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Defense Secretary William Cohen Holds News Briefing on USS Cole Investigation

Aired January 9, 2001 - 2:01 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Defense Secretary Cohen is speaking at the Pentagon about the investigation of the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.


WILLIAM COHEN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: ... in our force protection armor.

The fundamental conclusion is that we must view terrorists as a relentless enemy and, quote, "confront the terrorists with the same intensity and discipline that we've used in the past to defeat intentional antagonists." I agree with this conclusion.

As our conventional superiority increases, we must pay greater attention to combating asymmetric threats including terrorism.

General Crouch and Admiral Gehman are going to outline for you proposed changes in training, organization, enhanced force protection for in-transit forces, intelligence and logistics before taking your questions.

All of these recommendations are designed to make a good force protection system better so that our enemies will find it more difficult and more costly to interfere with our efforts to maintain peace and stability around the world.

I want to thank General Crouch, Admiral Gehman for a job extremely well done in a very short period of time. Their recommendations are going to help the men and women in uniform deal more proactively with threats posed by terrorists around the world.

I am transmitting this report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff with instructions that he review the recommendations and advise my successor on how best to act on the report.

Some of the recommendations will require budgetary and training changes that may take some time to implement. Others can and should be adopted quickly.

When I asked General Crouch and Admiral Gehman to undertake this review, I directed them to focus on force protection improvements and not to address matters of individual culpability.

COHEN: Nevertheless, I've asked the chairman, who is my principle adviser and focal point for force protection, to review the Crouch-Gehman report to see if it raises any accountability issues that should be pursued further, and a copy of my directive to the chairman is going to be available after this press conference.

I make this referral without any preconceived notion that someone in the chain of command was either inattentive or negligent, but rather to review all of the circumstances surrounding the attack so that we can have a full account of what happened on the ship and off.

And as I noted during the memorial service for the victims of this attack, every night all of us sleep under this blanket of freedom because men and women in uniform sail and patrol in harm's way.

And as secretary of defense, I understand that even America's best efforts cannot remove every risk that our soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines are going to face, although we will always strive to do exactly that.

We have to continue what we started, and that is to protect our nation's interest, to protect our men and women in uniform, and to subdue the enemies, and we have to continue to thank the soldiers, the sailors, the airmen and the Marines and their families for all that they do to protect us.

Let me answer a few of your questions and then yield to Admiral Gehman and...

QUESTION: Secretary, are you concerned if no one is blamed or held accountable to this and punished that it will smack of a whitewash?

COHEN: Well, we have separate investigations underway, as I just mentioned a moment ago. I asked General Crouch and Admiral Gehman to focus on force protection improvements. That was their sole mandate.

We have a JAG man which will be forthcoming hopefully in the next few days, certainly before the end of my tenure. I want that report to come to me before I leave office, and we will look at issues of accountability under those reports.

But I have asked for the chairman to review not only this report with recommendations, but also to look at all accountability issues.

QUESTION: Are you comfortable and confident that the captain of the Cole did everything he should have done to implement force protection procedures for the ship the day it was bombed in Yemen?

COHEN: I really can't answer that question at this point, because it would prejudge the report that's going to be forthcoming to me in a few days.

QUESTION: Are you comfortable with the recommendation that says the standing rules of engagement were adequate?

COHEN: I trust the judgment of Admiral Gehman and General Crouch that the rules of engagement are sufficient.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, there's an implication in the recommendation that there was somewhat of an intelligence failure here. Is that the case, that the CIA let us down once again? Was there no warning of the terrorist activity in Aden? Or DIA didn't get the message through?

COHEN: I think what the report points to is that the ship did not have specific intelligence, tailored to its visit to Aden, and that we need to have much greater intensity of focus, with intelligence tailored to meet the commanders of the ships, and all of our commanders for that matter, that there was not specific intelligence communicated to the captain of the ship, that the warnings that were received were general in nature and not directed against his ship, and that they preceded this tragedy at least a month prior to that time.

