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DoD News Briefing: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
December 16, 1999 12:00 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon. Season's greetings to you, Bill. And good afternoon to you, Charlie. You are probably the only people in the building who don't appear to be at a Christmas party at this very minute.

Let me start out with a brief announcement. And I'll have more details on this on Monday.

Secretary Cohen and Mrs. Cohen will lead a delegation of entertainers, sports stars and others to visit forward-deployed troops in Europe, next week. They will have on that trip Mary Chapin Carpenter; Ruth Pointer, one of the Pointer Sisters; John Carroll, the pianist and musician extraordinaire; Shane Minor, comedian Al Franken, actor Sean Kanan, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders; Terry Bradshaw, Mike Singletary, Christie Brinkley and former MTV video jockey Julie Brown. So there is a long and diverse group of entertainers, all of who are donating their time to do this, to entertain the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

And in addition, a number of organizations are donating footballs, soccer balls, phone-call cards and other things. And we'll have a detailed list for you, this on Monday. But the NFL and the Washington Redskins are donating footballs. The Washington United and Major League Soccer are donating soccer balls. And the Veterans of Foreign Wars are donating, I believe, 2,000 phone cards. But we'll have a complete accounting of this on Monday.

Q: Ken, can you just give us the dates of the trip? And were these going to Kosovo and Bosnia?

Mr. Bacon: We'll give you more details on Monday, when we have a complete accounting.

Q: When will they be going to Bosnia?

Q: Excuse me. Is he going to Bosnia and Kosovo?

Mr. Bacon: I said I will give you more details on Monday.

Q: Speaking of Kosovo, do you have anything on an American soldier being killed?

Mr. Bacon: Yes, I do.

Tragically, an American soldier was killed in Kosovo, the eighth to die there so far. He was a passenger in a humvee that hit a mine.

And the soldier, who was a member of the Special Forces, Staff Sergeant Joseph E. Suponcic -- S-u-p-o-n-c-i-c -- was killed. He's in the Army, obviously, and I'm just looking for his unit designation here. I think he's in the Third (sic) [Tenth] Special Forces Group. He was working as a liaison with the Russian forces. And the accident took place in the Russian part of the American sector, near a town called Kamenica, K-a-m-e-n-i-c-a. The driver of the humvee was injured but is okay and was released. This happened at 9:00 last night local time, and Staff Sergeant Suponcic was pronounced dead at approximately 1:42 a.m. today. It is obviously a tragic loss for his family, and we're sorry.

As I say, this is the eighth casualty. The others, several have involved traffic accidents, one was an electrocution, and two were shootings that could have been possible suicides but are still under investigation.

QAny other land mines?

Mr. Bacon: Pardon?

Q: Was this the first land mine?

Mr. Bacon: This, I believe, was the first land mine, yes.

Q: Do you have a hometown of record and his age?

Mr. Bacon: He was 26 years old. And I don't believe --

Q: (Off mike.)

Mr. Bacon: I'll get that. It's not readily available here. [Jersey Shore, PA]

Q: Ken, just as a point of interest: Because of the mine threat in Kosovo, wasn't the military using the armored humvees, which provide, up until now, a substantial protection against mines?

I don't think they've ever had a fatality in the armored humvee.

Mr. Bacon: I believe they were using a so-called up-armored humvee, yes. I believe that's all we're using now in Bosnia and Kosovo. I think I'm -- these soldiers were in C Company, 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group.

Yes.

Q: How goes the Serb effort to eradicate land mines? Are they doing that? Is that a direct result of them not living up to their responsibility?

Mr. Bacon: Well, I think the exact circumstances of this are under investigation. They were driving along a road that was thought to have been cleared of land mines, but this is an area where there are many land mines, and they can shift according to weather conditions and other changes. But the circumstances are still under review. There has been a considerable amount of de-mining done in Kosovo, but the task is far from over. And mines are a main risk.

Q: A little more detail on that, if I might. I mean, have the Serbs turned over all the maps, done everything they were supposed to do in that regard, and in a more general sense?

Mr. Bacon: I believe they have turned over the maps. But there is a considerable way to go between having the maps and getting all the mines out.

Q: Was this mine -- (inaudible)?

Mr. Bacon: I can't -- it was on a road that was thought to have been cleared. But there are mines on either side of the road, as I understand it. But they were on the road.

Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania. You were right, ma'am.

Q: Different subject?

Mr. Bacon: Sure.

