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Media Availability with SecDef Cohen and MoND Ramirez

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
April 27, 2000 11:00 AM EDT

Thursday, April 27, 2000 - 11:00 a.m. EDT

(Also participating: Minister of National Defense Luis Fernando Ramirez, Republic of Colombia)

Secretary Cohen: Good morning -- or afternoon, actually. It's a pleasure to welcome Minister Ramirez back to the Pentagon. This is our second meeting since last fall. We did discuss President Pastrana's plan to bring peace, security and prosperity to the people of Colombia, and the ways in which the United States can help in those efforts.

The United States strongly supports President Pastrana and his Plan Colombia. The administration has requested $954 million for Colombia in the emergency supplemental that is currently pending before Congress. I hope that Congress will pass the supplemental as quickly as possible. The preservation of democracy and the promotion of economic reform in Colombia are important to the stability of South America.

Our countries are working together closely to combat the narcotics industry in Colombia. The narcotraffickers promote lawlessness in Colombia and addiction in the United States. And this last year, the Colombian military, working with U.S. trainers, has made important progress in bolstering its capacity and capability to interrupt and to stop the narcotrafficking.

The United States has helped to train a new counter-drug battalion in Colombia and helped to establish a new Joint Intelligence Center focused on narcotrafficking. Both the counter-drug battalion and the Joint Intelligence Center began operations in December. The counter-drug battalion has been especially trained to combat narcotraffickers in ways that are effective and that recognize the rule of law and respect for human rights.

When Congress passes the supplemental, we will train and equip two more counterdrug battalions to intensify the efforts, Colombia's campaign effort against narcotics.

Two weeks ago President Pastrana told the American Society of Newspaper Editors that by helping Colombia, the United States was helping itself, adding, "Only provide us with the tools, and we will do the job." We are determined to provide Colombia with the tools.

Mr. Minister?

Minister Ramirez: Thank you.

Good afternoon. As Secretary Cohen pointed out, we have had a very productive meeting this morning. We appreciate very much the fact that Secretary Cohen has received us twice during these last six months, and the fact that we have been working in a very coordinated way with the military forces and the Department of Defense of the United States. And we are absolutely optimistic that these coordinated efforts against the narcotraffickers will produce the results that we are looking for and we will be successful, hopefully we will have relatively soon a world free of drugs to help the democracy in Colombia and to help the institutions in our country and to save our kids around the world.

Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for having us today.

Secretary Cohen: Charlie.

Q: Mr. Secretary, might I ask -- (inaudible) -- with Minister Ivanov in town, do you see any -- any -- move on the part of the Russians to accept changes in the ABM Treaty? And what is your response to Senator Helms' announcement that he would block any movement by the current administration to make new arms deals before a new president is elected?

Secretary Cohen: Well, first, as you know, the administration, Secretary Albright, myself, Deputy Secretary of State Talbott and others have maintained a very steady line of communication with our Russian counterparts to explain exactly what the National Missile Defense System is in terms of its architecture and its direction, that it is not directed against the Russian system but against rogue nations. And so we have undertaken to make this as clear as possible through a series of briefings, and that's what took place yesterday with Mr. Ivanov.

I can't say at this point. I think it would be premature for me to make any kind of characterization in terms of what the Russian reaction to these briefings has been or will be in the future. I do know that Secretary Albright and Foreign Minister Ivanov are having a press conference later today, and perhaps that will be the appropriate place for you and others to question what their reaction is.

We intend to continue this process of analyzing, helping them to analyze, what this means, and we are satisfied that if they understand the intent and the capability of the system, they will see that it does not pose a threat to their strategic systems.

Beyond that, as far as Senator Helms, I think he has made it clear that he is opposed to any arms control negotiations being completed. I would point out this is not something that President Clinton has come to only this past year. He has been working very diligently trying to encourage the Russian Duma to ratify START II, to move on to START III. It has taken the new president to do that, to accomplish the ratification in the Duma. And so this is not something that is a last-minute item on the agenda for President Clinton in any form of a legacy that he might seek to achieve.

He has been dedicated to reducing the level of strategic armaments and has worked diligently in that effort. Senator Helms and others will have to determine if there is, in fact, an agreement reached or a treaty that is signed, that whether or not it would be approved or ratified by the Senate, but I can't comment beyond that.

Q: Could Senator Helms announcement hamstring your efforts, perhaps, to strike a new deal on ABM?

Secretary Cohen: Well, I think that, clearly, the president is determined to go forward. We are in support of the effort to see whether or not there is a way in which we can achieve reductions in the level of strategic nuclear weapons that is consistent with protecting our national security interests, and I believe that the president certainly is going to continue to carry out his responsibilities to the American people and we will be supportive in seeking to meet with our counterparts, to examine the intricacies and the implications of reductions that can be arrived at with both sides agreeing.

Q: Secretary Cohen and Minister Ramirez, could you please comment on this latest statement by the FARC, who is a guerrilla group in Colombia, supposedly a decree that it issued two days ago in which any Colombian who is worth more than a million dollars will have to pay taxes to the FARC in Colombia; otherwise they will be kidnapped? Could you please both comment on this?

Secretary Cohen: Well, I think Minister Ramirez would the appropriate voice of authority on that subject.

Minister Ramirez: Would you like to do it in English, or would you like -- (inaudible) -- the Spanish?

Q: It's up to you.

Minister Ramirez: In Spanish?

