CBS Evening News Anchor and Managing Editor Katie Couric sat down with President Bush at the White House to ask him about the state of the war on terror five years after the 9/11 attacks. This is Part II of the transcript of the interview.
(Continued from Part I)
COURIC: The police forces – still have a ways to go. But when will it be time to let these Iraqi forces stand on their own?
BUSH: Yeah, that's a great question. And that's really the fundamental question that– that our commanders are faced with. You notice I keep saying "commanders," 'cause I want– I want people to understand that – I'm not gonna let politics get in the way of doing what is right in Iraq so we succeed. In other– and the best way to do that is let those generals on the ground, General Casey, who's the main man in Baghdad, to make the decisions.
And he is constantly weighing exactly your question, which is the valid…
COURIC: At what point – do we say to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi forces "It's yours"? And – the – what you're seeing is kind of an incremental approach there. In other words, they're saying this province is now ready to be turned over or this province is ready to be turned over. And we're constantly monitoring the capacity of the Iraqi Army to– to help this government defend itself and to provide stability.
And when that's the case, when Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down. And – you know, all of us want there to be fewer US troops there. And the question is: How do you do that? And some in Washington say put a time table out there. I – I just think that's a terrible mistake. And – and so, therefore, I'm going to allow the commanders there – advise me as to how best to achieve our objective with the – with the right number of troops.
COURIC: You have said we can't cut and run on more than one occasion. We have to stay until we win. Otherwise, we'll be fighting the terrorists here at home on our own streets. So what do you mean exactly by that, Mr. President?
BUSH: Well, I mean that a defeat in Iraq will embolden the enemy and will provide the enemy – more opportunity to train, plan, to attack us. That's what I mean. There – it's – you know, one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror. I believe it. As I told you, Osama bin Laden believes it. But the American people – have gotta understand that a defeat in Iraq – in other words, if this government there fails - the terrorists will be emboldened, the radicals will topple moderate governments.
I'm worried, Katie, strongly worried about a world if we – if – if we lose, you know, our confidence and don't help – defeat this ideology, I'm worried that 50 years from now they'll look back and say, "How come – Bush and everybody else didn't see the fact that these – this group of people would use oil to affect our economy?"
Or, "How come he didn't confront the Iranian threat and its nuclear ambitions?" Or, "Why didn't you support the moderate governments there in the region?" And – I – I truly believe this is the ideological struggle of the 21st century. And the consequences for not achieving success are – are dire.
COURIC: You've been saying that al-Qaeda's base of operation has been destroyed and many of the leaders caught or killed.
COURIC: And yet now you're comparing Osama bin Laden to Hitler. So is this a shift in your views or perspective on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda?
BUSH: No, he's always been dangerous. He's always been dangerous. And, yeah, we disrupted their safe haven in Afghanistan, and they want it back. Just like they wanna have a safe haven in Iraq. That's the struggle. And – let me repeat to you what I said about Hitler, just to make sure we get it straight here, that – I said that when a – a person like Osama bin Laden speaks, we better be careful about what he says, listen, pay attention to his words. And that's what we didn't do to Adolph Hitler early on.
COURIC: Why hasn't he been caught five years later?
BUSH: Yeah, no, that's a good question. I mean, he's hiding. And – we're on the hunt, obviously. We –
COURIC: Does it matter?
BUSH: Yeah, it does matter. Of course. It matters. He's – he's the head of al-Qaeda. And– but one thing is for certain, though, he's – he's not moving like he used to. Another thing is his – he's, you know, not communicating like he used to. And– and we'll get him. It's just a matter of time. We've got a unit in the CIA who is spending a lot of time thinking about these high value targets.
It's not just Osama bin Laden. It's his– number two man, Zawahiri, and there are others. The good news for the American people is that we're – we made a lot of progress in dismantling al-Qaeda. The al-Qaeda some command structure – ordered the attacks not only on the USS Cole and our embassies but on – on 9/11.
COURIC: Is this a civil war, Mr. President?
BUSH: In Iraq? No, I don't think so.
COURIC: What would constitute a – I'm sorry.
BUSH: – diplomats and – and our military don't think so either, nor do the Iraqi government. And – and the reason why is the army has stayed intact, the unity government is still functioning. There is no question that part of the strategy of – of the extremists and the radicals is to create sectarian tension. No question about it.
And no question that we have gotta work hard to prevent a civil war. But it's – it's important for people to remember that 12 million people said, "We want a government." So the people have expressed themselves. And – and now it's up to the Maliki government to do the things necessary to make sure that the country doesn't dissolve into civil war. But I – I don't believe it is now, nor do the people who are there on the ground.
