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DoD News Briefing - Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz and Gen. Pace

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
December 18, 2001 11:15 PM EDT

Tuesday, December 18, 2001 - 11:15 a.m. EST

(Also participating: Marine Corps General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

Wolfowitz: Good morning. I just want to open up here with three main points.

First, we keep saying this -- I think we can't say it often enough -- that there's still a great deal more work to be done in Afghanistan.

As you know, Secretary Rumsfeld paid a visit to our troops in Afghanistan over the weekend. Obviously, they are very pumped, and I think he was very impressed by their morale and their spirit.

He told them that the defeat of al Qaeda, when it's complete, will just be the first round in a protracted struggle. And as those troops understand very well, the bell ending the first round hasn't rung yet. There's still plenty of al Qaeda loose in Afghanistan, and of course the hunt for bin Laden and other senior members of al Qaeda continues. Armed Taliban forces and senior leaders like Mullah Omar and/or Zawahiri in the al Qaeda structure are still at large. And I would say, again, that we can expect half-defeated enemies to continue to pose considerable dangers and risks to our troops.

So it's going to be a difficult job. We're going to have to work to root them out. Afghanistan is a country roughly the size of the state of Texas, and the terrain is much more hospitable to those who want to run and hide than to those who have the job of rooting them out. So we're going to keep at that job, and it is important to keep focused on that job.

Secondly, that the war does not end in Afghanistan, though we have made significant progress there in the three months since September 11th.

I think a measure of that progress is Secretary Rumsfeld's meeting with Hamid Karzai over the weekend. Karzai will be the leader of the six-month interim government that's to be installed on Saturday. The secretary said yesterday it's important to the United States that there be a government, that it not be a Taliban government and it be a government that is representative of the people of Afghanistan.

But despite this progress, as the president has said, as the secretary has said, the campaign begins in Afghanistan, but it doesn't end there. The war on terrorism is about more than one man. It's about more than one terrorist network. It's about the whole complex of global terrorist networks that interact and support one another. So we're going to continue to use every tool at our disposal -- not just the military -- to go after those cells throughout the world.

I guess finally, and importantly, the armed forces are doing a magnificent job. I think Secretary Rumsfeld's visit this past weekend was an opportunity to highlight the role that our brave men and women are performing and, I guess, also a chance for the secretary to show that he can sing a mean "Happy Birthday." (Laughs.)

With that, I ask General Pace if he has any opening comments.

Pace: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.

We still have significant amounts of strike aircraft available to support forces on the ground. As we stand in front of you right now, there are no bombs being dropped in support of forces, but they are flying overhead and available to do that.

As you know, there's a great deal of work left to be done -- very dangerous work. We have our engineers, who are assisting in the preparation of the airfields at Bagram and Kandahar and at Rhino, itself. In Mazar-e Sharif, we had, as you know, a soldier injured with a mine. In Bagram, previously, we had Marines who were injured by mines. So this is still very, very dangerous work. There's still a lot to be done, and I know you know that.

And I also know you have a lot of questions, so why don't we go ahead and get to them?

Q: For General Pace, at the moment: what kinds of strike aircraft are in the area, and exactly how are they lending support?

Pace: The same aircraft that we've had in the campaign every day -- B-52s -- bombers -- you've got B-1s; you have F-14s, F- 18s, Harrier jump jets -- not any of ours, but off the Italian ship, Garibaldi. What they do now, as they have done for the last several weeks, is fly into Afghan airspace, go to a designated orbit point and be available to respond to calls from the people we have on the ground.

Q: General Pace --

Q: General, you noted there's a great deal of work to be done. Can you talk a little about who will be doing it or, more to the point, what role the Afghan fighters will now face, since they sort of feel they've accomplished what they wanted, and some of them want to go home?

Pace: Well, what the Afghan fighters do will be certainly directed by, I'm sure, the government that will be installed on the 22nd of December. So I will not try to speak for the new government there.

Our mission remains the same -- to -- the same that we had when we went into Afghanistan, which is to eliminate the al Qaeda, to eliminate the Taliban leadership, and to leave behind an Afghanistan that's not host to terrorist organizations.