Q: Let's take a vote.

Q: (Off mike.)

Q: In Spanish. (Laughter.)

Q: A tie.

Minister Ramirez: (Through interpreter.) It's obviously an extortion. The Colombian government cannot accept that someone who has not been legitimately elected replace our congress and our authorities. And the Colombian military or police will continue to perform their constitutional mandate to pursue and prosecute those who are committing these acts against the law.

Q: (Off mike.)

Secretary Cohen: Well, I don't accept any of the rationale by the FARC. These are not dewy-eyed romanticists that have in mind the welfare of the Colombian people. To the extent that they are engaged and supported by narcotrafficking, that is clearly undermining Colombian society; and to the extent that that product is distributed and disseminated in the United States, it's certainly having a very negative impact upon our citizens, as well. The fact that we are determined to help Colombia, which wants to rid itself of narcotrafficking, we are prepared to continue that assistance. That is for our benefit as well as the people of Colombia.

Q: Secretary Cohen, just to follow up on the statement by Jesse Helms yesterday, do you see his statements as in the national -- in the security interests of the United States, or are they more petty partisan politics?

And then on another subject, is it true that you said that you would consider running as vice president on either ticket? (Laughter.)

Secretary Cohen: Let me answer the first question. I think Senator Helms has had a long and distinguished record in the Senate. I have worked very closely with him when I was a member of that body. I know he has very strong opinions about arms control agreements, and I think we have to accept his statements at not only face value, but representing his strong sentiments and philosophy. He will continue to articulate those views. It is incumbent upon the administration, President Clinton and those of us who serve him, to continue to articulate our view that it's important for the national security interests of this country to proceed with negotiating significant reductions in nuclear weapons. And I think I have to leave it at that.

With respect to my plans: my plans are to become a private citizen at the end of President Clinton's term. What I've indicated during the course of interviews, I think it's important that any time a president asks a citizen to serve as a secretary of State, a secretary of Defense, or indeed a vice president, people should give that serious consideration because they're important positions. My plans are to become a private citizen.

Q: The Colombian aid package has been -- well, it hasn't been passed and it appears to be stalled in the Congress. If that continues, what -- for both of you -- what would the impact be on the security situation in Colombia?

Secretary Cohen: Well, we don't expect it to continue. There has been strong support coming from the House of Representatives, and I believe that there is very strong support in the Senate, and the question will become how it will come to the floor and how it will be approved. But I have every confidence that it will be approved in a relatively short period of time. But in any event, our support for Colombia will continue, and we will continue to carry on the training that's necessary for the Colombian military that are engaged in the counter-drug activity to carry out their missions.

Q: Mr. Minister?

Q: Mr. Secretary, two questions. What do you think about another DMZ, this time for second guerrilla -- second-largest guerrilla group in Colombia, ELN? And second, the portion of the military -- the military portion of the aid package is being highly criticized in Congress because they say that it's not really for counternarcotics operations. Can you comment on those things?

Secretary Cohen: Well, I believe if it were "highly criticized" in the Congress, the Congress would not have approved the recommendation coming from the administration and the House of Representatives. And based upon the conversations that I have had with members of the Senate, I think there is strong support for the funding. And so the majority, and a substantial majority, believe that this is, in fact, dedicated to counterdrug activities, counternarcotic activities. And that's the reason for the support.

Again, there's a procedural mechanism that has to be achieved in order to get the vote to the floor in the Senate. But I am confident that that will take place in a relatively short period of time.

With respect to the ELN, I think that that is something that Minister Ramirez is better qualified than I am to respond to.

Minister Ramirez: Basically, regarding the ELN, President Pastrana decided to initiate talks with the second-largest group in Colombia, the ELN. And there is a preliminary agreement pursuant to which they will have a DM zone to have the national convention for this group. And hopefully this peace process is going to advance at a very good pace. There is going to be international verification. There are some commitments on the part of the ELN in terms that they will respect the civil society in that zone. And we hope that these two processes at some point will reach an agreement, and hopefully the Colombian society can have peace as a result.

Staff: Last question, right here.

Q: Thank you. I'd like to see if you could both perhaps comment on the possible delays caused by the delays in the Senate in the process of the bilateral group. I know -- I have the feeling, I understand that you were hoping to begin the training of the second battalion already this year from what -- your comments first, Secretary Cohen. It seems that that's been delayed, that hasn't started yet. So, is this being affected by the delay in the Senate for the approval of the package? And in what other specific ways is the process that you're trying to work on being affected by this?

Secretary Cohen: Well, the bilateral working group continues to meet and to identify ways in which the United States and the government of Colombia can cooperate in this effort. Again, any delays I think will not be long. And my expectation is that this issue of funding will be resolved fairly quickly. But it'll make it -- we can go into each and every detail in terms of what the bilateral working group is discussing, but we continue these discussions to identify how we can help train and cooperate the counterdrug battalions and activities.

Staff: Thank you very much.

Q: Mr. Secretary, do you support using federal law enforcement officials to take the protesters off Vieques Island?

Secretary Cohen: We support the agreement that was negotiated between the governor and U.S. officials, and we are hopeful that that agreement will be fully complied with. And we are very supportive of what the governor has done to date. He is committed to seeing to it that we resolve the situation in Vieques, and we expect that that will be the case.

Staff: Thank you.

Q: Thank you.

Minister Ramirez: Thank you very much.

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