Pentagon spokesperson, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria Clarke chats with MSNBC.com about the war on terror, the 2003 defense budget, the restructuring of the Department of Defense, and her role representing the most powerful military in the world. Chatters’ questions were relayed over the phone. Chat producer Will Femia moderates.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome Ms. Clarke.
Question from Susan: How’s the Pentagon? We see Ground Zero on TV all the time, but not usually the Pentagon.
A.S.D. Clarke: That’s a great question. A huge chunk of the Pentagon was heavily damaged on September 11th when the plane hit it, and at the time everyone talked about how extraordinary the destruction was and it would take years to fix. A wonderful team of people called the “PenRen” group (which is short for Pentagon Renovation) have made amazing progress. They are absolutely convinced they will have it done by September 11th of this year, the one year anniversary.
Question from Vince Karathanas: When are we going to institute the draft so we can have enough people to fight the Arab Racists?
Question from Francis Brown: Are there plans to include civilian volunteers and what are the age limits?
A.S.D. Clarke: There are no plans to reinstitute the draft. We currently have 1.4 million men and women in uniform and another 5 or 600,000 civilians in the Department of Defense worldwide. And they’re performing superbly under very difficult conditions.
Question from John Hauser: I realize that new technology and our strong air power decrease the loss of life on our side, but given the revelations in today’s Washington Post that the we missed bin Laden because we didn’t send in ground troops, do you think we’re fooling ourselves into thinking our technology can win wars for us when in fact what we need is more good old fashioned manpower on the ground?
A.S.D. Clarke: People are what win wars, not technology. And what wins wars is people knowing how to employ the right technologies at the right time. What has proven successful in Afghanistan thus far is a very unusual mix of boots on the ground, state of the art technologies and employing old technologies in new ways.
Question from Chris Redmon: What intelligence does the U.S. have that Bin Laden escaped for the Torra Bora area. Given there hasn’t been any confrimantion on whether he is still alive or not?
Question from D.R. Ramku: Does the Pentagon currently regret sending a limited supply of US ground troops in the battle at Tora Bora, which allowed Osama Bin Laden to escape, or do you see it as a failure of the intelligence community in assessing the capability and integrity of the Afghan forces which we entrusted with this battle?
A.S.D. Clarke: A few things in response: As Secretary Rumsfeld says repeatedly, we have dozens and dozens of reports every week about Osama bin Laden. Some say he’s alive, some say he’s dead, some say he’s in one part of the country, some he’s in another part of the country. If we knew where he was, we’d have him. We don’t, so we don’t have him yet.
We are very pleased with the progress we’ve made overall in Afghanistan thus far. We have significantly degraded the ability of the al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a staging ground for terrorism. We have helped the Afghan people eliminate the Taliban government which was oppressing people very badly. We have helped the Afghan interim government start to get the country back up on its feet again. And we have captured or killed some numbers of the leadership of the al Qaeda and the Taliban. So in terms of the goals we set out starting back on October 7th when the military action in the war first started, we’ve been making some significant progress. We still have a long way to go. We are not done, but we’ve made good progress.
MSNBC-Will Femia: So is it irresponsible for the press to say, “Detainees said we missed him at Tora Bora therefore it must be true?” Is the press getting played?
A.S.D. Clarke: I don’t think so. I think they try very hard to be responsible. I think Tom Ricks in particular tries hard to be responsible. Different people have different versions of information.
Question from Diane Harlow: Does the news that the Afghans who were supposed to be on our side might have let Osama get away make you nervous about relying on Kurds when/if the time comes to deal with Sadam? Personally I don’t see how we can count on anyone in that entire part of the world.
A.S.D. Clarke: I don’t know what news the questioner is referring to. But we have been very encouraged by the cooperation we’ve gotten from the Afghan interim government. We were very encouraged and quite successful in our efforts working with the various Northern Alliance tribes in the north in the early stages of the military activity, and similarly worked closely with the people in the south. So in general we’ve been quite pleased with the cooperation we’ve gotten. It is a country that has known little more than war and turmoil for years and years and years. There are many different factions in the country and they’re not going to resolve all their differences overnight. So you do have some places and some people who have been on not one side or the other, if you will, but on multiple sides of the differences in that country.
MSNBC-Will Femia: And do you expect the Kurds to be similarly helpful?
A.S.D. Clarke: Well, I wouldn’t even comment on that because it’s speculating about some things that haven’t been decided.
Question from James Flaherty: Are you disturbed by the evident lack of knowledge displayed by journalists during Secretary Rumsfeld’s briefings? Can you recommend any books, that in the unlikely event the journalists see gross ignorance as a problem, would assist them in gaining a basic understanding of relevant military matters.
Question from Dave Wellington: How do you manage to keep a serious demeanor when journalists are asking stupid and uninformed questions at your news briefings?
MSNBC-Will Femia: We got a surprising (to me) number of those types of questions.
