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Did U.S. Forces Mistreat Afghan Villagers?; Did CIA Missile Find Wrong Target?

Aired February 11, 2002 - 19:00   ET




VICTORIA CLARKE, PENTAGON SPOKESWOMAN: To say that the situation, to say that conditions in Afghanistan are confusing is an understatement.


BLITZER: The fog of war: Did U.S. forces mistreat Afghan villagers? Did a CIA missile find the wrong target?


REAR ADMIRAL JOHN STUFFLEBEEM, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: There are no initial indications that these were innocent locals.


BLITZER: We'll go live to the Pentagon and to Afghanistan. And I'll speak live with House Intelligence Committee member Jane Harman, former CIA case officer Bob Baer, and CNN security analyst Kelly McCann, as we go into THE WAR ROOM.

Good evening, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting tonight from Washington. It's now been a week since the CIA launched a laser-guided Hellfire missile against a suspicious convoy in eastern Afghanistan. It's been almost three weeks since U.S. forces engaged in a deadly firefight near Kandahar. There are serious questions about both of these incidents.

At issue: Were friends or foes killed? For more on what is going on in Afghanistan and the Pentagon's response, let's go live to our military affairs correspondent, Jamie McIntyre. He is over at the Pentagon -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN MILITARY AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Pentagon is on the defensive on two fronts. First, it's denying that the U.S. military mistreated captured Afghans who had to subsequently be released after a raid last month. And it's defending the CIA's missile attack against three unidentified people who were suspected of being al Qaeda terrorists in an attack last week.


(voice-over): A U.S. military recovery team has returned from the site of last Monday's CIA missile strike near Zhawar Kili with evidence, the Pentagon says, supports the spy agency's claim it attacked and killed the right people.

STUFFLEBEEM: The indicators were there that -- there was something untoward that we needed to make go away.

MCINTYRE: Over the weekend, the U.S. team recovered human remains for possible DNA matching, although the U.S. won't say how it might obtain DNA for Osama bin Laden or other al Qaeda leaders. But the soldiers also found documents, including credit card applications and airlines schedules. And evidence that the group carried communications equipment and ammunition.

STUFFLEBEEM: I think that that sort of puts us in a comfort zone right now, is that these were not innocents.

MCINTYRE: U.S. officials say the unmanned, but armed, CIA spy plane like this one tracked a number of suspicious vehicles for several hours as they converged from different locations to a remote mountain slope for what appeared to be a meeting of al Qaeda members.

CLARKE: We're convinced it was an appropriate target. Based on the observation, based on the information, that it was an appropriate target. We do not know yet exactly who it was.

MCINTYRE: Local Afghans told the "Washington Post" that the three men killed were, quote, "peasants gathering scrap metal." But U.S. officials say no scavenging was observed. And when three people, out of a group of 30, including one person who seemed to be the leader, moved near a tree. A remote-controlled missile took them out.

The Pentagon is also on the defensive about a January 24 raid north of Kandahar where at least 15 Afghans were killed and another 27 captured. The 27 were released from a U.S. detention facility at the Kandahar airport after it was determined they were not Taliban or al Qaeda. Now some of those released claim they were beaten by U.S. troops during the initial assault and subsequent transfer to Kandahar.

CLARKE: We have no evidence that those sort of beatings took place.

MCINTYRE: While the Pentagon is investigating whether the raid was based on flawed intelligence, it denies anything more than the rough treatment that often occurs in the confusion of combat.

STUFFLEBEEM: In that initial encounter, you don't know who's good, you don't know who's bad, and you don't take the chances. You just secure the area. So everybody is treated the same. And it's relatively harsh, I would say.

(END VIDEOTAPE) MCINTYRE (on camera): The Pentagon is not admitting any mistakes or offering any apologies, at least not yet. And while it denies it is distancing itself from the CIA, the Pentagon is also going at great lengths to point out that this was not a U.S. military operation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jamie, the working assumption at the Pentagon is that Osama bin Laden is still alive, right?

MCINTYRE: That's correct, Wolf. And that's based on the fact that they basically have no indication that he is dead. According to U.S. officials who have access to intelligence, they have seen nothing in the intelligence that would indicate Osama is dead. They have seen some indications that he is alive, some of those they discount, but some may have some credibility. And essentially, because there is not enough indication he is dead, the working assumption is he is still alive.

MCINTYRE: Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon, thank you very much.

