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Interview on NBC's Meet the Press With Tim Russert

Secretary Colin L. Powell
Washington, DC
May 4, 2003

(10:30 a.m. EDT)

MR. RUSSERT: First, he arrived home from Syria late last night, but he is here this morning to talk to the nation about his trip. The Secretary of State Colin Powell. Welcome.

SECRETARY POWELL: Thank you, Tim. Good morning.

QUESTION: Syria. There are reports on the wires that you sat down with the leader of Syria and said to him he had to close down the offices of terrorist organizations in Damascus, Syria. This morning, Mr. Secretary, on the wires, the head of Hamas says, "We have not been informed of any such thing. Our office is to remain open."

SECRETARY POWELL: It's very clear that there's a new strategic situation in the region, and this is what I said to President Bashar Assad. With the end of the regime in Baghdad of Saddam Hussein, and with a new government that's going to be rising in Iraq that will be looking for better relations with its neighbors, Syria has to realize that things have changed there. Things are also going to change with respect to the Palestinian Authority, with the new Prime Minister and a roadmap put down.

And my clear message to President Bashar Assad is that some of the policies you've been following in the past will not take you anywhere in the future. Support of terrorist activities, the presence in Damascus of organizations that continue to cause terrorist activity to take place which makes it hard to move forward on the Middle East peace process, these things have to come to the end. The offices have to be closed. He said he was closing offices. He also indicated that he would constrain their activities, and we had some other suggestions for him.

But it is not what he says or what he said to me or what he professes; it's what he actually does. So it's performance that we'll be looking at in the days and weeks and months ahead, and he knows that. Performance not only with respect to these kinds of organizations, but in any way allowing Syria to be a place where weapons can be transshipped to other organizations, such as Hezbollah, that cause destabilizing actions -- let me put it as mildly as that -- to take place in the occupied territories or elsewhere or threaten Israel. Any continued development of weapons of mass destruction or in any way harboring individuals who are still trying to get out of Iraq of the Saddam Hussein regime, or any of that kind of activity, will tell us that he is not yet ready to move into a more promising future relationship with the United States.

At the same time, I went there to listen to him. And he, of course, is interested in making sure that any progress in the Middle East peace process includes the interests of Syria and their interests in the Golan, and also the interest of the Lebanese Government as well. And so we had a good, candid exchange of views, and there are no illusions in his mind as to what we are looking for from Syria.

I also made it well known to him, or made it known to him, which was already well known to him, that Congress is following this closely; Members of Congress are interested in a Syrian Accountability Act, which will hurt them if such an act passed in the absence of performance on their part, and also, the Patriot Act has some consequences for them if they don't shut down certain financial transactional activities that might be taking place in their country.

And so there was, as we put it in diplomatic terms, a candid exchange of views. But it is not promises that we are interested in, or assurances; it is action. And we will see what happens in the days and weeks and months ahead.

MR. RUSSERT: But you have no doubt as we speak this morning that Syria is harboring terrorists and weapons of mass destruction?

SECRETARY POWELL: I can't say that they are harboring weapons of mass destruction. We have made it clear to them that this would be not in their interest. They say they are not. We will continue to look at our intelligence holdings and any other information that comes into our possession that we think would be useful to resolve this question.

With respect to individuals from the former Hussein regime who might be there, some have come back across, shall we say, into the hands of the coalition to receive justice from the Iraqi people. And we have made it clear to the Syrians that as we learn of individuals who might be in Syria of this type, we would pass that information to them and expect them to be turned over. And, if the Syrians find individuals who might have an association with the regime or might have a scientific background which would help us in the search for weapons of mass destruction, we would expect Syria to turn it over as part of the new positive relationship with the United States.

MR. RUSSERT: The President says any country that is harboring terrorists will be "confronted." That's his word. If, months from now, Hamas, Hezbollah, still have offices in Damascus, how will we "confront" Syria?

SECRETARY POWELL: There are many ways to confront a nation. You can do it diplomatically, you can do it economically, you can do it militarily, you can do it politically, you can isolate them. There are sanctions. There are many ways to confront a nation and the President has all of his options on the table. And the reason he sent me to Syria was to convey to President Bashar Assad that the United States hopes that in this new environment where we are looking for peace in the Middle East, not further incitements to violence, and when we're trying to empower and help the new Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen, this is the time for Syria to review its policies and to end those policies that do not contribute to the peace process in that part of the world.

