Secretary of State Colin Powell
Interview on NBC's Today Show
Washington, D.C.
September 12, 2001

MS. COURIC: The President is expected to meet with his national security staff this morning. Secretary of State Colin Powell is just across the Potomac River at the State Department this morning.

Secretary Powell, good morning to you, sir.

SECRETARY POWELL: Good morning, Katie.

MS. COURIC: On a human level, I just want to get your reaction to the events of yesterday.

SECRETARY POWELL: Total shock. I was in a meeting in Lima, Peru with President Toledo and his associates when a note was handed to me, and I just shouted out across the breakfast table, "Oh my God." And then the situation got worse over the next 20 minutes as more reports came in, and I immediately made plans to return to Washington.

Before returning, though, I did attend briefly a meeting of the Organization of American States, where 34 other total states -- the United States was 33 -- were assembled to bring into effect a new charter on democracy, and we did that by just a simple vote of acclamation. And then all of the delegates stood and applauded this statement in support of democracy, and to show solidarity with the American people in this time of crisis.

Since my return, I've been in touch with leaders around the world, with Lord Robertson and NATO, with Javier Solana and the European Union and Kofi Annan, to make sure everybody understands that we need a worldwide response to this assault on America, because it's an assault on civilization, it's an assault on democracy, it's an assault on the world and the world must respond as the United States plans to respond.

MS. COURIC: Secretary Powell, last night the President said, "Those who harbor these criminals will be held responsible." If we believe the man behind this is in fact Usama bin Laden and that the Taliban, the ruling government in Afghanistan, is harboring him, what can the United States do to actually back up the President's words?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, there are many options available to us: military options, diplomatic options, further isolation of any country that might be harboring who is responsible. We are not yet prepared to state this morning who is responsible, but the evidence is mounting, and I think it will point us in the right direction in the not-too-distant future, and then we will have to not only take action on our own part, but also mobilize the world against whatever regimes may be supporting the terrorists who conducted this act.

MS. COURIC: So you're saying, General Powell, that as of this morning, you cannot say that US officials believe Usama bin Laden was responsible for this?

SECRETARY POWELL: Let me just say that there is evidence being developed now, and good evidence. We will be able to make a definitive statement in due course. But I think it is best not to speculate until we do have the evidence all assembled, and we make an informed judgment and announcement at that time.

MS. COURIC: Secretary Powell, a diplomatic response may seem meager to many Americans, who in a poll this morning said 94 percent say they would support military action in retaliation if the US can identify the groups or nation responsible; 92 percent said they would support it even if it meant entering a war.

What is your response to that?

SECRETARY POWELL: I fully understand the views of the American people this morning. We're mad. We were assaulted. But our spirit wasn't assaulted, and our fighting spirit was not assaulted. So we want to respond. You don't attack America like this and get away with it.

And so I can assure the American people that the President, if he is able to get the information pinpointing who it is and where they are and get targetable information, I am quite confident that he will look at every option he has available to him to respond militarily.

MS. COURIC: Along those lines, is the US Government prepared to enter a war against these terrorists, and wouldn't that entail committing ground troops to find them, weed them out? After all, the US has launched air strikes against terrorist targets in the past, and the terrorists continue to survive, even flourish.

SECRETARY POWELL: Let's not think that one single counter-attack will rid the world of terrorism of the kind we saw yesterday. This is going to take a multi-faceted attack along many dimensions: diplomatic, military, intelligence, law enforcement. All sorts of things will have to be done to bring this scourge under control. And it is not just one organization; it's a network of organizations. We have to make the whole world understand that this is something we all have to be involved in, and not just see it as a discreet response to a single incident. We'll do that, but we have to realize that terrorism has been around for a very long time, and it's going to take a very long time to root it out.

But what the President specifically was focusing on last night is that there are nations, there are states, there are organizations who provide havens, and these states and organizations cannot be given a free ride any longer. And a major part of our diplomatic effort will be to mobilize the international community against the actions of such states and organizations once we have a clear understanding of who is responsible for this and who might have been giving them haven.

MS. COURIC: Do you think this was an individual cell of terrorists, or do you believe this could be state-sponsored? In other words, could Iraq or a country like that have been involved in this?

SECRETARY POWELL: I just don't know at this point, and I'd rather not speculate. I'm sure as the evidence mounts, we will have a better idea of, one, who is directly responsible, and two, what kind of support they may have been receiving from outside that cell, outside that network, from either state organizations or other types of terrorist organizations.

But I'd think it best we not speculate too wildly at this point.

MS. COURIC: The US spends billions of dollars on intelligence. Was this, in your view, a massive intelligence failure, as it has been called?

SECRETARY POWELL: I wouldn't characterize it that way. We spend many, many billions of dollars on intelligence, and then intelligence allows us to thwart many attacks. There are many terrorist attacks that never took place because of the fine work of our intelligence and law enforcement experts. But in this case, we did not get the cuing we needed, we did not get the intelligence information needed to predict that this was about to happen or be aware of this kind of event coming our way.

So I think it's premature to call it an intelligence failure. Let's see what we might have picked up as we go back and do the postmortem on how this all came about.

MS. COURIC: Would you agree with your former colleague, General Schwartzkopf, that we need to emphasize human intelligence as much as technical intelligence, and we've got all the technological toys that can be used for those purposes, but what we need are real thinking, seeing people on the ground to infiltrate these groups?

SECRETARY POWELL: Absolutely, but it's easier said than done. And we do have to emphasize human intelligence, because you can defeat electronic intelligence just by not emitting. So human intelligence is very, very important, and I know that our intelligence community is very aware of that. But these are also difficult activities to penetrate, and to be able to stay within such a network for a long period of time.

But certainly this will be looked at as we review everything we're doing in the field of intelligence.

MS. COURIC: If we do engage in another country, or take military action, what are the ramifications? In other words, if an Islamic fundamentalist group was responsible, what kind of retaliation might we expect, and what kind of access do they have, these groups, to weapons of mass destruction?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, let me not speculate as to what we might do. I think a full range of options will be available, and I know that the Secretary of Defense and his colleagues are looking at that. It all depends on where we run this to ground, as to what counter-attack we might receive from those who are responsible.

But at this time it's premature to start speculating, or to identify them as Islamic fundamentalists. Let's just identify them as a terrorist group that can have no religious underpinning, no legitimate underpinning for this kind of action. This is murder, which is against the tenets of every religion, every responsible religion that is in the world, and it is receiving condemnation from around the world, from people of all faiths and religious backgrounds.

So let's just view them as what they are: terrorist organizations. And I cannot speculate whether they might have access to the kinds of weapons you discussed, because we don't know exactly who it is yet. But we will be on guard for that.

MS. COURIC: Secretary of State Colin Powell. Secretary Powell, I'm sorry to see you under such terrible circumstances, but we certainly appreciate your time this morning. Thank you so much.

SECRETARY POWELL: Thank you, Katie.