And let's find out how these developments are being viewed in Afghanistan. Let's go to CNN's Marty Savidge. He is on the phone from Kandahar, where U.S. Army personnel are based. Marty, what is the mood on the ground? Troops are hearing about these questions that are being raised.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the mood is still extremely high here, Wolf. They are only beginning to hear the very first tentacles of these reports coming in. They are still encouraged by the operation that took place up in Zhawar Kili.

The troops of the 101st Airborne, and there were over 50 of them that participated under very difficult, harsh conditions, very high altitude, they have not returned here to the Kandahar air base. Instead, when they were airlifted out of that sight earlier today, they were transported to what was referred to as a forward-operating base and they carried with them what is considered to be very significant evidence.

As to the allegations of the raid that essentially went bad, that was the one on January 23 at Hasam Qhadar (ph), this was a special forces operation that was conducted. There were anywhere from 15 to 21 Afghanis that were killed during that raid. Immediately afterward, the U.S. said, it was two compounds belonging to al Qaeda and Taliban. Twenty-seven people were taken into custody and they were brought to the Kandahar airport detention facility. Last Wednesday, they were released when it was revealed that their arrest was apparently a mistake. They said that they were not Taliban, they were not al Qaeda.

And then, after they returned to their home villages, when the allegations came forward about the beatings. Now, I have spoken to the detention center commander, that is Lieutenant Colonel Keith Wolman (ph) of the 519th NP (ph) battalion. He stresses, though he would not talk specifically and did not talk about these allegations, he says that the treatment that the detainees receive here at his facility is as good as or in some cases better than the treatment of the soldiers on the ground get here with the 101st Airborne. They are strictly adhering to the Geneva Convention, he says. These prisoners are treated far better than U.S. prisoners of war in past altercations -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Martin Savidge reporting live from Kandahar. Thanks for that report. And this important note: Marty will be back at the top of the hour at 8:00 p.m. Eastern for his special report, LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN.

How tough is it to tell friends from foes in Afghanistan? Should the CIA be in the business of firing missiles? Joining me now here in the CNN WAR ROOM: Bob Baer, a former CIA operative who was involved for years in the war on terrorism. He's the author of the new best- seller "See No Evil; CNN military -- excuse me -- security analyst Kelly McCann. He's CEO of Crucible Security, which provided special training to special operations forces who went into Afghanistan; and Representative Jane Harman of California. She's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

And remember, you can e-mail your WAR ROOM questions to us. Just go to my Web page, CNN.COM/WOLF. That's also, of course, where you can read my daily column.

And, Representative Harman, you are privy to a lot of sensitive information. Without revealing anything you obviously can't reveal, what should we make of these two incidents, first, the CIA's firing of this Hellfire missile at this convoy, presumably aimed at al Qaeda fighters.

REP. JANE HARMAN (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, let's keep in mind, Wolf, that we are at war and we are at risk. Some of these folks may be plotting the next wave of attacks against the United States or some sleeper cells out there might be doing it.

We have been sending a message to the CIA and our intelligence agencies not to be risk averse. And so, my first reaction is they are doing what they should do. Yes, we should investigate whether some innocent civilians were unfortunately killed, but I back up our intelligence agencies and our Pentagon because they are fighting a war.

BLITZER: So when you read that front-page "Washington Post" story that Jamie McIntyre referred to in his piece, quoting local villagers as saying they didn't kill any al Qaeda fighters, they killed a bunch of local peasants, if you will. You go with the CIA's version?

HARMAN: Well, I go with an investigation but I go with keeping our eye on the ball, which is to win a war a terrorism and protect American lives both abroad and here.

BLITZER: Bob Baer, you worked in the CIA for at least two decades. When did the CIA get into the business of firing missiles?

ROBERT BAER, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE: They got out after Vietnam, and they are back in it because we are at war. And the only way we can really do an operation like this is if we have people on the ground, assets, human sources, in coordination with the operators of the Predators. So the CIA basically has to do that operation.

BLITZER: The Predators, the drone, the unmanned aircraft...

BAER: It's the drone that fired the Hellfire missile.

BLITZER: But is this what the CIA should be -- isn't it military who's supposed to be firing missiles, not the intelligence community?

BAER: Traditionally, no. But I think this is an exceptional circumstance where the CIA has to integrate intelligence to hit a target, a risky target like this. It has to be operated very quickly and without any delay at all. And the CIA, with its sources on the ground, has got to coordinate this.

