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CNN Today

Submarine Expert Discusses Greenville Accident

Aired February 15, 2001 - 4:34 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: On our top story today, two civilians say their presence on a Navy submarine had nothing to do with the sub's collision with a Japanese fishing boat. The two civilians were in control positions, but their version of what happened backs up what the Navy has been saying since the sinking of the vessel last Friday.

The Navy insists the crew of the USS Greeneville was in complete control at the time of the accident. Nine Japanese are still missing and now are presumed to have died.

Joining us to talk more about the submarine accident is Sherry Sontag, the author of the book "Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage."

Sherry, we appreciate your being with us. I guess, straight to the point, I think the thing that is puzzling to so many people, as we understand from Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon, that there were views taken by the periscope of what was going on, on the surface of the water. How could it be that they not see the fishing boat?

SHERRY SONTAG, AUTHOR: That's the thousand-dollar question here. If you do it all correctly, if you come to the surface, if you do your scans at low power and high power, if you raise the periscope high enough -- now the Navy hasn't told us if that happened -- and you don't wait too long before you come back up, because you go down 400 foot before you do this very violent maneuver upward, if you don't wait too long, this should be impossible. And most submariners are going around, scratching their heads, saying, "Somebody did something not right."

Now the issue is not -- I agree with the Navy on this one. The issue is not who hit what's known as the chicken switch, the switch that sends 4,500 pounds of air, compressed air into the ballast tanks. And it's not whether or not somebody was seated at the helm with somebody leaning over them, because the submarine force does watch its visitors very closely.

The issue really is, did the captain, did the duty officer do the scans correctly? And if the answer to that were yes, I would say this accident were impossible.

CHEN: So, when you talk about civilians being onboard submarines -- and I guess I've got to tell you I didn't realize that it was that typical or that common for civilians to be included on this kind of a trip. But it sounds from the Navy's point of view like this is not an unusual situation. It's not like I, as a civilian, just get to go and punch the button whenever I want to, in any case.

SONTAG: No. I mean, the civilian was standing there, next to somebody else, and the captain gave the order, "Emergency blow," and the civilian pushed the button instead of somebody else who was standing there, right there, making sure, even helping them do it the right way. Civilians do travel on submarines a fair amount.

Families of crewmembers do it all the time. How can you ask a man to go out for three months without occasionally letting his family see what his life is during the three months that he's absent?

The Navy doesn't want to tell people where it going or what it's doing. All of its operations are very secret. "Blind Man's Bluff" was full of secret operations, because these things are classified back 30 years and more.

So what it tries to do is it tries to bring civilians onboard to get people to sort of get a ride and get a feel for it, and try to protect its budget that way.

I think they do better, quite frankly, looking backward and declassifying some of what they actually do, because people would be very impressed.

But no, it's not unusual at all. It's the worse possible case to have civilians onboard, to be showing them an emergency blow when this happens...

CHEN: And a horrible outcome.

SONTAG: And there's a question about whether or not this was a scheduled emergency blow or one meant for show-and-tell, and the answer I'm getting is that it was one that was pretty well meant for show-and-tell, but that's good for training anyway.

So if they caused it, it was way indirectly. What really caused this is somewhere, somewhere along the line either they (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the submarine to do a proper scan of the surface. Has to come almost all the way to the surface to get the periscope up high enough.

CHEN: Well, we will see...

SONTAG: These are the questions.

CHEN: We will see what else the Navy is able to tell us in the coming days about the investigation, and what they are able to learn from it.

Sherry Sontag, author of "Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story Of American Submarine Espionage." We appreciate your insight into this accident.

Thanks very much for being with us. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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