JIM LEHRER: General, welcome.
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Thank you, sir.
JIM LEHRER: Today's news about U.S. forces taking into custody two al-Qaida leaders near the town of Khost, how important are these people?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Well it's hard for us to tell right now, Jim. As you know, we have taken, gosh, over the last several weeks, a great many prisoners - I think as I left Tampa this morning somewhere between 360/370 - and what we will frequently find is that we'll see one name and then we'll hear another name mentioned and we get these detainees in custody, we begin to interrogate them, and in some cases we have found people we didn't know we had, and so rather than saying these two particular al-Qaida participants are of key importance to us, I'll just wait until we have a chance to get some interrogations underway.
JIM LEHRER: But something must have aroused the troops' interest - because there were fourteen taken altogether, but they only kept these two -
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: That's exactly right, and the thing that sort of keyed our fellows on the ground was the - the carriage - the way that they carried themselves, their language skill, and that sort of thing, and so it would be a leap at this point to say, aha, we had some real key guys, and so I'll wait, Jim, until I'm pretty sure of myself before I speculate.
JIM LEHRER: There were also, I understand, some laptop computers, some cell phones and some training material, anything juicy in any of that?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Well, the same category as the first answer. We're always hopeful and, as you know, as we've been through Tora Bora and as we've been through Zawar Kili and a variety of other places, and a bunch of these sites, you know, a couple of times I've talked about having been in forty or forty-one, forty-five to fifty known sites, places that we know we want to get in and take a look at - we have taken a great many documents.
We have taken computer hard drives. We have taken weapons. We have taken a variety of things out of these, and what I've found in each case is it's possible early on to decide that this will be - this will be key information to us and then to find out after we really get into the information that it's not really as interesting as we thought, and so I just - I don't want to set myself up by saying we had one here and then find out, Jim, that we really don't, and so we're interested in all of it. Yes, we did get some documents; we did get some computer hard drives out of this, and we'll have to see what the information looks like.
JIM LEHRER: Is there any way to generalize about what specifically it is you're looking for? And what kind of stuff do you want right now?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: I think - I think it won't surprise you. We're looking for things that indicate, for example, what is the breadth of this terrorist network - Al-Qaida- I think we have talked on a variety of occasions of sixty-five to seventy, maybe more, countries around the world where we have operational cells. Well, one's sort of intuition would say it would be nice to know the depth and the breadth of these kinds of cells. So that's an example of the sort of information we're looking for. We're constantly looking for information that would permit us to preempt a terrorist action someplace here in the United States or someplace else on the globe, so that kind of information is what we're looking for.
JIM LEHRER: I know you don't want to be specific about this, but have you, in fact, since this operation began three months ago found some intelligence information on the ground in Afghanistan that was able to prevent something happening elsewhere in the world?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: My sense is that we may have, and I say that because I have - I have heard others report that we may have gained some information that permitted us to break cells. We may have gained some information that permitted us to maneuver away from a particulate site or something like that, but I will say that within my - my theater of operations, which runs from I think - as you know - from Egypt and Jordan down the Horn of Africa, across to Pakistan and then up as far north as Kazakhstan, within my particular area we have not found anything that's caused us to be able to preempt or avoid a terrorist act, and so it either - it either is that they have not been planned inside our area, or that we have disrupted the activity of those cells without having documentary proof of that, so it's hard to say at this point.
JIM LEHRER: Have we found enough that makes you able to conclude that, hey, this really was where this - this really was the main base of al-Qaida, this is where Osama bin Laden and his people were calling the shots as much as they were?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: My honest answer is no. What we have found is a number of places where we believe terrorist control activities have taken place inside Afghanistan. But to be able to pick one and say, this is the one, no, Jim, we haven't found that.
JIM LEHRER: Did they - you don't have any evidence that they controlled something outside of Afghanistan from Afghanistan?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: I'm not sure I understand -
JIM LEHRER: Well, let's talk about September 11. Have you found anything on the ground that is directly ties somebody - anybody on the ground in Afghanistan to what happened here on September 11?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: I have not - I have not seen evidence of this direct tie to which you made reference, aside from the film that I think was widely publicized, which I think each American has to decide whether he believes that bin Laden was truly behind this thing on the 11th of September, as indicated in that film.
