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Risk Justifies Pre-Emptive Strike, Says Rumsfeld - 2003-01-30

With concerns mounting worldwide over the possibility of a new war with Iraq, the Bush administration has been busily setting the stage for military action, not only by pouring troops into the Gulf, but also by trying to publicly explain the need for U.S. pre-emptive action. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is making the case for war.

Whether in business, personal affairs or issues of war, Donald Rumsfeld argues, there is no such thing as "perfect knowledge" about what course to take.

The veteran defense secretary says, that is regrettable, but true. He argues that, when it comes to the threats of the 21st century, waiting for that unattainable "perfect knowledge" could be tragically risky.

"The only way you get personal [perfect] knowledge is to wait until Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. That's when you get perfect knowledge," said Mr. Rumsfeld. "That's after the fact. And after the fact in the 21st century, in the world of weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons that can kill tens of thousands of people, after the fact is too late."

Which is why Mr. Rumsfeld and other top administration officials are making the case for pre-emptive action against Iraq, which they see as a clear and present danger, given what they consider a pattern of threatening activities.

But the question is often asked, how imminent is the threat posed by Iraq? Mr. Rumsfeld agrees it is an important question. But he questions how governments charged with protecting their nationals should define imminent. Mr. Rumsfeld cites the case of the bloody September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

"Now, at what moment was the threat [...] for September 11 imminent? Was it imminent a week before, a month before, a year before, an hour before? Was it imminent before you could, while you could still stop it, or was it imminent only after it started, and you couldn't stop it, or you could stop one of the three planes, instead of two or all three? These are very tough questions," he pointed out.

He argues the threshold for a decision on taking pre-emptive action to block a threat depends on something as grim as the likely casualty toll.

"I would submit that the hurdle, the bar that one must go over, changes, depending on the potential lethality of the act," said Mr. Rumsfeld.

In Iraq's case, the administration maintains Baghdad still has chemical and biological weapons, as well as a program to develop nuclear weapons. Iraqi officials routinely deny such charges, and critics of a possible war say there is no clear evidence, no "smoking gun."

But Mr. Rumsfeld says that what he calls the "fact pattern" should lead rational people to the conclusion that something must be done about Iraq.

"This is a country that's not a normal country. This is not Canada, or Australia, or some country that behaves as a good citizen of the world," he said. "This is a country that has used chemical weapons against its own people, that's used chemical weapons against its neighbors, that fired ballistic missiles into four countries in the region, that's threatened the United States of America, that has relationships with terrorist networks."

Mr. Rumsfeld says this "fact pattern" provides evidence that he calls "as hard as a photograph."

But like other senior administration officials, he appears to recognize the growing international and domestic pressures for more concrete facts.

That is why Secretary of State Colin Powell next week is expected to unveil new evidence, possibly including satellite photographs. Officials say, his presentation will not only expose Iraqi efforts to develop, deploy and conceal weapons of mass destruction, but also what the administration says are the clear links between Baghdad and the al-Qaida terrorist network.