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Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen Briefing on Military Operations in the Gulf

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
December 16, 1998

[Also participating in the briefing was Gen. Henry H. Shelton, U.S. Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]

Secretary Cohen: Good evening.

President Clinton's decision to strike Iraq has clear military goals. We want to degrade Saddam Hussein's ability to make and to use weapons of mass destruction. We want to diminish his ability to wage war against his neighbors. And we want to demonstrate the consequences of flouting international obligations.

Saddam Hussein has been an outlaw for some time. In the 1980s he used chemical weapons against Iran and against his own Kurdish minority. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait. In 1991 he fired SCUD missiles at his neighbors. At the end of the Gulf War the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq fully disclose and dismantle its program to build deadly biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. But Saddam has used a combination of denials, deceptions and delays to evade Security Council mandates.

At nearly every turn Iraq has chosen obstruction over openness, and confrontation over cooperation. Let me illustrate the history of obstruction and evasion by recounting the events over the past year or so.

In October of 1997, the U.N. inspection team known as UNSCOM told the Security Council that Iraq was blocking inspections and refusing to disclose details of its programs to build chemical and biological weapons. Iraq responded by ordering American inspectors with UNSCOM to leave the country. The United Nations refused to let Iraq define the inspection terms. That would have been akin to letting a parolee dictate the terms of his parole, indeed the composition of his parole officers.

In January of this year Iraq blocked an UNSCOM inspection team headed by an American, provoking a confrontation with the Security Council. The United States and many other nations responded by building up our forces in the Gulf. Faced with the threat of a military strike, Iraq reached an agreement with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan after the Iraqi government made a commitment to allow UNSCOM inspectors to return and to conduct unfettered inspections.

But once again, Iraq refused to abide by its own agreement, and in August Iraq announced that it was stopping inspections but would allow passive monitoring of weapon sites to continue.

In October, it halted the monitoring. The United Nations and Arab countries condemned Iraq's refusal to cooperate with the United Nations. And faced with such a blatant obstruction, the United States and Great Britain with the support of many of our allies prepared for military action.

Then on November 14th, just minutes before a planned strike, Iraq said it was prepared to cooperate "unconditionally" with UNSCOM.

On November 15th, President Clinton listed five benchmarks that Iraq must meet. He said that Iraq must resolve all outstanding issues with UNSCOM; two, give the inspectors unfettered access to inspect and monitor all sites they chose without restriction or qualification; three, turn over all relevant documents; four, accept all weapons of mass destruction related to U.N. Security Council resolutions; and five, not interfere with the independence and professional expertise of the UNSCOM inspectors.

By December it was clear that Iraq once again was refusing to live up to its obligations. Then yesterday in his report to the United Nations Secretary General, Ambassador Butler, the head of UNSCOM concluded, and I quote, "Iraq did not provide the full cooperation it promised on 14 November 1998, and initiated new forms of restrictions upon the Commission's work. Then as a result," Ambassador Butler said, "in light of the absence of full cooperation by Iraq, it must regrettably be recorded again that the Commission is not able to conduct the substantive disarmament work mandated to it by the Security Council."

This is not a matter of diplomatic nicety or detail. Iraq has followed a planned, systematic pattern of obstruction and delay. Saddam Hussein wants to force the international community to allow him to keep his deadly chemical and biological weapons and to wiggle out from under the economic sanctions that the Security Council has imposed on him.

Despite seven years of efforts to halt Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program, the U.N. inspectors believe that Iraq could quickly develop and use deadly chemical and biological weapons. And despite the appeals from the U.N. Security Council and the Arab world, Iraq has once again refused to reverse its course.

Iraq has spurned the U.N., it has spurned diplomacy, it has spurned all reasonable efforts to resolve this crisis peacefully. And faced with Iraq's outright refusal to obey its international obligations, the United States acted to restrict the threat that Iraq poses to its neighbors and to international order.

