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General Tommy Franks

Marvin R. Shanken conducts an exclusive interview with America's top general in the war on terrorism.

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I told you I'm a corny guy. I'm a traditionalist. And I believe in that. Does that mean that it pleases me when someone says, "Well, General, your campaign in Afghanistan was too much this, or not enough that. The same thing in Iraq." Of course not. But that's a personal issue with me and we take these things personally. But the process, the environment that exists in this country, makes it possible for people to say what they want.
But I'd say one other thing. The issue that I take with all of it is the issue of accountability. Look at this: while the president of the United States sits in service of this nation as the commander in chief, he is accountable for his actions. He recognizes that. And I'm very proud of that. While I served in the uniform of this country, I was not only responsible for certain activities, I was accountable for my performance in the conduct of operations related to those activities. The issue for me is accountability. It's accountability. The era of the sound bite with a great many facts left lying on the cutting-room floor, is problematic. It's problematic for all of us. It can get the hackles up on the back of one's neck. But at the end of the day, we're all blessed to be in a country where Cigar Aficionado can come and say, "What do you think? Here's what I think." And where a private citizen like Tommy Franks can say, "Well, here's what I think." Ain't this a great country?
CA: I'm curious about something. Who created the deck of cards for Iraq's most wanted individuals, and why was it created?
Gen. Franks: Some wonderful staff officers, on my staff and Secretary Rumsfeld's staff and Chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Dick Meyers' staff, said this would be a good way to remember what these personalities look like. The way the process worked was, [when we went through] the identification of personalities that the intelligence community thought were terribly important to the regime in Iraq and, when they were tallied, it just turned out that the number happened to be about the same as a deck of cards. And so somebody said, "Aha, this'll be the ace of spades."
CA: Do you have a deck of those cards?
Gen. Franks: I'm sure I do. My wife bought a bunch of those cards and, as a matter of fact, we used to give them away. What's the tally today, by the way? Where are we? About 42 or 44. My gracious. Forty to 42? We're six months after this event. We have the regime in Iraq. We continue to be troubled by the fact that our youngsters are losing their lives over there, our kids in uniform. That's a sad thing. It's a thing where I think everyone in this country waves a flag and says, "We recognize America is at war." But, pardon the expression—it's a country expression from Texas—but gracious, gracious. Look at the product of the labors of the last six months, by our country, by those who have joined us in the international community.
Look, let me tell you this: right out here at MacDill Air Base today, there are more than 60 nations represented. We continue to talk about, "Well, America goes it alone." There are more than 60 nations represented out here with full-time, senior representatives, military representatives, who form the largest military coalition in the history of the world and have supported the proposition of the global war on terrorism since 9/11. My, my, my.
CA: That brings up a good topic. In your opinion, if British Prime Minister Tony Blair in England had not shown such great support for the United States, could we have attacked Iraq? In other words, how critical was England's role, whether it be politically or militarily?
Gen. Franks: The U.K. played a critical role. Let me just say from the outset of the answer that I count Prime Minister Blair as a friend. I know him and I have spoken to him and visited him at 10 Downing Street on more than one occasion. And I believe that his fortitude in the face of questions, his leadership, was enormously valuable and continues to this day to be enormously valuable.
CA: Would you say that it was more politically important or militarily important?
Gen. Franks: Both. One should never minimize the military contribution of the United Kingdom, as they placed their commandos, as they placed their air assault formations in the very earliest moments of the war into southern Iraq and took responsibility for the sector around Basra, the second largest city in that country. The Brits bring tremendous expertise in terms of military operations in urban terrain. They are very well-trained soldiers. One should never minimize the contribution of the Brits militarily. At the same time, one should not ever underestimate the value of the political will exhibited by the U.K. in the face of some questioning. They were with this from beginning to end.
CA: We have England stepping up and understanding the grand scheme of our mission and the issue of survival, and then we have countries led by France who, while apparently talking with us and debating at the United Nations, were cooperating with the Iraqis behind our backs. How do you feel about France and their role in Iraq?
