MARGARET WARNER: Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz is just back from a five-day trip to the area devastated by last month's tsunami. He visited Thailand, Sri. Lanka, and Indonesia, a country where he once served as U.S. ambassador. Mr. Secretary, welcome.
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Good to be here.
MARGARET WARNER: What is your assessment after being there of how the recovery is going, how much has really been accomplished?
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: An enormous amount has been accomplished everywhere and a lot of it is thanks to the ability of our military to get there quickly and to do things nobody else could do.
I think it's probably not an exaggeration to say tens of thousands of lives have been saved because we were able to get food and water to people who otherwise would have starved or been dehydrated.
But it's very different in different places. Thailand has already moved past the immediate relief and into recovery and, in fact, they're helping other countries in the region. That's at one end of the scale.
India has got a huge problem, but they're largely self-sufficient. That's why we didn't go there. Indonesia, where I was ambassador, is also the one that's hardest hit in every possible respect.
It's where the earth -- they had a record-breaking earthquake and then they were hit by the tsunami. The numbers are probably -- they're well over 150,000 dead or missing.
And it's in a very remote part of the country, which is hard to get to in the first place and once you get there, it's hard to get to the people who need help. So they're still trying to provide immediate relief and the recovery operation is going to be a staggering task.
MARGARET WARNER: Now I gather the United States has, what, 16,000 troops in the region. How long do you think they'll be needed or wanted?
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Well, they're starting to come down already in Sri Lanka. They're not going to be needed in Thailand much longer, except for coordinating a region-wide effort, which the Thais have been very helpful in.
In Sri Lanka, we're, in some cases, doing things like delivering fruits and vegetables. They don't need us for that. In fact, we moved two of our big water purification units from Sri Lanka to the Maldives where they're more needed.
But in Indonesia, there's a real need. And when you ask the question of "are they wanted," it is stunning to me. I was ambassador there for three years and these are proud people, properly so. And they're people who are very suspicious of foreign militaries from any country, and yet they really open their arms to us.
They've taken away all the restrictions that might have applied. They recognize that no country could have handled a task like this -- challenge like this on their own.
And there was a little -- an indicator, I think, of Indonesian opinion when one politician came out and said our forces had to leave by March 26. The president himself, when he met with him and with many ministers, partly because it was the right thing to do, but I think also because they were reading.
The Indonesian public was saying "Wait a minute. Don't ask the Americans to leave until we're ready to take over." They said "This is a timeline, it's not a deadline," and I think that's the attitude we've encountered.
MARGARET WARNER: Now while you were in Jakarta, you did say-- at least are reported to have said -- that you thought that the U.S. should ease up on some of the restrictions we've had between the U.S. Military and the Indonesian military, the ones that were imposed after basically the rampage in East Timor, what, in the early '90s.
Why do you think it's time to change that?
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Well, let me be clear. I also said those restrictions are there because of a real concern about abuses by the Indonesian military. And it's a concern now that -- not only our concern, but the newly elected democratic government of Indonesia shares that concern.
And that's part of the context of my remarks is last September they had a remarkably successful free, fair presidential election. It was only the second in their history.
This is a country that's moving in an impressive way, given the challenges they face, toward democracy, and they have a government committed to it.
So I think it's important to help that government manage its own military. And now it's even more important to help that government manage this huge challenge of the humanitarian assistance.
So I also said -- and I mean it -- this is something we want to consult with the Congress on because the views of the Congress on this are strongly felt, and for good reason.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask you this. How would have -- and I should have explained what we're talking about in terms of a relationship - it's the supply of equipment and it's training -- how would resuming that help the democratic transformation or help the government in Jakarta have more control over the Indonesian military? Could it have the opposite effect?
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: It could. That's why you need to calibrate these things carefully and why I wouldn't say we suddenly opened the door to unrestricted supply of lethal military assistance.
No, but one of the things we've done is severely restricted the opportunities for Indonesian officers to train in the United States. And I think, in my view, and I care a lot about the human rights aspects of this, I can't say that every officer who is trained here becomes a human rights advocate.
But the current president, for example, who is a democratic reformer, was a military officer who was one of the last people trained here. I think we can have a more positive influence that way.
I think there are certain things we can do and we're doing some of them now. The Congress doesn't prevent us from non-lethal assistance, and we've finally found a way to help them repair their transport aircraft so that they can get humanitarian assistance up to Aceh. That's a good thing, although it involves more contact with their military.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, as some observers in the region have said, though, that the Indonesian military is using this crisis as a way of actually tightening their control over the rebels in Aceh?
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: You know, this is a tragedy, as people have said, of apocalyptic or biblical proportions. It's just enormous.
We have a chance to give some meaning to that tragedy by moving to a better future, including particularly trying to move toward a political resolution of that problem in Aceh that you alluded to. If the military gets in the way of that, then the military should be pushed to get out of the way.
But if the military can be brought on board and the Acehnese people, who are very distinctive people who occupy this one province in the extreme west of Indonesia, can see that their government and maybe even their military is able to deliver something good to them instead of just oppression, I think there's a chance to move to a new era that would benefit the whole region.
MARGARET WARNER: Let's change -- turn to Iraq now. Condoleezza Rice in her confirmation hearings has been grilled by some Democratic senators saying now that the search for WMD is over in Iraq and none were found.
That she, they are saying, and other members of the administration really did mislead the Congress and the American public about the rationale for war. What is your response to that?
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Part of me wants to say let's finish this war and the help the Iraqis build a new government before we get ourselves completely tied up in the past. But the past is important. Let me try to address that.
Nobody was misleading the American public. If we were wrong, it was in no small measure because Saddam was misleading the whole world. This is a consensus.
