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Boat Rams USS Cole In Yemen Port; 4 Sailors Killed; Fmr. CIA Officials Discusses Possible Terrorist Attack

Aired October 12, 2000 - 9:03 a.m. ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We continue with our breaking news coverage.

Right now, we want to bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, who is with us on the phone to tell us more about another development, this one in the sea of Aden about a USS Cole, which has been fired upon by an unknown -- actually has been rammed into by an unknown boat.

Jamie, what do you know?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Pentagon is being very cautious at this point, just saying that all they know for sure is that there was an explosion after a collision of this rubber craft with the USS destroyer Cole, which was in port, the Port of Aden in Yemen on a refueling stop.

But this incident has all the earmarks of what appears to be a terrorist attack. It appears that this rubber craft -- a craft that's like a ship known as a Zodiac, which is a specific kind, but that gives you an idea of what kind of craft this was -- was apparently loaded with high explosive when it rammed into the stern of the USS Cole. It created a hole that the Navy says was about 20 by 40 feet in diameter, it caused extensive flooding, killed four sailors right away, injured dozens others, as many as 30 others. One sailor reported to be missing at this point.

And it appears, based on the initial reports and witnesses from the ship, that this craft deliberately was aimed at the U.S. destroyer and contained explosives and was part of a deliberate attack against U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf.

The USS Cole is an Aegis Class destroyer. It was part of the Maritime Intercept Operations, or the U.S. enforcement of the oil embargo against Iraq in the Persian Gulf, and it was on a routine refueling stop in Yemen when this apparent attack took place.

The U.S. is still investigating. At this point, the Navy and the Pentagon says it has no indication of anyone claiming responsibility. But U.S. intelligence has been warning for more than a year now that an attack against U.S. interests somewhere in the world was virtually inevitable. The standard line from the CIA director, George Tenet, has been, it's not a matter of if an attack will come -- and at this point it appears that when might in fact be today -- Daryn.

KAGAN: So if, Jamie, if this today is indeed when and this has happened and if it does turn out to be a terrorist attack, what does that do in terms to the alert status for other U.S. military around the world?

MCINTYRE: Well, U.S. military around the world, particularly in the Persian Gulf region and also in Bosnia and Kosovo, are already on virtually the highest alert status. They can probably, you know, basically pay even more attention, but they're already on the highest alert because of these warnings from the intelligence community that a terrorist attack could come at any time.

What this incident demonstrates is that, despite -- there's a limit to how much security precautions you can take; there's a limit to how much you can defend against a determined terrorist who wants to strike, particularly if the terrorists don't care about their own lives. And it's not clear in this situation whether or not this was a suicide attack or whether the people who aimed the...

KAGAN: Jamie McIntyre, our Pentagon correspondent, lost him on the line there, but we are getting a lot more information about the situation that did happen involving the USS Cole. We, of course, will continue to cover it throughout the morning.

With more, here's Bill.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Daryn.

We'll try to reestablish the line with Jamie McIntyre shortly. But in addition to what Jamie's been telling us for the past hour, we did learn some more details about the USS Cole last hour here on CNN from Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Daren Pelkie.

A short sample of what we picked up last hour:


LT. CMDR. DAREN PELKIE, U.S. NAVY FIFTH FLEET: The USS Cole, the Norfolk-based Arleigh Burke Class ship, had come through the Mediterranean Sea, down through the Red Sea and had stopped for a routine refueling in Aden, Yemen on the southern Arabian Peninsula. They were refueling when an eyewitness, a U.S. Army major, saw a rubber raft type of craft run into the side of the ship and cause an explosion. The approximate 20-foot by 40-foot hole in the side of the ship is what we're being told at this point in time. The flooding has been contained and there are no fires reported. As you said, we are hearing at this point in time four people killed, 31 injured, one missing.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Do you consider this, officially, a terrorist act?

PELKIE: It's too early right now to have any -- we don't have any details on exactly what happen other than that one eyewitness account. The ship was on its way up into the Arabian Gulf to support Maritime Interception Operations.

LIN: Do you know how many sailors you have on board and how large that crew is?

PELKIE: The ship has approximately 350 personnel. That's what I have at this point in time.

LIN: OK. Are they being evacuated or are they still on board?

PELKIE: No, they are containing the situation down there. The injured personnel are being taken to local hospitals.

LIN: Why do you think the USS Cole was targeted?

PELKIE: I don't have any speculation on that.

LIN: Do you have any intelligence as to whether U.S. interests has specifically faced any threats recently in the last few days or few months?

PELKIE: No, we don't have any specific threats. No one took -- claimed any responsibility for the incident.

LIN: And this U.S. Army major who witnessed this rubber craft coming towards the ship, did he say anything else? Were they gesturing or trying to communicate in any other way?

PELKIE: No, we don't have any other information other than he saw the raft strike the side of the ship.


HEMMER: Again, that interview done with a Pentagon spokesman last hour live here on CNN. CNN's Carol Lin handling the question and answer portion of that interview.

Now I want to pick things up from Arlington, Virginia, a former counterintelligence official with the U.S. government, Dr. Stanley Bedlington, now on the phone with us now.

Doctor, good morning to you. We appreciate your time. First of all, your reaction to what we're hearing out of the Red Sea thus far today.

