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Donald Rumsfeld Holds Pentagon Briefing

Aired July 2, 2002 - 12:30   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: As we await the start of the Pentagon briefing, we want to spend a little bit of time now on the question of: How could the U.S. military mistake an apparent wedding party for enemy fighters in Central Afghanistan?

CNN military analyst General Wesley Clark joins us now from Little Rock, Arkansas, with some insight on this incident and its possible repercussions -- General, good to see you.


PHILLIPS: What are your overall thoughts, first?

CLARK: Well, I think it's a tragedy that is typical of military operations. These things do happen despite the best efforts of the men and women in charge.

And all of the people on the air crews and all the people on the ground, they are doing their absolute best to prevent making a mistake. But it's a fact that these are very complex and difficult operations. They are dangerous. People are under fire. They're under stress. This one happened in the middle of the night. And accidents will happen.

And this sounds like it was a case of an aircraft, an AC-130 gunship, which was responding to a call for assistance from another element which had been receiving anti-aircraft fire. And the AC-130 may or may not have been part of the original operation. Maybe it was vectored in. It saw fire coming from the ground. It assumed the fire coming from the ground was hostile, against the helicopter, perhaps.

And, not understanding the full circumstances and not really having anybody on the ground to talk to, perhaps they opened fire on the source of the gunfire. But, in this case, it sounds like it was people celebrating a wedding.

PHILLIPS: You know what, General? I am going to have you stand by here for a second.

Let's listen to the Pentagon briefing. It looks like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is taking to the podium. Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS) DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: On Thursday, July 4, we will celebrate the 226th anniversary of our country's independence. The terrorists who attacked on September 11 sought out the symbols of liberty and strength. So on this July 4, Americans have much to celebrate, to mourn and to remember.

We celebrate the courage and skill of the men and women in uniform. They rose to the challenge, have gone after the terrorist networks and put them on the run. At outposts around the world, our troops stand watch for liberty, ready to risk their lives in our defense. Some of the troops have given their lives while supporting the war against terror, and on occasion I have read their lives from this podium. We're grateful for their service and the sacrifice of those who paid that price so that our nation can live in freedom.

The American people have sacrificed as well. After the planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they rescued victims from the ruins, treated the injured, comforted the survivors.

And in the months since the war began, Americans have watched men and women in uniform in action. They see them as the honest and independent and hardworking patriots who protect our country.

The American people have faith in our armed forces and they will not disappoint them.

Ending the threat of terrorism will not be easy. The road ahead will be long and sometimes bumpy. Deadly attacks may take place again at any time.

Like those Americans who gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 to sign the Declaration of Independence, Americans today are united and ready to make the sacrifice necessary to defend our liberty from the enemies of freedom.

General Pace?


Along with the secretary and for General Myers and all the joint chiefs of staff, I'd just like to say thank you to the thousands of young men and women who are serving our country overseas and here at home and to their families who are sacrificing that we can, in fact, enjoy this Fourth of July weekend with our families. And we wish each of them who are sacrificing for us as happy and as peaceful a holiday weekend as you can have.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, on the incident Monday night in Afghanistan, does preliminary evidence indicate that it was an AC-130 gunship counterfire from that involved in the incident rather than the Iran bomb B-52, which (inaudible) hit a wedding party and killed dozens of Afghans? And Afghan officials are now demanding more caution and more clear in the use of their (inaudible) How would you respond to that?

RUMSFELD: Well, the first thing we'd have to do is to disassemble the question because there were some things in it that are not -- I don't believe are accurate and are certainly, at the minimum, not known.

First, let me say that any time there is the loss of an innocent life, for whatever reason, it is a tragedy, and certainly the commander on the ground has expressed regret for any innocent loss of life. As you are probably aware, the U.S. forces there have provided assistance to some casualties that were brought to them and we don't know necessarily the cause of their injuries, but they have been providing medical attention to four young people.

Second, I would say that we very much appreciate the support that the Afghan people and the transitional government of Afghanistan have provided the coalition forces in the country with respect to the global war on terrorism.

These incidents, when they occur, take some time to sort out. A team, a joint Afghan-U.S. team, left Kabul, I believe, and probably some from Kandahar, and traveled down to the scene. They are there. They have been there now for several hours. But they've not been there a full day. It clearly will take some -- they're interviewing people. They're talking to individuals. And they're beginning the process of sorting through the facts.

