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DoD News Briefing, August 20, 1998 - 2:30 (EDT)

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
August 20, 1998 2:30 PM EDT

(Also participating in this briefing is General Henry H. Shelton, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff)

Secretary Cohen: Good afternoon.

As you've already heard from President Clinton, we have today conducted military strikes at several facilities that have supported international terrorist groups. The United States and the rest of the community of civilized nations have made it clear time and time again that the violence and the bloodshed and the murderous acts of international terrorists will not be tolerated.

Today's military strikes against those terrorist camps and facilities are a part of a continuing effort to defend U.S. citizens and interests abroad against the very real threat posed by international terrorists.

In the wake of the tragic and treacherous attacks on our embassies in East Africa and in light of the continuing patterns of specific threats against U.S. citizens and facilities, we've taken these actions to reduce the ability of these terrorist organizations to train and equip their misguided followers or to acquire weapons of mass destruction for their use in campaigns of terror.

We recognize that these strikes will not eliminate the problem, but our message is clear. There will be no sanctuary for terrorists and no limit to our resolve to defend American citizens and our interests, our ideals of democracy and law against these cowardly attacks.

Those who attack our people will find no safe place, no refuge from the long arm of justice.

General Shelton is going to provide you with as much operational detail as we can on the facilities that have been struck, but I need to forewarn you -- there will not be much operational detail provided. We are engaged in a difficult confrontation with the forces of international terrorism, the unique nature of the terrorist threat, the lack of regard for international law, the willingness to specifically target innocent civilians, transnational operations which defy traditional means of influence. All of these factors and more have forced us to adopt some very different approaches to the problem, and therefore we do not intend to provide, at least for now, the specific numbers or units of U.S. military forces that have been involved, nor will we discuss the specific weapons and tactics employed in these strikes.

With that, General Shelton will give you some details about the facilities that we targeted and why they were chosen.

Q: Excuse me, Mr. Secretary. Can you just briefly tell us at least whether these were airstrikes or...

Secretary Cohen: General Shelton is going to give you a brief summation of what targets were attacked.

General Shelton: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Good afternoon. First, let me underscore what Secretary Cohen has said. This is not simply a response to some specific act, but a concerted effort to defend U.S. citizens and our interests around the globe against a very real and a very deadly terrorist threat.

As many of you are aware, our intelligence community has provided us with convincing information based on a variety of intelligence sources that Usama Bin Ladin's network of terrorists was involved in the planning, the financing, and the execution of the attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Attacks that killed over 300 people including 12 Americans, and wounded thousands more.

This is by no means the first time the Usama Bin Ladin network has been connected to terrorist attacks. Bin Ladin himself has admitted to attempting to kill American servicemen on their way to and serving in our humanitarian mission to Somalia in 1992. His supporters and followers have tried to assassinate the President of Egypt and even the Pope.

And as recently as three months ago, Bin Ladin himself repeated his fatwa against Americans in order to attack Americans and our allies throughout the world and to make no distinction between military and civilians, including women and children.

The facilities we struck today in Afghanistan and Sudan are important parts of the Bin Ladin network of terrorist groups. At 1:30 p.m. (EDT) simultaneous military strikes were carried out against known terrorist training facilities in remote regions of Afghanistan and an industrial facility in Khartoum, Sudan. The targets selected and the timing of the strikes, 7:30 p.m. in Sudan and 10:00 p.m. in Afghanistan, were part of our overall effort to minimize collateral damage at the sites.

Now if I can direct your attention to these photo boards. The three facilities in Afghanistan we struck are the Zhawar Kili Al-Badr base camp, training camp, and support complex.

A number of terrorist groups are associated with these facilities including Bin Ladin's al Kadar, the armed Islamic Group, and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. These bases provide refuge for terrorists, house the infrastructure for their funding international travel, and are used to train terrorists in the tactics and weapons of international terrorism.

The base camp is the main headquarters facility for the complex and it includes storage, housing, training and administration facilities for the complex. It is also the key command and control node.

The support camp is the primary logistics area for the complex and includes storage for a large amount of weapons and ammunition.

The four primary training camps, one of which is shown here, are used for training terrorist tactics, indoctrination, weapons, and the use of improvised explosive devices. Within the camp are numerous structures -- tent stands, obstacle courses, firing ranges, and burned areas for explosive testing and training.

The blowup of the west camp is indicative of the camp characteristics in general and includes evidence of continuing expansion of the facilities.

We have also had convincing information that for some time the Bin Ladin network has been actively seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction including chemical weapons for use against U.S. citizens and our interests around the world.

This next photo is for the Shifa chemical complex in northeast Khartoum, Sudan. The intelligence community is confident that this facility is involved in the production of chemical weapons agents including precursor chemicals for deadly V series of nerve agents like, for example, VX.

