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Transcript : DoD News Briefing : Thursday, February 29, 1996

Presenters: Kenneth H. Bacon, ATSD (PA)
February 29, 1996

Thursday, February 29, 1996

(Also participating was Colonel Douglas Kennett, Director, Defense Information, OATSD [PA])

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon. Let's start with a brief announcement. Tomorrow, Secretary Perry will host a welcoming ceremony for General Joseph Ralston who is the new Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. General Ralston of the Air Force will actually take over officially this evening, but he will be welcomed tomorrow at Fort Myer at 2 p.m. Chairman Shalikashvili of the Joint Chiefs will also be there. And there is parking for the media should you want to cover this event. You can get details from Terry Mitchell afterwards.

With that, I'll take your questions. Charlie?

Q: Ken, I wonder if you can clarify for us the comments this morning about international air and [inaudible] what the NORAD saw of the Cuban jet take off before the shoot down? He's not very clear about it, but he said some kind of request apparently was made to scramble the F-16's from Homestead and the request was turned down. Could you clarify that?

A: Yes. First of all, we have -- I've spent the last several hours looking into Representative Burton's comments and I have not been able to find any request -- to scramble planes at Homestead; and I have not been able therefore to discover any turndown of such a request. I think it might be helpful for me to run through the details of how the North American Air (Aerospace) Defense Command operates, what its responsibilities are, and then what happened last Saturday. I think that perspective will help you understand exactly what happened here.

First of all, the job of the North American Air (Aerospace) Defense Command is to protect the United States and Canada from air attack. In other words, to protect the sovereign air space surrounding the U.S. and Canada. It's a bi-national command based in Colorado Springs, Colorado and the commander is General Joseph Ashy. We monitor very closely potential threats against our sovereign air space and as you can imagine, we particularly monitor very closely Cuban air activity.

Last Saturday, we did, in fact, launch some planes in the morning when MiGs were flying in the Cuban air defense zone which is up to the 24th parallel. It turns out that our air defense identification zone, so-called ADIZ, and the Cuban zone abut the 24th parallel. Ours go south of the 24th parallel and theirs goes north of the 24th parallel.

The standard procedure is that when we see Cuban planes taking off, we watch them very closely. If they appear to be approaching the 24th parallel and ready to penetrate the 24th parallel going north, we launch our planes and go up and check them out. This happens very rarely. The Cuban Air Force, one, doesn't operate at a high tempo, and secondly, many of the flights are in a different direction. However, we are in -- do have the ability -- to monitor the planes closely; and, of course, we do.

On the afternoon of the 24th, we were monitoring Cuban air traffic as we always do and we were aware of the MiGs taking off and our planes were poised on the runway at Homestead Air Force Base. Pilots in them, engines running, ready to take off as the Cuban planes appeared to approach the 24th parallel from the south. They, however, before reaching the 24th parallel turned back and started going south again. So, at that time, we abandoned what -- our planes were in what are called battle stations at that point. Pilots in them, engines running, ready to take off. At that point, the planes stood down and went back to a normal posture.

This is something that happens with great regularity. Remember, the job of the planes at Homestead Air Force Base is to protect our sovereign air defense space. The job is not to fly into foreign air defense identification zones nor is the job to fly into foreign sovereign air space. It's to prevent planes from attacking the United States.

Just let me finish with one point. You should understand what happens if a plane is deemed to be attacking the United States. That is, coming into our sovereign air space 12 miles outside our coast. We would follow a very clear set of procedures which would be to identify the plane, talk to the plane, try to wave the plane off. We would follow a number of non-hostile procedures to get the plane to turn around. If we -- only if we -- deem the plane to be a threat to our security, would we take hostile action against the plane. So, we would have done what the Cubans should have done when they encountered planes close to their air space, but still in international space.

Q: As the Cuban jets headed toward the 24th parallel, was that when they shot down the two planes? Or did they turn back south again and then turn back north?

A: I -- they -- I do not have a clear match-up of the radio transcripts that were released at the U.N. earlier this week and the radar positions at this time. Our belief is that the planes were heading south when they -- when they shot at the unarmed Cessnas. The point is that the job of the NORAD planes is to protect our country from attack. It's not to go out and fly into foreign country. We do not escort American planes flying outside. We do not escort them at all. The job is a very simple job. It's to protect. It's like a guard trying to prevent a quarterback from sneaking through the line. These planes are to prevent attacks against our sovereign air space.

