Sunday, Dec. 9, 2001
(Interview with Wolf Blitzer, Late Edition, CNN)
Q: And earlier today, I spoke with the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz about the next steps in the war against terrorism, both in and outside of Afghanistan.
Secretary Wolfowitz, thank you very much for joining us on "Late Edition."
Wolfowitz: Good to be here.
Q: The Taliban appears to be crushed in Afghanistan. What's the next mission as far as the U.S. military is concerned on the ground right now?
Wolfowitz: You know, every time I hear "appears to be," a little caution goes up. I mean Kandahar still looks like a mess. There's still Taliban all over the country. I think as an organized force, they are crushed. I think that is a fair description. But there's a lot to be done. And I think the most important thing for American people to understand is our objectives remain very largely to be done in the future. We've got Al Qeada leadership we have to go after. We've got Taliban leadership we have to go after. We want to clear out all of the terrorists in Afghanistan. And that could take a while.
Q: So what are the specific military targets, the danger points right now where U.S. military personnel on the ground might be most at risk in this, what amounts to apparently a cleaning up operation?
Wolfowitz: Well, cleaning-up operations, as you know, can be very dangerous. Enemies that are half-defeated can be very dangerous, and they can take a long time to clear out. I'd be speculating, but I think the greatest danger we face is going into mountain passes and caves, and even a small force can do a lot to a larger force if they're ambushed or if you catch them at the wrong time.
So we're going to pursue these people aggressively. We've got to be careful.
The other constant problem to look out for and anticipate is to remember that the reason things moved so fast is because alliances shifted so rapidly against the Taliban. That's a measure, I believe, of how hated they were in Afghanistan, and it's a demonstration, if anyone needed a demonstration, that this was not a war against Afghanistan; it was actually a war that helped to liberate the Afghan people from a terrible tyranny.
Q: Well, just as these alliances shifted one way, does that mean they could shift back another way very quickly?
Wolfowitz: Well, they could certainly shift. I don't think they'd shift back to what they were before. I don't think the Taliban will be resurrected. But, yes, they could shift. We could find fighting between forces that were allied to one another before. We really need to be prepared for the unexpected, because this is a huge country. It's the size of the state of Texas. It's got terrain like Montana or British Columbia and multiple different ethnic groups speaking different languages. People should appreciate just how complicated it is. And we still only have a few thousand troops in that whole area.
Q: A few thousand troops on the ground in Afghanistan, the Marines in the southern part being the bulk of that. Are you anticipating sending in more ground forces in the coming days and weeks?
Wolfowitz: We may send in some. But one of the principles on which we've conducted the campaign up until now has been to try to keep the American presence as low profile as possible. There's a lot of history there about foreigners who come in, and however they come in, they very quickly become regarded as a foreign presence. That happened to the British in the 19th Century. It happened to the Soviets in the last century. It's happened to the Arab terrorists more recently.
We want to make it clear that we're there to get rid of the terrorists. We're there to help the Afghan people establish their own way of governing themselves and help to reconstruct the country. But we are not there to provide a permanent military occupation.
Q: The spiritual leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, appears to be missing right now. Do you, meaning the U.S. government, have a sense where he might be?
Wolfowitz: We have a sense of where he might be. But I hope people understand when we say that that that means there's a certain probability that he's in the area that we get the most reports about him from. If we had any kind of pinpoint, precise information, he wouldn't be there any longer. We'd have captured him or killed him. So we're always working on reports that have a vagueness to them. Some of them are contradictory. They tend to focus, in his case, around the area of Kandahar; in the case of bin Laden, around the area of Jalalabad. But they are not very precise. And it is possible, therefore, that they could be, the majority of them, dead wrong.
Q: But you believe right now that Mullah Omar is still around the Kandahar area.
Wolfowitz: I believe he is most likely around the Kandahar area. But if he turned up somewhere else, I wouldn't be totally surprised.
Q: And this notion of giving him amnesty, Hamid Karzai, the interim leader of Afghanistan, suggested that earlier in the week, although that apparently went away. That is totally unacceptable to the U.S. government?
Wolfowitz: We made it clear it was totally unacceptable. And I think he's fallen off that position, if he ever held it for very long.
Q: Is he a war criminal?
Wolfowitz: I don't want to start messing up some legal proceeding by passing prejudgments as an American official. But we have made it clear that we hold the Taliban responsible for having harbored the organization that was responsible for the September 11th attacks. So I think that sounds like a pretty serious set of facts.
