Text: Washington Post Interview With Donald Rumsfeld
Monday, Dec. 10, 2001
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was interviewed on Friday, Dec. 7 by Washington Post staff reporters Thomas E. Ricks, Bradley Graham and Matt Vita. Also participating was Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs.
Q:We'd like to begin by asking you about the war news, and specifically the whereabouts of Omar and Osama bin Laden, as far as you know?
Rumsfeld: This is for tomorrow's newspaper?
Rumsfeld: The only thing that's changed really in the last day or so has been what's taking place in Kandahar. In the north and the west, the what we used to call opposition forces, and I suppose we should for a few more days, are going after pockets of Taliban and that is somewhat new. They're trying to reduce the dangers to humanitarian assistance and they're trying to reduce the risk to everybody, actually, by having these folks roaming around with weapons. And they're mostly Afghan Taliban as opposed to al Qaeda.
Q:Is there fighting --
Rumsfeld: Sure. And that's happening in three or four locations around the country. And what's happening in Jalalabad to the border area east of Kabul is an effort on the ground by Afghan forces with, in some cases U.S. Special Forces with them, to try to systematically work their way through areas that they think al Qaeda are located in, and they are finding them. It's working well. It's dangerous and it's a messy business, but they're at it. The Kandahar situation is a bit like a Wild West show. It is very untidy. There are all kinds of reports, some of which may be true, many of which probably aren't, and a lot of speculation about what's happening. Some Taliban are turning in weapons, others are not. There's a good deal of confusion about what might happen prospectively. I think it's a very dangerous situation in the sense that you saw what happened up in Mazar where people kept their weapons, killed people, started a major firefight, and a lot of people got killed. That is entirely possible here in Kandahar. I suppose it will be opposition forces as well as United States forces obviously -- are aware of what happened up in Mazar and one would think they'd be a good deal more careful about checking people. But there are a lot of Taliban and al Qaeda people inside of Kandahar and --
Rumsfeld: Yeah, I'm sure. We didn't do a census lately, but if you'll permit a wild flying guess, I think the short answer is yes. So that is going along and there is no way to predict when it will end or how it will end.
Q:Omar's whereabouts? Do you think he's escaped?
Rumsfeld: Why should I speculate? I don't get paid for that.
Q:I thought you might know something.
Rumsfeld: You can't know. The best estimate of everybody is that he's somewhere in the Kandahar area. Now what does that mean? Does it mean in the city? Unlikely. Does it mean in one of the smaller towns nearby? Possibly. Is he anywhere very long? No. He keeps moving. Is it possible that he's in the mountains to the north? Yes. But does anyone except Omar know where he is at the moment? I doubt it. Maybe a driver and a couple of security people, because he just keeps moving.
Q:Earlier today a senior U.S. official told me he thought Osama bin Laden most likely had left the country.
Rumsfeld: Who said this?
Q:A senior U.S. official.
Rumsfeld: A senior U.S. official who refuses to be identified and probably properly so because he probably doesn't know anything.
Q:Or else you'd want to prosecute him if he did.
Rumsfeld: Indeed. If I find somebody passing out classified information I would indeed be happy to prosecute.
Q:He said he thought he had moved to a secondary location. He said not necessarily a final destination. He said probably he's in Pakistan. What do you make of that?
Rumsfeld: I don't run around chasing senior officials' anonymous speculation. If someone walked in this room right now and said he's here, there or another place, country A, country B, another part of Afghanistan, I'd say oh, that's interesting. He could be. You can't know. It's a porous border. The best guess has been that he's been somewhere in the middle of the country. Whether he is or not is not going to be known until this thing ends. If he is anywhere near any border obviously people move across those borders very easily. You know. You've lived there. You probably drifted back and forth across a couple of those borders.
Q:I ran my junior class trip through the middle of the country, is what I thought of when you answered that last question, when I was my class president.
Q:I think many people may have the impression about the Kandahar situation that the Marines may have kind of ringed the Kandahar area so it may be hard for people to understand how could Omar have just kind of escaped through this net. Maybe that was the wrong impression, but --
Rumsfeld: It is a wrong impression. There is a road, it's an internal circumferential that tends to go pretty much around the country.
