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Special Event

Defense Secretary Cohen Discusses USS Cole Bombing

Aired January 19, 2001 - 4:07 p.m. ET

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

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: I want to move elsewhere in Washington to the Pentagon. In his final day as defense secretary, William Cohen is talking about the October attack on the USS Cole. Let's listen in.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

WILLIAM COHEN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Both the Navy and Crouch- Gehman commission found that the department has made major improvements in force protection since 1996 and the attack against Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and that force protection was a priority issue on the ship and throughout the chain of command.

The Navy's JAG Man investigation looked at whether the captain and crew of the USS Cole were negligent or deficient in the execution of their force protection duties. And while the commander of the ship didn't take every specific step that his force protection plan called for, the reviewers of the investigation, including the chief of naval operations and the secretary of the Navy, concluded that under the circumstances the full implementation of the force protection plan probably could not have prevented the attack.

Navy leaders have concluded that the overall performance of the captain and his crew does not warrant punitive action, and I agree with that conclusion.

However, the question of accountability is deeper and more complex than the performance of the crew alone. All of us in the leadership positions, including myself, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of the Navy, the chief of naval operations, the commander in chief of the Central Command, and others needed to engage more vigorously in the examination of the range of potential threats.

Clever, committed terrorists are predators who will always search and look for weaknesses, and we simply have to do a better job of finding and correcting those weaknesses before the terrorists find them and exploit them. We must constantly search for and find the so- called seams in our force protection plans before our enemies do.

And in the case of Cole, we did not do so. We were not complacent, but the terrorists found new opportunities before we found new protections. And we need better, more specific intelligence to prepare commanders for new and uncertain locations. We need force protection procedures that are more imaginative, more flexible and less predictable. And most of all, we need force protection programs that are less reactive and more proactive. And we need to be much tougher in our negotiations with host nations who are responsible for local security measures.

The Crouch-Gehman commission outlined new procedures and new approaches to force protection, and the chairman is working on a plan to implement those recommendations. As long as our troops are engaged around the world to promote peace and stability, we're going to face forces of violence and chaos, and no amount of planning and preparation is going to be able to eliminate all the threats, but we have to continue to try to do so.

The sailors lost in the USS Cole died in the cause of peace and freedom and we are never going to forget their sacrifice, and we'll never forget the grief of their families and shipmates. And the best tribute we can pay to them now is to continue our work for peace and freedom while stopping the terrorists who will never succeed in stopping us.

I'll take just a few questions. And I'd like to have Admiral Clark and Secretary Danzig come and give you the full briefing.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, what would you say just very briefly to the families of the 17 who died on the Cole, who would ask, "Why is no one being punished for this?"

COHEN: Well, it's not correct to say that no one is being punished. The highest naval officer in our country has indicated his dissatisfaction with some of the steps that the captain of the ship failed to take.

Secondly, I have taken this occasion to spell out to you that accountability, namely the accountability of the factual situation, and as well as measures that are identified that need to be taken, have been done so with the Gehman and Crouch commission report to you, as well as the chairman preparing to carry out many if not all them.

And thirdly, we have, in fact, identified accountability through the chain of command -- all the way from the central commander from NAVCENT right up through to the CNO, the secretary of Navy, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and myself.

I think that we have pointed out that we didn't do all that needed to be done. We have learned from this experience that we have to be more vigorous. We have to try to anticipate as many of the potential avenues of attack that any terrorist can conceive of and work toward.

We have made great gains since Khobar. We have, according to the Crouch-Gehman commission, made significant improvements in our force protection plan. It has not been perfect; it is unlikely to be perfect in the future. But we have to do a better job.

And all we can do at this point is try to always improve the force protection plan for the future, realizing that there inevitably will no static level of perfection, that there are bound to be some seams develop in the future again, and we have to try to anticipate what they are and to correct them before they can be exploited. That is a lesson we have learned from this experience.

CHEN: Defense Secretary William Cohen, in his final day at the Pentagon as the defense secretary, speaking before reporters and talking about last October's attack on the USS Cole, in which, of course, 17 sailors died -- Mr. Cohen speaking and faulting himself and top military leaders for not doing enough in the nature of planning to prevent that attack.

But he said: We were not complacent, but terrorists found new opportunities to strike against U.S. forces. He did underline, as he said, the need to always improve force protection. But he also noted that, overall, in their reports made in the Navy's investigation into this situation, the overall performance of the captain, Kirk Lippold, and his crew did not warrant further action. And on this subject, the secretary said he agreed.

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