Gen. Franks: Let me give you an answer that will not be especially satisfying. It will be kind of like a light beer. I mean, it will not be especially satisfying. I am not a negativist. While I acknowledge your question and I acknowledge the way you ask the question as being the view of many, many people, I don't share it. I mean, I actually don't share it.
We pride ourselves in this country on our ability to exercise our national will. While another country may not act in a way that pleases us as Americans or pleases us as individuals, shouldn't we respect the ability of each of these sovereign states to actually implement the first rule of democracy throughout the history of the world? That is, at the end of the day, every state will act in a way which it perceives to be in its own best interest. That is the case with the European countries. Convenient for us and better for us had they participated willingly, militarily, to be sure, to be sure.
But I'd stop before I say, "I harbor all resentment against these nations." They have proven over the course of the years to be allies. Nine-eleven, the war on terror, is a major event for us in this country. But I will tell you that there are 60 nations—more than 60 nations—here who are associated with the global war on terrorism. The French, the Germans, most all, if not all, of the European nations are there at CentCom today supporting the global war on terrorism with military representation. And they have been there since before the Iraq operation started. They were there during the Iraq operation and they're still there.
I'm just not a nation basher. And I'm OK with it.
CA: The United Nations debated for months about this war. Furthermore, the U.N. spent years there in the '90s under very difficult conditions and they did find evidence of weapons of mass destruction and had them destroyed. If there were no WMDs in Iraq when you invaded, and all Hussein had to do was let the inspectors back in to look for them, why didn't he just relent, instead of triggering the U.S. invasion?
Gen. Franks: I, for one, begin with intent. I think about intent before I think about the fact. There is no question that Saddam Hussein had the intent to do harm to the western alliance and to the United States of America. That intent is confirmed in a great many of his speeches, his commentary, the words that have come out of the Iraqi regime over the last dozen or so years. So, we have intent.
If we know for sure, Marvin, that a regime has the intent to do harm to this country, and if we have something beyond a reasonable doubt that this particular regime may have the wherewithal with which to execute the intent, what are our actions and orders as leaders in this country? We cannot permit ourselves to simply be drawn in and continue after the fact of 9/11 to try to turn hope into a course of action. Before the war, we cannot confirm that the regime has weapons of mass destruction, but we have enormous amounts of information that indicate they do have the intent to do us harm. We have enormous amounts of information, much of it provided by the Iraqis, that lead us to believe that this man may have weaponized WMDs, and so our government decides, along with a coalition which was substantial at the point, especially in terms of political support, to take action. And so we take the action. Our forces get in there on the ground and we say, "We have not had inspectors in this country since 1998." You know, four years. And so what would be our guess? Well, the worst-case guess is that he has weaponized chemical and biological munitions and that he can attack his neighbors, can attack us, and perhaps, by the use of terrorists, can export this sort of mayhem into the United States of AmeriCA: L.A., Chicago, Tampa, New York again. Ah, so the decision is made we're going to act, based on this information we have.
Our forces get in there and they do not find artillery shells and missiles full of biologicals and toxins and chemical munitions and we say, "Well, we were incorrect, or we have yet to prove that our thoughts were correct that he had weaponized this material." But you know what we have found? I guess—perhaps it's not well reported—but I believe it's factual that certain precursor elements, certain precursor chemicals, certain precursor feedstocks for biologicals have been found by our people in Iraq. The fact that we have not yet found the smoking gun, which is the projectile or the missile filled with these ingredients—we'd like to find that if it exists. But to say that nothing has been found that indicated an active chemical and biological program in Iraq, in my view, is simply not true. The question that I would ask is, "If the man, if the regime was not trying to hide something, then why would we find some of these precursor chemicals and this sort of thing buried in the backyards under rosebushes, in a number of locations associated with some of the scientists in this country? Why would one go bury precursor chemicals and feedstocks out behind the apartment if there was not something going on?"