A.S.D. Clarke: In general, the Pentagon press corps, the people who cover us on a regular basis, are very knowledgeable and very responsible and ask important, educated questions. Sometimes when there is a new news story, if you will, or new development in the war, people will come to the briefings that don’t have as much experience and so their questions might not be quite so well informed.
Question from CONCERNED: How can we get the press to stop reporting valuable information to the enemy?? They give out troop locations and outline strategies and point out security flaws and everything! It’s like the media wants there to be attacks so they have better ratings and more news to cover!
MSNBC-Will Femia: That’s one we get all the time at MSNBC.com.
A.S.D. Clarke: Again, I think most of the people who cover us on a regular basis act in a very responsible fashion. They know many people in the military, they know that revealing certain kinds of information at certain times could threaten their lives, the lives of people in the military, so they tend to be very careful with that information.
But it’s an interesting issue in this regard: We are constantly challenged by some in the media for not providing enough news and information. And we too hear from a lot of people in the American public who say you’re providing too much information to the American media.
Question from BKRavitz: On any given day, how much do you know that you can’t say out loud? What’s it like to be the representative of the most powerful military force ever known to planet earth? Does it get you out of speeding tickets? If the public knew as much as you do about the state of the world, would we be more comfortable or in state of screaming pandemonium and panic?
Mix of questions there.
A.S.D. Clarke: One, it’s an honor to be working for the 2 million people who work for the Department of Defense. It is a real honor to show up every day and just be part of the team. Two, I find myself constantly calibrating what I say and how I say it. Because you do, in any given day and some are busier than others, see and hear and read a lot of information, much of it is classified, some of it isn’t. So you’re constantly checking and gauging yourself, “What I’m thinking in my head I know to be true, but is it something that we can be talking about right now?” You stand up at that podium and there’s an enormous amount of pressure, as there should be, to get it right.
Question from Richie Johnson: If the pentagon had been set up with NorCom like you’ve just done, would the planes have been shot down before they’d have reached NYC or the Pentagon? Is that the idea behind it? What other military maneuvers would be performed by NorCom that wouldn’t come under the office of Homeland defense?
Question from DCMDW2: Is there an Org Chart avail showing how the new NorthCom fits?
A.S.D. Clarke: In answer to the last part of the question, you should be able to get on DefenseLink (DefenseLink.mil or DefendAmerica.gov) information as well as the maps that were used in today’s briefing to announce the changes to the Unified Command Plan and the introduction of Northern Command.
To address the first question, what we announced today, changes in the Unified Command Plan, is the result of a process that was actually started early/middle part of last year, well before September 11th. That process was put in place because the leadership here recognized that the context of the world in which we find ourselves has changed, and that there were different kinds of threats that we faced and so we’d have to organize ourselves differently and structure and resource ourselves differently. And the Unified Command Plan and the standing op of Northern Command do just that.
It’s a more streamlined way of approaching the geographical areas. It allows the functional commands to focus on transformation efforts. And it puts a very real and clear focus and integration on those tools and tactics we will use to protect the homeland, the actual continental United States. So we’re structured in a fashion that is much more appropriate for the threats we face.
It’s very hard to say, “Put yourself back in the shoes of where we were on September 10th,” because so many things have changed in terms of security. Prior to September 11th for instance, NORAD, which watches the skies around us, was really looking outwards. It was looking for threats from the outside of the United States coming in. It is now physically changing radars to address internal as well as internal. You’ve also had an extraordinary number of improvements in airline security across the board: everything from better screening and security at the airports themselves to hardened cockpit doors to heightened awareness and training passengers and flight attendants. So the entire spectrum of security in terms of homeland defense and in terms of the kinds of things that happened on September 11th has been improved.
Question from Strider: How does the domestic use of the US military remain legal in view of the “posse comitatus” act that forbids the military acting against US citizens?
Question from Richard V.: How is the establishment of the Northern Command to be interpreted in any other way than the initial foothold of establishing Martial Law in the United States?
A.S.D. Clarke: Well, it should be interpreted as just the opposite. There will be no changes in posse comitatus because there don’t need to be. There will be no consideration given to U.S. troops being used as policemen, patrolling the street corners the highways, that sort of thing. That is not how this is going to function at all. How it will function is very much the way it has in the past. So for example, pre-September 11th if there was a huge national disaster somewhere, the first responders would be as they would be today, the police, the firemen, the EMT’s, those sorts of things. And if it was a big enough operation and they needed the support, they would ask for the military to come in in a supporting role. That is exactly how we would treat things today. Any military support or reinforcements that are brought to a situation will do so in a supporting function only.