I've spoken to General DeLong, who has been on the phone with them there. It's unclear to them how much longer it will, but it could take another day or two to come up with information that would be useful.

There are a few facts that General Pace is prepared to present, however.

PACE: We do have a lot more to learn about this, as the secretary said. What we do know right now, at least the first reports, which may change, are that there was a B-52 that was flying a mission about that time. It did drop seven precision-guided munitions. They were being spotted and controlled by forward air controller on the ground who saw the impacts of the seven weapons.

Six of them flew to the targets that they were designed to hit, which were cave complexes. The seventh one was flying to its target and hit an intervening hill mass about 3,000 yards short of its intended target. That hill mass had no people on it. And the air controller on the ground believes that there was no one in that area where it impacted.

There was also an AC-130 flying missions in that area. It had been responding also to a forward air controller on the ground who had been directing fires against anti-aircraft weapons that had been firing up at the AC-130.

Those are the facts that we know right now. We do not know anything beyond that. And this team, that the secretary's talked about, that was put together by President Karzai and General McNeill, will spend the next day or so getting to the bottom of the facts.


RUMSFELD: If I could just end along one point. As General Pace indicated, there were two elements that involved U.S. forces on the ground, functioning as forward air controllers. My recollection also is that the U.S. forces on the ground were working with Afghan forces on the ground. And I just thought that might be a useful...

QUESTION: I'm sorry -- you spoke of this (inaudible) was undoubtedly anti-aircraft -- you called it (inaudible) Are you sure of that? Or might it have been fire in the air from a wedding party?

PACE: The only thing I am sure of is at the time the weapons were from the -- AC-130, were being fired at the ground, that they controlled on the ground, and the air crew in the airplane believed they were returning fire against anti-aircraft weapons, which has happened repeatedly in a particular area and which was reported to be taking place at the time that the AC-130 fired.

QUESTION: General Pace, could you tell us a little bit more about the operation, the air and ground operation that was underway at that time? In other words, there have been reports from Afghanistan, and can you shed some light on this, that there were multiple villages involved that the (inaudible) needed to come into the multiple places. Or was it was it a single event in a single place?

PACE: Well, actually, there were, during time with this particular operation, the time frame of the AC-135, there was, in return fire on six individual locations that was spread over many kilometers.

QUESTION: And what about the cave and bunker...

RUMSFELD: Can I, just for clarity -- what General Pace is telling you is what he knows from talking to people who've been in touch with the people on the ground and in the air. What we do not know is the information that would be gained to talking to non-U.S. forces, who were on the ground. So...

QUESTION: OK, I understand that. I just wanted to also ask about the B-52 participation (inaudible). Can you tell us a little bit about what you were going after in terms of these cave complexes? Was it -- you haven't seen this kind of activity in recent weeks.

PACE: Actually, it is part of the ongoing operations that have been going on for several months where once intelligence is gathered that there is suspected enemy locations to be searched or attacked, an operation is mounted by Central Command. They in this particular case had a combination of U.S. forces and Afghan forces working in the area, and through, as we routinely do, through coordination between the forward (inaudible) on the ground and those in the air, attacked the targets that were designated. For more specificity on exactly what was happening on the ground, I recommend you talk to the folks...

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: General, this was known as Mullah Mohammed Omar's neighborhood. Was there any indication that he was in this area, and was that part of what this operation was about?

PACE: I cannot go to specifics of what the intelligence was that justified the operation. I can tell you that this is an area that is known to have in the past been home of Taliban and al Qaeda and that we had intelligence that indicated it'd be worthwhile to go back and revisit.

QUESTION: General Pace, could you describe some of these areas where the AC-130 was firing on, where the anti-aircraft was coming from, the first? Were they residential areas? And also remind us of the safeguards that are in place to avoid civilian casualties?

PACE: I cannot tell you a great deal more than I already have about the firing itself, because we have just first reports by telephone of what has happened, and the team is on the ground now. So for me to presume any more than I've told you I've been told would be...

QUESTION: So you don't know whether they were residential areas...


PACE: I do not have specific...


QUESTION: And the second part of that question, could you remind us of the safeguards in place to avoid civilian casualties, if they were taking fire from anti-aircraft weapons?