BLITZER: Before I bring in Kelly, you oversee the CIA, your intelligence committee. Are you comfortable with this role of the CIA as a military actor in this kind of situation?

HARMAN: Well, I wouldn't call it a military actor. It's providing intelligence necessary for the military to conduct a surgical operation, hopefully to minimize civilian casualties because these things are very well targeted. And the CIA should be in the business of providing the world's best intelligence and I think that it is.

BLITZER: But the actual launching of the missile is not providing intelligence. That's operating on the basis of intelligence.

HARMAN: It's operating on the basis of intelligence, but the intelligence comes from these agents on the ground. We have to integrate. I agree with what Bob just said, human resources on the ground with the best technology in the air and the other point to make is that these drones have no people in them, so they don't expose American lives to war casualty.

BLITZER: Kelly, you were a special operations officer in the Marine Corp. Are you comfortable that the CIA is doing this as opposed to General Tommy Franks, the commander of the central command?

KELLY MCCANN, SECURITY ANALYST: Sure because this is all source fusion. This missile was not let on one person seeing deferential treatment to one man walking with two other people. SigInt was considered...

BLITZER: You have to speak in English.

MCCANN: Signals intelligence, communications intelligence and human intelligence was all considered to create a footprint. And then the predator has a long dwell time. So these predators are not just flying around looking at the ground. They are vectored to areas where there is significant footprint, and then it loiters, it dwells. Once it dwells, it starts to pick up its own visual intelligence, which is then fed into that whole loop and when we get as close to a confirmation as we can, they it is authorized.

This was not done hip-shot. This was a very carefully thought out thing.

BLITZER: Who signs off on the actual firing of the hellfire missile?

BAYER: I have no access to classified information, my understanding it's CentCom (ph) in Florida does.

BLITZER: So central command, General Tommy Franks...

BAYER: Give permission to fire the missile once they have acquired a target.

BLITZER: Is that your understanding as well?

HARMAN: I'm not going to comment on classified information but there have been press reports that say that that is how it works.

BLITZER: That the central command would have to approve the firing...

HARMAN: And this is carefully done. I agree with the comment that was made. This isn't some random cowboy operation and of course mistakes can be made but I think using our most advanced technology and using our most advanced intelligence and fusing those together gives us the best possible outcome, and that's what we want here. We went to win this war on terrorism. We want to take out the bad guys who are on the ground in Afghanistan. And this is our best way to do it.

MCCANN: We are not just shooting at tall people, and that's been the tongue-in-cheek joke. That's simply not the case.

BLITZER: That one of the individuals in the convoy happened to pretty tall.


BLITZER: And Osama bin Laden is about six four.

MCCANN: Exactly. There must have been a footprint initially for the predator to be there...

BLITZER: When you say a footprint, what does that mean?

MCCANN: A signature. In other words, there had to be communications emanating. There had to be signals, there had to be an operational signature that meant something was going on, which made that missile stay there. And then when it was confirmed that in fact it could have, very directly, affect operational -- anti-American forces type people, of course that's...

BAYER: They didn't just fire at a tall person. There was a meeting. There was a clear meeting, there were a lot of people there. It fit the biometrics of an al Qaeda leader. This was not a random shot and I don't think we should take off after the CIA or the military for the operation.

BLITZER: I don't mean to take off, but we are just asking tough questions, which is what we have to do. We have a tough question from a viewer who e-mails us this question, and she says this -- and maybe, congresswoman, you can help explain it:

"Shouldn't bin Laden be easier to find since he reportedly has to have kidney dialysis treatments?" Which is what the president of Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf, said only a few weeks ago. Do we know for sure that he does need kidney dialysis?

HARMAN: I don't think we absolutely know. That is generally assumed that he does. But...

BLITZER: Because that's not easy to get kidney dialysis if you are roaming around caves.

HARMAN: I think what he does is not easy, period. And whether he is dead or alive we don't know, but I think we need closure and I'm glad that we are still on his trail. And I hope we are going to follow any leads we can get and I hope we will stay focused on this war on al Qaeda because I think is that war we have to win first before we move on to other issues.

BLITZER: You agree with the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob Graham of Florida that there won't be closure unless Osama bin Laden is caught or killed?

HARMAN: Well, there may have to be closure, because we may never catch or kill him, but I hope that we will find out where he is and certainly bring him to justice at a minimum, or find out that he is dead, which I think will be an important thing to know.

