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Air Force Bomber Down in Indian Ocean According to Pentagon Briefing

Aired December 12, 2001 - 12:59   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.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to slide out of the White House, and go directly to the Pentagon briefing. Tori Clarke is talking.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

VICTORIA CLARKE, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS: -- an Air Force B-1 bomber went down in the Indian Ocean, approximately 30 miles north of Diego Garcia. There are no known casualties. Rescue efforts are under way. And we have no indications as to the cause. There is a KC-10 orbiting above the crash site and there is a destroyer on its way.

This is all the information we have now. As soon as Central Command gets more information, they will provide it. But I just want to say, this underscores what we try to remember all the time; the men and women of the U.S. military put their lives at risk every single day, and we are very grateful for that and we're thinking of them.

General?

QUESTION: Just very, very briefly.

CLARKE: Sure.

QUESTION: You say you have no known casualties. Does that mean you don't know what happened to the crew or you know that the crew got out? And was the plane on its way into Diego Garcia from a mission or leaving Diego Garcia for Afghanistan?

CLARKE: I really told you everything we have at this time.

PACE: We do not have the specifics. We do not want to raise anybody's expectations. We certainly do not want to cause anxiety on the part of their families. As soon as we have the information, we'll provide it to you.

QUESTION: You don't have the...

PACE: We do not have any more than that right now.

QUESTION: How many crew members?

PACE: Normally a crew of four on a B-1.

QUESTION: One's been used in the...

PACE: Oh, yes.

QUESTION: And this in the last 24...

PACE: Yes.

QUESTION: You can eject from a B-1, correct?

PACE: You can eject from a B-1, correct.

QUESTION: Was there any Mayday call? What kind of communications were there?

CLARKE: You have everything we have at this time. We're just getting information in the last 15-20 minutes. So if we get more, we'll make sure...

QUESTION: Sorry, housekeeping before the general starts. Anything new on the smoking gun tape -- on releasing it?

CLARKE: Actually, I'm glad you raised that.

On the videotape, as the secretary has made clear, we are working through issues of security, issues of accuracy in the translation. The videotape is not of great quality, either the picture or the sound. We're going to do this very carefully. We're going to do it very thoroughly and we'll keep you informed on the progress.

But there is one thing I want to say right now. People will draw their own conclusions about the tape and its significance. We have never had any doubts about bin Laden's responsibility for the mass murder of thousands of people on September 11.

QUESTION: Could I just ask you to give your assessment of whether the tape will be released today or not?

CLARKE: I just can't give you an assessment. I mean, what's important is to get it right and that's what we're focused on.

QUESTION: To be released here at the Department of Defense?

CLARKE: It is planned to be released here.

QUESTION: Where is the process? Have these independent Arab speakers actually had a chance to sit down and view and analyze and interpret, translate, whatever they're going to do? Has that been done?

CLARKE: It is a work in progress.

QUESTION: Is there an effort to get it released? If it's going to be today, early today, or as opposed to...

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: ... late at night?

CLARKE: There's an effort to do it right. You know, we've been asked repeatedly about the time frame. And the time frame is this: We want to be careful and we want to be as precise as we can with a very difficult product.

QUESTION: How is it going to be released? Is it through a pool feed and a transcript that's going to be provided with it subtitles?

CLARKE: We're working through all of those issues. And met with some of the network bureau chiefs this morning and said, we understand your concerns about logistics, and as much information as we can give you in advance about how it will be released and all its logistics, we'll do.

QUESTION: Tori, what are you concerned about would happen if you weren't this careful or if you weren't this thorough? What are you trying to prevent from happening?

CLARKE: It's just our natural inclination to be careful and to be as precise as possible. And, as I said, the quality of the tape is poor. The picture is not great. This is not a professionally produced videotape. The audio is very poor. Evidently, even if you are a fluent Arabic speaker, it is very hard to hear some of the things. So we want to very careful that we have an accurate translation of those parts that we can.

Sir?

PACE: Thank you.

The operation's yesterday were mostly in the Tora Bora cave complex area. We do have a couple of videos from yesterday. The first one is an F-18 strike against an Al Qaeda position.

This is an F-18 strike, you can see. And this is...

QUESTION: Through clouds. PACE: No, not through clouds. That was a wooded area. And the second is also in the same general vicinity.

Again, yesterday. This is an F-14 strike.

QUESTION: And what are you striking (OFF-MIKE)

PACE: And the second one you just saw, you can see people through the thermal imaging. And the first one, it looked like a vehicle.

QUESTION: Is that Tora Bora, did you say?

PACE: In Tora Bora complex, that's correct.

