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Cohen Press Conference at the Defense Ministerial of the Americas in Brazil

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
October 17, 2000

(Press conference at the Defense Ministerial of the Americas in Manaus, Brazil)

Cohen: At the outset, I want to thank the government of Brazil and Defense Minister Quintao for organizing and hosting the fourth Defense Ministerial of the Americas in this spectacular setting.

I failed to point out that, for a moment last evening, I thought I was back in the Pentagon. These are the longest corridors I have walked since leaving the Pentagon! I also want to take this opportunity to introduce General Pace, Peter Pace, who has taken over as Commander of the Southern Command. The general is an outstanding leader, and he is eager to travel throughout the entire region to meet each of his counterparts as well as ministers of defense and heads of state.

Before the meeting, President Cardoso and I met to discuss regional and world issues. I briefed him on the progress that President Clinton and President Mubarak made with Palestinian leader Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Barak to end the violence in the Middle East.

This year, Brazil is marking the arrival of the first Portuguese explorers 500 years ago. But at this meeting in Manaus, we are looking to the next millennium with a determination to work together to deepen democracy, strengthen stability and promote prosperity.

The DMA process rests on the simple premise that the 34 democracies in the Americas, from the northern reaches of Canada to Tierra del Fuego in the south, should work together for peace. Since the first DMA in Williamsburg, we have made progress in four important areas.

First, we have institutionalized democratic norms and civilian control for defense establishments. Brazil´s appointment of a civilian defense minister was an important aspect of that progress, and Minister Quintao gave me a good briefing on Brazil´s reform efforts. In another example of civilian control, I understand that Colombian Defense Minister Ramirez yesterday dismissed some 400 officers and NCOs who had failed to meet professional standards.

Second, we have shown that we can work together to promote the peaceful resolution of disputes, including the long-standing border disagreement between Ecuador and Peru.

Third, we have strengthened regional security cooperation; the growing defense partnership among nations in the Southern Cone is one example. Earlier today, I signed separate agreements with the defense ministers of Argentina and Chile that will lead to an increase in military cooperation.

Fourth, we have shown a growing ability to work together to combat transnational threats, such as national disasters, terrorism, arms trafficking, and the narcotics trade. That is why we are supporting President Pastrana´s Plan Colombia, his effort to protect the oldest democracy in South America and to bring peace and prosperity to his country. We will continue to provide training and other support, but the U.S. will not intervene in the conflict in Colombia. The U.S. is determined to remain engaged in the hemisphere as a friend of democracy and as a partner in peace.

The DMA process has helped all countries in the region reach these goals.

With that, let me entertain your questions.

Q: You just emphasized to your fellow ministers again that narco-trafficking is a cancer of organized crime that will spread if not addressed by everybody in the region. You emphasized, as you just did, that the United States does not intend to become directly militarily involved. Are you concerned and disappointed with the reluctance of Colombia´s neighbors to contribute money and other aid to Bogota´s efforts to fight narcotics?

Cohen: First, I believe that Plan Colombia, which is organized and funded by Colombia, has been well thought out. Again, the military aspects, the military support aspects, are a portion of Plan Colombia. It embraces receiving financial aid from European friends and others to promote economic prosperity and to encourage different mechanisms of enhancing trade and so forth. So, it is a comprehensive plan. The military support aspects that the United States is committed to. We believe that we will be very helpful in helping the Colombians to deal with the issues themselves.

Each country throughout the Americas must decide for itself what role, if any, it will play in helping its neighbor. Some may choose to provide informational support; some may choose financial support, others may decide that it is not in their interest to take any action. But I believe that there is a general sentiment throughout the ministers who are here that they understand that this is a problem that is not isolated. What I tried to point out is that whenever you have a situation where there are large profits to be made, where there is little risk of either apprehension, trial, conviction, incarceration with no penalties, usually organized crime will find a way to flourish under those circumstances, and drug trafficking, narco-trafficking is one classic example of it. And I think that all understand that this is something that cannot remain isolated, that we cannot simply turn a blind eye toward it. They will find ways in which they can be cooperative and helpful consistent with their own constitutional processes, their own laws, their own culture. That is something that they will decide for themselves, but I think that Plan Colombia, if it is in fact fully funded, will go a long way to helping President Pastrana and his government to cope with this threat.