The world knows that it cannot trust Saddam Hussein. The world also knows that it can trust the United States.

A month ago President Clinton said, quote, "Until we see complete compliance, we will remain vigilant, we will keep up the pressure, and we will be ready to act."

Well, we have acted. We do not use force lightly. We did not do so today. But Iraq has exhausted patience, it has exhausted all options but the use of force.

The United States and the world community cannot allow Iraq to brazenly break its promises, just as it could not allow Iraq to bully its neighbors back in 1990.

Great Britain is joining us in this action, and we have the necessary support from other nations as well.

Any use of force, as the President has indicated, involves risk. To limit the risk to our troops and to our allies I am ordering a sharp increase in our forces in the Gulf. We are sending an Air Expeditionary Wing and more ground troops. Iraq should not misunderstand our determination.

Now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs will make a statement, and we're prepared to answer your questions.

Gen. Shelton: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

I do not intend to review in detail this evening how once again we have found it necessary to take military action against Iraq. The President and Secretary Cohen have covered that ground very well.

Nonetheless, I do want to note that throughout the seven years since the end of the Gulf War, U.S. military forces and those of our allies and partners in the region have kept a watchful eye on Saddam Hussein to ensure that he did not reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction, threaten his neighbors, or put the security of the strategically vital Persian Gulf region in jeopardy.

We also watched as Saddam Hussein relentlessly and shamelessly lied about his remaining chemical and biological weapons capabilities, as he denied UNSCOM inspectors access to information they needed to do their jobs, and as he thumbed his nose at the United Nations' and the international community's efforts to ensure that he honored his commitments.

The time for watching has ended. As the President and Secretary Cohen have noted earlier, Saddam's actions to evade and defeat U.N. weapons inspectors in recent weeks were but one last very clear example that he does not intend to fulfill his obligations to cooperate fully with UNSCOM. So today we commenced a military operation -- OPERATION DESERT FOX -- that includes American and British forces to carry out military strikes aimed at degrading the very capabilities that Saddam has tried to preserve.

The operation employs U.S. Navy aircraft flying from the decks of the USS ENTERPRISE; U.S. Air Force and Royal Air Force aircraft operating from land bases in the region; and Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from U.S. Navy ships at sea and United States Air Force B-52s.

We're also in the process of deploying additional U.S. military forces to Southwest Asia, to the U.S. Central Command's area of operation to bolster our already substantial military presence in the Gulf region as Secretary Cohen mentioned.

Elements of the Crisis Response Force that we created last spring are also moving to the region. We have some fact sheets for you on the major elements of the Crisis Response Force, but most of you are familiar with the major pieces. An Air Expeditionary Wing of approximately 36 combat aircraft including fighters, bombers, and anti-air defense aircraft; the F-117 Stealth aircraft; an additional aircraft carrier, the USS CARL VINSON and the other ships of its battle group which will arrive the day after tomorrow; and elements of a division ready brigade to reinforce our troops already on the ground in Kuwait as a part of exercise INTRINSIC ACTION. And of course there are numerous logistic and support units including refueling and reconnaissance aircraft and ground support elements that will also be deployed.

Deploying this Crisis Response Force will provide our theater commander Gen. Zinni with additional flexibility and will allow us to increase the intensity and tempo of our strike operations if that is necessary.

Because operations in the region are still ongoing, it would be inappropriate for me at this time to provide the specific numbers and types of cruise missiles launched thus far; the number of aircraft sorties flown; or other actions that are carried out or will be carried out.

The ongoing nature of the operations also means that I cannot share with you at this time any specific information about the targets we have struck or those that we plan to strike or any assessment of the damage done so far.

I know that you and the American people are keenly interested in this information, and I assure you that we will make every effort to provide you and the American people with more detail at the appropriate time.

