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BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR MP SEPTEMBER 30th, 2001
Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used
DAVID FROST: And now it's our pleasure to welcome the Prime Minister, good morning Prime Minister.
TONY BLAIR: Morning David.
DAVID FROST: Let's start with the question that people seem most confused about which is what exactly are our war aims, do they include, for instance, the actual overthrow replacement of the Taliban regime, what are exactly our war aims?
TONY BLAIR: Well in the first phase, and as you know there are, there are really two phases to this, the first is the immediate action against bin Laden and his associates and the terror camps in Afghanistan. And then secondly there's the medium and longer-term perspective of how we try and shut down this evil of mass terrorism right round the world. In respect of the first phase the objective is to secure the closure of all those terror camps in Afghanistan, the yielding up of UBL [sic] and his associates who are responsible for this atrocity in New York on the 11th of September and for the Taliban regime they've got a choice, they either help us or they become the enemy themselves.
DAVID FROST: Do we want to see them replaced though, overthrown?
TONY BLAIR: If they are not prepared to give up bin Laden which they could do if they wanted to, then they become an obstacle that we have to disable or remove in order to get to bin Laden. So that's their choice, so it's not as if we set out with the aim of changing the Taliban regime but if they remain in the way of achieving our objective, namely that bin Laden and his associates are yielded up and the terror camps are closed then the Taliban themselves become our enemy. And of course they have helped and supported bin Laden throughout the years, I mean over the last ten years bin Laden has been exporting this terror right round the world, there's never been anything as terrible as the events of the 11th of September but there have been many, many acts of terrorism in many countries in the world.
DAVID FROST: Bin Laden dead or alive as the President said, which would you prefer?
TONY BLAIR: I think in the end the important thing is that we get him and stop him and that is, something we will pursue in whatever way we possibly can because this man and those other associates of his and indeed those terror camps in Afghanistan, we now know what they're capable of. If they could have killed even more people they would have and we have no option but to act and make sure that their ability to cause such terror and devastation is shut down for good.
DAVID FROST: Is a part of the war aims, Prime Minister, as well, to go in and deal with terrorists, international terrorists, in other countries, for instance in Iraq or Algeria or Sudan or Syria, wherever it is, against the wishes of the leaders of the country maybe, to do the same thing that we're going to do in Afghanistan in any other country at all?
TONY BLAIR: What we have to do is consider in respect of any particular country that is harbouring or helping terrorists how we make sure that the operations of those terrorists are shut down. And that's something we consider now but that is different from, if you like, as I say the immediate phase of action which is focused on Afghanistan because that is where bin Laden is and that is where the main terror camps exporting this type of terrorism are.
DAVID FROST: When will we, when will we be able to say, as we can in a normal war, we've won, or is that day impossible because you will never totally exterminate terrorism and the battle will be as, in one quote Don Rumsfeld has said, forever?
TONY BLAIR: Well it will take a considerable period of time to deal with terrorism and all its different aspects and this first phase itself will take time, I mean to take action against bin Laden and his associates in Afghanistan is a difficult enough undertaking in itself but then to make sure for example that we're shutting off the sources of financing for the terrorists, that we're trying to make sure that they can't move across the frontiers as they do at the moment, that we're trying to make sure that they can't acquire the weapons that they do, these are the things that will take a considerable time to put in place. But I think it's worth just emphasising this, I have never known such a strength and determination in the international community to deal with the problem. The fact that the UN Security Council itself is now charging itself, for the first time, with making sure that we deal with terrorism wherever it is, the fact that that has united countries like China and Russia and the United States and ourselves and the whole of Europe, the fact that we are able and willing now to take the means to shut down terror, that is a huge step forward.
DAVID FROST: Have you, have you seen evidence that bin Laden was responsible for this that would stand up in a British or American court?
TONY BLAIR: Yes I have seen absolutely powerful incontrovertible evidence of his link to the events of the 11th of September. Now what we've got to consider because of much of this evidence comes to us from sensitive sources, from intelligence sources, is how much we can present to people because obviously we want to be able to say to people without any doubt at all that here is why we believe this man to be responsible, here is why we believe the Taliban regime are harbouring and helping him.
DAVID FROST: But are other countries our targets eventually?
TONY BLAIR: There are countries in respect of which either UBL has certain networks or other terrorist groups operate but in respect of each of those countries we've got to look at the best way to deal with it because some of those countries may be themselves trying to fight terrorism and we can give them assistance in doing that.