PACE: And we've been flying, as you know, fixed-wing support of the opposition forces that are working their way through that cave complex.

QUESTION: Have you had similar instances of AC-130's being effective against moving targets, people, convoys?

PACE: AC-130's, in fact, were used the last couple of days in that same vicinity very effectively. As you know, it's a very precise weapon system and they have been effective.

QUESTION: Have you seen a tape of them actually taking out vehicles and individuals?

PACE: I have not seen that tape, no.

QUESTION: General Pace, there have been reports from correspondents in Kandahar who cited American military personnel there, both one of Mullah Omar's old compounds and traveling with Mr. Karzai. Are these the Green Beret teams that we've already known have been in liaison with them? Are these other special operation forces? Are they Marines? And what today is the role of the American military personnel inside Kandahar?

PACE: Without being precise about exactly which units are doing what, because that would not be helpful to us, we do, in fact, have U.S. military members in Kandahar. Kandahar has now -- as you know, the major Taliban forces in Kandahar have surrendered. We do have U.S. forces in with the opposition leaders as they consolidate their control of Kandahar. So there are U.S. forces in Kandahar, like there are with the other major leaders of the opposition groups.

QUESTION: Are they searching out Taliban as well? Or are they mostly doing the liaison role?

PACE: Right now we're providing assistance as we have in the past to the opposition leaders.

QUESTION: General, how about reports from the area, from the region around Tora Bora, that the Al Qaeda are down to virtually one mountain and, kind of, hanging by their fingernails?

PACE: I would not characterize it that way. We still have a long way to go. We have gone in to this battle with the intent of eliminating the Al Qaeda leadership, eliminating the Taliban leadership and leaving behind a Afghanistan that is free from terrorists operating in their territory. There's still work to be done on that.

QUESTION: Are they still well dug in to parts of the Tora Bora region and not collapsing?

PACE: We don't know what we don't know. We do know that where we have gotten to so far in support of the opposition forces on the ground, as they work their way through the Tora Bora complex, we do know that as that force moves forward, they are encountering resistance.

PACE: How much resistance they'll end up encountering throughout the entire length of that valley, which is several miles, I cannot tell you.

QUESTION: General, can you tell us how many U.S. forces are on the ground there at Tora Bora? What is their role? And will additional U.S. forces be going into that region?

PACE: I cannot tell you how many are on the ground. I can tell you that their role is to continue to provide support to the opposition leaders, to be able to provide terminal control, for example, of the aircraft that we have flying in there, to be able to direct the bombing that's taking place in support of the opposition forces.

QUESTION: And will they be reinforced? Will additional American forces be going into Tora Bora?

PACE: Don't know what we're going to need tomorrow.

QUESTION: And are they directly engaging in combat against the Al Qaeda forces in Tora Bora?

PACE: Not to my knowledge, but there's a fluid battlefield, and any time, any time you have a service member on the ground, even if you think the front line is a mile away or 10 feet away, things can happen to your side and behind you. So it's not inconceivable that they would be in direct contact, but I'm not aware that they have been.

QUESTION: Have you been able to identify, particularly in the wake of the use of the daisy-cutter, the, quote, "dead Al Qaeda" that were specified yesterday? Any senior leaders that you've now, 24 hours after that, been able to identify as victims of that?

PACE: We have not been able to identify that. As you know, we select the weapon for the target. The target that was available yesterday, or the day before now, on the daisy-cutter was considered to be appropriate for that size weapon, a 15,000-pound bomb.

We do know that it was targeted on troops and the fortifications in which the troops were. We do know that it exploded on target. And we do know that there was effect. We do not have any kind of count on how many people were killed.

QUESTION: Can you clarify how many? There have been reports of multiple daisy-cutter used. PACE: There was one used day before yesterday in the Tora Bora complex.

(CROSSTALK)

PACE: Sorry. The days go by very quickly here. One on Sunday, that's correct.

QUESTION: General, can you say whether any Al Qaeda fighters managed to escape that area, whether they're trying to escape, whether the geography is such that they can escape; and also, Al Qaeda fighters in other parts of the country whether they are making it across the border into Pakistan or Iran? PACE: We do not know who is escaping, who is not. It is reasonable to expect that some could get out of the mountain complex. I don't know if you've seen the relief maps of that area, but it's a very mountainous area. There are multiple routes of ingress and egress, so it is certainly conceivable that groups of two, three, 15, 20 could, walking out of there, in fact, get out. What we are trying to do through our sensors and through our support of the opposition forces on the ground is to provide the support they need to be able to capture or kill as many of them as we can.

