Transcript: U.S. Defense Sec'y Donald Rumsfeld

The following is an excerpt from "FOX News Sunday," March 28, 2004.

CHIRS WALLACE, HOST: While the Pentagon is still busy fighting the war on terror, announcing that 2,000 Marines are on their way, and continuing to battle insurgents in Iraq, Washington was consumed this week with looking back at the events that led to 9/11. For more on all that, we turn to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

And good morning. Thank you very much for being here with us today.


WALLACE: Mr. Secretary, I want to start with Richard Clarke's opening remarks to the 9/11 commission this week. Let's take a look.


RICHARD CLARKE, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNTERTERRORISM CHIEF: Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you.


WALLACE: Now, Clarke took personal responsibility and apologized to the families and the victims of that terrible day. I know as secretary of defense that you're responsible for external threats, not an attack within the United States. But I wonder, do you think it would be appropriate for someone in the administration, from the president on down, to consider making a similar statement to the families?

RUMSFELD: Well, I think the president has, and the government has, and the country has. I mean, it was a terrible, terrible event. And these families and loved ones of those that were killed, everyone's heart goes out to them. And clearly an attack in our country, one of the first responsibilities of government is to protect the American people. And when an attack like that takes place, clearly it's a failure.

Now, the question is, what do you do about it, going forward? And it seems to me that the task now is to say, what ought we to be doing today so that the next attack does not happen? And there's no question there will be attempts for additional attacks.

WALLACE: I just want to press this a little bit more to ask you, though, I think what the families said they liked so much, what they were gratified to hear from Clarke, was a statement not just of sorrow but of personal responsibility.

RUMSFELD: It had that, you could feel it when you showed that. And I...

WALLACE: Do you think the president should do the same?

RUMSFELD: I can't speak to that. I think the president has recognized the failure that existed and the concern he has for those people and the fact that the government, our government, was there and that attack took place. I don't know quite what else one would do.

I've talked to many of the families that were killed at the Pentagon and their loved ones. I've talked to a few of the people from New York. And it is a heartbreaking thing to see the suffering and the grieving that they feel.

WALLACE: I think a lot of people in Washington are trying to figure out, to understand Richard Clarke, to make sense of what he has said and of apparent contradictions in his story — is he telling the truth, or is he pushing an agenda.

What do you make of his basic charge that, pre-9/11, that this government, the Bush administration, largely ignored the threat from Al Qaeda?

RUMSFELD: Well, I don't know the man. I've probably met him, been in meetings with him two or three times. But it seems to me that apparently he was there for 10 years.

And the reality is that terrorists can attack any time at any minute, 24 hours a day, using a variety of techniques, in any place at all.

And it's not possible to defend in every place, against every technique, against every conceivable approach.

Now, what does that mean? It means that you can't stop every terrorist attack. We know that throughout history. Innocent men, women and children are going to be killed if terrorists are determined to do it.

What you must do, then, is to go after the terrorists where they are and get them before they have that opportunity to have the advantage of an attack.

WALLACE: But let be follow up on that, if I canion, the staff, this is what you told them in private.

Let's put it up here if we can: "He," Rumsfeld, "did not recall any particular counterterrorism issue that engaged his attention before 9/11, other than the development of the Predator unmanned aircraft system for possible use against bin Laden." He said that, "DOD, the Department of Defense, before 9/11, was not organized or trained adequately to deal with asymmetric threats."

Mr. Secretary, it sure sounds like fighting terrorism was not a top priority.

RUMSFELD: Well, Chris, if you look at how our government is organized historically, the Department of Justice has the responsibility for law enforcement in the United States. The Department of Defense is, in fact, by law, under the Posse Comitatus law, prohibited from engaging in front-line, law-enforcement, police- type activities.

WALLACE: But the terrorists were based overseas. These are...

RUMSFELD: The terrorists were in the United States. They used a U.S. airplane, and they attacked a U.S. target. And those are things that outside the purview of the Department of Defense.

WALLACE: But what about...