DAVID FROST: And in terms of looking at these, looking at these problems, we saw very clearly, in that interview indeed with President Bush, the impact that you have had in the United States as well as elsewhere, at the same time people like Charles Kennedy and others have said there's a danger of giving the United States a blank cheque, I suppose in a sense since it was their disaster and their tragedy, inevitably we are giving them something of a blank cheque?
TONY BLAIR: You now every time people are asking me about whether we're giving them a blank cheque I saw to them, the relationship between us from the very outset has not been one of creditor or debtor, it's not been one of blank cheques, it's been of the closest possible partnership and cooperation between allies. And the reason that we're supporting the action that they're taking is because we believe that action to be right and you know I spoke to President Bush yesterday evening.
DAVID FROST: Yesterday evening.
TONY BLAIR: We went through again all the various options that we had and we agreed two things very, very clearly. The first is that we're not taking action just for effect, we're taking action to deal with this problem of terrorism and bin Laden and his guilt for what happened on the 11th of September and what is more we want to make the coalition on the humanitarian front as powerful and as strategically targeted as what we do on the military front. And all the way through we've had that relationship with the United States of America, they have been cooperative, they've worked in partnership with us, they've wanted to bind another ally so of course in the end, you know, for America this has been a traumatic event with 7,000 killed in the very heart of America, of course their feelings are incredibly strong. But from the very beginning they've tried to do the right thing not simply do the quickest thing for the maximum immediate impact and I think that that is something that we should pay tribute to because it shows, I think, the seriousness of their intent.
DAVID FROST: But at the moment, would you say, one, I suppose obviously the overall commander of this operation will naturally be an American rather than an Englishman. Secondly would we have a veto over anything the Americans wanted to do and three would we have a veto over anything the Americans wanted us to do, what's the relationship?
TONY BLAIR: I mean again the relationship is one of partnership and of course the main assets that will be used in any action taken will be American assets and that is obvious but in respect of, of the precise nature of the military action we take and indeed the other aspects of this, as I say it's, it's a partnership, we're in constant discussion and consultation and we're agreed to work together to make sure that military action is proportionate, is targeted, is effective in what we do and also that we deal with the huge humanitarian problem that was already building up of course way before the 11th of September, four and a half million people were on the move in and around Afghanistan before these attacks ever took place. But it's important we act on that as well.
DAVID FROST: But obviously this is a, a crucial and demanding time for you in the sense that President Bush has often talked about the, the burden on a, on a war leader sending his boys off to possible death or possible casualties and so on, how do you face up to that prospect?
TONY BLAIR: Well I will say it is a big responsibility but then it's not nearly as difficult for me as it is for the troops that are expected to go and put their lives on the line. So I think it's to them, in the end, that we should give our admiration because they're the people that, that have to do this and I just, I cannot tell you how important it is for a British Prime Minister to have the British Armed Forces, their dedication and their professionalism behind us at every step of the way in a situation of international crisis we know that we have got amongst the finest, if not the finest Armed Forces anywhere in the world and that's a tremendous strength for a British Prime Minister.
DAVID FROST: And how much say in the first year, will this war cost the UK?
TONY BLAIR: Well we don't know, I mean it depends how long the action takes, it depends exactly what that action is and it also depends on how many things change and move about as a result of the action we take. I mean the Taliban is, is in a great deal of difficulty as you know already.
DAVID FROST: Coming on to things here at home, Prime Minister there are two things that nag at people, one is they, they say why do we let these Muslim extremists spout these racial, racial implications and all of that stuff without prosecuting them or something, I mean we had, we had that in the Times yesterday, they could be indicted for incitement to racial hatred but last year's Terrorism Act provides ample scope in any case and so on and so forth, that first, first thing. And the other thing in addition to that is the fact that some of these fugitive terrorists, alleged fugitive terrorists seem to be able to gum up our legal system for three years and I think there's quite a bit of aggro about those two things, how can we deal with those?
TONY BLAIR: We've got to deal with it because for a very long period of time there have been problems in our legal system and how we deal with these people, problems in how quickly we're able to extradite them, problems in the way, for example, they use Bureau de Change in order to launder money. We've tightened the law already because of the Terrorism Act last year, we tightened the asylum rules two or three years ago. I simply say to you at the time both of those measures were very, very strongly opposed by people but I hope in this new situation people realise we have got to act, we've got to act on extradition, to quicken up the laws of extradition┐
DAVID FROST: To speed that up, yes.
