wanted to bring some planes in. The planes were cleared for the Bagram Airport, and they indicated what they were bringing in, the numbers of people and what the purpose was. It was to begin to reestablish some diplomatic activity and to have sufficient forces to protect that diplomatic activity, to move toward some humanitarian assistance. I am not concerned at the moment. I have not seen anything in their behavior that was untoward.

Russert: Other countries. Let me show you another headline from the New York Times, "Many eager to help; few are chosen." Thirty-five countries offered to help send aircraft, ships, soldiers to help hunt down Taliban and al Qaeda and support those forces. But they've been basically doing nothing but support. Why not bring in the Brits, the French, the Turks to help us in this search?

Rumsfeld: Well, first of all, they've been doing a lot more than your comment suggests. They have ships. They have provided intelligence. We have coalition forces physically on the ground operating in Afghanistan today, non-U.S. coalition forces. One of the issues has been that the United States seems to have persuaded Afghanistan that we do not covet their land, that we do not want to stay, that we are there to rid that country of the Taliban and the al Qaeda. And Afghans are historically skeptical about non-Afghans. And so when we try to bring in coalition forces to assist us, sometimes we've had difficulty. That is to say, the forces on the ground have not quite been ready to bring in other countries besides the United States.

So we have some foreign nationals, non-U.S. coalition partners in there. But it takes a good deal of discussion with those opposition forces. And that is what's caused some of the delay. We are very anxious to have the right kind of help.

Second, the work going on in Bonn to try to figure out whether or not there's a need for stabilizing forces is taking place. And until some decision is made as to whether or not it's appropriate to have a peacekeeping force, and, if so, what countries might be most appropriate to make up that peacekeeping force, I think that it is not surprising that the peacekeeping force has not gone in.

Russert: Once Taliban has been destroyed, Osama bin Laden in custody, there'll be a need for a multinational force, peacekeeping force, as you said, in Afghanistan to help stabilize it.

Rumsfeld: That's not clear. If the forces on the ground are able to provide a stable situation such that the humanitarian aid can get in, then there wouldn't be a need for an international peacekeeping force.

Russert: If there is a need, you would prefer the United States not participate.

Rumsfeld: Well, we've got an awful lot to do. And we want to participate with humanitarian assistance. We want to have enough activity in Afghanistan so we can finish the job. I suspect that if there is to be humanitarian activity going in, which there must be, or people are going to starve, and if there is to be an international peacekeeping force, the key thing is that it be done in a way that we're free to go after the Taliban and after the al Qaeda, because that task is going to take some time. And I think it's important that the world understand that we are leaning forward, not back. We expect that there'll be casualties. We expect that there will be people captured. And we recognize how difficult this is going to be. And when that happens, the United States will be leaning forward, not back. There will be no doubt.

Russert: Do you think we have a few months of long, bloody battle?

Rumsfeld: Oh, I wouldn't limit it to that.

Russert: Pakistan, a lot of discussion. Both Northern Alliance and Taliban soldiers have said they've seen Pakistanis fly airplanes in to bring out Pakistanis who were fighting with the Taliban or with al Qaeda. Can you assure the people watching today that the United States government did not see or in any way tolerate the evacuation of Pakistani terrorists?

Rumsfeld: Oh, you can be certain of that. We have not seen a single -- to my knowledge, we have not seen a single airplane or helicopter go into Afghanistan in recent days or weeks and extract people and take them out of Afghanistan to any country, let alone Pakistan. The Pakistani government is cooperating with the United States. They're putting crack troops up along the border. The border is a long border. It's a porous border. It's a very difficult thing to know precisely what's happening at any given moment. We have coverage in the air. And we watch to the extent it's humanly possible.

Russert: And it hasn't happened?

Rumsfeld: We have not seen anything that even begins to approximate those reports.

Russert: Military tribunals. The president has given an order as commander-in-chief that military tribunals be established, if need be. What does that mean to you?

Rumsfeld: It means that the president, as was the case with George Washington, during the Civil War with Abraham Lincoln, and with Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, has said that it may that we need that option. And as a result, he has put in place and begun the work to develop the kinds of procedures and approaches that would be appropriate so that in the event that we need to have a military commission, that we would be in a place to detain a person and take control over a person that he designates. He has not designated anyone to be tried by a military commission. He may. He may not, but he may. And if he does, he wanted to get the military order out designating the secretary of Defense as the person responsible so that that work could begin.

I must say I've been interested in the press discussion and media discussion on the subject. I think it's been generally useful. It's elevated a lot of issues that are important and need to be considered. Some of it's been a little shrill given the fact that nobody's been designated yet to be tried by a military commission. But overall, those of us in the Department of Defense have found it useful, and we are working very hard with some very smart people all across the country, out of government, to try to make sure that we do this in the event it happens in a very measured, balanced, thoughtful way that reflects our country's values and approaches.

