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Calling The Shots

The following is a transcript of an interview with CBS News Anchor Dan Rather in Kabul, Afghanistan and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Washington, DC.

Rather: Mr. Secretary, thank you for being with us. Is it true that the U.S. military is indeed close to moving another force into this country possibly around Jalalabad and the Tora Bora cave section?

Rumsfeld: We don't announce anything with respect to prospective deployments.

Rather: I'm going to take that to mean at least it may be under consideration.

Rumsfeld: It would be a mistake to take it as anything other than a standing Department of Defense and Don Rumsfeld policy that it puts peoples lives in danger if we speculate about what might or might not happen in the future.

Rather: The U.S. Marines southwest of Kandahar, it's a fact and it's well known that they've moved outside their perimeter. Have they or have they not engaged any Taliban and or al-Qaida forces?

Rumsfeld: Not to my knowledge. What they've been doing thus far is providing force protection for a forward operating base, and then moving outside of that base for the purpose of being available to interdict lines of communication and roads. As you know, there's the danger some people we're interested in could conceivably try to flee either to the west towards Iran or towards the east and south towards Pakistan. And they're in a position to prevent that, they're also in a position to prevent resupply and the movement of Taliban and al-Qaida troops trying to reinforce Kandahar were that to occur.

Rather: Are they available to take the main Kandahar airport and - or the city itself?

Rumsfeld: Those are questions that are pending and we don't have anything to announce with respect to that.

Rather: Mr. Secretary, there has been talk that Osama bin Laden perhaps has left the country. Is that your belief, or do you believe as many in the northern alliance do, that he is in fact still in Afghanistan?

Rumsfeld: Well the reality is it's not something that we know, for sure. If I had to take a guess, which is probably worth exactly what you're paying for it, I would guess he's still in the country, on the other hand -- and I would guess that Omar is still in the country. You're quite right, the borders to Iran and to Pakistan are quite porous, and it is perfectly possible that one or more of the people we have an interest in can in fact manage to flee the country. That doesn't mean we'll stop being interested in them however.

Rather: Mr. Secretary, do you think we're headed for a showdown in and around Kandahar similar to the one up north at Mazar-e-Sharif?

Rumsfeld: It's tough to tell Dan, you've been around these yourself for a period of some decades. My impression at the moment is that Omar is pretty much of a dead-ender and he's got some fairly fanatical al-Qaida folks and Taliban folks in Kandahar who may very well decide to fight it out. hope they don't, they're using the civilians in Kandahar as shields in effect, and hiding in there. My hope is that we'll be able to resolve it by their surrendering.

Rather: We know, and it's now well known that there are U.S. special forces on the ground in this country. Help us understand what their role is — are they searching for Osama bin Laden, engaging in combat themselves, or is it an advisory role with our Afghan allies on the ground?

Rumsfeld: The special forces "A" teams have for the most part been embedded in the various elements of the opposition forces that have been opposing the Taliban and the al-Qaida. There are several handfuls of those teams at various locations in the country, they've been involved in targeting, they've been involved in resupply, advising, assisting with humanitarian assistance and the like. We also have had from time to time special operations teams that have been on specific projects, both the United States and some of the coalition partners and there their role has been somewhat different.

Rather: Mr. Secretary, we've heard reports that there are truck bombs being prepared, have been prepared in Kandahar to use against American troops and other -- have you heard that, is that reliable information?

Rumsfeld: Well, it doesn't surprise me. I heave heard speculation to that effect. There have been instances in our country's history where we have been the targets of truck bombs as well as various other kinds of terrorist acts. And I've read speculation in various types of intelligence that that type of terrorist attack is being prepared now, and I know that our commanders are sensitive to it, and it's a risk we face. I think the speculation is that if the United States were to suffer a setback, some casualties, some losses as we had in other countries in prior periods, that it might be sufficient to frighten the United States off of their task. And I can tell you and anyone else who's listening that will not be the case. The United States is aware that people's lives are at risk, and the American people accept that risk, we've lost thousands of people in our country and the United States military is leaning forward, not back. Life will get more difficult, not less difficult, if something like that occurs.

Rather: Mr. Secretary, it's been speculated for a long while, and it was again in the front page of at least one newspaper, that Osama bin Laden worked hard to get the ingredients for at least a small nuclear weapon. Is it the Defense Department's belief or not, that he may now have such a weapon?

Rumsfeld: The United States government has discussed that subject, there's no question but that the terrorist networks have had appetite for weapons of mass destruction, not just nuclear but radiation as well as chemical and biological. It's also no secret that the nations on the terrorist list, any number of them, have active programs in chemical - biological, in several - havit with respect to nuclear weapons. The relationship between those countries and the terrorist networks including al-Qaida is close and intimate. So it ought not to be a surprise for anyone to realize that terrorists who were willing to kill thousands of Americans are perfectly willing to seek out, acquire, and try to use weapons of mass destruction.

Rather: Mr. Secretary, turning to the Middle East, if Israel strikes directly at Yasser Arafat, if it becomes clear that they are trying to kill him, is it a concern that that might fuel attacks from Palestinian allies?

Rumsfeld: First of all, it's hypothetical, Israel has not and is not currently doing that. Indeed, it's my understanding that Israeli attacks that have taken place are reactions, self-defense reactions against the very viscous suicide attacks that took place in Israel within the last 48 hours. It's my understanding, I don't even know if there's been a loss of life on the part of the Palestinians thus far, in the strikes that have taken place from Israel. So I think it's a question that really isn't front and center.

Rather: Mr. Secretary you've been very patient with us, I have one other question. There's been so much talk pro and con about what the attitude at the very top of the U.S. government is regarding Iraq. Could you set us straight on what exactly it is?

Rumsfeld: Sure. The United States is concerned about Iraq. It has been for successive administrations for the past decade. The president of the United States is fully aware that Saddam Hussein has a very big appetite for weapons of mass destruction and considers that a danger and a threat to the region as I do. The president has made no announcements with respect to changes, other than what we all know is that the United States military and our coalition partners are currently conducting operation northern watch and operation southern watch where we fly aircraft in the northern and southern portions of Iraq to make sure that he does not attempt to invade his neighbors Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.

Rather: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, thank you.

Rumsfeld: Thank you.

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