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Interview with SecDef Cohen and CNN Evans and Novak

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
July 05, 2000

July 5, 2000

(Interview with Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, co-hosts of CNN's "Evans and Novak")

Evans: I'm Rowland Evans. Robert Novak and I will question the nation's top military policy-maker.

Novak: He is Secretary of Defense William Cohen. We are at his office in the Pentagon.

Voice-over: The most important national security decision in the remaining months of the Clinton administration is whether to deploy a missile defense in the face of widespread international opposition, especially from Russia.

At a news conference this week, President Clinton was asked whether he would leave the deployment decision to his successor. He said he had not made a decision but cited opposition by President Vladimir Putin and the Russians.

President Clinton: What they don't say is they don't want America unilaterally building a missile defense that they think someday can undermine their deterrent capacity.

Novak: The Clinton missile defense plan, much more limited than Reagan's strategic defense initiative, is derived from a plan negotiated in 1995 with senators who included Republican William Cohen of Maine.

The following year, after President Clinton's re-election, Senator Cohen was named secretary of defense, the first and only Republican in the Clinton Cabinet.

In the executive branch after 24 years in Congress, he led the NATO military operation that forced Serbia to abandon Kosovo.

Novak: Mr. Secretary, would you like to see a final, final decision on the missile defense question made before President Clinton and you leave office?

Cohen: Well, I would like to be in a position to make a recommendation to President Clinton based on the four criteria that he has set forward for me to examine.

Number one, is there a threat? I believe by the year 2005, a threat will be present that could threaten the security of the United States, yes.

Do we have the technology? That remains to be determined. That's one of the reasons we have to await the outcome of the next test which will take place on July 7, and then to analyze its success or failure.

And the third question is, what about the costs? I believe that the costs are affordable.

The fourth criterion would be the impact on arms control and our allies. And that's an issue that requires some reflection. We have spent the past year trying to persuade our allies this is something that's in our national security interests and will benefit them as well. And we're going to need the support of our allies because without their support, we will have -- it will be impossible to have an effective NMD system because you need forward-deployed radars.

So we are in the process of taking all of those factors into account.

Novak: But you think that can all be resolved in the next six months?

Cohen: I think that as far as the technology and the cost factors, the threat, I think those can be resolved. Again, the next test will be important, not dispositive, but important.

The fourth criterion would be the toughest one for the president to deal with.

Novak: Now, in connection with that, if President Putin of Russia says he will not agree to a modification of the ABM Treaty and that putting the system into effect would violate the treaty, are you ready to violate the treaty if otherwise you decide to go ahead with the system?

Cohen: Well, I'm prepared to recommend to the president that we defend the country, that we continue to work with the Russians to see about a modification of the ABM Treaty. And we have tried to do that. In the event that the Russians absolutely say no, then of course the president will have to make that determination himself.

Novak: Does President Putin have a veto over this?

Cohen: He does not have a veto. What we saw with the Russians most recently -- I met with him on a recent visit to Moscow. And what the Russians have done is they have reversed course and again reversed most recently in the opposite direction once again. But they a month ago said there was no threat. When President Clinton went to Moscow, President Putin said there is an emerging threat and let's work together. Most recently, some of the Russian generals have said there is no threat. So they have been going back and forth, but I think clearly they are concerned that the United States is on a track to develop an effective NMD system.

Evans: Mr. Secretary, the Russians have gone a little bit further, I think, sir, than you just indicated. Their top general just said just this week that the trade-offs, if you can use that phrase, if we go ahead with this could be rather miserable for us.

They say they will abandon the INF Treaty, which would expose all of Europe to Soviet missiles. They say they will abandon the agreement not to build any more MIRVs and to destroy MIRVs, multi-warhead vehicles. They say this would develop into an absolutely assured arms race.

What do we say to -- is it worth it? What do we say to them?

Cohen: What we've indicated to the Russians is that this system is limited in nature to defend against a limited type of an attack or an unauthorized or accidental type of launch. It has no effectiveness against their overwhelming nuclear numbers. And so the notion that somehow this is going to pose a threat to them is completely without merit.

Now, the same generals, while I was there, were quoted in the press, the head of their strategic rocket forces, saying there are five to eight areas or countries that can pose a threat or will pose a threat potentially in the future.

So, again, the line coming out of Russia changes from time to time, but it's important that we move forward with our system. And what I indicated to them is that they have proposed putting an umbrella over the quote, "areas of concern." And I said, We're prepared to work with you, but show us what you have in mind. They haven't shown us what they have in mind.

