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DoD News Briefing - Rear Adm. Stufflebeem

Presenters: Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, Joint Staff
December 17, 2001 11:45 PM EDT

Monday, December 17, 2001 - 11:45 a.m. EST

(Videos shown in this briefing are on the Web at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Dec2001/g011217-D-6570C.html )

Stufflebeem: Well, good morning, everyone. Today's the 72nd day of operations in Afghanistan. Give you just a quick roundup of operations from over the weekend.

Tora Bora has continued to remain our top priority. While over the weekend we were attacking al Qaeda and hard-core Taliban still in caves there, there are still isolated pockets of al Qaeda fighting in this area, so we're not done yet. We also know that they're on the run as well, and there have been reports of them leaving the area, to include some reports -- none of which have been confirmed -- that they have left the area.

Additionally, there are reports of a number of troops that have been captured or who have surrendered to opposition groups. We are obtaining custody of some of these al Qaeda and Taliban troops, but so far have a total of five currently in detention status with the U.S. forces. And currently all five of those are on board USS Peleliu.

A very brief update of the Marines who were injured over the weekend while conducting de-mining operations at the airport in Kandahar: all three have been moved out of Afghanistan to treat their wounds and are in regional facilities. They are all considered to have been seriously injured, one of whom has had his leg amputated, injury to a hand of another individual, and a head wound to the third.

Opposition groups that are searching caves and working to block possible exit routes for the Taliban/al Qaeda who have been trying to flee Afghanistan -- we continue to support those efforts as well, with those forces that are on the ground with them and with direct air support by liaison teams.

In terms of blocking possible escape routes, our naval forces are also continuing to monitor and interdicting sea routes of communications south of Pakistan as well.

We continued our leaflet drops, and Commando Solo broadcast its mission throughout Afghanistan. Yesterday two C-17s dropped 72 containers of wheat, blankets, and dates in northern Afghanistan, near Kunduz.

We mentioned last week that we were going to stop the drop of the flutter -- the flutter drops of HDRs. However, we're continuing the drops of humanitarian daily rations. Yesterday 17,000 of those were delivered by C-17, in an area to the northwest of Kunduz inaccessible by ground. Today we've delivered more than 2,423,000 humanitarian daily rations in support of humanitarian relief for the Afghan people.

Today I've got a series of four videos to show you. All of them are from the Tora Bora area over the weekend. The strikes were on caves and bunkers that were conducted by Navy F-14s, as you see there, and FA-18s. These were called in by U.S. Special Operating Forces who are operating with the opposition groups.

And you'll note in the last frame -- this will be the third one of a cave complex -- and that's an F-14. And in this last one, which is another Navy F-18, two JDAMs were used, and it was later discovered that during this particular attack, several al Qaeda forces were killed, as well as heavily damaging the cave.

And with that, I'll take your questions.

Q: How do you know that? How do you know that?

Stufflebeem: After that attack?

Q: Yeah.

Stufflebeem: Commander Ali asked for a cessation of our close air support so that he could put troops in there to get into some of these caves, and apparently he got into that one.

Q: How many dead were found?

Stufflebeem: Don't know the numbers. And to be quite honest, we're not keeping track of how many were killed. I think that Commander Ali said that a couple of hundred so far, over the weekend, is what he reported.

Q: Any senior al Qaeda in that group that you identified today, from that strike?

Stufflebeem: Not that were identified to us as the "senior leadership" proper, that we've been looking for.

Q: Can you tell us anything about the five prisoners who were on board the Peleliu; who they are? Were they al Qaeda, Taliban?

Stufflebeem: Well, one is Mr. Walker. The other four are non-Afghan, and I think it's a mix of Taliban and al Qaeda. I don't have any more specifics than that. I don't know by name or position what they may be.

Q: Do you know, the Australia, for example, was he fighting with the Taliban, and the other three are al Qaeda? Is that your understanding?

Stufflebeem: I don't have a good understanding of exactly what status the Australian national may have been. I don't know if he was with Taliban or with al Qaeda. Nor do I know about the others. I just know that they were associated with al Qaeda or Taliban.

Q: When and where were they captured?

Stufflebeem: That I don't know either. These are -- you know, there's a large number -- well, I can't say that. There are numbers of opposition groups that have or are holding Taliban or al Qaeda members. Our opposition -- our support teams are getting in to do interrogation of some of those, and so we had asked for some. Where these came from and when they came, I'm not sure.

But we're continuing to do that, and you should know that there will be more detainees coming.

