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DoD News Briefing, December 15,1998

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
December 15, 1998 1:40 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon. I have no announcements, and I stand here ready to take your questions.

Q: Can you fill us in on the budget negotiations between here and the White House? There are reports now that despite some earlier expectations that the military will not get the major increase it had expected over the next six years.

A: The budget negotiations are ongoing. It's an unwritten story -- unwritten in newspapers, unwritten in the bureaucracy. Discussions took place yesterday and they're continuing today and they'll probably go into tomorrow as well. So until they're over, I don't have any firm number to give you.

Q: Between here and OMB or inside the building?

A: There are conversations between here and OMB, between here and the White House, and inside the building.

Q: Has Secretary Cohen taken part personally in...

A: He talked...although he was in the building all day yesterday meeting with the Deputy Secretary and Comptroller Lynn, he did talk with John Podesta yesterday. Other officials in the building have been talking to OMB counterparts and that is continuing today as well.

Q: Is the building so committed to the $112 million figure laid out by the Chiefs...

A: The building is committed to an increase in defense spending that will allow us to do three things. One, address readiness concerns; two, accelerate modernization; and three, take care of force sustainability problems through dealing with pension and pay problems that have arisen.

Q:...obligated to...

A: It's premature to talk about numbers at this stage. We're still trying to work out the numbers. I think we're making some progress, but we haven't finished.

Q: But you anticipate there will be additional funding.

A: I anticipate that there will be additional funding and as I discussed last week, I also think that we will receive certain money that's already within the budget, but will be reallocated to meet the readiness, force sustainability and modernization issues. Where will this money come from? Some will come as a result of lower fuel prices than anticipated and lower inflation than anticipated.

So it will be a combination of reassigning certain funds within the budget to increase our capabilities; and second, getting new money.

Q: Which will be greater? The new money or the reassigned money?

A: We hope they'll both be big.

Q: Has Secretary Cohen been in contact with any member of Congress on behalf of the President regarding his possible impeachment?

A: Secretary Cohen's job is to be Secretary of Defense. That's what he's been doing. He has been spending all his time on defense issues.

Q: Can you tell us anything about the nature of the terrorist threat facing U.S. military facilities in the Persian Gulf that has led you to raise security alert conditions there, and just how serious and credible you think these threats are?

A: As you probably know, most of our forces in the Gulf are now at a threat condition called Charlie which is the third out of four threat conditions. The definition of THREATCON Charlie is, an incident has occurred or intelligence has been received indicating that some form of terrorist action is imminent. We believe that we have significant credible intelligence suggesting the possibility of an imminent terrorist action in the Middle Eastern region. For that reason, American citizens have been warned, American diplomats have been warned, and American soldiers have been put on a higher state of threat condition.

Q: If I could just follow up, do you believe that you have direct intelligence, or does this come from other parties? Is it something that the U.S. knows directly? And I have one more follow-up after that.

A: What do you mean by directly?

Q: Well, intelligence... Is it possible that it's simply reporting you have from other than sources controlled by the U.S., or is it something the U.S. knows directly from its own methods and sources? Or does it come from a third country?

A: Without getting into the source of the intelligence, as you know, we gather intelligence from a variety of sources, by a variety of means. We believe that putting all that together, we have very credible and disturbing information that a threat is imminent in the region.

Q: Any specific targets in terms of diplomatic or military or private sector? Can you narrow? Or do you feel...

A: I choose not to be more specific than that.

Q: My follow-up on that, what do you make of the reports that Osama bin Laden is seriously ill?

A: I'm aware of those reports, and they're interesting reports.

Q: Do you agree with them since they come from the United States?

A: Well, they don't all come from the United States. I think when it comes to intelligence it's better not to discuss the intelligence reports.

Q: Just to go back to Barbara's question, the biggest damage that has been done to U.S. forces in the Middle East has been against buildings, a large tonnage type truck or car bombs. I would ask if the embassies and other U.S. facilities are being especially guarded against vehicle bomb attacks.