I have my own view but in terms of documentary source of evidence or computer hard drive that provides the smoking gun, no, that has not been something that we have found. Now, the computer hard drives that we have found have indicated traffic between several of the players inside the organization, and we're going to have to put bits and pieces together over time to decide if there are direct ties associated to the 11th of September in that.
JIM LEHRER: You said you had your own view. Just for the record, what is it?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: I don't know that my personal view is all that important. I - when I looked at that tape, Jim, I said to myself, my head went like this - and - so I developed a view of that without - without venom in my voice or in my look that just caused me to watch the tape and think about what I was reading in the tape and just shake my head like this, and so I guess that's the honest answer to your question.
JIM LEHRER: But leading this military effort as you have for three months, did you not have this pretty much in your head already? You thought you were going after the people who had done this awful thing.
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: That's a valid thing to say. My view since the beginning of this has been that al-Qaida was up to their ears in this. And so, yes, as we have moved since early October on this, that's what I've believed. I believe that al-Qaida was a major part of this operation, and that's why it has not been a stretch for me to be very interested and very focused and very energized... Of great resolve, when it comes to destruction of this terrorist network and to the destruction of the Taliban.
And I think the interesting thing is when one talks to all of our soldiers and airmen and troops and sailors and Marines on the ground inside Afghanistan or supporting our operations in Afghanistan, I think you get the same sense from every one of them.
JIM LEHRER: In general, how would you describe the phase you're in there now on the ground, the military operation in Afghanistan as we speak?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: We're pleased with the progress that we have up to this point. I'll tell you that candidly. I think that any time we can look around and believe that we have avoided the mistakes previously made by other armies who invaded Afghanistan, where we have given more than 26 million people an opportunity to have a way of life that's totally different than the one they've had before and when that's been done within about three months, I think that's positive.
And so I feel good about it and I'm proud of the people who have done the work. We still have a long way to go. We have a lot of work left to be done. What is that work? That work involves working with this interim government in Afghanistan to go every place inside that country to validate with them and for ourselves that there is no organized terrorist activity taking place inside Afghanistan -- tough work, hard work -- cost us the life of a young soldier last week -- deadly work -- likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
But I'll tell you this: At the end of the day, we will do just exactly what I said: We will clear Afghanistan of this terrorist problem and we'll give this 26.5 million people the opportunity to have a different and better way of life.
JIM LEHRER: Can you give us any feel for how many of the al-Qaida are still left, and are they organized? What's the nature of their operations?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: I ask myself that question honestly, Jim, I'm not sure if I knew the number that I'd give it to you, but actually I don't know the number. What we know is that there is not an organized al-Qaida network continuing to operate within Afghanistan. What we suspect is that there are pockets of hard core al-Qaida and some Taliban hard core people operating in a number of places inside Afghanistan, because neither coalition forces under my control nor the Afghan army forces under the control of Mr. Karzai are able to be everywhere in this country all the time.
And so that's the business of timing. We don't know with precision what the numbers are. We'll take the intelligence information we receive and we'll react to that every day in terms of creating plans to go to each of these places, to confirm the intelligence and destroy what we find or to say, "Well, this intelligence was bad, we'd better look someplace else."
JIM LEHRER: But is it an extensive thing, do you think? I mean, are there hundreds, thousands of these people still running around?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: My sense is that there are not now nearly as many as there were 90 days ago. But I'm still hesitant, Jim, to give you a number on it because my number would turn out at the end of the day to be a bad number.
JIM LEHRER: But do you see them as a military threat to you and your troops -- a big one?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: They're a military threat even when they operate in groups of two, three, four, five, twenty or fifty, because Afghanistan remains a very... The military term is kinetic.
It remains a very dangerous, a very kinetic place. And so what all of our people inside Afghanistan have to do every day is they have to provide for their own force protection, their own safety and, at the same time, they have to go about this very difficult work-- which I assign them to do, which is to go to these places and to confirm or deny the presence of al-Qaida and these hardcore Taliban.
