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

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
March 27, 1997 2:30 PM EDT
Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon. Welcome to our briefing.

First I'd like to welcome a visitor from Rumania. She's the Deputy Chief Foreign Policy Editor, Media Facts, a Rumanian news agency. Ioana Avadani. I think I got that close to being right. Welcome. She's here under a USIA program.

Second, I'd like to announce that here on Monday, March 31, 9:30 a.m., Paul Kaminski, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology will lead a discussion on the feedback from Acquisition Reform Week. This is basically a roundtable discussion on acquisition issues. You can come and ask anything you want. He'll be here with Gil Decker, who's the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research, Development, and Acquisition. You can ask him about Force 21 or a number of other issues. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, John Douglass; and Art Money, who is the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition. That's 9:30 here on Monday.

Finally, I'd like to note a retirement ceremony that was held earlier today for Dr. Steve Joseph who is leaving the Department to sail around the world with his wife on their boat Moonraker. Steve Joseph is an extraordinary public servant who served as the New York City Health Commissioner and the Dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School before coming here. While he was at the Pentagon he basically concentrated on three things: One was maintaining the health readiness of our military forces; the second was transforming the military health care to a managed care system; and third, of course, was dealing with the special health concerns of Gulf War veterans. Those of you who read the Presidential Advisory Commission Report on Gulf War Illnesses will recall that they gave high marks to the health care and research protocols and programs that were devised by this Department and also by the Department of Veterans Affairs. So for that we have to thank Steve Joseph.

With that, I'll take your questions.

Q: Can you bring us up to date on the transportation of what are being called suspicious chemicals from the New York area by members of a special Army team?

A: Yes. As you know, this has been widely covered in the New York City press, the New York Times, Newsday, and also on wire services. There was a press conference earlier today by Mayor Guiliani. It involves a police raid on a house in Queens in New York that was found to contain a variety of sophisticated scientific equipment, as well as canisters of fluids, some of which contained, apparently, gasoline, gasses such as oxygen (labeled, as such), and one very small canister, hand-labeled "sarin", which, of course, is a deadly nerve agent.

When the FBI discovered this, they called the technical escort unit which is a special military unit established to deal with chemical and biological weapons. This unit dispatched itself up to New York from Aberdeen to first test the small canister--it was .83 percent of a liter-- in other words, about 8/10ths of a liter in size. They then packaged that in a special container and have taken it back to Aberdeen. It arrived there an hour or so ago, and it's in the process of being tested.

We have no idea, as of the time of this briefing, I have no idea what that canister contains. Whether it in fact contains sarin, whether it's empty, or whether it contains a substance of some other type, gas or liquid of some other type. I don't know that, and I'm not sure that the team knows that yet.

So this is an ongoing story. The results of the test will be handled and reported, disclosed by the FBI, not by us. We are only supporting the FBI in this operation.

Q: Can you at all say how large the group was that was deployed in this effort?

A: Four people were deployed. They got a call from the FBI at 11:00 o'clock last night, 2300. And they were in New York, in Queens, by approximately 4:00 a.m. this morning.

What they do in situations like this is they put on protective clothing. They're escorted by FBI agents. They put on protective clothing and they inspect the cylinders that are called to their attention -- the cylinders that might contain a chemical or biological agent. They first use something called an M-18 detector to determine if the cylinders are leaking or if they're airtight. Once they make that determination, then, in this case they determined that the cylinder was not leaking. Then they packed the cylinder in a special carrying case that's designed to carry dangerous material. This is a case that is about, in this particular incident, was four feet by about one foot in dimensions. It's essentially a metal tube that has rubber stoppers on the end. It's highly padded. The idea is that if the plane or vehicle in which the tube is being transported were to crash, the tube would survive and protect the canister of potentially deadly material from breaking open and spreading around. So they have this special container, obviously tightly sealed, obviously very safe, it makes it very safe to handle the element. They put it into a plane, in this case a KC- 135, and brought it back to Aberdeen. And then transported it from Aberdeen to the labs where it will be tested.

Once it gets to the lab, it's one of these things you see in science programs on the Discovery Channel. It's put into a room filled with scientific equipment, and the people on the team, the analysts, etc., then reach in with gloves and they can manipulate things.

The first thing they have to do is figure out how to open the cylinder, obviously. Whether they can open it by twisting it open or some other way, or whether it has to be drilled open. Then they perform, immediately, a litmus test with a piece of litmus paper. If the litmus paper turns red, they know immediately that it's a poisonous agent. Then they have to decide which poisonous agent and how poisonous it is. If the litmus paper doesn't turn red, then they can assume that it isn't a poisonous agent, but then they have to figure out what it is.

In this case, of course, they have only the label on the tube which says sarin, and they have no idea whether this is sarin or not, but they have to treat it as if it is sarin, and that's why they took all the precautions of packing it as carefully as they did, flying it back in a special government plane.

Q: Do you have the name of the unit or lab where this is...