So one of their recommendations would be to get much greater focus on intelligence that is focused for the ships and for all commanders.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, where was the breakdown? Was it Central Command? Was it DIA? Again, was it CIA? Was it Fifth Fleet?

We know that the CINCs tend to be rather autonomous in the way they operate. Does that concern you at all?

COHEN: Well, under Goldwater-Nichols, CINCs are specifically delegated the responsibility to have that kind of authority. And so we delegate to the CINCs that responsibility. So it's not a breakdown, it's actually a fulfillment of Goldwater- Nichols.

COHEN: The issue in this particular case -- and, again, we have to wait for other reports should be forthcoming -- is whether or not we need to have greater coordination in terms of setting threat conditions, or changing the name from threat condition because it may be confusing with threat levels, to remove as much confusion, to have greater coordination between our intelligence communities, to have greater coordination between the Department of State and Department of Defense to make sure that there are no misunderstandings that occur in terms of making assessments about what needs to be done.

So it's clear that there was a seam in our force protection armor, as I've phrased it, that there are institutional changes which have to be made, improvements which have to be made, to try and prevent this from taking place in the future, once again, with a caveat that as good as we get or will get in the future, that terrorists are bound to examine other ways of finding vulnerabilities.

We saw when we started to really strengthen the force protection elements for fixed sites, for our fixed bases, they have since -- they have moved to our embassies, bombing the embassies in East Africa. And as we take additional measures here with our fleet, no doubt they will look for other softer targets to go after.

But we still, nonetheless, have an obligation to do everything that's within reason to provide the best protection that we can for our men and women in uniform. And that's precisely what the Crouch- Gehman report is designed to do.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you say that the ship didn't have specific intelligence tailored to its visit to Yemen. Are you saying that that intelligence existed and did not get to the ship? Or did the intelligence not exist at all in this government?

COHEN: Well, I think that the two gentlemen who are about to take the podium should address that specifically. But I believe that the intelligence, as far as this intelligence about this attack against this ship, did not in fact exist for dissemination.

QUESTION: And can I just ask a very quick follow-up on a related subject? Since October 12, now, is there anything that you can point to that is being done better already to protect U.S. Navy ships pulling into harbor? What is different since October 12?

COHEN: Again, I'm going to defer to Admiral Gehman and General Crouch. A number of steps have been taken. The first thing we did, we had a teleconference with all of the CINCs to ask all of them to review their force protection measures. We suspended the visits to Aden and to other areas until such time as the CINCs were satisfied they had taken specific measures, but there are number of things.

COHEN: I have a long list I can get to you after the press conference to point to things that we have done since that time. But I believe that Admiral Gehman and General Crouch will also address that.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, there is a rising political storm in Europe right now on the issue of depleted uranium rounds. And increasingly the United States appears to be isolated on this issue. Now even Britain is launching an investigation into the health effects.

It appears as though our allies don't believe the research that the Pentagon has been putting out, that there is a credibility gap here. What can you say to the Europeans to try and ease their obviously growing concerns on this issue?

COHEN: Well, what we have tried to point out in the past, we did in fact provide NATO with warning instructions in terms of what measures should be taken, that we have found no scientific link between the depleted uranium and leukemia, as some have alleged, and we have not been able to find any substantiation of that scientifically.

We have advised the members of NATO what steps they should take in dealing with this. I suppose if there were any deficiency to be found, it would be in the failure to pick up fragments of destroyed vehicles or tanks in which the depleted uranium projectiles were used.

But beyond that, I think adequate warnings were given, and there is a very low risk of coming into contact with this, provided there is sufficient protection taken.

QUESTION: Is there any consideration of a moratorium on the use of depleted uranium munitions while these investigations by America's European allies are going on?

COHEN: We have not considered that at this point, no.

QUESTION: Why not?

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, tomorrow President-elect Bush is going to be coming here. What are some of the things, the key things, you'd like to be telling him? And is the Cole the terrorism part of that? And is there any regrets left over, things that you'll be handing to your successor?

COHEN: First, let me say, apparently this is my last opportunity to address you behind this podium.

