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DoD News Briefing - Cole Commission

Presenters: Gen. William W. Crouch, USA (Ret.) and Adm. Harold W. Gehman, USN (Ret.)
November 02, 2000 2:15 PM EDT

(Special briefing on the Cole Commission. Also participating was Rear Adm. Craig R. Quigley, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs)

Quigley: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

Before we start our regular DoD press brief this afternoon, we'll begin with a special briefing by the co-chairs of the Cole commission. Secretary Cohen two weeks ago appointed General Crouch and Admiral Gehman as the co-chairs.

Before retirement, General Crouch's last job was the vice chief of staff of the Army, and Admiral Gehman, who just recently retired, was the commander in chief of U.S. Joint Forces Command. Both gentlemen bring a wealth of experience to this assignment.

When General Crouch was the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, he had particular experience with force protection as the commander at the time we deployed troops into Bosnia. So he dealt with deploying troops to a hostile environment and supervising their force protection. While he had that job, he was also the commander of the then-IFOR forces in Bosnia.

Admiral Gehman served 35 years in the Navy as a surface warfare officer. He has extensive experience serving on and commanding a number of destroyers, cruisers, cruiser-destroyer group, and serving in many other senior billets.

Without further ado, I'd like to now turn it over to them for their opening remarks, followed by your questions. And when that is complete, I'll return to the podium and continue with the rest of the briefing.

Gentlemen?

Crouch: Thanks, Admiral Quigley.

As Craig has mentioned today and in previous briefings, Admiral Gehman and I have been appointed by Secretary Cohen to co-chair the Cole Commission. And as you have -- may have seen in press reports, we just returned Tuesday from a trip to the region and the site of the terrorist attack. We've just also finished putting together our review team.

Prior to our departure, we were able to talk with the director of the FBI, Director Freeh, and his staff, as well as well as to General Tommy Franks, the commander in chief of Central Command.

And we toured the sister ship of the Cole, the USS Ramage, at Norfolk, Virginia, for an orientation, particularly for me, prior to our departure.

While in Central Command, we were able to spend a few hours aboard the USS Cole. And even though we were there for only a short period, the impressions that both of us have are vivid. The action of the captain and crew following the attack saved the ship and several of those injured shipmates aboard. Not only was there an immediate response in damage control, but 48 hours later, there was an apparent failure of seals, probably drive-shaft seals, which caused progressive flooding, which in turn put the ship in danger of sinking. Simultaneously, all electric power on the ship failed. And so the crew, now exhausted from the previous two days, with the remains of shipmates still trapped in the wreckage, had to re-enter those dark, confined spaces to battle again the inrushing sea and effect repairs.

It was an inspired performance, and one which every American should be very, very proud. Those sailors saved themselves, their shipmates. They saved the USS Cole.

We then traveled to Bahrain, spent a good portion of two days with the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Vice Admiral Moore, and the members of his headquarters.

Both Admiral Gehman and I were impressed from the outset by the grasp and thorough attention to detail this headquarters had paid to force protection in the region already. Alert, focused, aware of the threat -- they are dealing very professionally with the challenges of balancing the requirements of our national military strategy with force protection.

Now, these initial visits have helped to begin to frame our review, and Admiral Gehman will explain in a minute the outline that we intend to follow.

Let me hasten to add that the protection of our forces, particularly those in transit, around the globe is a tremendous challenge to all leaders and to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines involved. Our intent is to review Defense Department policies and procedures in order to ensure that in-transit forces have a protection system that is effective. We've not reached any conclusions on anything thus far that we've seen.

Admiral Gehman?

Gehman: I will briefly describe the purpose and the methodology of the Cole Commission review, under the chairmanship of General Crouch and myself.

As you are aware, there are three reviews or inquiries underway at this time. In broad terms, let me say that the FBI is leading one inquiry to determine what happened and who did it.

The Navy is conducting an inquiry called a JAG Manual inquiry into the performance of the captain, the ship and the crew. Ours is the third review.