Evans: Well, on another -- on another side of this difficult issue for you, Mr. Secretary, a lot of people on the Hill, not just Republicans, are saying that what the president is doing is buying political cover for Vice President Al Gore's campaign for president by suggesting that Gore and the Democrats are going to go ahead with the missile defense system, but they really don't at heart want one. But they know the Republicans do and they would be vulnerable to political attack.

Is there anything to that, sir?

Cohen: First of all, Congress has passed by overwhelming numbers, both in the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, on a bipartisan basis, to deploy a national missile defense system as soon as is technologically feasible. So this is not a game being played...

Evans: And the president signed it.

Cohen: And the president signed it. This is not a game being played by President Clinton or the vice president. This is something that's been mandated by Congress on a bipartisan basis. So this is -- and it's not something that President Clinton is looking for a legacy issue for. He is trying to comply with the law and with the requirements for our national security. And that's what we're doing.

Novak: Secretary Cohen, since there is signs -- are signs of peace on the Korean peninsula and the North Korean communist government has said it is discontinuing missile tests, isn't the danger of attack -- doesn't the danger -- the diminished danger of attack from North Korea put less need for such a missile defense system than there was previously?

Cohen: Well, we're encouraged, frankly, by what has taken place with the summit meeting that took place just a few weeks ago. But one summit doesn't change the nature of the threat to the United States.

North Korea historically has had one of the largest militaries in the world, forward deployed. It does still pose a threat to not only to South Korea, but in terms of their capability of posing a threat to the United States and others in the future. So we have to look at not only their words today, but their capabilities. And so we have to continue to provide for our security issues, and we will take that into account as the situation unfolds.

But we cannot be swayed of putting a system on-track or off-track depending upon what is said by the North Korean leader.

Novak: In connection with Korea, on this program just two weeks ago, the chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jesse Helms said in view of these encouraging developments in Korea that the United States should at least consider, consider, removing the 37,000 American troops that have been in South Korea for half a century. Would you (inaudible) their withdrawal in view of the changing political conditions in Korea?

Cohen: No. I don't think that we should consider pulling troops out of South Korea for the foreseeable future. I think our troops should remain there, even if there were to be a unification or some kind of federation, a confederation or whatever the political arrangement might evolve.

I believe that our presence on the Korean peninsula is important, as does of President Kim of South Korea, whatever takes place between the two Koreas, and that's important because we have a presence throughout the Asia-Pacific region which has contributed to stability. And if we are to pull our troops out of South Korea that would call into question our deployment in other areas in the Asia-Pacific region and we might find ourselves in a situation where we have a reduced, if not a vanishing presence there which would have major implications for us.

So I would say, at some time in the future, depending on the nature of how the situation unfolds with the two Koreas, we could consider at some future time what the size of our presence should be. But I think that we have to maintain a presence, and that depends on continued support from the Korean government, obviously. But that would have grave, I think, implications for our security presence throughout Asia-Pacific if we were to pull our troops out.

Evans: Mr. Secretary, a lot of money is being planned, you just -- you didn't give the cost, but they're talking about $60 billion to build this national missile defense. What are we doing to protect against a suitcase bomb being brought in by a terrorist which many people think is an even more serious proposition than a vagrant missile from a rogue state?

Cohen: The threat of terrorism taking place on American soil is real, with chemical, biological, indeed, as you've indicated, even potentially nuclear weapon. We have in fact increased our security in this country. This is no foolproof security that we can provide. But to say that we can't protect against everything doesn't mean that we shouldn't protect against those that can cause us catastrophic harm.

So we do have -- we have programs now that we're out preparing our cities -- about 120 cities have now -- we have sited for those for training.

Evans: This is a kind of civil defense, modern style.

Cohen: Yes, it is. It is. It is what we call consequence management: What happens if you have a major catastrophe, who's in charge?

Evans: We've got to take a -- we've got to take a break in just a second. Which do you think is the more serious threat, Mr. Secretary, the suitcase threat or the bomb -- the missile?

Cohen: I think the act of terrorism taking place on the United States is more likely than intercontinental ballistic missile.

Evans: Well, thank you for that.

Now we have to take a break, Mr. Secretary. And when we come back, we'll talk about military force from the United States to help in Colombia against the drug problem, and presidential politics. In a moment.


Novak: Secretary Cohen, the Congress is appropriating $1.3 billion for military action and military help in Colombia, sending 300 U.S. military personnel -- at the same time the Colombian government, along with one of the guerrilla groups, is asking the enemy of the United States, Fidel Castro, to negotiate a settlement. Could you explain how it's possible to give all this aid to a government that thinks that salvation lies in the hands of the Cuban dictator?