Q: Mr. Secretary, Paulo Sotero from O Estado de São Paulo. As you know, there is an apprehension in Brazil about the consequences of the intensification of military activities in Colombia, as President Pastrana has pursued the plan against the drug trafficking there. In your meeting with President Cardoso, in your meeting with Minister Quintao, were you able to respond to those apprehensions? And, what is your assessment? Could you brief us on that part of your conversations?

Cohen: Well, as I indicated, my conversations with President Cardoso and Minister Quintao were very wide-ranging, and we have, in fact, presented a United States Security Strategy for the Americas, showing that there is something much broader than simply the issue affecting Colombia. Not to minimize that, but we have a broad engagement policy, and that is essentially what we discussed in my meeting with President Cardoso. We focused a good deal of time on the Middle East. He wanted to be briefed on what was taking place, express his concerns, express his support for what President Clinton is seeking to do to bring peace to that region. Everyone here understands that if there is an outbreak of violence in the Middle East that can have a major impact on the economies of much of the world, and certainly, would have an impact throughout this region, the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. So, there is very much at stake in maintaining peace and stability in the Middle East, and President Cardoso did want to talk about that, as well as the other issues. And we did touch upon Plan Colombia, but we did not go into any details specifically. I made it clear during my statements that our support is limited in nature, that there is a congressional ceiling that has been imposed on the number of military training personnel that we can have in the region; a limit of 300 civilian personnel, 500 on the military. We intend to be supportive only of the Plan and have no intention of becoming militarily involved. And I made that clear in my private meetings as well as the public.

Q: If I can ask two questions, one of them having to do with the Middle East. There are reports out of Yemen that two people have been detained, that two suspects, several detainees are in an alleged safe house, where bombs were made. Could you shed any light on what you know about that? And then the second question: there were five Americans kidnapped in Ecuador last week, supposedly by the FARC. Do you have any indications that, in fact, it is FARC? Any knowledge about their whereabouts? And how would that change Plan Colombia as Americans are now being held hostage against Plan Colombia?

Cohen: You may be in a position to have more information about what is taking place in Yemen. I do know that our FBI is now there. I talked with Director Freeh just before coming down, on the way down actually, to Manaus, and they have a very active investigation underway, and they will interview a number of people. Some may have been detained -- I am not familiar with the number -- by Yemeni authorities. But the Yemen government and the president of Yemen have pledged their full, unqualified support for the investigation. We will just have to take it day by day, but I cannot add to anything that you already know or even confirm that it has, in fact, taken place. I can tell you that we will be unrelenting in investigating this matter and going after those individuals or group that was responsible for perpetrating this act of terrorism. On the second part, as far as the abduction, or kidnapping, of American citizens, I don't have information to who is responsible, whether it is FARC or someone else. That will not alter Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia is designed, in fact, to deal with the narco-trafficking and other elements that are trying to basically take democracy away the people of Colombia.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you have just signed two agreements, one with Chile and one with Argentina. Is there any intention, any project, of signing an agreement with the Brazilians in the short-term?

Cohen: Well, as a matter of fact, we just completed something called the 505 Agreement, which has received the approval of the Congress of Brazil and that will allow for the transfer of equipment currently under lease, at no-cost lease, to the Brazilian government. It will also lay the foundation for further agreements dealing with the protecting the security of information that will be shared in the future with Brazil and that is something that is currently under negotiation. I would hope and expect that in the not-too-distant future, we would have the ability to have such an agreement that will protect the sharing of information back and forth between Brazil and the U.S.

Q: Eleanora Guzman from El Clarin, from Argentina, two questions. The first is related to this classified information, that is an agreement signed with Argentina, and that you now want to sign with Brazil. I'd like to know what is this related to and why the information is classified? The second question is did you request Argentina's political support for Plan Colombia?

