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Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen En Route Munich, Germany

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
April 30, 2000

(En Route Munich, Germany)

Cohen: Well, I'm taking advantage of the opportunity of the change of command of SACEUR and EUCOM to spend the first day visiting our troops in the field in Kosovo. I'll be joining General Shelton, and we will have a chance to meet and greet the troops and then address them. It will give us an opportunity to get a first hand assessment of the situation on the ground and see General Sanchez, who we talked to on the last visit I made, during the Christmas tour. So it will give me an opportunity to have an update on exactly how things are progressing.

In looking at the situation, I know that there is some question about how effective has it been? Well, I'd like to go back two years, in terms of what the situation was a couple of years ago, and especially last year. We were in the middle of a major air campaign, and that was absolutely the most successful in the history of the world, in terms of its effectiveness. As a result of that campaign last year, we have seen over a million refugees return, largely in the shortest period of time--perhaps--ever. We have also seen some 20,000 weapons confiscated, we have seen the reorganization of the KLA, the formation of the Kosovo Protection Corps, and we have seen a reduction in the level of the crime, from 50 a week murdered, down to--still too many--but five a week. And so it's making a good deal of...not in a great amount of time, we're making a good deal of progress in that regard. But we need to have more police. We have roughly about 2/3 of those who have been authorized on the ground today. We need to have more judges, more courtrooms, more civilian-run institutions organized by international institutions.

But I think that given where we are today compared to where we were last year and the year before, rather remarkable progress has been made. We will see when you're on the ground the number of missions that are carried out during the course of the week. We have some 49 checkpoints that are manned 24 hours a day. We have approximately 1,500 types of force -- 350 force protection missions that are taken during the course of the week. And I think about 120 air type missions flown. So you'll see a good deal of activity, and we think a great deal of progress has been made. With that, I'll take your questions.

Q: How badly is the lack of training in Vieques hurting the forces?

A: Well, it's not hurting us at this point. We have the George Washington scheduled to deploy in June, and we will have to see at that point what the status is. We have made the commitment, the CNO has made the commitment and I have made the commitment that we will not deploy forces into a combat area until they're ready.

Q: As you look back two years, what are the lessons you take from Kosovo at this point, and how will the future be different? What will you do differently in the near future?

A: The reason for the DCI that was adopted last year--the Defense Capabilities Initiative--was to point out to all of the European members of NATO what we have known for a long time. That there are major deficiencies in capabilities and those had to be addressed. And I think that air campaign clearly showed that. What we're now seeking to do is to make sure that as the Europeans go about trying to formulate the European Security Defense Identity that they make sure that the capabilities that they're developing are the ones that are consistent with what they promised in the DCI. So we will [be better] organized, we will have better equipment, better capability, better and greater capability. And I think that will be a lesson for the future. Indeed, the Europeans have recognized this--to have a more rapidly deployable capability to deal with this type of contingency in the future.

Q: This is your third time in the region in ten months. Why go back so frequently?

A: Whenever, I am over in the region, I try to take advantage of it. Whatever reason I go to Europe, if I can take an extra day and go to visit the troops, it's a big morale booster for them. It gives me a chance also to make an assessment on the ground, to have briefings from commanders in the field; to find out what they need, what they think and be in a position to respond to members of the administration, members of Congress, when I return home. But most of all, it gives me a chance to go out and meet with the troops. It's a big morale booster for them, and it is for me, as well.

Q: The Administration is talking about AIDS as a national security problem. I know when you were in South Africa, you were offering them AIDS education to their military and that got a less than enthusiastic reception from Congress. What role will the Pentagon play in this new perception of national security problem, and what do you think the reception is going to be in Congress?

A: Well, I hope that we can persuade my former colleagues who do not believe this is a serious issue. It certainly is a serious issue in South Africa, and many other countries. And to the extent that it's affecting the military capability of the South African military and others in Africa, that can have an impact on our national security interests. What we're trying to do is prepare the African countries to take advantage of the African Crisis Response Initiative; we're trying to have them involved in the African Center for Strategic Studies; and so all of this is designed to help the African nations engage in peacekeeping missions because that will certainly reduce the need for them to call upon us in times of emergency. So we have an interest in this, and I will certainly do my level best to persuade my former colleagues that we should fund those programs.

Q: Could this appearance of this new idea, this new approach work since it's not funded at a very high level and that it is going to be hard to get a lot done?

A: First we have to find the receptivity. We have a total of one hundred million in the entire AIDS Initiative package, and about ten million--that was just for the African countries--first we have to see whether they're receptive to that. That is one of the reasons I mentioned it in South Africa also in Nigeria. So we think it's an important program, but first we have to find out whether there is interest on the part of these countries to take advantage of it.