Rumsfeld: A big beltway round the country and not a city. And it is a logical route for ingress and egress between sections of the country and other countries. So you're in the southern part of the country, you've got this road. The Marines have their forward operating base there. The purposes were to have a forward operating base to interdict lines of communication which they have been doing and dissuading, deterring in effect, people from moving toward the Iranian border -- either way, in or out, reinforcing the Taliban or al Qaeda down from the north, down from Herat or even Kunduz. Also preventing movement either of people, reinforcing people coming in from Pakistan or people fleeing out of Afghanistan. So they have had an effect, both an actual effect as well as a deterrent effect by doing that and they've been in some firefights recently of some convoys that have been moving down that road.
Q:More than one firefight?
Rumsfeld: I don't know. I have to check. It is not difficult to move around in that country and not be seen. A good portion of the 24 hours is dark; a portion of it's bad weather. The so-called opposition forces are not everywhere at once. They tend to be in concentrated clusters. And the terrain is difficult. People blend in and look like they're part of the normal activities of the area. So anyone who has the impression that the borders have border patrols and are secure, or that the Marines, a handful of Marines, are able to encircle a large area like that and provide anything approximating a perfect shield or screen around a large area like that would be unrealistic. It's not possible. Even with all the intelligence assets we have.
Q:What is being done along that border near the area in eastern Afghanistan where we've been focusing the bombing in recent days, by the Pakistanis or other, by the Pentagon or other agencies as far as trying to enforce that border, or monitor that border.
Rumsfeld: The Pakistan army has put forces along the border in a couple of locations that tend to be high traffic areas. They are interested in not having foreigners come into their country and cause mischief and engage in acts of terrorism. So they're doing that. They have the same problem anyone else does, just like we would with Canada if you look at that border, or Mexico. They've got miles and miles and miles of border, difficult terrain, there's just no way to seal countries like that.
Q:I'd like to turn now if we could to some questions about your stewardship of the war. The first is this long-winded question here about turning points in the war. From an outsider's perspective I see about five turning points, the ones I wrote out here. One's the October 3rd, the decision to go to war; the onset of the bombing on Sunday, the 7th, followed with a relative lack of protest in Pakistan and the Arab world; then the B-52 strikes being at the end of the month, once you got the Special Forces spotters in; and the fall of Mazar, and Kabul after that; finally now the fall of Kandahar. From your perspective of the insider who gets the global view of this, are those the turning points you look back on as significant?
Rumsfeld: No. I don't know that the decision to go to war was on October 3rd. I could be wrong, but --
Q:This was the Wednesday before you left for the Middle East --
Rumsfeld: I just don't have a calendar and I don't know. B-52 strikes, I would not probably. The fall of Mazar. Kandahar has not fallen. If you were to ask me what I thought was important as opposed to my commenting on those --
Q:That's why I am asking.
Rumsfeld: First would be the September 11th attack. Second would be the president's decision to engage in a war against terrorism in the broadest sense, that we would use all elements of national power, that we would bring in other countries, that it would be a long, sustained effort to deal with this problem, and that a part of it would involve the use of both overt and covert military force in Afghanistan. Another key turning point was the decision that we would not have a single coalition but rather we would use floating coalitions or multiple coalitions and recognize that because this would be long, because it would be difficult, and because different countries have different circumstances, different perspectives and different problems, that we needed their help on a basis that they were comfortable giving it to us and we should not, ought not, and do not expect everyone to do everything. And that's fine. So if someone wants to help in this way but not that, that's fair enough. The critical element of that is that that way the mission determines the coalition. The opposite of that would be if the coalition determined the mission. Once you allow the coalition to determine the mission, whatever you do gets watered down and inhibited so narrowly that you can't really accomplish, you run the risk of not being able to accomplish those things that you really must accomplish. That was an important decision it seems to me. The October 7th really, simply happened to be the day that the bombing started. That was not when it was decided, obviously, it was decided some time before and it takes time to move your forces into position and so forth. Another critical element of it has been the decision to try to do something quite different, and that is to use forces that existed on the ground, the various elements that had not been successful, that had not been able to deal with the Taliban, and to try to work with them and increase their capabilities in a way that they could be successful. And certainly one of the very critical elements of that was the placing on the ground of U.S. forces embedded in those units to provide them with the kind of advice and communication capability so that they could get ammunition resupplies, they could get food, they could get clothing, they could call in airstrikes in a way that was precise and effective, and that that working relationship could get established. You could just see the change in the effectiveness of the bombing.
Q:At what point was that decision made?