Q: But Ken, at that same time that this radar picture is unfolding, somewhere, someplace in U.S. government, someone is listening to these radio conversations with which we've been provided transcripts. So, there is intelligence that exists at the same time that says those MiGs are up there looking to shoot down these planes. So, this is -- this is more than just a situation where the MiGs may or may not be on their way to penetrate the 24th parallel. This is -- this is an attack in progress against American citizens. So, the question is not one of air defense, but the defense of these planes with the intelligence available to know that this was happening.

A: David, I want to go back to what I said earlier. The job of the North American Air (Aerospace) Defense Command is not to fly into other countries air defense zones and attack other planes. Their job is very specific. It's to protect our sovereign air space. Now, it turns out that after the event occurred and when ships were deployed, Coast Guard ships and Naval vessels deployed to carry out a search and rescue operation. As you know, there was a period of time and we provided some air cover or protection. That was provided out of Homestead. It was not their normal mission to provide such protection, but they were the nearest point and they did it. So, in this case, they did do something outside of their normal operational pattern. But generally, their operational pattern is to protect us from attack. In this case, --

Q: [Inaudible] You're saying that nobody has a mission here to protect [inaudible]

A: David, what I'm trying to tell you is what their mission was and they actually performed that mission. Now, we are looking -- we are still trying to match together what happened here. But I was asked a specific question and that question was, was there a request or an order to scramble these planes to approach the MiGs? There was not.

And the second part of the question was, were the planes called back? They were not.

Q: But the United States themselves said the shoot down occurred in international air space and you say that the F-16s are not designed to go into other planes air defense zones --

A: Other countries.

Q: -- air space. This didn't occur in Cuban air space according to the United States.

A: Military missions are clearly defined. This was an extraordinary event. We clearly did not expect that Cuba would violate international norms and international regulations in a cold blooded murder of unarmed civilian planes. We did not expect that. We are not in the business of escorting civilian aircraft. We were not at this point escorting civilian aircraft. These planes were at Homestead Air Force Base probably about 200 miles away from Cuba. They were ready to launch, if necessary, if they felt that our air space, was going to be threatened. Our air space, our continental U.S. air space was not threatened. Therefore, they stood down following their normal procedures. They did not at Homestead Air Force Base, as far as we know, have any indication of what was going to happen to these unarmed civilian airplanes in an extraordinary and callous brutal event. We have no indication that they were aware that this was going to happen.

Now, we are checking the system to find out if they would have known, but we have no indication at this stage that they knew.

Q: Do you know if that monitoring of the radio conversations occurred in real time or if the transcripts we were given were reconstituted from a tape recording?

A: I can't get into the circumstances under which that was produced.

Q: You said -- let's make sure I'm clear. Are you saying that military commanders did not know at the time this was going on that this was an attack in progress and if they had known -- if there was a way to know that -- would they still have been able to or been inclined to do anything to stop the attack?

A: The mission of the North American Air (Aerospace) Defense Command is very clear. It does not involve flying into international air space or flying along the border of other countries air space to escort U.S. planes or to shoot down other planes. Missions can be changed. But it requires a command decision to change missions and it requires information. I'm not saying what would have happened in this case. What I am telling you is that these planes were following their mission. It is a very serious event to fly into other countries' air space. That's the issue here. I mean, the issue is following international rules designed to protect civilized commerce. And that didn't happen in Cuba's space.

Q: I'm just trying to get to a practical question. You said they were about 200 miles away. I mean, practically speaking, assuming they even did know that this was an attack in progress which I think you said they didn't know at the time, I was just trying to clarify that. But assuming they did know, would it even have been -- wouldn't the event have been over by the time U.S. planes, if those planes had taken off from the runway and flown, wouldn't the event have been over by the time they got there?

A: Given the transcript that was released at the U.N. earlier this week, I think it's fair to say it would have been impossible for U.S. planes to get from Homestead to the point where this vicious illegal attack took place in time to prevent it.

Q: Can you explain whether -- you mentioned that it would take a command decision to change those rules. Is such a change --

A: I'm not saying that -- I'm saying -- what I'm trying to explain to you. You people seem fixated on -- you seem to want me to say that we should go out and attack planes hundreds of miles away from our shore. I'm saying we are not doing that. We are a civilized country. We have very clear protective procedures. That's what NORAD planes do. They protect our country. They don't go out and attack other planes far away from our shores.

Q: We don't want you to say anything one way or the other. All I'm asking is, is any change in the mission profile being contemplated?

