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Gen. Anthony Zinni Testifies Before Senate Armed Services Committee on USS Cole Disaster

Aired October 19, 2000 - 10:15 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Live to Capitol Hill, Senate Armed Services Committee now talking with General Anthony Zinni. This the latest investigation on the USS Cole and why the U.S., indeed, chose the port of Aden to refuel. Live now.


JOHN WARNER (R-VA), CHAIRMAN, ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: ... Army land forces, Marines and, indeed, parts of the Air Force. I think those of us who understand this clearly can follow you, but many are following it who do not have that background.

GENERAL ANTHONY ZINNI, FORMER COMMANDER IN CHIEF, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Well, thank you for that opportunity, Mr. Chairman. And I'd like to also follow that up by giving some, as has been mentioned here, context to the environment, especially the security environment.

Central Command is one of nine unified commands and one of four geographic commands. That means that we have a part of the world that we are responsible for all military-to-military engagement, conduct of operations and anything that goes on involving the U.S. military. Central Command is unique in several ways. It's a relatively young command compared to the Pacific Command or the European Command or even our own Southern Command in our own hemisphere, what had been my sister unified commands.

We did not have any assigned forces. What that means is, I don't have ships -- or, I did not have ships or battalions or aircraft, tanks, that were assigned to me directly. I, in effect, borrowed forces from other commanders. They came to me from the European Command, Pacific Command and the then-Atlantic Command.

Those forward-deployed forces operated in our theater on an as- needed basis.

In other words, I made the requests. Those requests were approved by the Joint Staff for what forces I would get. For example, to use the Cole, the Cole was home-ported in Norfolk, as we all know. It is part of second fleet, standing part of second fleet. It goes into the Mediterranean, and it passes its command to the sixth fleet. It comes through the Suez Canal and it passes command to the fifth fleet. The fifth fleet is my naval component. My naval component headquarters is in Bahrain, and it is the double hat of currently Admiral Moore and before him, Admiral Fargo, both of whom have been my naval component commanders, to be the naval component commander and the commander of the fifth fleet.

We operate with approximately 23 to 25 ships at any given time: a mix of aircraft carriers, surface ships, support ships, amphibious ships, et cetera. They conduct continuous operations in the Gulf. They conduct the enforcement of sanctions against Iraq, the Maritime Intercept operations intercepting smugglers coming out by sea. They also participate, along with our Air Force and with the British and other ground-based air, in the enforcement of the no-fly/no-drive zones over Iraq. So our Navy, in that region of the world, has been under two operations and continuously operating under extreme circumstances.

WARNER: General, at this point I think you should point out the missions being carried out as a consequence of Saddam Hussein's attack in '91 in the Peninsula, subsequent actions by the United Nations Security Council and, specifically, this ship was to perform missions to enforce those Security Council resolutions.

ZINNI: Yes, sir.

We enforce several UN Security Council resolutions. They come down to three continuing operations that we have had ongoing since almost the end of the Gulf War to this date.

One is the defense of Kuwait. We keep forces on the ground in Kuwait continuously that are our forward forces, that we build upon with prepositioned sets of equipment on the ground and at sea to enlarge that force to be able to defend Kuwait.

The second operation that we conduct continuously is the Maritime Intercept operation that I mentioned, where at sea we intercept smugglers coming out of Iraq violating the UN resolution.

And then the third is, as I mentioned, the enforcement of the no- fly/no-drive zones. There is a no-fly zone in the north, and in the south there is a no-fly/no-drive zone, which means Saddam is not allowed to use that airspace. He forfeited that right because of the attack helicopters and aircraft he used against the Shi'a or Marsh Arabs in the south and against the Kurds in the north.

We also enforce this no-drive zone, which means he cannot reinforce his ground forces in the south. In other words, his republican guard divisions can't come down, threaten the Kuwaiti border, as he's done in the past since the Gulf War, or further add to the counterinsurgency operation he conducts against the Shi'a or Marsh Arabs and the dissident groups in the south.

These three operations have been ongoing, as I said, almost since the end of the Gulf War. For example, in the no-fly zone, we have flown well over 200,000 sorties over Iraqi skies. I'm proud to report that we never lost an aircraft or a pilot over Iraq in all that time, which has been a phenomenal achievement in itself, given the circumstances under which we conduct these operations from desert bases that reach 140 degrees and the deck plates of those carriers that are the same out in that Gulf. And I've been out there and have watched operations off of flight decks of our carriers and it's amazing to watch the skill and the professionalism under those conditions.