A: This is part of the Army Materiel Command. It's called the Technical Escort Unit. This is a unit that has 85 military people in it and 67 civilians. It is divided up into seven teams, five of which operate out of Aberdeen, and one of which operates out of Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, and one out of Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas.

Q: A lab?

A: It will go to the Edgewater Lab at Aberdeen, which is on part of Aberdeen, where it will be tested. Sorry, Edgewood Lab at Aberdeen.

I might point out that what happened in New York is an example of cooperation between federal, state and local law enforcement agents at its best. A lot of work has gone into devising this type of response and making it fast and flawless. A lot of work has gone into this over the last couple of years. This has been an area of great emphasis by this Department, by Assistant Secretary Allen Holmes and his division.

We got a call from the FBI and responded very, very quickly and efficiently to that call. They knew immediately whom to call, and they knew they would get a very fast response.

Counter-terrorism has been an emphasis of the U.S. Government for some time, and when the Clinton Administration came in it inherited a very good counter-terrorism program from the Bush Administration. This Administration has really focused on making two enhancements to that program, and one of those enhancements is improving ways to deal with potential weapons of mass destruction. This team, the Technical Escort Unit, is one that concentrates on chemical and biological weapons and has experts that are ready to deploy at any minute to deal with situations like this.

Q: What's the approval authority? Who issues an execute order? How does that flow interior here in the Pentagon?

A: The initial approval was given by the Secretary's military assistant, Lieutenant General Jones, last night. The order was issued by Colonel Maddis of the Marine Corps, the Executive Secretary to the Secretary of Defense. Maddis signed a memorandum to the Joint Staff saying that the Secretary of Defense had authorized the request from the FBI to perform this.

This is a fairly well rehearsed chain-of-command. We have worked very closely with the FBI and other agencies to make this happen quickly. Of course when you're dealing with a situation that could involve-- we don't know whether this does involve-- but could involve a deadly chemical, speed is very important. So we've rehearsed ways to respond as quickly as possible.

Q: Does it require Secretary of Defense approval, that General Jones notify Secretary Cohen?

A: Yes, General Jones always notifies the Secretary in a situation like this, and it was the SecDef who made this approval. It was communicated through General Jones, I think is the right way to put it. The Secretary was informed of this by General Jones, his military assistant. He made the decision. The decision was relayed back through General Jones.

Q: Is this the same Tech Unit that would respond if there would be a sarin attack in a city like New York or Chicago or Washington?

A: Yes. This unit is trained to do many things. It's trained to survey-- to detect and survey the presence of deadly chemicals-- to respond to the use of chemicals if there is the use of chemicals. It can handle decontamination in small areas. It's basically a very fast biochemical response group. They work, as I say, extensively with law enforcement officers.

I might point out that it is starting a program, I think it may have started, may be underway right now in Denver, but if it hasn't started it will start in a couple of days. DoD is starting something they call "First Response Training" in 120 cities around the country. It's to train local authorities to deal with chemical or biological weapons before military people can get there. It's to train them in the use of protective gear and the use of detective machinery. Protect and detect is the goal of this training.

Q: If this unit is so fast, why did it take five hours for it to get from...

A: They drove, actually. They drove. They were alerted at 11:00 at night, and they drove up there with their equipment, got there at 4:00 a.m., surveyed the situation, decided they had something they had to transport back to their lab and did that. I don't think that's a long period, five hours. If you were called at 11:00 at night, how long would it take you to get to New York?

Q: If the sarin gas had been released it would have been...

A: Remember, they had a report from the FBI that was on the scene that they had a canister that was labeled sarin. They didn't get a report that gas was being released. They were asked to come up and check out a canister. They don't know whether it's sarin or not, obviously. But the FBI was certainly pleased by the speed of the response.

Q: Do you know how large the canister is, what it looks like?

A: I don't know what it looks like. No. I haven't seen it.

Q: How big it is?

A: As I said, it contains 0.83 of a liter. We've all seen, we've all seen these one liter thermos bottles that carry coffee or tea or whatever you put in them, so it's 8/10ths of one of those things, I assume, but I haven't seen it. Just guessing.

Q: How does this Technical Escort Unit differ from the response team, the chemical/biological response team that the Marine Corps has set up in the last year or so?

A: I'm afraid I can't answer that question. I'll try and get an answer for you. This team's been around somewhat longer. This team's been around for about a decade or so.

Q: Can you provide an historical context, how many times has this Technical Escort Unit been deployed on chem/bio issues? Not regular explosive ordnance, but chemical/biological, dates and places...

A: No.

Q: ... If it's unclassified.

A: No, I cannot.

Q: Can you provide some context of...

A: It is basically deployed for two reasons. The first reason would be to be on call at events such as inauguration or the Olympics. On call as part of a broader anti-terrorism task force. The second is, it's deployed when we get word that there could be chemical agents in use or that have been found. It's been deployed a handful of times for that reason. There have been other times when it's come close to deployment, but wasn't deployed. One was a couple of years ago there was a rumor widely reported about the possibility of a chemical attack on Disneyland in California. Not Disney World, but Disneyland in California. The team was queued up and ready to go, but then the local law enforcement people were able to sort out the fact that this was not a serious threat. So they did not deploy in this case.

