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Media Availability with Secretary Cohen and President Ogi of Switzerland

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
July 28, 2000

Friday, July 28, 2000

(Joint press conference with Adolf Ogi, president of Switzerland and chief of the Federal Department of Defense, Civil Protection, and Sports)

Cohen: Good morning.

It gives me great pleasure to welcome President Ogi to the Pentagon. We've had a very comprehensive discussion about the role that Switzerland is playing to bring greater stability to Europe.

Switzerland used to be neutral and inward-looking. Today, thanks to President Ogi's strong leadership, Switzerland is neutral and outward-looking. As minister of Defense and now as this year's president, President Ogi has engineered a policy of security through cooperation that has engaged Switzerland in Europe's major security issues.

Switzerland is an important participant in the Partnership for Peace and a contributor to peacekeeping missions in operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. Switzerland knows that it cannot be secure unless Europe is stable.

One contribution that Switzerland is making to greater Europe stability is the establishment of the Geneva Centers for Humanitarian De-mining and Security Policy. President Ogi has also made plans to set up a Geneva Center for Democratic Control of Armed Forces. This center will help emerging democracies to strengthen the rule of law and to reform their armed forces. We strongly support this initiative.

In closing, I'd like to note the breadth of President Ogi's job. Not only is he president, but he is chief of the Swiss Federal Departments of Defense, Civil Defense, and Sports, a job for all seasons, with a man for all seasons.

Ogi: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. Mr. Secretary, ladies and gentlemen, good morning.

As Mr. Secretary said, we pointed out several points, and seen from our point of view, the F/A-18 business is very important. We have to replace more than 40 Mirage Fighters and Explorers. We bought some years ago 34 F/A-18s, and we would like -- if we find a solution, we would like to have more of these F/A-18s. So we explored with Mr. Secretary the possibility of buying more F/A-18s or leasing or hiring even F/A-18s, about eight to 11.

And I am very glad that the U.S. is going to look at this issue.

Second, I can underline that the Geneva Center for Democratic Control is of great importance, after the two other centers we created, and they are successful, doing a good job. And I asked Mr. Secretary to join us as a founding member and to delegate a member to the council.

Third, we discussed also about the security policy concerns. The situation in former Yugoslavia is very important for Switzerland. And as you know, Switzerland, the government sent soldiers to Bosnia and also to Kosovo; it's a historical decision, historical decision. And we are in Europe, and in Switzerland, very concerned about the situation in Montenegro.

I asked also Mr. Secretary for data and information release. Switzerland is working on several projects with the U.S., which need the release of information and data. There are the data link for F/A-18, the Sales Protection System for transport aircraft. We not only want to buy F/A-18s, version -C, -D; we also look for some protection aircraft.

And third, we are very glad that -- for the last point -- we are very glad that the Swiss industry was awarded the contract for a comparative test program. We would highly appreciate if further projects would be established.

I would like to thank Mr. Secretary for this friendly discussion, also for help. And I would also, on behalf of the Swiss government, say that we appreciate highly what the U.S. is doing for peace and freedom throughout the world.

Cohen: Thank you, Mr. President.

Jamie?

Q: Secretary Cohen, I apologize for asking you a question that's off the subject.

Cohen: -- irrelevant to this press conference. (Laughter.)

Q: I know it's a breach of protocol, but I wondered if you might be able to tell us a little bit more about your initiative to provide some sort of subsistence benefit to U.S. troops. Would that result in U.S. troops getting off food stamps?

Cohen: This will result in families being able to come off the rolls for food stamps. This new subsistence program, or plan, is going to basically improve the well-being of our junior members in the armed forces and their families. It's going to replace the USDA food stamp program with assistance that we believe is more convenient and more equitable. It's more convenient because the military families would be able to go directly to the commissaries, and they will have a debit card for use in those commissaries. They'll have less trouble; they don't have to pick up the food stamps. They will have -- benefits will be automatically deducted. They'll have more purchasing power, because the price, generally speaking, at the commissaries is about 26 percent less to begin with, and so they'll have added purchasing power with the debit card.

It's more equitable. As you know, there is a discrepancy between those who live on base and those who live off. Those who live on base do not have their housing, their rent, their utilities included for income purposes for judging whether they qualify for food stamps. Those who live off the base, the same individual, let's say, with three dependants, an E-5 with three dependants, who pays rent with a housing allowance that's included as far as his income but must have travel, other expenses, to get to the base, that same family would not qualify. So this is far more equitable than the existing system.

