- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

The al Qaeda terrorists taken prisoner by U.S. forces in Afghanistan could be the first to be tried by military tribunals as established by President Bush, Vice President Richard B. Cheney said yesterday.
The president will make the final decision, Mr. Cheney said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location outside Washington, but "clearly there are some prospective candidates there."
In a wide-ranging interview touching on the fighting in Afghanistan, military justice and the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Mr. Cheney, a former defense secretary, also declared that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan had broken the back of the al Qaeda terrorist group there.
"I think we've had a devastating impact on al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but there's still a lot out there to do. Obviously, we'd love to get our hands on bin Laden, and we will sooner or later."
Mr. Cheney said bin Laden, the mastermind behind the September 11 terrorist attacks, is either in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
"Clearly, we've taken away from them the base, their training facilities, sort of the sanctuary they enjoyed in Afghanistan from which they've operated for the last several years, and killed some of the leadership and driven a lot of them into flight or into hiding," Mr. Cheney said. "We've had a significant impact. I would guess that they probably don't have a lot of new recruits for al Qaeda."
Three "middle-echelon" al Qaeda leaders have been turned over to U.S. Special Forces troops near Tora Bora by eastern alliance fighters over the past several days, and these may be among the candidates for the tribunals.
One was identified as Abdul Aziz, a Saudi citizen who was an official with the Wafa Humanitarian Organization. He was the highest-ranking al Qaeda member taken into custody since the military campaign in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7.
The Wafa organization, a Saudi-based charitable group, has been identified by U.S. intelligence officials as a conduit for funds to al Qaeda. The Treasury Department ordered the group's assets in the United States frozen.
At least two other al Qaeda prisoners could face the harsh justice of the military tribunals, which were last used in World War II, when eight German saboteurs were caught after one of them surrendered, but only with difficulty, to disbelieving FBI agents. They were tried in a makeshift courtroom at FBI headquarters and six were promptly executed.
Mr. Cheney said Mr. Bush decided to prosecute al Qaeda suspect Zacarias Moussaoui in a U.S. District Court because the criminal case against him was strong and public disclosure of the evidence was not thought likely to compromise U.S. intelligence sources.
Asked about a report, first published in The Washington Times, that John Walker, an American citizen who fought with the Taliban, had told U.S. intelligence officials that a new round of al Qaeda attacks would employ biological weapons, Mr. Cheney said: "We clearly are getting some information from these folks, but the question of how good it is, and whether or not it's anything other than sort of campfire gossip from low-level al Qaeda members, is hard to say at this point.
"I think you have to ask the question: 'Why would Walker and someone in his position have in-depth information about the plans of Osama bin Laden, if in fact their operations are as tightly held as 9-11 was?' I would not ordinarily expect somebody in Walker's position to have advance knowledge of what was going on there, so you got to look at it and take it with a grain of salt."
Mr. Cheney said he had not been told in detail of the information provided by the most recent al Qaeda prisoners. FBI agents are in the region to question Walker and other al Qaeda prisoners.
Twenty al Qaeda members have been taken prisoner so far. Fifteen were sent yesterday from northeastern Afghanistan to a U.S. Marine base near Kandahar. The other five, including Walker, are held aboard the USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told reporters at the Pentagon that interrogators of the prisoners would seek information "first and foremost, information that can lead us to the capture of other terrorists" in the United States and abroad.
"But at some point, any number of them are going to have issues of judicial punishment to be considered, and at some point, we'll have to consider under what jurisdiction that applies," Mr. Wolfowitz said. The interrogation is complicated, he said, and experience had shown Islamic terrorists to be "skilled liars."
Mr. Cheney declined to say whether the war on terrorism would move next to Iraq, citing a policy of not "speculating" about future operations. "Those decisions, when they're made, are very important," Mr. Cheney said. "But it's also important that those of us involved in the process not speculate.
"Our concern about Iraq is based on the fact that they have provided sanctuary to terrorists in the past, Abu Nidal, for example, worked out of Baghdad."
Iraq has stocks of biological weapons and chemical agents and has used them in the past against Iranians and Kurdish separatists, he said, and Iraq is working on more weapons of mass destruction.
"They've clearly continued to make major efforts to acquire new weapons of mass destruction, including possibly nuclear weapons. Given all that, and given Saddam Hussein's track record in the world, obviously, we want to keep in mind the threat that he may represent to the United States and to our friends in the region."
Mr. Cheney declined to say whether U.S. military operations against terrorism would be expanded to other nations. "We're seeing a lot of governments out there who clearly have begun or picked up the pace with respect to operations against the al Qaeda terrorist network," he said in response to reports that Yemen had cracked down on al Qaeda training camps.
Conditions in Somalia are similar to those in Afghanistan before the ouster of the Taliban and could provide sanctuary to terrorists. "Clearly, that's one we'll look at," Mr. Cheney said.
Even as the vice president spoke, the U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan subsided and Afghan ground forces, backed by U.S. troops, began the grim work of clearing out caves and pockets of armed resistance. Military operations in Afghanistan had "shifted a little bit" in the past few days. "For a long time, the air campaign was a significant factor, but now the alliance folks have pretty well occupied the Tora Bora region and it's under our direct control now," Mr. Cheney said. "We've got U.S. forces in there working that as well, too."
The U.S. government is watching closely to see what al Qaeda will do next, now that its main base in Afghanistan has been cut off. "We don't know how al Qaeda is functioning and how it will work once you sort of chop off the head," he said. "How will those cells around the world function and will they be able to function? My guess is they probably will, so we've got to go wrap them up, too."
He strongly supports Mr. Bush's decision to pull out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. "It was exactly the right step to take," the vice president said.
The fact that there has been only a mild international reaction to the treaty withdrawal is a sign Mr. Bush "did a masterful job" in dealing with a sensitive arms-control issue. "I think it's a major achievement for his administration and the fact that there has not been a loud reaction to it demonstrates the skill with which the whole enterprise was undertaken.
"You know, nine or 10 months ago the cry was 'unilaterialism,' that somehow we were moving here in a way that went against the grain, or was going to be opposed by the civilized world. And of course what we've seen is that it was really all about leadership and the president stepped out, he had a good solid strategy. He's executed [that strategy] I think very well."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide