Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton
Interview on CNN's Larry King Live
October 1, 2001
9:00 P.M. EDT

KING: We begin with General Hugh Shelton, who just retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Does it feel funny to be out?

SHELTON: Well, thanks, Larry. It does feel different. But it's been a great, humbling -- and I've been very honored to have the opportunity to serve and to lead and to be the representative of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are in Washington. And it's been the greatest honor of my life.

KING: Is it a time when you say to yourself at all, "I wish I wasn't retiring," in view of the events?

SHELTON: Well, I use the analogy of a football player, a quarterback on a world-class team. He's in the first quarter. The team is trailing by six points. He knows he's got a great team. He knows he can win. But the coach sends a runner out and says, "Your eligibility has just expired."

But as I look over at the bench, I see a couple of great all-Americans over on the bench getting ready to come in. One is General Dick Myers, a great warrior, a visionary, a great leader. And so I feel very good. Dick will lead the team to victory. And he'll be backed up by that other great general, General Charlie Holland, who leads our Special Operations Command. So we've got a tremendous team.

KING: And how about the word today that President Bush will name retired Army General Wayne Downing to a post of deputy national security adviser?

SHELTON: Wayne Downing is also a great leader, has served our nation very well, and I think it's great that he's coming back to join a very capable administration already of dealing with this problem, and it will just strengthen that team.

KING: So you say you're leaving content that there's a good team behind you.

SHELTON: Very content that we've got -- there is a great team. President Bush, the national security team, is very, very strong, and they have all the tools we need to win in this war.

KING: You were in the air when this happened, right?

SHELTON: I was. I was en route to a NATO meeting over in Europe. We were about two hours out of Maryland, out of Washington, when it occurred. And it took us about another two hours to finally get the plane turned around and come back into the United States.

KING: What were you thinking up there?

SHELTON: Well, I was thinking, "This is a big one." It is changing the face of terrorism. It is basically bringing it to the United States, to our great citizens. We know the terrorists are barbaric and murderers that attack innocent civilians, as they did in this case.

KING: So you knew right away what was --

SHELTON: There was no doubt in my mind. When I heard the second plane had hit, I knew that wasn't an air traffic control problem or just a pilot problem.

KING: Where did -- did you fly over New York? Flying back, did you fly over New York?

SHELTON: We did. We came back right over the World Trade Center and could see, even from that altitude, the devastation, the smoke that was coming up. It was obvious it was going to be horrible.

KING: What's the military's role in the war on terrorism?

SHELTON: Well, you know, the United States has a lot of tools in its kit bag to deal with this -- diplomatic, economic, political. And, of course, the hammer in the kit bag is the military. And I think the great thing about the way that we're approaching this particular challenge is that we're using all the tools right now, all four of those that I mentioned. And that's what it's going to take, along with it being an international coalition that will pull together, because this is a very dispersed type of operation, the terrorists --

KING: It won't work without other people.

SHELTON: It will not work. It takes this international effort to really defeat terrorism. And I'm very glad to see that's developing, and developing rapidly.

KING: Did you not in September, right before this, make an appearance before Congress in which you talked about readiness and said we were a little short?

SHELTON: Well, I did. But I also said that our first to fight, our forward-deployed forces, are trained and ready to go. Our special operations troops in particular are trained to a very high state. Those are the forces that we would use initially in this particular campaign. But I also said we need additional funding for those second- and third-tier type of units, also for recapitalizing the force, for modernizing it, and to fix the infrastructure.

KING: Do you think we're going to increase our special operations units?

SHELTON: We have a great capability in our special operations right now. Whether or not you could actually increase the size of the force is something that will have to be determined. The standards to get in are very high. We don't want to lower those standards. The first truth for special operations is that quality is more important than quantity.

KING: Did you feel personal when it hit the Pentagon?

SHELTON: I, first of all, felt a great sense of loss, a sense of condolence for the friends that I had that were killed in that, for the loved ones.

KING: You lost people you know?

SHELTON: Very closely, including my next-door neighbor, Lieutenant General Tim Maude, and a lot of other great soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and civilians that were killed in that attack. So the first thing was a feeling of loss and a feeling of condolence for their loved ones. The second one was a resolve, a desire to take justice to the murderers that did this, to the people that were there.

KING: So there was anger.

SHELTON: There was anger. There still is. It always has been anger against terrorists, because they are barbaric --

KING: It's cowardly.

SHELTON: -- and they do carry out murderous acts against innocent civilians in many cases, as we saw in the World Trade Center.

KING: Could you order the shooting down of a commercial aircraft?


KING: It would be you doing it; I mean, the former you.

SHELTON: (Laughs) Larry, we -- that is a very serious issue. The rules of engagement, which is what we call the rules that our pilots go by, and the chain of command, which goes from the individual pilots all the way to our commander-in-chief, President Bush, are very carefully thought through and laid out. And we are satisfied that we have the decision at the appropriate level to take the action that would be necessary to preserve the preponderance of life.

KING: But it would be hard, wouldn't it?

SHELTON: Oh, it would be very hard. But the other thing is that I feel very confident in the individual pilots. They are tremendous individuals. They are individuals that have sworn to protect and defend our very citizens. That's why we serve. And so I feel that we've got the right controls in place. I feel very confident that Americans flying in the air are safe and that only under the most dire of circumstances would our pilots ever even request permission to do that.

KING: You could walk from the Pentagon to Reagan National. An announcement is going to be made tomorrow, we hear, that they're going to reopen it. Good idea?