And also, Syria had considerable commercial activity with Iraq. It's been shut off now. The oil has been shut off, the oil they were receiving on a concessional free basis. The other trade that was going back and forth across the border. That's been shut off for now. If they seal that border so that nothing is going into Iraq that would be destabilizing or people finding haven out of Iraq in Syria, if they keep that border sealed and if they operate in a positive way with respect to what the coalition is doing in Iraq and with respect to the creation of a new democratic government in Iraq, then that tells us one thing about Syria's decision to move forward: that they're looking for a better relationship with the United States. If they do not, then there will be consequences.

MR. RUSSERT: As you well know, being Secretary of State means that you'll be criticized from a lot of different quarters. Here at home, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, questioned whether you should even go to Syria. Let's watch and get your reaction:

"The concept of the American Secretary of State going to Damascus to meet with a terrorist-supporting secret police-wielding dictator is ludicrous. The United States military has created an opportunity to apply genuine economic diplomatic and political pressure on Syria."


SECRETARY POWELL: Well, he is accusing the President of a ludicrous act. He is accusing not only the President, me and my other colleagues in the administration, who discussed this subject fully, and we all agreed, as a team, that it was in the interests of the United States as we moved forward in this new strategic environment to have a straight, candid conversation with the President of Syria. That's what I did for three hours, and I did it with the blessings of my colleagues in government, and, of course, with the specific blessing from the President of the United States, and I did it with his instructions.

So Mr. Gingrich was taking a broad swipe and a shot at the policies of the President of the United States. He was allegedly doing it because he had some dissatisfaction with the way the State Department runs, but he missed the State Department and hit the President.

MR. RUSSERT: He went on to say the State Department was ineffective, incoherent. Your top Deputy --

SECRETARY POWELL: First of all, that's -- go ahead, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: Your top Deputy, Richard Armitage, had this to say: "It's clear that Mr. Gingrich is off his meds and out of therapy."

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, that's your wimpy, pinstriped State Department responding. The fact of the matter is that if Mr. Gingrich has constructive comments that he wishes to provide us that would help us reform the Department, we'd be delighted to receive them. I received five reports when I became Secretary of State of changes that ought to be made within the State Department. We're doing all of that.

But this was a blunderbuss attack that was an attack against the President's policies and against me, and he used as his training aid the wonderful men and women of the Department of State who work hard on the front line of offense throughout the world, putting themselves at risk, putting their families at risk, going in harm's way, being the subject of terrorist attacks, who are doing everything they can to support the people of the United States.

If Mr. Gingrich wishes to participate in a constructive debate as to how they can do their job better or how we can reform the Department in a better way, I'd be more than delighted to listen to him. We are transforming. We've been transforming this Department for two-plus years -- not talking about it, doing it. If he wishes to participate in that process, fine. If he wishes to attack the President, he ought to do it directly.

MR. RUSSERT: "Off his meds and out of therapy." Did you authorize that statement?

SECRETARY POWELL: I knew that Mr. Armitage had said it and was going to say it.

MR. RUSSERT: You approve of it?

SECRETARY POWELL: I think it was a pretty fair counterpunch.

MR. RUSSERT: As you know, Speaker Gingrich is on the Defense Policy Board. He's an advisor to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Do you believe that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld should repudiate Mr. Gingrich?

SECRETARY POWELL: I leave that to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to make his own choices in that. Mr. Gingrich is on the Defense Policy Board, but he is also a private citizen able to make any statements he wishes to make or chooses to make. And I don't think he was making the statement representing the Defense Policy Board or Don Rumsfeld or anybody else but Newt Gingrich.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think Mr. Rumsfeld knew that Mr. Gingrich was going to make these speeches?

SECRETARY POWELL: I have no idea.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the President's comments. This is what he said Thursday evening. Let's watch:

"Any person, organization or government that supports, protects or harbors terrorists is complicit in the murder of the innocent and equally guilty of terrorist crimes. Any outlaw regime that has ties to terrorist groups and seeks or possesses weapons of mass destruction is a grave danger to the civilized world and will be confronted."

"Will be confronted." This is the State Department report out last week on global terrorism. Let me bring you inside the book and share with our viewers: "Cuba and Sudan continued to provide support to designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations."

Will we tell the Cubans stop harboring terrorists, or else?

SECRETARY POWELL: We have told the Cubans via that report, and we've told the Sudanese via that report, that we still consider them to be organizations which support terrorist activity. The world is changing. The President has taken a strong leadership role in this changing world to say that this is no longer tolerable activity on the part of any nation. Any nation that continues to believe that its political purposes can be achieved by supporting terrorist activity has to know that the civilized world is now speaking out and will act against that kind of behavior. We did it in Afghanistan. We did it in Iraq. We are confronting other nations around the world, and there are ways to confront them, many different ways to confront them. Sometimes, no other solution is appropriate but military force, but there are a broad array of tools that are available to the President and available to the international community to deal with these kinds of regimes -- isolation, sanctions, pressure, economic activity, many tools that should be used. You don't always reach immediately for the military tool.

