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CNN WOLF BLITZER REPORTS

John Walker Returns to United States; Will U.S. Bring War on Terrorism to Iraq?

Aired January 23, 2002 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Tonight on WOLF BLITZER REPORTS, THE WAR ROOM: Charged with plotting to kill his fellow Americans, Taliban fighter John Walker comes home tonight from Afghanistan. We'll get a live report.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our fight against terrorism began in Afghanistan, but it's not going to end there.

BLITZER: Will the U.S. bring that fight to Iraq? What's America's old adversary been doing to keep his hold on power? We'll get an update from Baghdad.

Does the U.S. have unfinished business in Iraq? Will going after Saddam Hussein solve the international terrorism problem? We'll have a live debate between Leon Fuerth, Al Gore's former national security adviser, and Eliot Cohen, Director of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, as we go into THE WAR ROOM.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Good evening. I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting tonight from Washington. The Taliban American fighter John Walker is now back in the United States. Only a little while ago, a plane carrying him landed at Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. You're looking at videotape of that military transport plane that landed at Dulles Airport.

Within seconds, the -- very soon after he was off that plane -- a helicopter was at Dulles. Here is a picture of that helicopter. It took him to a detention center in Northern Virginia, near -- in Alexandria in Northern Virginia, where there -- he is now in the detention center near the U.S. District Court. Once again, just outside of Washington, D.C.

Let's go right now to our Susan Candiotti. She's outside that district court in Alexandria. She's -- knows, of course -- as do our viewers -- that walker is scheduled to appear tomorrow morning before a U.S. district court judge. What is the latest, Susan?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we have confirmation, Wolf, that in fact John Walker Lindh is secure now at the city jail in Alexandria, Virginia.

This is a facility that has a federal contract to take care of federal prisoners, and has held some ones of quite notoriety in the past, including alleged terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, who will also be going on trial later this year.

This jail is located less than a block away from the courthouse, where at 9:00 Thursday morning, John Walker will be making his first official appearance before a federal magistrate.

Just to remind of you of the charges, they include conspiring to kill fellow Americans and providing material support to terrorist groups. If convicted, he faces a possible life term.

We have this reaction this evening from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft about John Walker's arrival here in the United States. He says, quote: "Our system of justice will allow walker the rights and due process that the terrorists he fought side by side with fought and still seek to destroy."

Now, I just got off the phone a few minutes ago with the lead attorney who will be representing John Walker in court. Now, officially, we don't know that that will happen. But it is the contention by these lawyers that they fully represent John Walker, and they expressed relief on the part of the parents that he is now back in the United States.

In fact, to further bolster their position that they do in fact represent John Walker, they offered this in a statement read to us not long ago that in fact John Walker's parents received a letter only today from their son John, a letter that was dated on January the 8th.

In the letter, quote, "John states: 'It is comforting to know you have found a lawyer.'" The statement goes on to say: "the letter refers specifically to me" -- the lead attorney, James Brosnahan -- by name, and indicates he received my letter to him."

The government continues to deny him access to family, and his lawyers. And furthermore, we can tell you that again, at this appearance at 9:00 tomorrow morning, here what will to probably happen.

This is called a first appearance. That means that the federal judge will read the charges to John Walker. He will hear what penalty he possibly faces and the subject of bond will come up.

We also know this: the lead attorney, Mr. Brosnahan, tells me that he and John Walker's parents will be driving over to the jail this night to see whether they can get to meet with their son.

Remember, they haven't seen him for quite some time, and have been asking consistently for the opportunity to meet with him. They don't know at this point whether they will be successful -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Did he say anything -- the attorney that the family has retained to represent John Walker -- whether he is concerned about the possibility that the attorney general had spoken about months ago that the U.S. government, in certain terrorist-related cases, could wiretap, could eavesdrop, listen in on conversations between a suspect and his or her attorney?

CANDIOTTI: Well, we only know this. Certainly these lawyers are well aware that that could happen. But the notion that the parents would shy away from an opportunity to meet with their son -- even the lawyers at this point said they have not had a chance to see him. It is not something that will prevent them from a chance, the opportunity, to meet with John Walker.

BLITZER: Susan Candiotti in Northern Virginia, just outside the U.S. courthouse there, where John Walker will appear tomorrow morning. Of course, CNN will have continuing coverage of this story. Once again, to recap, John Walker, the Taliban American, now in the United States in Northern Virginia.

And as the U.S. continues its military campaign in Afghanistan, where will it strike next? Many, including key members of the U.S. Congress, want to see the target list topped by the longtime U.S. foe, the Iraqi regime headed by Saddam Hussein.

