MARGARET WARNER: So far only 16 Americans have been confirmed killed by the tsunami, eight in Thailand and eight in Sri Lanka. But Secretary Powell said today U.S. officials are still trying to track down somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 Americans.
Why nearly 10 days after the tsunami hit is there such uncertainty about the number of American casualties, and when will more be known?
To explore that, we turn to Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs; she was formerly ambassador to Paraguay.
MARGARET WARNER: And Ambassador Harty, welcome. Thank you for joining us. When Secretary Powell used the figure of 4,000 today unaccounted for Americans, where does that number come from?
MAURA HARTY: First of all, let me thank you for the opportunity to be on your program this evening. When Secretary Powell spoke earlier today about 4,000 Americans, that number came primarily from the calls that we have received in our call center since the call center became up and running the day of the disaster.
During that time and since that time we've received over 22,000 calls; some of those ranged from the very general -- is such and such a part of the world affected by the earthquake -- to the very specific I know that my loved one was in such and such a hotel at this time and during the -- during the earthquake and the tsunami itself.
We have naturally used those second set of calls with specific information to our very greatest advantage to try and track down as many people specifically as we could as quickly as we could.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, let me ask you about the terminology that you're using because many other countries have official missing lists. But the U.S. seems to just have two categories: dead or unaccounted for, without declaring them officially missing. Why not?
MAURA HARTY: In fact, I would not myself use the term unaccounted for per se. What we're much more comfortable using because it is in fact the reality that we're facing is that the 4,000 that you mentioned -- now by the way down to 3,700 -- is a list of the people about whom we have received an inquiry but about whom we have yet to develop solid information.
Going back to that 22,000 that we originally started with we've been able to drill down every day through that number, identifying people who in fact have now returned to the United States, people who in fact have called in and said they were never in the area, and in the case of the 16 cases of known dead American citizens, obviously, we have been able to reach some level of specificity on those cases.
MARGARET WARNER: It's been said that Americans' travel habits, especially when they're on vacation, make them harder to track than say Europeans. Can you explain that?
MAURA HARTY: Well, although I can't speak for every European country, a number of them certainly do have exit controls so that they know when one of their citizens has left their country. We do not have such exit controls in the United States, so it's a little bit more difficult for us to know with certainty when someone has left the country.
MARGARET WARNER: Don't also some European countries, or at least European travelers, tend to register with their consulates or embassies when they get to a foreign country?
MAURA HARTY: I can't really speak to that although I will use the fact of your question to encourage American citizens to register; we've got a registration system on our Web site: travel.state.gov -- travel.state.gov got 230 million hits last year with American citizens and others looking for travel information. I would urge anyone thinking about residing abroad or taking a temporary trip abroad to please by all means register with us.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, let's go back to the situation now, talking about whether there are people are officially missing. I assume -- I know you have consular offices on the ground in all these countries.
Are there no cases in which parents have come to you and said, we were on vacation, our children are missing, or children have shown up that are obviously American without parents or friends, people have shown up saying, I was with a friend and they're missing?
MAURA HARTY: There are several cases where that is, in fact, the case, where somebody has come to us and expressed concern about a traveling companion or a loved one and are on the scene, and we are working with those people now. But the 16 confirmed dead are the only cases we have right now that we have been able to confirm as lost.
MARGARET WARNER: Not to beat this into the ground, but why wouldn't you be willing to call that person missing?
MAURA HARTY: I suppose that we could, in fact, call them missing, although at this point what we're trying to do and what we, in fact, are doing in each of the countries in question, but primarily Thailand and Sri Lanka, is working with family members to go to every possible place where someone could be to, in fact, get the very best information we can.
What we are doing when we have talked before about the 4,000 now down to 3,700 is just continuing to try to make the calls to American citizens here to make sure that those people have, in fact, whether if they have in fact called home and we know something about them, that we have been able to share that information, we've been able to knock these numbers down, grind through that number of 4,400.
We are also, of course, as I mentioned, going to hospitals, going to hotels, going to every site and every place where someone might be; expressions of interest and concern are taken very, very seriously by all of us here as well as by scores of American citizens, American consular officers looking for American citizens overseas.
Bangkok is one of our biggest embassies in the world. And virtually that entire embassy is devoted to the issue of assistance and seeking to help American citizens in distress.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, are your consular officers also going to the places where these corpses are piling up and going through body by body and trying to identify which are Americans?
MAURA HARTY: Consular officers are in fact and have in fact been at morgues since morgues were set up and we will continue to do that every day.
MARGARET WARNER: And do you have any -- can you guarantee or do you have information about whether any Americans might have just been buried in mass graves?
MAURA HARTY: I would be loathe to guarantee to very many things in what is a situation where everyone, everyone is well intentioned and trying to do the best, and very best that can be done.
I can guarantee you that what we will do is continue to act with energy and with absolute determination to continue to get as much information as we possibly can and that we will not stop those efforts until all that is knowable is known to us.
MARGARET WARNER: And when do you think that point will be? What other information do you need?
A State Department spokesman talked today about you're also trying to work with the airlines and trying to work immigration authorities overseas, but at what point do you get the information together that you really need to definitively say to the American public, you know, 300 Americans are missing and believed dead?
MAURA HARTY: Well, I'm not sure that I can give you a specific timeline, but thank you for pointing to some of the other efforts we have made. We are looking at every single kind of data point that we can to make sure we are as thorough as possible.
So in addition to some of the things I've described and some of the things that you've just mentioned, we're interested in immigration records, we're interested in airline records, who has traveled out of the country, who perhaps had a flight out of the country but did not make that flight.
We're of course also dealing with all of the other service providers on the ground, be that host government authorities, non-governmental organizations or other embassies, as we compare and contrast notes and not only look out for each other but glean as much information from each others' efforts as we can.
The single most important thing that I'd like to urge people watching this broadcast to do, of course, is to call us if they have called us in the past and they have expressed concern about an American citizen and they have now heard from that American.
It's really critical and very, very helpful to our efforts that they call and let us know so that we can close the loop on that case and direct our efforts to areas and to other people where we may not have that same level of specificity.
So many, many people have called during the course of the last several days. I encourage people to continue doing that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ambassador Harty, thanks for being with us.
MAURA HARTY: Thank you so much. Good night, Ms. Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: Good night.