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A Timely Conversation with Donald Rumsfeld

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I was provided with the opportunity interview Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld today, for my Philadelphia based radio program. The interview will run tomorrow, June 22nd. I was anxious to ask him about last week’s Time Magazine “exclusive” titled “Detainee 063, Inside the Wire at Gitmo”. It is a subject that interests me greatly, because I wrote about Detainee 063 in my book, Flying Blind, How Political Correctness Continues to Compromise Airline Safety. Detainee 063 is Mohammed al-Qahtani. Let me give you a little background on him before I tell you what the Defense Secretary had to say, today.

First, in Flying Blind, I tell what I call the real story of United Airlines Flight 93. Remember, there were two things that distinguished Flight 93 from the other three flights on 9/11: First, due to a passenger revolt, it did not complete its mission, crashing instead into a field in Western Pennsylvania; and second, from a terrorist standpoint, Flight 93 was shorthanded. Recall that Flight 93 had four terrorists on board, while the other airplanes each had five. There has been a lot of conjecture over time as to whether there was to have been a 20th hijacker, meaning a fifth person on Flight 93. Well, the 9/11 Commission believed the answer was “yes”, and that the person who was to have been on Flight 93 is al-Qahtani. Why didn’t he make it? Al-Qahtani was stopped when he sought entrance to the United States on August 4 of 2001 at the Orlando International Airport. Then, al-Qahtani was a Saudi national who came before a very alert secondary inspections officer named Jose Melendez-Perez. What caused Melendez-Perez to slow him down? As he told the 9/11 Commission about al-Qahtani, "he just gave me the creeps".

I was never able to interview Melendez-Perez before going to press with Flying Blind. But I did speak to him after the book came out, and he confirmed all of my suspicions about the need to allow street smarts to play a role in securing our airports and our borders. With regard to al-Qahtani, he told me “….the reason that he got into screening was that when I went to the secondary waiting room to pick him up to take him to the secondary interview office, he just gave me this scary look. He was staring in my eyes in a very scary way, and when he looked at me that way, I decided to look into more details on the documents he presented. At the same time I notice that he didn’t have a return ticket or an airline reservation, and it came to mind that the guy didn’t speak English. I wondered, ‘how he is he gonna get around to take care of his business’? I was trying to put in place my training in military and interview techniques….what I thought was that he was a hitman.”

In other words, what some would flag as profiling was arguably the reason that the 20th hijacker never made it into this country.

Now here is the kicker. What we now know is that at precisely the moment that al-Qahtani was being given his walking papers by Jose Melendez-Perez at the Orlando Airport on August 4, 2001, there to pick up the new arrival was 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta. That was one of the more interesting details to emerge from the work of the 9/11 Commission. And that is why Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, when Melendez-Perez testified in front of the 9/11 Commission, told him that his conduct had arguably spared the Capitol or White House an attack. In other words, Ben Veniste reasoned, with the added muscle of al-Qahtani onboard Flight 93, the terrorists could have fended off the passenger revolt and continued toward Washington.

So what is the lesson from the good work of Melendez-Perez? He said it best: “I think that sometimes we just want to be politically correct and not harm anybody’s feelings.”

Now comes Time Magazine, anxious to evoke sympathy for a man they call Detainee 063 – that same individual who would have been cutting somebody’s throat with a box cutter on board Flight 93 had Jose Melendez-Perez not sent him packing for Saudi Arabia. The same man, who, after being rejected for admission to the United States one month before 9/11, was captured on a battlefield fighting our soldiers in the battle at Tora Bora, in December of 2001. In other words, after failing to become the 20th hijacker, he went right back to being a soldier in a terrorist war against the United States.

Only in that context can anyone evaluate the treatment he has received while incarcerated.

What, exactly, has our treatment, or as some are describing, our “torture” included? How about the atrocity of making him stand. And shaving his beard. Hanging pictures of scantily clad women around his neck. Pinning a photo of a 9/11 victim to his trousers. Interrogating him in a room filled with 9/11 victim photos. Dripping water on his head. And playing Christina Aguilera music.