Our review, chartered by the secretary of Defense is to find out if there are any improvements in what we call "the system" -- any improvements that can act to more effectively and efficiently add to the force protection of transiting forces. You might put it this way: the USS Cole was out there doing its mission. We are going to look for ways that we can improve the performance of the rest of DoD to support them.

By "the system," we mean the entire Department of Defense above the USS Cole. That is the scope of our review. That includes all military departments, agencies, and commands. We are specifically looking at force protection for transiting units like the USS Cole, but also including aircraft and other small, independent units.

Examples, but not a complete list of the areas that we will examine, include intelligence support, logistics and contracting procedures, training preparations, and force protection. We will look at policies, procedures, manpower, resources, and practices in all these areas. Our review may well lead us into additional areas. We will be aggressive in looking at anything and following any lead that our review takes us.

We are aware our work must be accomplished expeditiously. But more important, since we are talking about life and death, and mission accomplishment here, we are more concerned that we get it right. We will report to the secretary of Defense as soon as possible.

You will understand, I believe, that some of our recommendations are likely to be classified, since we are talking about defensive measures for force protection. But others may not be. We anticipate, after the secretary reviews our report, that he will determine how much and in what format the results of our review will be made public.

It's far too early to even speculate about that phase. Our review has just started.

This is a short, thumbnail sketch of the areas that we're going to go into and how we're going to proceed. And General Crouch and I are ready to respond to your questions.

Quigley: Charlie?

Q: I'd like to ask both you gentlemen, have you -- you probably won't answer it -- but have you reached any, any tentative conclusions on whether security might not have been at its best in allowing that small boat to approach the ship? And if you find that anything was done wrong or that security was not up to snuff, will you recommend, perhaps, possible punishment, including senior officers?

Crouch: You'll remember there are three investigations or reviews. Ours is a review. What you have just described is one that really falls under the purview of the Navy's investigation.

And have we drawn any conclusions? As I said earlier, absolutely not at this point.

Q: But have you --

Q: Excuse me, just a second. A brief follow-up. If you're to find out whether improvements are needed, certainly that would be based on whether or not things were done right. You're not going to determine at all whether things have been done right or recommend, perhaps, punishment if they weren't?

Gehman: The improvements or changes that we are going to be looking for are improvements or changes in Department of Defense policies and practices, not at the shipboard level of the USS Cole. We're going to be looking at manpower things, resource things; does the left hand know what the right hand's doing; intelligence being shared -- about that sort of stuff.

We are -- as General Crouch correctly said, the performance of the ship and the crew and the captain is the subject of a separate inquiry. Now, we're going to share information with these inquiries, but we are not going to look at, review, express an opinion about the performance of individuals onboard the USS Cole.

Quigley: Bob?

Q: Following up that same question, in order for you to understand what the circumstances were at the time, what force protection measures were actually in place and implemented, will you be interviewing the crew and doing your own sort of investigation of the circumstances, or will you be relying entirely on what the Navy JAG Manual investigation finds in that regard?

Crouch: Two parts to that, to the answer. We've already spent a considerable amount of time on the Cole and were led by the captain through that.

Secondly, as we said, we'll -- we will share information among these three -- our review and the investigations.

Q: So does that mean you are going to do some of your own investigation by interviewing other members of the crew, or is that finished -- that part finished?

Crouch: No, we have no intention at this point -- that's -- that is strictly the purview of the Navy's shipboard investigation.

Q: Admiral Gehman, General Crouch, one question that has been repeated constantly, whether it's on hearings on Capitol Hill or on the editorial pages, is this question of why Yemen. Was it -- was this a wise policy? And what went into the decision to allow ships to refuel there? Is that in your -- will you be looking at that question?

Gehman: Let me try that.

Not in the way that you phrased it, Jamie. We are going to look at whether or not the policies and procedures and resources of the Department of Defense supported an engagement policy like port visits or brief stops for Yemen.

We're going to -- what -- given that we're going to go do an active and aggressive engagement strategy, we're going to look at whether or not the -- all the mechanisms in the system support such an engagement.