Russert: Let me go back to the World Trade Center in 1993 and how you some video of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Here he is on the screen. You can see him. He was convicted for blowing up the Trade Center in '93. His son has now been taken into custody in Afghanistan. Is his son the kind of person that would go before a military tribunal?

Rumsfeld: Until we have developed the information that I need to make sensible judgments on something as important as this, I've decided not to opine on things like that. And second, I would say that that's a decision for the president. He will be the one who will designate what individuals will be assigned to the Department of Defense to take control over and then deal with respect to military commissions.

Russert: As you have mentioned, there's a lot of discussion about this issue. Terry Golway in the New York Observer had this to say: "If a terrorist is convicted by a military tribunal of something less than a capital crime, for example attempted murder or possession of a weapon, will the subsequent sentence be served on a special military facility? If so, we can expect convicted al Qaeda operatives to demand recognition as prisoners of war."

Have you thought that through? Where will they serve their time? Will they be prisoners of war?

Rumsfeld: We have thought through a good deal of it, and we're in the process of discussing some preliminary thoughts with, as I say, some truly outstanding legal advisers from around the country, out of government, people whose judgment we respect. And we're not prepared at the moment to draw conclusions. And we will be at some point in the future.

Russert: There is some downside, as you know. This headline caught it: "Europeans Reluctant to Send Terror Suspects to the United States." Even though they've arrested some since September 11th because the continent's harsh view of the U.S. legal system, particularly President Bush's plan for secret military tribunals, is creating resistance to possible extradition of suspects to the United States. So you have countries arresting people, but they're saying we're not sending them to the United States because we don't have faith in military tribunals.

Rumsfeld: Well, first of all, we don't know that that's true. That's a report that may or may not have substance under it. If it is true, it may be true in a very modest situation and not broadly true. Third, we have known for years that there's some differences in Europe with respects to views as to capital punishment. And that's fair enough. They have their countries; we have ours. They can make their judgment.

I would suggest that I think that'll not prove to be much of an impediment.

Russert: But the United States has been critical of Peru and Egypt and China for military tribunals. If a United States citizen was arrested as a suspected terrorist in China, would you feel comfortable with that American going before a military tribunal in China?

Rumsfeld: If one looked down from Mars and looked at the countries of the world and said if you had someone in whom you had an interest, where would you prefer -- of all the countries on the face of the earth, where would you prefer that that individual be tried in a military commission, I would think an overwhelming number of the people in the world would prefer it be done in the United States. We have a reputation for being fair and balanced and measured in what we do.

Russert: But other countries may react to that by creating their own military tribunals for American citizens.

Rumsfeld: Other countries already have military tribunals.

Russert: And we've criticized them for it.

Rumsfeld: And in cases where we've disagreed with how they've been handled, we have indeed, and we will in the future. And I'm sure that people will criticize us if we behave in a way that they, in their measured judgment, feel we've acted improperly. But I don't think we've going to act improperly, Tim.

Russert: Let me move to Iraq. This headline in the LA Times Thursday caught my attention: "U.S. Vows Not to Attack Iraq. The Egyptian Foreign Minister said Wednesday that his government, the closest U.S. ally in the Arab world, has received a, quote, 'understanding' that the Bush administration will not use military force against Iraq or any other Arab government accused of harboring terrorists."

Has he received such an understanding?

Rumsfeld: The only person who could make such an understanding is the president of the United States, and he hasn't.

Russert: What happened here? He's mistaken?

Rumsfeld: Well, I mean, people have misunderstandings all the time. Five people listen to a discussion and walk out and write down what they heard, and you'll get five different versions.

Russert: Three years ago this month, the last inspector left Iraq. Will we insist, demand, that Saddam Hussein allow in United Nations inspectors to find out just how developed his biological, chemical and perhaps nuclear weapon systems are?

Rumsfeld: Well, that's a call the president and the secretary of state, of course, are going to have to consider. The reality is that we had inspectors in Iraq for many years, and we didn't find much. The way we found information about what was going on with Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological and nuclear programs was through defectors. When they left, got out of the country, told the truth, that's when we learned the most. It is enormously difficult, even if the most intrusive inspection system, to find out what's actually going on.

Saddam Hussein has had mobile biological laboratories where he could move them from place to place, and it is very difficult to find out.

Now, there ought to be inspections. The U.N. resolutions call for inspections. He is violating the U.N. resolutions. Ought we to have inspectors? Of course. But is it possible to know of certain knowledge? We know that man is determined to have those weapons. He has them, and he's used them against his own people.

Russert: Why are we importing a million barrels of oil a day from Iraq?

Rumsfeld: It is a complicated matter with respect to that. He is under the U.N. resolutions, as I understand it, allowed, if you will --

Russert: But is it a good idea for us to use Iraqi oil?

Rumsfeld: The issue came up -- it's tied to food and medicines, is the issue. And the world's community, in its infinite judgment, came to the conclusion, as I understand it, that the Iraqi people ought not to be penalized because of a vicious dictator that's repressing them. And one way to do that would be to permit a certain amount of oil from Iraq to be exported in exchange for non-lethal things such as food and medicine. And that is the underpinning of the world community's decision.