Cohen: The answer to the second question is that I did not specifically ask any nation to support Plan Colombia. This is something that each individual country must decide for itself. What I have indicated is the nature of the United States support for Plan Colombia; the focus of it, the limitations of it, the fact that much of the money will go for night-vision equipment, for training of counter-narcotics personnel and for transportation. But that is the only thing that I mentioned to each of the leaders that I spoke with, to my fellow ministers. With respect to the agreements that we have signed with Argentina and Chile, the reason that they are classified is because they deal with classified information. We share classified information between our countries, and therefore, it is an exchange of information at the military to military level. It deals with security matters which normally are classified.

Q: Mr. Secretary, just in the past week, we have seen increasing movements toward militarization of the borders of Ecuador and Colombia. Over the past several months, we've seen militarization of the border of Peru with Colombia, Brazil with Colombia and Venezuela with Colombia. Is it your opinion that these movements assist in stabilizing the situation in the region or is it merely adding additional tension and creating additional conditions for confrontations to occur?

Cohen: I think each country has an obligation to make sure that its borders are secure, that it protects its territorial integrity. Based on the conversations I've had with the ministers that I've had occasion to talk to last evening and again this morning and through the noon hour, they all understand that Colombia faces a challenge as far as narco-trafficking; that it can, in fact, spread. And I think that as a result of these types of meetings, the ministerials, it is an opportunity for all of the countries in the region - there are some 30 out of 34 who are in attendance - to meet with their fellow ministers and discuss ways in which they can reduce any tensions and where they can facilitate, perhaps, help to Colombia. I think everyone wants to be helpful, but they must be helpful consistent with their own constitutional processes, how they approach narco-trafficking, be it as a military versus a police or domestic matter. Each country much decide for itself. So, I think we have to continue to have these kinds of discussions, which are very helpful in finding ways in which there can be greater cooperation and reduced tension.

Q: Two questions: first, what is the position of the United States government on the so-called Shoot-down Law already approved by the Brazilian government some three years ago? And the second question is, when are you going to have a possible list of EDA excess defense articles sent to Brazil under the 505?

Cohen: Of course there are already the six ships involved in the 505, four frigates. They are here, they are in your possession as such; and this will just facilitate the transfer, which will allow for its approval. There will be other EDA items in the future. I don't have a specific list now, but that is something that perhaps you can talk to General Pace about in the coming weeks and months. But we will always try to work with the government to identify what is excess defense equipment and assets and work with the local government. The other question was?

The Shoot-down Law. You know that is something that we actually took up and deliberated on in the Senate Armed Services Committee years ago, back in the mid-80s, and we rejected it for us. But this is something that only Brazil can decide for itself, that other countries can decide for themselves. We did take this up because of the concern about the amount of air traffic and smuggling coming into the country, but we concluded that it was not appropriate for us, given the hazards involved and [the possibility of] harming or killing innocent people. But that´s something that only Brazil can decide for itself, and the United States takes no position on that.

Q: Would you please specify what kind of cooperation you expect from Brazil in terms of Plan Colombia? Recently, the Brazilian government rejected the use of Brazilian airspace for operations related to the Plan, and Venezuela did the same. What kind of cooperation do you expect from Brazil?

Cohen: As I explained before, I am not here and have not made specific requests of any country to support Plan Colombia. My presence here was to outline what the United States believes is in our interest to help Colombia, the nature of that assistance and how limited and focused it is. It is up to each individual country to decide what level, if any, it should participate in helping its neighbor survive against the narco-traffickers and others. So, I did not make any specific requests of any of the other countries, other than showing what we are doing. This includes trying to persuade members of the press [of our intentions], as well. Contrary to the rumors and stories that somehow this is preparatory to a military intervention, that categorically is not the case. We are to be supportive. We want Colombia to deal with this on its own. It needs some assistance. We are providing that assistance. But each country must decide for itself what it will do.

Thank you.

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