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Pentagon War Briefing

Aired April 4, 2002 - 10:00   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Looks like they are getting things started at the Pentagon, so let's go ahead and listen in to Victoria Clarke and Gen. John Rosa.


VICTORIA CLARKE, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE (PUBLIC AFFAIRS): ...detainee we talked about last night. And we have just a little bit of information.

We have a detainee at Guantanamo who has indicated that his birthplace is Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was among the people who were gathered up after the uprising at Mazar-i-Sharif.

We are working with the Department of Justice to really determine all the particulars, including his citizenship. They have a birth certificate that indicates he was born in the United States. It's our understanding that his parents were employed in Louisiana when he was born and returned to Saudi Arabia within a very few years.

People started to ask us, what's the significance of this, what are you going to do with him? A lot of these things will be worked through, but it does just point to how unconventional this war is in many ways.

And we are looking at each of these detainees very, very carefully and very methodically. And we do so for the obvious reasons: We are trying to get as much information as possible to prevent any future attacks.

So with that, sir, no remarks, right?


QUESTION: Torie, you say he returned within a very few years. How many -- how old...

CLARKE: It was described to me that he was a toddler when he returned to Saudi Arabia.

QUESTION: But this would -- if he was born in the United States, this would make him an American citizen, would it not? CLARKE: We think he will have American citizenship. They're still working this through. As I said, the Department of Justice has a birth certificate that indicates he was born in Baton Rouge.

QUESTION: And if you find out concretely that he is an American citizen, would he be removed from Gitmo or could he still be held there?

CLARKE: We're working through, right now, with the Department of Justice what we will do with him. And there may be an announcement later today, but I don't have anything now.

QUESTION: Do you have his name?

CLARKE: We have the name that we believe to be his name. Hold on one second. I don't think I have it on here. Hold on one second.

Yasser, Y-a-s-s-e-r, Esam, E-s-a-m, Hamdi, H-a-m-d-i.

QUESTION: Twenty-two?

CLARKE: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Twenty-two years old?

CLARKE: It says 22 years old.

QUESTION: We understand that he was making claims that he was an American citizenship from about the day that he was taken into custody. What's taken nearly six months to determine this?

CLARKE: Well, I don't know about the claims, but I do know it's been very hard with a lot of these detainees to determine their actual identification. Many of these people who were with the Taliban and Al Qaeda were trained to resist interrogation. Now, the secretary, I think just the other day, was talking about how difficult it is to identify some of these people. It is a very slow, very methodical process.

QUESTION: And if, indeed, he's found to be an American citizen, would he be categorized or considered in the same category as John Walker Lindh and charged with crimes against the United States?

CLARKE: Well, I think it's way too soon to speculate on what he may or may not be charged with. The one thing you can say, as an American citizen, he would not be considered a candidate for the military commissions.

QUESTION: They have debriefed him extensively. Can you tell us anything about his story in Afghanistan? He apparently has claimed that he thought he was fighting against the Northern Alliance, didn't know there were Americans there.

CLARKE: I can't talk about what they have heard from him in the interrogations thus far, just that he was part of the group that they gathered up after the Mazar-i-Sharif uprising. QUESTION: Does he speak English?

CLARKE: Don't know.

QUESTION: Are there any others being held in Gitmo, on Afghanistan, who claim to be Americans, to your knowledge?

CLARKE: I'm not aware of any.

ROSA: Not that we know of.

QUESTION: Torie, can you give us the latest condition of Abu Zubaydah, anything else that you could tell us? Also, there are reports today that, if not singing like a canary, he is talking and saying things. Can you give us the latest update on that, please?

ROSA: Well, on the medical condition, we were talking about it this morning. Again, just what the secretary said yesterday, gunshot wounds, we know three, serious condition, not believed to be life- threatening. And beyond that, we just aren't putting out much more information about him. And the same thing on the interrogations.

QUESTION: Has he been operated at all to remove bullets and -- I mean, you talk freely about the people who are operated on in Gitmo, to show that they had good care. Has this man been operated on? Has he been taken care of by military doctors?

CLARKE: We're just not going beyond what we have said about him. For security reasons, for lots of reasons, we're just not going beyond what we've said about him.