RUMSFELD: Let me just make sure you understand this.

The way the government instructions were laid out, the Department of State had the responsibility for the diplomatic side of it; the Department of Justice has the responsibility for the law enforcement side and for domestic intelligence; Central Intelligence Agency has responsibility for foreign intelligence; and the Department of Defense has responsibility for external threats and force protection.

Now, it was not something that the Department of Defense historically, in our history, was organized, trained and equipped to do. We were organized, trained and equipped to fight armies and navies and air forces, not to do individual manhunts. In fact, there have been occasions in the history of the department, when the department was chastised for investigating things locally, if you'll recall, during the Army investigations back in the '60s in the Vietnam War period.

WALLACE: But looking back, sir — and I understand this is 20/20 hindsight — it's more than an individual manhunt. I mean, what you ended up doing, in the end, was going after Al Qaeda where it lived.

RUMSFELD: Which is the only way to do it, in my view. I think you simply have to go after...

WALLACE: And the question is, pre-9/11, should you have been thinking more about that?

RUMSFELD: Well, we were thinking about what to do about Al Qaeda. Any suggestion that the administration was not would just be incorrect.

Now, as I think it was Rich Armitage said, were we able to stop that attack? The answer is no. Were we ahead of those particular terrorists and what they were doing? Obviously not.

George Tenet put it well, I thought, when he said, "Look" — they said, "Why'd it happen?" He said, "Because we didn't have a source inside that particular terrorist cell." That would have enabled it to have been stopped.

WALLACE: Clarke makes one other specific charge that I'd like to give you the opportunity to respond to here today.

He says that on September 12th, the day after the attack, that when all of the evidence was pointing to Al Qaeda, that you wanted to hit Iraq. Let's look at this.


CLARKE: Rumsfeld said, "There aren't any good targets in Afghanistan, and there are lots of good targets in Iraq." And I said, "Well, there are lots of good targets in lots of places, but Iraq had nothing to do with it."


WALLACE: Mr. Secretary, true or false?

RUMSFELD: Well, I don't know the context that he said that. I said publicly at one stage during our effort in Afghanistan, which was of course a highly successful effort to deal with the Al Qaeda there and run them out and deny them that haven, that Afghanistan had run out of targets. That is a correct quote. It's out of context here. But it is a correct quote.

If you think about it, the United States government made a decision to go into Afghanistan, not into Iraq, after 9/11. So the implication of what he's saying obviously misunderstands what actually took place.

WALLACE: But specifically, if I may, sir, what he is saying is, on the afternoon of September 12th, when all of the evidence was pointing to afghanistan, that you wanted to hit Iraq. And he compared it to attacking Mexico after the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor.

RUMSFELD: He also quotes me on September 4th, as saying some things in a meeting that I didn't attend. So it's hard for me to explain a person who would characterize a conversation in a meeting that I was not even in the room or the building when it supposedly took place.

The discussion on Iraq — and I think it's important to get this out — is as follows: When I came into office and the president came into office, the only place in the world that the Americans were being shot at was Iraq. Our aircraft and our air crews were flying northern no-fly zones and southern no-fly zone watches, monitoring U.N. resolutions. And almost on a weekly basis, our planes were being shot at.

And the president was concerned about it, I was concerned about it. And we had spent a good deal of time talking about how would we respond in the event one of our planes were shot down and the crew was killed, or what would we do if the crew were captured.

And so, there was discussion of Iraq, and properly so, in my view.

The president's instructions were: What organization, singular or plural, ought to be held accountable for this? And there was discussion of a variety of them. And the decision was made, Afghanistan and Al Qaeda. So it seems to me it's off the mark.

WALLACE: Let's switch, if we can, to a different aspect of this. There is a move now by congressional Republican leaders to declassify Clarke's testimony before one of their panels in 2002 to see whether or not it contradicts what he is telling the commission and what he writes in his book now. As I understand it, the Pentagon has to approve any such declassification. Do you think it's a good idea?