And so I guess at the end of all of it, here's what I'd say: I don't think it has yet been proven to anyone's satisfaction that this regime did not have weaponized munitions, because our forces in a population of 25, 26 million people simply have not yet been everywhere that we need to go.
CA: Can't some of the more than 40 people who've been captured tell us, show us or give us the status of the programs and where they might have been? Or are they saying they don't exist?
Gen. Franks: We'll see what the recording from Dr. David Kay turns out to look like. You know, he's our man on the ground controlling the search that's going on right now. We'll see what his product looks like when Dr. Kay begins to talk about that. And we shouldn't decide yet what we think is going to be the result of his efforts over there.
Now, to the 40 or so of the 52 in custody. It's very interesting when people will say, "I had nothing to do with this. I never saw this. I never handled this particular sort of program." And you bet a whole lot of these people in this top 50 or so say, "Not me" or "It doesn't exist." But what is striking is the number of people every day, the number of Iraqis every day who say, "I heard" and "I was told" and "I have a friend who has an uncle who has…" and "If we go and look here." That kind of information is coming to our forces every day and it is not correct for us to believe that all Iraqis are saying, "No, there was no program. It never existed." Because that, sir, is not what a great many Iraqis are saying.
CA: Would it be fair to say that David Kay is being successful in his assignment, and that he has found things that haven't been reported yet?
Gen. Franks: His assignment, in the short form, might be: "Go find these weapons." Probably, more correctly, Dr. Kay is in the business of confirming or denying the existence of the program and of weapons. And I do not know over the last 30 days what he has put together.
CA: How about the 31st day? Going backwards.
Gen. Franks: If I go back to the time that I left the job, I was very satisfied with two things. The first thing was that our government had decided to place one man in charge of all this confirm or deny activity. The search. I was very pleased with that. I was very pleased with the formation of his team inside Iraq and with its relationship with military people who were going to go do the work. I don't have a comment about whether or not I was pleased with where they were at that state, because they were just getting going.
CA: Can we assume that because nothing has come out in the press that he's just holding on to information until he is satisfied with his efforts?
Gen. Franks: Absolutely. That would incline me to believe that the facts are being gathered in a way that will permit the exposure of those facts to be available to everybody in this country without permitting the leaking of microscopic pieces here and there in a way that's designed to influence. I think what Secretary Rumsfeld and what George Tenent are doing is gathering facts. And I'm satisfied with that process.
CA: We took a fair amount of time before we invaded Iraq, and Saddam Hussein had plenty of time to cooperate to have prevented the attack. That having been said, did we give up some large advantage in allowing him to do certain things to prepare himself for the war or did he just not believe that we'd ever do it, that the political landscape wouldn't allow it?
Gen. Franks: I don't know that he'd associate it with the political landscape as much as he might associate that view that we would not do anything to begin with because he thought that nothing would happen. I hope I live long enough to get far enough into the future to be able to sit on a vantage point and look back and have a full appreciation of the validity or the lack thereof of some of the things I believe.
But I believe that our forces achieved operational surprise in the military operations that started. I believe that the tactical configurations of Iraqi units at the time that our military operations started, did not represent the tactical configurations of armies which believed that a war was just about to begin. I believe that the coalition was successful in achieving surprise against the regime.
CA: The date of the invasion was what?
Gen. Franks: Nineteenth of March.
CA: When did you propose and/or receive instructions about which day was designated to launch the attack? How far in advance? And was that date ever changed before it actually happened?
Gen. Franks: The date was never changed. And I probably sensed rather than knew the date.
CA: How far in advance?
Gen. Franks: A week or two in advance.
CA: It was set up because your men would be in position, because the moon would be in a certain location? What was the underlying reason why that date was chosen?
Gen. Franks: It's very difficult to give you an elegant answer to complex algebra. During the course of planning activities, which was a bit longer than a year for this operation and not just a few months, many things were taken into account. The press reported widely that weather was a factor, and that we can't fight when it's hot. That's absurd on its face. We have the most sophisticated military capability on this planet, and it is true and has always been true that it will be just as hot for one side as it will for the other. But weather certainly was considered.