Cohen: Well, first of all, we are supporting the Colombian plan. I know contrary to a piece that you wrote back in January that this administration would not support Colombia, we have indeed lent strong support and are I think responsible for pushing this legislation through.

We'll leave that up to the president, Pastrana, to determine how he can bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict in his country. But we believe that the counter-drug activity has to continue and are prepared to support him.

Novak: So you don't mind the overture to Castro?

Cohen: I think it's up to the president of that country to determine how he's going to resolve his internal difficulties, but we are prepared to do whatever we can to support him in his counter-drug activities.

Novak: The position, sir, of the Clinton administration, as I understood it, was that the United States had no interesting in defeating the guerrillas per se, but they're interested in cutting off the flow of illegal drugs to the United States. Is that still the position of the Clinton administration, that it is neutral as far as the political aspirations of the guerrillas are concerned?

Cohen: As far as our military involvement is concerned, it is limited to counter-drug activity. Dealing with the internal affairs, the rebels, the communists, activists, or whatever they are, that is up to the president and his government to deal with. But we are --

Novak: The president of Colombia.

Cohen: The president of Colombia.

Evans: Mr. Secretary, why on earth did you drop that bombshell in a TV show offering to brief George W. Bush on national security issues when he has all the top briefers that he could possibly need? Was this a political act? Why -- did you tell him ahead of time?

Cohen: I didn't tell anyone ahead of time. Frankly, I responded to a question from an inquiring journalist, much as I am to you today, and that is, I wanted to prevent a situation that occurred when President Carter as candidate Carter said that one of the first things that he would do would be to pull 5,000 troops out of South Korea.

I, then, following his election, went with Senator Sam Nunn, Senator Gary Hart, Senator John Glenn and myself, went to South Korea and saw what the implications of that would be. And I did not want to see a repetition of a similar situation.

Governor Bush had proposed going to much lower numbers, in terms of offensive weapons. And I think it was important to say we have to be careful. We can go down to lower numbers, but as we do, we need to have the advice of our strategic commanders to make sure that he is fully apprised of what that means for our conventional bomber force. And that's what I was trying to point out.

At the same time that the Senate Armed Services Committee was holding hearings, saying, what is the strategic implication for going to lower numbers, I simply said -- I offered to Governor Bush the same opportunity that Vice President Gore would have in having access to this information. To the extent that he did not wish to have it, then that certainly is his prerogative.

Evans: But, Mr. Secretary, your position on the reduction of nuclear weapons, it exactly coincides with Vice President Gore's, in very -- INJ very strong disagreement with that of George W.'s --

Cohen: I don't know --

Evans: -- George W. Bush.

Cohen: I don't know what George W. Bush's proposal is -- (crosstalk)

Evans: Well, he wants to go lower and he's made that clear, yes.

Cohen: Lower than what? But lower than what?

Evans: Lower than 2,500.

Cohen: I don't believe he has said that --

Evans: Yes, sir, he said it, I believe.

Cohen: No. He said he would like to go to lower numbers --

Evans: All right. My --

Cohen: -- but no number was specified.

Evans: My question is --

Cohen: Let me just finish, because one of his advisers suggested we go to as low as a thousand.

Evans: I know that.

Cohen: All right. Now, what I was trying to prevent is a rush to much lower numbers without taking into account what that means for our security.

Evans: Got it. But, sir, you are with Vice President Gore 100 percent on this issue, and you're not on George Bush's wicket at all. Aren't you taking a side, a partisan position in this presidential election campaign --

Cohen: No. I am serving --

Evans: -- on the side of the Democrats.

Cohen: No. I am serving the interests of this country, I'm serving the president of the United States and giving him the best possible advice I can. And that's what I intend to continue to do.

Novak: Mr. Secretary, when you first came into office you told Congress that U.S. troops would be out of Bosnia in 18 months. Now, you were not a rookie, you were -- you've had a long career in national security affairs. How could you have been so wrong on that prediction?

Cohen: Well, I, like everyone, am capable of making mistakes. I had thought we could get out within the 18 months, and then I went to many of our European allies and saw that they were not prepared to fill in the entire responsibility for Bosnia.

But I would point out that we have gone from 20,000 troops in Bosnia down to about 4,300 during this four-and-a-half-year period, so we are seeing a systematic reduction of our forces in Bosnia.

So I was wrong in suggesting we could get out in 18 months, but we have made major achievements in Bosnia and we have major reductions in Bosnia.

Novak: Are you sorry now and ready to apologize for your hectoring of the Clinton administration during the first term about getting troops out of and setting deadlines for getting troops out of Bosnia?