WARNER: And do mention how we share those missions with Great Britain, and the operation missions in the Gulf with other navies.


The no-fly zone in the north is shared with Great Britain. Up until two years ago, France participated also in both the north and the south. France still maintains aircraft actually, as part of the joint task force that we have and combined task force we have, but they do not fly into Iraqi airspace.

Each of the six GCC countries, Gulf Cooperation Council Countries, provide support for these operations. Support comes in many forms: There is direct support to us. This support ranges from $300 to $500 million a year, in what's called assistance in kind. They have constructed special facilities, like the housing facilities for our troops at Prince Sultan Air Base and the facilities at Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait, to name just two, to house our troops and to support our operations there.

They provide us with the basis, they provide us with other support. For example, when we conducted Desert Fox, the Kuwaiti air force flew the defensive air patrols to protect the bases that we operated out of in Kuwait. All six countries have supported us and agreed to actions that we have taken since the end of the Gulf War at one time or another.

I would mention here that Yemen, in agreeing to this refueling contract, was, in fact, added as a seventh country, which completed everyone on the Arabian Peninsula now, supporting sanctions. By refueling the Cole, she was supporting a ship that was about to engage in Maritime Intercept operations. So we had -- and I'll talk a little bit about Yemen and why Yemen, but we now had Yemen, a significant change from Yemen's attitude during the Gulf War -- now providing a support requirement for one of our ships engaged in a sanctions enforcement. And there were other things they were doing in this area which, again, I'd like to mention later on, either as a result of the questions or I can take that on in my opening statement.

Let me put this in context. Let me talk about the security environment in Central Command. I came to Central Command in 1996 as the deputy commander in chief.

I arrived about a month, or a month and a half, after Khobar Towers and our security assistance bombing at OPM/SANG. We had lost 24 military personnel, and a number wounded.

Needless to say, force protection had always been high on Central Command, but this certainly took it to another level. The Downing commission did an investigation afterwards, and had something like 40 findings. It was my responsibility as the deputy commander in chief to implement all 40 of those findings.

The only one that did not get implemented was the recommendation to move our forward headquarters into the region, and I would argue, that would have compounded the problem rather than helped it, and that's arguable.

But all the other recommendations were achieved in short order by Central Command.

There is no commander in chief in Central Command that does not go to sleep at night worrying about that phone ringing, that there is going to be a terrorist act. My predecessor experienced several of them. I experienced the bombing in Nairobi, where I lost a fine Air Force NCO and two great civilian employees of the Department of Defense.

I think, as was mentioned here, we know we deterred a number of terrorist attempts. One example is those terrorists that were scarfed (ph) up near New Year's in Jordan. And our ability, through our relationships with Pakistan, to get to the core and the center of those guiding that effort, and General Musharaff and the Pakistanis, at my request, turning over the materials and the people to our officials.

That's an example of how engagement helps in this. I spoke to Director Freeh just before he left for Yemen, and his comment to me was, had it not been for our involvement and our connection with the Yemeni government, he doubts he would have had the cooperation that they now have.

Twenty-four out of 25 countries, in the time I was commander in chief, had a threat level. Now, we saw an example of the threat levels color-coded, presented by Senator Roberts.

There are four threat levels. Twenty-four out of 25 countries always had a threat level. That's a snapshot in time. Those threat levels go up and down. If something happens on the West Bank, they go up. If something happens in Iraq, they go up. If a specific report comes in, they go up.

We existed continuously with only one country not having a threat condition. For information, that was the Seychelles, the Seychelle Islands. There are only two ports in all of CENTCOM that did not ever have a specific terrorist threat: Masqat and Victoria, in the Seychelles.

And in fact, Aden never had a specific terrorist threat. All the other ports that have been mentioned here that we should have considered as options have had specific terrorist threats, and we've had to emergency-sortie out of them.

WARNER: Give the total number of reports, and who issues those specific assessments. ZINNI: Those reports come to us through a variety of sources. Obviously, all the intelligence agencies that we have, our own ability in the region to connect with -- and I would add here, the relationships we build with the countries, and the intelligence exchange we have with the countries in the region, that help us with this sort of information.

By the way, this building of intelligence cooperation was one of our goals for Yemen that we were just beginning to initiate, that had not yet been put in place. But we look to a time of doing that. It's a slow process, and one that the government and agencies on the other side have to be carefully vetted.

When we chose the Port of Aden -- this goes back to 1997, and actually back to '96. From '91 to '96, there were no relations with Yemen, for obvious reasons: their position in the Gulf War. In 1990, they had just come out of their own civil war and begun reunification, and they were having a difficult time coming to grips with their own internal problems and security.