It has the support, I believe of Senator McCain, who deserves a great deal of credit for his advocacy on this issue, as well as Congressman Buyer. Both support this plan.

Q: The issue of U.S. troops on food stamps has been one that has been raised in the presidential campaign. Do you think this initiative is going to remove that as an issue in the campaign, because there won't be a problem any more?

Cohen: Well, we have worked on this issue for some time now. This is not something that is related to the campaign. This has been an issue for a number of years, and we have tried to find a way to resolve it in the most equitable fashion.

Again, I'd point to key members of Congress who have been advocates on this. We have tried to be responsive, and so it should not be a political issue for the fall. It's not a political issue, in the sense that we are concerned about the welfare of our men and women who are serving us in the military, those who are junior members with families who are in need of this kind of assistance, and so it should not be a political issue for the fall.

Q: Last point. How much will this cost?

Cohen: The estimates are roughly $31.5 million.

Staff: A question from the Swiss press, anybody from the Swiss press here have a question? Yes, sir?

Q: Yes, for Secretary Cohen. As President Ogi mentioned, Switzerland would like to buy 8 to 11 more F/A-18s, but they would really ideally would have to be of the older model, the C/D model. And President Ogi mentioned that you assured him that you would look into this issue and look at it favorably or see what can be done. What have you told him about your thinking so far?

Cohen: What we have indicated is that we would like to be responsive. We would prefer, certainly, to have this government acquire the F/A-18 and U.S. equipment. We think that we have superior aircraft, to be sure, amongst -- along with all of our equipment, but certainly on the F/A-18 we believe is a superior aircraft.

The C/D line has been closed, and so the challenge for us is to find ways in which we can accommodate the needs of Switzerland, and we will try to find ways to do that. The E/F model is coming on line, and we will see whether or not -- what the time frame will require for us to see if we can't work this out. But we certainly want to be as accommodating as we can. We look to Switzerland as being a very solid partner in that sense, and a strong country building a capable military, and certainly we want to try to accommodate their needs.

Q: Mr. Secretary, another subject entirely. Congressman Cox has raised some serious questions about the engagement policy with North Korea. Among them he says that both food and oil aid is basically going to subsidize the Korean military. And perhaps more troublingly, he says that the light-water reactors that are called for in the framework agreement will actually produce more fissionable material than the old reactors that have been shut down. How do you answer his charges?

Cohen: Well, the purpose of the food program was to help alleviate the starvation and suffering of many, many people in North Korea. To the extent that has there been any shifting of that to make sure that the military is well-fed, I have no doubt that that has taken place. But the basic purpose of the program is to prevent mass starvation. I believe it's been successful in doing that. One cannot control with precision whether or not some of that has been diverted to the military, but I think that's a reasonable expectation that they would seek to do so. That is what has kept the leadership in the regime in power, has been the military. It's not a democratic society. But I think overall, the program has been successful in alleviating the suffering of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people in North Korea.

With respect to the light-water reactors, I believe the judgment was made, and continues to have validity, that the program currently under way would not lend itself to creating nuclear materials for the making of nuclear weapons. That was the purpose behind the program. And so we think that the agreed framework is the right one.

Staff: Is there another question from the Swiss press? If not, go ahead.

Q: Okay. Mr. Secretary, thank you, again; another subject, if I may.

And President Ogi, before I ask the question, I can tell you that most Americans I know like your chocolate, like your watches, like your country and like your people. Welcome.

Ogi: All the quality, yes. (Laughter.) (Inaudible) -- to mention.

Q: Mr. Secretary, turning to politics just for a moment, a bit of a cause celebre, apparently, about the military taking up some equipment, hardware, to the old Navy Yard in Philadelphia very close to the site of the Republican Convention. First question: Have you received a comparable request from the Democratic side for the Democratic convention? And two, how do you answer critics who say this is political and this flies in the face of the policy that it seems to be political?

Cohen: If the request were only coming from Republican members of Congress, I would agree that it would be inappropriate. One of the conditions upon agreeing to this request coming from the Hill was that it be bipartisan. It was a bipartisan request. It also had the support of the mayor of Philadelphia, who happens to be a Democrat. And so if it were a partisan request, I would not have given approval for it.

So I have indicated that this is certainly open to the Democratic convention as well.