A: I'm not aware that any change in the mission profile is being contemplated. What I meant to say was that the military operates by very clear described missions and to change those missions requires a command decision. I'm not saying that a command decision would have been made in this case. All I'm saying is that one of the reasons our military works as well as it does is that pilots, soldiers, sailors, do what they're supposed to do when they're supposed to do it. Vastly expanding a mission quickly on the

-- is not something we're trying to do and we don't do it. We can do it if we're authorized to do it and decide that it's necessary. In this case, we followed our normal procedures. Those procedures are designed to protect the United States. David?

Q: Is it fair to say that somewhere in the U.S. government it was known that this attack was in progress? But that information --

A: No, it is not fair to say that.

Q: How can we be presented with all of this evidence of the -- to support the American contingent, all of these real time, radio conversations and radar tracks that have all been released up at the U.N. to support the U.S. case? I mean, that's the evidence that we knew that this was happening as it was happening.

A: The -- we are -- we are continuing to review our systems to find out exactly what happened here when we knew things and when we could have acted on them. Right now, it is premature to come to any conclusions about what we knew and when. We hope we will know that, but we do not -- I cannot tell you right now when we knew something and when we could have responded to it.

Q: Is it safe to say --

A: What I can tell you is that judging from this transcript, had we known at the first time for instance the MiG 29 used the word "target," had we acted at that minute, we would not have been able to get to where we were going -- get to where we would have had to get. But the issue is these planes are not authorized to do that. These planes are authorized to protect our shorelines from attackers coming toward the United States.

Q: Did the military know? Were the military commands aware that these civilian Cessna planes were flying in this area or would they be expected to know? Would they even had known? For instance, when they tracked the MiGs coming up and they're looking at it whether it's going to be a potential threat to the shoreline, were they also aware that it might possibly threaten some civilian aircraft there or would they not even have been aware of that civilian flight? Or were they aware of the fact that these Cessnas were flying in the region?

A: I can't answer that question.

Q: You said you checked for several hours and you couldn't find any information or any evidence that any request had been made and therefore, that no such request had been rejected. One assumes that you've checked both NORAD and Homestead and Homestead said they received no such request or made no such request and received no such rejection. Is that right?

A: My investigation so far with both NORAD and the Joint Staff and with ACOM, with those three agencies, do not reveal that any request was made to launch these fighters and therefore, no request was made to pull the fighters back. That's what I have determined so far. Now, we are continuing to look at the system every time anybody makes a serious allegation about our defenses. We take those allegations. We look at those. We study them and particularly, when they're made by a member of Congress, we look at them very closely. But I think it's important for you and for the public and for the Congress to understand what the job of NORAD is and what the job isn't. And that's why I've taken so much time to explain its air defense responsibilities. Mark?

Q: As a practical matter and a procedural matter. When civilian airplanes file flight plans with the FAA to go down that direction, does the FAA then turn that around and communicate that one way or the other to any other agencies in the federal government? For example, does that then queue the NSA to listen more in a certain direction or does it queue the NORAD people to pay more attention?

A: I think you should ask that question of the FAA because they could tell you more accurately about their procedures than I can. Yes, Steve?

Q: Ken, if the military knows in advance that U.S. civilians tend to provoke a foreign country, does the U.S., and putting themselves at risk, does the U.S. military have any responsibility to protect them?

A: The U.S. government acted responsibly to protect these people by passing on the warnings the Cubans had issued both privately and publicly. These groups and other groups knew what the Cuban stance was. They know what the international rules of aviation are. So, this is something that is handled by civil authorities and was handled by civil authorities.

Q: There's been talk of a follow-up protest by some of the same groups. Would the U.S. seek to prevent them from going into Cuban waters?

A: Yes. And Mike McCurry gave a very detailed briefing on this at the White House just within the hour and I suspect you -- I recommend you get a transcript of that. But the President has basically taken four actions today designed to do two things. One, allow a very legitimate and understandable expression of grief and respect for the pilots who were killed illegally by the Cubans. As you know, a flotilla of boats has announced a plan to go out and lay wreaths and flowers and planes have announced plans to fly over that spot and also as part of the commemoration.

We are very determined to allow normal traffic in international waters in an authorized way. We've communicated that clearly to the Cubans and we've communicated that clearly to the government of Cuba as well as to the groups in Florida who plan to launch the ceremony. This will be very closely monitored by the Coast Guard. I believe the Coast Guard is giving a briefing on its weekend plans in Miami this afternoon.

I suggest that you go to the Coast Guard and get from them the details of how they will be monitoring this operation.