In 1996 and 1997, Yemen expressed an interest to improve relationships with the United States. I went through my notes and came across my meetings and my association with the Yemenis and with our own State Department and with my own component commanders on how we should approach this.

And really it began back in October of '97 when I met with the then-new ambassador headed out to Yemen, Ambassador Bodine, who has proven to be a great supporter of our military-to-military effort, and as a matter of fact, contrary to what may have been said in the papers and other places, she was an advocate of going slow in Yemen, and taking it carefully and building upon success and not rushing it.

And she was very security-conscious and has been. She, in fact, has advised us on canceling or postponing certain evolutions, based on situations that were taking place in Yemen.

I would like to say something about this pamphlet, because it's been quoted in the press. And, Chairman, you quoted one line from this.

This is the State Department publication, unclassified, on terrorism around the world. We have extracted this one little sentence that rightfully says that the Yemeni government has had instances where they're lax, and in the remote areas -- in the remote areas -- where the tribes are, it is dangerous. And I certainly would not advise any American to go out there.

Can I read you two sentences before that, the lead-in to the four paragraphs? It says, "Yemen expanded security cooperation with other Arab countries in 1999, and signed a number of international anti- terrorist conventions. The government introduced incremental measures to better control its borders, territory and travel documents, and initialized special training for a newly established counterterrorism unit within the ministry of interior." It goes on to describe convictions that they have had, executions of terrorists they have captured. Attempts by their fledgling anti- terrorist force to rescue hostages did not go very well, but they tried, and they're building force, and it's one thing they've asked us to help them on.

And it talks about court reform and special prosecutors and new laws to handle this.

Is it a perfect solution? Absolutely not. Do they have problems? Absolutely they do. It is not the place we would like it to be. But they have asked for our help. They asked for our help in building their counterterrorism capability, help with intelligence, help with their security forces.

The president, the prime minister, the foreign minister and the minister of defense have personally asked me to help them with their border security. We were beginning to create a Coast Guard. Their coast is porous, it's a sieve, as are their land borders. They have no Coast Guard. They have a situation there, as a result of this civil war, that their security forces, their military, are really very, very poor.

Somali refugees poor into this area, other refugees from Africa. Terrorists transit this place.

Now, why Yemen, from America's point of view?

WARNER: Just one footnote. In talking to Director Freeh, you mentioned that they've asked for help. The FBI has given them help and trained a cadre. Would you cover that, and how those trained agents, Yemeni agents, are now working with our FBI in the investigation?

ZINNI: Yes, they are. And, Senator, that's exactly right. I don't have all the details. I'm familiar with the program. It, of course, was part of the overall engagement.

WARNER: For the information of the committee, I've scheduled a hearing with the Federal Bureau in S-407 at 3:00 today.

ZINNI: Senator, Yemen was chosen for several reasons. First of all, we needed to refuel around that region at the Bab el Mandeb, the choke point at the end of the Red Sea.

Now, I'd like to walk you down the Red Sea so you can see the options we had. If you leave the Suez and you head south and you're a ship like the Cole, where can you refuel?

Sudan? Obviously not.

Saudi Arabia? Back in 1997, when we were making this decision, we had just had two bombings in Saudi Arabia. We lost 24 people. Threat conditions were high. We were moving our aircraft that were stationed on the western side of Saudi Arabia to Prince Sultan in the center, at the request of the Saudis. There had been specific threats in this region. And actually, from an operational point of view, Jiddah and the other ports did not offer an optimal point to refuel. And I would ask that you talk at greater length with the Navy personal who had testified to that point. If you proceed on down, you then come down to Eritrea. We can't have any military relations with Eritrea. They were at war with the Ethiopia; the threat conditions in there were not good at all and the facilities were not that great.

We had been in Djibouti and refueling. We were interested in terminating that contract because at that time, Djibouti, the threat conditions were far worse. The port was extremely busy, many small boats, the conditions ashore and in the government were not satisfactory. We were looking for another port, partially because of the unsatisfactory conditions that existed in Djibouti at that time, '96 and '97.

Now, I want to say, since then, since President Guellah has come in, it has improved. And we are not precluded from refueling in other places like Jiddah or like Djibouti. It is that we have a contract in Aden.

We then go to Somalia. I don't think that we need to talk about Somalia as a potential refueling point, certainly not at this point.

We then go to Oman.

WARNER: General, in that you are our last military commander in Somalia, and very courageously led the withdrawal of the remaining forces under hostile fire.