Rumsfeld: I don't know. I don't keep track.
Q:It was after the 7th --
Rumsfeld: I don't know when the decision was made. Obviously the people went in there after the 7th, but it took time, and it took time because it's hard to do. You have to get enough of a relationship that you can persuade them that that's a good thing to do. You have to have sufficient weather that you can actually physically put them in. You need some preparation inside before you bring in 10 or 12 or so of these so-called Special Forces "A" teams. It just took time for the United States government to be able to develop those relationships so that we could do that. But each place it happened the results got very good, very fast.
Q:I'm told that you pushed very hard to get those spotters in. It was a major issue for you in the middle of October?"Why aren't they there now? How can we get them in there faster?"
Rumsfeld: I have a problem personally. I work long hours and seven days a week, and I'll ask somebody to do something and I will be absolutely certain I asked them two and a half weeks ago and it will turn out it was two and a half or three days ago. I have a certain amount of impatience about things. I like to get things done. And I honestly -- I am floored when someone tells me that it was really only four or five days ago instead of two or three weeks ago on something, and Torie will vouch for that. So I do get to the point where I kind of lean forward on things and talk to people.
Q:Actually after you gave your briefing/lecture on being patient, the need for patience at the end of October --
Rumsfeld: I should have looked in the mirror and listened to it.
Q:One general leaned over to me and said to me, "Ironic, isn't it?" (Laughter)
Rumsfeld: That's true. That is the truth. Another key thing that was done I think was the president's, what's the word, determination. And his understanding from the outset that it was, part of it was going to be seen and part of it wasn't going to be seen and that there would be impatience, and that we have to establish from the very beginning that we recognize that and that we're going to work our way through it. We're going to accept the fact that there's going to be impatience and criticism because it isn't all visible. Yet we believe that the pressure that was being placed on the people we were trying to place pressure on and still are, would work ultimately. You can't know for sure, but we believed it would work. That if you froze enough bank accounts and you arrested enough of their people in different countries, and if you bombed them and if you gave money and ammunition to the opposition forces, and if you just kept pushing, pushing, pushing all the time in a lot of different ways, making life difficult, making it hard for them to communicate with their troops, making it difficult for them to communicate with each other, making them move every day.
Q:That sounds basically like that was your plan, what you just described.
Rumsfeld: That's right. And it was to try to on a worldwide basis create enough pressure on terrorists and terrorist networks so that life got bad for them, that they had more trouble recruiting people, that if there were doubters among their group they left, that people who were thinking about giving money didn't, that it took three times as long to manage to get money to somebody who needed it to do something bad by way of a terrorist act, and to just complicate their lives. Make them worry about who's next door to them. Offer reward money and wonder who's going to decide that they'd rather have the reward money than their friendship with one of these folks. Get people, dramatize the seriousness of the problem and the numbers of thousands of people who die and the risk of weapons of mass destruction in a way that people who have relationships with these people begin to wonder whether maybe they'd like to call the police and the FBI or the local authorities in some country A, B, or C and tell them about this person that they think is acting in a way that's strange.
Q:To the extent that you can talk about it, what are your concerns now looking forward, your worries about the icebergs out there?
Rumsfeld: One of the things we're trying to do right now is very difficult, and I've jokingly used the example of those little glass things where you use the handles and you try to turn them up and down and twist them and pull them back and forth and the arms will move all different ways and you're trying to do something. What we're trying to do in Afghanistan right now is about like that. We're trying to work through all kinds of different people. It's not direct. It's an awful lot easier if you just order somebody to go do something, or you have the power and the physical presence to do it. Now things have gone well in a sense, and now some very tough pieces are left. There's going to be a lot of people who are going to begin to have interests down there. You're going to have a provisional government, you're going to have people who have, there's going to be conceivably a security force come in, there are going to be humanitarian workers, there are going to be a group of people who command troops in this part of the country or that part of the country. There's going to be somebody who thinks the airport is theirs, and you're going to begin to have to work with all of those people so that we can finish our task. That gets complicated. It gets complicated from a military standpoint, from a political/diplomatic standpoint. What we've got to do as a country is to keep people's eyes focused on why we went there and why we put people's lives at risk, and spend a lot of money, a lot of time, took a lot of risks to do what we've done, and it is to finish the job. That means we've got to get the senior al Qaeda people and we've got to see that the lower level al Qaeda people don't get out of there and run loose and destabilize another country or start killing people somewhere else. We've got to get the senior Taliban people and see that they're taken care of in one way or another. We've got to see that that country does not become a terrorist haven again, or harboring terrorists. We've got an obligation as a country that cares about people to see that we participate in the humanitarian aspects of it. We certainly have to have an interest in hoping and praying that the government that comes in will be more respectful of everybody including women and the needs and rights of their people. That's a lot to have ahead of you in just that one country simultaneously, trying to see that you don't allow these folks that are connected with the al Qaeda network to engage in other terrorist acts in this country, let alone deal with the other terrorist networks that are there as we've seen recently.