QUESTION: Torie, going back to the other American, if he had joined up for military service, would that qualify him to have renounced his citizenship, or is there any chance that he may have renounced his citizenship?

CLARKE: It's just too soon to say. They have talked to him, as they've talked to many of them down there. I'm sure there'll be further questions and interrogations, but it's just too soon to say. We're really working through with the Department of Justice right now what we'll do with him next. QUESTION: And have you rounded up any more new detainees recently or was the U.S. involved in the roundup that the Karzai government did recently? Has there been any new action in Afghanistan?

ROSA: No, there really hasn't. I read that same article, and to my knowledge, we didn't take part in that.

QUESTION: General Rosa, can you give us any operational update on what's going on in Afghanistan with the U.S. military?

ROSA: Right. Over the last week to 10 days, we continue intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over the majority of the country. As before, we're focusing the main effort in the East, in that Gardez/Khost Area. We've got several forces on the ground doing surveillance, gathering intelligence. We're still finishing up the last remnants, the last part of the forces -- or the caves in Anaconda, in that area. But right now it's a lot of reconnaissance and intelligence.

QUESTION: Are troops taking fire over there? We understand from an AP report that somebody (inaudible) RPGs or mortar rounds in the valley?

ROSA: Hadn't heard that. It wasn't in the morning updates.

QUESTION: Have any U.S. troops been involved in a hot pursuit across into Pakistan yet, as far as you know?

ROSA: To my knowledge, they have not. We're working with those forces on the border, on the Pakistani border. But to my knowledge, hot pursuit, I don't think so.

QUESTION: You've talked several days about intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but what are you actually seeing and finding? Are you seeing any pockets of Al Qaeda? Are you finding -- are they all gone?

And what is the situation in the Gardez/Khost area right now, in terms of Al Qaeda?

ROSA: To characterize what we're finding I think would be a bit premature. We are focusing on those pockets where they exist. And again, I think to say exactly what we found so far, I think, would be inappropriate.

QUESTION: Well, let me ask, are you seeing any Al Qaeda, or are they all gone?

ROSA: We are seeing Al Qaeda.

QUESTION: Is that what you were referring to as pockets of Al Qaeda, or were you talking about pockets of something else?

ROSA: Well, again, it's difficult to know whether they're Al Qaeda or Taliban. But the pockets that we have seen in the past -- there's nothing really new. We are still seeing small pockets of folks.


ROSA: Don't know. We don't know how to characterize it. They characterize it as pockets of folks.

QUESTION: Well, if I could just follow up, you say you are seeing pockets of Al Qaeda. Could you explain why it is, then, that you're not yet going after them?

And the last time you mentioned the Khost/Gardez area, you said it was heavily armed and very tense.

ROSA: Right.

QUESTION: So what's the situation now?

ROSA: It still is. And I tell you that General Franks will be up tomorrow -- not up here, but up on the Net -- and that's a good question for him. Again, we are pacing when we attack and how we attack on our terms. And obviously, all those signs have not come together yet. They're still in the gathering mode, before another operation takes place.

QUESTION: Is that because the British are still training up to get ready to join in with the Americans?

ROSA: I don't think I would say that. They're part of the coalition. It's not a wait for somebody to come up. That coalition is ready to go right now.

CLARKE: And I would just add on to that one thing. The 7th will be six months since the military operations started in Afghanistan. And if you think about the progress that has been made in six months, it's been pretty remarkable.

But as we always say, and we said on October 7 and will probably be saying for some time, we still have a long way to go. There are still pockets of Al Qaeda and Taliban. It still is a very dangerous place. So we're going to continue to work through this.

I just repeat what I said earlier; the reason we're doing it is to get the people who mean to do us harm, to get the information and surface the intel that will prevent future attacks.

QUESTION: On the identification process, you mentioned that it's very difficult, and six months in, we're now finding this American. Can you expand on that identification process? What's happening? Do we know how many nationalities are down there? Do we know -- I mean, are there Chechens? Are there -- do we know -- what's happening as far as the identification process goes?