There have been other times ,and I can't go into details or numbers, when they have deployed in situations exactly like this one, where local law enforcement agents have found a canister or a container that they believe may contain a chemical or biological agent and they've called in the team to take care of it.

Q: A handful of times. Every month or every year?

A: Think of a hand... (Laughter)

Q: I know how big a hand is. How many times in a month or a year?

A: Think of things that are on hands, and think of maybe two hands over a period of a decade.

Q: Mr. Izetbegovic yesterday spoke of a military group potentially being drawn up, an international force to get war criminals, again. We've heard the Pentagon's objections to use of the force on the ground to that end. Is there any possibility that the U.S. military might be involved in a group of that nature in the future at some point?

A: As President Clinton has said, as Secretary Cohen has said, and as I have repeated, we do believe that it's important to bring war criminals to justice. We don't believe this is a military function. We believe it's a police function. We have been talking with our allies about ways to do that, and those talks continue. There was no talk, by the way, yesterday during the meeting between President Clinton and President Izetbegovic about a special unit to bring war criminals to justice. That was something that President Izetbegovic said on his own after the meeting. It's not something that came up at the meeting itself.

Q: He also spoke of having received assurances that this would happen. Are you contradicting him on that?

A: I'm not contradicting anyone. I'm telling you what happened at the meeting.

Q: Did he get an assurance?

A: It was not discussed. What is clear is that we are committed to working with our allies to find ways to bring war criminals to justice, and we have been discussing this with them. This is primarily the job... Dayton makes it very clear that this is the job of the former warring factions. They have not done this. There are still too many war criminals at large. Therefore, the allies have been discussing other ways to do this, but those talks continue. They're not complete.

Q: Secretary Perry talked about a police force. Is that still kind of what you're talking about, or has it moved past that to something else?

A: I'd just like to say that it's a police function and discussions on how to make that police function work are continuing.

Q: Is it possible, along these lines, that the U.S., not necessarily the military, might offer some assistance in training people to do this job?

A: It's possible that I'm not going to talk about any details about what we're thinking of doing to collect war criminals.

Q: On Zaire. How many people are on the ground there now?

A: The latest figures I have are from early this morning, 0500 Eastern Standard Time, and, I believe, then there were 637 Americans on the ground as of that time. There could be a few additions or even subtractions because some people, a few number of people may have returned, people who were found not to be necessary, but basically it's around 600 people that we have on the ground now.

Q: How long will you keep those forces on the ground?

A: That's very difficult to say right now. I did raise the possibility on Tuesday that when the Marines arrive on the USS NASSAU that it will make it possible to withdraw some of the soldiers from SETAF who have been down there. That decision is not made yet, but it clearly gives us a little more flexibility on how to configure our force. But the main issue is, the main question is, what's going to happen in Zaire, and I don't think anybody can answer that right now.

We're very hopeful that some of the peace talks that were held in Togo yesterday by the Organization of African Unity will bear fruit, and that there will be a ceasefire and a peaceful diplomatic or political solution to the problems there. But that hasn't happened yet. That remains our hope. We've been working very hard with France and other allies to bring that about, but it's uncertain yet what will happen. If it does happen and there's a peaceful solution, our soldiers, marines and airmen will be able to return home. But I think we have to wait and get a clearer idea of how the situation's going to be resolved.

Q: What's the role of Special Forces in this Zairian area mission? There's MC-130s from England and PAVELO helicopters and...

A: Those basically are the evacuation vehicles. Those are being used because they can fly 24 hours a day, they're good for night operations, they have special navigational gear on them, they have special protective devices on them which could be necessary in an uncertain, disorderly situation. They're the vehicle of choice in a situation like this.

Q: The Secretary made a strong defense of the missile defense agreement from Helsinki in the speech to the Navy League. Has the Administration given him basically the job of being the point man on defending that, selling that agreement to Congress, because of his background in pushing legislation on this defense?

A: As the Secretary pointed out in that speech, he feels very strongly on this issue because he helped write the language in the 1996 Defense Authorization Act that was actually incorporated into the Helsinki understanding. That was the language that defined TMD according to the speed of the target and the range of the interceptor. So he has a lot invested in this process. He feels this is a good agreement. It's a good agreement for us because it allows us to continue with our work to protect our forces in theaters around the world, and it's a good agreement for the Russians and for us because it preserves the ABM Treaty. He feels very comfortable defending it.

He will speak out on this, one, because he has an investment in the issue; and two, because as the Secretary of Defense, this is an issue that matters a lot to him -- theater missile defense and the protection of U.S. forces.

Q: It's nothing the White House asked him to do specifically?

A: No. He decided to do this on his own, as I understand it. The White House was very pleased that he did it, obviously. It's an important breakthrough and I think a real success, one of several successes, from the meetings in Helsinki last week between President Clinton and President Yeltsin.

Press: Thank you.

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