For the -- for a view from Iraq, let's go live to our CNN's Jane Arraf. She's on the scene in Baghdad with the mood there. Jane, give us a sense what's going on there.

JANE ARRAF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there is a sense here in Baghdad that time is indeed running out to counter that U.S. threat. Iraq has been sending out feelers to other Arab countries, to the U.N., to its old enemy Iran. Officials even say that they would welcome direct talks with the United States.

Now, this country has pretty well been patched together quite creatively since the Gulf War. And the feeling is that if there is another major, sustained bombing, that the government may not be able to risk losing the gains -- that it may not be able to risk losing everything that it's made since then.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

(voice-over): This is Baghdad 2002. A decade into the most sweeping sanctions in U.N. history, there are so many new cars and buses the city is now widening roads.

The cars -- always important in this huge oil-rich country -- are a symbol of the leaky sanctions and an example of the way the Iraqi leadership has managed to consolidate its power. The government subsidizes many of the vehicles and for the first time since 1991, it's giving free cars to military officers. Peugeots to Toyotas, depending on rank.

Salaries for government workers are still a fraction of what they were before the Gulf War. But some, like bank employee Hamid Mazkour (ph) have seen their wages rise by 25 percent from last year.

"You ask anyone in the street, they will say there's progress in all walks of life," he says.

Progress, though, is measured on a different scale since the war. Hamid still has to hold down two other jobs just to get by. Many schoolteachers still make less than five dollars a month.

The big money seems to be spent on things like construction and oil equipment blocked or delayed by the U.N. sanctions. Where is Iraq getting the money? It helps that the government prints as much money as it wants. There are no official figures on inflation. But most of the cash comes from the U.S. calls oil smuggling to Iraq's neighbors.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is progress in industry, the buildings and streets. The new cars. And of course, it's due to our leader Saddam Hussein.

ARRAF: And that's the point. While the United States officially gets the blame for almost all of Iraq's problems, the Iraqi president gets all the credit for its successes. In the capital there are new public buildings, new street lights and new parks.

But the biggest construction projects are literally palatial. We're not allowed to take pictures of the president's new palace, or his old one. Officials are afraid the U.S. military could use that to target those sites.

With rumblings that the U.S. may try to topple the Iraqi president, the leadership seems to be trying to consolidate its power inside the country.

The regime put down uprisings in the north and south after Gulf War. The U.S. stood by, and there's been no serious challenge to the Iraqi leader since then. But just in case, the president has made a big point of meeting with and rewarding tribal leaders from the south who have pledged their loyalty. He has even made overtures to the Kurds in northern Iraq.

The money doesn't seem to be trickling down to the millions of Iraqi poor. UNICEF says malnutrition has stayed at the same alarming rate for the past five years. But the money does seem to be reaching what's left of Iraq's middle class -- and giving officers and others loyal to the regime more incentive to stay loyal.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

(on camera): The Iraqi leadership is reaching out as well, to the point of indicating that it could be prepared to cooperate again with U.N. weapons inspections. That move would certainly lessen justification for a U.S. attack -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jane, as you know, it's 11 years almost to the day when the U.S. launched air war against Saddam Hussein and Iraqi government January 1991. What's the mood there now? Only this week there were two U.S. airstrikes in the southern no-fly zone in Iraq. These are not all that unusual, are they?

ARRAF: You're right. It's an indication of how grim and how surreal it is here that that is pretty well daily news. And no one pays too much attention to it, except, of course, the poor people who are in the vicinity of those bombings.

But here in Baghdad. it's not quite business as usual. The city and the country have sustained three major bombings since the Gulf War and they're pretty well used to it as far as you ever get used to that sort of thing.

This one, though, could be different. The Iraqi government sincerely seems worried that for the first time since the Gulf War it could actually be in jeopardy. It has made a lot of gains with its neighbors. It's made some gains internally. But there is fear here from the leadership and certainly among the people that this one could be more serious than anything they've seen in the past decade. Wolf.

BLITZER: Jane Arraf, our reporter in Baghdad, live in Baghdad. Thanks once again for that report.

And should Iraq be the next target in the U.S. war against terrorism? Joining me here in the CNN WAR ROOM, Leon Fuerth. He's a former national security adviser to Vice President Gore, and now a professor at George Washington University here in Washington; and Eliot Cohen. He's the Director of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. Also here in Washington, he led a Pentagon study on -- a survey of Gulf War air power.

Remember, you can e-mail your WAR ROOM questions to me at cnn.com/wolf. That's also where you can read my daily column.

Eliot Cohen, you think the time is now for the Bush administration to order a strike against Saddam Hussein. Why?

ELIOT COHEN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY: Well, the time has been now for 11 years. I mean, there -- there's been a -- it would have been good idea to have removed him back in 1991. It's been a good idea for a long time.