In the case of Cuba, we pushed for a resolution in the Human Rights Commission. We finger them. We have been speaking out very strongly with respect to Cuba's actions, not only with respect to terrorist activity, but the way in which they are treating their own people. I mean, they have been throwing people who choose to speak their own mind and who have been dissidents and throwing them in jail for 12, 15, 20 years. Cuba is an anachronism in our hemisphere, an anachronism on the face of the earth, and the whole international community should be condemning Cuba.

Similarly with other regimes, in the Sudan we not only condemn this kind of activity, but, at the same time, we have diplomatic efforts underway to resolve the civil war that has killed so many lives and destroyed so many families in the Sudan, and we are making it clear to the Sudanese that if they are looking for a better place in the world, a better life for their people, it's time to end this kind of support of terrorist activity. And we have seen improvement over the years.

MR. RUSSERT: You mentioned criticism of Castro. In fact, some artists and writers from the United States of America, led by Harry Belafonte, said that the United States has been guilty of harassment of Cuba, and this is a pretext for invasion.

SECRETARY POWELL: This is absolute nonsense, but we've gotten used to absolute nonsense coming from Mr. Belafonte. This isn't the first time that he has praised the Cuban regime and its outrageous --

MR. RUSSERT: Why wouldn't we think about liberating the people of Cuba the way we liberated the people of Iraq?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, we do not believe that it is appropriate at this time to consider, if you're talking of military force, to use military force for this particular purpose. We believe that Cuba is isolated. Cuba is the anachronism that I mentioned a few moments ago.

I remember 15 years ago when I was National Security Advisor and Cuba was fomenting revolution and communist ideology and theology all over the hemisphere. Fifteen years later, every nation in the hemisphere has rejected that point of view. They are all finding their own way down a democratic path with market reforms. They want to be part of a community of democracies of the Americas. They want to be part of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. They are having different levels of difficulty with respect to practicing democracy. Democracy isn't an easy system. But Cuba sits there isolated, getting poorer, getting broker, more irrelevant on the world stage, and sooner or later this regime will pass. It is an anachronism and history will catch up with it.

MR. RUSSERT: Iran. Let me show you what your global terrorism book has to say about Iran: "…remained the most active state sponsor during 2002; provided funding, training, weapons to Central Asian and anti-Israeli terrorist groups. In addition, some members of these groups, as well as al-Qaida, have found safe haven in Iran."

Again, using the President's words, how will we "confront" Iran and force them to stop that?

SECRETARY POWELL: We have made it clear to Iran that they cannot expect a better relationship with the United States or to be included more fully in the international community as long as they continue to support terrorism and as long as they continue to move in a direction with their nuclear development programs that suggests they are still interested in developing a nuclear bomb.

And in this case, there is a great deal of turmoil within Iran between the aspirations of a youthful population and the political leadership that exists and the presidency, and the religious leadership that exists among the ayatollahs. And we believe there are ways to communicate with the people of Iran to convince them that the policies their leaders have been following have been inappropriate. Meanwhile, we will continue to isolate Iran as best we can.

But there are opportunities for cooperation with respect to al-Qaida. Al-Qaida is a threat to Iran, to everyone else. They should not allow any al-Qaida activity to take place in Iran; and if there are al-Qaida individuals in Iran, they should be turned over to people who know how to deal with al-Qaida individuals. So we have ways of communicating with Iran on what we think they ought to be doing with respect to going forward to a better relationship with us and the rest of the world. And also, we have been in touch with Iran with respect to activities that they may be contemplating in the southern part of Iraq among the Shia community.

MR. RUSSERT: But if you look at Iran, the weapons of mass destruction, nuclear development program, harboring terrorists, al-Qaida presence, how does it differ from Iraq, and why wouldn't we try to liberate the people of Iran the way we liberated the people of Iraq?

SECRETARY POWELL: We went into Iraq in response to 12 years of violation of specific UN resolutions dealing with weapons of mass destruction, and we went in with the full authority of the United Nations. Whether people agree with that assessment or not, 1441 made it clear that we had a basis to do this. Military force is not necessarily the first option in every one of these situations. I believe that Iraq was a more real and present danger in terms of its weapons of mass destruction, which will be uncovered in due course, and because they had demonstrated that they are prepared to invade their neighbors and they have demonstrated they are prepared to use these kinds of weapons outside their own borders and on their own citizens. So I think this was a different case, a clear case, and we acted on that case, as we did in Afghanistan.