Q:You've mentioned the president, the decisions he made several times here. I was just kind of curious. Every afternoon do you speak with him, at least once daily, a time you talk? And in those conversations what kind of detail, what's he looking for from you and how is he going about making his decisions? And how do you observe him in action as commander in chief?
Rumsfeld: It is a real pleasure to be a secretary of Defense for a president who handles a set of very tough, complicated issues like this the way he does. He has a good knowledge base, he's an exceedingly skillful executive in terms of understanding, bringing people in, knitting them together, dealing with them individually, dealing with them collectively, motivating them, probing, testing, questioning, and putting structure into a problem in a way that they then go about their tasks within that structure in a useful, constructive way. We generally have a National Security Council meeting every morning. Mostly it's in person if he's in town. Otherwise it will be on a secure video. In fact I was just told we have one tomorrow morning again at 7:30. I generally talk to him towards the end of the day and give him a roundup, and I may see him or talk to him at other times during the day. When you're engaged in something as important as this obviously the connection needs to be tight. He needs to know what's going on. He needs to have a sense of things, and he does.
Q:Have you raised with him the issue of what to do with Omar if you catch him in the last day or two? That was an issue, obviously, yesterday that people were struggling with.
Rumsfeld: He was not the slightest bit surprised at what I said. We intend to have a -- it is our intention to have control over Omar at the right moment. I certainly have discussed with him what our objectives are there, with Secretary Powell and the National Security Council. We have a very clear understanding as to what our objectives as a country are and how we ought to go about dealing with them.
Q:This leads to the question at the bottom of the page about National Command Authority level decisions. How frequently in the course of this did General Franks bump decisions up to you? And how frequently did you feel you then hadto take them to President Bush? I ask this specifically because I'm told that fairly frequently in the first couple of weeks of the war there were several of these discussions back and forth on targeting Taliban leaders.
Rumsfeld: I talked to General Franks today maybe two or three times already, and I'll probably visit with him again late today before I talk to the president. We meet periodically. He comes up here; I go down there. We meet on SVTC [secure video teleconference], the secure video. We did that yesterday, I believe. Or Wednesday maybe. About once a week to once every two weeks we'll put him on a secure video, if he's not in town, and he will take the first 20 minutes of the NSC meeting, so that others have a chance to visit with him and ask him questions. The president particularly, and the vice president. In the early part of an activity, particularly an activity that's not a set piece, which this certainly wasn't, there's no road map, there was no book, no plan, no table of contents that you can go thumb in the index and figure out what you're supposed to do. We were figuring out what we ought to do, and in that period obviously the interaction between the CINC and me was extensive, and developing rules of engagement, setting responsibility, all of those things, deploying forces, deciding what he needed, authorizing various requests for deployment, various types of assets in his area of responsibility. He tends to be focused on what he has to do and what his people have to do. I'm frequently thinking about things that are around the corner, up ahead, and a lot of our discussions tend to be about those kinds of things that ought we not to begin thinking about this, and should we get some folks worrying about that that's out ahead. And how do we want to do that? Do we want the CINC's folks to do it, or can I be helpful with Colin Powell? Those kinds of things, other interagency things that need to be done. How do we get the action or intelligence out of the intelligence community in a way that we're not saying we don't have it now that we need it, but that we get the work done so that we do have it when we need it. It's more that kind of a situation.
Q:I'm told conversely though there that at times, despite your reputation for being a very hands-on guy, when Franks asked you about something and you said, "No, that's not my domain, that's your job as CINC, you decide."
Rumsfeld: Uh huh.
Q:Were there things you pushed back to him? Can you give me an example of that?