There are really two main reasons for it. The first is, anticipating the threat that is there. Saddam Hussein has been out from under sanctions really for several years now. He's been out from under inspections for at least three years. That includes biological weapons. We know this is the kind of guy who when he gets weapons of mass destruction, will use them. We've had evidence of that against his own people.

We know that he supports terror. There's very solid evidence that the Iraqis were behind an attempt to assassinate President Bush's father. And we -- by the way, we do know that there is a connection with the 9/11 terrorists. We do know that Mohamed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 terrorists, met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague. So...

BLITZER: Your bottom line is go for it right now. Leon -- Leon Fuerth, you're no fan of Saddam Hussein. I've known you for many years. But you disagree. You think the time is not right right now to go after the Iraqi government.

LEON FUERTH, FORMER SECURITY ADVISER: I think we agree that we have to close with him at some point. But right now I believe the main threat that we have to deal with is serious follow through to what's been done in Afghanistan.

Bear in mind that what brought us September 11th was not Baghdad. It was an internationally-organized network, such that planning went on in Germany, the training of the pilots took place here. Money moved from all the way around the world.

That network, even though dislodged in Afghanistan, is in place in scores of other countries. We have to keep our eye on that ball. An attack on Iraq at this point would basically divert political attention, possibly blow up the coalition and destroy our ability to keep the focus on the network terrorist system.

BLITZER: That's the argument you hear from many people at the top levels of the Bush administration.

COHEN: Well, but you hear other arguments from other parts of the Bush administration. I think there are a couple of responses I'd offer.

The first is that this is a big government. We can do more than one thing at a time. Remember, we've only got a few thousand troops in and around Afghanistan that are actually doing these operations. And we've got a huge and very, very effective military that is out there.

The second thing is part of the origins of 9/11 do in fact rest with the aftermath of the Gulf War. If you read what Osama bin Laden has said about what why he's doing what he's doing, the first two reasons out of three have to do with the aftermath of the Gulf War. They have to do with our presence in Saudi Arabia and they have to do with the suffering of the Iraqi people, which is something we haven't really thought very much about.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Leon. What's your response?

FUERTH: My response is, first and foremost, we have to figure out where the greatest threat against us is at this moment, and it is in the continued existence of network terrorist systems which could manage to deliver a weapon of mass destruction.

And I agree we can walk and chew gum at the same time. The walk I'm proposing would deal with the network. The chewing gum is keep Iraq off balance until we have gotten a head of steam up against the network, and then deal with Iraq.

BLITZER: What do you say to the argument that Leon made, that others have made, that this would destroy the coalition that the Bush administration has put together?

COHEN: Well, the -- I think part of the intelligence of what the Bush administration did was they did not try to create an overarching coalition in the same way that -- that Bush one did for the war against Iraq.

And there was no need to. There were some countries that were in tight with us and that really were working hand in glove with us. There were others that kept their distance. It's very interesting the way in which many of the Arab states really kept their distance from what we were doing in Afghanistan.

That's fine. We didn't need them. I think in -- actually, in the first war against Iraq, we overestimated the importance of having a huge coalition which really couldn't contribute very much. You could make the same mistake here. There are a few key countries. If you have them, you can go after Iraq.

BLITZER: What about that?

FUERTH: Well, we do need countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey because that's where you launch air missions from. But if you're going to go after the terror network, you need the government of the Philippines, for example, to take the political flak involved in letting the U.S. Army and the Marines come in and special forces come in and work in concert with them.

You have to keep in mind that other political leaders that we need to work on terror in their own countries in conjunction with us may be blown away from that in the aftermath of an attack on -- on Iraq.

The other problem here is we don't have anybody on the ground in Iraq analogous even to the Northern Alliance.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to pick that up in a minute, whether the Afghan alliance -- the Afghan model is applicable in Iraq. We'll pick that up. We'll also talk a little more about that situation when come back.

Toppling Saddam Hussein. What would make a bad situation potentially worse? We'll discuss that as well. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to the CNN WAR ROOM. Would the overthrow of Saddam Hussein only lead to ethnic and political conflict in Iraq, causing even perhaps greater problems for the region?

Welcome back. Let's -- let's pick up that point. Eliot, there is an e-mail from Jeff in New Jersey: "Can Saddam be removed while maintaining Iraq as a secular, intact state that will not fall prey to fundamentalism or ethnic violence?"

