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Vernon Loeb
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National Defense
With Vernon Loeb
Washington Post National Security Reporter

Wednesday, Mar. 5, 2003; 1 p.m. ET

Questions about Homeland Security? The Military? The latest developments with Iraq?

Post staff writer Vernon Loeb was online Wednesday, Mar. 5 at 1 p.m. ET, to discuss military defense and changes in national security issues.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Vernon Loeb: Hello out there. Things are really getting crazy these last few days, and I'm sure it's only going to get more intense as the war approaches, probably in a week or two, max. So let's get started here.

Washington, D.C.: How is it possible for the President to claim that we will do everything possible to avoid the loss of innocent life when our first 48 hours of bombing has been described as a "shock and awe" strategy?

Vernon Loeb: Well, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. "Shock and awe" is about producing shock and awe inside the regime, by destroying "regime targets"--palaces, military headquarters, weapons sites, and fielded forces--without hitting civilian targets or civilian infrastructure, like bridges and power plants. And U.S. weapons are quite precise--they go where they are programmed to go, by and large. The U.S. won't be carpet-bombing Baghdad. Having said all that, U.S. bombs are often more precise than U.S. intelligence, they do malfunction, and other battlefield mistakes are made. So some number of civilians are, most likely, going to be killed.

Hyde Park, Chicago, Ill.: Hi Vernon,
Always enjoy your chats. The trail to UBL is once again red hot, and our chances of catching him are better than they've been in a while. This effort has required and will continue to require substantial collaboration from Pakistan. Do you get the impression that this collaboration has cemented a long term alliance with Pakistan? I worry that Pakistan will become the next Iraq -- our friend when we need it, only to be left to fester after we accomplish our goals. Does the administration have a long term plan for helping Pakistan maintain an even keel?

Vernon Loeb: That's a very good question. I'm not sure it does. And the Bush administration's upcoming military exercises with India, and growing military and political ties to India, are going to make the relationship even trickier still.

Portland, Ore.: Have you ever attended one of those Pentagon Town Hall meetings that Rumsfeld holds? I read one was on C-Span last night. Who thought up the idea of having them; what are they like, who attends, etc.

Vernon Loeb: I have never actually gone to one. In fact, I'm not sure they're for reporters, although transcripts of the sessions are always released. I think the purpose of them is for Rumsfeld to talk directly to Defense Department employees. He answers questions, and has started bringing along subject matter experts who can answer questions of interest to those employees. The sessions were probably thought up by Torie Clarke, Rumsfeld's enterprising assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

Torrance, Calif.: Besides the cost of maintaining our troops for a few more months, what is the downside to waiting a few months in order to placate the doves? Fighting in the heat of summer has got to be hard on the Republican Guard, too.

Vernon Loeb: I think from the administration's viewpoint, there are a number of downsides to waiting: the weather gets much worse, the troops loose their combat edge, they're vulnerable to terrorist attacks in staging areas, and--perhaps most importantly--waiting just enables more diplomatic process, which can then entail more waiting, and they are sick of waiting. The administration fundamentally believes that Saddam Hussein will never voluntarily disarm and cannot be disarmed by U.N. inspectors. Thus, they see waiting, not as something that could provide additional security to the United States, but as postponing the inevitable. And one more thing: The longer they wait, the closer the war and its immediate aftermath get to 2004, an election year.

Washington, D.C.: What are the marines in civilian clothing doing in the UN patrolled Kuwaiti DMZ?

Vernon Loeb: Good question. I read that story, too, about U.S. Marines supposedly hacking their way through fences along the DMZ. I really don't know. But I'll try to find out for you by next week.

Columbia, Md.: Why is there a debate and talk about Iraq and al Qaeda, but nothing about the anthrax attack? This is the MOST threatening danger we face since we know it "works" and was used against us. I am surprised that journalist like you are not following up on this more aggressively. Do we at least know if it was al Qaeda or Iraq who send the letters? I'd appreciate a meaningful and well thought response! Thanks.

Vernon Loeb: OK, let me try. To the best of my knowledge, the FBI does not believe that either Iraq or al Qaeda were behind those anthrax attacks, although that possibility hasn't been ruled out. And I agree with you--those attacks killed people, shut down Senate office buildings as, exposed our vulnerability and demonstrated how lethal biological weapons really are. Since I cover the Pentagon, the anthrax investigation never really was part of my beat, so I am probably not the most knowledgeable person about the on-going probe. But I hope that helps.

