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Special Event

Senate Armed Services Committee Holds Hearings on USS Cole Attack

Aired October 25, 2000 - 9:32 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Officials say the number of terrorist threats against U.S. interests has increased since the attack against the USS Cole. As the investigation into the bombing continues overseas, lawmakers here in the U.S. are also still looking for answers. The Senate Armed Services Committee is right now holding an inquiry into the bombing that killed 17 American sailors.

Let's go ahead and listen in to a bit of the testimony

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

EDWARD WALKER, ASST. SECRETARY OF STATE: ... and cooperation. We have all received the strongest assurances of Yemen's cooperation with the investigation and, by all accounts to date, those assurances have become reality on the ground.

Politically, this tragedy occurs when we have been working with the Yemini government to encourage democracy and economic reform. We still have our differences on the Middle East peace process, and, historically, we have had differences on Iraq. Nevertheless, Yemen has made strides in strengthening regional security by settling long- standing border disputes with Saudi Arabia, Oman and Eritrea.

The decision to refuel in Yemen, as General Zinni has explained, was his decision, but it was consistent with the policy of an incremental approach at a measured pace in developing our relations with Sanaa. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R-VA), CHAIRMAN, ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Let's pick up on that last point that you make, Mr. Ambassador, "an incremental approach." We were led to believe by General Zinni's testimony that the decision to make refueling stops at Yemen was predicated solely on military considerations and not to enhance the relationships between our nation and Yemen.

Now, of course, the presence of the ship there indirectly enhances the relationship. It shows the region that we impose some measure of respect, first, for the struggle that this current government in Yemen is making to reestablish itself as a nation once divided by a civil war.

But I want to sort of have a crisp response from you: Do you agree with General Zinni's characterization that the decision was predicated solely on military considerations and not on any nation- building considerations?

WALKER: Mr. Chairman, the decision on refueling of U.S. Naval vessels is strictly and solely a military decision. Our embassies try to support those decisions by seeking the diplomatic approval for the ship visit to the host nation. And certainly, we are aware of our responsibilities to keep the commander of CENTCOM informed of any special circumstances that we might know.

There is a distinction I would make between a ship visit for refueling and a port visit, which does have a greater diplomatic visibility. In a port visit, generally, there's entertainment for some of the host nation...

WARNER: I'm fully aware of that.

WALKER: Thank you.

WARNER: Let's go back also to the coordination between the Department of State and the Department of Defense. Traditionally, within our government, and I think quite properly, there are differences of opinion regarding facts. And in this instance, we're trying to reconcile that your department put out a very specific travel warning. Your department put in its annual report the opinion that this was a safe haven for terrorists, for whatever reasons.

Now, put yourself in the position of a member of the family of the Cole or citizens across this country who are absolutely shocked and appalled at this incident, where one branch of government says to travelers, "Don't go," and the other branch of the government, the Department of Defense, actually says, "Go."

Now, walk through that and let's try and help people have a better understanding how you coordinate, and when there is a difference of opinion, while the final buck stops on the desk of the Central commander, nevertheless, there is this conflict in opinion.

WALKER: Senator, there's been advisories out on Yemen during the period prior to the Cole's refueling stop, but there was not a travel warning. The traveling warning was actually issued after the Cole was attacked.

The situation has been, historically, that Yemen has been a transit point for terrorists, known terrorists, and that there has been the capability of maintaining safe haven for certain organizations such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the UBL operatives because the Yemen government does not have full control, either over its borders or over some of the outlining areas.

It has been also true that there has been a threat to various tourists and so on of hostage-taking by some of the tribes in order to obtain money.

So there have been a number of different kinds of threats in Yemen, but Yemen's not unique. We have travel warnings in a number of different locations in the region. As a matter of fact, we closed the embassies in the entire region on two occasions over the past couple of weeks for fear of generalized threats that we have perceived.

WARNER: Well, let me interject here. You said there were no travel warnings before.

WALKER: Warning, yes, sir, there was.

WARNER: Well, I'm reading from September 14, 1999. It's entitled "Warning: The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to consider whether they should travel to Yemen in light of several recent incidents involving Americans and other foreigners." Then skipping down to the next paragraph, I quote, "As these incidents indicate, the level of risk for foreigners in Yemen is very high."

Presumably, your department had notice of General Zinni's decision to make port calls. Did you go back and say, "Are you sure you looked at this thing very carefully? Because we have, perhaps, a different professional view of the level of risk."

WALKER: Senator, the country team reviewed the decision or the...

WARNER: Now, for those following this, you've got to describe country team as...

WALKER: I'm sorry.

WARNER: ... the ambassador, in-country, together with her advisers.

WALKER: That's correct. The country team is the ambassador and various agency heads.

When it was suggested that the Cole would be coming in for refueling, the country team met.

KAGAN: We've been listening to Edward Walker. He is assistant secretary of state, as he testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The committee today Looking into the blast that hit the USS Cole on October 12th. Because of the blast that took place off the coast of Yemen, 17 American sailors lost their lives. And since that attack, there has been a number of questions about the timeline of events, as well as a lot of second-guessing about the operation and choices that were made in refueling in that port in Yemen.

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