TONY BLAIR: We've got to speed up the laws on extradition, we've got to make sure that our asylum process is not abused by terrorists and by others who are coming in here for purposes nothing to do with asylum and then we've also got to make sure that we regulate and impose proper rules on these Bureau de Change which can be used for money laundering either money for terrorists or drug purposes and it is high time that we dealt with all these issues and what we will be doing in the next four to six weeks is we will bring forward a package of measures for the House of Commons and I hope we will get support for all, from all the political parties to put these measures through.
DAVID FROST: And also in addition to that, in addition to that, those, those particular pressures we've also got to look at the future, court situation and so on, and Lord Justice Wolf made that surprising remark about, understandable I guess, that human rights take precedence over protecting the lives of people from terrorists and so on, you don't believe that do you?
TONY BLAIR: No I think our first duty has got to be to protect our citizens and of course we've got to act with real care in any area where we're interfering with the civil liberties of people who are either our subjects or subjects of other countries. But we cannot have a situation in which it takes years to extradite people, we cannot have a situation in which people come in and abuse our asylum procedures and are then allowed to remain in this country, claiming asylum, going through a court process that may take many months to complete and we cannot have a situation where if we know someone is a suspected terrorist we do not have the legal power to detain them indefinitely until we find a country to deport them to. Now those are basic things that we need to be able to do to protect the security of our own citizens and as I say this is something we have been trying to deal with for a long period of time, that the Act last year resulted in many of those people leaving the country, but that Act was strongly opposed at the time by many people and I think it's important this time round we realise this is a new situation, we of course will proceed with very great care, this only concerns a small number of cases but in those we've got to have the legal powers to protect our people.
DAVID FROST: Do we need more powers to eavesdrop?
TONY BLAIR: I don't think that we need powers to do that, we have the powers that we require in order to take the security intelligence measures that, that we, that we need, but I do think we have to make sure that we can speed up the court process because it's that that takes the time at the moment.
DAVID FROST: And what about the headlines in the paper, would seem you've made a decision on compulsory id cards, is that right?
TONY BLAIR: No it's not right, we haven't taken the decision on that yet, we're considering all the various aspects of it, it's a very big step this, we've got to get it right, we've got to make sure that it's effective.
DAVID FROST: And in fact you're testing the ideas out at the moment, you absolutely have not reached that decision?
TONY BLAIR: We've not reached a conclusion yet.
DAVID FROST: One of the things you hear people say a lot is obviously that if, if terrorists can fake passports they can fake id cards and the only people with proper id cards will be the law abiding citizens of the country who will have additional hassle?
TONY BLAIR: Well that's precisely the types of argument that we need to take into account. I mean would id cards be effective in this way, however they may be effective in other ways in terms of fraud, in terms of social security benefits and so on.
DAVID FROST: And I suppose people do put their things down on credit cards and, and that sort of thing?
TONY BLAIR: Yes I mean I actually think the argument here, I mean there are a lot of civil liberties arguments raised but if you think of the amount of identity we already carry ourselves then I think those arguments aren't as strong as arguments to ask well is it actually going to be effective because we don't want to take a move that on analysis doesn't deliver the result we want it to. So in all these questions which have been gone over you know many times by governments┐
DAVID FROST: Many governments┐
TONY BLAIR: Yes by many governments, we have to look at and get right.
DAVID FROST: And you said in the House of Commons, you said talking about the terrorists, their limits are only practical and technical, "we know that they would if they could go further and use chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons of mass destruction, we also know that there are groups of people, occasionally states who will trade the technology and capability of such weapons". How much is that an accurate ever-present danger, people in the UK, they all want to know, they don't want alarmist talk but they want to know if there is any danger from those three categories?
TONY BLAIR: There is no specific threat that we know of, that we can say, we also constantly review the measures that we have here on civil contingencies and internal security, however it is important that we review what steps we can take to make sure that these people round the world cannot get access to such weapons of mass destruction. I mean we know that bin Laden and his people would acquire them if they could acquire them and I think this is a warning now to us to make sure that we take the measures at a national and international level that prevent them acquiring that capability.
DAVID FROST: Because America and Britain knew that Saddam Hussein at the time of the Gulf War didn't have the ability to deliver in his Scuds, you know biological warfare and so on, but today those abilities may be possessed by certain terrorists?