Now you're asking for a conclusion, and that might come at the end. In other words, if we find things that aren't exactly as well as -- as good as we would like them, and we're going to recommend improvements, it is possible that somebody could conclude that because A, B, and C weren't working, that the port visit in Yemen should have been better supported. But that's a conclusion; that's not the way we're going to go about it. In other words, we're looking at whether or not the Department of Defense systems and procedures support such port visits.

Q: So as you look at that, though, you are -- if you're -- you have to do fact-finding, so you have to look at the structure and the individuals; you have to look at the superiors and their chain of command that led to both the decision to go in there and the decision for the threat con level that that ship was -- should go in there with. That would seem, to me, to indicate that you will be looking at individuals above and how the individuals above the Cole operated and whether they operated correctly.

Crouch: We're talking about the system. And those policies and procedures that govern that system and that support those decisions as that applies to individuals, of course the individuals are going to be involved.

Q: But, you know, the last time there was a review like yours done, as you both are painfully aware, it ended up costing one man his job, and there was a lot of controversy about it. And it sounds to me like you are trying to avoid the situation in Khobar Towers. Is that correct? Or are you just going to do your review and let the chips fall where they may?

Crouch: I think we've been fairly specific with this in crafting what it is that we're going after. There will be, as you do a review like this, if we walk into or make findings of things that need to be improved or responsibilities, then we're going to make whatever recommendation seems appropriate.

Q: If I could follow up, though, but are you going to look at whether the procedures and policies that sent that ship into Yemen for refueling were the correct procedures and policies?

Gehman: We are going to look to see whether or not improvements can be made in the department, at all agencies, commands, at all levels, in practices and procedures as well as financing and resource and manpower that support such a port visit. If we find a policy problem or a procedural problem or a resourcing problem, we will report that. If we find a performance problem -- that is, the policies and the procedures are all good, but some organization just forgot to do something -- we will report that. But we will not sit in judgment over that.

Q: Gentlemen, with 60 years of military experience between the two of you, you're not exactly neophytes. I've got to assume that you're coming into this with some idea as to the state of the policies and procedures. Can you tell us your -- each individual, your starting off point, what areas you're particularly going to be interested in looking at, given your experience working with the system already for 30 years each?

Crouch: Admiral Gehman covered part of this, but we are now forming -- we've been in existence for a week. We're now forming the team and looking at what those things are that we're going to concentrate on, such as, as he mentioned --

Q: I understand the general areas.

Crouch: -- intelligence --

Q: Yeah. But you've got to know something already, having worked with the intelligence system, having worked with the logistics system for so many years, what their weaknesses are. Can you share some of those with us?

Crouch: That's asking us to draw a conclusion on something that we've been charged by the secretary that's rather specific. I think -- I think we'll do just exactly as the secretary has charged us, and that is conduct a review of force protection of in-transit forces and give him a report.

Q: General, you're a Naval officer who has now seen the interior of the Cole. Could you describe the damage to us? We've all seen the hole, but what else have you seen? I have an unrelated second question. You seem to be making a specific point about transiting forces, here, as if they were somehow supported differently than forward-deployed forces.

Gehman: Both the general and I toured the Cole extensively. Both the general and I have seen battlefields. We have seen wounded and dead people. We have seen the aftermath of damage, and we do have a few of those scars in our memories. First of all, our impressions were that this was a horrific weapon. I mean, this was a big weapon and did an enormous amount of damage.

My own impression, though, is that -- I was impressed by the strength of the ship. I mean, the class of the ship. I was impressed by how well the ship took the damage. This is a large hole, open to the sea, and it disrupted many internal systems in the ship. And the ship managed to keep on, you know, kind of -- it managed to stay afloat and they were able to restore the systems. But my impression is, is that this was a horrific -- this was a horrific weapon. This was a big weapon.

When we saw the main deck of the ship, which is not the deck on top that you walk on. The main deck of the ship is actually one deck underneath. When we saw it physically transplaced to where it was sandwiched up with the deck up above it and the eight feet in between is just not there anymore, the amount of overpressure required to do that is quite -- is quite substantive.