Before I close and the Secretary and I take your questions, I'd like to take a moment to note that all of you can be proud of the men and women of our armed forces -- those that are on duty around the world selflessly carrying out dangerous and difficult missions, whether it's flying in harm's way in the Gulf, deterring aggression in the demilitarized zone in Korea, or preserving the peace in Bosnia. And we can be particularly proud tonight of those that are answering the call in the skies over Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

Thank you. Now we'll take your questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, the President said that these will be a sustained series of strikes. Can you tell us how long you expect them to last? Over a period of days, several days? And could any statement or promise be made by Iraq that could cut these strikes short or stop them?

Secretary Cohen: I won't get into any specific time table other than to say we intend to carry the mission out until such time as we accomplish our set goals. I mentioned those in my opening comments, that we would degrade his capacity to threaten his neighbors, and his capacity to deliver weapons of mass destruction, as well as manufacture them. Those are our goals. We will continue the operation until that is complete, to our satisfaction at least.

Q: You mean it might go into Ramadan? Could that go into Ramadan?

Secretary Cohen: I wouldn't want to set any time frame. The President indicated that he was sensitive to the issue about Ramadan and that we would not begin an operation in Ramadan. We're aware of that holy period for the Islamic people. But we intend to carry out our mission, however long it will take.

Q: Mr. Secretary, do you have any information yet about potential loss of life? Either American forces or Iraqis involved here?

Secretary Cohen: As of the most recent notice we received, there have been no American casualties at this time. We're not in a position to calculate casualties on the Iraqi side.

Q: Can you tell us when the strike began, sir? When it actually began. And also either you or Gen. Shelton, if you will, in an operation such as this, as has been planned in the past, the idea was to use cruise missiles, both Tomahawks and CALCMS of the B-52s, to soften up air defenses, and then go in with manned aircraft. Apparently, according to Gen. Shelton, this was not the case here. They were done in concert. Can you tell us why that was done? When did the strike actually begin, sir?

Secretary Cohen: The strike began approximately at 5 o'clock Eastern Standard Time. The Chairman can comment in terms of the composition of our forces.

I will not get into any discussion in terms of what forces will be used on any given day. We have a complement of forces that are designed to carry out the objectives of the mission.

Q: Secretary Cohen...

Q: Can Gen. Shelton answer the question, please, about the...

Gen. Shelton: That falls into the category of operational details that I'd rather not talk about right now. At the appropriate time we'll provide you with the data that you're asking for, but not until we get further into the operation.

Q: Secretary Cohen, do these military strikes mean the United States has given up on the United Nations weapons inspection regime?

Secretary Cohen: They mean that we have given Saddam Hussein every opportunity to fully comply and to cooperate with the UNSCOM inspection team. Last November, November 14th, approximately a month ago, just as strikes were about to be carried out, the President indicated that when Saddam Hussein raised the white flag and said I agree to cooperate, one more time he said I agree to fully cooperate, that we said fine. The inspection team went out, and the inspection team came back. They filed their report yesterday indicating non-compliance, more restrictions, more obstructions, and key was that of Mr. Butler, Ambassador Butler saying they could not carry out their mission. So...

Q: Do you think they'll ever go back?

Secretary Cohen: We don't know if they'll ever go back, but we do intend to keep the sanctions in place until there is full compliance on the part of the Iraqi government.

Q: How confident are you that you can degrade his ability to manufacture weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them? Aren't those very hard targets to find?

Secretary Cohen: They are difficult targets to find. We've indicated we will degrade his ability to threaten his neighbors; we will degrade his ability to deliver those weapons; and we will strike some of those facilities.

Q: Sir, what would it take, if anything, on Saddam Hussein...

Q:...strike plan?

Secretary Cohen: I'm sorry?

Q: Are there pauses built into the strike plan?

Secretary Cohen: I'm not going to discuss operational details.

Q: Secretary Cohen, what if anything would it take on Saddam Hussein's part to end this attack?

Secretary Cohen: Saddam Hussein has had every opportunity to end the sanctions. All he's had to do is to comply. He has promised year after year that he would fully comply and frankly, I think very little credence can ever be given to his promises based on past performance. So we intend to continue the mission until such time as we carry out our objectives.