TONY BLAIR: Well we don't know that they're possessed by terrorists but it's important that they don't acquire them and it's also important incidentally that we make sure that Saddam Hussein and other people can't acquire the weapons of mass destruction in their own country which is precisely why we've, you know still got measures in place against Iraq and I think that people, people after the 11th of September I think are reconsidering all the previous assumptions that they made. We now know what these people are capable of we know if they could do more they would do more, we know that there are operations, groups within the world that are trying to acquire these weapons of mass destruction, we've got to stop and I think we can stop them if we have the will and determination to do it and I do think it's important in respect of people here that although of course we can't in any sense be complacent about it, we've got to be vigilant the entire time, we know no specific threat, I think it's important that people don't get over alarmist reports about what might happen.
DAVID FROST: So you mean they really don't need to go and buy gas masks?
TONY BLAIR: No.
DAVID FROST: That's going too far as it were?
TONY BLAIR: Well it's, you know as I say we know no specific threat, we are extremely vigilant, we do review our internal security and contingency measures the entire time and in the light of the events of the 11th of September it would be very foolish to be other than extremely vigilant about it. But there is no specific threat that we know of in respect of Britain.
DAVID FROST: And President Bush has said that if a dangerous civilian airliner, dangerous because it's clearly got terrorists on board and planning something like twin towers, that he will make the decision, whether it should be a civilian aeroplane that should be shot down and if he's not available for some reason, there are two generals who will do it. If we were presented with that situation you would be the one taking the decision and if you weren't around who would take it?
TONY BLAIR: I don't, I mean I haven't actually read those particular comments of President Bush but I don't intend to speculate on what might or might not happen there because I think it alarms people wholly unnecessarily.
DAVID FROST: On the other hand then, maybe it alarms them less to know that your, your finger's on the button or whatever?
TONY BLAIR: Well people can rest assured that we review all the various possibilities and make sure there are plans in place to deal with them.
DAVID FROST: We talked to Eddie George last week, Prime Minister, about the danger of world recession, the danger of a recession here, seven days have passed, in fact the IMF who said that we were better off than many although we needed to cut our estimated growth rate, but they also said that recession in the United States was a done deal, do you think recession in the world is a done deal?
TONY BLAIR: I think we've got to be careful here, I mean look everyone is trying to make predictions and estimates of what will happen after the 11th of September and there were certain economic problems in the world in any event before the 11th of September and growth in the US economy and in certain European economies was slowing down but I agree also with some of the business leaders that have been saying we've got to be careful that we don't talk ourselves into a worse position than we need be in. The fact of the matter is the fundamentals of our economy, the British economy is strong, those of the US are strong, we have the ability which we didn't have a decade ago to loosen monetary policy, even fiscal policy if necessary because we in Britain are already increasing our public spending, as you known, on key services like health and education, there's a fiscal loosening of policy going on in the US as well. There are measures that we can take, now I don't know frankly any more than anyone else does sitting there and trying to work out what are going to be the implications of the 11th of September but apart from specific industries which have got problems, the airline industry or the tourist industry or the insurance industry, for obvious reasons, that the fundamentals of our economies are strong and so I think we can't be in a position exactly to judge what the impact of it is going to be but we do have a situation where, I mean after all public finances are in a strong position here, we've got the lowest interest rates we've had for what, 30, 40 years, inflation is subdued. You know I think there are, there are indications that we are in a better place to weather any difficulties than we might have been and certainly that we were a decade ago hen you had a different set of economic circumstances. So again I don't to in any way to minimise the difficulties, this is a new and difficult situation but let us just judge it and let us not, you know, talk about how deep the recession is going to be before we know exactly what is going to happen.
DAVID FROST: When you talk about your spending obviously what people ruminate about is the possibility that the combination of what we discussed earlier, the unknown cost of the war together with these economic trends in this country and abroad, could lead to a situation where you'll have to either cut your large public spending or raise taxes?
TONY BLAIR: Well we don't know what the cost of any action's going to be, we have a strong position on public finances, the extra money on health and education, crime, transport, that is there and budgeted for.
DAVID FROST: What about the vigilance that Gordon Brown asked for this week, who does he want to be vigilant, who do you want to be vigilant?
TONY BLAIR: Vigilant in the sense of?
DAVID FROST: In the economy, in, that was government spending actually in fact┐
TONY BLAIR: Well I think┐what Gordon is saying is quite right, I mean first of all we do have a stronger economic position in Britain but secondly we've of course got to be vigilant given the new situation we have and given the fact that we don't yet know what the full impact is going to be on the American economy.
DAVID FROST: And in terms of what's going to happen, you touched on this earlier on, what you're really saying, you never did say whether the target was also Iraq and countries like that by the way?