Q: Admiral, over the weekend, there has been, in the Tora Bora area, varying assessments of how many al Qaeda fighters you think you have actually been facing. And apparently, the number, as you have watched them flee, has been getting bigger and bigger. Can you give us a sense of what you think you may have been facing? Although many of them are now dead, you have had a range of numerical assessments as to how large the force is up there. Do you have a sense of that today?

Stufflebeem: I don't have a sense with an absolute number. The reports have always been in a range. I had seen reports, from opposition group commanders, that there may be as many as 1,000 to 2,000 al Qaeda fighters that were in these two valleys, fighting from these caves. I've not seen any reports that have accounted for all of the groups. They -- some of the command -- one of the commanders is listing how many he believes have been killed. He obviously has paraded -- I think I've seen in the outlets today some of those whom he has captured. And so there are assumptions that there are still those to be discovered in caves, either alive or dead, and then the remainder likely to have left the area.

Q: Is it your sense that the main complex of the caves is now no longer in al Qaeda hands and that many people have now been forced out into the open? Or are there lots and lots of other little caves further up the canyon walls that they may be going into? Could you give us a sense of the battlefield here?

Stufflebeem: The sense -- and you know, as General Franks described last night, there are two valleys in this area. And there have been two commanders who have been mustering local forces to get into these valleys, and we have been supporting, with airstrikes, both of that. In one instance, in the Agam Valley, we had been asked to suspend some of our call-on strikes so that these opposition groups could get into these caves and do such as I had shown you at the end of our videotape or described to you.

In the other valley, it's not quite as -- as "confirmed," I guess, is a good way to put it -- there. There still is concern because there are sporadic firings coming out of the mouth of caves, and so there still are pockets of resistance that would still be there.

The sense that I have is that every cave that is entered is being treated as a hostile environment. So it's a very slow, methodical process of confirming that these caves are now empty or no longer usable, and they're working from within the valley towards the ridges.

There are an indeterminable number of caves to inspect at this point from what I can tell. So what I gather is that, while the fierce fighting that we have seen up until just a few hours ago may have subsided a little bit, now becomes the more difficult and slower process of confirming who is still left to fight, or is this cave now empty, and was there evidence that somebody was recently there.

Q: Are you seeing large numbers of people fleeing in the open? That's the sense we get, but -- and I'm beginning to detect that's not what you're necessarily seeing.

Stufflebeem: I've not seen reports that give us any sense or give me any sense that there are large numbers of al Qaeda visibly fleeing. I'm trying to think of a good analogy that works for me. I guess maybe searching for fleas on a dog is one way that I would think of it that's -- it may not be a good description. But if you see one and you focus on the one, you don't know how many others are getting away, I think is the sense that I have of it.

Q: If I could follow up, do you have an assessment of how many people have been captured -- Taliban, al Qaeda? And can you explain the process of how you are identifying these people, how they're being transported, either from Tora Bora to Kandahar to the USS Peleliu? And what kind of determination are you making? The fact that you have those four on board the Peleliu, does that indicate -- is there a different point in this process or they're different kinds of prisoners? Can you explain how you're actually doing this on the ground?

Stufflebeem: Well, only in very general terms for two reasons. One is that I don't know the specific process. Some numbers that have been taken, and you can infer this throughout the entire country, would be in the numbers of hundreds if you added them all up, I think as a total number, and held predominantly by opposition groups. Our forces are interrogating these detainees as they're being held by opposition groups and determining whom of those we would like to interrogate further. And then we work with the opposition leaders who have detention of these individuals to ask for them to turn them over to us. I would expect that that's probably an individual negotiation, and it could have different outcomes wherever you are in the country doing that.

Once an opposition group leader has decided or determined that he'll turn over an individual to the U.S. detainee, we then have facilities that are -- one was built or erected down at Camp Rhino by the Marines. There is another one that is being -- if not already up and operating -- at Kandahar airport under U.S. control.

And so between the two of those, we have a capacity now to receive these detainees, and we know that they're coming, as we are doing these interrogations and getting access to these individuals and asking for this -- may we have custody of this individual? -- and getting those.

And determining how you can tell who's who -- the Afghans can very easily determine whom is an Afghan and whom is not, culturally, I think, as well as how the individual physically looks. And certainly some who I think are probably just honestly saying who they are, where they're from, and what they were there for.

And so that process then takes those individuals -- we'll move them under opposition group control in their vehicles until we can accept custody and move them with our vehicles, and then take them to the closest facility where we would want to do that. Upon further interrogation, then, we may -- or the Central Command may want to move them, then, to the ships at sea.