Q: Will U.S. military aircraft, the F-16s, be on alert on stand-by in case they're needed and are Aegis Navy ships -- Are they still in the area?

A: This is a Coast Guard operation. It is being run by the Transportation Department which has both responsibility for coastal patrol and for running the FAA and the civil air traffic in and around the country. It has the main responsibility for this. We will provide very limited support.

Q: But it doesn't have the ability if the Cubans come into international air space and shoot down these fellas -- start shooting -- it doesn't have the ability to do anything about that. Would you be on stand-by in case you're called?

A: We do not anticipate that there will be a -- that there will be a repeat of Saturday's tragedy. We believe that the American planes and vessels will work very hard to stay in international -- authorized international air space and follow normal rules and we expect that the Cubans will also follow international rules.

Q: But again, you haven't answered the question because you said that last week that anticipated -- there was no anticipation this would happen in the first place. There's more reason to believe that it might now. Will you be on stand-by for the call?

A: The military will be there to provide support as requested. Yes?

Q: Can you say how many and what kind of fighters were waiting on the runway to take off and explain the relationship between two countries, the defense zones and international waters?

A: There are both F-15s and F-16s at Homestead Air Force Base. I don't know which ones were on the runway prepared to take off. I can find out.

Col. Kennett: Ken, F-15A models.


Q: Are those 15s?

A: I'm sorry. F-15A models have been directed by Colonel Kennett of the Air Force who knows all of this. F-15A models.

Colonel Kennett: Florida Air National Guard.

Mr. Bacon: There you have it. Florida Air National Guard, F-15A models. The North American -- the NORAD is in charge of air defense and, as I said, the -- our Air defense identification zone on the south between us and Cuba is the 24th parallel and I can't tell you how that relates to international waters. Yes, Mark?

Q: You said the U.S. military will provide limited support. Can you be just a little more specific? Will they be over the horizon behind the scene? Would it be air support, intelligence support, ship support?

A: Yes.

Q: Well, maybe Navy ships. Maybe two, a frigate and a cruiser that were in the area helping the Coast Guard with the search.

A: They're still there.

Q: They're still there? The Navy? And will be there?

A: Yes.

Q: Will you be flying F-16s, F-15s over there for coverage, right?

A: Well, I answered Mark's question. I thought it was a very clear answer.

Q: Yes, all of those.

A: I didn't answer Steve's question.

Q: Well, I don't think you did answer Mark's question clearly. Did you say they would be in the air?

A: He didn't ask me that.

Q: All right. [Laughter] He didn't. Will they be in the air?

A: I've said all I'm going to say about what we're going to be doing. The support will be very limited, and we will operate at the request of the Coast Guard.

Q: Present?

A: Yes.

Q: You said that we expected there would be no further trouble. Has the Cuban government given any indication, any assurance that there will not be any further mishaps?

A: Well, we're in the process of communicating with the Cuban government over this. I think you should talk to the State Department about their response, or the White House. But I didn't mean the yes, in response to your question.

Q: So, are you saying that these F-15s and F-16s will probably still be 200 miles away from where anything might happen?

A: I didn't say anything about F-16s or F-15s. I said we would provide limited military support as requested by the Coast Guard.

Q: Well, there's a Navy battle group operating off the Dominican Republic -- the EISENHOWER battle group -- part of the long plans [inaudible] exercise. Are any of those assets -- either ship or aircraft -- being detailed from afar to monitor this situation?

A: It will continue its exercise as planned where it was planned. As you know, this exercise which is called Component Training Unit Exercise Phase Two, has been going on for about a week and a half and I think it has about a week to go, and it will continue. And I don't expect any change in the disposition of those forces this weekend.

Q: But how about in the -- some of their duties of those forces? In other words, you can still keep the same location and a ship can still be told to monitor a radar picture or you can still have planes on a deck poised to take off, any additional duties?

A: I expect them to carry out their exercise as planned with no additional duties.

Q: How far is that?

A: Well, they're operating off of Puerto Rico. You can figure it out on the map. I haven't looked at the mileage. But, they're operating somewhere near Puerto Rico.

Q: Is that further away than Homestead?

A: I said I have not looked at the map. You can do the same thing.

Q: Is that the ENTERPRISE? Is that correct?

A: Yes.

Q: I think Mark said the EISENHOWER.

A: I'm sorry. It's the ENTERPRISE. There's a large carrier battle group there. But, as I say, it's participating in a fairly regular exercise.

Q: Does the U.S. have the authority to prevent or attempt to prevent U.S. citizens from violating Cuba's territorial waters?

