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Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Briefing on Operation DESERT FOX

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
December 19, 1998 6:55 PM EDT

Secretary Cohen: Good evening.

On Wednesday when U.S. and British forces launched strikes against Iraq, I stated that we were pursuing clear military goals. And as President Clinton has announced, we've achieved those goals. We've degraded Saddam Hussein's ability to deliver chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. We've diminished his ability to wage war against his neighbors. Our forces attacked about 100 targets over four nights, following a plan that was developed and had been developed and refined over the past year. We concentrated on military targets and we worked very hard to keep civilian casualties as low as possible. Our goal was to weaken Iraq's military power, not to hurt Iraq's people.

Since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the United States and other countries have enforced the U.N. Security Council resolutions to contain Iraq from attacking its neighbors and from using weapons of mass destruction. That containment policy continues. We will maintain a strong, ready force in the Gulf to respond to any contingency. We will ensure that economic sanctions on Iraq stay in effect until Iraq complies with the Security Council resolutions and mandates. Saddam Hussein chose confrontation over cooperation. There's no pleasure to be had when a brutal dictator chooses to pit his people against the entire international community. Our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people. The United States has led in supporting the oil for food program which ensures that the money from the sale of Iraq's oil goes for food and other humanitarian needs and not for weapons or palaces.

We've taken great care to minimize casualties among innocent civilians in our strikes. I find no joy in watching a people in a land so long and rich in history endure deprivation from sanctions or suffering from attacks. To the extent that there are civilian casualties, only Saddam and his brutally destructive regime are to blame.

We gave our forces a very difficult job to do... to execute. And they performed it with great speed and also with great skill. There were no U.S. or British casualties, but as we all know, our armed forces put themselves in harm's way every single day. And I would like to remember this evening that two days into her current six month deployment, the USS ENTERPRISE sustained casualties when two aircraft collided during their carrier qualifications. That night, Lieutenant Commander Kurt Barich, Lieutenant Commander Meredith Loughran, Lieutenant Brendan Duffy and Lieutenant Charles Woodard gave their lives in defense of their country. And our condolences and sympathies continue to go to their families and their loved ones.

All Americans should be proud of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who executed Operation DESERT FOX.

On Monday, Gen. Anthony Zinni, who planned and prepared and commanded this operation with great skill, is going to be here to brief you on the details of DESERT FOX. He and all of our troops deserve our thanks for a job extremely well done.

Mr. Chairman.

Gen. Shelton: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Good evening.

As the President said just a short time ago, Operation DESERT FOX has ended. U.S. and British military forces under Gen. Tony Zinni, the commander of U.S. Central Command, have been highly successful in achieving the objectives of Operation DESERT FOX. The military objectives of this operation as outlined earlier by the President were clearly spelled out and approved by President Clinton. As the President's principal military advisor, I am confident that the carefully planned and superbly executed combat operations of the past four days have degraded Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs, his ability to deliver weapons and his ability to militarily threaten the security of this strategically important Persian Gulf region. Gen. Zinni made the same assessment.

The forces participating in Operation DESERT FOX clearly demonstrated their skill, their professionalism and their dedication. This was truly a team effort. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of our total force, active, reserve and National Guard, together with our great British allies all contributed to the success achieved during the operation. It was one team and one fight.

Throughout the operation, we have talked about the professionalism, the skill and the courage of the United States Air Force, Navy and Marine [Corps], along with our British aircraft pilots and their crews, and this was as it should be. However, they were on the tip of a spear, the tip of the well-oiled machine that it takes to carry out a complex operation of this magnitude, carried out exclusively at night... and make it look easy. For example, Air Force and Air National Guard crews of the U.S. Transportation Command [flying] C-17 Globemasters, C-141 Starlifters and C-5 Galaxies know how critical their contributions are to the overall operation. So do the crews of the aerial refueling aircraft, without whose support these strikes, indeed, even getting the equipment to the fight, would not have been possible. In fact, I think their motto should probably be "try fighting without us". And the list goes on and on.

When it comes to our maritime, the focus has been largely on the aircraft carrier battle group ENTERPRISE, The Big E. This was particularly appropriate on the first night when it was the ENTERPRISE's Navy and Marine Corps aircraft that carried out the strike sorties. But as the sailors know very well, their success would not be possible without the great work of support ships that bring everything from beans to bullets to those ships at sea, as well as to our soldiers and Marines and airmen ashore.

During the course of DESERT FOX, American and British war planes flew more than 650 strike and strike support sorties. Our ships launched more than 325 Tomahawk cruise missiles and U.S. Air Force B-52s launched more than 90 cruise missiles. In all, we attacked almost 100 targets, all related to our overall mission objectives.

Finally, I want to say a few words to the families of all of our servicemen and women and particularly to those loved ones who are serving in the Gulf or getting ready to go out as part of our crisis response force. I know it's been difficult, especially during this holiday season, to watch your husband, wife, son or daughter, mom or dad pick up that ruck sack one more time to answer our nation's call. America is very proud of you all.