Q: (Off mike) --

Wolfowitz: I would add to that, too. I mean, we've put substantial rewards out for people to help us find these folks, and I'm sure that's motivational. But what is also clear from the reports that I think you're seeing, as well as we, that there's no -- there's a good deal of Afghan anger at these terrorists and at what the terrorists did to their country over the last five years. So I think there's both a -- we're going to get cooperation, people who are looking for rewards, but I think we're also going to get cooperation from people who genuinely hate the terrorists.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I have a policy question, but I'd like to make a comment to General Pace first. Contrary to the Washington Post article in the Style section last week, you don't have big ears.

But anyway, a policy question, Mr. Secretary. It now seems, to use the analogy of the secretary, that perhaps Osama bin Laden has flown the coop. If he uses Pakistan as a transit point, what countries in the world do you think would be willing to accept him? And would we be willing to go to war with those countries to get him?

Wolfowitz: I just think any country in the world that would knowingly harbor bin Laden would be out of their minds. And I think they've seen what happened to the Taliban, and I think that's probably a pretty good lesson to people not to do that.

Obviously, if he goes into Pakistan, the Musharraf government and, I think, many of the people of Pakistan will be helping us to find him. That doesn't mean that there aren't people there who will be sympathizers. And this man -- we don't know where he is now, and he could be on the run.

Q: Well, Mr. Secretary, you mentioned in your opening statement --

Q: May I do a follow-up, please? May I do a follow-up? Excuse me. A follow-up, if I may, according to protocol.

The follow-up is, if such countries such as Libya and maybe even Cuba --

Wolfowitz: I didn't know there was protocol here. (Laughs.)

Q: One would hope, Mr. Secretary. We do get a follow-up -- (off mike). Countries such as Libya, Arabic-speaking, maybe even Cuba might be willing to take him. The question remains -- my first question -- if that's true, would we be willing to go to war, as we're doing in Afghanistan, to get him back?

Wolfowitz: Well, my answer remains, they would be crazy to harbor him.

Yes, sir?

Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned in your opening remarks that due to the terrain of that region, it's easier to hide than to hunt out people in that region. What's the possible timetable for a full search of the Tora Bora caves to be completed? Is it weeks? Months? What are you looking at? And is it possible that bin Laden could still be somewhere in those caves?

Wolfowitz: Look, I think it's possible he could be dead in the bottom of one of them, and I don't think -- unless General Pace wants to put a timetable on it, I think I'd be very wary of suggesting how long it's going to take to even find out what we can find out.

After all, one of the things we've found out over the course of time is that there were more caves there than we realized before we started this operation. So I would hesitate to predict.

Pace: This really is very, very difficult. First of all, you have several valleys in the Tora Bora complex. Each of them is several miles long. In each of those valleys you have several hundred caves. And you want to go through very methodically, one by one, and if it's been closed by bombs, determine whether or not you want to open it up to see what's in there. And if it's not been closed by bombs, you have to determine whether or not it's worth going in. So it's going to be step by step, cave by cave, and to put a time limit on that would be imprudent right now.

Q: Can you give us your assessment of who you believe you have, either qualitatively or any other way you care to, in the pool of prisoners, especially in Tora Bora? There are indications that you have some fairly important people. Can you give us any idea of who they might be, the type of person they might be, the level in the al Qaeda organization they might be?

Wolfowitz: The answer is really we're still working on that. I imagine, by the way, that if you were a high-level person in that group of prisoners, you would be doing your best to conceal that fact and suggest you were just some innocent person who got duped into the whole thing.

We do know that we've got five detainees aboard the Peleliu -- one Australian, one American, and three Taliban/al Qaeda. We think we know who they are, and if they're who we think they are, they're fairly important people. But one of the reasons not to start identifying them yet is we're not sure that their comrades necessarily know that we have them. So --

Q: Among the things that the prisoners are supposedly telling you, in addition to ratting on each other, to help you identify who the guy in the next room may be, is their anecdotal knowledge of where bin Laden has been recently. Can you describe for us the kinds of things that you are hearing from them about where you think he has been, from their testimony, recently?