RUMSFELD: I don't have any idea. My understanding is, there's been a congressional request. It goes to the government. And the agencies that had originally classified any information that is in that would be the ones — it would be more than Defense; I'm sure it would be the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency — would have to be the ones who would declassify whatever ended up in his testimony.

I have no idea what his testimony was, and I have no idea. But when...

WALLACE: Do you think it would be a good idea, just simply to...

RUMSFELD: I don't have any idea. I don't know what's in it.

WALLACE: And you have no opinion as to whether or not it would be good to see whether you could match one with the other?

RUMSFELD: You know, I'm listening to your line of questioning and the focus that's taking place in this town. The commission has got a legitimate task to do, and it's an important task. And they're approaching it, I hope, in a serious way, in a way that they're going to be able to connect the dots after the fact and help this country understand what actually happened. And I wish them well. And we've cooperated extensively.

My task is not to do that. My task is to look forward. And our job in government is to say, "What can we be doing today to prevent an attack or a terrorist act and people being killed tomorrow and the next day and the day after?"

And my hope is that the commission will have spent enough time focused on an important issue and come up with some recommendations for the future that will enable our country to do a better job prospectively.

And I must say, when I get up every morning, I do not go back and say, oh, what did he write, or what did this person say, or what did that? I look forward and say, what can we in the Department of Defense and the United States government do to protect the American people going forward?

WALLACE: You've anticipated exactly where I wanted to go in this interview, which is to ask you — we are still in the middle of the war on terrorism. U.S. troops are still on the front line, in harm's way. Does this kind of an investigation, postmortem, if you will, make sense when we're still fighting the war?

RUMSFELD: Well, it takes time. And the question is, where ought your time to be spent.

But a short answer is, I think it is a useful thing. It can be, let me put it that way. I don't know whether it will be. We'll find out if it will be.

But there is an opportunity for a commission to do something people in government cannot do, and that is to take a very serious, focused look at a single thing. Those of us in government are dealing with 10, 15, 20 different things at any given moment, things happening on five continents at once. We've got troops in Haiti, we've got folks in Liberia, we have situations in the horn of Africa, we have what's going on in Afghanistan and Iraq and many other issues that we need to address. They can study one thing and think it through.

And if they are a serious and if they really do their work, they can make some suggestions for the future that can be a big help to this country. So I'm for it.

WALLACE: You have urged the 9/11 Commission to come up with a unanimous report, because you say it would make a stronger statement.

Do you worry — and you talk about the questions that we're asking, that everybody's asking in Washington this week.

Do you worry at all that, whether it's the debate over Dick Clarke's credibility, his charges, whether it's the fact that we're in the political season, that the important work you say the commission could do is going to get caught up in partisanship?

RUMSFELD: The reason I made the recommendation I did about the unanimous report is because I've chaired several commissions and participated in a number over the decades, and an awful lot of what they're dealing with is fact, not philosophy. And if the commissioners themselves invest enough time personally and are serious about it to get the facts right, that's the first thing to do.

And from that can come unanimity. People may differ as to how, what ought to be done, in some respects, but I think it's much more powerful if they spend enough time to get the facts right.

And just taking a partisan position, as you suggested this town tends to do this time of year, would be unfortunate. This is too important for that, in my view.

WALLACE: And finally, you know, when we look at, as it seemed to be at certain points — and we're going to talk to the commission chairman in a moment — a question of, well, what did the Bush administration do versus the Clinton administration, and what does Clarke say, what would your advice be to the commissioners?

RUMSFELD: Oh, I'm not going to give Lee Hamilton advice. He is a serious person. He's worked very hard on this. I've met with him a number of times. He is investing his own brain and his own background and experience in it in a way that shows a seriousness of purpose.

But I hope that the commission as a whole will take enough time on these things that they can eliminate disagreements over facts, and have enough impact by trying to achieve unanimity that they can make a contribution that can save people's lives in the future.

WALLACE: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much. Good to have you here, and please come back.