I was impressed by some things, and General Crouch, perhaps, saw some other things. I was impressed by the fact that the ship was fueling at the time this happened. There was fuel being transferred laterally fore and aft and sideways, all over this ship, and there was no fire. I was impressed that so many modern firefighting and damage control equipment that are essentially brand new were in place on the ship, and they all worked.

The kind of firefighting and damage control equipment that I had in my day would only have lasted a couple of hours. And that ship was by itself for 48 hours. So I was impressed by that.

Bill, do you want --

Crouch: This -- I mean, this proves on its own, they withstood this tremendous shock. Now, as Admiral Gehman has said, I've walked battlefields, both recent and historical. I've never set foot on a steel deck that has withstood that number of casualties and taken that kind of punishment, and looked at sailors that were as resolute and as resilient days after -- tired -- but that's a tough grew. And they responded, as far as I'm concerned, absolutely superbly to one of the greatest challenges I think a sailor can confront. That's tough business.

Q: And the business about the transiting.

Gehman: We -- in both of our opening comments, we said that our charter is to review the force protection policies and practices of transiting units. Main force -- main battle force units have been examined and reported on, and have a considerable amount of "adult" oversight. They have good intelligence support, they've got lots of inherent military capability. And fixed facilities have been reviewed and reviewed and reviewed and reviewed. Not -- you know, as you -- as you've heard Ken Bacon say that security is kind of like health; I mean, you can always use more of it. But that subject has been reviewed.

The secretary has asked us to take a look at maybe we have a crack here, maybe we have a seam. And it isn't just ships. We have independent airplanes transiting all over the place pulling into commercial airports. We have other kinds of ships, charter ships, lease-and-hire ships, Military Sealift Command ships. And so it could be that there are some improvements we could make to improve the force protection of these soldiers, sailors and airmen and Marines as they go around the world doing our business.

So yes, the answer to your question is in transit; yes.

Q: Both of you have spoken in detail about what you learned about what happened immediately after the explosion. Can you speak in any detail at all about what you learned about what happened immediately before the explosion? And if not, why not?

And as a follow-up, there is this -- well, let me let you take that first.

Crouch: Well, there are -- there is another Navy-chartered investigation that is tasked with dealing with exactly that; the onboard conduct of the crew before and -- just before and during the attack. That is their charter and their purview.

Q: There has been some testimony on the Hill already regarding the issue of what kind of a threat condition they were under and what were the requirements or options of the commander under that threat condition?

My understanding of the testimony has been that while the threat condition guidelines state a variety of things, there's a great deal of leeway on the part of the commander as to what he specifically is going to do in a certain area.

Is that one of the systems you are going to be looking at, and do you see a weakness in that system as to what the captain of a Navy ship deployed is required to do?

Crouch: We are going to look at threat conditions as a part of force protection. And there are many facets to those, and specific tasks that are to be performed inside of various threat condition instructions.

Yes, that will be one of the supporting systems that we will examine.

Quigley: Barbara?

Q: Admiral Gehman, to follow-up on your point about transiting forces: when the military transits, of course, it goes with sort of the intelligence support of the CIA and the intelligence community. You go into port with information provided to you by the local embassy diplomatic security channels; that sort of thing.

So can you really stop at the Pentagon front door, or do you have to expand your look and see if you're even getting the right kind of information and support from outside the Pentagon; the intelligence community and the State Department?

Gehman: Well, you're right, of course. Our charter does not include non-DoD agencies. However, if our -- if the trail leads in that direction, we certainly will share our insights with all of the other agencies. But no, our secretary of defense can't task us to go investigate this review of the State Department.

Quigley: Rick.

Q: Hi. Just to follow-up on Jamie's question, who is going to address the question of why Yemen? And secondly, I think it was General Crouch who said you'd spent some time with Admiral Moore over there and you were impressed by some -- by how -- that they were pretty on top of force protection issues.

Can you expand upon that? Are you talking about force protection at installations that was particularly impressive at NavCent headquarters, what exactly? Port side?

