Media Availability at Aviano Air Base, Italy, during a Christmas Visit with the Troops
Let me just say a couple of words of expression of thanks to our Italian host. It would not have been possible for us to have carried out the mission without strong support from the Italian government, leadership, the Ministry of Defense and all who have made this possible, especially here at Aviano. This base is one of the most critically important for the security of the region. I just want to take this opportunity to thank the Italian government for all of the support it provides to U.S. and NATO forces.
Beyond that, let me entertain your questions. You've heard all our comments this evening about why we are here, to bring a measure of good cheer to our troops, and to basically thank each and every one of them for the sacrifice and the service they give and they make on our behalf. So, I just wanted to try to bring a little bit of good cheer and holiday spirit -- the spirit of Bob Hope-- to all our airmen who are serving here.
Q: Jeff Israely from the Associated Press: Two questions regarding security of Americans, particularly military families. There has been a recent advisory from the State Department regarding Americans abroad coming up on the New Year. Is the Defense Department taking any extra precautions to advise the families? I know there are ten thousand Americans here around Aviano. Any precautions, any advisories?
Secretary Cohen: Each of the bases have been advised of the nature of the security threats during the course of the next few weeks. They are taking precautions accordingly. We follow it every day through intelligence. We try to see if there is any specific, identifiable threats and where they may be. And we keep all of the base commanders fully alerted and for them to get the word out if there should be any specific threats to that facility or to the families who are there. But I think all the bases are taking extra precautions during this particular time.
Q: Have you heard of our military bases or communities getting particular attention, have you been advised, obviously not exactly where, but are they among the...
Secretary Cohen: I think all of our facilities overseas and certainly at home we're watching very closely whether there are any additional, potential terrorists who might seek to cause harm to American citizens, either at home or abroad. But I think it's basically an alert that has gone out through the State Department and all of our base commanders are in a situation where they are watching very carefully. And if we get specific information, we'll certainly pass it on immediately.
Q: Do you think families will be targeted?
Secretary Cohen: No, I think it's just a general awareness that there are some groups, some individuals who try to cause harm to American citizens wherever they are abroad, but I think that all countries have been fully alerted and I just think everybody has to take precautions.
Q: This certainly speaks of the quality of life issues. I mean the trip you are on right now. Where are you with that and how much further do you have to go?
Secretary Cohen: Well, as we talked about earlier, the pay raise, the pay table reform, the retirement benefits, those were the major focus of my attention during the past couple of years. They now have been, will be implemented. My next area of focus will be on housing and also on health care. Those are the two principal quality of life issues that I will be directing myself and my staff toward during the coming year.
Q: Are you trying to fix Tricare or is there a new system in the works?
Secretary Cohen: Well, we are going to try to correct some of the deficiencies with Tricare. There are long lines; there are certainly some management contracts that have not worked out well; and so we are going to take Under Secretary De Leon working with Deputy Secretary Hamre and others, and we are going to try to devote as much attention as we can to making Tricare work.
Q: And, on the housing side, what are you looking at?
SECRETARY COHEN: Well, stay tuned. We have I think an important initiative that will be included in the budget but I can't announce it just yet, and in another couple of weeks it will be made public. We are going to focus on getting adequate housing for folks.
Q: There's been a lot said about "don't ask, don't tell" recently. Is basically the policy, as President Clinton said, not working, or the implementation of it is not working and, basically, what's wrong with it?
SECRETARY COHEN: Well, I think that's an overgeneralization to say it's not working. I have just asked the Department of Defense Inspector General to make a very quick trip out in the field, so to speak, to make an inquiry into all of the Services to see whether or not something is pervasive, or whether it is isolated as with the specific case in North Carolina. But I think what we need to do is make sure it's successfully implemented. This policy is going to remain in effect and we have to make sure it's "don't ask, don't tell and don't harass." I can't comment on this specific case because there is still another trial to come, but we want to make sure that every individual is fully aware about this policy and it's effectively in force. That's what we are going to seek to do.