Wolfowitz: The things that I have seen -- and I'm not -- you know, we're dealing with a fast-moving situation, and a lot of the information is down with the people who are doing the questioning --

I'd say most of what I have seen seems to be secondhand reports, that we're not talking to people who are at least telling us that they met with bin Laden or they talked with bin Laden.

I think one guy claims that he saw bin Laden from some several hundred yards away. It's that quality of information; it was a pretty confused situation. So I guess that's where I'd leave it for now.

Yes, Malcolm (sp).

Q: Mr. Secretary, you said during your opening remarks that "The war does not end in Afghanistan" -- your words. And you are widely reported to be an advocate of spreading the war into Iraq. I'd be happy to hear your comment on that, but if I could also ask, many people now assertively around the world -- leaders around the world -- are expressing apprehension about that. I'd appreciate your comments on that, from your point of view.

Wolfowitz: I keep coming back that we have a lot of work to do in Afghanistan. That is our focus for now, and it's important it stay focused. I think the places that we're going to be looking at immediately beyond Afghanistan are, first and foremost, those places where we think senior al Qaeda might be trying to escape to or those places where we have tentatively identified possible al Qaeda people hanging out, but -- you know, the president's made it very clear what the broad objective is. The question of timing and tactics is a very complicated and a fairly subtle one.

Q: Well, if I could follow up, the description you just gave about where you will look next would not seem to be a description of Iraq. Would you agree with that?

Wolfowitz: Look, I don't -- we don't discuss future operations, and I'm not going to do it now. I said I think our immediate priority is on Afghanistan and on people who may be escaping from Afghanistan. But I think the broad objective remains, and it's going to be up to the president to decide what other things we may do.

Q: There are reports there are now 18 prisoners in U.S. custody. Could you say more about your interrogation plans for them -- what you expect, what you hope to learn from them, how extensive this interrogation will be, how long it will go on -- and then, beyond the interrogation, what plans would you have once you get the information from them that you want?

Wolfowitz: Well, the first priority is to get information from them and, first and foremost, information that can lead us to the capture of other terrorists, and I would say, particularly, frankly, the capture of terrorists here in the United States or in other places where they may be planning operations.

They're more likely to have immediate knowledge of people in Afghanistan, and, obviously, we're looking for that information. And I think as long as we continue to believe they have intelligence value, that will remain our priority. But at some point, any number of them are going to have issues of judicial punishment to be considered, and at some point, we'll have to consider under what jurisdiction that applies.

Q: If I could --

Wolfowitz: But we're still a very long way from there, and it's a complicated business, and you can't, you know -- someone said the other day, in commenting on the terrorists who were arrested in connection with the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings, that these guys are very skilled liars. They lie shamelessly; when you catch them out in a lie, they go on to another lie.

So that gives you -- this was speaking about some of the people we've convicted for past terrorist acts. So I think that gives you an idea that this is not a simple matter, you sit down and have an interview and then you dispose of the information. And it's a reason also to keep each one of them guessing as to what we've learned from someone else.

Q: If I could just follow up, we understood that there were about 3,000 prisoners that were being held by alliance forces west of Mazar-e Sharif, and that 15 of those had been selected and are on their way to Kandahar. Can you tell us what the significance of those 15 are? Do you believe that they have the kind of information that you're looking for? Are they senior al Qaeda? How have they been selected, or are they just the first bunch to go through this process?

Wolfowitz: There are 15 that are moving from Sherberghan to Kandahar. My understanding, but General Pace may know better, is that they were selected because they -- we concluded they, in conjunction with the people holding them, that these were people who might have important information or might be themselves senior people.

We've heard that number -- 3,000. There's no precise number. I would say, probably, if you stuck to the figure "hundreds," you'd probably be closer to what's accurate. But they're holding a lot of people up there, and we've made it clear that where there's any reason to think that they're al Qaeda or senior Taliban people that we would like to get our hands on them to interrogate them.

