Jim Wilkinson, special assistant to President Bush and deputy director of communications at the White House, manages the Coalition Information Center, the “war room,” designed to get the administation’s message out about the war on terrorism. Wilkinson visited the MSNBC.com Chat Room to explain the president’s positions on the issues. Questions from chatters were relayed to the White House by phone; a typist transcribed his answers. MSNBC Chat Producer Will Femia moderates.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome, Mr. Wilkinson.
Let’s start with some basics of what you do at the White House.
Question from Stoic: Does the term “coalition” mean you have coalition members on your staff? If so, to what extent and what are their duties?
Question from Aleta: What does your job title really mean...Can you explain?
Jim Wilkinson: The president called Karen Hughes, who is my boss, into the Oval Office the day after the September 11 attacks and let her know that her new job was helping to communicate the war on terrorism to all corners of the globe. Part of this strategy revolves around the coalition information centers in Washington, London, Pakistan and Afghanistan. These centers help coordinate the message for the war on terrorism with all our government agencies and with our allies in the fight.
For example, we work very closely with the United Kingdom and Prime Minister Blair has even sent staff to work here at the White House. The White House has also dispatched the senior staff member Tucker Eskew to London and Greg Jenkins to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Question from John P Walsh IV: Are we in a position to get the madman in Iraq?? A very loyal GOP of 50 years.
Question from B_McDonald: Are we going to “war” with Iraq and Iran soon?
MSNBC-Will Femia: Hearing the president declare [Iran, Iraq and North Korea] an “axis of evil,” are Americans going to be impatient now for the White House to do something about it?
Jim Wilkinson: In his State of the Union speech, the President reminded America that Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility towards our nation. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, nerve gas, and nuclear weapons. Iraq has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens, leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. As the President said, this is a regime that agreed to international inspections and then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world. The President has outlined his vision to work closely with our coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction. As for military action regarding Iraq, I have no information on that for you.
Question from Srinath: Sir, doesn‘t it sound hypocritical when u ask India to urge restraint, keep mum on Israel’s response to Palestinian attacks, pursue your aggressive policy towards terror? Dveryone in the western media acknowledges that Pakistan is supporting terror on Indian soil?
MSNBC-Will Femia: The English is a little rough with this one, but basically it seems the question is if it’s OK for the U.S. to go after its terrorists and for Israel to go after its terrorists, why can’t India do the same? In a larger context, I wonder if the White House is at all concerned that they’ve opened a can of worms in declaring open season on terrorists?
Jim Wilkinson: The President, in his remarks to Congress back on September 20, put the world on notice that regimes that harbor terrorists are terrorists. You’re either with us against terrorism or you’re with the terrorists.
As for the Middle East, the President is doing everything he can to help achieve peace. Every time you turn on the television we see more and more violence, tragedy and loss of life on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. The President wants this violence to stop and he wants peace to bloom.
Question from Mark: Do you think the United States is going to get sucked into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? Since the Arab world associates the US with Israel and therefore their enemy, can the war on terror be conducted without having to directly deal with the Israel situation?
Jim Wilkinson: The President has been aggressively working for peace in the Middle East. For example, he recently dispatched a special envoy to the region and he continues to monitor the situation closely.
Question from Jesse Halinton: I know you don’t answer for Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, but I just have to ask how reporters can expect the U.S. to answer for every body and death in Afghanistan. First of all, it is a war, and second of all with the explosives used and the terrain and the lack of technology and general ignorance over there, not to mention their own warring, how could there ever be an accurate count? The liberal media doesn’t care about the answers, they just like to ask the questions to try to throw mud on what is a genuinely noble campaign.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Is that a big challenge for you in terms of PR?
Jim Wilkinson: Let me begin by pointing out as Secretary Rumsfeld does almost daily just how challenging the battlefield in Afghanistan is. Our troops are living in tents in a cold land with a very tough landscape. They are rooting terrorists out of caves and danger lurks around every corner. Our troops have shown a lightning quick ability to adapt to a distant, harsh, ever changing battlefield. For example, our troops are sometimes conquering terrorists by welding together 21st-century technology with 19th-century tactics. Our troops have chased terrorists on horseback while using mobile phones and global positioning systems to call in targets for our airplanes.
Another example would be how our bombers are using 21st-century targeting techniques and laser guided bombs to destroy centuries-old terrorist caves and headquarters. Our troops are fighting for freedom, their jobs are tough and uncertain and they deserve all the support we can possibly give them.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Speaking of having to answer for the Pentagon, are you worried about your own (White House) credibility being threatened by the proposed “disinformation operations” by the Pentagon?
Jim Wilkinson: Secretary Rumsfeld yesterday and again today at his briefings pointed out the distinction between military operations and public affairs activities. For example, in World War II we were getting ready to invade Normandy, the coalition misled the Germans to think that we would attack farther north at Calais. This deception was important and saved countless lives. That’s an example of military operations.
On the public affairs side, U.S. government spokesmen tell the truth, the senior officials of this government deal in facts and deal with the media in an honest and straightforward way. It’s important that the firewall remain between military operations and public affairs activities. Our spokesmen who deal every day with reporters focus on the facts in delivering straightforward news and information to the media.
Question from Angel: By Bush using the ‘axis of evil’ remark, how has that made your job more difficult when talking to our allies?
Question from B_McDonald: How are you planning to handle the hub-bub generatetd from your declaration of the infamous “Axis of Evil”?
Question from MilitaryCurious: It is odd to me that Bush named the ‘axis of evil,’ but as far as our military activity goes, we’re in the Philippines and looking at Somalia and none of the axis of evil members are really likely to see military action. Is that a deliberate misdirection? What was the point of naming the ‘axis of evil’?