QUESTION: General, what about elsewhere, you know, in other parts of Afghanistan? You hear reports of hundreds of fighters getting across the border into Pakistan, also possibly Iran. You've seen that?

PACE: I don't have anything on that for you. We do know that the opposition forces obviously have been successful throughout the rest of the country in getting control of the area. That does not mean they have exquisite control; they have control so they may very well not be able to stop all the movements of all the enemy forces. So we just don't know what we don't know.

QUESTION: General, how many B-1 bombers are there, and what particular role have they been playing in the Afghan mission: a particular kind of strike, day, night? And is the loss of one -- leaving aside the question of the crew, of course, but is the loss of one of these airplanes significant, given that they're aren't really that many in the inventory?

PACE: I cannot tell you how many we're using in this war. Anytime you lose an airframe like this you regret the loss. What we most hope for right now is good news on the condition of the four crew members. That's what we're focused on. If we've lost the aircraft it would be unfortunate. If we lose the crew that would be something totally different. So we're focused on getting proper assets into the area to find the crew and rescue them.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the type of mission this particular plane has been flying? We know what the B-52's have been doing, we know what the AC-130's are doing, can you tell us what the B-1 has been doing generally?

PACE: All these airframes are doing basically the same type of mission. They are taking ordnance to Afghanistan.

PACE: They are now circling over Afghanistan waiting for one of the ground controllers, that is one of the opposition force leaders, to call them in on a target. Sometimes they drop precision-guided munitions, sometimes they drop dumb bombs for a lack of any better terminology. But they are providing support to our teams that are with the opposition forces on the ground.

QUESTION: Who's conducting the search and rescue, can you tell us that?

PACE: I do not know, because we just got the first report. But it would be natural that the U.S. Air Force commander and the U.S. Navy commander -- because the first report is that the plane went down at sea, that the air component commander for General Franks and a Navy component commander for General Franks would be coordinating with each other to conduct that.

QUESTION: Could you share with us how it was determined that the B-1 apparently crashed into the Indian Ocean? Is there any...

PACE: I don't know.

QUESTION: OK.

PACE: We just don't know. We literally got that just before we walked in here, so we don't know how we (OFF-MIKE)

CLARKE: We know the KC-10, and the destroyer, I believe, is the Russell that is on its way.

QUESTION: Can we return to Tora Bora for a minute? Are you aware of the different sets of surrender talks that are going on? And what do they mean to the U.S.? And are any U.S. people involved in any of those discussions, or is it Afghan to Afghan? That's number one.

PACE: I do know that, as has happened everywhere else in Afghanistan, that as the opposition forces encounter the enemy forces, that three are emissaries that go back and forth between the two to determine what the likelihood of surrender is. So we expect that will be going on. We also expect that, with respect to the Al Qaeda, that there would be either a capture or killing of the Al Qaeda forces.

QUESTION: General, what are U.S. forces doing in the air and on the ground to tighten up that porous border, the Pakistani border? PACE: Could you ask -- I didn't hear the first part.

QUESTION: Are we flying over that border to make sure Al Qaeda doesn't escape? Are we on the ground at these cave entrances -- are supposedly very close to that border -- are we trying to prevent exits through those?

PACE: We have various means of surveilling the battlefield, as you know; some from satellites, some from airplanes, some from eyes on the ground, which we try to fuse together in a picture that the commander then can understand what's happening on a battlefield. It is not a perfect picture. It is part of the overall picture. And when we get that kind of information, we respond to it either by putting bombs on target or providing the information to the coalition leader so he can have his troops assault the objective.

QUESTION: Is there American liaison elements with Pakistani forces along the border?

PACE: Not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: General Pace, can you tell us the criteria that are used to decide when to drop one of these daisy-cutters since only three have been dropped in this entire conflict? And an idea of how -- maybe a rough number of how many are deployed in the theater?

PACE: I cannot answer the last question.

The first question is really a question for the commanders on the ground who are trying to prosecute this war in the most effective manner they can. They're not going to drop 15,000-pound bombs on every single target they have. When there is a large complex, when there are apparently lots of troops, it makes sense then to use the larger weapon.

But this is a process that it goes through -- first the commanders will determine what targets they want to hit and that's based on the information I just gave to the other reporter about the kinds of sensors you have that develop that for you.

Once you have your target list, then you determine what type of weapon is best to put against that target set. And in a large area where there are no friendlies and no collateral damage concerns, you can drop a big weapon. In the smaller ones, you may very well -- you will be using a precision munition or maybe even an AC-130.

PACE: So the commanders are going to take the total number of targets they have available and they're going to assign a particularly weapon system to that because they know that it'll get the desired effect, and then they'll see what they have available to them that day and prioritize then which targets they'll strike based on that criteria.