Q: And beyond Walker, how was it determined that these four prisoners would be aboard the USS Peleliu? Does that represent that they're any closer to being put on trial or are they any more dangerous than the others? Are you dividing them and organizing them based on which group they belong to, to which prison facility?

Stufflebeem: I don't know the specifics of those four. Central Command determines for either medical considerations, for the protection of those individuals, for the isolation, in the sense of not having forces that would try to come get somebody out of a detention center for security aspect, and obviously an interest to continue interrogations. But the specifics of those four I don't know.

Q: Are we now in a new phase where we're going to see air power used less and less?

Stufflebeem: I think to say a new phase -- that would have to be more your term than it would be the Central Command's. This is still part of the joint campaign, and we still are launching the sorties that are available for close air support or on-call strikes. We still are pulling for intelligence, and with that intelligence we may derive pockets of resistance which may become a designated strike location. So while the number of weapons, in fact, have dropped -- that's the wrong term to use. While we have decreased the number of weapons that we have dropped on the ground recently, we've done so at the request of the opposition group leaders who -- to give them access to that area. How this may continue for the next day or so -- you know, you've got to find and see what's there and then you make the next move. But all the sorties are available.

Q: What is the latest thinking now about where bin Laden might be?

Stufflebeem: Anybody's guess is the latest thinking.

Q: Well, there --

Q: Going back to the prisoners, to what extent has there been a problem of people you've been interested in being captured and then turned loose? We heard, for example, that the chief of staff of the Taliban army had been detained, and now we hear he's not detained. There was, remember, this guy Rahman, the son of the blind sheik, who was allegedly detained. We didn't hear anything more. Are some guys that you're interested in getting turned loose, for one reason or another?

Stufflebeem: Well, we certainly suspect so. As the secretary has articulated more than once, we certainly hope not. We've made clear the intentions of specific individuals whom we would like to get, and we certainly hope that all opposition groups and that all forces would help in that regard.

But this region, this country, you know, has a history built on bartering, and allegiances can be bought. And so we suspect that that has in fact been happening.

Q: And do you know of specific instances?

Stufflebeem: I don't know any specific instances, certainly not by name. But I think that we have seen anecdotally the instances where there were a lot of Taliban forces in Kandahar, and when they actually capitulated control of Kandahar, there weren't that many forces to be found. And so you can make a pretty good assumption there that there was some coordination done with individuals who would pay for their escape and move and whatever.

Q: While you're on the subject of Kandahar, where do you think Mullah Omar is right now? And is he the subject of a manhunt by U.S. and Afghan forces?

Stufflebeem: Mullah Omar, Commander Omar, is certainly an individual that we would like to have. We don't know where he is. There is no credible evidence that he has left Afghanistan. There are some indications he may still be in the area, around Kandahar. But I don't know where that would be. And there are forces who are looking for him.

Q: Well, there are reports out of the region today that some Afghan opposition forces are in fact mounting some kind of offensive northwest of Kandahar in search of Mullah Omar. Are U.S. Special Forces working with them on the ground? And do we expect to see the kind of airstrikes against those mountain caves northwest of Kandahar that we witnessed at Tora Bora for the last couple of weeks?

Stufflebeem: Our special operating forces are working with opposition groups around Kandahar. It would be premature to speculate on what could happen here in the future. It will depend upon the information that we derive.

The groups that are looking for al Qaeda and Taliban leadership are using every avenue that can possibly be available; interrogating those who have been captured; pulling for intelligence; checking with locals; I think offering the reward of -- you know, the reward -- ensuring the leaflet drops to make sure that people aren't forgetting that that is out there as well.

So, through all of these sources, trying to conclude where that area is that can be shrunk down. Now, once that area is shrunk down -- and it's believed that that leadership may be there -- the outcome could be what we've just seen or something completely different, and I couldn't begin to guess.

Q: Have any airstrikes been conducted against that region around Kandahar in the past 24 hours, for example?

Stufflebeem: No, there have not been any strikes conducted there. The airstrikes -- or the aircraft are available, but we haven't had the intelligence to call them in yet.

Q: Admiral, can you tell me, have U.S. forces and U.S. assets been involved in chasing these "fleas," as you say, across the border into Pakistan? Or is the arrangement that the Pakistani forces handle all that, once it goes into their territory?

Stufflebeem: Well, Pakistan, of course, as a sovereign nation, has the jurisdiction crossing their borders. That border area, the central-western part of Afghanistan, it's difficult to control, for a lot of reasons that we talked about before.