Q: Is the fact that Mullah Omar may be at large someplace in the Kandahar area -- I assume he's not alone. He's got some forces, some soldiers protecting him with him. That would be obviously an easy target if it's a sizable number.
Wolfowitz: Well, that is his dilemma, after all. I mean there's a huge price on his head. If he traveled alone, some enterprising Afghan is likely to say "I want to collect that reward and round him up." If he travels with a large number of body guards to protect him against that possibility, as you say, he makes a somewhat easier target to spot. We don't have to just look for an individual; we can look for something that looks like a convoy or a security detail.
Q: The same holds for Osama bin Laden, who, you say, may be around the Jalalabad area, around Tora Bora, right?
Wolfowitz: The same dilemma. These are men now with big prices on their head, $25 million in the case of bin Laden, and they're on the run. And I don't think they're going to be spending a lot of time thinking about how to conduct new terrorist acts.
Q: What is your best information about how many troops Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda troops he may have protecting him?
Wolfowitz: I think we'd be guessing pretty wildly, Wolf. I mean there're still hundreds of al Qaeda people loose. But how many are actually with bin Laden I don't think we have a very good idea.
Q: Have you seen this videotape that The Washington Post reports about today suggesting, in effect, a smoking gun, clear-cut evidence that Osama bin Laden was not only aware of the September 11th terrorist attacks, but was instrumental in plotting them?
Wolfowitz: You know, I don't know what it takes to convince some people. We had absolutely clear-cut evidence before that tape turned up. In this case, yes, he admitted on video, in fact bragged and boasted about it. But he's bragged and boasted in ways that made it absolutely clear that he was responsible, not on private videos, but on public videos. We've had evidence that we've presented to every friendly government in the world that makes absolutely clear the al Qaeda was responsible. I mean I hope people might quit with these wild conspiracy theories that suggest that someone else. And you know, they get pretty wild around the world. At some point we'll have his own very clear, direct, and the world can see them.
Q: When? Are you going to be releasing that videotape, in other words?
Wolfowitz: Well, that's not my decision to make. The question of when we might release it is something that we've got to consider in light of the question of how we got it.
Q: And are you going to tell us how you did get this videotape?
Wolfowitz: I'm not sure we do that sort of thing.
Q: Because of the sense of --
Wolfowitz: It involves sources and methods. But obviously, if there're other videos to be acquired by the same means, we don't want to interfere with our ability to do that.
Q: Will this operation be deemed a failure if Osama bin Laden remains at large?
Wolfowitz: I don't believe so. Look, I think the measure of this operation is our ability to eliminate the terrorist networks, and not just al Qaeda and not just in Afghanistan. And that's why the President has emphasized it's going to take a very long time. We could catch bin Laden tomorrow, and we still have months and years of work to be done. And I suppose it is at least theoretically possible that he could take plastic surgery, disguise himself as a woman and hide somewhere in the mountains of Chechnya, and it might be a long time before we find him. Our goal? Obviously, we'd like to get him. We want to bring him to justice. But the most important thing is to defend this country and end the ability of those networks, including his network, to mount attacks against us.
Q: Do you suspect that there're still sleeper al Qaeda cells out there at large, even here in the United States, that could be triggered in the coming days or weeks to undertake another terrorist operation?
Wolfowitz: Well, obviously, if we knew with precision that, yes, there's a sleeper cell, it would be gone. So we're talking about what do we think we don't know. And I think we don't know about all of the people who are out there. We didn't know about the September 11th terrorists before they struck. So I think the only reasonable assumption, given what we know about the extent of this operation, is to assume there must be still some people out there.
Q: And there're been a lot of speculation about potential capabilities of weapons of mass destruction, a report this past week about a so-called dirty radiation bomb. Do you believe that the al Qaeda network has this kind of capability?
Wolfowitz: I haven't yet seen the kind of evidence that makes me convinced they have it. It's one of the things we look for hardest. I mean our highest priority in terms of intelligence collection in Afghanistan is any evidence that would point to weapons of mass destruction in the hands of al Qaeda terrorists. And there are certainly indications that they've been exploring that kind of weaponry and would be interested in it. We haven't yet found the kind of firm link that would suggest this sort of dirty bomb is in their hands. They'd sure like to get it. There's no question about that.
Q: I want to ask you a question about Hamid Karzai, the leader of the interim government that's going to be in place in Afghanistan. He says specifically about Mullah Omar, and he told this to The Washington Post on Friday, that Omar's fate is a question for Afghans, suggesting that maybe the Afghan people should decide Omar's fate, not the United States.