QUESTION: General, on the issue of prisoners, do the United States forces have under their control at this time anyone other than the one American citizen? And if not, do you know, since the fall of Kandahar, whether you've had access to any opposition-held Al Qaeda or Taliban leaders?

PACE: To my knowledge, the only person we have under our battlefield detainee right now is Mr. Walker, and he's at Rhino. The other detainees and prisoners that the opposition forces have captured themselves or who have surrendered to them are still, to my knowledge, under opposition control.

QUESTION: Have we got access to them? Are we talking to any senior people who may be prisoner?

PACE: We have had access to them, yes. Not all. We have had access to some.

QUESTION: General, the video that you showed, you said that the troops have been identified by, was it, by thermal imagining sensors? How large a group does it have to be before you are able to identify them that way? Are you, for example, able to identify groups that might be trying to flee down one of these mountain trails, and have you done so?

PACE: To be precise, what I should have said, if I didn't, was that the video you saw was a thermal image video, not that the target was found by thermal imagining, but that the delivery system that you were watching was a thermal image of that. And as you could see if you had a chance to focus on it, you could identify on that video individuals that were moving.

QUESTION: But what capability do you have for identifying, through technical means, troops as they move, for example, toward the border?

PACE: I really can't tell you that, but the video shows you that you can see individuals moving. QUESTION: General, I want to follow up on this U.S. effort to make sure Taliban and senior Al Qaeda don't leave the country. At this point, have any interdiction efforts, either land, sea or air, captured any senior Al Qaeda or Taliban members fleeing? This is U.S. efforts, not opposition group.

PACE: To my knowledge, no, not yet.

QUESTION: And on the maritime interdiction, can you give us the state of play in terms of how many ships have been queried and boarded?

PACE: I can tell you queried. I cannot tell you boarded.

The last several days the numbers have been as few as 20 to 25 queried, and as high as over 100 queried by this coalition naval force that is, in fact, asking vessels at sea, "Who are you, what's your destination, what's your cargo?" and those types of questions. I don't have the specifics on how many have been bordered.

QUESTION: How broad is the area over which they have been queried? Is it just off Pakistan or is it -- how broad is it?

PACE: We have had, for the last 10 years in the northern Gulf, the same kind of operation going on, so the area now really involves the entire Gulf region.

QUESTION: Including over toward the Horn of Africa, for instance, outside the straits and things like that.

PACE: I'd prefer not to get into the specifics of where our vessels are right now, but we do have the capability, capacity to query vessels where we need to.

QUESTION: On the thermal imaging, hasn't it become much more effective in cold weather, in mountains, against the snow, seeing these folks, these warm bodies against the cold snow?

PACE: It is true that differences in temperature will stand out. So if you have snow and warm bodies, you're going to get a better picture than ground and warm bodies. So, yes, from that standpoint, differences in temperature will show up clearer.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) being able to spot things on the ground, warm bodies on the ground. Wouldn't it be more effective there for them, too, for that kind of... PACE: Thermal imaging will be more effective with extremes of outside temperature and body temperature.

QUESTION: General, there seems to be a pattern between opposition and Al Qaeda and Taliban. We see these talks, negotiations, cease-fires, deadlines come and go; we saw this in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar. Do you place any stock at all on these type of talks in Tora Bora, and does it have any impact at all on what the U.S. military is doing on the ground?

CLARKE: The first part, it's another reflection of what we emphasize all the time: It's a very complex situation on the ground. And you're not dealing with set entities or one large group of people on either side, you're dealing with factions within factions.

CLARKE: So there are lots of talks and discussions, and some people use the word negotiations, and some are more significant than others. But as to what we're really focused on...

PACE: The mission continues. And it is Al Qaeda leadership, Taliban leadership, free the country of terrorists roaming and using it as a sanctuary.

QUESTION: Victoria, you mentioned before there was no evidence that Osama bin Laden was out of the country. What's the porous boundary?

CLARKE: We haven't seen any evidence that leads us to think that, at the same time, while we get reports and information. And you might say, "Well, we think he might be in this region," as we say repeatedly we do not have pinpoint precision as to his whereabouts. If we did, we would have them.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about some other negotiations? There were reports of an agreement on the Hill today for a new round of base closings in 2005, which is later than the administration had wanted. Is that acceptable to Secretary Rumsfeld and to the administration, or will you still be pressing for a round in '03?