COURIC: What is the significance, Mr. President, of – of your announcement regarding – the masterminds between 9/11? Can you explain that?
BUSH: Yeah, I will. Thanks. Your – your – we're talking right before I go – about to go into the East Room and give a speech, explaining to the American people that we've had a – that we've got Guantanamo Bay there to take people off the battlefield, people who are dangerous. And we're trying to get them back to their countries and/or give them a way forward in the justice system.
Secondly, I will be announcing that we have had a – CIA interrogation program. Everybody knows that, but I'm now formally announcing it. And that we've moved the people in the program, all the people in the program, to Guantanamo Bay. And the reason why we're moving them there is because we want them to go through – a military tribunal. We want them to perceive the justice that they denied other people.
Now, I'm also speaking this 'cause I want Congress to pass a bill that enables us to have military tribunals. The Supreme Court said you can have them but you must work with Congress to develop a way forward. And so that's part of my call is legislation. But the other thing is that now we gotta make sure that we have the capacity to interrogate, not torture but interrogate people to learn information. And one of the interesting things I think people will find in this speech is I'm going to reveal the data we have learned from interrogating people like Kalid Sheik Mohammad (PH) or Ramzi Ben Oshi (PH) or Abu Zabeda (PH) – these are all three cold-blooded killers that ordered the attack on the American people – about how that information has enabled us to protect the country better.
COURIC: Can you give us any indication about what kind of information you were able to glean from these, quote-unquote, high value targets?
BUSH: Right. Well, for example – there's a – we – we uncovered a – a potential anthrax attack on the United States. Or the fact that– Kalid Sheik Mohammad had got somebody to – to line up people to fly airlines, to – to crash airlines on, I think, the West Coast or somewhere in America. And these would be Southeast Asians. In other words, we've uncovered cells.
And – this – this is pretty rich data that has been declassified so that I'm capable of telling the American people the importance of the interrogation program. And I'm gonna call upon Congress to make sure that our interrogators have the capacity to do so without breaking the law.
See, we're not – we're not interrogating now because CIA officials– feel like the rules are so vague that they cannot interrogate without being tried as war criminals. And that's irresponsible, particularly in a time when our country could be in danger. So I'm – we wanna – in other words, the point is we wanna work with Congress and clarify the rules.
COURIC: Is this a tacit acknowledgement at all, Mr. President, that the way these detainees were handled early on was wrong?
BUSH: No, it's not at all. It's a – it's a tacit acknowledgement that we're doing smart things to get information to protect the American people. I've said to people we don't torture. And we don't.
COURIC: But the courts obviously, the Supreme Court, as you well know, said that the way the administration was handling detainees was unconstitutional.
BUSH: No, the – the court said – I beg your pardon.
COURIC: Okay. Well, then you correct me.
BUSH: Well, here's what I think the court – said. I know the court said, "Look, you– the president's gonna set up military tribunals." And they said, "No, you can't do it alone. You've gotta have congressional approval." They didn't say military tribunals were wrong. They just said it's important to work with Congress.
They also said that any detainee needs to be held with – under what's called Article III of the Geneva Convention. And it's a vague article. And so what I'm asking Congress to do is to – is to interpret Article III of the Geneva Convention under US law.
COURIC: One of the things you said earlier is that you regret that Abu Ghraib ever happened.
BUSH Yeah, yeah.
COURIC: Do you wish that your administration had handled detainees and sort of the rules and – and the guidelines for the treatment of these – detainees differently?
BUSH: Well, we've – we've – I think if you analyze the facts down at Guantanamo Bay, for example – the – people will find that our – these detainees, many of whom are violent – killers, have been treated – very well. International Red Cross go – has been down there I think 30 different times. There's – a lot. Let me put it that way.
And 30 different nations have sent people. And so there – there's a constant review of the process. And the speech today says, okay, we're a rule of law. We– we– we've now got a court system in which to give people their chance to– you know, be tried, brought to justice.
COURIC: Yesterday I know that you were very tough on Iran, raising concerns about that country's nuclear ambitions and its ties to terrorism.
COURIC: Do you consider Iran the next battlefield in this vast ideological war?
BUSH: I consider it – extreme Shia as part of this ideological war. The – al-Qaeda's extreme Sunni. Hezbollah, which … attacked Israel – is a extreme Shia form of – these ideologues that use terror to achieve their objectives. And Iran sponsors Hezbollah. I – oftentimes, told people imagine how difficult a situation would be if the Iranians, who sponsored the Hezbollian attacks coming out of Lebanon and onto Israel, had a nuclear weapon. And – and so the first objective– Katie, is to work with Europe and Russia and China to – to say clearly to the Iranians that, you know, it's not in your nation's interest to have a nuclear weapon.