We also know that Bin Ladin has extensive ties to the Sudanese government which controls this chemical facility.

Before taking your questions, let me emphasize that although we are confident that Usama Bin Ladin's network was involved in the criminal attack on embassies and the murder of more than 300 innocent victims, the actions we have taken today should not be viewed simply as retaliation for those attacks. Rather, as the President and as Secretary Cohen have said, this has been an exercise of self defense against an imminent and continuing terrorist threat.

There can be no safe haven for terrorists. The international community must not tolerate such acts nor accept those nations who would aid or harbor terrorists. We owe it to our citizens and to the citizens of all law abiding nations to do all that we can to prevent terrorist actions and to bring those responsible for spreading hate and death to justice.

With that, Secretary Cohen and I will take your questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you tell us, does this just involve U.S. strikes, missile strikes, or were troops actually put on the ground, albeit temporarily...

Secretary Cohen: For the time being we are not going to discuss this in view of the fact that there may be other operations that might be required. We do not want to place any of our forces in any kind of jeopardy or compromise their position. So for the time being we are going to simply indicate that strikes were carried out, and we will at a later time discuss that.

Q: Were these brief strikes? Are they still going on or have the strikes ended?

Secretary Cohen: The strikes should have ended.

Q: What are the whereabouts of Usama Bin Ladin right now? Do you believe that you killed him in these strikes?

Secretary Cohen: I have no idea where he is at this time. We designed this operation to attack his infrastructure, and that's precisely what we have done.

Q: Do you know whether he was in any of these facilities when the strikes occurred?

Secretary Cohen: We do not know.

Q: What were some of the...

Secretary Cohen: That was not our design. Our design was to take down this structure which is responsible for training hundreds if not thousands of terrorists.

Q: What were some of the barometers of success here on the plant and also on the camps? Total the structure, part? Can you give us a sense?

Secretary Cohen: Our plan was to attack these sites with sufficient power to certainly disrupt them and, hopefully, destroy them. Some of these are solid structures, others are less so. But we believe given the targeting that was done, with the capability that was unleashed, it would cause sufficient damage to disrupt them for some time.

Q: Were there any U.S. casualties in these raids?

Secretary Cohen: Not to our knowledge, no.

Q: Have you had any BDA yet?

Secretary Cohen: It's too early to make that assessment just yet.

Q: Can you also clarify, was there one training camp? I believe you said there were four...

General Shelton: There are a total of four training camps. All four were hit. We only addressed one of those today.

Q: Is it correct that seven sites in Afghanistan essentially were...

General Shelton: That make up the one complex, yes.

Q: Seven sites in Afghanistan?

General Shelton: That make up the one complex.

Q: Could you tell us where this is in Afghanistan generally?

General Shelton: It's basically about 94 miles south of Kabul. Proximity to the Afghan border... A few kilometers to the Pakistani border.

Q: Did Pakistan provide permission for overflight or did they participate in any way?

Secretary Cohen: We're not going to discuss any operational details of this.

Q: Did any other country take part in these raids?

Secretary Cohen: No, this was simply the United States.

Q: In Khartoum, is that a residential area that that's near? What sort of area is that?

General Shelton: In Khartoum, the target was located in an industrial complex area. There are surrounding facilities. We did everything we possibly could to minimize the collateral damage associated with that, but it is in an industrial area so we would anticipate very minimum numbers of collateral damage.

Q: When did you get the first sense to plan this to execution? Are we talking nine or ten hours, or two days?

Secretary Cohen: We began, as you know, it was just a week ago today that all of us, certainly the Chairman and myself, were out at Andrews Air Force Base welcoming home the bodies of ten Americans who died in the bombings. We indicated at that time with our words, and now we're indicating with our deeds, that American citizens were not going to be allowed to be attacked with impunity. From that moment forward, certainly, we intensified the information gathering to try and track down those responsible for this terrorist action. It's been a combination of sources of information from a variety of places that led us to the conclusion that Usama Bin Ladin's terror network was associated and responsible for this bombing. Our effort was to try to target those facilities and infrastructure that allow him to continue to train terrorists to carry out terrorist operations.

In addition, as the Chairman has just said, we also had some very compelling information as far as threats against other Americans and a combination of the attacks that were made, coupled with the threat of future attacks to come, certainly intensified our effort to target these facilities.

Q: Are you at all concerned, Mr. Secretary, that these strikes may in fact provoke retaliation somewhere, in fact may encourage more aggressive terrorist actions?