Now that Operation DESERT FOX is over, we will carefully evaluate the forces we need to keep in place in the region to keep an eye on Saddam. Make no mistake about it, we will maintain a significant capability there to defend our national interests and the security of the region as we have for many years.

Once again, on behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and all Americans, I want to offer congratulations to Gen. Tony Zinni and to each member of the Central Command for a job extremely well done.

Thank you.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you have said that these raids have degraded Saddam's ability to deliver weapons of mass destruction, but apparently, they haven't done much to harm his ability to make such weapons. How would you answer that criticism? And how did you decide ahead of time that 70 hours would accomplish your goals?

A: Let me answer the second part first. This has been the plan from the very beginning. This is essentially the same plan we had in preparation and were prepared to execute last February. It is the same plan we prepared to execute in November. So that has been the plan from the beginning to achieve the goals that we set for ourselves.

With respect to the manufacture of chemical and biological agents, as I've indicated time and time again, our goal was to diminish his capacity to deliver such chemicals or biological or even nuclear weapons and to strike those facilities we could identify that possibly solely produced them. But we were always conscious of the fact that you could have a facility inside of a hospital or a fertilizer plant, a dual use facility, and we took that into account in seeking to balance the need to reduce his capacity to pose a threat to the region and at the same time, not engaging in the wholesale destruction of the Iraqi people.

Q: Do you plan to try to convince the U.N. to send the UNSCOM inspectors back in or is that now a dead issue after the air strikes?

A: It's not at all a dead issue. As a matter or fact, Saddam Hussein will have the burden of demonstrating in some affirmative fashion that he is prepared to allow the inspectors to come back in to be effective. We are not going to simply go through the motions once again where he is able to obstruct their ability to carry out their mission. And so, he must demonstrate a willingness to allow the inspectors to come back and to complete their job. And barring that, we intend to maintain the containment policy which continues to keep the sanctions in place. We'll continue our military as we have been, in place and ready to take action, if it becomes necessary.

Q: If the UNSCOM inspectors are not allowed back in, will there be further air strikes?

A: We are prepared to carry out such air strikes, but we intend to maintain the containment policy and also to make sure that he doesn't threaten the region again. So we'll have our own intelligence observations and make the kind of determination that would lead us to the obvious conclusions.

Q: You use the [word] diminish to describe --

A: Degrade.

Q: "Diminish" to describe the damage done to the conventional capability. What is diminish in your words versus destroy, eliminate?

A: It's less than what he had before and we think significantly less than what was available before in terms of his capacity to move against his neighbors. We've looked at his Republican Elite Guard, so to speak. We have damaged in substantial fashion, their facilities, some of their housing. We have destroyed his missile production capability, at least, in the factory that we targeted. So there is a significant degradation in our judgment of that.

Q: ...like, Republican Guard tanks that survived the Gulf War?

A: He still has armor and that could pose a threat to the region, but that's the reason we have our own forces there.

Q: Do you intend to keep the crisis response force flowing to the Gulf or have you put that on hold?

A: I think we are in consultation with Gen. Zinni about the need to do that right now. And we'll act upon his recommendation. If he thinks it's still necessary to do that, we will continue it. If he believes he has satisfactory forces in place, then we will take that into account and make a decision.

Q: On UNSCOM, if I might, have you decided what you will require from Saddam by way of an earnest [gesture] of his good faith, should he welcome UNSCOM back in?

A: I think that will remain to be determined. I think we'll have to give that some great thought given his past behavior.

Q: How would you characterize, based on the battle damage assessment that you've seen so far... how would you characterize the overall success rate of these fours days of strikes? Did you accomplish absolutely everything you wanted? Did you come close? How would you characterize it?

A: We've tried to indicate on several occasions in the past few days, it's too early to make such a definitive assessment. We are satisfied that the mission has been successfully accomplished. No mission can be 100% perfect. We've understood that. Everyone understands that. We think that under the circumstances, that we were quite successful and we're satisfied with that.

Q: Mr. Secretary, is it a victory for Saddam that the inspectors are now out and they have said they're not coming back? Hasn't he won a victory there?

A: Not at all. To have inspectors on the ground who are in effect, there in appearance only, and have been precluded from carrying out their mandate, means that you give the appearance of compliance while carrying on your weapons of mass destruction program. I think that is not acceptable and frankly, the action we took because he refused to let them do their job... we had to do ours. And I would say this is not -- we did not seek a military option. It was a last resort only. We came to the last resort.

Q: Isn't he better off without them there?

A: I don't think he's better off without them there, given the fact that there has been some significant damage done to his infrastructure. And he is not going to be able to reconstitute easily or quickly because we intend to keep the sanctions in place.

Q: About five hours ago or so, the assessment wasn't nearly done and planes were in the air. How can you possibly have assessed what those planes did?