Wolfowitz: Well, we also think it's a question for Americans, and maybe we'll have to negotiate that with him. I can understand. He's done enormous damage to Afghanistan and the Afghan people. He's also responsible for enormous damage to the United States. And when you have those kinds of issues between two countries, it's something you work out. I'm sure it will be worked out in a way that will bring justice to Mullah Omar one way or another.
Q: The American who fought with the Taliban, John Walker. He is now in the custody of the United States. The Marines have him in southern Afghanistan. What should be his fate?
Wolfowitz: It certainly shouldn't be something that a U.S. official decides. It should be decided by an appropriate judicial procedure.
Q: Is he cooperating with the United States now?
Wolfowitz: I don't know what his current status is. I know when he was first interviewed, he told us quite a bit that was of some value. But I don't know his current status since he was moved to the custody of the Marines in Rhino.
Q: His father says that he was just a misguided young kid who got himself into something he should never have gotten into. I want you to listen to what Frank Lindh, his father, said earlier in the week.
Frank Lindh: I think he used bad judgment in going to Afghanistan, but he is not a traitor. He's a good boy. He did not do anything against the United States. He went there to help the Taliban, not a good choice, but he did go to help the Taliban at a time when the United States was not involved.
[end of video clip]
Q: What do you say? You say he is providing some useful information, so that would seem to suggest he's going around.
Wolfowitz: I wouldn't draw any conclusions, and I certainly wouldn't start to comment on his status when he's facing what could be a very serious judicial procedure of one kind or another.
Q: The whole issue of friendly fire that came up this past week, and three U.S. soldiers were killed, special operations forces. Have you undertaken any specific steps since then that could avert this kind of tragedy down the road?
Wolfowitz: We are always working very hard. It's one of the enormous, constant dangers of people in that situation. There's some very stunning reports that came in from the special forces operating with General Dostum in the earlier stages of this battle where they were calling in air strikes 50 meters from where they were located. I mean these men go into harm's way, into great danger. They know there's always a danger that the strikes that are supposed to help them may end up hitting them. So there's an enormous effort that goes into trying, in the military terminology, to deconflict and to make sure that we're hitting not our people, but the other people.
Now we're into a careful investigation to figure out whether it was the wrong coordinates or whether we missed the coordinates we were supposed to hit and hit our own people. It's one of the tragedies, but it's one of the costs of doing business.
Q: So the investigation continues --
Q: -- No conclusion yet.
Wolfowitz: No conclusion yet.
Q: We have to take a quick break, but there's much more of my interview with the Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Is Iraq the next U.S. target? "Late Edition" will be right back.
Q: Welcome back to "Late Edition." And we return now to my conversation with the U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz.
A group of lawmakers, senators, House members, Democrats, Republicans wrote to the President this past week about Iraq. And let me read an excerpt of what they said.
"For as long as Saddam Hussein is in power in Baghdad, he will seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. We have no doubt that these deadly weapons are intended for use against the United States and its allies. Consequently, we believe we must directly confront Saddam sooner rather than later."
Good advice from Senators, among others, Lott, Lieberman, McCain, Helms, Shelby, Henry Hyde?
Wolfowitz: I think the President's happy to take advice from any quarter, and, in fact, he likes hearing different opinions. It's been my experience working with him that he's a decision-maker who relishes making decisions, which means he relishes people presenting the different points of view to him. And he's made it clear from the beginning, from his address to the joint session of Congress that this is a very ambitious campaign which is going to take a long time to deal with all the global terrorist networks and to end state support for terrorism. But the exact tactics, the order in which you do things is something that you have to debate and decide. And he's made decisions all along, and I'm sure he'll keep doing it well.
Q: As you know, now marks three years, almost exactly, since the U.N. weapons inspectors were kicked out of Iraq. The United States and much of the rest of the international community wants those weapons inspectors to go back in. But Tariq Aziz, the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, says that's not going to happen. I want you to listen to what he said earlier in the week.
Tariq Aziz (Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister): They want to send inspectors. Our flat answer is no. Sorry. Why should we bring spies to Iraq to spy on us, spy on our headquarters where we work, spy on our legitimate military activities in the country, because we are a sovereign nation?
[end of video clip.]
Q: It sounds like he's defying the United States and saying no weapons inspectors.
Wolfowitz: You know, Iraq has an obligation. It was a condition of the end of the 1991 Gulf War and incorporated in U.N. resolutions. They have an obligation to get rid of all of those weapons of mass destruction and to open the country up to inspection to verify that they've gotten rid of them. To the best of our knowledge, they not only haven't gotten rid of them; they've built more of them. And as you say, they've kept the inspectors out for three years.
