Return to

January 11, 2002
Notes from the Pentagon

Container flight
U.S. intelligence officials said evidence that al Qaeda terrorists were fleeing Afghanistan by sea has been obtained.

A recent search of a foreign freighter by the U.S. Navy revealed that a group of al Qaeda fighters had been hiding inside a shipping container, officials told us. Inside the container, searchers found materials and equipment linked to the terrorist group, but not the terrorists themselves. The group apparently escaped from the large metal container a short time before the ship was searched.

The discovery prompted an increase in surveillance of ships, as well as trucks carrying shipping containers leaving Afghanistan for Pakistani ports.

Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff, told reporters recently that U.S. forces in Southwest Asia have probed "hundreds" of ships. "We have done permissive boardings [but] we've not come up with anybody that we're looking for," Adm. Stufflebeem said.

When ship crews cooperate with U.S. searchers, "the information we're getting prevents us from having to go aboard the ship," he said. "The pressure is constant. It's not going to change," Adm. Stufflebeem said.

Al Qaeda, led by millionaire Osama bin Laden, has access to scores of tramp freighters operated by business fronts for the terror group.

Pentagon plumber
President Nixon created the infamous "plumbers" unit back in the 1970s to try to plug leaks of information.

Now, in an effort to control news coverage of defense issues, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is following suit.

He is on a "personal campaign" to prevent the news media from finding out inside information, said his spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke. Mrs. Clarke told a Brookings Institution forum on Wednesday the anti-leak effort is producing results.

"The amount of leakage and the amount of inappropriate backgrounding and leaking of classified information and information that should never have gone out has dropped considerably," she said.

"That is because Secretary Rumsfeld has made it a personal campaign that he would reduce the amount of leaking of classified information by people in government and he would reduce the amount of inappropriate backgrounding of classified information."

Mrs. Clarke said, "You have a fair number of people, not a lot, but you have a fair number of people who are going through a bit of a culture shock.

There is not quite the flood of information that there has been in the past, and I will fully tell you that I believe a lot of that information was inappropriate."

Here's one he missed: Pentagon officials tell us Mr. Rumsfeld was flabbergasted recently when presented with a military plan to house al Qaeda terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, using minimal security controls. "You've got to be kidding," Mr. Rumsfeld said in dismissing the plan and calling for much tighter controls over the hardened terrorists.

Chechens captured
Among the hundreds of al Qaeda fighters captured in Afghanistan are a significant number of Chechens Islamic separatists from the Russian enclave where a major low-level war has been under way for the past several years.

Officials tell us the Chechens most likely will be turned over to the Russian government, which is eager to find out more about the links between al Qaeda and the separatists in Chechnya, in southern Russian.

Six-year war
President Bush reminded reporters earlier this week at his ranch in Texas that the war against international terrorism will be long and arduous. Just how long, the president didn't say.

However, Pentagon officials tell us military planners privately are preparing for a conflict that will last a minimum of six years. That's the internal assessment that is being used for planning and budgeting for operations, which almost certainly will expand from Afghanistan to some of the other nations involved in terrorist operations.

Press coverage
We talked to an Army officer and specialist in unconventional warfare (working with an indigenous force to defeat an enemy) about how the press was covering operations by Army Special Forces, better known as the Green Berets.

Here's what he said:

"They are missing the subtle aspect of Unconventional Warfare and war through surrogates. Air power is very effective, but isn't sufficient to turn conflicts. With covert operators from Special Forces and CIA (sometimes hard to make a distinction), air power is directed and evaluated. Fear is spread throughout the enemy population because they never know when, where, or how they will meet their death. Every shadow and noise is cause for fear.

"Tribes that haven't worked in concert for years are suddenly engaging in coordinated attacks that make them effective fighting forces. Did air power effect this action? I would sooner guess that covert operators are cajoling, bribing, and threatening these tribes to work towards our end. This is war through surrogates. Few realize that tens or hundreds of such operators can shape a battlefield, war or country. The introduction of thousands of conventional troops could cause more problems than they might solve.

"The bottom line is that small numbers of American forces can bring about great changes without the risks associated with the massive infusion of conventional forces. Sometimes the actions of these unconventional forces are unseen, fostering incorrect assumptions and conclusions."

Lessons learned
We already know that lessons learned in Afghanistan have convinced the Pentagon to buy more smart munitions and unmanned vehicles, and consider buying more heavy bombers.

We now hear the new fiscal 2003 budget will include money for more special operations AC-130 gunships. Gen. Tommy Franks, the war commander, has used the hovering battleships to blast terrorist targets from Tora Bora to Kandahar. With few air defenses to worry about, the plane's highly accurate cannons can kill people and destroy vehicles as targets emerge.

Sources say the Pentagon will buy four to eight of the converted C-130 aircraft, adding to Air Force Special Operations inventory of 21 AC-130s.

Gen. James Jones, the Marine Corps commandant, was so impressed by the gunships he is thinking of buying a Marine version.

Rummy's lessons
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has learned lessons from the last three major conflicts Vietnam, Persian Gulf and Kosovo in his management of public statements.

Vietnam: Mr. Rumsfeld refuses to estimate the number of enemy dead numbers released with great confidence by military briefers in Vietnam.

Persian Gulf: Mr. Rumsfeld shies away from discussing the hunt for Osama bin Laden and, unlike other senior officials, never speculates on his whereabouts.

Military analysts contend the previous Bush administration focused too much on Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, leaving a feeling of unfulfillment when the war ended and Saddam stayed in power.

Kosovo: Mr. Rumsfeld refuses to estimate the number of destroyed armored vehicles and other military equipment.

During the air war over Kosovo, NATO gave running totals of the number of tanks and artillery pieces destroyed. Reporters later tried to disprove the estimates.

Mr. Rumsfeld also refused to rule out the introduction of large number of ground troops in Afghanistan, even though the idea was debated and rejected.

In Kosovo, President Clinton ruled out a ground invasion. Analysts contended the announcement sent the wrong signal to Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who held out for 78 days.

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

  • Inside the Ring Archives
    1999 Columns
    2000 Columns
    2001 Columns

    2002 Columns
    Return to