The view that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was the consensus of the Clinton administration, it was the consensus of this administration; it was the consensus of many other countries in the world, including a number that opposed the war.
But after Sept. 11 -- this is a little complicated, but I think it's important to understand -- prior to Sept. 11, the policy of the U.S. Government as established in a strong bipartisan resolution of both houses of Congress in 1998, seven years ago called the Iraq Liberation Act, was to support the Iraqi people in a potentially armed rebellion against Saddam.
Sept. 11 came along, and suddenly we had to think about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists with a completely different assessment of risks.
And the president went to the United Nations; we discussed all the various things that were wrong with Iraqi behavior. It came down to saying, okay, in spite of all the suspicions in order to try to avoid a war, we will give Iraq one last chance.
And the burden was on them to come clean, to declare everything they had and to not obstruct inspectors and they defied that resolution. At that point, the president faced a critical decision of how you weigh the risk.
MARGARET WARNER: But Mr. Secretary, people are familiar with that history. But the question is: Were you all more definitive about the existence of weapons than in fact the intelligence you were getting as it shows?
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: I don't believe so. No, the intelligence was very strong on all these points. And frankly, I think if I may say so, I think some of the critics now are a bit too definitive about what we've learned.
They say there are no stockpiles found. Well, at least so far that's true. Let me finish, okay? So far, that's true, but does that mean no WMD?
Look, the same report that they say has no stockpiles says that the Iraqi intelligence service was testing biological and chemical agents on live human beings. They didn't declare that to the United Nations.
It's a clear violation and a serious violation of Resolution 1441. And from my point of view, it's more ominous in terms of Iraqi intelligence service working with terrorists than whether there were large stockpiles of chemical weapons.
So I don't believe this discussion is helped by accusations of misleading. There was a very strong intelligence assessment which had to be taken seriously. If this -- turn it around, Margaret.
If we had been wrong the other way and if the threat had really been imminent and we had been hit with an anthrax attack here that was tied to Iraq and the president had done nothing about it, what would people then say? I mean, it would make the criticism of failure to prevent 9/11 just look like child's play.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let's talk about the Iraqi elections. Some of the Shiite politicians running in this election are saying they're going to press the U.S. if they win for a timetable for withdrawal.
What would be the U.S. response if that happens?
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Well, we've made it clear that if the Iraqi government wants us to leave, we will leave.
But I think it is important to recognize that this is an issue that's got to be one of the most important ones being debated right now by Iraqis.
And I don't think they fully know what their own mind is because I think all of them hope we will leave before too long.
And I think a great majority of them don't want us to leave too soon. They don't want us to leave before they're able to take over.
One of our generals told me about a mayor in a small town in western Iraq who said to him, "In my heart, I want you to leave tomorrow. In my head, I know I need you for a while longer."
And I think that's the dilemma, and it's a dilemma that's going to be debated now in the way that democracies deal with these issues. And I think what they need to know is we are ready to stay as long as they need us, and we don't want to stay a day longer than they need us.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally on training Iraqi troops, Condoleezza Rice said today again that there are 120,000 Iraqi security forces. Sen. Joseph Biden, who has just been there, said he thinks of those, maybe 4,000 are essentially battle ready.
How many of the 120,000 do you really think are ready to step into the place of U.S. forces when it comes to fighting the insurgency?
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Well, that's a very high standard. I mean, although I would note that generally speaking their Arabic is better than ours, generally speaking their knowledge of neighborhoods is better than ours, and generally speaking if they go and search a house, they're probably less likely, at least inadvertently, to violate local customs than we will, so you can't do a one-for-one comparison.
Are they going to be an equal match in a small-arms engagement to our troops? Probably never, but I think even if you take the very clear high end of those numbers, I mean, you can cut them in various different ways.
And there's probably been a tendency sometimes to take the raw numbers a little too literally because the quality varies enormously.
But they've put together, for example, something called the special police battalions, which have been doing some very effective counterinsurgency fighting in Mosul.
We count in total around 120,000 now, but we're very aware that there are problems in the quality. One of the big problems is a tendency for soldiers to go AWOL and part of it's the problem that faces them.
MARGARET WARNER: It's a big problem.
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: It is a big problem, and it's one of the reasons why Secretary Rumsfeld asked Gen. Gary Luck, who has a got of experience, to go out there and look at what are the problems, how can those be addressed and how might we speed up the training.
MARGARET WARNER: So what do you think, if you had to give an assessment of when there will be sufficient, competent Iraqi forces that the U.S. can leave in large numbers?
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: That's a bit too high a bar to clear in terms of -- you're asking a prediction that, you know, it's a very wide range.
What I think one can say with some real confidence though is that by the middle of this year or the end of this year, there will be a substantial increase in what Iraqis themselves can supply, and whether that's going to be enough to produce the result you're talking about.
Frankly from my point of view, what I care most about is that they can do the bulk of the fighting. I'm more concerned about bringing down our casualties than bringing down our numbers.
And it is worth saying that since June 1, there have been more Iraqi police and military killed in action than Americans. They are fighting; they are dying, unfortunately, along with our people.
But they continue to volunteer, they continue to fight. There's enormous bravery by civilians as well. I mean, people are voting, getting ready to vote in an election.
When their children are threatened with death, when election workers are shot in the street, when people's heads are sawed off, I mean, imagine what we would do as Americans with that intimidation.
Yet 7,000 people are candidates. I think it's tens of thousands the last time I remember, it's 80,000 who were working in election machinery. And millions are going to vote in the face of the brutality of this enemy. That's pretty impressive.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Secretary, thank you.
PAUL WOLFOWITZ: Thank you.