(Live interview with Matt Lauer for NBC Today.)
Lauer: On Close-up this morning, the threat of terror this Fourth of July. There is unprecedented security across the country today for the nation's Independence Day celebrations, with the government warning this might be a day terrorists would want to strike.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is on the National Mall this morning. Mr. Wolfowitz, good morning to you.
Wolfowitz: Good morning. It's nice to be here.
Lauer: I know hundreds of thousands of people will gather in that location and other locations all across the country to celebrate the Fourth. How would you rate the level of security in this country on this holiday?
Wolfowitz: We're at a heightened level of vigilance and alertness. As the president has said, it's a day to be alert, but it's also a day to celebrate. This is the first Fourth of July during this war.
And it's worth remembering, when Abraham Lincoln was president 140 years ago on that first Fourth of July of the Civil War, he called a special session of Congress to celebrate that holiday which marks what this country stands for, what we're all about, what the terrorists are trying to take away from us, which is government of the people, by the people, for the people. And this is more than just a big party. This is a day really to mark what this country stands for.
Lauer: Obviously symbolic. It represents our freedom. And because of that, officials have said the terrorists might choose this as an attractive date or attractive target. And because of that, we've got heightened security, as you mentioned. But wouldn't it seem more likely that a terrorist attack would come when our guard is down, as it seemed to be down on September 11th?
Wolfowitz: We absolutely have to be alert all the time. We know they're out there plotting. We know they're trying to kill Americans, and this isn't the only day they'll try. What we can't do is let them drive us away from our way of life. This is really a way to come out here and celebrate this great holiday, I think as a way to send a message to them that we're winning; they can't win.
Lauer: The president made it very clear, in the days following September 11th, that the war on terrorism would be a long and difficult one. We hear almost weekly reports of arrests being made around the world. The hunt continues for members of terror organizations like al Qaeda. How would you rate our progress in that overall war of terrorism?
Wolfowitz: Well, we've made some spectacular progress. I think it's obvious. The incredible feats of our men and women in uniform in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, but particularly Afghanistan, I think, have surprised the whole world. I believe they've surprised the terrorists.
But what the president said is true. They're burrowed into some 60 countries around the world. They had headquarters in Hamburg, Germany and in Jacksonville, Florida, not just in Afghanistan, and it's going to take a long time to root them out. So we've got to be alert. We've got to be vigilant. But as every American sports fan knows, the best defense is a good offense, and we're going after them where they live.
Lauer: Well, let me ask you about Afghanistan. There was a military operation there last weekend, U.S. forces attacking a series of cave compounds looking for a top al Qaeda member, who I understand escaped. How would you rate al Qaeda in particular and their ability these days to organize and carry out terrorist acts against U.S. interests around the world?
Wolfowitz: I would rate them as a very serious threat, not primarily in Afghanistan. I think they've pretty much been forced underground, literally underground, in that country. But they're burrowed in all over the world.
We saw the hijackers lived in the United States, some of them for as long as two years, working their plots. We've got to assume there are still people around here. You mentioned arrests just taking place in the last few days. And it's not just the United States. It's not just Afghanistan. It's all over the world.
Lauer: Are you surprised it's proved so hard to track down their leaders?
Wolfowitz: Not at all. But I also think people should not obsess or focus on a single person. This evil organization is not like some poisonous snake; if you chop the head off, it's no longer dangerous. It's more like a disease that's infected a healthy body, and you've got to go after all the different points of infection.
Lauer: And finally, Secretary Wolfowitz, I know the Iraqis have been quietly talking to the United Nations about possibly allowing weapons inspectors back into that country. Are you hopeful that could happen soon?
Wolfowitz: That represents -- I'm glad you asked that question -- a much bigger threat that the president has called attention to in his State of the Union message and at other times since then, which is this very dangerous combination of countries that have weapons of mass destruction, that support terrorists, and that are hostile to the United States. And Iraq is just one of those countries.
If I might also, though, by the way -- this pin I'm wearing is a special one for today. It's got the flag of the United States but also the flag of the District of Columbia, one of hundreds or thousands of communities around this country where policemen and firemen and emergency workers of all kinds are working to keep us safe. So this is a day to pay tribute to all those people in the armed forces and in other organizations that are on the front lines of this fight against terrorism.
Lauer: Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Mr. Wolfowitz, thanks. Happy Fourth of July.
Wolfowitz: Thank you; to you also.
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