Admiral Dennis Blair
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MARGARET WARNER: As the Bush administration expands its global campaign against terrorism, one region emerging as a primary focus is Southeast Asia. There are radical Islamic groups now operating in the Southern Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. And U.S. intelligence believes they all have ties, to varying degrees, to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network or Islamic training centers in Afghanistan.
A point man in the war on terrorism in Asia is Admiral Dennis Blair, commander in chief of the Pacific Command. His command stretches from the West Coast of the United States to the tip of eastern Africa. Admiral Blair recently completed a six-nation antiterrorism tour in Asia, and he joins us now. Welcome, Admiral.
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: Nice to be here, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: How have the attacks of September 11th changed your focus and the focus of the entire Pacific Command?
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: Well, we have focused on stamping out terrorism in our part of the world, and it’s really an international and an inter-agency effort. We’re using a lot of the skills we had before, fighting things like drugs and piracy and terrorism, but we really intensified it, widened it and put a lot more emphasis on it.
MARGARET WARNER: What countries are you most concerned about?
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: I’d say the– if you look at Southeast Asia, there’s no Afghanistan there. All of the governments in the region are horrified by what happened on September 11th, and they have supported the campaign against terrorism in various ways from direct support in the cases of Australia and Japan to over-flight rights and logistics support in the cases of the Southeast Asian countries. So we’re working with people who think that this is bad and want to work. Sometimes they’re not as capable as they’d like to be in patrolling their own borders, in dealing with criminal groups and terrorist groups, and that’s where we can really work together and stamp out terrorist groups and the infrastructure that supports them.
MARGARET WARNER: Before we go onto what we can do, just tell us a little bit more about where the real problem areas are.
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: It’s sort of an arc that stretches from the southern Philippines, northern Malaysia around through across some parts of Indonesia, which is a huge country, 17,000 islands, and as wide as the United States, up into say Burma, which is a source of a lot of the heroin and methamphetamines, which goes to Southeast Asia to the rest of the world. So it’s this seam of lawlessness where not only can terrorists find a place to work from but also pirates and drug runners and gun runners and people who are a threat to the region and to the United States.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, are there, I’ve seen various lists put out by the U.S. government, or purported to be from the U.S. Government about countries that are the next focus, and we named three: the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. But are there real al-Qaida cells operating in these countries? How would you define the terrorist enemy in your part of the world?
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: I would say that a lot of historical ties – the Abu Sayyaf Group, which is one of the groups in southern Philippines, was founded by people who spent time in Afghanistan. They are a group that is mostly criminal but certainly has the potential to be used by al-Qaida as a base of operations. There’s a –.
MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me. Is that the group that has the American couple hostage, the missionaries?
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: That’s the group that has the two American missionaries, the Burnhams and also a Philippine woman who is also a hostage there. So there’s that group, and a country like Indonesia, a huge country having difficulty patrolling all of its borders, especially under the economic difficulties it faces. There are groups that have historical ties to Afghanistan, some to Osama bin Laden. So there’s a potential there for international terrorist groups to find support. Other parts of Southeast Asia are available for laundering money, getting forged documents, holding meetings, networks. So it’s not only the individuals, but the places they might like, the operations that have to support them.
MARGARET WARNER: How concerned — we just heard Secretary Rumsfeld talk about where al-Qaida people may be fleeing to, whether they’re leaving Europe or Afghanistan. Is there concern that this part of the world might become a sanctuary?
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: We’d like to make this part of the world as unattractive as we can for the al-Qaida group to come, for them to consider it to be dangerous to them, and that would not only cut down their wanting to come there, but we are working hard to be able to get them if they do come through, and several have been caught and others have been, others have been deterred from coming.
MARGARET WARNER: And just one other question on these groups or operatives. Is their focus mostly, I mean are they looking out– are they a threat to U.S. interests in a direct way or western interests? Or are their targets more domestic?
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: The groups that have gone against the United States have primarily used Southeast Asia as a staging base and a transit point. If you go back to say ’95, ’96, Ramsey Yousef, the group that later put a bomb in our World Trade Center, the first bomb, had a plot to take down twelve airplanes coming out of Manila, many of them with Americans on them.
So there is a history of using Southeast Asia and Asia for these sorts of operations. However, it’s kind of an unholy alliance, international groups are willing to help local groups, they’re trying to overthrow, and cause damage in their own governments in return for help with the international group’s goal. You’ve got to go after all of them.
MARGARET WARNER: So how do you, as a military man, as the commander, how do you use U.S. military assets to help these other governments? I might point out to our viewers that there was a story in The Washington Post about all the top commanders submitted to Donald Rumsfeld their plans for anti-terrorism, and he liked yours best. So tell us, what are the elements from the military perspective?