MR. RUSSERT: North Korea. This is what the Patterns of Global Terrorism has to say about North Korea: "… continued to sell ballistic missile technology to countries designated by the United States as state sponsors of terrorism, including Syria and Libya." We now believe that North Korea has one or two nuclear bombs, could be producing five or six more by mid-summer. Will we allow that?

SECRETARY POWELL: We, I think, have had some success in recent months in convincing all of North Korea's neighbors that the problem presented to the region and to the world by North Korea is not just a problem between North Korea and the United States, but with all of the nations in the region. And as a result, we got China to take a more active role in sponsoring a multilateral meeting that included China, the United States and North Korea. South Korea and Japan were not in the meeting, but their interests were certainly represented in that meeting by the United States.

And everybody has now made it clear to North Korea that they will not find any assistance coming to them from the region in terms of economic development, in terms of helping them with their serious economic problems and problems of poverty, unless they abandon their nuclear weapons programs.

They say they have a couple of nuclear weapons. They've admitted that. They are always ambiguous in their statements, masters of ambiguity. They say they have completely reprocessed all of the cells that would - the rods that would give rise to a sufficient amount of plutonium to develop five or six weapons. We can't confirm that with our intelligence, but that's what they say.

And what they have gotten in response to these statements is nothing from us except condemnation. All of their neighbors have now said to them this is not going to get you anywhere, we will not be blackmailed, we will not be intimidated; you do not want to go in this direction because all it will do is further isolate you. And it takes time for the North Koreans to hear these kinds of messages. They are masters of saying all we have to do is keep threatening people, hold our breath, throw tantrums, and they'll come our way. Not going to happen this time. We are not going to be frightened into doing something. We're not going to be intimidated into doing something or blackmailed into doing something that we do not believe will solve this problem once and for all. The Agreed Framework of 1994 dealt with one aspect of their nuclear weapons capability, but while it dealt with that, temporarily it left the capacity in place for that program to come back. And at the same time we thought we had dealt with that, they started working on another program to develop nuclear weapons. We're not going to fall for that game again.

MR. RUSSERT: If we wake up six, seven months from now and they have more nuclear weapons, then what happens?

SECRETARY POWELL: They have a bigger problem than they have now. Their nuclear weapons are not going to purchase them any political standing that will cause us to be frightened or to think that somehow we now have to march to their tune, march to their drummer.

MR. RUSSERT: We would never let them sell or transfer those weapons.

SECRETARY POWELL: Absolutely not.

MR. RUSSERT: Talking about Iraq, you said in due time you believe we will find weapons of mass destruction. Let me go back to your presentation in February at the United Nations and talk about it:

"The gravity of this moment is matched by the gravity of the threat that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose to the world. Let me now turn to those deadly weapons programs and describe why they are real and present dangers to the region and to the world. Let me turn now to nuclear weapons. We have no indication that Saddam Hussein has ever abandoned his nuclear weapons program."

And Vice President Cheney said Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear program. So we have the Vice President and the Secretary of State. Is there any evidence of a reconstituted nuclear program in Iraq that we have found thus far?

SECRETARY POWELL: We haven't found any evidence of nuclear weapons in Iraq as a result of what we have been able to see so far. But a program is more than just a weapon. We didn't think he had a weapon at the time I made that statement or the time the Vice President made his statements or any of the other of my colleagues who made statements.

But what he did keep intact were the scientific wherewithal. And by that, I mean he not only had people with the know-how, but he kept them together so that the know-how could be exploited at a time that he chose. He kept in place the infrastructure. And so he never lost the infrastructure or the brainpower assembled in a way to use that infrastructure if he was ever given a chance to do so because the international community had turned its attention in another direction.

And so it is still our judgment, and it is still my judgment, that if he was given the opportunity and if the international community said fine, you're okay, we're not going to bother you anymore, he would still have pursued that objective. He never lost, in my judgment, and the judgment of the intelligence community, the intent to develop a nuclear weapon, and he kept in place the scientific brainpower and the infrastructure that would have allowed that to happen in due course.

MR. RUSSERT: How important is it to the credibility of the United States and your own personal credibility that we find weapons of mass destruction?

SECRETARY POWELL: Oh, I think we will find weapons of mass destruction. I'm the one who presented the case, and proud to have done so. And let me tell you, Tim, we spent a lot of time on that presentation. It was about five straight days and nights of work with the most senior experts of the intelligence community. And with a smile on my face, I would like to point out that over my right shoulder was the Director of Central Intelligence in that picture, George Tenet. We all stood behind that presentation.