A: First, I would quibble slightly with you. The biggest damage that's been done to the United States has been against 19 airmen at Khobar Towers who died by an act of terrorism.

Q: But it was by a truck bomb.

A: With the current threat, I can't be more specific. It's a threat. We take it very seriously. As you know, we have significant intelligence assets directed at the Middle East because it is a high threat environment. There have been two attacks against Americans in Saudi Arabia, for instance, since 1994. We pick up reports of possible threats against Americans, diplomats, and military people all the time. And we assess these reports. Some we take more seriously than others. This we take seriously.

Q: What I was asking...

A: And we have increased our alert posture, and we have taken other measures designed to protect Americans against such threats.

Q: Will the facilities be cordoned off preventing vehicle approach to a greater extent than they are today is what I mean...

A: In terms of the military, the specific actions taken to protect troops are frequently taken at the initiative of the local commander. We obviously have very clear force protection policies. Those policies were changed dramatically after the Khobar Tower attack. Our entire military is spending much more time, energy, and money on force protection now. It's a much greater awareness issue among troops today than in the past. But in terms of specific actions, that's left primarily on a day to day basis to the individual commander.

Q: Broadly speaking, had the region been back at THREATCON Bravo, and is this increase to THREATCON Charlie based, in fact, the result of information over the last couple of weeks?

A: Where there has been an increase in the threat condition it has been in response to this information gathered over the last couple of weeks.

Q: Is the information linked to Osama bin Laden?

A: We believe the information is credible information and I don't think I'm going to talk about it in any greater specificity.

Q: Is he believed to be the source of this threat? People associated with him?

A: It's a nice try to ask the same question a different way, but I'm not going to talk about it with any specificity.

Q: Can I ask you to define, though, you said Middle East region. Did you indicate Persian Gulf region or...

A: It is the Gulf region, and as you know the State Department warning issued several days ago was focused in the Gulf area.

Q: I just wanted to make sure, that does not include Africa?

A: No.

Q: In terms of the threat the State Department was responding to and the one you're responding to, it's the same threat.

A: Yes.

Q: You decline to discuss the reports about Osama bin Laden possibly being ill, sick. You said you found the reports interesting. Would you give any credibility to them at all without discussing specific intelligence? Or would you give us...

A: I think I'll stick with the word interesting.

Q: So you won't say whether or not the United States has information that he might be ill.

A: No, I will not.

Q: New subject?

Q: Are there any plans to bring those Patriot batteries back from Israel now that the President is on his way...

A: The Patriot batteries are continuing their exercises there, and obviously they will come back at some time, but they won't come back immediately. The exercises are continuing. They did some work with the Marines who were there as part of NOBLE SHIRLEY, and they also have some exercises to do on their own and those exercises aren't over yet.

Q: I just wanted to ask, under the THREATCON Charlie, are there types of activities that military people in the region are asked not to do -- go out to bars or anything? Can you define what impact that has on people in the region at all?

A: I think it's fair to say that very few Americans, if any, in the Gulf are going out to bars. (Laughter)

Q: Excuse me. In certain cities in the Gulf there are bars, and there have been warnings to Navy personnel to specific areas of entertainment -- whatever that be -- that they avoid them. My question is...

A: In particular, in most cases, and as I say, this is commander specific and area specific. But in general the types of measures we're discussing involve staying on bases, not traveling around in large groups, changing the predictability of activities when people do leave bases, and taking a variety of measures to increase the security around installations. This can involve both surveillance and it can involve passive security guards, etc.

So there are a variety of things that can be done. As you know, many of our forces in the Gulf, and I'm talking only about the military now, not about the diplomatic corps or private citizens, because that's not my area to discuss. But many of our forces in the Gulf do work and live in relatively isolated cases, and the most dramatic example of that would be the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia at Al Kharj. But there are other people who live in relatively isolated and highly secure places. One example of that would be Camp Doha outside of Kuwait City in Kuwait.

