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ASD PA Clarke Interview with Jonathan Karl, CNN

DoD News Briefing Victoria Clarke, ASD PA Saturday, Jan. 5, 2002 - Noon EST

(Interview with Jonathan Karl, "America's New War," CNN TV)

Karl: Now, keeping the public informed without compromising national security is a major challenge for a democracy during wartime, and one that faces our first guest everyday. Joining us to talk about that as well as where the military campaign stands is Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, and the Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke.

Victoria Clarke, thank you so much for joining us on a Saturday.

Clarke: Thank you very much.

Karl: We've heard Secretary Rumsfeld talk about signs of progress in the war. What can you tell us this morning about the latest signs of progress?

Clarke: Sure. There are several we can look to. First, and foremost, the Taliban, which is an extremely oppressive horrible regime, is no longer in control of the government in Afghanistan. That's a very good thing.

Secondly, the al Qaeda network, which is extremely well organized, well resourced, has been debilitated. It is not gone. We still have a lot of work to do, but it has been debilitated. It is no longer operating as freely as it once was. We've hurt their communications. We have gotten some of the more senior people. We've killed a lot of them. There are just some very good signs of progress.

There's an interim government in Afghanistan now, and the United States and the coalition partners are working with them to try to start a new foundation, an infrastructure, if you will, for a government that can take care of the people of Afghanistan instead of torture and abusing them the way they have been for years.

So, those are all significant signs of progress. There's still so much work to be done, and yesterday's tragic loss of the special forces trooper, the Army special forces trooper, is just a sign of how dangerous and risky the operation still is.

So, we have a long way to go, but if you look back at what the president and the secretary laid out as the objectives just a few months ago, we are making some significant progress.

Karl: Now, on that death of Nathan Chapman, certainly remarkable that this was the first death from hostile fire of U.S. military personnel. What have we learned more now about the circumstances of his death? Do we know anything more about the apparent ambush, or what exactly happened in that firefight that cost him his life?

Clarke: Well, we don't know that many more details. But what we do know is, they were working, Chapman was working with a group of others, including other U.S. officials, and trying to get some information with some tribal leaders. And we know Afghanistan, the entire country, is still a dangerous place. That particular area, that particular region, we knew to be particularly difficult, particularly dangerous. And they were leaving the meeting, and the firefight erupted. We don't have that many more details at this time. But Chapman and others are doing the incredibly important work that needs to be done to raise the level of information, to get the intel, to get the relationships going with some of the people who are on the ground there to continue to make progress.

Karl: Do you think it's possible that it was set up by those very tribal leaders he was trying to meet with?

Clarke: We just don't know. We just don't know. There are a lot of different people in that country, there are a lot of different people who have been on various sides of the fighting. We just don't know at this time.

Karl: Okay. We need to take a quick break. We will continue our conversation with Torie Clarke about winning the war and keeping the public informed in a moment.

Clarke (from video): One of the primary objectives is to get the al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership, and we'll use whatever resources in a very forward-leaning manner, whatever resources it takes to get them, including special operation forces.

Karl: Ms. Torie Clarke, one of the faces and voices of the Bush administration's war on terrorism, and Torie Clarke joins us again right now.

What do we know -- we are hearing reports now from Reuters, not confirmed yet from CNN, that the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan has now been turned over to the United States. Do you know anything about this?

Clarke: Well, Jonathan, we're not confirming names or titles of most of the senior people that come under U.S. control. But over the last several weeks we have increased the number of detainees under U.S. control. As of today, it's up to 307, I believe, as of this morning. That includes some senior Taliban and some senior al Qaeda, and they're in a variety of places in Afghanistan, as well as on the Bataan, but we're just not right now in the business of giving out details about names and titles.

Karl: Okay. So, yesterday the number of prisoners who were in U.S. custody was 273. Now, this morning, you're telling us it's up to 307. How large -- how big a number do you think this will end up being, how many prisoners do we expect the U.S. will actually take into custody?

Clarke: I don't think we've set an outside limit, if you will. It is not our desire to be in the business of holding a lot of detainees, being in the business of holding a lot of prisoners. We want those people that we think have high value in terms of the intelligence, the information they might be able to provide. We want those people that we want to make absolutely sure are prosecuted to the fullest extent because of the bad things they have done, not set an outside number, but the fewer number overall that we have control of the better. And we've been working closely with the interim government. We've been working closely with factions on the ground in Afghanistan, as well as the Pakistanis on making sure we have the right people.

Karl: Now how many detainees will that facility at Guantanamo Bay ultimately be able to hold?

Clarke: We don't have a number on that, but we've got the plans underway now to make sure the facilities are appropriate. Many of these people that we're taking control of are very, very dangerous people. They are hardened criminals. At this stage of the game in the conflict in Afghanistan, the people that we are getting are very, very tough people, very dangerous people. You see examples of it almost every day. They're very resilient and they're very desperate. Many of them don't care about dying, and they certainly don't care about taking others with them. So we want to make sure we have the appropriate facilities with the right kind of security.

Karl: When do you think we'll see the first detainees actually brought over to Guantanamo Bay?

Clarke: We don't have a date certain. When the facilities are ready, and the transportation is arranged, we'll start moving them in.