After the Time publication, I wanted to hear from the one man who could share a unique perspective on Detainee 063, someone Time Magazine did not seek to interview. I was anxious to go back to Melendez Perez and ask him for his perspective, which has been missing from the media accounts about alleged abuse at Gitmo. He told me he had not read the Time splash, but was puzzled by the controversy surrounding the interrogation of the man he kept out of our country. While I find that others may have forgotten the horror of what happened on 9/11, even before its 4th year anniversary, Melendez-Perez is not one of them.

“This guy was a person coming in to the United States do some harm, and we need some information to see what was going on - did they have future plans to come back to the United States I think we cant just treat him with soft gloves,” said the man who kept al-Qahtani out of the United States.

“A lot of people are forgetting what happened on 9/11, they want these people to treat these people with so much respect, and that is the way we went previously with those people with Saudi Arabia and other countries and look what happened, we could have treated these people a little different and held them accountable for their actions and maybe we could have precluded 911 from happening. And here, we go back and try to say he has rights, in my opinion, I don’t think so, I think we should have done something a long time ago to get him to confess, I understand he has provided valuable information, and we have been waiting for that information for three or four years.”

Finally came the opportunity to ask Secretary Rumsfeld about the same situation. Needless to say, he shares the perspective of Melendez-Perez. And yours truly.

I told the Secretary that in my opinion, people have forgotten that all of this recent kvetching is over a guy who would arguably have been on Flight 93 cutting somebody’s throat with a box cutter, and wasn’t it frustrating to him to see the coverage and reaction his interrogation is receiving?

He responded by saying he recently took comfort in reading where David McCullough had pointed out, that “If the Revolutionary War had been covered the way this war is being covered, and if people had seen how difficult the conditions are, and how badly things were run, and the difficulty of the task, people would have tossed it in.”

“You’re right”, he continued. “The people down there at Guantanomo Bay, under the President’s orders, have been treated humanely, and they should be treated humanely. But these are terrorist, trainers, bomb makers, suicide bombers, UBL’s bodyguards, the 20th hijacker (as you point out), recruiters and facilitators. These are bad people. These are people who want to go out and kill innocent men, women, and children. We have been letting a number of them go back to their home countries, in the custody of their countries, and already we have found 12, back on the battlefield, trying to kill our people, who were let go were let by mistake, probably because they were using an alias and we weren’t able to sort it out. So this is a tough business, it is a difficult world, the struggle against extremists is not an easy thing. And those who are suggesting that the management, or handling by our military of what’s going on in Guatanomo Bay is not the way it should be are flat wrong.

He got a laugh out of my telling him that after hearing Amnesty International’s complaints, I then read the Time Magazine piece – thinking I had missed something - and was reminded of the old Peggy Lee song, “Is that all there is?”.

“There’s no torture going on down there and there hasn’t been,” said the Secretary of Defense to me today.

I told him I had defended the practices at Guatanamo Bay last week on Hardball with Chris Matthews, and was confronted with the usual rebuttal, that our interrogation techniques don’t generate results. He said the interrogation methods are indeed successful.

“There is no question but that the United States is learning a great deal. We’ve learned the organization structure of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, we’ve learned the extent of terrorist presence in Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East. We have information on al Qaeda’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, information on recruiting and recruitment centers, on terrorist skill sets, financing. This information has saved American lives, the information that has been gained down there.”

“No one wants to hold these people, no one wants to spend time interrogating these people, but we simply have to do it. We are in a long struggle against violent extremists who are anxious and financed to kill innocent men women and children in our country and other western countries across the globe.”

Finally, what does he say to those who wish to close Gitmo Bay? The Secretary answered with a question of his own: “Then the question is, what is the alternative. He who would tear down what is has the responsibility of recommending something better. And I haven’t heard anybody who said anything like that who has any idea at all, unless you want to let all these people go and let them kill another 3,000 or 10,000 Americans.”

“This facility is needed. It is housing people who have done great damage to our country, who are determined to go out and kill additional people if they have the chance: bomb-makers and terrorist financers, and suicide bombers. And they need to be kept off the street, and they are being kept off the street in Guantanamo at a facility being operated by young men and women from our armed services who are doing a fine job. They are treating them in a humane way, but they are keeping them off the street, and they are interrogating them to find out additional information so we can prevent future terrorist acts.”

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