Last summer, Donald Rumsfeld was deemed a fiasco as secretary of defense -- there were even whispers that he was on his way out. Since Sept. 11, his star has ascended: He has helped guide the increasingly successful war in Afghanistan, being fought on a terrain where so many nations have failed before. Rumsfeld's daily televised briefings -- and his willingness to speak his mind -- have helped make him a household name. Last week at the Pentagon, with al Qaeda forces under direct attack and Osama bin Laden's whereabouts in question, he sat down with Newsweek-Washington Post correspondent Lally Weymouth for an interview. Excerpts:
What did you think of the Osama bin Laden videotape?
I'm not inclined to come out with a series of sound bites on the tape. It is what it is. People can see it and make their own judgments. I already knew what I thought of the fellow.
Why do you think he made it?
No idea. He was obviously proud of himself. It was clearly not a professional job. But everyone in the room knew it was being done. They talked about it. You could see they knew it was being done.
It doesn't seem like a smart thing to do.
I guess it depends on what your perspective is. There are a lot of things you and I wouldn't characterize as being smart. When that film was made, maybe he felt that what he said was important and he wanted people to hear it.
When the war started, did you think it would take longer to get where we are today?
I really was without a time frame in my head. I knew we had to put enormous pressure on them and I knew we had to do it in a variety of different ways. I also knew it wouldn't end with a bang -- that the pressure would finally push them down and out and they would have to flee in some way. But I didn't have a time frame in my head that I was testing it against.
During the start of the war, didn't you urge that the bombing be made more aggressive -- toward the front lines?
We -- Commander [Army Gen.] Tom Franks and I -- knew that we needed to get U.S. forces on the ground with the opposition forces so that they could provide the coordination with the air strikes. Once Gen. Franks was able to do that, it changed the thing dramatically. We started being much more effective with the bombing, and that is what enabled the [Afghan] opposition forces on the ground to move forward. They had been there in the same position for years.
Could peacekeepers be deployed within the next 10 days without interfering with your operations?
My feeling is that you don't get peacekeeping until you get peace. I like to refer to it as a security force. I don't think it will have to be a terribly big one. The only place they are talking about having it is in Kabul, the capital. Most of the other places are relatively calm. There is still fighting and lawlessness, but that is true in some American cities as well.
Do you have an exit strategy?
We don't think of ourselves as being part of the security force in Kabul. We know what we want to do and when we have done it, we can go do it someplace else. What we want to do is to capture or kill the senior Taliban leadership and see that they are punished. We want to make sure that the rest of the Taliban are disarmed or have become part of various other forces -- that they are no longer trying to kill people. With respect to al Qaeda, we want to capture or kill the senior leadership and catch and imprison the remainder, so they don't go back to their countries and terrorize people and reorganize and then start attacking us again. When those things are accomplished from a military standpoint, we will have done our job. That doesn't mean that the U.S. has finished the job because we do have an obligation from the humanitarian standpoint to help see that the food and medical needs of the people are met.
We don't want Afghanistan a year from now to go back to being a place that harbors terrorists, so it is in our interest to be attentive to what kind of government comes along.
After Afghanistan, what is next?
The president has not made an announcement.
Don't many people in this building think the next target should be Iraq?
There are undoubtedly people who have different views on the subject. I give my advice to the president. What we are doing in Afghanistan is a major effort. The president has from the outset said that in order to defend our country, we must go after terrorists wherever they are and countries that harbor terrorists. That is as much as he has said thus far.
There was a report that U.S. military people were spotted in Somalia last week. Are you preparing for action there?
I've seen those stories and they are just stories.
Do you feel confident that bin Laden is in Afghanistan and that he will be captured?
Until you have the senior people, you don't have them. You have to keep putting pressure on them, trying to find out where they are, offering rewards for people to help you find them and some day you will find them -- in Afghanistan or somewhere else. It's not knowable at this stage. We're patient.
Reportedly, there are tunnels from the caves in Afghanistan into Pakistan.
Hundreds of them.
So, if bin Laden goes there, what would you do? Would you send U.S. forces and also work with the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI?
At the moment, the Pakistani units on the Pakistan border are regular army.
Are they actually blocking the Pakistani frontier from Afghans or Taliban who are attempting to flee?
Trying to. It's very hard. It's so long and so porous and so mountainous and so rugged. And there are so many passes. And you can walk across or go by mule or donkey or bribe your way through. On the Afghan side, we have some forces that are attempting to block some key passes. On the ground, we have some forces that are attempting to block [people fleeing] at various key transit points from inside Afghanistan.
There are also some U.S. special operations people in the general neighborhood in case something occurs where they can be helpful. . . . There is no question that there are a lot of al Qaeda fighters holed up in caves and tunnels [in the area around Tora Bora].
Does that mean thousands?
I don't know. There's no way to know. They don't do head counts, and the tunnels and caves are big. But the firepower has been fierce, so there are certainly hundreds and hundreds of them. I would suspect there may be more than 1,000.
Wasn't the luxury of [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar's cave incredible?
Yes. He had more than one of those compounds. He had several.
The president gave notification today [Thursday] that the U.S. will withdraw from the 1972 ABM Treaty in order to build a missile defense system. Do you believe, with the U.S. facing so many threats, that such a huge amount of money should be spent on an anti-ballistic missile shield?
We need to recognize that it's unlikely that armies, navies and air forces are going to attack us because we have such strong ones that we deter those countries from doing that. Therefore, the asymmetrical threats -- ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, terrorist attacks, cyberattacks -- are places they can leverage their capabilities in a way that gives them an advantage. Therefore, we must find a way to defend against ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, cyberattacks, terrorist attacks.
If a cruise missile is launched from a ship offshore, then the shield won't defend against it, will it?
That's why I said cruise missiles are a worry, also. We need to worry about all of them. Ballistic missile defense is one thing. Cruise missile defense is another. Defense against chemical and biological weapons is another. We have to worry about all those threats.
Wasn't Sept. 11 an enormous intelligence failure not only for U.S. agencies but also for the foreign services with whom we have friendly relations?
Clearly, one would wish it had not happened. [But] there are a lot of [other] things that did not happen because people stopped them.
Since Sept. 11?
Prior and possibly since, I don't know. We are vigilant and are constantly arresting people and interrogating people, and finding out things they were thinking of doing and stopping them. Terrorists can attack at any time, at any place, using any technique. And it is not possible to defend every place at every moment of the day or night against every conceivable technique of terrorism. The only way you can deal with it is to go after them and stop them and that is what we are trying to do.