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Operation Anaconda Has Led to Bloodiest Fighting in Five-Month Old War

Aired March 6, 2002 - 07:12   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to turn again back to the issue of Operation Anaconda. It began last Friday night and has led to the bloodiest fighting in the five month old war.

CNN's David Ensor has some new information on those deadly battles where eight American soldiers lost their lives.


DAVID ENSOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Chilling details are now emerging on how eight Americans died. Sources say Navy SEAL Neil Roberts fell off a Chinook helicopter as it rose, was captured, and commanders watched in agony from a Predator drone camera overhead as he was executed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Spread your guys out!

ENSOR: Another six casualties occurred after a Chinook helicopter was damaged and crash landed, forcing the men to fight under withering enemy fire for 12 to 14 hours.

BRIG. GEN. JOHN ROSA, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: It was some time thereafter that we initiated a rescue operation and extracted, took out all of the folks on the ground there.

ENSOR: Reinforcements are on the way to aid the roughly 2,000 U.S. and allied forces assaulting entrenched al Qaeda and Taliban forces, U.S. officials say. At least five marine Cobra gun ships and two large troop carrying MH-53 helicopters have been sent from aboard ships in the North Arabian Sea, with officials saying all the Apache helicopters flying air support in the first days of battle were damaged.

These pictures, the first of Operation Anaconda released by the Pentagon, show American troops, soldiers of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, moving upwards into positions around the enemy. As they searched a compound on the way up into the mountains, they came under fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where's that firing coming from?

ENSOR: The reinforcements come as U.S. officials revise upwards their estimates of how many enemy they have surrounded in the high mountain area near Gardez. Despite punishing bombing by U.S. and allied aircraft, officials now say with perhaps 200 enemy dead, there still could be as many as 500 to 600 left. Officials are saying the fight could take over a week to finish.

ROSA: This is like fighting in the middle of the Rocky Mountains in the winter time. It's tough. We have members of the 101st and members of the 10th Mountain that are trained in cold weather and they're doing a fantastic job.

ENSOR (on camera): U.S. officials are saying once this pocket of resistance is defeated there are others around Afghanistan, although this is the largest. All of them are likely to require dangerous ground work by U.S. troops, with most of the remaining enemy apparently willing to fight to the death.

David Ensor, CNN, the Pentagon.


ZAHN: The big question at this hour, how big of a threat is it from dirty bombs? Well, the question takes on new seriousness after new reports that the government used sophisticated nuclear sensors in the nation's capital and at the Super Bowl and, after the "Time" magazine report about a nuclear threat last October in New York City that proved to be untrue.

In just a few hours, Senator Joe Biden will lead a Foreign Relations Committee hearing looking at so-called dirty bombs and basement nukes, radioactive material that could be dispersed using conventional weapons.

How real is that threat and what is the government doing to protect Americans?

Well, Senator Joe Biden joins us now from Wilmington, Delaware.

Good to see you again, Senator.


ZAHN: I am good, thanks.

First off, let's get your assessment at how real you think the threat of a dirty bomb being used in the United States.

BIDEN: Well, I think it's real, Paula. We've been looking at this for some time now. This morning we were having, before the committee, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, folks who actually design nuclear weapons on our side of the equation. We're having scientists from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and Los Alamos come to tell us not only about the threat of dirty bombs, but a threat of a small nuclear weapon able to be constructed if the material is able to be gathered.

And, Paula, this is a much, much, much greater threat than any threat from an ICBM missile and there's an awful lot of this what they call, the scientists call fissile material, the material that makes a nuclear explosion. There's tons of it in the Soviet Union that is basically unguarded that they need help dealing with and they want help.

And then there's the second issue of this radiological bomb, that is, a bomb that won't kill many people, but will have incredible psychological and economic impact if one were to be exploded.

So there are two different issues we're looking at and what we really want to do is educate the public that A, a radiological bomb, although great psychological impact, is not going to kill very many people, but could cause great chaos. And a nuclear device that is able to be constructed if the material is available could do a great deal more damage. And what do we do about both those things? What do we do to protect against both those possibilities?

ZAHN: Well, let's talk a little bit more about that. You said there are vast amounts of these materials unguarded in what used to be the Soviet Union.

BIDEN: That's right.

ZAHN: There have also been reports that scientists who were once a part of the Soviet program have left the country with materials.

BIDEN: Exactly right.

ZAHN: There are reports that a lot of this material is in Pakistan. So what can the U.S. do about that?

BIDEN: Well, we can do a lot. Former Senator Baker, now our ambassador, Republican leader and ambassador to Japan and a leader in this area, a guy named William Cutler, filed a report a year ago that I've been trying to get people to pay attention to, saying the that single greatest danger America faces is the loose nukes and this material that's lying around the Soviet Union.

And they came up with a plan in conjunction with the Soviet Union that Dick Lugar, the leading Republican in the Senate on this issue, has been pushing on, as well, that says for $30 billion over five years we can account for and corral the vast majority of this material, and to keep it out of the hands, with the cooperation of the Russians. They want help. They want help for accounting for this material. They want help in storing the material. They want help in making sure that it's not available.

In addition to that, there are 60,000 nuclear scientists who used to work in the so-called nuclear cities, the six cities in the former Soviet Union, in Russia, that we're trying to figure out how to get them gainfully employed so they don't, they're without jobs. They have family to feed and I don't want them going to the highest bidder.

And so this is an expensive program to begin to corral this material, which is the dangerous stuff out there, but it is the highest priority, in my view. But it's getting very little attention by anybody right now and one of the purposes for Senator Lugar and I looking at this now is to refocus our priorities to deal with the most dangerous and immediate prospect.

I might add, though, it's hard to get this material in the first place. Without the material, without this fissile material, the enriched uranium and plutonium, you can't make one of these nuclear weapons.

But it's a separate issue dealing with what they call a radiological weapon. That is, there's a lot of sources of radioactive material in the United States because it's used in everything from x- rays in hospitals and certain manufacturing processes.

ZAHN: Right.

BIDEN: And that's a different issue.

ZAHN: Senator, quickly in closing, there is a company called Stay Safe Software that has developed a new product. I think you might be familiar with it. In the event of a dirty bomb or another attack it would allow the government to actually track the contamination. We're going to show the video representation of that now and as we watch this I guess my question to you is how valuable of a tool is this? And will it, could it ultimately be useful to the U.S. government?

BIDEN: It is a valuable tool. It can be useful in many ways, Paula. For example, right now steel mills, because they're worried about contaminated metal, they have devices where they actually test the steel before they melt it down and use it in a new product.

You can do that. The worry about a radiological device coming in in cargo containers, you could have on top of the crane that picks up that cargo container this kind of device that would measure whether or not there's any radioactivity there.

There also is other ways to deal with this. This is one of the things we're going to explore, how feasible it is, and how much protection is there. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has jurisdiction over protecting radiological material and licensing it, and we're going to be taking a close look at that, unlike what we did with anthrax before the anthrax problem occurred.

And so we're, that's what we're trying to get under way here, a consciousness of the problem.

ZAHN: All right, good luck with the hearings later on this morning.

Thank you very much for the preview here on A.M.

BIDEN: Thank you, Paula. I appreciate it.

ZAHN: Senator Biden joining us. Thanks again.


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