Q: Mr. Secretary, why is it that...

Q: Mr. Cohen, sir, the President said just a few minutes ago that this was "the last chance" for Iraq, the Iraqi government. What did he mean by a last chance?

And let me go back to the subject of Ramadan. If we can't start a war during Ramadan, how can we continue hostilities during Ramadan?

Secretary Cohen: Much depends upon Saddam Hussein in terms of his own activities during this period of time. I wouldn't want to speculate what he will or won't do. He's on notice that we intend to deliver a substantial blow, and he may or may not respond in a certain way. We'll see.

But the President, in terms of the last chance he's indicating that we gave Saddam the last chance last November 14th. Once again, he breached his promises. So this is a reaction to that. We're saying we're going to do what he has refused to allow the inspectors to do. Because he has refused to allow UNSCOM to carry out its duty, we intend to carry out ours. And that's all the farther I can go.

Q: Mr. Secretary, is the objective of the attack to destabilize his regime and force...

Secretary Cohen: As I stated, the objective of the attack is to go after those chemical, biological, or weapons of mass destruction sites to the extent that we can; to prevent him from being able to threaten his neighbors with his military; and to prevent him from being able to deliver to the best of our ability the chemical or biological and nuclear weapons.

Q: Why not go after his regime, if that's what the problem is?

Secretary Cohen: We have set forth our specific targets, and that's what we intend to carry out.

Q: If this is such a critical international crisis and it's so serious, why has the Clinton Administration not been able to convince any other nations but the U.K. to join with the United States?

Secretary Cohen: First of all, we had planned in the past to cooperate and work very closely with the United Kingdom. We also had the support of many other nations. I have talked personally with a number of countries, and they were prepared to volunteer assets and they did, in fact, call and say they would be supportive of anything that we were to undertake.

We obviously, also, had to consider the plan itself. We have tried to maximize our ability to strike quickly without any further warning. We indicated last November 14th that we had all that we needed in place, there would be no additional diplomacy, no more concessions, no more carrots. That we had the ability and would move without any further notice in the event he broke his promise once again. So from a security point of view, we decided that we had enough in place and could carry out this operation with minimal notice and with minimal compromise of the surprise element.

Q:...decline the offer of other nations to supply weapons...

Secretary Cohen: We did not solicit the offer of other nations in addition to what we had from Great Britain and the support voiced by others if we needed it. We could certainly have other support.

Q: Did the looming impeachment vote in the House of Representatives play any part, was it a factor in any way in the decision to carry out this military action?

Secretary Cohen: The only factor from my point of view and from the Chairman's point of view, or from anyone else's point of view, was what is in the national security interest of the United States. We are convinced, we have absolutely no doubt this is the right decision, this is the right time for us to move. Once Ambassador Butler made the determination that Saddam did not intend to comply, then we felt that that was the time that we had to enforce what we said before. And I again, would repeat, what we say matters. And if we lay down markers that say unless you comply you're going to face a military operation and there's non-compliance, a failure to take action under those circumstances, I think, would, in fact, impair our national security interests for some time to come.

Q: Mr. Secretary, as a Republican, a former member of the Senate...

Gen. Shelton: Let me answer Jamie's question first. I wholeheartedly supported the decision, the President's decision. I felt like we had looked at every aspect of this operation and we had to measure action against the consequences of inaction. We had looked as far back as the 15th, starting on the 15th of November when the President very clearly outlined what Saddam Hussein had to do in order to meet the requirements of the international community that had been set for him by the U.N. That unless he did that, there was a potential for military action.

So we started planning as we do in our business, for the worst case. We started looking at what windows of opportunity might be available. And all of that was driven, of course, by when Ambassador Butler would complete his inspections and what his report would say. If it were a negative report, we'd have to wait until we got that report.