ZINNI: We then come to Oman. Some have suggested Oman. The nearest port is Salalah. Salalah has great potential. It is a port that was under development when we were looking at these ports.

I have personally visited everyone of these ports, incidentally, including every port in my region and have done port surveys. I went into a launch in Aden with the harbor master and the director of the port and personally surveyed that port and surveyed those bunkering facilities.

Salalah has promise, but it's too far. Again, I would defer to my Navy colleagues on bringing a ship around and going that long without refueling. And at that point and time, Salalah had not been developed.

So we were limited with a choice, in terms of force protection, of options that were not very good. And, actually, and I think you'll hear this in further testimony -- especially in closed session -- the threat conditions in Aden, the specific threat conditions, were actually better than we had elsewhere. It was not good, certainly. There were threat conditions that existed, but certainly they were not worse than anywhere else.

We conducted several vulnerability inspections. We sent our inspectors in before we cut this contract. My brigadier general, Brigadier General Billy Cooper, in charge of my security that the point in time, went there personally, spent almost a week looking at it. I have made four visits to Yemen, two to the Port of Aden.

WARNER: I think that it's important, to the best you can, to reconstruct the dates of when these things took place -- your visits and that of your subordinates.

ZINNI: My first visit was in May of '98. My second visit was in December of '98. My third in April of '99. And my last one, in May of this year.

I want to say, in every visit, I was seen by the president. As a matter of fact, when the president came to Washington, he asked me to come to Washington to visit him. His interest in our military-to- military relations, his interest in our helping him develop this capability of counterterrorism, was direct and personal.

In May of '98 is when my chief of security, joint rear area coordinator -- military term that is used -- visited and spent the week there. Just to keep the time line in order, Congressman, we looked at late '96 to moving the contract out of Djibouti. We began in '97 looking at ports, and we began in late '97 looking hard at Aden.

My naval component commander asked the Defense Energy Support Center to conduct a survey of the port, and they did in November of '98, and they put bids out.

The contract was awarded in December of '98. Under the contract, the first ship, as you pointed out, Mr. Chairman, refueled on the first of March '99, although we had refueled three ships prior to that. So there were 27 ships that have gone into there and refueled prior to the Cole.

And before that, there were two ships that made ship visits in there. Now, when we made ship visits in there, this was carefully done. This was certainly not a liberty port. As a matter of fact, we did some basic civic action, painting of orphanages, that sort of thing, but they were very limited.

And we did not consider this a port that, you know, obviously, one we wanted to use for that purpose. There were a couple done early on, but none within the last two years. The cooperation of the Yemenis, I have to say, was very good. I have to say they had a long way to go. We set force protection standards at Central Command. My component commander set force protection standards, obviously specifically geared to the nature of their mission -- naval standards for ship visits or refueling, ground standards for Army, et cetera, et cetera. We provide overall standards. I think in closed session, my successor, General Franks, can review all of those.

WARNER: We, as a committee, will receive the force protection plan, which was filed and reviewed by CENTCOM just prior to the visit of the USS Cole.

ZINNI: Yes, sir.

WARNER: That is done as a matter of routine. I bring that out to explain this to those who are following this hearing.

ZINNI: Mr. Chairman, if could I make two other points and then go to questions. I said, why Yemen? It is a strategically important location. There is a choke-point there, the Bab el Mandeb, that we are in charged in Central Command to keep open. Like the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz.

This choke point, as I mentioned, has Somalia, has Eritrea and Ethiopia at war, has Yemen, as has been mentioned here, until recently has not been friendly toward us.

There's been a dispute between Eritrea and Yemen regarding the Hanish Islands right at the choke point at the Bab el Mandeb. Yemen also had a dispute with Saudi Arabia over border issues. These often turn violent.

I'm happy to say Yemen and Eritrea resolved their border dispute, took it to international arbitration and resolved it. Thanks to the Crown Prince Abdullah, the Saudis and the Yemenis have resolved their border disputes. To the credit of President Saleh, he has moved to try to resolve and create stability here.

So strategically, geographically, this was an important country.

As has been said, in the past it was known to be a transit place for terrorists. We worry about the ability of terrorists to gain access to the Arabian Peninsula. We have had reports of terrorists that wanted to use Yemen or were using Yemen as a transit point into Saudi Arabia.

I don't need to tell you, because of where our troops are located, the potential for them bringing terrorist materials through here is considerably dangerous. It was in our interest to certainly help the Yemenis control their borders, to clamp down on terrorists, to stop that one soft spot on the peninsula.