Q: I'd like to broaden the question just a little bit. With globalization, with people traveling, with diseases moving much more easily, do you think it's smart to start expanding the definition of global health threats into a national security arena? Things like multiple drugs resistant TB, malaria, AIDS--such as drug resistant diseases.

A: To the extent there are communicable diseases that continue to spread, that obviously has an impact on our own national security. We have been dealing primarily with the threat of biological weapons, and what that could do if they were released in our country, if contagious and started to spread and what that would do to populated areas. So I think that we will continue to focus on these threats to our national security. It may be that these communicable diseases will also occupy a high profile. The Health and Human Services will be the principal agency involved in that, but there may be a Defense component to that at some point.

Q: The National Defense Authorization Act is coming up for remarks in the House and Senate on Friday. What are your goals out of that process? What do you want to see happen?

A: Basically, the budget that I offered funded. I went up and met with the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday afternoon.

On Thursday, I sat down with members and went through each of the items, I just tried to get some support for my budget. I urged the Appropriation Committee not to start engaging in undistributed cuts, but just to basically fund the central programs that we have.

Q: What is the status of the two billion dollar supplemental request? Is that going to have any changes?

A: On the supplemental request, we've indicated that we're disappointed we don't have one. And that unless we get funding by the end of this month, then the Army, certainly, is going to have some serious problems. I've taken about two hundred million dollars under a discretionary authority that I have and moved it out of Navy and Air Force accounts, into the Army to pay for activities in Kosovo, but unless that is replenished, unless the money is funded--either through the supplemental or through the appropriation process by the end of May--there will be losses of training opportunities, property maintenance will have to be deferred. There may be a prospect of furloughs if it goes beyond the end of the month. So it's a very serious consequence as far as the readiness accounts are concerned, and the readiness of our forces. So we tried to make it very clear that we need action as quickly as possible.

Q: You launched an initiative to eliminate the inequity on the food stamp issue for our Service Members, how's that going to look if actually more Service Members end up being eligible for food stamps?

A: Well, as I've indicated before, we'd liked to see a situation where no members are on food stamps. But we also want to make sure that any benefit that is available to our citizens is also available to our soldiers. We have been operating on the assumption that there are roughly 12,000 people of the roughly 1.2 million on active duty who are receiving food stamps. Since that last survey, there's been at least 6,300, so it actually has been reduced by roughly fifty percent. It was suggested during the course of the hearing--and my understanding that Secretary Rostker did not advocate a policy change--but was asked a question during the course of his testimony about the food stamp issue, and he indicated that people who are receiving it had their housing allowance included, as part of their total income, then they would not qualify. And that was taken as a policy change. He never advocated that, but it became somehow a policy declaration. I didn't know about that--I learned about it on television. It was never a policy proposal.

We want to achieve equity with people who are living off-base and those who are living on [base]; but we don't want to achieve equity by taking those who have a benefit and taking it away from them. So what we want to do is to treat them equally; and then to raise the floor so that we can get them off food stamps. So that's what I want to achieve with people who live off-base because we don't have adequate housing, then they have to pay out of pocket for gasoline, transportation, they may not have easy access to the commissary or the PX, so they have a double expense, almost 19% out of their pocket for housing, plus they don't qualify for the benefits of those living on-base with the same family situation and the same rank do. So that's not fair. So I would advocate that we change the rules so those off base would be in the same position as those who are on. And then through pay raises, systematically target increases so we can lift everybody up. So that's the fair way. You don't achieve equity by just dropping what you're currently receiving by taking it away; that's not the way to reduce those on food stamps.

Q: Is it part of the overall effort to ease junior enlisted financial problems?

A: It really has to do with young people who are coming in who have a large family, so we've got to contend with that. I know there are several Congressional proposals, but the ones that I've looked at would not provide that much relief from this situation, and might end up taking a bigger benefit away if the housing allowance is included, and they get a stipend beyond that, and then they have a net loss in terms of their income. It's a tough issue, but we're working it. And as a result of the pay increases and the housing allowances that are going up we think we can lift everybody up.

Q: One more question. What do you particularly hope to learn from this visit to Kosovo? Since you've been so frequently, and there have been some negative assessments from commanders and recent CODELS, about just the situation. What kind of questions will you be asking?

A: Both the Chairman and I--I mean, I don't get there frequently enough. In fact, the Chairman has been there on a number of occasions. I try to go whenever I'm in the region. But you can never go too many times.

But what we try to do and what I seek to do is to listen to the commanders and say, "Give me your assessment of how things are on the ground." You've got an increase that has been requested by SACEUR, that would not increase our forces in our particular district or region, but hopefully that will help the situation in Kosovo. What else do we need, what kind of request would you make to our European friends. So it's basically getting updated, and getting an eye-to-eye assessment from the commanders and the men and women who are in the field, that puts me in a better position to make a judgement.

Q: Thank you.