We looked at that. We had several factors we had to consider. But it all boiled down to that if he had released the report by the 15th, then the 16th was the day that we should do it in order to achieve tactical surprise, as well as we had several other things that were lining up to include the arrival of a second carrier battle group, the turnover of our B-52s which were in the process of rotating for Christmas, and things just fell into place.

So militarily, it was the right decision, the right date, and that decision was made back in November.

Q: Mr. Secretary, as a Republican and a former Member of the Senate, what do you think about Senator Lott's criticism of this attack at this key time for national security?

Secretary Cohen: I think that every Member of Congress and every member of this country will have to make his or her own judgment based upon the facts. I have come to the conclusion, in looking at the facts, that this was in America's national security interest. I am prepared to place 30 years of public service on the line to say the only factor that was important in this decision is what is in the American people's best interest. There were no other factors.

So each person will come to their own decision. There are other Members of the Senate, other Members of the House who will reach a different conclusion. We respect their individual judgments. But based upon the facts as we have worked with them... The Chairman and I were talking about this just before we came down here. We have worked together since a year ago, in October of 1997, on this issue. We have followed it closely. We have looked at what's in our national security interests, and we are convinced that this is the right thing to do under the circumstances, and we have recommended and support going forward.

Q: Mr. Secretary, would you recommend to Members of Congress not to speak out against the strike and the President during this period?

Secretary Cohen: I have made no such recommendations to Members of Congress. That is a judgment on their own. I think each Member will decide for himself or herself what they feel compelled to say during this time, but I've made no such recommendations, and would not.

Q: Are you saying this attack will come to an end once you've gone through your target list? Once Saddam Hussein has surrendered? Or some other...

Secretary Cohen: Once we have accomplished our set objectives, we will stay on station. We intend to continue to enforce the sanctions until such time as there is compliance.

Q: Are your objectives anything other than the target list? Once you've gone through your target list is it over?

Secretary Cohen: It is over in the sense of the military operation itself, but we will remain at the ready for an indefinite period of time to maintain our presence with the support of our Gulf allies, and to stay at the ready in the event that Saddam seeks to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction. We will be there. To the extent that he moves against any of his neighbors, we will be there. So this particular military operation is directed specifically to achieve the goals that I outlined.

Q: Does...

Q: Mr. Secretary...

Q:...his neighbors?

Secretary Cohen: I'm sorry?

Q: Does the U.S. expect that once again Saddam Hussein may attack his neighbors?

Secretary Cohen: That's a possibility, and the neighbors are on full alert. They understand what the consequences are. But they also understand what the consequences, as the Chairman has indicated, of not acting. He has been determined to maintain his weapons of mass destruction, to rebuild them if he can, to slip out from underneath the sanctions so he can get more revenues in order to rebuild his military, and then again pose a serious threat to his neighbors.

Q: Is that why the Patriots were left in Israel?

Secretary Cohen: The Patriots have been in Israel on an exercise that had been planned for some months, as the Chairman indicated.

Q: Is Saddam Hussein being targeted personally?

Q: Can you give us some indication of just how large a force you're going to maintain in the Gulf? Are you going to maintain two carriers there? Are you going to go back up to 40,000, 50,000 troops as there has been there in the past?

Gen. Shelton: Susanne, there's not an easy answer for that. We will maintain an appropriate level over there. As you know, we've maintained a force of about 20,000 in the region for quite some time. There's no plan right now to reduce below that level, but whether or not we maintain some of the additional force, how long we maintain the additional forces will be determined by the outcome of our plan and our achieving our objectives.

Q: Will the two carriers stay for the foreseeable future, rather than one leaving at Christmas time?

Gen. Shelton: I won't comment on that right now. I think that's something to be determined, depending on how the operation goes.

Q: When specifically did you and the Secretary of Defense become aware of the tone and starkness of the upcoming Butler report? When did you begin discussing specifically that this might be go this time? For instance, was this part of your thinking? Did you know about this when you decided not to go to Germany, Mr. Secretary?