PACE: If a U.S. military unit is taking fire, they may -- they have the absolute right of inherent self-defense to return fire.

PACE: So -- and I do not know which of these is true. If the ground observer observed fire going through the airplane and reported that to the airplane and then the airplane returned fire, or if the airplane saw that it was being fired on and returned fire. Either one of those would be consistent with standard procedures.

QUESTION: Was the aircraft hit sir?


QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, this was a substantial operation with special forces, conventional forces as well as the B52. Is there anything more that you can provide about what this was in regard to other operations that we've seen and Operation Mountain Lion or anything else?


RUMSFELD: ... any number of operations that were more substantial, if you are talking about numbers of people. On a fairly regular basis, we have folks on the ground, coalition forces, U.S. and other coalition countries often working with Afghan forces, moving around, making sweeps, exploring things, and putting pressure on Taliban and al Qaeda. So I don't know that it's anything distinctive or unique.

QUESTION: And were do people on the ground, in this village where the casualties are alleged to have happened -- the civilian casualties?

RUMSFELD: Were there people...

QUESTION: U.S. people.

RUMSFELD: Oh yes. As I said, there were two U.S. elements that were physically on the ground in reasonable proximity to where the firing took place.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, presumably the AC-130 did have a gun camera video that could verify the claims that it was being fired upon with anti-aircraft artillery from the ground.

The Pentagon has previously decided not to release that kind of video. Would it, in this case, release any video that would substantiate the claims that they have -- that they were being fired upon? Or, as I understand it, some of this video is pretty detailed and would give the rest of the world an opportunity to see exactly what, if any, enemy forces were up to.

RUMSFELD: You are correct. There are instances where AC-130s do have cameras that are able to provide information as to what -- whether that was the case in this instance or not. And I've not addressed the question as to whether or not it would be appropriate to release it.

Anything I say, going back to Charlie's first question about firing, we have to remember there could be anti-aircraft firing and there also could be firing from rifles, and so lumping them together may not be a good idea. At least, I don't know that.

QUESTION: The Afghans on the ground believe that some of victory gun fire from (inaudible) wedding, which apparently is traditional, may have been mistaken for a hostile fire.

RUMSFELD: I've read that.

QUESTION: Would you advocate some sort of moratorium on those kind of celebrations, given the fact...


QUESTION: I don't mean this facetiously, given the fact that it's a dangerous environment and the chance of that kind of fire being mistaken for hostile fire seems pretty great.

RUMSFELD: I think your point is a very good one. It is a dangerous environment. People are getting killed. And there's no question, but that as you -- the coalition forces move around the country, they have a difficult job and a dangerous job, and they're doing a good job.

I do not know -- I know that I've read in the paper that somebody said there was a wedding and that there was celebratory firing into the air. All I know, or all Pete knows, is what we have heard from the other side, that is to say the U.S. forces. And my instinct is to let a day or two go by while the facts are being gathered.

I have seen such wide reports in the press from, you know, 250 people killed or wounded and one thing and another. And I just don't know the facts. And we cannot know the facts. We are looking at them. We have a joint team investigating it. And it seems to me that's the appropriate way to proceed.

QUESTION: In past circumstances, Mr. Secretary, you disputed claims that U.S. military fired on civilians when there were claims from Afghanistan that they had. Do you believe that, in this case, there is any sort of disinformation campaign under way in an effort to impune the issue?

RUMSFELD: I have no reason to believe anything like that. I only know what I know. And I know what I don't know.

At times in the past, I have accurately stated that Taliban and al Qaeda training manuals explain to people who to do disinformation and have to handle those types of things to discredit the United States. I have no reason to believe that's the case this time at all. I just know only what I know.

QUESTION: General, if there were people on the ground in that village, are they reporting that there were civilians killed? Are there any reports of civilians killed by U.S. firing?

PACE: The only reports we have that are tangible are that there were four young people, who were brought apparently by their father to the U.S. military in the vicinity, who asked for assistance with their medical treatment. The soldiers called in a helicopter medevac, and they were flown to Kandahar, to the U.S. hospital where they're being taken care of. How they were injured, who else was injured, we do not know.

QUESTION: Well, if dozens were killed, you would think that U.S. military on the ground that were there would know if they were or were not...