Question from Indianpolisvoter: I’ve read some pretty serious criticisms about the 2003 defense budget. One article from the National Journal (available at any library) was pretty specific. It mentioned: a lot of money being spent on equipment both President Bush and Secy. Rumsfeld said was outdated (when they first came to office); failing to invest more on modern equipment (such as the remote-piloted recon plains) which proved effective in Afghanistan; and the ongoing problems of the defense budget being used for non-defense items. So what can be expected to correct these problems or does the Defense Secretary have a differing view on what the exact problems are?
A.S.D. Clarke: Actually I think the Secretary probably has a very similar view to the questioner. The Department of Defense budget is enormous. It will be about 379 billion dollars, which, whatever way you count it, is a lot of money, and it has not been managed as well as it should be managed. What the money goes toward has not been as current and future oriented as it should be. So right now one of his top priorities is to focus on exactly that problem and start with making the best use of every one of those hard earned taxpayers’ dollars by taking very, very good care of the people we recruit and train to be the best military in the entire world. They make enormous sacrifices, enormous contributions, and we want to take very good care of them.
Too, moving to equipment and resources, we’re trying to shift this huge, huge ocean liner from looking over its shoulder, if you will, and addressing the very near and current threats that we face and also preparing ourselves to face the kinds of threats and challenges we’ll see 5, 10, 15 years down the road. We have begun to make some progress that you’ll see reflected in this 2003 budget, but we clearly need to make some more tough decisions and tough choices in balancing those needs.
Question from Lorrie Villarreal: Do you feel it would be a mistake for the U.S. to place troops in the Mid East to try to maintain a ceasefire between Israelis and Palestinians? Do you see that happening?
A.S.D. Clarke: There has been no consideration given to that.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Doesn’t the Pentagon have drawers full of contingency plans?
A.S.D. Clarke: There are contingency plans of all kinds. One of the realities of the world in which we find ourselves is that the threats and the challenges are and will be increasingly unconventional. For instance what we faced and are facing in Afghanistan, there is no road map. We’ve never fought a war like this before. So you have to construct a new game plan. The challenges going forward will probably be equally unconventional and require a different way of thinking and a different way of fighting.
Question from Frank’s Mom: When we drop massive bombs like daisycutters on al Qaeda, how are we going to know if we got bin Laden? Do we run DNA tests on the pieces left behind?
A.S.D. Clarke: We, the Department of Defense are not in the DNA business. There are others in the government who are.
MSNBC-Will Femia: And that’s what they do?
A.S.D. Clarke: Yes.
Question from WhoCaresWins: Is there a point in time in which the US military will withdraw from Afganistan? Are the conditions already set, or is it an admistration judgement call?
A.S.D. Clarke: We have no desire to stay in Afghanistan any longer than we have to to achieve our objectives. Some experts say one of the reasons we’ve been as successful as we have thus far is because the Afghan people know that. We will stay as long as it takes but not much longer. It will be the decision of the President and his national security team as to when we reach that day.
Question from peapd: What was the most difficult announcement you’ve had to make as Pentagon spokesperson?
Question from sharkbait: You seem to enjoy your job very much, and you are very good at it, yet the stress level must be enourmous. How do you handle it?
A.S.D. Clarke: It’s not one announcement that has been tough but every time you stand up there and talk about the young people who have been killed in this war or who have died as a result of accidents, it really gets to you. You read their names and their hometowns and usually in the days after something bad happens you learn about their families, and you realize what an incredible commitment these people make. They volunteer for this duty. They volunteer to put themselves at risk defending our way of life. And so I am often struck by both the tragedy of it and the inspiration of it. My failures, which are many, are totally my fault. Any successes are the result of a good team that works very, very long hours around here to make sure we do as good a job as we can.
Question from carmine: what can citizens do to help the pentagon during these times?
A.S.D. Clarke: Something we continue to be struck by around here is the kind of support and encouragement we get from around the country and around the world. Many, many thousands of people, it probably is in the millions now, have written, have emailed us, have called, have faxed us with messages of support and encouragement. Literally thousands and thousands of school children from around the country have sent cards and greetings and posters and banners. I think we have two or three dozen incredible quilts that are on the walls all over the Pentagon just showing how much people care and how much they appreciate what the Pentagon is doing. So that has been going on an it is enormously, enormously helpful to the people who work so hard.
We get asked that question a lot, “What can we do, how can we help?” I think there are some really simple things people can do. One, if you know someone in the military thank them. Stop them on the street, if you see them coming home and night, thank them for what they do. Thank their family for being so supportive and helping them do the great job that they do.
If you are an employer and have somebody who is in the Guard or Reserves, in addition to the active military, we have some 80,000 Guard and Reserves who have been activated for the war in Afghanistan who are providing enormously important functions in the war on terrorism. So if you’re an employer, be supportive of your people who are in the Guard and Reserves. It’s a burden, I know, but it’s really important.
And finally I would say stay engaged. Stay involved, stay engaged, stay informed as to what’s going on, what we’re trying to accomplish and how we’re trying to do it.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much for taking this time with us.
A.S.D. Clarke: Thank you very much!