CLARKE: Well, our legislative people are working with the Hill and working with the White House looking at the language to determine what the way forward might be. But we continue to make it very, very clear, especially right now -- especially going through what we are going through. It's important that we're as sufficient as possible, and having excess infrastructure some 20 to 25 percent is not a model of efficiency. So we continue to make clear what we believe is absolutely necessary as to where we are in the process. We're working with folks on the Hill, and working with the White House.

QUESTION: But you can't say if the secretary would recommend that the president veto a bill that had an '05 closing round?

CLARKE: I can say they're working hard on the issue right now.

QUESTION: General Pace, what do you think the U.S. is dealing with on the mountaintop in Tora Bora? Just another bunch of Al Qaeda fighters? Is there any evidence that this is the cream of the crop? What is your assessment of what it is you are fighting?

PACE: The reports we have from the teams that we have with the opposition forces that are working in the Tora Bora area are that they are, in fact, fighting against Al Qaeda.

PACE: Al Qaeda have been very aggressive and determined fighters, so this is going to be a more difficult situation, especially given the fact that the cave complexes there, which range in the hundreds and that are interconnecting, will make it much more problematic.

QUESTION: You've been fighting Al Qaeda in many other places in the country and they have proved to be tough fighters. Is there anything about this group that leads you to believe that there is anything special about this group of Al Qaeda fighters?

PACE: No.

QUESTION: None? Do you believe they include leadership?

PACE: We don't know until we get through the target area whether we have leadership or not. It'd be nice if there were leaders there and it'd be great if we were able to kill or capture them, but we don't know yet until we uncover the ground.

QUESTION: And if I could just be clear, you mentioned before that U.S. special forces were not engaged in this type of fighting in Tora Bora, in these caves?

PACE: What I said was that special forces are on the ground with the opposition forces; that special forces do not have the mission of being in the attack, they have the mission of supporting right now.

But I also said that it's not inconceivable that in a battlefield like this, which is so complex -- especially imagine walking up a valley thinking that you have cleared what's behind you and then finding out that you're not. So it's certainly conceivable that the U.S. forces could be in direct combat. I'm not aware of that having happened yet in that particular area.

We certainly have had U.S. forces, Army, the Navy, Air Force and Marines on the ground who have up until this date been in direct contact, but specifically in the Tora Bora complex, I'm not aware of any direct contact between U.S. forces and the Al Qaeda forces.

QUESTION: Are they going in the caves and tunnels?

PACE: Not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: General, I believe that you said earlier that the opposition forces had control of most of the rest of Afghanistan, and yet there are now new reports that the Taliban and some terrorists who have been freed and decided to defect have gone back to their areas and have now switched sides again and are taking control of some villages, with opposition forces not wanting to go into those villages for fear that they would be attacked again. Are you concerned about Taliban elsewhere in Afghanistan still controlling some areas?

PACE: We're concerned about Taliban and Al Qaeda wherever they might pop up in Afghanistan. And again, our purpose is to eliminate the Al Qaeda, eliminate the Taliban leadership and to not have Afghanistan be a haven for terrorist organizations.

PACE: So anything that would go against those three objectives going in would be of a concern to us.

QUESTION: You had said, though, that the opposition forces had control of that area. Do they really or...

CLARKE: I just reposition that slightly. I think we are always very careful about the use of words like "control." To say "control" really indicates something, and nothing is hard and fast in this country.

PACE: And I hope I captured, in terms of "for the most part," and words like that. I mean, I would not stand here and give you an absolute about anything. I certainly would not give you an absolute about anything in Afghanistan.

CLARKE: Last question.

QUESTION: General, has there been any changes in the operations out of Diego Garcia, out of concern that there's some sort of anti-air threat at sea in the region that would put the aircraft at risk, or is this believed to have been more likely an accident of some type?

PACE: Fifteen minutes before we walked in here...

CLARKE: Right.

PACE: ... we got the first report. I cannot tell you what happened to the airplane, nor the status of the crew, much less if we have any knowledge that would cause us to change our operational mode. We will find out what happened.

First, we will concern ourselves with the crew. Once we have the crew, then we'll find out what happened.

And if it requires some kind of operational change, we will certainly make it. But it's way too early to know that.

QUESTION: Just to set the record straight, this is the first fixed-wing plane lost in the Afghan conflict, is it not, as opposed to helicopters?

CLARKE: That we're aware of.

PACE: Yes.

QUESTION: How far does the Russell have to go to get there, do you know? CLARKE: Don't know.

Thank you.

PACE: Thank you.

WOODRUFF: The news out of this Pentagon briefing, primarily that a B-1B bomber, the B-1B Lancer, one of those on its way back to base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean has crashed into the ocean about 30 miles north of Diego Garcia.

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