BLITZER: Based on what you know, what do you think right now, he is alive?

HARMAN: I don't know. I don't know that he is dead. I think the working assumption has to be that he is alive and that hopefully he is in Afghanistan or nearby Pakistan and that we have very good intelligence on the ground now and we are integrating our intelligence very well with our technology and our military and that we will find him.

BLITZER: Kelly, what does it say to you that Representative Harman, member of the House Intelligence Committee, who is briefed on the most sensitive secrets that the United States has, at this very moment she doesn't know whether or not Osama bin Laden is either alive or dead?

MCCANN: If I gave you two days to go down to Texas, I wouldn't he able to know if you were alive or dead either. You know, this is a very difficult task, Wolf, and people have chased us about this and said, you know, is he, isn't he? If you think about a 2,000 pound bomb dropping in the vicinity of someone, there might be nothing left to confirm that a person is alive or dead. A very tall order and from the beginning remember, that most people have said the president's directive was what? Dismantle al Qaeda. Because those are the operationally people that can hurt us.

Osama bin Laden is not going to fly a plane or shot a gun and given the current state of looking for him, he can't much communicate because he will create that signature. So, in fact, we have taken the power base away from him more important, but finding the man may be emotionally important for closure, but it is not operationally important.

BLITZER: You have written a new book and it is on the "New York Times" best seller list, but you were quite critical about the lack of human intelligence, the assets that the United States and the CIA had over the years, but since September 11 is the situation as far as you can tell, getting better.

BAYER: It's getting a lot better, for sure. I would like to say that I was assigned on the border from 1992 to 1994.

BLITZER: Which border?

BAYER: I'm sorry, on the Afghan border...

BLITZER: Between?

BAYER: Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and I know how hard it is, and I know we were not collecting very good information on Afghanistan at the time. We had written off, the White House had. It was a mistake. Now we are making up for it. We have a new mandate. We know how to do this, we have people on the ground and let's go for it.

I -- we will show results, maybe a year from now, but we will get bin Laden and we will have good sources and we will make fewer and fewer mistakes as we go along. So I'm optimistic.

BLITZER: OK, we are going to take a quick break. We have a lot more to talk about.

When we come back, have U.S. forces lost their will, as some are suggesting, in the dirty work in Afghanistan? Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back to the CNN WAR ROOM. Have U.S. forces done all they can to search the caves in eastern Afghanistan? Who will do that dangerous job?

Congressman, I want to read to you from an article that appeared in yesterday's "Washington Post" talking about the search in the caves for the al Qaeda fighters. It says this, among other things: "Afghan fighters say the Americans have neither found all the caves now made extensive efforts to identify at least 300 dead bin Laden fighters whose bodies have been scattered on the White Mountains of Eastern Afghanistan. The Americans took photographs and made videotapes, but did not dig into collapsed caves and bunkers to find additional bodies." And the article goes on to quote one Afghan commander who searched Tora Bora, a man by the name of Rahim Yan (ph) as saying, the Americans lost their will.

BLITZER: Those are tough words from the "Washington Post."

HARMAN: I don't buy that for a minute. I have just been to the Middle East. I haven't been to Afghanistan, but I have never seen people more focused and more dedicated and more enthusiastic, about the mission that they have. I saw our intelligence agencies there and foreign intelligence services that are working together on this war. And I think, if we should be going back in caves they'll get the order to do it and they will do well.

BLITZER: Dangerous assignment, going into those caves. You can't blame people perhaps for not wanting to go in.

MCCANN: Two weeks ago they said that they don't want to help U.S. go in.

BLITZER: Afghans.

MCCANN: Exactly. So the other thing is that there is not even the most basic national I.D. system there. So for them to say, they haven't identified these people. You can ask Bob, to identify a particular Afghan -- it's not like you pull a state driver's license. I mean, you have to go to a family member or someone who can visually recognize. It's a very tough task. Put it into perspective, it really does take on gargantuan proportions, not to mention the fact that in one square kilometer. In some of those areas, there are literally hundreds of cave openings, some small --

BLITZER: And there are land mines and they are booby-trapped. And you were there. You spent time in Afghanistan, tell us what it is like to search those caves.