So commanders will take a variety of steps to improve the security and to reduce the exposure of their troops.

Q: Is any gear being brought in for force protection purposes?

A: Well, there's a lot of gear there already. I'm not aware of any additional gear being brought in.

Q: Can you comment on the continued flow of Russian technology to Iran's nuclear program? And can you provide the building's best estimate on when Iran could first conceivably produce a nuclear weapon?

A: In general, the flow of technology is disturbing. We have brought this up with Russian officials at the highest level including President Yeltsin as well as Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and now Prime Minister Primakov.

We have made the point to the Russians that Iran is much closer to Russia than it is to the United States, and that an increase in Iran's military capability, particularly its weapons of mass destruction capability, could be endangering Russian security, as well as security in the region.

We have done more than talk to the Russians about this. We have imposed some disciplinary measures on certain firms and dealings with certain firms. We also have a positive program with the Russians to help them dismantle their own nuclear weapons and also to help them employ scientists and others who used to work in the weapons program.

We currently have a program called the International Science and Technology Center in Russia that employs approximately 17,000 scientists and engineers formerly engaged in the weapons business, and now they're working on medical issues, nuclear waste disposal projects, biological means to generate energy through photosynthesis and environmental work. This is all being undertaken to try to reduce the temptation for these people to find employment in the wrong places.

In terms of how long it will take, could take the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon, I'll have to go back and check. I remember that Secretary Perry spoke about this several times, and spoke about it in terms of a number of years, but that was always based on an internally developed weapon.

To the extent that they can purchase either goods or services from abroad, that can accelerate the time it would take them to develop an atomic weapon.

Q: In general terms, is it a near term threat, medium term, long term?

A: I think I would just--I have not checked recently on those estimates, and rather than give you a misleading answer, I'd rather not guess.

Q: I just wanted to follow this up. Ken, I asked about the Bushehr reactor last Thursday, and there's an article in the Wall Street Journal today about there being evidence, pretty convincing evidence that the Russian's Minatom, that's Mr. Adamov's organization, is selling at least two Russian nuclear research institutes, are quietly negotiating to sell Iran a 40 megawatt heavy water research reactor and a uranium conversion facility that will help, be building blocks for a long range Iranian effort to manufacture plutonium. Or enriched uranium for bombs. Is this a revelation, do you think it's correct? And is it of great concern to the Pentagon?

A: The general topic of technology transfer, particularly in the nuclear area to Iran, is very disturbing to us. It's something that we have been discussing with the Russians for some time, as I said, at the highest levels. There have been a series of talks on this from the President on down and we will continue to push this issue.

As the Wall Street Journal article, I thought, pointed out, it is a tricky issue because of the economic problems that Russia is facing today, and particularly because the people who work in their nuclear ministry, their atomic ministry, used to be at the top of the heap in terms of their recognition, their pay, their stature in the old Soviet Union, and in the last ten years they have seen much of their business go away, and many of them have to look elsewhere to get income. That's one of the reasons why we have set up a program at the International Science and Technology Center in Russia to employ some of these people. But it's also one of the risks we're trying to head off by trying to convince them not to sell equipment or technology to Iran.

Q: You said earlier that disciplinary measures against certain firms have been taken. Can you confirm this Washington Times report that the U.S. has decided to economically sanction two of those entities? One of them is, I think, the acronym of NIKIET or something like that? The other is...

A: I cannot confirm those specifics because our negotiations with the Russian government and with particular firms right now are private. At the appropriate time we may be able to make some announcements, but not now.

But as appropriate, when we believe we have conclusive information about a proliferating activity by certain firms, we do take action against those firms.

Q: Are there any firms that are currently under sanction?

A: There are. I believe there are seven currently. I believe there are seven currently under sanction.

Q: Iraq. Will the United States be making a decision about whether to take military action against Iraq this week based on the results of Richard Butler's report to the United Nations?