Q: Lackland Air Force Base has been a focus of that. We did a story sometime back showing the numbers of discharges were something on the order of 414 over one year which was a new record. What basically did you find was wrong at Lackland, and I understand that the base commanders there have been given pretty much a clean bill of health on it?
Secretary Cohen: Well, we have found that there was, in the Air Force in particular, there was -- once the issue had been surfaced, in terms of whether someone may have said they were gay, they were immediately dismissed. Now they have gone back to take a more thorough look at it, and, since that time, the record certainly has improved. So, I think it's something that needs to simply be fully educated as far as at the training level, education materials and also make sure that the base commanders and those responsible for enforcing it do enforce the policy.
Q: Do you believe that they are or they have been?
Secretary Cohen: Well, that's what we are asking the Inspector General to make a determination. They'll get back to me within 90 days and then we'll see what recommendations follow.
Q: (Journalist from regional newspaper, Il Gazzettino) In the long run the Aviano air base doesn't seem to be so strategical because the NATO body is moving east. How do you explain this with all the investment for Aviano 2000?
Secretary Cohen: You said there's no...? Aviano is very important; it's critically important to the mission in Kosovo. It continues to be important today. I don't think anyone is in any way reducing or trying to diminish the significance of Aviano. What decisions NATO makes in terms of investment, of course, is a NATO decision -- 19 countries - and so they may make a different set of priorities in terms of improvements. But as far as Aviano is concerned, this remains a critically important base.
Q: On the issue of base closings, you have said before that we need two more rounds. Do you believe that that is inevitable, no matter who is in office -- Republican or Democrat? And are any bases sacred? Any sacred cows out there?
Secretary Cohen: Well, what I have said is that we are carrying too much infrastructure. We have a reduced force structure. We need to reduce the overhead. To the extent that we don't, then we're going to lose some twenty billion dollars cumulatively and roughly three billion dollars a year in excess overhead that we don't need. So, someone is going to have to make a decision. Either we're going to have to carry that overhead and then increase the budget to pay for it or we're going to see a loss of investment opportunity for the kind of procurement dollars we're going to need in the future. So, this is a choice that future Congresses will have to make.
Q: Do you believe the political will is there?
Secretary Cohen: I think it will have to be there because the Congress is coming to the realization that they are spending tax dollars on facilities that are no longer necessary for the mission and that is a waste of their tax dollars that can be better spent for pay, for retirement benefits, for housing, for health care and for procurement. So, hopefully in the coming years, my successors will be more successful than I have been in getting additional base closures.
Q: Sir, in light of your decision yesterday to not cut 25,000 reservists from the force, is that an indication that more reserve component troops are going to be needed for peacekeeping duties here in the Balkans and in southwest Asia?
Secretary Cohen: What it reflects is the success of the total force. In recent years there was some question about whether or not the guard and reserves could be fully integrated into the total Army and Air Force and Marines and Navy. Well, that has taken place today. The reserves and the guards are playing an equal role in many cases and they are bearing a full share of the responsibility. So, we didn't anticipate having both Bosnia, Kosovo, and some of the additional peacekeeping missions and they are going to continue playing an important role. I came to the judgment that if we are going to continue to carry out our current missions, we can't afford to go down any further this time.
Q: Do you feel that these attacks will be likely to happen in Italy, too?
Secretary Cohen: There're no specific areas. All we've done is to make sure everyone is on alert, that there are some groups, such as Bin Ladin's organization, that want to try to find weaknesses. We are determined to prevent any weaknesses. And so by being on alert and being aware of what the general threat is, I think it becomes less likely. The more prepared you are, the less likely groups will try to penetrate that. If the guard is down, then they certainly will take advantage of it. But we don't have specific information about specific targets, and therefore the general alert. Everyone is fully apprised of the nature of the threat.
Q: Is this any different from any other year in terms of the terrorist threat?
Secretary Cohen: In the sense that there was some activity that took place with Jordanians making a successful arrest and some of the other activities that gave a little more intensity to the concern, yes.