Crouch: The NavCent initial review that we did was hours long and it was based on experience just in the initial impression. As I said, that headquarters had gone to tremendous lengths in focusing on force protection. Again, I use the words in balancing a strategy of engagement with protecting our troopers, our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are deployed and particularly have to transit that area. But we were both impressed with the detail, attention to detail and the efforts that that entire headquarters and Admiral Moore demonstrated to us as we --

Q: You're talking about at all sorts of facilities, be it -- you're talking about just NavCent headquarters, or ports and other installations --

Crouch: Now, as I said, there were two spots particularly that we visited there and that was at NavCent headquarters, but of course he's responsible for a number of activities in that region, and so he demonstrated what we discussed with him; not just his headquarters security, but that of all of his forces.

Quigley: Just a couple more questions, ladies and gentlemen.

Q: Could you -- you're a Navy man, could your recommendation possibly include adding oilers to the fleet, or is that -- is that a very expensive proposition? There's been a question raised, gentlemen, that an oiler should have been used.

Gehman: Once again -- once again, we're going to conduct a review of whether or not the Department of Defense's system is supporting a policy and a strategy of forward-engagement as we know it. The questions like, Why Yemen? And Do you need more oilers?, those are outputs, not inputs. What I mean is, we're not going to seek, we're not going to start off by seeking to determine the number of oilers the Navy needs. We're going to start off to determine whether or not the whole system of the Department of Defense -- the intelligence system, the training system, the resources and all that kind of stuff -- is capable of supporting in-transiting units proceeding along their tasks in support of the national military strategy.

Now, if we find areas in which that system needs improvement, or more resourcing or more people, then that will be part of the equation to determine whether or not we need more oilers or whether or not we should go to Yemen. In other words, we're going to do our homework first, to see whether or not the Department of Defense can support such a strategy. You are asking for conclusions and output which we are not anywhere near ready to make a recommendation.

Quigley: Just a couple more, ladies and gentlemen.

Q: You said your conclusions will be reached as soon as possible. Do you have a notional time frame? Is it closer to six months or closer to six weeks or what?

Crouch: At the stage that we're starting right now, no. The secretary has been very clear that what he's interested in is a thorough, complete investigation. We have people's lives tied up in this thing at the same time, and so we're interested in moving through it just as quickly as we can. But there are no artificial limits that have been placed on us. Specifically, this point was driven home to us by the secretary more than once.

Quigley: Steve?

Q: Admiral, I wanted to follow up. When you talked about the question of there being a seam, or perhaps a crack, after all the reviews that have been done about force protection, including the Downing report after Khobar Towers, was the issue of in-transit forces simply overlooked?

Crouch: Well, that will be part of our review. We're going to try and put this review in its historical and cultural context. In other words, the incident on the Cole was not an isolated, aberrant incident. It's actually part of a historical mosaic. And what has been done for force protection in the past, whether or not we have a little area which we haven't focused on as well as we should have, that's what we're going to review and what needs to be done. Remember, we're not out here to find fault with anybody; we're out here to make recommendations for improvement. We're out here to find ways the Department of Defense can better execute our national strategy. We're not out to find culpability; we're out to make the process better and safer.

Quigley: Last question, please. Right there.

Q: Yeah, I have just a couple. First of all, Secretary Danzig has set up a similar commission with the Marines, as well as the Navy, and their recommendations are supposed to go back up to him in about a week and a half or so. Are you going to be working with them at all, because they're looking at similar things, at least on a more focused level, since they'll be done before you?

Gehman: The answer is yes. We have already made some contacts with several of the inquiries that are going on, including the FBI's and the Navy's JAG Manual investigation. We appointments to see all the right people with all of these other inquiries to make sure that we're all connected.

Q: Even the task force that was created as well, that Secretary Danzig has --

Gehman: That is correct.

Q: And also, who is a member -- who are on the team for this commission, and how much is it going to cost, and where is it going to come from?

Crouch: We have a roster of members; there are about, I think, 18. It's not complete yet. But you can certainly have the names, once we have finally settled on the final organization.

And I don't know what it costs.

Q: Will they all be retired military?

Crouch: No. This --

Q: Industry?

Crouch: Active duty. Generally active duty.

Gehman: And civilians.

Quigley: Thank you, gentlemen.

Gehman: Thank you.

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