RUMSFELD: Not necessarily and not this fast. If you think about it, it's a big area. There are two elements on the ground, relatively small numbers of U.S. forces and the investigation team that's gone down has only arrived in recent hours and is in the process of asking all of those questions.


RUMSFELD: It's really a mistake to make judgments -- for us to make judgments about what took place when you know you don't know.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, the Karzai government is already in hot water, and they are having a hard time to explain to the people that there is (inaudible) What message do you have for the Afghani people and the Karzai government now? Some of the people that are asking (inaudible) time to leave. And second question is it the Fourth of July about the celebrate of Independence Day. Americans are still living in fear from the terrorist attacks. So what message is in for Americans on this day?

RUMSFELD: First, let me say...


RUMSFELD: You've got two -- hold at two.

First, with respect to the government of Afghanistan, the transitional government, Mr. Karzai was just overwhelmingly selected by the loya jirgah, by near unanimity, as the transitional leader for a two-year period. He is continuing his service as chairman, and he served as the interim chairman.

And he and the people of Afghanistan know of certain knowledge that the circumstance of the people in that country are so vastly better than they were prior to September 11, that the circumstances of the people, the refugees are returning, the food is being distributed, the crime levels are down; regrettably, drugs are still be trafficked, I'm afraid.

But there are no Taliban going into the football/soccer stadiums of Kabul and shooting people in the head in front of thousands of people. Women are going to school. It is so much a better situation that to suggest that it's not would be inaccurate and to suggest that the people don't understand it is belied by the fact that refugees are flooding back into the country.


QUESTION: ... Fourth of July?

RUMSFELD: Oh, I'm sorry. I apologize. Fourth of July.

It is correct that there is a high level of intelligence material that's being circulated around the world, shared among governments, and that as the president has indicated and others, that it's a period when obviously the United States government is working closely, all the various elements of the government. We've had meetings here in the department with the senior officials and communications with the combatant commanders to see that we have the appropriate force level -- force protection levels. But on the other hand, as the president indicated, people need to go about their lives.

And that's what all of us intend to do. We intend to take every reasonable precaution and operate with a sense of heightened awareness to go about our lives. QUESTION: How many U.S. and Afghan troops get involved in this operation, and how close were they to the village square where the causalities were reported to have occurred?

RUMSFELD: I don't know that the causalities did occur in the village. I just don't have that knowledge. So, when I ask Pete to answer the question, it occurred somewhere on the ground. Whether it was physically inside of the village, I don't know.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the place where the causalities were reported.

RUMSFELD: You know the number of people and how far?

PACE: Sir, I understand that the numbers involved were about 300 to 400 combined, the U.S. coalition, and Afghan -- mostly Afghan. With regard to the proximity to where the causalities supposedly took place, I do not know. We don't have here in Washington a location yet of where the casualties...

QUESTION: Well, could you say how wide an area they were deployed?

PACE: I can tell you that the area where the AC-130 was operating, and where it fired. Several times it did fire. There was a distance of several miles from the most southernmost targeted area to the most northernmost.

QUESTION: Is there a code name for this operation, and did it start out as a reconnaissance operation that then turned into a gunfight, and was it a gunfight that had them calling in the AC-130?

PACE: To my knowledge, there was no ground fire, ground against ground at the time that the AC-130 was engaged, or at the time that the B-52 dropped its precision weapons.

RUMSFELD: It was characterized by the combatant commander as a reconnaissance and search activity.


QUESTION: Of ground troops?


QUESTION: ... the troops doing a reconnaissance?

PACE: I'm not aware of that.

QUESTION: The AC-130 was not used as a CAS, close air support, called in to...


PACE: The AC-130 as would be routine, would be overhead in case either the troops on the ground needed support or another target presented itself that either the ground controller or the aircraft itself could see.


QUESTION: Were officers in Tampa or elsewhere observing any of this in real-time on video as they've done somewhat in the past?


QUESTION: General Pace, a couple. You said that some of the anti-aircraft locations had in recent days had repeatedly fired on -- I think at the beginning of your statement -- had repeatedly fired on U.S. aircraft. Is this area then a really -- I don't know of anybody firing at U.S. aircraft in other parts of Afghanistan routinely. Is this area in sort of a hot zone that we haven't really known about -- we -- up here?