COHEN: Well, there's plenty of ethnic violence as it -- as it is. And I think one thing that's important to establish is that the -- the premise is this is a bloody, totalitarian regime which has performed enormous cruelties to its own people, including the Kurdish minority in the north, the Shi'ites in the south. Yes. I mean, I think you can do it. I think it would have to be a real priority. I do think if the United States decided to go after Iraq, you're going to have to have American forces in there and there's going to have to be an American commitment to a unitary Iraq afterwards.

But, you know, the sense of Iraqi identity is a lot stronger than people think. During the war with Iran, people expected the Shi'ites to rise up and join their fellow religious -- coreligionists in Iran. It didn't happen that way.

BLITZER: Well, let's go...

COHEN: They were Iraqi.

BLITZER: Well, let's go to the map and show our viewers some of the -- the ethnic makeup of Iraq. We have a map right over here. And Leon, as you well know from your eight years in the Clinton administration, in the northern part of Iraq, that's where the Kurds are, by and large. And the southern part of Iraq is Shi'ites. Baghdad, of course, in the middle part of the country.

Do you believe that a U.S. strike against Iraq could lead to what many in that part of the world fear -- U.S. Arab allies -- the dismemberment of Iraq?

FUERTH: There is a distinct possibility that it could. I have also maybe the same sense that you do that the Iraqi people are talented, many are highly educated, and ought to be able to embrace democracy.

But no practice in that field, and many ethnic divisions and scores to settle. So this could happen. And one of the problems here is that there's a combination of high-risk events which added together could really menace our ability to carry this out. But since we agree that it needs to be done sooner or later, the question is what you have to do to get ready to handle the risks in -- in the best and most (UNINTELLIGIBLE) way.

BLITZER: Eliot, is the U.S. military prepared right now to launch strikes designed to overthrow Saddam Hussein?

COHEN: To -- to launch strikes, certainly. To launch strikes that -- that could overthrow him, that's a different matter. And I think the prudent thing to do is to have ground forces there. I think the important thing...

BLITZER: Ground forces where?

COHEN: Probably based out of Kuwait. And in fact we already have some forces prepositioned in Kuwait and in other parts of the Persian Gulf.

But one thing it's very important to remember is even though the Iraqis are now pumping as much oil as before the Gulf War, they have not reconstituted their military at all. This is a very, very fragile military. So from the conventional point of view on the ground, they're going to be completely outgunned. And they also know what happened to them the last time around. So the -- the idea that there's going to be any formidable conventional Iraqi military resistance is probably something of a -- of an imaginary threat.

If I could make just one more point. It's very important to remember there risks to not doing this. And we always talk about the risks of action. There are risks to inaction. And in retrospect it would have been a lot better if we'd done some very risky things to try to get Osama bin Laden and to remove the Taliban from powder -- from power in Afghanistan.

BLITZER: Here's a question from one of our viewers. Robert from Toronto asks this question. You served eight years in the U.S. government -- many years before that, too, but eight years in the Clinton administration on the NSC. "Doesn't all the public discussion of whether we should attack Iraq next destroy the element of surprise, giving them ample time to hide weapons of mass destruction and prepare for war?

FUERTH: They're very good at hiding weapons of mass destruction. They probably don't need advance notice that we are coming. But yeah, you don't reposition significant numbers of U.S. troops and aircraft into the region. You don't have consultations all over the place with the Israelis and with others about what's going to happen without tipping off the -- there will be no element of surprise.

The other factor of concern here is that if you have a whole series of actions, each of which have to work very well or the whole thing fails, the risk is a multiple of -- of each one of these segments. And so if you're counting on a fast and easy campaign on the ground, if you're counting on the country not falling to pieces and creating chaos, if you're counting on all sorts of things, maybe you better save those risks for the end of a successful campaign against international terrorism.

BLITZER: We -- unfortunately, we have to leave it right there. You had the first word, Eliot. Leon, you had the last word. I didn't think either one of you convinced the other, but this debate is obviously going to continue.

Leon Fuerth, now of George Washington University. Eliot Cohen of my alma mater, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Thanks for joining us.

And coming up, the latest on the arrival back here in the United States of the Taliban American fighter John Walker. You're looking at a picture of the plane that brought him here, back to Washington.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. Topping this hour's last developments: the arrival of the American Taliban fighter John Walker. He arrived at a detention center in Alexandria, Virginia, only a few minutes ago. You're looking at a picture of him being walked away to that detention center.

He's scheduled to appear before a judge -- a federal judge -- in Virginia tomorrow morning to face charges including conspiracy to kill fellow Americans.

The United States has temporarily stopped sending any more Afghan detainees to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The facility has 160 individual holding cells, and already has 158 prisoners. Construction of 60 more cells should be completed by tomorrow.

And that's all the time we have tonight. Please join me again tomorrow twice, at both 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. "CROSSFIRE" begins right now.

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