Secretary Cohen: We started planning this particular operation, as I indicated, back as early as November 15th. Based upon the President's benchmarks that what Saddam had to do was to fully comply with those five benchmarks, we had to put in place, and you may recall that I made a number of statements on that day indicating that we would be at the ready, we would have sufficient forces on hand to carry out a military operation should it become necessary and should he fail to fulfill his obligations.

The timing of this was set primarily by the inspection teams. When Mr. Butler indicated his teams would be carrying out the inspections during the first two weeks of December, then obviously we were not going to take any action until such time as they conducted the inspections and filed the report.

At the other side, we were looking at the calendar -- seeing Ramadan that we were going to be sensitive to.

So we had to prepare for a window during which time if there were a failure to comply we could take action. So it was not until Mr. Butler filed his report that this became a reality as far as we were ready to go, and then the decision had to be made, in view of the fact that you had this statement which is categorical and qualified that UNSCOM cannot carry out its obligations, for us at that point to fail to take action I think would have been an abdication of our responsibilities.

So it became...

Q: Did you have any advance warning of the contents of the report?

Secretary Cohen: No. There was some speculation about what it might contain. And frankly, we had assumed that it might be mixed. We didn't know. And until such time as it was actually filed with the Security Council, it was at that time when it became a matter of decision.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what words would you use to describe these strikes? Obviously you...

Secretary Cohen: Serious. Serious and sustained.

Q: The Gulf War, if I could follow-up, reduced the Iraqi military by half. Yet Iraq has remained a thorn in the side of the international community for nine years. These strikes will clearly not be as large as the Gulf War. Do you have any optimism that they'll have any lasting effect?

Secretary Cohen: They're not designed to try to compete with the Gulf War. They are designed specifically to accomplish what Saddam Hussein has prevented the UNSCOM team from accomplishing. What we are seeking to do is to degrade his capacity to threaten his neighbors. We're not seeking to try to eliminate it. We're not saying that that's going to be the measure of success. We're trying to degrade his capacity to threaten his neighbors with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them. So that's what our goal is.

Q: Are you targeting Saddam Hussein personally?

Q: How difficult will it be to degrade, from a military standpoint... Back in February both you and the Secretary were very measured about what would constitute success by way of degradation of his weapons or his capability. Give us some parameters now.

Gen. Shelton: Without getting into the operational details, I would say we have very carefully selected those things that are very closely associated with the things that he uses to transport, the things he uses to protect, the things he uses to guard his facilities, as well as delivery facilities and some production capabilities. So it goes after everything from security to manufacture, to delivery.

It's not an easy task, but I think we're up to it.

Q: How about Republican Guard units?

Q:...surprised...

Q: What about the types of units that are used to guard those? What's going to happen to that?

Gen. Shelton: Susanne, at this point I won't discuss any types, any detail about types or types of targets that we're going after. That...

Q: Secretary Cohen, what is the worry about civilian casualties? And also, what would the U.S. response be if Israel is hit by Iraq?

Secretary Cohen: We have indicated to Iraq that it ought not to threaten its neighbors or be met with a very severe consequence from the United States. We would hope that Saddam would not act foolishly in striking Israel, but the Israelis, of course, are prepared for any potential type of attack upon their country. But we have indicated to Iraq that that would be met with very severe consequence.

The other part?

Q: Civilian casualties.

Secretary Cohen: Civilian casualties. We always try to take that into account. We have tried to minimize civilian casualties. We don't know exactly what will occur until the operation is over.

Q: Was surprise achieved...

Q:...civilians into the targeted areas?

Secretary Cohen: I'm sorry?

Q: Do you have any indications that he has moved civilians into the most obvious target areas as he's done in the past?

Secretary Cohen: Not at this time. We think we've achieved as much tactical surprise as one can do under these circumstances.

Q: Can you give us an update tomorrow?

Q: Will you be going to Belgium? No?

Press: Thank you.