SHELTON: There are a lot of things that have to be considered in National. The military aspect of it is only one of them. I'm confident that President Bush will have all of those things laid out for him before he makes the decision.

KING: We'll be right back with more of General Hugh Shelton.


KING: There is, General Shelton, a lot of fear going on in America; people buying gas masks, people buying antibiotics in droves. There's one, Cipro, that -- I talked to two druggists today; they can't hold them -- for anthrax. What do you make of this? Is it smart to do this? Are we overreacting?

SHELTON: I think that the American people should rest assured and be assured that every federal agency that has a role to play in this terrorism is working overtime now, taking every necessary action to protect our great citizens. The military certainly falls into that category.

KING: But should we protect ourselves as well?

SHELTON: Well, I don't think there's anything at all wrong with taking preventive measures. However, I do believe that the forces that are in play right now make the likelihood of some type of an attack of that nature less likely than it would be --

KING: Really?

SHELTON: -- under other circumstances.

KING: Because it's the front cover of both national magazines this week, terror from biotic and chemical weapons. And you're saying that we can be pretty well assured that we have a set-up to prevent that?

SHELTON: No, I didn't say we could be assured, Larry. What I meant there is that we have -- the best defense against this is a good offense. We have a good offense going right now in that the antennas are up. Our people are working overtime -- I say our people; our federal agencies in this regard -- and that I'm confident that the way that you can stop this and make Americans the most protected for this is to take it to the terrorist groups.

KING: Do we have to at times, General, play ball with the bad guys? We have that Leahy amendment which -- I think it doesn't allow U.S. military assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights. Do we have to bend that?

SHELTON: I believe that this is a different war than America has ever fought in the past. It is a non-conventional war. It means that you've got to use every tool you've got available to you. And occasionally some of the nations that will be partners in this would probably not be, in terms of passing a pure human rights check, have everything going for them that you would like to have.

But again, we, I think, over the years have set the example for a lot of nations that may not have had the same values, the same type of coming out of the same culture that we as Americans have and enjoy. But we can be an example, a role model for them. And perhaps that's the approach we should be taking, and also take the assistance that they will provide in what is a very complicated and must be a sustained campaign against these terrorists.

KING: September 11th, we were shocked and they surprised us. So what worries you now? You can't be 100 percent confident of everything. That would be Pollyannish in this world. What worries you?

SHELTON: Well, I think that one of the things that we have been concerned about for quite some time, and it's why we have devoted a lot of attention to it for the last couple of years, is, in fact, as we talked about earlier, weapons of mass destruction -- biological, chemical, or even potentially a small-scale nuclear device.

Those are the things that, in the wrong hands -- and certainly in our war on terrorism we also must attack proliferation and those nations that proliferate with chemical, biological and nuclear type devices, because that can cause the most catastrophic results. And that is what I know that our attention is on right now to a very high degree, to try to make sure that we can, in fact, wherever possible, preempt any movement in that direction.

KING: Do you have any worry about Americans flying commercially?

SHELTON: I do not. I have no concern right now. Of course, you always have to be concerned about hijacking. But with the measures that are in place right now, I'd say that probably the airways are as safe as they've been in a good number of years.

KING: They gave an unusual button out at the general's retirement. Let me show it to you. It says, "Free Falling All the Way to the Top: General Hugh Shelton, 38 Years of Service, 1963 through October 1, 2001." You first saw military action in Vietnam. You jump out of airplanes?

SHELTON: I jump out of perfectly good airplanes, and it's a great thrill and it allows me to share in the dangers that our great men and women in uniform share in on a regular basis.

KING: When did you last jump?

SHELTON: It was about two weeks ago, I believe; two or three weeks ago.

KING: Are you okay, General?

SHELTON: I'm great. It was a wonderful experience.

KING: Why do you jump out of airplanes, General?

SHELTON: Well, I enjoy sharing in the dangers that we ask our men and women in uniform to share in almost every day.

KING: Were you a paratrooper?

SHELTON: I was, somewhere in the neighborhood of about 300 jumps.

KING: Wow. So were you always convinced it was going to open?

SHELTON: I was always convinced. I had great faith --

KING: And obviously it always did.

SHELTON: And it always did.

KING: Or we would not be doing this show tonight.

SHELTON: Exactly.

KING: What are you going to do now?

SHELTON: Well, it has been rather hectic since the 11th of September. And even before then it was quite busy. And so I'm still giving some thought -- I will transition hopefully into the corporate world. And I look forward to getting involved in several other areas that I have a great interest in.

KING: You're in the military all your life.

SHELTON: I have been for most of my adult life.

KING: Was your goal early on to be a four-star general?

SHELTON: My goal early on was to make first lieutenant, and --

KING: That was your goal.

SHELTON: My goal was to make first lieutenant. I never spent a lot of time worrying about what came after that. I always concentrated on doing the very best that I could in the job and the duties that I was assigned.

KING: Do you remember why you wanted to be a paratrooper?

SHELTON: I do. I had seen the films out of World War II, the great 82nd Airborne, the 101st, and all of those of you in the greatest generation and the service that you had provided. I said, "That looks like something I'd like to do." It was a goal I established and accomplished early on and loved it.

KING: It's an honor having you with us; look forward to many visits.

SHELTON: Thanks very much, Larry. Thank you.

KING: General Hugh Shelton. You deserve a grand retirement.

SHELTON: Thanks, Larry.

KING: Your nation, I'm positive, will call on you.

SHELTON: Thank you very much.

KING: So will we.

SHELTON: Thank you.

KING: General Hugh Shelton.