Q: The Rand Corporation released a report today that has been done for the Pentagon on the status of preparedness for terrorism attacks in the United States. And I wanted to ask your reaction to two points they made in this report to you. One was that there is still too much ambiguity in terms of where the responsibility lies in the federal government for responding to a terrorism attack, and the other one was that too much attention has been focused by the federal government on chemical and biological attack possibilities and not enough on conventional. Ken, since the report was done for the Pentagon and was released today, can I ask your reaction to both of those?

Mr. Bacon: I haven't seen a copy of the report. Have you?

Q: Ah, possibly. (Laughter.)

Mr. Bacon: I'm not aware that a copy of the report has been delivered here.

But first of all, as you know, the government has been spending more and more time on organizing to deal with terrorist attacks in the United States.

This is not a Defense Department responsibility, primarily; it is a responsibility of federal and domestic law enforcement agencies to deal with domestic terrorism. The military only operates in support, when requested to do so.

So with that caveat, I'll tell you what I understand to be the situation.

Obviously, we are working more aggressively today than we were two years ago on this, or three years ago, for several reasons. One is the passage of legislation called the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici bill, which deals with domestic threats. And that bill is the one that required first-responder training in 120 cities. That is being done. It started out with FEMA and the Defense Department taking the lead in training the police, fire, and other emergency response crews who would be first on the scene. That program is about to be taken over by the Justice Department and run by the Justice Department.

I think we've made considerable progress in this program, but it's still in the early stages. Not all 120 cities have been trained yet. And of course, much of the training has revealed that more training needs to be done. So that's one point.

A second point is that President Clinton has appointed Richard Clarke as sort of the supervisor or monitor of domestic disasters. He's pulling together work teams and helping everybody to get more organized and more focused on this. I think everybody would agree that we've made considerable progress in the last year or so, but we have more to go. So work continues on that.

Third, we have been blessed by an absence of domestic terrorism. We have had some examples. One is the World Trade Center. Another is obviously Oklahoma City. But in general, the United States, on a per capita basis, or any basis, has far fewer acts of domestic terrorism than most European countries have and most Middle Eastern countries have. So we have had less experience with this, fortunately, than many other countries have.

What we want to do is make sure that we take every step we can to prevent acts of domestic terrorism, because that's the first line of defense and, secondly, to be as prepared as possible, should they occur.

We have put in the last few years a lot of attention on combating possible chemical or biological incidents in the United States.

That's one of the areas in which Secretary Cohen has taken a lead in preparing the military. And he set up teams called RAID Teams that involve the National Guard, which of course is forward-deployed at home all the time, teams that can be available to move in quickly if there is a terrorist act involving chemical or biological agents, to do the proper analysis and to help structure the response.

We are trying to look at any type of threat, whether it's chemical and biological or explosive, or whether it would involve trying to interdict a water supply or stop up mass transit. We are trying to prepare to deal with all sorts of threats should they occur.

So I think that there is always more we can do. But the most important thing is that we are moving in the right direction. And more important than that, we are working very diligently with domestic law enforcement agents to provide the best possible intelligence, the best possible early warning, so that if we get wind of a possible attack we can try to interdict it. And by "we," I mean the "government," not the military because this is not a military job.

Bill?

Q: Ken, Ms. Reno stated this morning that she will be on watch New Year's Eve, and she'll be in her office. And I wondered if there was any heightened state of alert for New Year's or shortly thereafter at Pentagon installations abroad and here, locally?

Mr. Bacon: Well, I think you missed the 45-minute briefing  we had this morning on Y2K. At least I didn't see you here. But you should get the transcript. And there Deputy Secretary Hamre, working with a representative of the Joint Staff and a representative of our policy shop, laid out many of the steps that we're taking to be prepared; and -- one, that we have taken to be prepared for Y2K, and second, that we will take around the actual turnover time.

So, yes, we will have people here working on that. There will be enhanced watch teams working on that.

Q: Where will the secretary of Defense be on New Year's Eve?

Mr. Bacon: The secretary of Defense will be at a place of his own choosing. And he doesn't choose to disclose that at this time.

QYou, as the department's chief spokesman, certainly will be here on New Year's Eve night, though, won't you?

Mr. Bacon: I currently don't plan to be, but that could change. There certainly will be very capable spokespeople working on New Year's Eve.

Q: Could we change the subject?

Mr. Bacon: Sure.

Q: Vieques?

Mr. Bacon: Yes.

Q: Can you bring us up to snuff on Vieques and whether or not the Navy is going to send down a representative yet and how the talks are going?

Mr. Bacon: I don't really have much new to report. The center of activity really is between the White House and the representatives of the Puerto Rican government right now. We are, as I said, in the stance of waiting for things to settle down. This is a cooling-off period. We are willing to begin direct discussions between the Navy and the people of Puerto Rico, when appropriate. So far we have not received a signal from the Puerto Ricans that this is the time to do it. And we are waiting for the results of more discussions at the White House-to-Puerto Rican government level.