We are not chasing individuals across the border. We are hearing reports that some have crossed. We have heard reports that some have been detained or captured by Pakistani authorities. And we would believe that there are others who are not under anybody's control and are hiding out in that area. But we're not in hot pursuit across a border, if that's the essence of your question.

Q: I guess my question is, is there some kind of arrangement with the Pakistani government that we'll leave it up to them at that point, or is it possible that we will go into Pakistan, if we're in hot pursuit?

Stufflebeem: Well, that's really a policy question. I would just be giving you a supposition. And, you know, I can give you a lot of details on operations, but on the policy issue of hot pursuit, it's just out of my lane.

Let me just move around.

Q: Does the U.S. know of any senior al Qaeda or Taliban leaders who are in the custody of opposition forces in Afghanistan? And are any of those leaders part of the five that are in U.S. hands now aboard the ship? And then, can you give me a rundown of the nationalities, if you know them, of the people being held on the Peleliu?

Stufflebeem: I'll work backwards and try to remember all the points. I don't know the nationalities of all those on board the USS Peleliu. I know they are non-Afghan, or I've been told they are non-Afghan. That's the only part I know.

Q: Then, sir, were you saying earlier that one of them is the Australian?

Stufflebeem: I have heard a report that one is an Australian national, but I personally can't confirm that for you. But that's what I've heard.

Help me -- again, the other parts of your question. The first part.

Q: Does the U.S. know of any senior al Qaeda or Taliban leaders in custody with the opposition?

Stufflebeem: We have an idea of whom some may be based on reports. You remember a week or so ago, there were reports that Commander Dostam was detaining Commander Faizal of the Taliban command. Other leaders we're not sure about, and I've not seen any reports that tell me that any of those leaders are the ones who have been transported to the ship.

Q: Is Faizal still believed in custody of Dostam, or is he no longer?

Stufflebeem: It's my understanding that he is.

Q: Have we had access to him?

Q: Has the U.S. asked for access or for custody of Faizal?

Stufflebeem: Well, we've made our requests known to the opposition group leaders whom it is that we would like to either get access to or get custody of. I don't know if he is one specifically that we wanted to have. I would believe that we -- since we have had Special Operating forces with Commander Dostam, I'm assuming -- and that's a dangerous thing to do -- I would believe that we would have access to those that he is detaining. Whether all of them or not, I don't know. He has alluded in the past that he has had a considerable number of detainees.

Q: There's a report in Newsweek magazine today that says that Admiral Dennis Blair of CINCPAC has raised objections to the possibility of government-sanctioned assassinations. Has the U.S. military been asked to prepare plans for government-sanctioned assassinations? Is the U.S. military or Pentagon now planning government-sanctioned assassinations, or have they carried out any government-sanctioned assassinations?

Stufflebeem: All of the military operations that I have witnessed so far, that I have -- and reported on have been military force on force. And therefore, I feel comfortable to say that we have not participated in assassination of individuals.

I am not aware of any directives from within the government to the Department of Defense that have asked for us to expand the way that we conduct military operations to include assassination of individuals. So my sense is, as of today, as I stand here, I don't believe that that has been -- been offered. I also would say that that's well above my pay grade and well outside my operational lane. But from my operational perspective, it hasn't happened.

Q: When you talk --

Q: It's been quite some time since the friendly-fire incidents. Have you determined what exactly caused them -- the one outside Mazar-e Sharif and the one outside of Kandahar?

Stufflebeem: I've not learned. I do know that both investigations are still ongoing, and I know that they are going to General Franks. Whether or not they will be released beyond him to the national command authorities, I'm not sure. It depends on whether or not I think the secretary and the chairman would like to have the details of that.

And I'll say that for a couple of reasons: One is that there is a safety investigation aspect to that. And, as you know, in our safety investigations, we do our best to protect those individuals to make statements so that nothing will be used against them. We want -- we want to know ground truth. Sometimes you don't want to divulge that information, for fear of it becoming available and being used against somebody in a judicial matter, if one were ever to come. So to date, no information has been forwarded that I have seen that would indicate what the cause of those errant bombs were. It's till ongoing, from what I can tell. And you --

Q: And you have no sense when it's going to be wrapped up?