Karl: Perhaps the detainee that's been the focus of the most attention is the American Taliban John Walker. Has the secretary of Defense come any closer to a decision about whether he will be tried in a military tribunal or turned over to the civilian courts?

Clarke: Well, it's actually an inter-agency process that's underway, reviewing what we do with John Walker, more importantly, what we do with all the detainees. The Secretary and others are working hard. As a matter of fact, the secretary continues to work this weekend about how we take these various detainees and put them in different kinds of baskets. They can be handled in a variety of ways, depending on the circumstances.

Karl: And with John Walker, what's the current thinking? Where are the discussions, where do we stand on that?

Clarke: Well, it's still under review right now.

Karl: Still under review. Now, one of the things we're also trying to do with these detainees in addition to bringing them to justice is also the question of getting information out of them. Have you found any particularly cooperative detainees, former al Qaeda or senior Taliban people that are actually giving over useful information, or are most of them in that category you described, dangerous and desperate?

Clarke: I think you probably have as many different attitudes as you do people. Some are easier than others.

Karl: So we've heard Pentagon officials talk about some of the incredible intelligence they've been able to get, out of the caves, out of the various places the Taliban and al Qaeda fled. Has any of this gotten us any closer to that objective that we heard you talk about at the top of this block, that objective of actually getting the senior al Qaeda and Taliban members to justice, capturing them, are we any closer?

Clarke: Well, the information has been helpful in a variety of ways, some more helpful than others. But, it helps us track down others, it helps get more information about the al Qaeda network, how it's organized, how it's structured, how it's been resourced, it helps in a variety of ways. A lot of the information obviously is very sensitive, it might have an impact on future operations, so we tend not to release that kind of information. But, it has been helpful in a variety of ways.

Karl: So where is the most useful information coming from, is it coming from information culled from these detainees, or is it coming from computer disks seized? Where are we getting our best intelligence?

Clarke: I don't think you can characterize one particular source, it comes from a variety of places and people, and equipment, and documents, and computer disks that are found as you go through the compounds, as you go through the cave and tunnel complexes, as you go through the facilities, as you interrogate people, as you work with people in Afghanistan who may have been with the Taliban before, and have in recent weeks defected. So it comes from a variety of sources.

If you go back to one of the things the secretary talked about in September and October, making progress depends on so many different factors, it depends on working with our coalition partners, working with countries in the region and around the world to help surface intelligence, and find ways to make it less easy for the al Qaeda to operate, if you will. It comes from working with the interim government. It comes from a variety of sources, and it's a multifaceted effort.

Karl: Now, one of the things that you're asked about repeatedly when you're standing at that podium right over your shoulder is about reports of civilian casualties. Let's listen to what Secretary Rumsfeld had to say about civilian casualties this week.

Rumsfeld (from video): If one took all of the allegations that have been made about civilian casualties and analyzed each one down to the last nit, you would find that there have been conscious, repeated lies on this subject since the beginning of the campaign. We know that, of have certain knowledge. We also know that there have been some civilian casualties, and we regret that.

Karl: So do these reports of civilian casualties, the false ones as well as the ones that are actually true, are they tying the hands of the Pentagon, are they making your job more difficult.

Clarke: Absolutely not. Dealing with those issues is one of the things we do. And the more people became aware of the Taliban and the al Qaeda, people who regularly, routinely, systematically torture, abuse people, regularly, routinely lie as part of their way of life, as a pillar of credibility it's just ludicrous. What's extraordinary, when you want to talk about civilian casualties, we go to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties. There is planning, there are backup plans, there are double checks and triple checks. There is remarkable accuracy of our strikes, of our bombing campaigns, mostly intended, almost all intended to avoid civilian casualties.

Counter that with Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda, who by their own admission took months and months, and probably more than that, perhaps years of planning, and resources, and funding to attack and massacre thousands of innocent civilians on September 11th, innocent civilians, men, women, young people, from around the world, over 80 different countries.

So any time somebody wants to talk about civilian casualties we'll say we go to extraordinary lengths to avoid them, it is a tragedy when there's a civilian casualty, it is an absolute tragedy. And we have stood at this podium and talked about civilian casualties when they occur, and we have solid information about them. But, every civilian casualty, every person who dies in that country, civilian or military, is the result of al Qaeda and Taliban.

Karl: Pentagon officials have confirmed to CNN the reports of Navy patrol aircraft doing surveillance missions over Yemen and Somalia. Is this a sign of where we are potentially headed next, once the U.S. gets through with the Afghan phase of the conflict.

Clarke: Well, what we do next, and where we go next in the war on terrorism, and it certainly is about much more than Afghanistan, are decisions made by the president. But, it is entirely appropriate and logical that we would increase our intelligence gathering operations, and our surveillance around the world to prevent future attacks. Well before September 11th, the president, Secretary Rumsfeld, and others in this administration talked about the need to improve and elevate our intelligence gathering capabilities for just that reason. So we're improving and elevating those capabilities and those activities around the world.

Karl: Well, Torie Clarke, I'm sure we'll be talking to you again. I hope you will come and join us again on a Saturday, we'll definitely be watching your briefings. Thank you.

Clarke: Thank you.

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