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Joint Press Conference with Secretary Cohen and Minister of Defense Scognamiglio

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
April 16, 1999 11:20 AM EDT

Joint Press Conference with Secretary Cohen and Minister of Defense Scognamiglio

Secretary Cohen: Good morning.

Minister Scognamiglio and I have just signed a letter transmitting to our heads of state a report that's going to improve the safety of military flights in Italy. The report requires new procedures and provides for enhanced cooperation between the United States and Italy on military flight operations. This completes a task assigned by Prime Minister Dilema and President Clinton.

I'd like to thank Lieutenant General Tricarico and Admiral Prueher for their fine work in producing this report.

Their findings rest on two fundamental premises. The United States accepts responsibility and obligation under the NATO Status of Forces Agreement for the tragedy at Cavalese in February this last year, and I'd like to again express our deepest sympathies again, to the families of those who died.

The United States respects Italy's sovereignty over land, airspace, and territorial waters. On that point I'd like to recognize and thank the government and the people of Italy for the crucial support that they are giving NATO during Operation Allied Force.

NATO simply could not mount this important operation without access to Italian bases and ports. Last week Minister Scognamiglio and I had the pleasure of visiting our forces at Aviano.

But Italy is doing more than providing access to bases. It is making a major contribution of planes and pilots in NATO's air campaign, and it's taking the lead in responding to the humanitarian emergency that's been created by Milosevic's brutal policies.

As Prime Minister Dilema has said, Italy is a front line state in this crisis, but because of NATO's unanimity of strength and determination, Italy is not alone in dealing with this problem.

Carlos and I talk frequently. We are unified along with our allies in our resolve to continue NATO's air campaign until it succeeds in achieving our goals -- to stop the Serb killing of the Kosovar Albanians, have the Serb forces pulled out, allow the refugees back, provide for autonomous self-government for the Kosovar Albanians, and a NATO peacekeeping force.

Operation ALLIED FORCE shows the benefits of years of joint training by United States and European forces. It illustrates the wisdom of the United States military presence and training in Europe.

We, again, deeply regret that this training accident ever occurred. Our military will do all that it can to prevent such an accident from occurring again. The recommendations in this report are an important addition to our safety procedures.

Finally, I want to add a word about the strong relationship between the United States and Italy. This accident clearly posed difficult challenges to both our countries, but we remain strong partners and very, very good friends.

Over the last few months Minister Scognamiglio and I have developed a warm friendship while dealing with this very sad issue, and also dealing with issues of Kosovo and the NATO Summit. But I'd like to say personally how important, Mr. Minister, your calm reaction to this tragedy was, how you played a leading role in explaining this situation to the Italian people, and, but for your equanimity and leadership on this issue, it could have been certainly far more emotionally trying on many, many people. So I wanted to take this occasion to thank you for the leadership that you provided in helping us to resolve this very difficult issue.

Minster of Defense Scognamiglio: I also have a short report, I will do it in English, then if some questions in Italian will be raised, of course I will answer to them.

I would start by saying that the events that are taking place in Kosovo demonstrate the need to have a strong alliance to secure peace and stability in and around Europe. It's out of the question that to have a strong alliance the presence of USA forces in Europe is instrumental in general in Europe, and in Italy in particular.

Those forces need to train and to operate in tune with the operational requirements and doctrines in order to be ready to fulfill the mission as the one they are doing every day in Kosovo. And I hope not for a long time.

However, these training activities have to be carried out by ensuring first of all safety as a paramount requirement for the civilians and for the territories where the training is taking place.

Accidents as the one in Cavalese does not have to happen again. Safety cannot be at odds with training requirements.

The report that the U.S./Italian commission headed by General Tricarico and Admiral Prueher has been submitted to myself and Secretary of Defense Cohen to fulfill this requirement of safety .

The commission concludes that the accident was caused by air crew error and that supervisory error occurred within the air crew chain of command.

The commission advised and recommended in answer, (sic) [writing] flight safety rules and procedures to ensure that training and operational flight activities can take place over Italy by USA planes in a safe manner and in a way that prevents tragedy as the one in Cavalese to occur again.