Stufflebeem: Probably not. Since I have done investigations of aircraft mishaps and similar ones like this, you have to understand that, first of all, you want to bound what are the possibilities that could cause it, and then you want to exhaust each one, and not just rely, "Well, okay. We found something on this one here," and then say, "Okay, well, that must be it," and then you consider it wrapped up. So as you -- you know, as you work, first of all, to bound what the variables are and then try to work through each one to either prove or dismiss it, you just sort of let it go where it takes you, rather than worry about the time limit.

Q: When you say you don't know where Osama bin Laden is -- anybody's guess -- it sounds vaguer to me today than it has in days past. From interrogating prisoners and prisoners that have talked to the news media, even, in the last several days, they have indicated quite definitively that bin Laden was in the Tora Bora area within several days past. Are you indicating that the intel has gotten thinner or more difficult to obtain in the last several days, as they have been driven out of the cave complexes?

Stufflebeem: The sense we have is that there has been less chatter in the last few days. And that would make sense, because there are fewer fighters now in those caves. Either they have been killed or they have fled. And the search is now on, cave to cave, to find more and to interrogate more.

There has been less intercept of communications, which means it's quieter in that region than it has been in the past. So, in the last 48 hours, there has been less and less to pull in to confirm one thing or another. So it has gotten quiet. And as the secretary has said, you know, the more time an individual has while not being observed, there's obviously more options available to that individual.

So my term -- I don't mean to imply or to give you a vagueness that would say, "Here's a shift. I'm not sure how close we ever really have been. We have narrowed it down to an area. Indicators were there, and now indicators are not there. So maybe he still is here, maybe he was killed, or maybe he's left.

Q: But you have good -- now several-day old -- intel which lends great credibility to your belief that a few days ago he was in Tora Bora; a few days ago he wasn't in Pakistan, but he was in fact in Tora Bora. Is that a good working assumption?

Stufflebeem: Yes. A few days ago, we believed that he was in that area. And now we're not as sure because we don't have the same intensity of the level of traffic for us to monitor that would tell us that.

Q: And what did you base that belief on? What did you base that belief on?

Stufflebeem: All-source intelligence. You know, as you've heard from the podium before, you're getting scraps of intelligence from all kinds of sources: open press, interrogation of detainees, people who walk in and provide information, other intelligence- gathering sources. And so, as you put it all together and you stand back from it and try to make something of it, the preponderance of this would give you a feeling that this is where an individual has been. And you might remember that several weeks ago, I had mentioned that we are pretty good at being able to describe where he has been; it's very difficult to say where he is at, and certainly impossible to predict where he will be. So it's not that much different in that regard; it's just in the last couple of days, since the Tora Bora area has gotten quieter, as the opposition groups have asserted more control, now there's less to pull from. So I think what we're going to see now is more information that comes from those whom we can interrogate, and pick up the trail from there.

We have time for two more questions.

Q: You say that Pakistan has taken some prisoners. These are people fleeing from Afghanistan. Can you tell us how many? Can you tell us if these are al Qaeda leaders, Taliban?

Stufflebeem: I could give you a number.

I can't confirm are these al Qaeda or Taliban.

The danger, of course, in doing a number is that that absolute value is what we all sort of live on, and it can vary minute by minute if more are picked up. So it's been a relatively modest number that they have detained and wish to turn over at this point, but that's not to say that we don't believe or expect that there wouldn't be more.

Q: You say dozens? Scores?

Q: (Inaudible) -- what does that mean?

Stufflebeem: Less than a hundred.

Q: Admiral, when you talk about chatter, are people actually -- in this radio chatter actually mentioning bin Laden's name? What -- where are you getting your indications from?

Stufflebeem: Well, as I say, the indications come from everything that we can pick up -- on the ground, from in the air. And there has been one report -- in fact, I read this report in the press -- that a(n) opposition group commander or one of his members claims that he heard Osama bin Laden himself on one of his tactical radios a few days ago. We've put that into the mosaic. We try to use that to help build our feeling about where he has been. To go beyond that gets into intelligence collection methods, and of course we don't do that. But everything imaginable is what we'll add to this pot.

Let me take just one more question and -- yes?

Q: Admiral, do you have any information on John Walker's connections with al Qaeda? And do you know if any arrangements are being made to get him turned over to American authorities?

Stufflebeem: Well, he is in the custody of American authorities now. He is on board USS Peleliu, under U.S. detention status. His future has not yet been determined, so that's still being worked out.

Q: Have law enforcement people gone to the Peleliu to meet with him -- FBI or others?

Stufflebeem: Yes.

Q: Arrangements to turn him over --

(Cross talk.)

Stufflebeem: That was the last question. Thank you.

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