So they're in dangerous work. They're going to continue to work in this very dangerous environment until we satisfy ourselves that it's finished in Afghanistan.
JIM LEHRER: President Bush said the other day that he would know when the war was over was when Tommy Franks told him it was over. Are you close to telling him anything like that?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: No, Jim, I'm not, because I think our President has been a man evidencing incredible strategic patience throughout this effort in Afghanistan. He... Neither he nor Secretary Rumsfeld have pushed this commander-in-chief to take decisions that may have been advantageous today, but extremely disadvantageous in the long-term.
The patience that we have exercised in this is, in fact, one of the characteristics that I believe has and will make this operation very, very successful. And so since the President has not... Has not pushed for an answer that says, "How long do you think... I mean, how far along are we? Are we okay? Or is this really going to stretch out for a long period of time?"
I have simply not tried to frame the way that I think I'll approach the President when it's time. But, Jim, right now it's not nearly time. We still have a lot of work to do and we're not going to try to do it in a hurry.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have in your own mind a criteria that you will use in making that decision? I mean, I'm talking about... General, you stated it a moment ago, "We're going to get all these guys and we're going to destroy this network, this threat, et cetera."
But is there also a time when, "Hey, it really doesn't make any more sense for us and our troops to go to another cave?" Is there... You're probably not going to tell me what they are, but do you have in your own mind a criteria for making the decision?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: I don't know that it's a good criteria, but the criteria that I think we'll all use rather than a mathematical metric, if you will, is a criteria that's a very common sense criteria.
At some point, there'll come a time when I talk to my boss, Secretary Rumsfeld, and when he chooses to talk to the President on this subject. And that time will come when we're able to say, "We have been on the ground, we have been to every place in Afghanistan in a way that satisfies me as the commander-in-chief that we have destroyed al-Qaida in this country and that we have destroyed the remaining pockets of the Taliban and I would recommend, Mr. Secretary, that you take that to the President."
And, Jim, that's a long ways off in the future because we still have a lot of dangerous ground to cover. But that's how it will happen.
JIM LEHRER: There seems to be a thing in the wind right now, General, that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar have gotten away, that they have escaped. Is that right?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: I will tell you at this point we don't know where bin Laden is. We don't know where Omar is. They may be inside Afghanistan; they may not be inside Afghanistan. So what we do is, once again, very common sense. We take a very sophisticated means of intelligence and we look at it very carefully. We form an opinion of where they may be and then we go look. And if they're there, we'll get them. And if they're not there, then we'll get them someplace else. That's my... That is my honest view.
JIM LEHRER: What would you say to a layperson who is listening to us now saying, "Wait a minute. How in the world could they get away with all the forces not only that we have there, but the anti-Taliban forces and all this stuff that we put out? How could these two men get out of that country?"
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: I think the short answer is with an awful lot of help. Recognizing that we're dealing with terrain that in many cases looks like the Rocky Mountains, and we're dealing with terrain that is not easily accessible by a great many roads and ability to get in and out and move around and so many places that sort of blend in with a population of Afghans of 26 million and constant traffic across multiple hundred... Multiple hundred points that can... That can lead into Pakistan, can lead into Iran, can lead to the... Up to the North into Central Asia.
And so I think that it is not very realistic of us to say, "Well, we'll seal this country to be sure that they don't get away." The President has been very clear - the Secretary. I've been very clear all along. Either inside Afghanistan, we get them or outside Afghanistan we'll get them.
But there is no place for them to hide; it's just a matter of how long it will take us to go search all the places out. We'll do that.
JIM LEHRER: You said yesterday to the Associated Press that "if you had the feeling that they had gone into Pakistan, you'd go in after them into Pakistan."
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Well, actually what I said as we talked our way through that is that we coordinate constantly and carefully with President Musharraf's people in Pakistan and we have... We have our liaison people with the Pakistani side and, of course, we have our people in the Afghan side. And what I said was that it is entirely possible that if we were in what I guess you'd call hot pursuit leaving Afghanistan moving into Pakistan that in coordination with the Pakistanis, we could well move right in to Pakistan after them. But it would be in cooperation with the Pakistanis.