Q: And you haven't done anything about it for three years.
Wolfowitz: The President has made it clear that one of our concerns is the particularly dangerous combination of state support for terrorism combined with states that develop weapons of mass destruction. And he's made it clear the inspectors have got to go back into Iraq.
Q: And what happens if they don't?
Wolfowitz: I think his phrase was "Wait and see."
Q: Well, that sounds very ominous. But is it a hollow threat?
Wolfowitz: I don't think people should take this President lightly in anything that he says. And I think he's made that pretty clear by now.
Q: You know, there're some critics, and I know there's been many reports you're among the hawks in the administration pushing for the targeting of Iraq. But critics say there's no smoking gun evidence linking Iraq to the al Qaeda September 11th terrorist attack.
Wolfowitz: Well, look, let's start with the basic issue, which you started with here and which the President has highlighted, which is this is a country that invaded its neighbor. After it was driven out of Kuwait, it undertook an obligation, and the obligation was imposed on it to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, to allow inspectors. Let's at least get those inspectors back in and get rid of that capability.
Q: So even if there's no direct evidence to September 11th, there's enough reason to target Iraq in and of itself because it's not cooperating with the 1991 cease-fire agreement?
Wolfowitz: Look, you're getting ahead of me with words like "target." There is no question that independent of September 11th, there is a serious problem with Iraq having expelled the inspectors and continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Q: I want to put up on the screen a comment that was written by Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA counter-terrorism official writing in The New York Times last Monday. He says this. "The anti-Iraq war party outside and inside the Bush administration is resurrecting the argument that Saddam Hussein's presumed accumulation of weapons of mass destruction poses an imminent threat. It is a dubious proposition supported by little validated intelligence. Indeed, Iraq may be one of the least appropriate targets for the anti-terrorism campaign." And he goes on to say there's no evidence saying that the Iraqis are targeting Americans.
Wolfowitz: I think it's very clear -- let's not get into the question of September 11th. It is clear that Iraq is developing noxious, dangerous weapons. And I don't know what he means by "imminent threat." I think one of the things we learned from September 11th is that it's not so easy to predict exactly where threats will come from. But we do know that nuclear and biological and chemical weapons can do damage far beyond what we saw on September 11th.
Q: James Woolsey, the former CIA Director, told me earlier in the week that he believes that there's some evidence that would link the Iraqis to the anthrax letters that were mailed here in the United States. Do you believe that?
Wolfowitz: Unfortunately, I think we just don't know much about who's been mailing those letters. And that is itself a matter of great concern.
Q: I want to ask your sense of what's happening in Israel right now, because as you well remember, in January of 1991, at the start of the Gulf War, you and Larry Eagleburger, who was then the Deputy Secretary of State, went over to Israel to keep the Israelis on the sidelines even though scud missiles were being launched from Iraq into Israel. If that were to happen again in a hypothetical situation, the Iraqis were targeted, they launched scuds at Israel, would you want the Israelis to remain on the sidelines once again?
Wolfowitz: Wolf, you know I'm not going to speculate about something that is speculation built on speculation. I don't know what we're going to do, and I don't know what Iraq might do. I do know that Israel did show extraordinary restraint ten years ago. But what we said to the Israelis at the time was you don't need to get involved in this war; we're going the job. And I think we did the job. I think it was pretty impressive.
Q: Although you well know, and we're not going to get into this right now, a lot of people say the job was never completed.
Wolfowitz: Our job was completed. The man still -- I think if anyone had known that he would still be around ten years from now having expelled weapons inspectors and making the kinds of threats he does, maybe we would have done some things differently. But our job was to get him out of Kuwait. And I believe his capability to attack even Israel is much reduced from what it was ten years ago.
Q: Here in the United States, a lot of nervous parents out there who have kids serving in the U.S. military either already there or on the way to there, reservists who have been activated. When do you believe they'll be allowed to step down in the course of this operation?
Wolfowitz: I wish I could give great reassurance. What I can say instead is there's enormous courage and determination from the extraordinary men and women that serve this country in uniform. They are brave. They are dedicated. They are making huge sacrifices. I think the country owes them an enormous debt. But as the President said, this is going to be a long fight. It's not just in Afghanistan. And we're going to be putting stress on our forces for some time to come.
Q: Secretary Wolfowitz, thanks for joining us.
Wolfowitz: Thank you.
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