Secretary Cohen: There has been a long history of terrorist actions directed against innocent American people. We believe that a number of other terrorist activities and plans were underway. We have an absolute obligation, indeed a duty, and we'd be derelict in that duty if we did not take action to interrupt those plans and to try to insulate the American people and our friends from these activities.

So I am satisfied that this action will help prevent some of those plans from being carried forward, but they were determined to carry forward more terrorist actions. So by us taking action now, we hope to prevent more Americans from dying in the future.

Q: Were the forces involved U.S. based forces, or were they operating out of third countries...

Secretary Cohen: Let me just say, they were U.S. forces. Period.

Q: The other plans, the other things that were being planned, did they also involve truck bombings? Or there was some allusion to chemical weapons. Did any of them involve the use or planned use of chemical weapons?

Secretary Cohen: The information that we had led us to the conclusion that future activities, terrorist activities, were planned. It was not specific in terms of whether it would be a bomb or other types of terrorist actions. That's not something that we would try to be driven by. But we anticipate there could be future truck bombs as we saw in the past cases so we took this action to, again, interrupt the training of these types of activities.

Secondly, we had information that led us to believe that Usama Bin Ladin and his organization were indeed trying to acquire chemical weapons and to utilize them in future activities.

Q:...chemical weapons?

Secretary Cohen: We don't know that at this point. What we do know is the facility that was targeted in Khartoum produced the precursor chemicals that would allow the production of a type of VX nerve agent that has been talked about at some length.

Q: Was that facility being used to assist terrorists with the knowledge of the Sudanese government?

Secretary Cohen: You'll have to ask the Sudanese government on that account. We do know that he's had an association in the past with the Sudanese government. We do know that he has had some financial interests in contributing to this particular facility; whether or not it's with the full knowledge of the Sudanese government remains to be determined.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I came in late so I apologize if this question has been asked. Some Americans are going to say this bears a striking resemblance to "Wag the Dog". Two questions. Have you seen the movie? And second, how do you respond to people who think that?

Secretary Cohen: The only motivation driving this action today was our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities. That is the sole motivation. No other consideration has been involved.

The Chairman and I have worked with others for the past week, night and day, working with the community, our intelligence community, and working with others. The only factors involved were to prevent the kind of terrorist action that killed 12 Americans last week and injured so many hundreds, indeed thousands more. That is the only factor under consideration.

Q: When did you know you were going to make these strikes? How soon after the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania did you have sufficient intelligence to know you were going to strike?

The second part, forgive me if you've covered this already, even though you won't say whether these were airstrikes or what kind, did they come out of CENTCOM in the Middle East, or come out of CONUS?

Secretary Cohen: I'm not going to discuss where they came out of. The planning has been underway for several days. We have been meeting, as I've indicated before, nearly around the clock for the past week, gathering information, satisfying ourselves in terms of who was responsible, which organization was linked to the terrorist bombings; also in trying to deal with the threats that were coming in fairly rapidly about more terrorist activities planned against Americans. So it's been an evolving process. Once we were satisfied then the plans were worked up by our military.

Q: You said seven sites. It looks like six sites, because one...

General Shelton: There's the base camp, the support facility itself, and a total of four training sites. So six sites.

Q: Did the President order this strike? Was it you? When was that decision made?

Secretary Cohen: The President, as Commander in Chief, ordered the strikes.

Q: When was that?

Secretary Cohen: During the course of the past 24 hours.

Q: Was Bin Ladin himself targeted personally?

Secretary Cohen: No. We were targeting these facilities and his infrastructure.

Q: Was this [run] by CENTCOM or Special Operations Command? Can you even say what CINC was in charge of this operation?

General Shelton: We will not comment on the types of forces or types of platforms that we used in this for operational reasons. And I might add, I understand your frustration. You've got a job to do and you'd like to know as much about the details as you can. I have a job to do, and that is to ensure that whatever orders the Commander in Chief gives are carried out in a very effective manner; and secondly, to ensure that we take care of the welfare of the men and women in uniform. I take that obligation very seriously.

After Desert Storm, I recall very well a lot of detail was put out about how we attacked different targets, things of this nature. We're in a different ballgame today. We're going against a terrorist organization and that calls for some different techniques.

Q: How close to weaponizing a chemical weapon was the Khartoum plant?

Secretary Cohen: That's a judgment that we can't make. We do know that this facility was used for the production of precursor chemicals that could be used for producing VX.

Q: Can you say what the evidence was that convinced you that Usama Bin Ladin was behind these bombings?

Secretary Cohen: As Ken indicated before, you're going to be given a briefing following these remarks of ours, but it's been a series of reports that we have analyzed, statements made by Usama Bin Ladin himself, other information coming in as recently as yesterday about future attacks being planned against the United States. But we are satisfied there has been a convincing body of evidence that leads us to this conclusion.