PACE: I did not say routinely. If I did, that would be a mistake...


PACE: ... there had been anti-aircraft fire several times over the previous couple of days.

QUESTION: OK. And another follow-up on one thing. The target that the B-52 was going after, the cave and tunnel complex, was that believed to be occupied by Taliban or al Qaeda forces?

PACE: I don't know the answer to that question.


QUESTION: Apologies for taking you to an entirely different area, very briefly. The federal government is now -- the White House has ordered an investigation into all of WorldCom's existing business with the federal government, raising questions about whether or not WorldCom will continue to do business. They are a huge supplier to the Pentagon. You do an awful lot of business with WorldCom, as we understand (OFF-MIKE) military telecommunications around the world.

What are the implications of the WorldCom situation for the Pentagon? How concerned are you possibly that there are so-called aggressive accounting practices impact some of your government business? What do you think ought to be done about all of this? Is some of the Pentagon's business possibly in jeopardy here? Do you have other suppliers? What can you tell us?

RUMSFELD: I think it's not to be a problem. And the reason I say that is that, to the extent important activities, useful activities being contracted for, regardless of the corporate shell that fits around those, those activities tend to go on.

They either go on with the corporate shell that started them or they go on with the corporate shell that replaces the corporate shell that started them. And I've never seen an instance where some useful service in supplying something to government has been interrupted or disrupted for any period of time. So I am not worried about the risk to the Pentagon from a single company having a change in its corporate situation.

QUESTION: Do you have some concerns that -- certainly there would be another supplier, but I can't imagine, given your private sector business, you're too thrilled about having one of your major suppliers going down this road, given the fact that the White House has now ordered an investigation into...

RUMSFELD: I think an investigation into what took place is perfectly appropriate, and certainly no one likes to see a private sector entity fail. But your question was different. Your question was, will it adversely affect the Department of Defense? And my best experience and knowledge tells me it will not.


QUESTION: Secretary, General...

PHILLIPS: Interesting sidebar question from our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, asking Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the WorldCom-Pentagon connection with regard to communications systems, something we will address with Barbara in the next hour or so.

But, even more importantly, how could the U.S. military mistake an apparent wedding party for enemy fighters? That's sort of been the main question being asked, with the bombings incident in Afghanistan.

We are going to bring our CNN military analyst, General Wesley Clark, back in.

So, at the beginning of the news conference, General, it was addressed immediately that it was an AC-130, possibly gunfire from the AC-130, vs. an errant bomb. Let's sort of reiterate and recap here what was confirmed, I guess, sort of, by General Peter Pace.

CLARK: Right, that there were actually two different operations going on, or two related operations going on simultaneously. One was the B-52 dropping seven joint direct attack munitions, JDAM bombs. These are precision-guided bombs. They go right to the grid square or the coordinates that are given.

Six of them struck the target. They were observed striking the target. The seventh hit an intervening hill mass. It was an unoccupied hill mass. They know what it hit. They don't think there was anybody there. So, that's being ruled out, essentially, as the cause of the problem. So, now the investigatory team has gone to the area where the wedding party was attacked, or was said to have been attacked, and they are going to talk to the people on the ground and find out exactly what it was.

We know the AC-130 engaged six different targets on the ground, spread out over several kilometers in response to, apparently, a request from personnel on the ground or entering the area by helicopters that there was anti-aircraft fire. This is what the press reports have stated. And that there was someone on the ground, according to General Pace, who was controlling, or at least was observing, when the AC-130 engaged targets on the ground. So this is a safety measure that's there.

It is still possible that something else could have been the problem, although unlikely. This is an incident that is going to take several days to investigate.

Kyra, I had something like this happen to me when I was commanding operations against the Serb forces in Kosovo in which we struck a convoy. A number of civilians were killed. We thought Serb military vehicles were involved in this. The Serbs brought CNN and other network television crews there. There was an enormous public outcry, and it took days to unravel it. It's commander's business, and the commanders are going to have to involve. They're going to have to look at the tapes. They are going to have to get the reports from the people on the ground and put the facts together as to how this could have happened.

PHILLIPS: And when those facts come out, we will definitely talk about it more.

Military analyst General Wesley Clark, thank so much, General.

CLARK: Thank you, Kyra.




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