Yes?

Q: Can you tell us who from this building took part in today's discussions at the White House?

Mr. Bacon: I don't have a list of people who are there. I assume that Bob Tyrer is there, who has really been the -- he's the secretary's chief of staff and has been the leader in this building in pulling together our stance on Vieques.

Q: How about Secretary Danzig?

Mr. Bacon: I just don't know. I'll find out.

Yeah?

Q: Ken, do you have or does the Pentagon have any visibility on whether the Russians launched a tank assault on Grozny?

Mr. Bacon: All the information I've seen in the building is based on media reporting, so you probably know as much as has been reported in the press. You know as much as we do.

Yes?

Q: Ken, the more people -- followers of Osama bin Laden have been arrested in Pakistan. If the military is ready, if asked, overseas -- because he's still planning to attack all the American installations, including military or embassies and all that.

Mr. Bacon: I'm sorry. You -- it was about Osama bin Laden, but you're saying --

Mr. Bacon: Right.

Q: Now this time -- and he's still calling again to attack Americans and their installations around the world. Is the military ready, if asked --

Mr. Bacon: Well, the military is -- has been alerted to these threats, obviously, and has adjusted its alert stance appropriately, and will continue to do that over the next several weeks.

I really don't want to get into talking about possible responses, but I think you can be sure that we're watching the situation very closely, as is the State Department. We're evaluating every statement and every piece of evidence we get and taking prudent action in response.

Q: Do you feel that the environment is now worse for the possibility of a terrorist attack?

Mr. Bacon: I think that any time terrorists are planning strikes or making statements about planned strikes, we have to take those statements and the plans as we see them very seriously, and we have.

Yes.

Q: Ken, you mentioned that the military was adjusting their alert stance appropriately. Has the threat condition been increased anywhere because of the recent information?

Mr. Bacon: Generally that's something that's done on a local basis and I'm not -- I just don't have that information.

Yes. Dale.

Q: To get back to Vieques for a moment, you said a minute ago that the department is ready to enter into discussions as soon as the Puerto Rican government indicates that it is as well. All the indications that I think most of us have gotten since the announcement here a couple of weeks ago was that the department had gone about as far as it thought it could go with the plan that the SECDEF recommended to the president. Does the department now feel like it could go further in terms of limited -- fewer days of bombing, or a larger economic package? What is there to negotiate here from the department's standpoint?

Mr. Bacon: The department feels that it's made the best -- it's put a very good package on the table, and as good a package as we can come up with. So we are not concentrating on ways to change that package right now. Our hope is that at some time people from the Navy and the Marines can sit down with people from Puerto Rico and discuss the implications of that package, what we've done to accommodate to their concerns, and what we've offered in terms of trying to improve the relationship in a way that will help the people of Vieques while at the same time allowing the Navy and the Marines to resume some level of training. And so far we haven't been able to do that. But our hope is that we will be able to in the future.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Yes. On Vieques still, you have mentioned a cooling-off period.

Do you mean a cooling-off period till March, when the next battle group is scheduled to train, or a cooling-off period of five years with the hope of resumption of live bombing after that time?

Mr. Bacon: No, that's not what the proposal involves at all. The proposal says that we would be prepared to end bombing, that we will end bombing in five years unless the people of Vieques decide that they don't want to do that. And so we have made a commitment to end bombing within five years. The issue is taking advantage of the cooling-off period now so that we can get the training back on track by the spring.

Q: By the spring. So are there already discussions with other bases where Plan B might be implemented if we're at the same scenario or situation in March?

Mr. Bacon: Well, I think that right now the White House is concentrating on trying to get a dialogue going with the Puerto Ricans. That's what the meeting is about today. There could be other meetings in the next few days. And then we'll see what happens after that.

Q: Senator Warner is going to be holding hearings probably in February on his bill to close Roosevelt Roads if normal operations on Vieques are resumed. What's your position on that bill?

Mr. Bacon: Well, I think we need to see the bill, but I think it's very clear -- the Navy has made it very clear that it will be difficult for them to remain fully engaged in Puerto Rico if they can't carry out meaningful training there.

Q: Thank you.

Q: (Off mike) -- next week? No?

Mr. Bacon: Right now we plan a briefing on Tuesday, and we'll see how it goes and if there's a need for a briefing on Thursday. If you have a vote on it, cast your ballot with Captain Taylor and we'll honor the plebiscite.