Q: A question for General Pace. General Pace, you said that no bombs are falling right now on Afghanistan. How long has no bombs been falling on Afghanistan, and is this the first time since October 7th that no bombs have been falling on Afghanistan?

Pace: As I stand here and since we've been in here now about 15 minutes, for all I know bombs are falling on Afghanistan -- (laughter) -- because the intent is to provide proper support at the proper time. The aircraft are available. Some days there is a lot of targets. Some days there are not. Today at this point in time -- up until this point in time, there had not been a lot of targets that needed to be serviced from the air on the ground. It is simply a matter of our forces on the ground calling for support. When they call, I just want you to know that in fact we still continue to have the same level of effort overhead as we have had the last several weeks.

Q: But still, is this a major shift in the air war since October 7th?

Pace: No, I wouldn't use the word "shift." I would say it's a very natural transition from occupying territory that was previously held by the enemy to now having most of their territory under opposition control and now beginning to focus in on the pockets of enemy resistance and then determining what the best weapons system is. And sometimes the best weapons system is an individual with a rifle. Other times, the best weapons system is a plane with a bomb on it. And that's what we're doing.

Q: Sir, can you quantify a little bit the number of al Qaeda who have escaped from the Tora Bora area? You know, if you've got AC- 130s that have sensors that can track, you've got JSTARS airplanes -- just rough order, how many have escaped in the last three or four days? And do AC-130 gunships now have leeway to fire on those they see fleeing?

Pace: The AC-130 gunships will continue to respond to calls for fire by individuals on the ground or cueing from our other assets that are able to see specific targets. They do not have -- that's how they are -- their weapons are employed.

Q: They don't have free-fire authority, though. They have to be cued and authorized?

Pace: They are being cued and authorized. That's correct.

Q: How many al Qaeda do you think have escaped in --

Pace: We don't know. We do not know. We do know that -- because we don't know how many were in that valley in the first place, nor in the valleys next to it. So it's impossible to quantify how many were killed, and it's impossible to quantify how many got away.

Wolfowitz: And let --

Q: But don't these sensors that can track moving targets -- we've got JSTARS and all these other high-tech --

Wolfowitz: No, there's a difference between having --

Q: (Off mike) -- okay.

Wolfowitz: -- and we do -- remarkable capabilities focused on a particular kind of target -- to follow, for example, a convoy moving along a road. But it is a completely different matter if you say, "Can you observe an entire difficult mountainous area that is wooded and look for people who are walking on foot?" Again, we may have an ability, if we knew a party of individuals in a specific location, to bring some assets to bear to find them, but I would try to dispel the notion that as good as our intelligence is -- and it's amazing, and no country's ever had it before -- that you can maintain the kind of surveillance over a large border area like that and watch people crossing.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you said that the quality of intelligence about bin Laden is, at best, secondhand. Does that apply also for Mullah Omar? Is there any clearer picture this week than it was last week about the rough whereabouts of Omar?

Wolfowitz: First of all, just to clarify I said the intelligence that I've seen appears to be secondhand. I mean, I can't say that I've seen everything.

I think the people who know the best are the people who are there on the ground, and not necessarily from the Defense Department. So that -- I was trying to characterize what we are seeing that gets reported back here at the Pentagon.

With respect to Mullah Omar, with the same qualification applied, I'd say that we have less current information on him. It's been longer since we've seen even what sounded like convincing second-hand reports, much less firsthand reports. To the best of our knowledge, he is probably -- "probably" meaning greater than 50 percent, but not necessarily much greater -- (chuckles) -- still in Kandahar area, but he could be even outside of the country.

Q: Mr. Secretary, last time you were before us, you talked about doing reconnaissance in areas -- possible escape routes or countries that al Qaeda people could flee to. And today, there's reports out of Yemen that Yemen special forces have conducted a raid on several al Qaeda people -- possibly somebody who had just come from Afghanistan. Do you know anything about that? Is that supported by U.S. information?