A: Well, that's one of the things that the President dealt with, that Mike McCurry dealt with, and we are going to work as hard as we can to prevent American citizens from violating other countries' sovereign air and sea space. That's why the Coast Guard is deploying a fairly large group of cutters and other ships.

I understand by the way that the weather isn't suppose to be great on Saturday and that the seas could run as high as 12 or 14 feet. I'm not a meteorologist, and I can barely predict the weather at noon for 3 in the afternoon. But, that's what I -- that's the reports we have.

Q: If the U.S. could see on radar that the MiGs were taking off, then they can presumably see that there were civilian planes in the area too. Radar records must be able to show in real time if they're seeing the MiGs in real time that those two planes disappeared from the radar screen in international waters or international air space. What's the trip wire for U.S. response in a situation like this?

A: Well generally, the trip wire, if there is a trip wire, it would be a little too late if we're waiting until after the planes went down. But I want to point out again that the planes stationed at Homestead Air Force Base are engaged in defending the continental United States. That's their job.

Q: The U.S. planes being shot down in international waters does not --

A: We are very concerned. We are very concerned about this. Obviously, it was an outrageous, unconscionable and illegal act, and we have protested it. We are -- we want all countries including the United States to honor international air rules, and that's what the issue is here. The issue is why Cuba didn't, and how to get Cuba to do it in the future. And we believe we have a program to prevent this from happening again. But the core of the program is following established international aviation conventions which are designed to protect innocent civilians from unplanned and unwarranted attack.

Q: Did NORAD ever see these planes go down in real time?

A: I do not know the answer to that question. Yes?

Q: When you say this weekend you're going to do all you can possibly can to prevent folks from going into Cuba --

A: Well, we're not going to do it. The Coast Guard and the Department of Transportation are going to do it. They are running this operation. The military is providing limited support to them. But it's their job to patrol our coast, patrol naval civilian shipping, etcetera, and that's what they're doing.

Q: Will that include forcibly stopping people?

A: Well, they will be authorized to take action to prevent U.S. vessels from entering Cuban waters without authorization. In other words, the Coast Guard will be. The Department of Transportation is authorized to do that.

Q: And what does that exactly mean?

A: Well initially, it means if we believe they're going to do it, we will keep them from getting close. We will try to prevent them from leaving. If they're flying, we'll try to prevent them from flying. If they're going by ship, we'll try to prevent them from leaving by ship or by boat.

Q: Whether they're in the water or in the air?

A: Well, there are other ways that the Coast Guard can do this, but we're talking both with the Cubans and with the people involved, and we think that there is a way to work this out. We expect people to act in a way that respects -- on both sides -- respects international laws and conventions.

Q: But this will be left up to the Coast Guard and civilian authorities to prevent these --

A: Yes, this is being operated by the Department of Transportation. The Coast Guard doing the water part and some of the air patrol. And the FAA and other civilian air control groups monitoring traffic.

Q: New subject. Bosnia.

A: Yes?

Q: Can you just give us an explanation or a statement about the circumstances surrounding the apparent spotting of Radovan Karadzic, indicted war criminal, in Banja Luka by IFOR patrols and their decision not to detain him?

A: That's been covered in great detail by [General] Smith, and I think that was appropriate, because -- Admiral Smith -- This is basically a decision to be made by the local commander, and it was, and Admiral Smith has strongly supported the decision that was made. As I understand it, there were reports that Karadzic was in Banja Luka and that there were also IFOR forces there. The IFOR forces decided not to try to detain Karadzic who is an indicted war criminal, and they made that decision for two reasons. One, they felt that it was a relatively small IFOR contingent, and they felt it was too small to undertake, to deal with the risk involved in trying to detain Karadzic. Secondly, they decided that it would pose too much of a threat to civilians. And on that basis, the local commander made the decision not to attempt to capture Karadzic, and Admiral Smith, as you know, has supported that and explained it.

Q: Ken, one more on the Cuban thing. You said that NORAD was aware of the Cuban jets headed north and that they turned around and headed south. Was NORAD also aware of the two civilian planes headed south towards Cuba at that time?

A: I can't answer that question because I don't know the answer. I could suppose. But my supposition is worth nothing. And I will be able to check and see what we can provide you on that. But this again, points out that the job of NORAD is to monitor Cuban air traffic or other -- any air traffic that might attempt to penetrate our air space. Its job is not to monitor traffic flying away from the United States and therefore, by definition, not a threat to U.S. air space.

Press: Thanks.

Mr. Bacon: You're welcome.

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