Rumsfeld: I don't have a lot of examples floating in my head like that. It's true I do that. I say goodness gracious, you handle something like that and let me know what you decide. There are so many things that are a mix of responsibility and so it takes a good relationship, and we do have a very good relationship. I like him, I respect him, he's good at what he does, he's doing a darn good job for the country and I enjoy working with him. I like his sense of humor and I like the way he thinks, he's decisive.
Q:At the same time I'm told that you rejected his initial approach as unimaginative as to how to militarily deal with Afghanistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Rumsfeld: Goodness, I think that would be an overstatement. I am very blunt; I'm very outspoken. I like to work with people, and I smile a lot with them, and they know that's my style, and it is entirely possible that I may have said something at one point or another that could lead some observer to want to characterize it that way, but sometimes I do those things simply to stimulate thought and challenge people, to press them, probe them, see if they've thought something through, and I may be just as likely to end up where they started but better informed myself, rather than they being better informed by me.
Q:On the same vein of 'Rummy stepping on toes,' I plan to write in the story that there's grumbling from White House staffers and others that they can't get information from you, and that on occasion you've spoken to Condy Rice like you talk to Barb Starr in a Pentagon press briefing, like another reporter who's not fulfilled by your answer, something like that.
Rumsfeld: Oh, I like Barbara Starr, and I like Condy. And sometimes I kid people. But no, that's nonsense. The latter part is nonsense. I do kid people, I tease people, I may do things to lighten up the day. Clarke: What was the "Saturday Night Live" line. I might be tough on you sometimes, but -- (laughter)
Rumsfeld: But no, Condy and I have a very fine relationship and the first part of it's true, of your question. That it's hard to get information from me. It is. There's no question that I am, you've heard me in the press room, what I think about protecting people's lives and I feel that way very strongly, and when there is an issue that involves a date or a location, that something's going to happen that had not happened previously; if there's something that involves a plan that is highly sensitive; it is true that I clean the damn room out and I'll deal, I did it this morning. I spoke to the president about something totally alone, with Condy. I asked Condy to come in. And before the NSC meeting started. And I'll do it again every day of the week if I feel like it. If there is no need, no value added on the part of other people knowing something, then I do that. I do it because I am determined not to have anyone leak something that ends up in the loss of lives, ours or the people we're working with. People do not need to know certain aspects of what's going on. They don't need to know when something's going to take off from some place or something's going to happen to somebody or people are going to be doing something that requires secrecy. So I, with the president's full blessing, I reduce down the size of the room. And of course when people are asked out of the room that is not something that pleases them. So it's not surprising for me that some person who's not in the loop, and ought not to be in the loop, is expressing that thought, and it bothers me not one whit. Clarke: I apologize, but we are going to have to wrap things up. One last shot.
Q:Let me mention some things that are going to be in the story that I want to give you a chance to speak to.
Rumsfeld: You've already decided to put them in even though you don't know what I think about them? That's kind of a strange way to approach this thing, Tom. I'm surprised at you. Why would you do that?
Q:Well, you know how you don't like people saying things anonymously.
Q:This morning I was speaking to Representative Ike Skelton and his name is attached to this. I said sir, it seems to me the conventional wisdom in Washington now is that Rumsfeld was a poor secretary of Defense but a terrific secretary of war. He said yes, I think that's correct. That's what I want to get your comment on. Something somebody has said with his name attached. I want to give you a chance to speak to it. It strikes me as only fair.
Rumsfeld: Ike is a good man and a good supporter of the Defense Department, and it's not for me to argue with members of the Congress on an issue such as that.
Q:Is the assessment unfair?
Rumsfeld: Who am I to say, goodness gracious. You know everyone wants to make instant judgments about things, people, activities. And it's very hard to do. I think that longitudinal studies tend to give you a little better assessment of things and it's still early.
Q:My father did longitudinal studies in Afghanistan, but that's another story.
Rumsfeld: Did he?
Q:Also, I understand that you and Vice President Cheney devised the idea of military tribunals together and then took this to the White House counsel, Gonzales, and only subsequently was it actually brought over to Attorney General Ashcroft. Is that correct?
Rumsfeld: I think not. I don't know quite how it all happened, but I know I came IN quite late. My understanding is that Attorney General Ashcroft was in much of the process.
Rumsfeld: Oh, I'm sure. I shouldn't say anything, but I think so. I've been rather busy, and I am not a lawyer. And I tend to not look for opportunities to get into things that I don't know an awful lot about.