CLARKE: They're working through it very carefully. Some people they have been able to identify for security reasons. And to help further future interrogations, we, as a matter of policy, have not generally identified individuals or the countries. They are from several different countries.

But again, it's only been a few months that we have started to question these people, and it'll take time. And, again, I think it goes to what we said before about the Al Qaeda and the Taliban; they have trained these people to resist interrogation, so it's hard work.

QUESTION: And to follow, do you think a decision will come soon with the Justice Department to remove Mr. Hamdi possibly from there, to put him into this process like John Walker is in currently?

CLARKE: Again, I wouldn't make predictions about what we do with him, but I know they're working hard. I hope -- no guarantees -- but I hope to be able to say later today what the next step will be with him.

QUESTION: What can you say about this plot apparently -- or, at least, the plot that the Afghan government is claiming to stabilize Karzai?

CLARKE: I can't say much at all. We were all sort of checking around this morning. We just didn't have much on it.

ROSA: We really haven't heard much through military channels.

QUESTION: I mean, do you have any indication at all that Al Qaeda could be involved in something like that?

ROSA: We really don't have, again, from a military standpoint, we don't have that information.

QUESTION: In general, to finish up on the cave search, can you give us a sense of what you're finding, anything of note that would prevent, you know, future terrorist acts or anything?

ROSA: I think the kinds of things we've talked about in the past, kind of more of the same. I mean, I haven't found anything, looking through the reports, that were remarkable, that we haven't talked about up here before.

QUESTION: So, RPGs, small weapons.

ROSA: Yes, the same kinds of ammunition. I didn't see anything in high-tech, computers or anything like that, in these last few days.

QUESTION: Are you finding many bodies up in there? Or is -- there's still a lot of talk about how many were killed and evidence of those...

ROSA: I have seen no evidence in the reports.

QUESTION: The secretary yesterday, on Monday, spent a considerable amount of time criticizing Iraq's payment to families of so-called martyrs over in the West Bank. I checked and found that March 12, Tariq Aziz in Baghdad acknowledged that they were increasing from $15,000 to $25,000, Torie.

Why did the secretary choose yesterday to outline this like it was something new? A cynic could say he was trying demonize Iraq more than it already is demonized in the world's eye.

CLARKE: I would...

QUESTION: Why yesterday?

CLARKE: I would just repeat what he said. It's a horrible thing to think about.

QUESTION: He implied something new here.

CLARKE: Let me finish. It's horrible to -- you know, it is such a tragedy what is going on over there, and it is horrible to think that people might be, in any way, encouraged or their actions -- I'm struggling for words here -- rationalized, because there may actually be payments to them, to their families for what they're doing. And I think he just -- he wants people to know and he feels very strongly about what a bad actor Saddam Hussein is.

You know, the timing -- there are lots of different things come into the timing of when and where and how he talks about things. But it's just something about which he feels very, very strongly, and he says people should know what a bad actor he is and how he certainly is not contributing, in any way, to an easing of the problems there.

QUESTION: A follow-up. Saudi Arabia, on their own web site, has a string of statements going back over the last year as to how they also give money to the families of martyrs, the survivors of martyrs.

Would it be fair to say that the problem is equally critical of any friend or foe of the Middle East of ours who gives money to survivors' families?

CLARKE: I'm not aware of what you said with the web site.

QUESTION: I'll provide you the statement because they're pretty -- they go back to January 7 of last year, talking about how they are in support of the intifada and they are paying the families of survivors. There's a whole string of statements along those lines.

CLARKE: Just not aware of it. Why don't you show me what you have.

QUESTION: General, you avoided saying earlier on what else -- giving details of what you found other than with Al Qaeda. As I remember, you didn't say before that there was a major build up near Gardez until the day before, until the day before Operation Anaconda began.

Is there any sign now that these small groups and pockets that you're talking about are gravitating toward any buildup, there or in any other region?

ROSA: Again, not in the reports that I've seen.

QUESTION: And following up on the Middle East, apparently President Bush is going to be making a statement in the Rose Garden at 11:00 on the Middle East. Is this going to affect -- does it have any implications for the Pentagon or any thoughts along those lines of what he's going to be talking about?

CLARKE: Not from here.