Q: Is Bin Ladin a legitimate military target himself personally?

Secretary Cohen: To the extent that he or his organization have declared war against the United States or our interests, then he certainly is engaged in an act of war.

Q: Were there specific threats that forced you to act today rather than tomorrow or at some other point?

Secretary Cohen: No. We have been planning this for several days now, and we decided to go forward today.

Q: Do you believe this closes the pipeline on any imminent activity? Or do you think something could still have...

Secretary Cohen: This doesn't foreclose anything. What we are prepared and have to be prepared for is a long continuing effort to deal with terrorism. We are sending a very strong signal that there is no safe haven, no safe place to hide. There is no refuge for terrorists who kill innocent American people. That's the message that we're sending and we will continue in that effort. To the extent that other activities have been planned or indeed are carried out, they will be met with a continuing response on the part of the United States.

Q: General, can you comment on whether there was any resistance at all in these attacks?

General Shelton: Resistance in terms of?

Q: Against our forces, I mean.

General Shelton: No. That's an operational level of detail that I'd prefer not to share at this time.

Q: Did you have to get permission from Sudan and from Afghanistan to wage these, or did you notify the governments in power?

Secretary Cohen: Again, another operational matter that we're not going to discuss.

Q: Can you tell us whether all services were involved?

Secretary Cohen: No.

Q: Can you say if there were any casualties among the people at the camps and in Sudan?

Secretary Cohen: It's too early to make any assessment at this point.

Q: How active were the camps in terms of training? Dormant? Did they have skeleton crews? What can you say about that?

Secretary Cohen: They have been active for a period of time and that activity continued through this week.

Q: Are you concerned about plume problems in Khartoum?

Secretary Cohen: We were, and the Chairman can address that, but a detailed analysis was made and we're satisfied that there was low risk of collateral damage.

Q: General, can you say whether these camps involved hundreds of people, dozens, scores, can you give us any rough estimate on the number of personnel involved on the ground approximately?

General Shelton: In terms of the intelligence has indicated that on occasion there were up to 600 that were in the one facility in Afghanistan, at different periods of time. It has varied over time.

Q: Which facility, General?

General Shelton: The complex itself.

Q: The whole six site complex here.

Secretary Cohen: And it could range anywhere from zero to that amount, so there's no way of telling at this time.

Q: Were the imminent threats against other embassies or military...

Secretary Cohen: Yes.

Q: Military bases as well? U.S. military facilities?

Secretary Cohen: That's something we always take into account -- force protection is at the very top of the agenda as far as we're concerned when our forces are forward deployed. So our military installations all are potential targets of terrorists, so we take that into account. But these terrorist threats were more directed toward our embassies.

Q: Can you say when some more information might be available on the forces used? In the next day or two?

Secretary Cohen: I'd say several days away.

Q: Are you keeping forces on standby for follow-on action?

Secretary Cohen: The answer is we will have a capacity to conduct other operations if we need to do so.

Q: General Shelton, the word assassination is going to come up, that Bin Ladin was targeted for assassination. Under our current rules of war, is he a legitimate military target?

General Shelton: Tony, I think the best response I could give you to that is as the Secretary has previously indicated. We were not going directly after Usama Bin Ladin. It was an attack on his network of terrorist groups, as I think you can see from the targets. We will continue to go after that if we feel like it's appropriate and if the threats to Americans or American interests continue.

Q: Mr. Secretary, could you tell us again what the linkage was between the chemical plant in Khartoum and Bin Ladin... What actually was there?

Secretary Cohen: We do know that he had contributed to this particular facility. We do know he has had an interest in acquiring chemical weapons. We do know that this facility produces the precursors that can result in the production of VX. That was a sufficient connection for us.

Q:...some of the additional terrorist plots provided by the individuals already taken into custody in relation to the Africa bombing?

Secretary Cohen: I'm sorry?

Q: Did we learn of some of these terrorist plots, the other threats out there, from the individuals already taken into custody in Kenya and Pakistan?

Secretary Cohen: We acquired the information from a variety of sources, and I believe the combination of those sources led us to this conclusion.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you stated here a couple of minutes ago that you wanted to send a signal that there is no safe haven, no place to hide for terrorist groups. Does that represent a policy position that this Administration has now embraced? And does that represent any break with the past?

Secretary Cohen: No, it's a consistent policy that we have had. If there are states who sponsor terrorism, acts of terrorism, they will be held accountable. If there are individuals within states who are being given safe harbor and who fail to either turn over individuals or provide an aiding and abetting of them, then this is a signal that they are not beyond the reach of the United States.

To the extent that these terrorists continue to threaten, to target Americans, then they cannot feel that they are immune simply because they're in some other country.

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