TONY BLAIR: No I mean in the first phase of the action it is acting against those people who are directly linked to the events of the 11th of September.
DAVID FROST: And how do we avoid collateral damage, lots of civilians being killed, I mean how do you tell a Taliban from a non Taliban in Afghanistan?
TONY BLAIR: Well we have to make sure that, that those targets in respect of which we're acting are very carefully selected and that the action we take is, is carefully targeted and we will do that. But of course it's difficult to know in a situation like this and we faced exactly the same problem, you might remember a few years ago in Kosovo.
DAVID FROST: The failure of intelligence everyone's talked about, Western intelligence failed over this whole tragedy, our intelligence, America's intelligence perhaps even more and so on, was there a failure in the intelligence community, have we got to improve our intelligence gathering?
TONY BLAIR: We're always trying to improve our intelligence gathering but these groups operate in an immensely secretive way, it is very, very difficult often to track down exactly what they're doing but I think it's worth pointing out that, you know in intelligence capability around the world there are many things that people prevent. Now of course I'm sure the Americans, as we will do, look at ways that we can improve this.
DAVID FROST: Are we engaged in the first phase of this operation partially in an act of revenge, retribution, retaliation?
TONY BLAIR: No I think that we're engaged in an act of justice, it's important that those who committed this terrible atrocity are brought to justice and it's important then in order to protect our citizens to prevent them doing it again that we close down the terror camps and the groups of terrorism that try to export this terrorism right round the world.
DAVID FROST: And how confident are you of success, people say eradicating terrorism is an impossible call, that we can improve the situation but can we ever reach the stage where we say we've done it?
TONY BLAIR: That's a good question but I think that we can, we can certainly eradicate the bin Laden network and we should do that and I think we can take huge measures and steps against terrorism if we have the international will and it's got to be at every level. I mean it's not just the personnel, those terrorists themselves that carry out these acts, it's the people who finance them, it's the people who give them the weapons that they have, it's the people who allow them to operate. Now if we treat this as it is, as a fundamental evil in our world, a new form of terrorism, mass international terrorism that can wreak absolute devastation and havoc in a country like America, if we consider the threat that that poses then I'm sure that we can take action against it and be successful in the action that we take. And there is only one outcome of this, we have got to make sure that the objectives we set ourselves in the aftermath of the 11th of September are achieved and I believe they will be.
DAVID FROST: Thank you very much we'll take a break there for the news, Prime Minister. Over to you Sian.
[BREAK FOR NEWS]
DAVID FROST: By the way one question, have you heard anything about the wellbeing or otherwise of Yvonne Ridley the journalist who's been detained in Afghanistan?
TONY BLAIR: No we haven't but obviously the Foreign Office is in close touch.
DAVID FROST: Well as we heard just there the, the situation is now that you have got to change gear because the Labour Conference is gathering, they're expecting to hear from you on Tuesday, it's probably a fairly abrupt change of gear but are you planning in order to bring peace to the party in terms of public service reform and the private sector to tone down, I mean to backtrack on those proposals?
TONY BLAIR: No certainly not, I mean I should say to you┐
DAVID FROST: I thought you might say that┐
TONY BLAIR: I think it's worth pointing out too that even since the 11th of September I have had as much focus and as many meetings on the domestic agenda, on the issues of public services that I have been dealing with this immediate crisis and we should never forget and take our eye off that particular ball because it's immensely important. But we will press ahead with public service reform because the public services need it, they are getting more money than ever before, we're putting in record amounts of investment, we're hiring more public sector servants than ever before, we're also for this year actually paying people in the public sector, pay is rising faster than in the private sector. Now all those three facts mean that we are dedicated to the public service, we think the vast majority of public servants do a wonderful job but the systems and structures within which they work require radical change and we've got to do that otherwise we won't deliver to the people the Health Service, the education service, the transport system, the criminal justice system that they need. So this is a huge programme of reform and after the present crisis is passed this is the thing in my view that will dominate the next couple of years.
DAVID FROST: And why, why in that situation, as they often ask, why can in fact private industry do things better than experienced public professionals?
TONY BLAIR: Well sometimes they can't, I mean this is why you've got to take a practical view, I mean in the railways Railtrack has been, I think most people realise the privatisation of the railways has been a disaster but in other parts of our public service sometimes a partnership between public and private sector can work for the benefit of people.
DAVID FROST: Prime Minister thank you very much for being with us this morning. Top of the morning and good morning.
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