NEAL CONAN, host:
In Pakistan yesterday, thousands of people took to the streets to protest an American air strike that killed at least 17 civilians in a remote Pakistani town near the border with Afghanistan. The attack was launched on Friday in an apparent attempt to kill al-Qaeda's number-two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. American officials have not confirmed or denied that al-Zawahiri was the target, indeed that the United States did it or whether or not he may have been killed. The air strikes was said to be backed by strong intelligence, but even the best intel can be wrong. And that begs the question: When should the government act on intelligence, and how do senior officials calculate the risk to human life and the political fallout if things go wrong?
To give us a better sense of how these decisions are made, we turn to Nancy Soderberg, who was a member of the National Security Council under President Clinton. She joins us now by phone from her home in Jacksonville, Florida.
Nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION. Appreciate your time.
Ms. NANCY SODERBERG (Former Member, National Security Council): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: When presumably the intelligence comes in and a target presents itself, what process does an administration go through? I'm just talking hypothetically now. What kinds of questions do senior officials pose to themselves before they decide whether or not to go ahead?
Ms. SODERBERG: Well, there's no doubt it's the most difficult decision the president and his top advisers makes. And the process is a rigorous one. First of all, you know, how good is the intelligence. Do we really know that this person is there? How many civilian casualties are likely to occur?--which is a very difficult issue.
I remember when President Clinton was bombing Iraq. You know, he chose to do it at night, which would mean you'd kill fewer people, but you'd get the cleaning ladies, and that makes a, you know, very difficult decision all through these processes.
CONAN: That was a cruise missile attack, I think, on Iraq's intelligence headquarters...
Ms. SODERBERG: Exactly.
CONAN: ...after uncovering the plot to assassinate former President Bush.
Ms. SODERBERG: Exactly. And there was several that--you know, President Clinton undertook similar to the one that President Bush did trying to catch top al-Qaeda operatives. We do not know whether this recent strike in Pakistan got al-Zawahiri, but I suspect that had we gotten him, that would be very public knowledge and they would make a big deal of it. And in this process, one can only assume that the intelligence must have been very good. But as President Clinton has himself recalled in his memoirs--and in another sense spoken of it, as well--it's very hard to use real-time intelligence when you're firing cruise missiles. You have great intelligence; three hours later they've moved, and there's nothing you can do about it. In this case, you know, as many as 17 innocents had been trapped in this, and I'm sure that that weighs heavily on those who made the decision. But in this war on terrorism, there's no president that's not going to take that chance if the intelligence is good enough.
CONAN: And, of course, I'm sure you're aware of reports that as many as 18 al-Qaeda members may have--their bodies may have been whisked away by their allies, so--but apparently not the target, number-two Ayman al-Zawahiri.
We're talking about last--this weekend's air strike in Pakistan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
How much thought goes into the idea that this is--you're hitting somebody else's territory? There's no declaration of war, you're not telling them anything; you're just dropping a bomb on another country.
Ms. SODERBERG: Well, it's a very difficult balance, particularly with Pakistan, which one could argue is the most difficult nation on Earth right now. It's got a very unstable government that's becoming less democratic, triggering a rise of militant Islamism in the country itself. It's got nuclear weapons, and it's on the border with a very unstable Afghanistan and almost went to war with India in 1999. So this is not a decision that President Bush and his advisers would have taken lightly.
That said, we are under attack by al-Qaeda. They are using those territories on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to target Americans, and so we have a responsibility to act. Whether or not that's going to destabilize the government of Pakistan is something that one has to consider. There's no doubt it puts Musharraf in a more difficult position. Whether he was told ahead of this or not I do not know. Normally, they are told as it's happening to know that there's, you know, no strike on their territory but too late for them to actually react. I suspect that's what happened in this case.
CONAN: Is there--is part of the calculation--and I hate to put this so boldly--`Well, it's just Pakistan. If this were Switzerland or Germany or France or Italy, we'd have to think again'?
Ms. SODERBERG: No, I think that Switzerland and Pakistan are two varied countries--very different countries. If you had operative operating outside of Switzerland, you'd have the Swiss army that could address them. In cases where the local government is unable or unwilling to take these actions, the United States has no choice but to do so. In Western Europe, they're capable of doing it on their own; in this part of the world, they're not.
CONAN: And do legal considerations take part in this? Does somebody call up and say, `Is this consistent with international law?' or does everybody say this is not? I mean, it's a...
Ms. SODERBERG: No, there's a very rigorous process to making sure that it's legal, and I'm sure the leadership of Congress is informed--and usually in real time--about these types of decisions. But when you're in a situation where in a world of terrorism, the United States courts are always going to back up a decision like that. The local governments may try and cause some trouble on that front, but from an American standpoint--and ultimately in a situation like this with a terrorist group actively targeting the United States, I suspect it would hold up in a court of law. But those boxes are absolutely checked before those missiles fly.
CONAN: And that one other point you raised about President Clinton's point, as well, this is intel that is, at best, three hours old before the cruise missile gets there--in this case, you've obviously got a new situation with drones that may or may not have real-time information. Does that change the calculation?
Ms. SODERBERG: It does. I mean, the faster you can react to intelligence, the more accurate your hope is of actually being able to hit a target that you believe is there. So the faster you can react, it makes the chances of actually succeeding much, much higher, no doubt about that. But it's still very, very difficult to find one more or two men in a haystack. I mean, we've--bin Laden is still out; don't forget that. And we've been at war with him for four years.
CONAN: And very quickly--we just have a few seconds left--do failures make you shier about trying it the next time?
Ms. SODERBERG: Yes, particularly when there's civilian casualties involved. And it makes you second-guess the intelligence that much harder the next time around, no doubt about it. But I think with the stakes as they are in the war on terrorism, there will certainly be a next time in this type of instance.
CONAN: Nancy Soderberg, thank you so much.
Ms. SODERBERG: My pleasure.
CONAN: Nancy Soderberg was a national security adviser under President Clinton. She joined us by phone from her home in Jacksonville, Florida.
More on this story later today on NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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