COURIC: I know we're almost out of time, Mr. President, and you have a very busy day ahead. But one philosophical question that many have that I'd like you to respond to, if you could, is that US policy, vis-à-vis Iraq, and the United States' close alliance with Israel, certainly highlighted in recent events between Israel and Lebanon, has galvanized terrorists worldwide. In other words, these policies have created more terrorists than they have eliminated.
COURIC: How do you respond to that?
BUSH: Well – the first thing I would tell people that – we weren't in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001, when 19 killers killed 3,000 Americans in the most brutal attack on our – on our soil – ever.
COURIC: But they were from Saudi Arabia.
BUSH: No, but they're – but– but they share the same jihadist mentality, this radicalism. See, that's the interesting thing about this war, Katie. It's – we're not facing a nation-state. We're facing people from other nation– around the – around the globe, frankly, that share an ideology and the desire to – achieve objectives through killing innocent people.
And so it's a – and so my first answer is on Iraq, the notion that somehow defending ourselves create – is – it's created – made us more vulnerable, just – I just don't agree with it, particularly since the facts are different. In other words, they attacked us before we went to Iraq. Secondly, of course we stand with democracies and our friend Israel. If the United States ever says,"Oh, my goodness, I don't wanna defend democracy because somebody might harm us," we will have lost our soul.
We have a duty to help young democracies. Israel is our ally and a democracy. And, of course, we're gonna stay strong with Israel. And I wanna remind people that it was an unprovoked terrorist attack on that democracy. And the world must see clearly the threats. And any time a democracy is attacked it seems like other democracies ought to rise up to the challenge and – and help defend.
Any time there's a young democracy trying to get moving, it's in our interest to help that young democracy survive. This is a war between extremists who wanna stop the advance of democracy and liberty – versus, you know, democracies and reformers and mothers who want their children to raise up – be raised in – in a peaceful world.
Look – let me just share something with you, what I strongly believe. I believe a mother in America and a mother – a Muslim mother in the Middle East share the same concerns for their children. And that is they want peace. And they want their children to grow up in a hopeful world. That's what I believe. That's why I can say the extremists are in a minority in the Middle East.
And I strongly believe we have a duty to help those who – who recognized that, you know, this – this quagmire, this – this kind of swamp of resentment can be drained by liberty. And it's hard work, but we've done it before. We've done it before.
COURIC: Could it be drained, also, by more diplomacy?
BUSH: We're doing – we got a lot of diplomacy going on, you know? And diplomacy – is always the first choice for a president. The use of the military has gotta be the last choice of an American president. I – you know, committing troops is a – is not only a tough decision, it's a painful decision 'cause I fully understand the consequences, as have other presidents who preceded me who's committed troops. And so we've used diplomacy and will continue to use diplomacy to try to achieve objectives. But sometimes diplomacy just didn't work in the end.
COURIC: They're gonna kill me for this follow-up, but if you – if you believe diplomacy is the first option, some might question why we're not having more unilateral talks with our enemies, say, Syria, Iran, North Korea.
BUSH: Yeah. The reason why is because you want to have there – you want there to be effective diplomacy. Diplomacy for the sake of diplomacy doesn't achieve objectives. I – my diplomacy, our diplomatic efforts, ably led by Condi Rice, I might add, are aimed at achieving objectives. And the objective with Iran is we want the Iranians to understand it's not just America who objects. The world objects to the idea of the Iranians having the knowledge and/or having a nuclear weapon.
And so it's a – you know, the ideo– you know, somebody saying, "Well, if you just would sit down to … "look, we've tried that, and it didn't work with North Korea. It failed. And so the American people need to expect the president to do things that will be effective and to achieve certain results. And it – unfortunately– diplomacy takes – requires a certain degree of patience. Obviously it's not gonna happen overnight. And – I – I am a – I am – I am convinced that we can achieve objectives through – diplomacy. And I certainly hope so, and we'll work that way.
COURIC: I know you care so much about the soldiers in Iraq. And when we told some of them we had an opportunity to speak with you, almost all of them said, "Would you please ask the President of the United States when can we come home?"
BUSH: Mmm. And the answer is when the mission is done. When your commanders decide you can. You know, it's interesting you said that. It's – I get a little different response from the soldiers I meet, you know? I – frankly, I've never had one say that.
In fact, they've all said, "I'm honored to serve the country. I understand what we're doing. I'm proud to be a volunteer." And – you know, I can't tell you how great the military is. It's – it's such a proud – group of people, dedicated to protecting this country and doing its duty.
COURIC: Well, Mr. President, thank you so much for your time.
BUSH: Good luck.
COURIC: I'm really grateful. Thank you. Thank you.
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