A: Well Richard Butler's report will certainly have an impact on what our future strategy is toward Iraq. We have not ruled in or ruled out any options at this stage. We're awaiting Ambassador Butler's report. I expect that it will be out this afternoon or this evening. That's my latest information. We will have to evaluate the report and see what it says.

Q: We don't have to wait for the report to know that Iraq's cooperation was less than full and unconditional. Isn't Iraq therefore in violation of the promise it made back on November 14th when the United States called off its military strike?

A: I think rather than speculate right now we should see how Ambassador Butler, who's closest to the situation, evaluates Iraqi compliance.

Obviously Iraqi compliance has been less than complete, but we need to await Ambassador Butler's assessment of whether he thinks he can do his job, and what he thinks the future will hold. As I say, that report isn't out yet and it won't be out for probably several hours.

Q: If the President were to decide that Iraq's lack of compliance justified a military strike, does the President have the moral authority to order such a strike given that it would come at a time when he's also facing impeachment in the House of Representatives and the questions that would raise?

A: First of all, the first part of your question is hypothetical. He hasn't reached any decision yet because he doesn't have all of the information he would need to evaluate Iraqi compliance.

The President is the Commander in Chief. He was duly elected. He will have to -- he is completing a foreign trip in which he was able to realize or help realize a considerable achievement in Palestine, and I think that he has the full authority given under the Constitution to take any action he needs to take in protection of our national interest. Whatever he decides that is.

Q: Can you give us a rundown of the force levels in the region?

A: There are, in total, 24,100 men and women in the American military there. There are 22 ships. There are 201 aircraft. And there are 2,400 Army personnel in the area. The bulk of those, of course, are the INTRINSIC ACTION task force that's in Kuwait. I think there are about 1200 from the 3rd Armored [Infantry] Division.

Q: Is that including the 24,000?

A: They're all included. The 24,400 is the total figure and I just broke out the number of people in the Army.

Q: Is that 24,400 or...

A: 24,100, excuse me. 24,100.

Q: Tomahawks?

Q: Does that include the B-52s still in Diego Garcia?

A: It does, yes. It does include those.

Q: How many are there?

A: Well in Diego Garcia right now there are 15 B-52s. There are the seven that will come out before Christmas and the eight that have gone to replace them. That includes one training plane.

Somebody asked about the Tomahawk capable ships. There are eight ships capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles. Otto?

Q: Different subject.

The Center for Strategic International Studies put out a report today warning about the threat of cyber-terrorism, and it's something new. The Defense Science Board put out one in '96. There have been other [words] in this building. The Center study, they said the main reason was to try to get the nation to pay attention to this thing -- a serious threat that nobody's concentrating enough on.

What's the feeling here? Is the nation doing what it needs to to counter the possibility of an electronic Pearl Harbor?

A: I haven't read the report so I can't comment specifically on that report.

The threat of an electronic Pearl Harbor or the threat of cyber-terrorism -- which could be much less hyperbolic than an electronic Pearl Harbor -- is clearly one that's getting increasing attention in this building and throughout the government.

There was, as you know, a critical infrastructure task force and report last year or early this year, that has led to some reorganization within the government, and a new focus on ways to protect our critical infrastructure -- whether it's the power system or whether it's the water systems or whether it's our computer systems. So increasing attention is being paid to that.

I think it's an area in which it's very difficult to say that enough attention is being paid, in part because the question always arises, how much is enough? But clearly, it's one that's of growing concern to the military and growing concern to this Administration as well.

So it's getting more attention in the building, and more attention outside the building. And I might add, I believe it's getting more attention from private industry as well.

Q: The VINSON is supposed to replace the ENTERPRISE later this week, right? On...

A: I think the official swap-out date is the 20th.

Q: Will the ENTERPRISE remain or will it...

A: She's scheduled to be in the Mediterranean for Christmas.

Q: And they have no plans now to change that?

A: There are no plans now to change that. She'll leave on -- every plan suggests she'll leave on schedule.

More questions?

Press: Thank you.

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