Wolfowitz: I don't know about the raid. I do know that for some time, we've been concerned that there are areas of Yemen, particularly in the back country, near the Saudi border, that actually happens to be near bin Laden's native village on the Saudi side of the border; that there are pockets where we believe al Qaeda people have sheltered and may be there now and where the Yemeni government doesn't have much control over its own territory. I'm not aware of this report on special forces, although we have been urging the Yemenis to do more.

Do you know, Pete?

Pace: I do not.

Wolfowitz: Okay.

Q: Could you update us on the situation in Kandahar? And what is the FBI doing there?

Pace: On the ground in Kandahar right now, Marines, U.S. Army and others are working on, first, preparing the airfield so it can handle more and larger air -- aircraft -- excuse me -- they are clearing mines. They are building a facility that will help to keep secure the battlefield detainees, and that's about it right now.

Wolfowitz: And on the FBI, I don't know numbers. I'm generally aware that they are in Afghanistan in a couple of places -- partly helping us, because they have information about some of the people that we're talking to. But we're also trying to facilitate their access to information that could help them back here.

Q: Mr. Secretary, General, it's been some time since we had an update on the search for sites of suspected weapons of mass destruction. Originally, there was some talk about 40. Have those all been visited? Have new sites been discovered? And has any tangible evidence been found of any chemical or biological or radioactive-type material?

Pace: I can get you the exact numbers. There have been a few added. I'm not sure how many. It's probably in the vicinity now of about 50, but I need to get that for you, for the record. [More than 50 sites are being checked.]

We are in fact going through, step by step, as we are with the caves -- going through each site systematically to determine what's there, taking soil samples and the like. There have been a couple of locations where we have found documentation that is the chemistry set equivalent of "this is how to make a bomb in your basement." But the documentation on how to do that is not linked with any physical evidence that in fact that occurred in a particular location. So that's about what we have right now.

Q: Conventional bombs?

Pace: Some on conventional and some on other -- biological and chemical weapons.

Q: Mr. Secretary, having made the capture or the killing of bin Laden a major objective and wanting to both stop his activities and deter other would-be terrorists, how important is it to find him? And can the war be considered a success until you do, or if you don't?

Wolfowitz: I think we've tried to make clear from the beginning that this is not about one individual, that if you had to pick a single individual that's most important, it's -- he's probably the one, but frankly, we -- you know, there are others who probably were instrumental in planning September 11th, that are among the top leadership.

I think the real measure of success is going to be when we can go to sleep at night comfortably, not worrying about whether terrorists are going to strike next. And it is a matter of de-fanging that network and the networks that work with them, and, as the secretary put it, draining the swamp.

Q: But would the president and others, having said that we will bring him to justice, one way or the other -- do we risk losing a little bit of the message we're trying to send around the world if we don't?

Wolfowitz: I think the president said if it takes months, if it takes years, we're going to keep after this man. And he's going to be -- if he's still alive, he'll be a man with a price on his head, he'll be a man who people will be a in great danger if they -- sheltering him. But again, I think the real measure of success here -- and it's going to be a while before we get there -- is to end the fear of terrorism.

Q: You said just a moment ago that the FBI -- using your words -- has information about some of the people over there, that they're -- what do you mean by that? Are they -- some of the people who are the combatants over there, who have been taken captive, so high up in the pecking order that the FBI thinks they may have been directly involved in September 11th?

Wolfowitz: I didn't mean anything that specific. It may be the case.

I don't know the specifics. What I do know is the FBI, through its many investigations, including investigations preceding September 11th, has a great deal of information about the structure of al Qaeda, about the role of key leaders. And when you get into an interrogation, and I'm an amateur at this, but obviously you do a much better job questioning people if you have some idea what the answers are, and the FBI in many cases has some idea of what the answers are. But I didn't mean to suggest that I know the FBI is specifically interested in these specific individuals.

Q: To sort of follow up, you keep on referring to Osama bin Laden -- "if he's alive," that type of thing. Is there a growing feeling that perhaps he was killed?

Wolfowitz: No. I just -- I'm really trying to emphasize how much we don't know about this man and his whereabouts. No, I don't think there's a growing feeling he's been killed. There's just a lack of knowledge of where he is right now.

Yes, sir?