A: I leave that to Gen. Zinni, who has made that judgment and to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Q: Secretary Cohen, regarding the inspectors, in addition to the UNSCOM inspectors, who call themselves in effect, the IA -- International Atomic Energy Agency Inspectors, have also been required to leave Iraq and it's believed by some they also may not be able to return. And those inspectors were widely considered effective. I mean, is that a price you're going to have to pay, now having done what you've done?

A: Saddam will have to make a determination as to whether or not he's prepared to fully cooperate with those inspectors as well. To the extent that they remain outside of Iraq, there will be no chance of closing any files in the future. And so, the sanctions, again, will continue to remain in place. So he does not benefit from keeping them out, and he does not benefit from keeping the UNSCOM team out either.

Q: He benefits in terms of an ease[ing] in developing a nuclear program.

A: Well, we are going to continue to watch him very closely. We have -- we will make every effort to compensate for the lack of those inspectors. But by the same token, he is going to be precluded from getting relief from the sanctions and that is very important to him. He wanted to get the inspectors out and get relief from the sanctions. He may have gotten the inspectors out at least temporarily. He will not get relief from the sanctions.

Q: Do you think it's just a matter of time before the United States will have to conduct another such operation against Iraq?

A: Wouldn't want to speculate on that. We're prepared to conduct future military operations, but that will depend upon Saddam's actions.

Q: Gen. Shelton, were today's strikes the proving -- the point that allows you to say enough, we've accomplished our goals? Were they key today, to your judgment?

Gen. Shelton: We certainly wanted to carry out today's strikes because they were key to the objectives that we set out for the strike. But the majority today were directed against Republican Guard units, which were restrikes of the same units, different types of units within the same. But as you know, if you look at a Republican Guard division, it's spread out over a great distance. It has a lot of stuff. And so these strikes went against them.

Q: Did you go for armor and people and soldiers today?

A: We went after command and control.

Q: How many divisions of the Republican Guard were targeted overall through the whole thing?

A: Four.

Q: Given the fact that it became obvious after the first night that the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard were being targeted, how successful can you be? I mean, didn't they essentially run for the hills, even though there aren't a lot of hills there?

A: On a lot of the targets that we went after, that related to command and control, both the Special Republican Guards and the Republican Guards were hit very early in terms of their command and control with Tomahawks.

Q: So you basically are trying to create an office, so when they come back to the office, there's nothing left. There's no telephones, no communication, but you may not have killed many people in those strikes because --

A: There were quite a few the first night that were housing, barracks and headquarters.

Q: ...in the barracks... (inaudible)

A: By design to hit those first.

Q: General, what are you going to do with the Special Forces in Kuwait -- leave them there?

A: We've had a Special Forces element in Kuwait for quite some time and there's no plan right now to bring them out. As you know, they maintain some C-SAR capability for Operation SOUTHERN WATCH. And they have a couple of other missions.

Q: Why the emphasis on the Ba'ath party headquarters, which you struck repeatedly? Is there a subbasement there? I mean, is there something other than the political message it sends?

A: As well as... are being tied into the management for the apparatus for controlling the weapons of mass destruction program, which they are tied into.

Q: Were you, in a sense, sending a direct message because that was a site where U.N. inspectors had been denied access. Is that the reason that building was put on the target list?

A: That was already on the target, even before they denied the access, as part of an overall plan of things that if, in fact, they did not... you know, we've been looking at this plan back before -- on November the 15th when the President decided not to go. And then recently when they did not allow access, we made the decision to leave [it] on the target list.

Q: Is there any reason to believe that Saddam Hussein's hold on power is less secure today than it was four days ago?

A: There has been - as you asked today I believe -- early today about a potential uprising. I don't know how serious that is. We certainly struck at a lot of his security apparatus, things that are key to controlling his weapons of mass destruction. But they also are key to his own protection and security. It's kind of a dual mission that they have. And so, how effective that is we'll find out over the long term, I think.

Q: Do you know more about these activities in the South than you did before? You said earlier, that...

A: No.

Q: But you do have indications that there's some chaos or activity down there --

A: We've always known that, in that particular region, that that's been where a lot of the concern was. And we know that he moved some units in that area, which appear to be, as a result... are trying to make sure you didn't have an uprising. But to what extent, we're not sure right now.

Q: Getting some reports that there are some roads which have been closed down, some communications have been shut down and it may be relatively well organized. Do you have reason to believe that?

A: I have not gotten that indication right now.

Q: Did you have -- were there any missions - were there any sorties to try and attack or target buildings where you thought Saddam Hussein might be? Do you have any missions targeting...

A: We went after command and control and security type, command and control security related to WMD -- all related to WMD. But some also related to how Saddam maneuvers his forces and things of this type. So they're kind of dual use facilities, his own command and control of forces as well as the apparatus that oversees the WMD program.

Q: Did you try to --

A: No. We don't know where Saddam is and there was no intent to go specifically for him.

Q: How many of his so-called palaces were hit? Or did you hit any?

A: About eight. Seven or eight.

Press: Thank you.

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