But I think that the selection of Donald Rumsfeld is a truly outstanding choice. I have known Don Rumsfeld for some time and have worked very close with him on a number of issues. And I think he will be a great secretary of defense.

I called him last week, and I was sitting behind my desk, and I said, "Don, I'm sitting here, I'm making a list of 10 things I think you should address. And then, unfortunately, however, it's now up to 48." And we chuckled about that on the phone.

But he came to my office a few days ago, and we sat down and went through all 48 of the items for two hours that I wanted to alert him to, all the way from NATO issues, relations with China, Russia, some of the other major issues he will have to contend with, budgetary and otherwise.

So we did spend two solid hours dealing with those issues.

Tomorrow, I expect it to be much thematic in dealing with President-elect Bush, give a general briefing on some key issues, but then to talk about our strategic issues, and then have a briefing with the joint chiefs and others.

So I don't expect to get into it too much in detail, and that's what his new secretary of defense will do. And he'll have his confirmation hearings, I'm told on Thursday. And I would expect them to go quite well and to have a very strong level of support from the committee.


QUESTION: From your list to Rumsfeld, what was the first item?

QUESTION: What was item two on your list?

COHEN: I'd have to go back. I started to prioritize them, I said it's too difficult.

I think of all the issues, certainly we have to keep the focus on the people in the military, recruitment, retention, quality of life issues to begin with, certainly. Because without having the best and the brightest continue to be in the military, then all of the sophisticated equipment that we have will not be of any use to us. So focusing upon what we need to do to make sure that we continue to retain and to recruit the best possible people.

COHEN: I did talk about budgetary issues, and tomorrow I hope to make an announcement in terms of what kind of budget he can look forward to in the near future, and I think it'll be a very positive message that will be delivered.

I talked about the need to address issues involving Russia and China and how we conduct those relations. I discussed the emerging issues that will be in NATO-EU. What does ESDP really mean? How should we insist that we approach NATO's relationship with the European security defense policy?

I gave a speech over at NATO recently, and I indicated I would make that available to him with more specificity.

We talked about national missile defense, and I outlined my own views on NMD and how I felt it had been approached and needed to be approached, understanding that there may be a much different view from President-elect Bush, but to talk about the political dynamic as well as the technical aspects of that.

Talked about terrorism issues, weapons of mass destruction, those countries who are developing weapons of mass destruction. I talked about our relationship with enforcing the no-fly zones in Iraq, the sanctions regime which is in place, and perhaps how to address those issues in the future. The whole spectrum that involves our national security.

QUESTION: We have time for all 48. It's OK.



COHEN: ... but that's just a small sample of what we...


QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, one, on the report. The second finding here talks about the national security strategy of engagement lacked a coordinated focus. Isn't that a rather a damning indictment of eight years of the Clinton administration's national security policy? And you articulately defended it over the last three or four -- three years. COHEN: Oh, I do.

QUESTION: Were you surprised by the finding?

COHEN: I absolutely am committed to the engagement strategy.

What the report says, and I'll let the two experts address this for you, what the report suggests is that we have an engagement policy, which they also strongly endorse, that we have focused -- we've done a great job in terms of force protection during the last four years in improving it; we have not done as good a job in terms of so-called in-transit force protection.

COHEN: And if we are going to continue our engagement policy and send our ships into areas that do pose risks to our sailors on fixed installations, then we've got to take more proactive measures, not simply act out of a defense-oriented mentality, but to take a much more aggressive stance.

One of the recommendations would be, for example, that the CINC engage in much more active negotiations with host nations so that we can insist upon certain force protection measures that can be taken dealing with the sovereignty issues, but making sure that we put our emphasis on force protection, and make it compatible with the sovereignty claims of the country, but to make sure that that CINC, or more specifically the component commander of the CINC who has responsibility and should have responsibility for these, become actively engaged to make sure that these additional measures are taken.

So I believe that the admiral and general will strongly endorse the engagement policy, because it's one that we think is important for the security of this country.

WATERS: Defense Secretary William Cohen, his swan song at the Pentagon podium today, as he briefs reporters on one of the most troubling incidents of the Clinton administration. That was the attack on the USS Cole.

