ABC's Jon Karl Interviews Adm. Timothy Keating

Jonathan Karl: Adm. Keating, what do you have right now that you're prepared to move into Myanmar (formerly called Burma) that you have not been able to yet?

Timothy Keating: We've got a half a dozen C-130s, Jonathan. We've got helicopters that are both ashore in Thailand and afloat with the Essex group and ships from other nations, as well, in the Bay of Bengal.

We're moving water. We're moving food. We're moving electrical generators. We're moving pallets of plastic sheeting. So everything we can get our hands on, we're moving now. We'd like to move more. We have more capacity to lift and haul than we're filling.

Karl: Now, I was told that you're only really getting in about 10 percent of what you could be getting in. Is that an accurate read?

Keating: I think we're getting more than that, Jonathan. We've moved a couple hundred thousand pounds -- we have about 200,000 pounds per day capacity. We had five C-130 loads yesterday. We're going to have four or five today. So we're better than 10 percent, but we're well under what we could do at full effort.

Karl: So at full effort, what would you be doing that you're not doing now?

Keating: Probably flying twice to three times as many C-130 sorties. And the area where we're concentrating with our embassy officials in Rangoon is using rotary lift, H-53s and H-46s, to help the Burmese with distribution from the central point in Rangoon out to the outlying areas where the relief is needed most desperately.

Karl: But how is that distribution going? I mean, once you drop that stuff off in Yangon, Rangoon, how do we know where it's going and how effectively it's being distributed to those who really need it?

Keating: We're not really sure how well it's going. Our embassy is in contact with Burmese officials and nongovernmental employees, World Food, U.N., folks like that, who are overseeing the distribution.

There are some challenges attendant to that. It happens in all disasters in which we provide relief. It is not uncommon. In this case, it's a little stickier than others. But I'm pretty sure it'll work through in a day or two.

Karl: But are you frustrated -- I mean, I'm -- some of the folks that I've been talking to are almost -- I don't know if seething is too strong a word but we are extremely frustrated that the Burmese has not allowed more to come in, has not allowed more help into that country.

Keating: Well, we're not seething. We're anxious. We did a little bit of this with Aceh, the tsunami in Indonesia, the cyclone in Bangladesh, relief supplies to China for cold weather, and relief supplies that we're mustering to send them again because of the earthquake.

We're used to some of the tension, but that doesn't obviate the gravity of the situation here in Burma now, Jonathan. We're anxious to help. That's why I went with Henrietta Fore from the State Department, made our pitch to the senior delegation of Burmese on Monday, and consequently we're mildly optimistic that they understand how anxious we are to help and we think that understanding has led to the flow, albeit not 100 percent, of resources that we're getting in now.

Karl: And what was that like, being on the ground in Myanmar, talking to those leaders?

Keating: Our reception was warm, cordial. The senior official with whom we spoke, he was a navy -- he was the head of the Burmese navy. His English was terrific. He was the lead delegate from a group of about a dozen or so civilian and a couple military.

So the reception was warm and gracious, cordial, but they acknowledged they could not give us a decision. Affairs that are this serious have to go to the very highest levels of their government, their prime minister, and he was not at the meeting, so they said, "We acknowledge your offer. We will have to take this to our prime minister."

And there was some concern that that decision would take up to two weeks in returning to us. As it happens, it did not take that long for at least a partial answer, which is why we're able to move goods now.

But it was a relatively pleasant meeting in the capital.

Karl: But you're there across the table from the leader of a military government that is actively preventing its people from getting help. It must have been, at some level, a frustrating experience.

Keating: Yes, sure it was. You know, there was a general air of "things aren't all that bad" we got from him. Other members of his delegation, the Burmese delegation, they made it clear to us in sidebars that the situation was pretty grave, particularly in the southwest part of the country, and they were hopeful that approval would come quickly from their government's leaders.

As it happens, it did come in uncharacteristically quick fashion from Burma's leaders. So I think there is a recognition at very high levels of government that they're in big trouble, they need help, and that help is nearby. They just have to accelerate their administrative process a little bit.