Jim Wilkinson: The war on terrorism is unlike any war we’ve seen in our history. It is not just being fought on the military front but on many other fronts. For example, we are seizing terrorist finances, we are arresting and investigating terrorists on the law enforcement front. We are providing important food, medical and other humanitarian assistance to save lives. We are fighting the war here at home by strengthening our homeland security. We are clearly fighting a military campaign and on top of all that, diplomatic efforts by the State Department continue daily to all corners of the globe.
The President used the facts and the facts alone when he spoke to America during his State of the Union address about Iraq. It is a fact that Iraq has tried to develop nuclear weapons and anthrax. It is a fact that Iraq has used poison gas to murder innocent people. It is a fact that the Iraqi regime agreed to international inspectors and then kicked them out. And it is a fact that the Iraqi regime has something to hide. As the President said, any regime that seeks weapons of mass destruction poses a grave and growing danger. They can provide these arms to terrorists and give them the means to carry out their vision of hatred. They could use these weapons to attack our allies and as the President said, the price of indifference to these regimes that seek these weapons would be catastrophic.
Question from N. KETZKO: Hello, Mr. Wilkinson >Q. How can I become in volved in the war on terrorism? (as a profession) Are there any prerequisites? Is there anything that would hinder me from being in the war on terrorism “workforce?” Where can I find more information? Thanks and God Bless.
Jim Wilkinson: Let me begin by saying thank you for your interest in serving your country. The President recently unveiled a new initiative called the USA Freedom Corps. An initiative designed to help America prepare for crisis at home, to strengthen our communities and extend American compassion throughout the world. For example, there are many retired Americans such as nurses and law enforcement officers who would make fantastic additions to their local homeland security teams.
There are also thousands and thousands of disadvantaged young Americans who are looking for a place to turn in their quest to figure out what to do with their lives. The President’s USA Freedom Corps gives them an important mechanism to serve their nation. If you are interested in learning more about this new initiative you should visit the White House website at www.WhiteHouse.gov.
If I could just tell you one more thing it would be this — the President realizes that all Americans after September 11 went through a period of reflection. Millions of acts of kindness took place all across America to help our nation begin to recover from the evil attacks. What the President wants to do is take people like you who are offering to volunteer and are offering their services to their nation, and channel that service to help turn a moment of tragedy on September 11 into an era of service for our nation.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Some folks in the chat room have suggested that the right to bear arms exists for this very situation. Do you recommend Americans arm themselves as part of being prepared for the war on terror? Does that fit into part of what Americans can do to themselves?
Jim Wilkinson: Everybody has to make those decisions based on their own personal feelings and the laws of their areas.
Question from Joy Mc Coskey: Why are we so obsessively concerned about being “understood” and “seen in the right light” by regimes, groups and individuals sworn to the utter destruction of our way of life and Judeo-Christian beliefs? These entities reserve the right to butcher us, defame us, torture, deceive and cruelly abuse us, but we are to provide to them the same rights and privileges we share among ourselves and those aligned with us? This is madness! This is buying into their spin.
MSNBC-Will Femia: A very common sentiment among chatters here.
Jim Wilkinson: Many people in the world want to kill innocent Americans. They are fanatics, they are evil, and they have a frightening vision they want us all to live by. Many of these people just can’t be reached. But what we can do is improve our communications to the world so that they learn more about us and realize that we have many shared values such as family, freedom of religion, and education. It’s important to improve our communications to the world so that we can help reverse a disturbing trend whereby many young residents in other countries from a very early age learn to hate America and eventually grow to want to kill Americans.
Question from Darren: Is it the opinion of the current White House that the last White House “soft” approach to North Korea and particularly the emphasis on the peace process with south Korea was a bad idea and let them get away with stuff they shouldn’t get away with without making them accountable?
Jim Wilkinson: When it comes to the policies of the last administration, it’s important that we not point fingers. What’s important is that President Bush wants to open dialogues in the various conflicts around the world and continue to seek peace.
Question from Hawkens2k: Afghanistan is moving towards a civil war. When they do what role is the military going to play in it?
MSNBC-Will Femia: Is it going to be a challenge for the U.S. when the line between the war on terror and “nation building” or “global policing” gets blurry?
Jim Wilkinson: The situation on the ground in Afghanistan changes daily. It’s important that we help support Chairman Karzai’s government as it begins to be formed and as it begins to help serve the people of Afghanistan. Right now we’re focused on the al-Qaeda and Taliban members that remain at large. There are many of these terrorists still holed up in Afghanistan and our troops are doing what it takes to root them out. This work won’t be pretty, it certainly isn’t easy, it has sadly already cost loss of American lives, and it will go on for some time.
Question from HouTx: Do ever get a chance to watch “The West Wing”? If so, what do you think?
Jim Wilkinson: I actually have never seen a full episode of “The West Wing.” Here in the real West Wing, we work too much to get a chance to watch it. However, I can point out that the White House offices are not nearly as large as the ones on television.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much, Mr. Wilkinson, for taking this time out to chat with us. Can you give us some closing comments before we have to let you go?
Jim Wilkinson: Thank you all for your important questions. The President has outlined his agenda to meet the three great goals of our time - winning the war on terrorism, getting our economy moving again and protecting our homeland. There is a role for each of you and for all Americans to play with each of these goals and I urge you to answer the President’s call to service to help your community. And we here at the White House appreciate all the support you have shown the President, the First Lady and the Vice President during these challenging times.
The President has an aggressive agenda but the president needs to hear from you with new ideas. I encourage you to write the White House with your ideas about how we can help turn American’s new spirit into positive change in every corner of our nation. You all know the address and I would love to hear from you with your ideas.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much.
Jim Wilkinson: Thank you.