I would just conclude my opening statement by saying that, in our part of the world in CENTCOM, we have been accused more often than not of being overly sensitive to force protection. I can give you endless examples of things that we have canceled, postponed or moved or changed that would have enhanced diplomatic relations with countries, but for force protection reasons, we moved and changed them.

We have canceled exercises. We have canceled ship visits. We have moved operational requirements, support requirements, like this, from locations where they benefited the people, made our access easier, but we moved them to other locations where we didn't get that benefit of engagement for security reasons.

We have insisted on policies, on carrying weapons, that were difficult to negotiate with host countries here. And in some cases, even our own diplomats were difficult to negotiate with. But we insisted on it.

I don't want anyone to think we ever in any instance, anywhere, in any evolution or event that took place in CENTCOM, ever took a risk for the purpose of a better relationship with a country and put a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine at risk for that reason. Absolutely not.

Refueling is an operational requirement. The conduct of operations is one of eight categories of engagement. This is not my definition, this is how we report our engagement activities.

This operational requirement requires a commitment on the Yemenis' part. They are supporting the enforcement of sanctions. There is a commercial benefit to them, obviously, in the Port of Aden. It helps us because of the location and the strategic direction our ships have to take, as I mentioned. But in no time was this a gratuitous offer to be made just to improve relationships with the Yemenis.

Thank you.

WARNER: Thank you, General.

Very clear. I expected exactly what you said, in terms of your professionalism. But it's important that I sort of walk you through what my understanding and your understanding is of exactly your day- to-day operations as you look at your assets, as you say, you borrow.

I want to go back and clarify the statement. You said, we're accused of over force protection. Maybe you want to revisit the word "accused." It seems to me that in making this decision, the Department of State works with you, the Central Intelligence Agency works with you, the Defense Intelligence Agency worked with you. And is it not a composite of all this information that you must assess and then you are the decision-maker, and you make that decision. And when you make that decision, the only one that can really overrule you is the president of the United States acting through the secretary of defense. Am I not correct?

ZINNI: Mr. Chairman, that is absolutely correct. It is my decision. The refueling of that ship in Aden was my decision. I want to be clear. I pass that buck on to nobody. And I want to be clear that the decision oftentimes that we take is not received or agreed with by others. But it is my decision.

And when I take an action regarding force protection, in some cases, Mr. Chairman, I have had to waiver force protection standards because they were physically impossible to achieve. I will not let any of my component commanders waiver it.

I accept that responsibility solely. And I wanted every single waiver, no matter how minor, to come to my desk. I was the authority. I was the one responsible for those decisions. And if I lessened the requirement for operational necessity, because it was physically impossible, or completely unaffordable to do it, and I had to take that risk, it was my risk.

WARNER: So when we go back and revisit the word "accused," it's simply when you make those decisions either to go forward with the deployment or cancel the deployment after weighing all of the risks, it's the other departments and agencies which will come back occasionally and say, "Well, we wish you had done this." But then you just said, "I made the decision, and I accept the responsibility." Am I not correct, that's what you meant by accused?

ZINNI: That is correct, but in fairness, I must say, as I mentioned with Ambassador Bodine, there were times when they recommended we cancel it, where they might have been the stronger proponent for that. And we certainly always opted in favor of greater force protection, unless there was an overriding operational necessity not to.

unless there was an overriding operational necessity not to.

HEMMER: Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Anthony Zinni (ret.) there giving his testimony as to why the port of Aden was indeed chosen as a refueling stop. A lot of testimony for the past 35 minutes. Just to give you a quick recap, Gen. Zinni indicating the relationship with Yemen changed back in 1996 and 1997 when that country sought better relations with the United States. Gen. Zinni indicating -- we got a map to show you here the geography of the region.

He said the U.S. needed to refuel in the Red Sea region. Threat conditions were no worse in Aden than other locations. He also said that several U.S. officials went in first to investigate in Yemen. It was then ruled a strategic and important port. He said also that Aden was never a real terrorist threat.

In addition to that, with the "no fly" rule over Iraq, Gen. Zinni felt that, in his words, that Yemen was now becoming somewhat a partner in the strategic strategy for the U.S. in the region and in the Persian Gulf. And it was seen, again, as an important and strategic part of the current mission. Toward the end there, he said -- I'm quoting now -- "we never took a risk for a better relationship with a country and put the life of a U.S. sailor or U.S. Marine at risk," end quote there.

The general continues. We'll watch it throughout the morning.



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