Washington, D.C.: Tom Shales's column today indicated that the president may have been medicated during last night's press conference. If he is medicated does that impact his security status to receive intel briefings at the highest levels? If so, will his clearance to be briefed by the CIA and others be restored once he is no longer medicated?

washingtonpost.com: Bush's Wake-Up Call Was a Snooze Alarm, (Post, March 7)

Vernon Loeb: I don't know anything about the president being medicated, or how that would affect his ability to get intel briefings. I would guess that he could probably get access to classified information in whatever state he chose, but I really have no idea about any of this. Honestly, I've never heard such questions arise before.

Washington, D.C.: Why don't we boycott Iraqi oil? The U.S. is his biggest customer! If he is that evil, why do we continue to do business with him?

Vernon Loeb: I'm not sure a boycott would have any effect. If the U.S. boycotted Iraqi oil, it would go on the world market, and somebody else would buy it. The U.N. has somewhat effectively limited Saddam's oil revenues through the oil for food program, which supposedly keeps Iraq from spending its oil riches on anything other than food and other supplies to benefit the Iraqi people. However, there's lots of smuggling, so Saddam gets billions he can do anything he wants with by going around the program.

Accra, Ghana: Mr. Loeb,

I will try once again to get your expert opinion on this important issue.

Will the US use munitions coated with depleted uranium (DU) in the pending bombardment of Iraq? If so, what are the implications of exposure to aerosolized DU on the health of occupation forces, humanitarian workers, and the Iraqi civilian population?

Vernon Loeb: Yes, the U.S. uses depleted uranium shells for their armor-piercing strength. While DU is less radioactive than natural forms of uranium, it does contain traces of plutonium and other radioactive and toxic substances. I'm afraid I'm not a health expert and cannot answer the question you ask. However, if you want to send me an email, I'm sure I could quickly find somebody who could, and get back to you with an answer. Sorry for not answering you last week, especially since you're writing all the way from Ghana. Thanks.

Arlington, Va.: How long will the administration be able to ignore the obvious need to sit down and talk to the North Koreans?

Vernon Loeb: I'm gonna say about three months now, since that's how long they've been at it. And I got no hint from the president last night that he's planning on giving in any time soon. The administration continues to insist upon multilateral talks, even though all the multilateral partners want bilateral talks.

Lincoln, Neb.: If the U.S. should decide to commence military operations against Iraq in the near future, perhaps as early as next week, do you think that the U.S. has adequate forces in place in the region to do this effectively? If not, what do you think is the most critical shortfall in terms of capabilities not yet in place?

Vernon Loeb: Assuming the 101st is fully up and running and the 4th Infantry Division is unloaded and ready to go--both of which will probably take another week or two--the answer is probably yes. At that point, they would have three U.S. Army divisions, a Marine division, a couple of airborne brigades and a sizeable British contingent, plus five aircraft carrier battle groups (250 planes, 30 ships with Tomahawks)and 500 Air Force aircraft. I think that's enough to defeat Iraq, although there's still some question in my mind about how easy that is going to be. What some Army officers are worried about is a shortage of follow-on forces to protect the greatly extended U.S. logistics lines stretching from Kuwait up to Baghdad. The real fear is that Iraqi units will let the U.S. heavy armor pass, and then attack the tanker trucks that inevitably must come up behind them.

Bent Hatchet, Utah: Was I asleep when Iraq attacked us? President Bush suggested last night that's one of the main justifications for attacking Iraq. But, is anybody buying that?

Vernon Loeb: No, you did not miss the Iraq attack. Bush's argument is this: in the new post-911 reality, it is only prudent to assume that Iraq will inevitably give or sell its weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda, which will then use them against the United States. Thus, the risk of doing nothing and being attacked again outweighs the risk of war. That's the extended argument.

Cumberland, Md.: What are your thoughts on the report of Iraqi's purchasing U.S. and U.K. military uniforms?

Vernon Loeb: I know it's official U.S. intel, because Centcom released it yesterday to the media. I certainly wouldn't put it past the guy to dress his goons in U.S. uniforms and have them go out and brutalize Iraqis for the T.V. cameras so it looks like U.S. soldiers doing it. I can't believe it would be a huge problem, though. The U.S. will be lucky if that's the only underhanded tactic Iraq will use in the event of war.

Kentucky: Are you surprised that Congress hasn't been more aggressive about getting the Administration to release its estimates of the human and monetary costs of the war?

Vernon Loeb: I think some Democrats are doing their best to get answers, but there's always a fear on the part of Democrats and Republicans that they will appear unpatriotic with war approaching if they push too hard on the cost issue. I certainly think it's a legitimate issue. This war, which will be very costly, is being deficit financed.

Athens, Ga.: I have a hunch that the arrest of KSM in Pakistan was coordinated to give Musharaf space to abstain in the UN Security Council vote on Iraq. Seen any odds on a Pakistani abstention?