QUESTION: General, given what you just said about these, whether or not these searches through the Gardez region, not indicate that the Taliban, Al Qaeda are gravitating toward a buildup. Does this mean that they are switching more toward the guerrilla campaign that was mentioned last week, that there's talk... ROSA: I'm not sure what that means. I will tell you that -- common sense would tell you that you don't want to group up in masses. You're a lot more vulnerable that way. So the fact that they're staying, from what we see, in smaller pockets doesn't surprise us.

QUESTION: Is there any evidence that this second so-called American Taliban had actually ever returned to the United States after he left with his parents as a toddler?

CLARKE: I don't know.

I haven't seen it, but I don't know.

QUESTION: On the training of the Afghan army, has there been any decision made as to what kind of army? Will it be ground troops alone? Will there be helicopters? Will we train helicopter pilots? You know, how expansive will the army be? Do we know? Anybody talked about that?

ROSA: Details are being finalized, as we speak. And those level of details I have not seen. What I have seen has more been ground- centric, ground-centric army. And as you know, the first 600 were trained by the ISAF. They had the ceremony yesterday. We will build on that, and the training should start later this year.

QUESTION: Torie, have you been able to talk to the family of this second detainee, and what have you been able to find out, if you have, in terms of details?

CLARKE: I don't know. I can take the question, but I just don't know. I've not heard it raised in any fashion.

QUESTION: Can I just ask one more thing about the new American?


QUESTION: Since he's a Saudi, would that not qualify him, under you all's idea (ph) of this, that he is Al Qaeda rather than Taliban? And is there any indication, from what he said to you all, whether he has ever been trained in the camps, like Lindh was? And has he given any indication that he was in the camps?

CLARKE: Can't talk about what information they may have surfaced thus far in the questioning, in the interrogations. But I just think it's too soon to say how he is going to be classified. But again, I hope -- no promises -- but I hope before today is out, we can tell you at least what the next step will be.

QUESTION: You all or Justice?

CLARKE: We'll work with them, but we'll try to get it out.

QUESTION: When you say that, can I just ask, even if you can't answer at least the question, what is the exact question on the table with the Pentagon and the Justice Department on this situation? I know you can't provide us the answer yet... CLARKE: Right.

QUESTION: ... but what is the question on the table regarding...

CLARKE: Well, determining his status and determining what we do with him. I mean, as we've shown with John Walker, the U.S. citizenship does make it a different case and a different kind of treatment. So they're working through those issues and saying, OK, based on these factors, what are we going to do with him and where does he go?

QUESTION: And does that mean if someone has a U.S. birth certificate, that, in this situation, they may not, in fact, be a U.S. citizen for these purposes?

CLARKE: I don't know if I understand the question.

QUESTION: I guess what I'm not understanding is, if he has a U.S. birth certificate, what's the debate, what's the question here?

CLARKE: Well, absolutely confirming the U.S. citizenship, which I think they feel pretty strongly that they have confirmed that. And then based on that, and we are -- you know, we've made it clear with Walker, for instance, a U.S. citizen gets a different kind of status, if you will -- then what do we do with him next.

QUESTION: You can lose your citizenship if you fight for a foreign army, can you not, your citizenship can be revoked? Are you talking about that too?

CLARKE: I'm not a lawyer.

Thank you.

KAGAN: These Pentagon briefings are getting shorter and shorter, this one only lasting 20 minutes. Most of the questioning today seeming to be about what appears to be another U.S. who was citizen involved in the Taliban, another citizen besides John Walker Lindh. This one would Be Yasser Esam Hamdi, a 22-year-old who has been at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and claims to have been born in Baton Rogue, Louisiana, and supposedly went back to Saudi Arabia. Right now, the Justice Department and Pentagon are trying to figure out what to do with this young man and how he will be processed. We hear Torrie Clarke saying that probably an announcement coming later today.

Also more information on this top al Qaeda detainee, Abu Zubaydah, in serious condition, having been shot. He apparently is cooperating, answering questions, although Pentagon officials are not completely forthcoming on that.

And then on the military angle, after Operation Anaconda, still searching some of the caves where that operation took place.




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