The defense secretary now has in his hands a report from a Pentagon known as the Cole Commission indicating that the bombing that killed the 17 sailors exposed -- to quote from the report -- "a seam in the fabric of the U.S. military's antiterrorism regime, but that it can be strengthened."

The admiral and the general, Crouch and Gehman (ph), will be talking about this strengthened regime a bit later here in this news conference still going on at the Pentagon. We will keep you up to date on that effort.

But, today, it was what happened aboard the USS Cole the day of the attack? Was it is blame -- should the blame be put on the commander of the vessel? Should it go higher up the chain for those who allowed the USS Cole to refuel in Yemen? Should U.S. intelligence be blamed? These are all things being considered. The defense secretary saying he is expecting a report in a few days.

We have our correspondent in these matters, David Ensor, with us now from Washington.

Just what is being investigated, David? And what direction are we going here?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, right from the day that the explosion occurred, Lou, the suspicion of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials has been that the organization headed by Osama bin Laden, the fugitive Saudi accused terrorist who is in Afghanistan, was responsible for this blast.

But, as recently as this morning, a senior official said he knows of no smoking gun evidence, and he'd be very surprised if the Clinton administration has that kind of evidence -- evidence enough to retaliate in some form before January 20th.

Now there have been a few recent developments. The Yemenis, first of all, announced that they intend to hold a trial, either later this month or early the following one, of several suspects in the case that they are holding.

FBI officials are somewhat concerned about that. They would like to see the trial delayed, they would like to have more of a chance to go through the evidence, to pose questions that can be asked of the suspects and so forth, and really get to bottom of the thing before anyone is tried and perhaps executed.

Yemeni officials have also, in recent days, been saying they have another suspect in hand. One who is pointing the finger at Osama bin Laden. Now U.S. officials are somewhat skeptical about that, Lou, saying that even if there is someone being held, who is doing that, a Yemeni suspect, he's very unlikely to really know what he's talking about. He would be several stepped removes from Osama bin Laden or anyone who might have ordered this particular bombing.

So a lot of work being done, no definite answers yet -- Lou.

WATERS: Let's take a couple of minutes and talk about the military structure surrounding the investigation. We have the investigating officer concluding that some of the measures taken aboard -- some measures that might have been taken aboard might have mitigated the attack, and then we have a subsequent finding by higher- ups that the commander's actions aboard the ship were within the acceptable range of conduct expected from a ship commander. In a matter such as this, there always seem to be a tendency to look for someone to blame. I think I heard a lot of blame being cast on the intelligence community within this Pentagon briefing we just heard.

ENSOR: Well, I think you heard the defense secretary saying that the right kind of intelligence wasn't gathered, and gotten to the right people at the right time. And they want to see that done better in the future.

Clearly, nobody had ever bombed a Navy ship in this way before. And a lot of officials are saying you can get away with it once, we are not going to allow that same kind of strategy to be used in the future.

The trick is to have a flexible enough intelligence gathering and delivery system that it can give people what they need for any sort of scenario. The next scenario may be different. So the intelligence community needs to do more and better; that was certainly message you did hear today, I think, yes.

WATERS: And what do you know of these strengthen procedures for the terrorist -- the antiterrorist regime that we are going to be hearing more about in the next few days?

ENSOR: Well, you will be hearing more about the specific steps that the Navy is taking to protect ships when they make port calls or refueling stops. That kind of thing they will talk about because it will be visible anyway.

But a lot of the sort of strengthening of intelligence gathering is the kind of thing the U.S. government likes to do without the rest of us hearing about it too much. Clearly, there will be greater attention paid to all the kinds of intelligence, signals intelligence, listening in on telephone calls, faxes, all the kinds of communication that they try to track terrorist groups through, there will be a lot more focus on that. There already is a lot. And you will probably see some satellites moving more in sync with the Navy's port calls, for example. People may be on the ground in those places. But we are not going to know who they are, at least that's the goal.

WATERS: All right, David Ensor, we will hear more about this, the latest on the USS Cole investigation.



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