Q: Mr. Secretary, you once said that you thought that the Afghans would be looking for Osama bin Laden because of the reward and because they're angry, but some of the commanders, the Afghan commanders in the area have indicated the war is over and they're ready to pull their troops out. Would the American and British forces that are there continue the search if our allies kind of pull out of the territory?

Wolfowitz: We continue to have a mission to go after al Qaeda and after the Taliban senior leadership, and that mission is our mission, regardless of what other people view as their mission. But I just go back -- I believe that we will continue to find a lot of help in Afghanistan.

Q: Mr. Secretary, will the continuation of the fight in Afghanistan from the American point of view delay the deployment of a multinational force?

Wolfowitz: No. We believe that the multinational -- I guess it's called the security assistance force for Kabul can be deployed, and we can de-conflict its mission from our mission.

Q: Concerning John Walker, how much longer do you intend to hold him? His attorney, his family attorney has said that his constitutional rights may be violated by not being able to meet with an attorney. And also, do you have any plans to turn him over to the Justice Department?

Wolfowitz: We're still considering what to do with him. There's no decision yet.

Q: Concerning John Walker, can you --

Q: On that topic, can you talk about the rules governing him? I mean, how long can you hold him without letting him see his lawyer? And he's a detainee but he's not a prisoner of war. What are the rules on that?

Wolfowitz: I think I'd probably ask general counsel to give you the exact rules, but he is being held under -- he's being treated consistent with the Geneva protections for prisoners of war. So he enjoys all the protections that would go with prisoner of war status, but he is not a legal combatant, and therefore he's not legally a prisoner of war.

Q: He's not a legal combatant. Does that mean that you believe that he is al Qaeda and not a Taliban? How do you classify this man?

Wolfowitz: I don't want to make a judicial judgment here.

We know he was fighting in an area with Taliban/al Qaeda forces. That much I know. Beyond that, I don't know how we would classify him legally.

Q: To what extent is he cooperating, and is he providing any information of value in terms of the investigation into al Qaeda/Taliban leadership? Can you -- can you share --

Wolfowitz: I really don't know the current status.

Do you --

Pace: I do not.

Q: Mr. Secretary, when you talked about the prisoners being -- giving information, but largely being second-hand, were you talking about sort of the older group of prisoners from the north, the ones that are being transferred, or were you talking about the prisoners, the Tora Bora prisoners, who I guess you may have had some access but you do not have custody of?

Wolfowitz: I was specifically referring to the reports I had seen -- and remember, these are preliminary reports -- for prisoners in the Tora Bora area. Now, the people up north, I don't -- it's been a long time since any of them have suggested --

Q: Even the Tora Bora prisoners you feel do not have very recent direct contact --

Wolfowitz: No, what I'm saying is what they've told us so far that has gotten up to me doesn't suggest recent knowledge. But on the other hand, somebody might be sitting on recent knowledge and not telling us, or somebody down at the local level may already be telling us things. As General Pace said, this is a situation that changes every 15 minutes.

Q: Are the five being held on the Peleliu and the 15 being transferred from Mazar, is that the total number of detainees now being held by the U.S.? Or do you have a good total number?

Wolfowitz: That's correct.

Q: And so, it's 20.

Pace: It is right now. In a half-hour, it might be more than that.

Q: Mr. Secretary, before you sent the troops to Afghanistan the United States has shared with friends and allies what you called evidence that Osama bin Laden was behind the attack on September 11th. If you go into war with Iraq, Somalia, or whatever you want, are you going to share a lot of evidence to the same extent that Osama bin Laden has a connection with those countries?

Wolfowitz: Look, you know, this -- (laughs) -- this is a clever way to get me to discuss future operations; it won't work. But I think the general principle that we -- as it's made clear, we will do the best job we can consistent with protecting our sources and methods of intelligence to make sure that the countries that are with us understand what we're doing and why we're doing it. And we do believe that maintaining that level of international solidarity is important to success.

Thank you.

Pace: Thank you.

Q: Happy holidays.

Wolfowitz: Merry Christmas. Thank you.

Q: Thank you.

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