DR. STANLEY BEDLINGTON, FMR. CIA OFFICIAL: Well, it certainly seems like a terrorist attack. I can't think of any other reason why a raft with people on board -- an explosive on board would crash into the side of a U.S. naval vessel.

Of course, we have no idea as yet who committed it because there's been no claim for responsibility.

BEDLINGTON: Of course, we have no idea, as yet, who committed it because there's been no claim for responsibility.

However, there is one prime suspect. I know it's fashionable to point the finger at Osama Bin Laden whenever there's a terrorist attack. But I think, in this case, the suspicion is justified. Osama Bin Laden, in fact, his family comes from Yemen. They still have great commercial interests there and Osama Bin Laden has a number of ties, including ties to two particular terrorist groups. One is called the Yemeni Islamic Jihad and the other is called the Islamic Army of Aden. Their most recent attack was in December, 1998. You may remember, they took 16 people hostage and eventually killed four of them, including one British and three U.S. tourists.

HEMMER: Sir, in addition to that, have there been other threats specifically from the group you are just describing to us from the same country?

BEDLINGTON: Not a specific threat directed at the U.S. in that area. But, there's been a specific threat issued by Osama Bin Laden some months ago when he issued a fatwah, which is a religious sort of document committing, you know, his Islamic followers, or extremist Islamic followers to carry out attacks against the great Satan, i.e., the United States.

HEMMER: Sir, in addition to that, though, the mission that we have been describing throughout the morning here is that this was a planned four-hour refueling stop in Aden, in the southern portion of Yemen on the Red Sea. Is this common -- a common refueling stop if you come to the Suez Canal, down through the Red Sea en route to the Persian Gulf?

BEDLINGTON: Yes, I have a long history of traveling through that area by sea in years past, and by passenger vessel, I have to say, and every ship that I know of usually makes a stop at Aden because it is the ideal fueling spot for -- for ships rather traveling to and from Europe to the Far East.

HEMMER: In addition to that, though, knowing the threats that have been launched against U.S. targets at different times, throughout a number of years, in overseas situations, especially since the Gulf War of 1991 -- how is it that the U.S. Navy, in particular, stays on guard when it is in open waters or, in this case, actually in port?

BEDLINGTON: It's very, very difficult to protect against all possible attacks of terrorism. You know, it's impossible. So, you know, they probably thought they were quite safe sitting out in the middle of the harbor and did not require any specific sort of anti- terrorist measures. However, I think the terrorists in this case have been very, very creative. Certainly, Osama Bin Laden has the resources to purchase a Zodiac, if indeed it was a Zodiac craft, and explosives. And, as I say, it's a very creative act on his part.

HEMMER: Sir, in your estimation, quickly, what's the anticipated response from the U.S. side?

BEDLINGTON: You know, we can't do much more than we're doing already. For a number of years now, particularly after the explosions in the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassies in August '98. We've mounted, what we can call a full-court press against the networks that Osama Bin Laden controlled through Okaida (ph) with some success. But, obviously, we have not, sort of, completed our wrapping up of that particular network. A long way to go.

HEMMER: Sir, thank you.

Dr. Stanley Bedlington, former CIA official by telephone in Arlington, Virginia with us, now Daryn.

KAGAN: Of course, officials of the White House are keeping a close eye on these developments around the world. For the latest, let's bring in our White House correspondent, Kelly Wallace -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Daryn, no surprise, it is a very busy morning here at the White House. White House officials following two breaking news stories simultaneously: that explosion on the USS Cole, also developments in the Middle East.

First, regarding the explosion and the killing of four sailors. White House, again, following this situation closely, President Clinton was notified about the situation by his national security adviser shortly after 7:00 a.m. He telephoned his defense secretary William Cohen about 7:30. He also spoke again with Sandy Berger, his national security adviser. The president reported to be, quote, obviously horrified by this news, telling his national security team to do everything possible to track down those responsible.

Now, on to the other front, the White House is watching the killing of two Israeli soldiers by a mob on the West Bank. President Clinton also notified this morning by his national security adviser about the situation. The president also has telephoned Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat to voice his concern about the incident. White House officials telling CNN that the president asked Mr. Arafat specific questions about what happened and how it happened. He also asked Chairman Arafat to do everything possible to urge restraint and restore calm, asking the Palestinian leader to have the Palestinian security forces work with and coordinate with Israeli security forces to keep calm on the ground.

The president is expected to make a call as well to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. White house officials saying they are very concerned about this incident, saying it is very serious, saying they want to do everything possible to remain engaged, to make sure the situation does not escalate.

Over the past couple of days, White House officials were saying that there was some pretty good days on the ground, that they were somewhat cautiously optimistic by a somewhat of a drop in the violence, but saying the situation is still very fragile and volatile. Again, they're keeping a close eye on both stories at this time -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Kelly, the president isn't even at the White House at this time. Is that right?

WALLACE: That's right. An important point that I should have mentioned. The president is, in fact, in Chappaqua, New York, at his home there. He is expected, though, to return to the White House sometime this morning. And on another front, he is expected to make some news. He will make an announcement announcing the U.S. will be immediately lifting the oil and travel ban on Yugoslavia imposed after the Kosovo conflict. Now that there is Democratic change, President Kostunica in office -- Daryn.

KAGAN: A lot going on. Kelly, I'm sure we will be hearing from you throughout the morning. Kelly Wallace, at the White House, thank you very much.



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