Karl: Well, if there's a recognition they need help, and you've got those ships right off the coast, you've got those helicopters that could be delivering the supplies to those who need them, you've got 1,000, maybe 2,000 military personnel that could be on the ground facilitating all of that, why won't they let it in?

Keating: They're concerned about their security. There is a sense in the Burmese junta leadership that, once countries are in, in military form, that those countries may not leave.

I did my personal and professional best to assure them that we will leave no fingerprints. We won't need any food; we won't need any gas; we'll provide our own electricity; we will be entirely self-sufficient. And as soon as our work there is done, we will leave. They will see nothing remaining of the United States military when this operation is over.

Karl: And if you were allowed to go in with that personnel, especially the personnel in the helicopters, how much more impact would you have on the ground?

Keating: I think it would be significant, Jonathan. We are stacking stuff up in Rangoon. At the airport proper, I saw a staging area while I was there Monday. We have dramatically increased the food and the material that is there.

It's the for further transfer part where we're pushing through our folks at the embassy to get Burmese approval to move that stuff out of the airport, down into the southwest parts of the country most dramatically affected.

So I think it will be a significant increase and improvement in the aid being provided to the folks who need it so desperately.

Karl: And with an estimated 2 million people at risk here, at what point do you say, does the United States government say, "We're going in anyway, regardless of whether or not we have permission"?

Keating: There will be -- that point isn't in our calculus right now, Jonathan. I assured our Burmese colleagues that we come at the behest of the president of the United States and the people of the United States.

We have no intention of, quote, "invading" their country or penetrating their airspace, I mean, anything of that, landing any ships or any arrangement without the explicit approval of the government of Burma.

Karl: But isn't there at some point a moral imperative to act, even if you don't have permission?

Keating: I think we've gone there already by Henrietta Fore coming from Washington and yours truly coming from Hawaii. I mean, it's not all that big a sacrifice, but it's halfway around the world, to make a personal presentation to them from the president of the United States as his envoys, if you will.

So I think we have taken the moral high road with these guys. And they understand the gravity of the situation and they understand, rather, the weight of the effort from the United States. I think we're in pretty good shape here.

Karl: Why not military airdrops, if you can't get on the ground? Why not take those helicopters and drop those supplies down to those places that need it most desperately?

Keating: We proposed that to them, Jonathan. We're prepared. But all we need is approval to penetrate their airspace. And I think we're going to get it.

We've got a couple of initiatives under way with folks who are diplomats in Burma. And I would not be surprised if, in a day or two, we don't start sling loading, putting H-46s with cargo nets underneath them, and get permission to carry those relief supplies to where they're needed. I think we'll get permission.

Karl: Some people look at this again and say, "Two million people are at risk. Why not just go in and do it without their permission? Why are we waiting for their permission?"

Is it a military concern, that we're concerned about the safety of our aircraft, or is it a diplomatic concern?

Keating: We're not concerned -- well, we're always concerned about the safety of our men and women in uniform. And I know you appreciate that, because you've been with us, Jonathan.

It would not be a military significant challenge for us. We could do this. We're not going to.

It is a very serious policy issue, and we would get guidance from the secretary of state and the president of the United States. As I say, I would not -- I'm a long, long, long way from recommending it. I would not recommend it, absent a significant change.

I believe we will get approval to increase the type of supplies, the type of support we're providing. So I just think that's perhaps an interesting discussion that won't come to bear.

Karl: Based on your discussions on the ground there, are you hopeful that you will be able to get in all that you know you can get in?

Keating: Yes, sir, I am. We're helping other countries move supplies that they have purchased, that they have available, in our C-130s. We think we're going to be doing a little bit of that today.

So I am cautiously optimistic that our flow will continue at present levels or perhaps even increase, but with the end game clearly being getting desperately needed supplies to the folks who need it in southwest Burma.

Karl: That would be tragic if you would be unable to do that.

Keating: It would be very sad.

Karl: Adm.Keating, it's always a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much. I wish you the best of luck.

Keating: Thanks, Jonathan.