BAER: It is Central Asia, the whole country is riddled with caves. They go miles back and valleys, and you have got the snow, the problem of that. If he moved into an area that is closed by avalanches, you can't get in there. It's just going to take a long time. All the people on the ground are loyal to their clans and they will lie to us. And they will look for money and other allegiances. And we just -- it's a hard job.

BLITZER: How do you know who to trust in a situation where there are these warlords, these fighting clans going on. Who do you trust?

BAER: It takes years of adding them. That's the unfortunate news. It just takes years. Not being coned, not being led down, not being ambushed, literally ambushed at a place like that. We will be in it for the long haul, the whole terrorism war. We just have to accept it. We can't get impatient. The Israelis went after terrorist groups for years and years, 15 years before they got everybody. We may have to do the same. BLITZER: What is your worst nightmare scenario, right now, you get obviously access to information we don't have, what do you fear most?

HARMON: I'm actually bullish on you how we are doing. As hard as it is, we are doing well, and we are hanging in. I think the political will is the big difference, between post-September 11 and before. Lots of ideas were out there, Bob obviously had some. I served on a commission on terrorism which recommended many of the changes that have been made. The intelligence authorization bill this year beefed up human intelligence and all these things that should change. But what really changed was that now everyone knows we have to act. And the resources are there people, and the people are motivated. And I would give the administration and our war an A, in terms of how well it's going. Even with the set backs.

MCCANN: We should fear the public's waning of interest and support. That's what we should fear. Because as Bob said this is a long haul. And it's been said over and over and over. But it is also an ugly business. People want to put at arm's length, and without everybody being in the game we are going to abandon troops over there, and they will suffer the brunt of it. They will be ridiculed and they are going to take some unfair shots. The public's support to be in this for the long haul and change the way we look at our lives, from this point forward, has got to happen.

BLITZER: But I don't see any evidence that the public is losing support.

HARMON: I don't think they are.

BLITZER: They may be losing some interest, but they are totally committed to the war effort.

HARMON: I will tell you what is not going as well is the homeland security effort, I mean more American lives are at risk here, than in the caves of Afghanistan.

BLITZER: What do you mean?

HARMON: Well, we don't have an organized and focused homeland security effort. We are now going to provide a lot more money --

BLITZER: Tom Ridge is not doing the job?

HARMON: Tom Ridge doesn't have enough authority to do the job. He is a talented guy, I see all these nods. But he is not a commander of the homeland effort the way Donald Rumsfeld and others are a commander of the --

BLITZER: Is al Qaeda the network or associates of al Qaeda loosely the terrorist network out there, still have the capability to launch a major terrorist attack against the U.S. interests, around the world or the U.S. homeland?

BAER: I think George Tenet was absolutely right. They are going to hit us in the next three or four months.

BLITZER: They are going to hit us?

BAER: Yes. Either here or abroad. They rather hit us here, if they can. But we are going to be hit. They will show that they are still alive. It will be a remnant of that group. We have go to get used to it.

HARMON: There are sleeper cells all over Europe, in Canada and in the United States, among other places also in Asia. And we need to be focused on that. On finding these bad guys and bringing them to justice or eliminating them in some other way. And it's unfortunate that mistakes will be made, but perfection is not an option here.

BLITZER: On that note -- depressing note, I want to thank you all of you for joining us.

MCCANN: Thank you.

HARMON: Thank you.

BLITZER: And remember, I want to hear from you. Please go to my Web page at, click on the designation for comments to me and my producers.

And this note, tomorrow, be sure to join me at 7:00 p.m. Eastern for a special edition of WOLF BLITZER REPORTS: "MISSING IN AMERICA," the Danielle Van Damm case. Among my guests, John Walsh of "America's Most Wanted."

And coming up, was there a security breach at the Guantanamo Bay facility where the U.S. is holding Afghan detainees? We'll be back in just a moment with a check of the top stories.


BLITZER: Welcome back here's this hour's news alert. Four Cubans were arrested today after they entered the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Authorities won't say how the four slipped through the tight security and 34 more detainees arrived at the base today, bringing the total number of suspected Taliban and al Qaeda fighters at Camp X-Ray to 254.

In southern California hundreds of firefighters are battling wildfires raging through 3,000 acres. The brush fires have already consumed 30 homes and five other buildings and injured 11 people. They are racing westward and have a reached a camp at Camp Pendleton, Marine Corps base.

And that's all the time we have tonight. Please join me again tomorrow, twice at both 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Until then, thanks very much for watching. I am Wolf Blitzer in Washington.




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