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: Yeah. I’d say from our point of view, the Philippines is perhaps the best example, there’s this area in the southern Philippines that has an insurgent group with Islamic organizations, which has been going on for quite some time, there’s an Abu Sayyaf group, which is mostly criminal, but also with some historical connections to al-Qaida. The Philippine government – and it has these hostages you talked about – the Philippine government has deployed troops to the islands of Basalon and Holo and has been working against them for several months now. They have not been completely successful although they’ve cut the number of hostages from the 30s down to about three right now.
President Arroyo met with our President Bush and they agreed that we would provide training assistance, we would provide advisors, we would provide maintenance assistance to make the Philippines more effective in being able to not only free hostages but eliminate the Abu Sayyaf group. After that the presidents agreed there would be economic assistance so there would be a better standard of living for the people in that part of the country. And we’re trying to take out the environment which breeds terrorist groups as well as the terrorists themselves.
MARGARET WARNER: When you talk about training, though, and advisors, are we talking about U.S. commanders or forces running seminars for officers of the Philippine army, or are you talking about maybe having advisors, U.S. forces on the ground with battalions of local troops?
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: Both. We have already trained a, one infantry unit called the Light Reaction company, LRC, last year, we did this after the first American hostage in the Philippines, Jeffrey Schilling, who was in fact released. And this involves everything from individual squad training up through how a company commander runs hi forces, plus some equipment. So that training will be available, and it’s across the board, it’s an intelligence fusion, it’s in infantry skills. Then we will make available American advisors with the units in order to make sure the kind of training we’re giving is the right kind of training to be most effective in the field. But I need to emphasize that as President Arroyo said, the fighting, it’s a Philippine fight, they feel it’s their responsibility, they’re in charge and we’re providing assistance.
MARGARET WARNER: Some Americans might ask, well, if there are American hostages and we’ve now established that they are being held by terrorists, why wouldn’t U.S. Forces be going in and just doing the job?
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: Because it’s in the Philippines and the Philippines feel it’s their responsibility to take care of foreign guests in their country as well as their own people. And a great majority of hostages have been, in fact, Filipino hostages, and the Philippine armed forces and police have been the ones with the primary responsibility.
MARGARET WARNER: How concerned does the U.S. have to be, or do you have to be about cooperation with military forces in that part of the world that have a bad human rights record? I’m thinking for example of Indonesia.
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: We– our procedures are whenever we’re cooperating with a military unit, we check to see that members of that unit or that unit have not been involved in abuses of human rights in the past, and then we make a judgment as to whether we operate with them or not.
MARGARET WARNER: But isn’t there – aren’t there congressional restrictions on some of this cooperation, in the case of in Indonesia?
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: In the case of Indonesia there are restrictions in general on some military cooperative measures until Indonesia makes progress on certain items. But in other areas, which are in both of our interests, we do cooperate with the Indonesians, and certainly terrorism is an area in which we should work together, and will be working together, intelligence exchanges; for example, working together on countering piracy, in the Strait of Malacca. But a full bilateral relationship will depend on the completion of reforms within the Indonesia an armed forces.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you finding that these governments are more interested in cooperating with you? You talk a lot about intelligence. We don’t have time to go totally into that. But my understanding is before September 11th there was some reluctance about sharing a lot of intelligence with the U.S. — has that changed?
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: I think September 11th has made a difference. I mean it was a shock to governments and people in Asia just as it was to us in the United States. And it’s made us realize that we’re going to have to work on this together, and the first part of working together is knowing what the real picture is. So I’ve seen barriers come down between us and other countries that were there before. I’ve also seen, by the way, some stove pipes within our own government that…
MARGARET WARNER: Stove pipes?
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: That’s military jargon that means separate organizations. But the sharing between the Department of Defense, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the intelligence agencies like the CIA, has taken place on an unprecedented level because of this common campaign within our government against terrorism also.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, and this could be a whole discussion in itself, we don’t have time for that, but India — India is in your bailiwick, though Pakistan is not, and I know you were just there on this trip. How does the U.S. help India combat terror but at the same time try to avoid a military confrontation between India and Pakistan? Because of course India blames Pakistan for training and supporting the terror that goes on in India and in Kashmir.
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: Both we and the Indians need to combat terrorism that afflicts all of us. The operations in Afghanistan are in the U.S. interest because of that was the nest that attacked us the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That was also the training ground for terrorists in Kashmir. So that’s in our interest. Where we go in the future is to suppress terrorism, which is against both of us, but also to do it in a way that does not conflict with our goals with other countries.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Admiral Blair, thank you very much, thanks for coming.
ADMIRAL DENNIS BLAIR: Thank you, Margaret.