And keep in mind that the whole Security Council acknowledged that Saddam Hussein had these weapons of mass destruction when they voted 15-0 for the basic resolution, 1441. It begins with a statement that Saddam Hussein is in material breach of his obligations to account for all of the anthrax and botulinum toxin and all the other things that previous inspectors said he either has and hasn't accounted for, or he won't tell us what happened to this material if he no longer has it. And that was the basis upon which 1441 rested.

And it may well be that as we continue our work with the many teams that are now about the countryside we will find that some of the gaps that were there that he wouldn't account for, we can now account for; even if we don't find weapons, we can find out what happened to that material, I am confident.

MR. RUSSERT: But it is important.

SECRETARY POWELL: Sure, it's important. I am confident that we will find evidence that makes it clear he had weapons of mass destruction.

MR. RUSSERT: There was a story coming out of Newsweek and it's been widely reported in the press now. This is the headline: "The State Department wins one." And that's Ambassador Paul Bremer will become the civilian administrator in Iraq, on top of General Jay Garner. Is that accurate?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, no announcements have been made, to the best of my knowledge. General Garner is doing a tremendous job and we should be very privileged and pleased that he was willing to return to serve his nation in this way under the most difficult of circumstances. My department, the State Department, a number of other departments of government are cooperating with Jay. I have at least five -- I lose count every day -- at least five, maybe up to six ambassadors who are there working in Jay's organization to help him.

In due course, it will be necessary to change things as you go forward as the situation changes, and when changes are made they will be duly announced. But nothing has been announced yet.

MR. RUSSERT: If Paul Bremer becomes the civilian administrator, who would he report to?

SECRETARY POWELL: Let's look at it this way, without talking about Jerry Bremer. This is a military operation. It has to be under the direction, command and control of General Tommy Franks and his subordinates. We were in a hostile environment. No other Department of Government could handle this initial phase.

What I see happening in that, as stability is gained throughout the country and that security is obtained, and as the various ministries come back up online, more and more other sorts of organizations will come in -- UN organizations, nongovernmental organizations. Lots of our friends and allies will be sending in peacekeeping forces. It will start to take more of a civilian coloration. And in due course, I don't know how long it will take, but in due course, General Franks and his colleagues will turn it over to the Iraqi people when they stand up a government, and at that point the U.S. presence will be in the form of a United States ambassador and a mission, just as it is in cases all over the world.

So there is a transition taking place, but there can be no doubt that this initial phase has to be firmly under military authority, and that's why General Franks has all of that authority and General Garner has to work for General Franks, and anyone else coming into the theater at this point has to be subordinate to Secretary Rumsfeld, and Secretary Rumsfeld reporting to the President.

MR. RUSSERT: Before you go, the roadmap for peace in the Middle East. Discussion of settlements. There are now 70 new outposts, new settlements, if you will, developed by the Israeli Government. There are 400,000 Israelis living outside the '67 borders. How many settlements will have to be closed down? What will Israel have to do in terms of settlements, in your mind, in order to achieve a lasting peace?

SECRETARY POWELL: Our position has been that settlement activity must come to an end for us to find a solution to this problem. Once that activity comes to an end, as we proceed down the roadmap, then some very difficult discussions will have to take place between the two sides, and with the assistance of the United States and other interested parties, to determine what a Palestinian state will actually look like initially with provisional borders, and then final borders.

And as part of that process, agreements will have to be arrived at between the two sides as to settlements that are currently in existence -- which go away, which stay, how do you deal with those that might have to remain in place. There are some who will want to see all settlements go, all Israelis to be outside of the new Palestinian state. But this will be a subject of the most intense negotiations as we go forward, and we understand that it will be one of the most difficult issues to resolve, along with final status of the city of Jerusalem and the right of return.

MR. RUSSERT: What will the Palestinians have to do?

SECRETARY POWELL: Right now, the most important thing for the Palestinians do is what Prime Minister Abu Mazen said at the time of his inauguration. They have to get the violence under control. We can't move forward with the roadmap, just as we haven't been able to move forward with other plans and ideas, in the presence of continuing violence and terrorism.

What he has to do is keep speaking out against it, not just to the international community and international audiences, but to his own people, to say to them this must end, we are not getting close to our dream of our own state in the presence of this kind of terrorist activity and violence. And then he, working with his minister for security matters, Mr. Dahlan, and others in the new Palestinian leadership, the transformed leadership, have to bring these elements under control who are still committed to terrorism.

And they have to work closely with Israel in a cooperative way to bring security and stability to the area so that both sides together, in confidence and with renewed trust, can move forward. And the United States stands ready with our Quartet partners and other members of the international community to help them in every way that we can.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Secretary, we thank you for your views.


Released on May 4, 2003

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