Cohen: I don't think I ever hectored the administration. I raised questions, just as I expect my former colleagues to raise questions -- (crosstalk)

Novak: Were you sorry you did that now?

Cohen: No.

Evans: Mr. Secretary, on another matter, that is the state of the military: preparedness, our boys in uniform. I want to --

Cohen: Boys and -- men and women.

Evans: Men and women. Excuse me, sir. Excuse me, sir. I'm an elderly gentleman.

One of the top recruiting officers at the Fleet Training Center in Norfolk, Virginia, Navy, said, and I quote, "Our recruits are a symbol of today's youth. They don't want to submit to discipline. As quickly as we bring them in, we have to kick them out," unquote.

That is quite a statement about the state of our country, is it not, sir?

Cohen: I would say that's a very selective source for this kind of information. I would ask that individual, as well as the two of you, to go out into the field, to go to Bosnia, to go to Kosovo, to go to Korea, to go to the Gulf, to see the capability of our forces.

The notion somehow that we don't have the best military force in the world is absurd. We are the finest military force in the world and we have bright young people coming in and they are being trained, they are being led, they are being equipped, and they are ready to fight.

Evans: Well, Mr. Secretary, with those inspiring words, we have to take another break.

And when we come back, we'll have "The Big Question" for Bill Cohen, secretary of defense. In a moment.


Novak: "The Big Question" for Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen: Mr. Secretary, you have sat beside and held the hand of the vice president, Al Gore, for almost four years now. You have plotted and planned national security with the vice president. You have been his partner in all the great undertakings of this administration.

How can you sit there, sir, and tell us that you actually might not even vote for Al Gore in November?

Cohen: Well, first of all, I have sat by the side certainly of the vice president, but principally the president of the United States, who is the one who asked me to take this job. And I have worked very closely with him.

I indeed did not surrender my Republican credentials when I agreed to serve the administration. I remain a Republican and will continue to be a Republican. So --

Evans: What is that saying?

Cohen: It says that I'm a Republican.

Evans: Well, are you saying you're going to vote for George Bush, then?

Cohen: It says that I'm going to vote in a secret ballot, like you are.

Evans: You won't tell us?

Cohen: I'm just going to indicate I'll vote for the best person and --

Evans: Well, that's Al Gore, isn't it?

Cohen: Well, I'm voting for the best person. I'll make that judgment when the election comes.

Novak: Mr. Secretary, just as a factual matter, have you been approached by former Secretary of State Christopher to indicate you're on the list of Al Gore's possibilities for vice president?

Cohen: No.

Novak: So you're -- you're just -- you're not even going to be asked then to --

Cohen: I don't expect to, no.

Novak: Let me ask you this -- it may be the last time we interview you in this job -- how has it been to be a Republican in a Democratic administration? Has it been uncomfortable? Has it been touchy?

Cohen: It's been a great experience. I am indebted to President Clinton for giving me this opportunity to serve in what I believe to be one of the best positions in the entire universe.

I have worked closely with him. There has never been a partisan issue discussed in my presence, nor has President Clinton ever acted on a partisan basis in discussing national security. It's been a great experience.

Novak: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.

My partner and I will be back with a comment after these messages.


Evans: Bob, we got one hard answer from the secretary. The worst threat to the United States and its citizens is not from missile coming in from North Korea, it's from a suitcase bomb containing some kind of inflammable material or doing something terrible to our sewers and water supply. But we're spending $60 billion to deal with the missile and a pittance on dealing with the suitcase bomb.

Novak: Really, I thought that the secretary was very interesting. He indicated that the possible obstacle to putting this missile defense into place is not scientific capability -- although, of course, the hard-line Republicans say this program that the administration has is too small -- but it's the question of whether the international climate is going to be very unfavorable. He says that Putin and Russia doesn't have a veto, but he's still worried about the international reaction.

Evans: Yes, Bob, and I was very interested in the way he separated the present from the vice president on my question about, Look, you've done all this work with the vice president for four years, how can you vote for his opponent? He said, No, I've done that work with the president.

He didn't knock Al Gore but he sure did distinguish.

And that means to me -- I would say, if I had to predict, Bob, and I'm not predicting, he will vote for George W. Bush for president.

Novak: I have no idea, really. But I do know this: I've known Bill Cohen since he was, 25 years ago, a young House member in the impeachment procedure. He has always been -- he always, in 25 years in Congress, was a very tough critic, nonpartisan, non-ideological. I think he's been a good secretary of defense, but I have missed him as a real critic of what goes on here. I'd like to know what he would have said about Kosovo around the Hill.

I'm Robert Novak.

Evans: I'm Roland Evans.



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