Vernon Loeb: That's an interesting theory, and Musharaf is certainly caught between a rock and a hard place on this one. For the moment, they're being counted by the administration as an unknown. My bet is, Musharaf will vote with the U.S. if he has to. But who knows.

Indianapolis, Ind.: Is Hussein being underestimated in terms of what he might do out of desperation?

Vernon Loeb: Yes and no. Military planners are certainly trying to anticipate and defend against everything he might try--chem-bio attacks, torching the oil fields, blowing dams, using human shields, dragging Israel into the war with Scud attacks, etc. However, I still think the administration's gut instinct is that they can keep most of that from happening, and the war will be pretty fast and pretty low cost, in terms of human life.

Washington, D.C.: Given the belligerence of the Bush Administration and the threats of attack, wouldn't it be irresponsible of Hussein to disarm? He could legitimately believe that the Bush Administration will portray any disarmament as a "charade" and war is inevitable.

Vernon Loeb: I think you're right that it may be too late, at this point, for Saddam to disarm. I kept wanting to ask President bush last night, as he repeatedly stressed that he hoped war could be avoided, what Saddam would have to do to make that happen. But, perhaps, if Saddam drove some mobile bioweapons labs into the U.N. compound and turned over barrels of VX, it might be enough. If Saddam were really smart, instead of just cagey and conniving, he would have disarmed long ago, gotten out from under the thumb of the U.N., the oil for food program, and U.s. sanctions, and then used his full oil wealth to arm at a much faster rate--like, say, Iran is now free to do.

Clarksville, Tenn.: Has anything more been learned about those missiles that were on their way to Yemen from N. Korea that Spain stopped and then allowed to go on it's way?

Vernon Loeb: I haven't heard anything more about them since the ship was intercepted. Sorry.

Vienna, Va.: It is possible that Saddam will give or sell some of the chemical warfare material we sold him back in the 1980s to terrorists groups. But isn't it possible that this could happen in any country? Why single out Iraq for this reason is my question?

Vernon Loeb: I don't really know. Those weapons, if any still exist, might not be lethal anymore. But you're right--other countries, like Russia, or China, or Iran, or North Korea, or a dozen others, could sell chemical warfare material to terrorists, after Iraq is disarmed. I guess the Bush administration believes Iraq is the most likely to do so, since its first on the hit list. But the administration's new National Security Strategy makes preemptive strikes against rogue states with WMD part of national policy. So Iran, conceivably, could be next.

Orlando, Fla.: I know the president was careful last night to stress that no decision on using force against Iraq has been made. But realistically, is there anything Saddam could do at this point that would stop the U.S. from going to war?

Vernon Loeb: As I said a question or two ago, I'm not sure there's much left that Saddam can do to save himself. I basically think the decision has been made to go to war. As the president himself said, we're about at the end of the diplomatic road.

Silver Spring, Md.: With Russia and China taking a different view than the U.S. on the U.N. inspection and Iraq situation, do you think the U.S. will be able to gain their support with regards to North Korea? Also, do you know what the current U.S. strategy is on North Korea especially after this "escorting planes" incident?

Vernon Loeb: Well, when relationships deteriorate, they can effect dealings with one country or another. Having said that, Iraq and North Korea are separate issues, so it remains to be seen whether U.S. differences with Russia over Iraq will trigger differences over North Korea. They certainly couldn't help. As for the current strategy, I think the administration still wants a regional strategy, with the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia all at the table together.

Washington, D.C.: Earlier this week the Post ran a story about the Defense Dept. moving to establish its own "spies." What is that all about?

Vernon Loeb: Actually, that story as in the LA Times. What it means is, the Pentagon wants to improve its own ability to have clandestine officers go out and collect human intelligence, much like the spies at the CIA do. This is a capability the Defense Intelligence Agency already has to a small degree, and now DIA wants to improve that, to aid in the war on terrorism. But I don't think DIA is trying to rival the CIA when it comes to running agents and recruiting spies.

Washington, D.C.: Do you know anything about the report coming from the Washington Times about the French company selling fighter parts to Iraq as recently as January?

I just can't imagine this is true.

Vernon Loeb: I saw the headline, too, but haven't looked into it.

Washington, D.C.: What are the odds on the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Iraq? Is it likely they would be used in response to a chem or bio attack on U.S. troops? Any other provocation? How dangerous would such a move be?

Vernon Loeb: Very small, I think, and I hope. I'm not sure the U.S. has even completed work on the tactical nukes it envisions for using in striking deeply buried weapons of mass destruction sites. Of all the nightmare scenarios, this would have to be very, very high on the list. I can't see it happening, even if Saddam uses chemical or biological weapons, which I can see happening.

Vernon Loeb: Well, I've gone past the appointed hour. Thanks for all those great questions. We'll do this again next Wednesday, I believe. See you then. Cheers.

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