The use of our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities—aerial platforms and people on the ground, human intelligence—was obviously key to this and there were certain things that we wanted to know. There were certain arrangements and relationships that we wanted to be in place on the ground inside Iraq. And you can probably speculate in your own mind, these things come together at various points on the calendar. The proposition of how long it takes people to arrange themselves—that's a phrase that Don Rumsfeld uses—[is determined by such considerations as] where the jets are, where the refueling capabilities are, where the ground forces are, where the special operations forces are, the geopolitics of the relationships between several of us, and the Saudis, the Bahrainis, the Kurds, the Omanis, the Pakistanis, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the countries in central Asia. And all of this just led to a point that said mid-March was the right timing.
CA: Who told you it's a go? When did they tell you it's a go? And what did you do from that point on?
Gen. Franks: I'm going to be very careful. I don't want to give you too much, because just in case I decide to write a book on this, I'd like the book to be interesting. But I can give you a little bit of an answer.
CA: Throw me a crumb.
Gen. Franks: The balance within the leadership in this country was, in my opinion, near perfect during the course of a planning activity that went more than a year. There was, in my view, no anxiety. There was no arm waving. There was no sense of divisiveness as this planning process moved forward. Decisions [were made] about who would visit where, which phone calls would be made geopolitically in order to arrange the circumstances. It was something that we moved through in a reasonably methodical, careful, thoughtful way. The direct answer to your question is that the president issued what I still call an ultimatum. I'm not sure that that is the correct political terminology, but from a military point of view. It was an ultimatum of 48 hours or so, that the regime would either leave Iraq or suffer the consequences.
CA: As I recall, Bush gave that ultimatum in a speech to the nation?
Gen. Franks: Yes, it was a public ultimatum. The president did address the nation when he said "48 hours." Now, at the time that that happened, I was in the Middle East and at my headquarters in Qatar. But I also had headquarters in Bahrain. I had another headquarters in Kuwait. And I had arrangements and relationships with heads of state all around the region, and I was in a number of places during that 48-hour ultimatum period. Let me digress for just a second before I answer your question about when I knew the launch date of the attack. You'll recall that we said the purpose of our military buildup, if you will, was to support diplomacy.
What does that mean? It was to cause the regime in Iraq to leave. It was not to go to war. But then again, one never walks into the OK Corral with an empty gun. And so the idea behind the process was to have ourselves positioned in a way that had the gun loaded. We entered, then, the 48-hour ultimatum period. I was traveling. During that 48-hour period, I had a video teleconference with the president from wherever I was in the region. I don't remember which country I was in.
But technology is a wonderful thing. And I had a video teleconference with the president and also with Secretary Rumsfeld. The president had with him, in the situation room with him in the White House, the National Security team. And when the suggestion was made that the president would like to talk to me on the video teleconference, I said, "I would like to have my subordinate commanders up on the video conference also. And so I introduced my land component commander, air component commander, naval component commander and a variety of special operations commanders—some black [secret], some more visible. And so we were all on the video teleconference. The president of the United States, after a brief introduction by me, talked to each of my subordinate commanders and asked them how they felt about the posturing of their forces, the viability of a mission to remove the regime. Each of my commanders responded to the president and, at the end of that, the president said, "You have the order to begin" at this particular point in time.
CA: What time of day was it for you?
Gen. Franks: This would have been late afternoon, early evening.
CA: And it was going to happen the next day?
Gen. Franks: I can't remember whether this was at the beginning of the 48 hours or in the middle of the 48 hours. I can't remember.
At the end of the meeting, I saluted the president and he returned the salute. It was, in my view, a presidential moment. A military person likes to be able to communicate with the civilian leadership of our country in a way where the military guy says, "This is my view," and the president of the United States, with his military advisers, joint chiefs of staff, in the company of the secretary of defense, takes a decision and announces the decision. In my view that was a presidential moment. Very powerful.
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