Russert: You have no problem importing a million barrels of Iraqi oil a day?

Rumsfeld: I am not going to disagree with the U.S. position, which has supported an arrangement whereby food and medicine was able to enter the country. The problem I have is with Saddam Hussein. He keeps the food and medicine from his people. He uses it to his benefit.

Russert: Then why not go get him?

Rumsfeld: Well, let's call for somebody other than Don Rumsfeld.

Russert: Would you like that?

Rumsfeld: Oh, Tim, I'm here, asked to come into this government and work for the president of the United States, and I'll give him my advice.

Russert: Tonight there will be a test -- it was supposed to be last night, postponed because of weather -- about a missile defense system.

Rumsfeld: Yes.

Russert: Tom Friedman of the New York Times wrote an interesting article, and I'll put it on the screen for everyone. "The Bush team's about to make a big mistake. Mr. Putin, the president of Russia, has made the decision to go West. But he's way out ahead of his generals, his public. He needs the continued cover of the Ant-Ballistic Missile Treaty to keep them moving West too. He's willing to concede limited testing under ABM. Give him what he wants. Let's have more Putin, less testing, because more testing buys us nothing. Less Putin really hurts us. If we had a complete star wars missile shield on September 11th, it would not have saved a single American life. But we had put our priorities right and begin by forging a strategic partnership with Russia, we can still test anti-missile systems and have real Russian cooperation to meet the threats of September 11th and beyond, which are so much more important."

Rumsfeld: Well, Tom Friedman's a thoughtful person. But the reality is that asymmetrical threats are, in fact, a threat to our country. Terrorism is, as he points out, but so, too, are cruise missiles and ballistic missiles and cyber attacks. And we make a big mistake if we react to the most recent event and say "Oh, my goodness, that's the problem, and nothing else is. Because that's just not true. We have to look at the full spectrum of asymmetrical threats.

Second, the president of the United States is doing exactly what the columnist is advising. He is working with the Russian leadership, as has Secretary Powell, as have I, in attempting to encourage them to turn West. And it appears they may be turning West, and that is a good thing. I don't discount that at all.

The United States, however, the president has pointed out, has to find a new framework for that relationship. We have to set that treaty aside so we can do the kinds of testing that is necessary. And the president's determined to do that.

Russert: Many people have commented that for the first eight months as secretary of Defense, you seemed be insular, detached, but since September 11th, as secretary of war, you've been energized. Do you think that's fair?

Rumsfeld: Oh, I don't know. It's not for me to judge. We had a lot of complicated things to deal with. This institution, the Department of Defense, is so central to peace and stability in the world and to our economy. And it's the underpinning of our economy. We don't have a healthy economic situation in the world absent peace and stability. So how we behave is enormously important, and we must transform this institution. We cannot simply hang on to the capabilities that were appropriate in a prior century. We need to think things anew. We need to take steps that are bold and innovative and that will position us so that we can continue to provide peace and stability in the period ahead. And that takes transformation. And that's what I was working on.

Russert: Is there any chance that because of the recession and the concerns about the guns and butter issues of America that the war on terrorism will become more tame and more restrained as the President has to focus more and more on the economic situation back home?

Rumsfeld: Oh, not a chance. These things can't be disaggregated and put in separate pigeonholes or baskets. The president understands that. He understands that the health of this economy depends on our having a peaceful world and a peaceful country and the ability of people to get up in the morning and go about their business. He is determined to seek out the terrorists and the states that are harboring those terrorists and see that they no longer are able to threaten the American people and our friends and allies and deployed forces.

Russert: America has gotten used to Donald Rumsfeld briefing on a regular basis. "Saturday Night Live" has captured that as well. Let me show you --

Rumsfeld: Oooh.

Russert: -- the "Saturday Night Live" version of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.

(Video Clip.)

Actor (portraying Rumsfeld): Now what kind of question is that? (Laughter.)

Actor (portraying a reporter): Thought-provoking?

(Laughter.)

Actor (portraying Rumsfeld): No.

Actor (portraying a reporter): Incisive?

Actor (portraying Rumsfeld): No. Remember what I said about your question the other day?

Actor (portraying a reporter): That it was idiotic?

Actor (portraying Rumsfeld): And?

Actor (portraying a reporter): And that I'm an embarrassment both to myself and to my newspaper?

(Laughter.)

Actor (portraying Rumsfeld): That's right.

(End of Video Clip.)

Rumsfeld: So bad. (Laughter.) I'm not that way.

Russert: You're sure?

Rumsfeld: I hope not.

Russert: I learned yesterday that in college you would do one-arm push-ups for money. True or false?

Rumsfeld: True.

Russert: What does that tell me about you?

Rumsfeld: Well, that I didn't have much money and I needed to scrape together a few --

Russert: Can you give me ten right now?

(Laughter.)

Russert: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, we thank you very much for joining us.

Rumsfeld: Thank you.