JIM LEHRER: You wouldn't just go in there unilaterally?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Wouldn't need to because we have the constant radio communications on both sides of the border.
JIM LEHRER: What would you say to somebody who said, "Okay, General Franks you've done a terrific job, but until you get Osama bin Laden, this thing isn't over, no matter what's going on on the ground, no matter how long you've been there?"
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Well, I think for sure when our President said, This is... Afghanistan is a part of a global approach to counter terrorism, to try to be sure that the community of nations, a great many in number who are not willing to tolerate terrorism in the future, will go on for as long as it takes, for a long, long time, I think our President set conditions that said, whether it's inside Afghanistan or whether it's outside Afghanistan to take down al-Qaida and, by the way, a large number of other terrorist organizations is on the agenda as our mission.
And I will tell you that I will not feel satisfied until, in fact, we have taken down those terrorist networks. So I think this will go on for a long time. We won't have closure on it, Jim, until, in fact, we have taken all these networks apart.
JIM LEHRER: On your own agenda, you mentioned earlier what your area of the world, your responsibility is a rather large area. Where is... are you devoting 90 percent, 100 percent of your time still to Afghanistan, or are you moving to these other agenda items as well?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: It actually is not a sequential sort of thing. I have responsibility for these 25 nations in our area. Some of them-- and I think you're as aware as the American people are of which ones are of interest to us.
So this is not a matter of, "Well, let's take one and then we'll take another and then we'll take another." We're talking about all the elements of national power. So while we may be... We may have been involved militarily and kinetically inside Afghanistan, we're certainly doing our work in these other nations as well.
For example, Operation Southern Watch over Iraq --we're continuing those operations every day. We're continuing maritime intercept operations in the northern Arabian Gulf. We're continuing our normal intelligence activities as they involve several of these countries. So it's not difficult to see the countries we're interested in.
In terms of what we are likely to do next, our President has not taken a decision on what he is about to do next. And so I believe as combatant commander, my responsibility is to keep his options open, to provide him credible military capability so that he can take whatever decision he chooses to take. And so that's how we're focusing across our area.
JIM LEHRER: So those decisions have not been made.
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Have not been made.
JIM LEHRER: I see. Now, civilian casualties -- you and Secretary Rumsfeld and others-- General Myers and others-- have been reluctant or have just declined to discuss civilian casualties on the ground in Afghanistan.
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Right.
JIM LEHRER: Why?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Well, I think we decided early on that if we were to take each of the speculations that comes out and spend our time trying to describe the error of each speculation, we'd have little time to do anything else. And so all of us have opted to not do that. When it comes to civilian casualties, that does not imply that we don't take each and every alleged case where we have civilian casualties and study it very, very carefully.
I think that the American people would admit, or would recognize, that where we have been able to confirm that we had civilian casualties, which we caused, we have been very honest and very forthright and we have said, yes, we did this. I believe when we do not... When we do not acknowledge that we have created civilian casualties, it should not be taken as a conclusion that we're hiding something or that we, in fact, caused the civilian casualties.
In each one of the areas where there have been allegations of civilian casualties, what we have found is that people who don't share our interests, I guess I might say, have in many cases provided information that we have not found to be altogether true.
JIM LEHRER: Will there come a time when there will be a U.S. accounting of civilian casualties? Do you see that on the list of things that must be done when this war is over?
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: I actually - I actually don't know. I know that as we look at each incident if we determine... What we first try to do is determine, was this a valid target? Is this a target that we should have struck in the first place?
And where we have found either that this was not a valid target that we struck, we have said "not a valid target. We struck it and we have caused injuries."
Or where we have found that we had... That we had a valid target, but because of things like perhaps human shields have been positioned around some of the villages and so forth, we have not gone in and tried to verify each and every case because we have not found it possible to do that. There is a tremendous amount of "I heard" and "Someone said." We have not been able to identify facts, which would indicate to us that this is a problem at the level that I think you make reference to.
JIM LEHRER: All right. General Franks, thank you very much.
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Sir, thank you very much and Happy New Year.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you, same to you, sir.