This is off site. This is not at the location of the convention. It does give an opportunity for the military to have an exhibit. This -- we're very proud of the men and women who are serving us and the equipment that they use, and we're not hesitant about showing it to general members of the public, as well as people who are attending the convention.

But it's open to the Democratic convention as well. We have not received a request. If we do, we will abide by it.

Q: Mr. Secretary, back on the debit cards. What does switching from food stamps to debit cards really accomplish? After all, aren't the debit cards simply food stamps by another name, and aren't you just moving these recipients of one welfare benefit to another welfare benefit?

Cohen: Well, there's a difference, as I mentioned -- two key differences. One is convenience. The other is equity. Currently, there is an inequitable situation that exists: That you have the same size family, same income level, essentially -- if you live on base, you qualify for food stamps if you're at that level, and if you're off base, you don't, in many instances. And so you have a great inequity. This debit card will eliminate that inequity. So that's the reason for it.

And second is the convenience. If you live off base, you have greater inconvenience in terms of getting some of the necessities that you need. So we've tried to -- if you go to food stamps, you have to get -- go and collect the food stamps. It has to be processed. This way, it's a simple card. You go to the commissary and the amount is automatically deducted. And so it's much faster, much more convenient, and, most critically, it's more equitable.

Q: So it -- but it does really nothing to address the core problem: the fact that there are in fact U.S. military personnel on federal assistance.

Cohen: Well, it sure does address the problem, because it deals with those who are most in need in the military. So it does address the problem. And it's actually more attractive than the food stamp program, for the reasons that I mentioned.

Q: Why not just pay them more?

Cohen: Well, in essence, this is a way of increasing their purchasing power. We've tried to also take into account that our pay scales depend on rank and responsibility, years of service, and we want to keep that as the basic core of our compensation schedules.

This allows the government, the military in particular, to have control and to address the needs of families who need this additional subsistence.

Q: If I could follow up -- but one of the criticisms is that U.S. military personnel are on food stamps at all, and this program actually puts more people on that program. John McCain thinks it's a national disgrace.

Cohen: John McCain, I believe, is supportive of this program. What we are trying to do is to say that yes, we have people who have, perhaps, larger families than in the past. They would qualify, under existing law. We don't want to tell any man or woman who is serving the country, and say, "You can't qualify for any program that an ordinary citizen can qualify for." And yes, we have a program in place that provides for payments and compensation according to years of service, rank and responsibility. We want to maintain that. To those families who are in need by virtue of the size of their families and their income level, this is an additional benefit.

We think this is the right approach, and certainly there will be additional pay raises in the future. I'd take this opportunity to point out that we have, with the support of Congress, acquired and accomplished the largest pay raise in a generation. That, plus the pay table reform, plus the retirement benefits, is a substantial package of compensation, and I will, at a future time -- perhaps even next week, if not within 10 days, point out the success that we have had in turning some of our recruitment and retention problems around, and it's because of the pay raises and other initiatives that we have adopted in the last four years.

Staff: Is there another question from the Swiss press?

Q: I have a question for President Ogi. You were mentioning that you were looking at the possibilities of buying transport planes. Could you elaborate a little bit on that?

Ogi: Well, I can't get into details, but I can tell you we're at the moment, testing several types, and one is American-Italian type and the other ones are European types. So we intend to buy or to lease or to hire already next year, one or two transport airplanes.

Staff: Last question here.

Q: Sir, could you expand on the datalink capability of the -- (inaudible word) -- 16s that you're looking at, and also the sales protection measures that you mentioned?

Ogi: Yes.

Q: Could you discuss that a little bit?

Ogi: Yes.

Q: Can you discuss -- can you expand on exactly what it is you're looking --

Ogi: No, I can't. But just -- the secretary said that they are going to look at that issue. And I said what we would like to have, what we need, and we wait now for the answer. I don't want to get into details.

Q: But were you saying yesterday the Link 16?

Ogi: I said link F/A-18. We don't have F/A-16.

Q: I am sorry. The data link, it's called?

Ogi: The data link. Yeah.

Q: (Inaudible.)

Ogi: The data link. Yes. Yeah. Excuse me. I didn't get your --

Q: Can you tell us how much of a military commitment you envision to help fighting the fires in the western United States? We understand there's some possible fairly significant deployments from the Army coming?

Cohen: I really can't tell you that. I don't have that information right now. If I get it today, I'll give it to you. Okay.

Q: Thank you very much.

Q: Thanks.

Ogi: Thank you very much.

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