These rules will also ensure that if an aircrew error takes place, which is unfortunately always possible, and human error can happen, this error should not result in an accident like the Cavalese one.

I believe that the recommendations by the commission are devised to achieve these objectives, and I will recommend [to] the Italian Prime Minister to endorse them.

The alliance is engaged in a difficult trial in Kosovo and in the Balkans. We need to maintain cohesion, which is an extremely important value for Italy, for the alliance, and the other value we are aiming to is solidarity in order to solve, solidarity with people who have been affected in this tragedy, in order to solve the Kosovo crisis.

The alliance air campaign will continue until Milosevic [is] ready to accept the five conditions set by the alliance and by the international community, the United Nations. These conditions are very well known. It's not necessary to repeat them.

The fact is that the alliance is pursuing two objectives. One is to stop or limit military repression and violence by Serbs by reducing their military capability. The second is to provide support and humanitarian assistance to the refugees and to allow for their safe return and safe and peaceful resettlement in Kosovo.

Italy is at the forefront in pursuing both objectives. The contribution we provide to the alliance forces air campaign is secondly on to the one provided by the United States. Today about 400 allied planes are deployed and operate from Italy; 42 Italian aircraft are operating under allied command for air operations in Kosovo. Italian ships are in the Adriatic Sea to protect NATO operations and communications.

To provide support to the tragedy of the refugees NATO is engaged both in Macedonia and in Albania with the Operation [ALLIED HARBOR], authorized a few days ago. To both operations we provide a very relevant contribution. In Macedonia, Italy has a total of about 1,100 men, and in Albanian we are deploying about 2,500 men out of a total of 7,500 men of the alliance. In Bosnia we deployed about 2,500 men. Overall, Italy deployed more than 7,500 men, or will deploy more than 7,500 men when this embarkment in (inaudible) will be completed which will be in a few days in the Balkans. Besides providing to the allies an indispensable and invaluable contribution in terms of air and naval bases and operational infrastructures.

In the Italian Parliament, democratic debate is taking place as in any European democratic country and as in the United States of America, particularly in the Senate and in the Congress. At the end of this debate and during this debate, the Italian government policy and decision has always been, and with no doubt, will continue to be firm and stick with the policy and decisions collectively taken by the alliance. There cannot be any doubt about this.

I would conclude to say that evidence is speaking louder than any other voice.

I would like to thank also on my side my colleague, Secretary Cohen for the kind words he has used for my person, that I reciprocate sincerely.

Thank you.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I wonder if I might ask two brief questions, one to each of you. One, do you plan, as reported, to call up as many as 33,000 Reservists, mostly people in the Air Force for the Kosovo operation?

And Mr. Minister, there are always questions about solidarity in the alliance, and despite your words, is Italy ready to stand firm for perhaps months, if necessary, while hundreds of planes on your soil take apart the infrastructure of Yugoslavia?

Secretary Cohen: With respect to the callup of the reserves -- Charlie, that has not yet reached my desk. I'll be meeting with the Chairman and others during the course of the next couple of days to evaluate what would be involved in terms of the callup, but certainly there will be some. The exact number I can't identify right now. We still have some examination to go through.

Q: Would you expect it would be a large number?

Secretary Cohen: I think it will be a significant number. I'm not in a position to say how large the number will be at this point. I do have to meet with the Chairman. It really has not been developed to present to me just yet, but hopefully in the next several days that will be possible.

Q: Mr. Minister?

Minster of Defense Scognamiglio: There is no time limit for Italy for belonging to NATO. We have no time constraints in our action. Of course we hope that the objective of this action will be reached soon. But there is no, absolutely no restraints either from the parliament or by the government on the question of time on the action.

Q: Secretary Cohen, what can you say to clear up some of the confusion about whether or not NATO planes struck a refugee convoy on the road from Jakovica to Prizren that included refugees driving tractors? What's your state of knowledge on that? What can you say?

Secretary Cohen: I can't any more to what has previously been said, and I know that is somewhat confusing at the moment, but General Clark still has the matter under investigation. I think the most important thing to do is to wait until the investigation is complete, and then give a statement which will hopefully satisfy everyone concerned in terms of what actually took place. But I think at this point it would be premature for me to try to reconcile some of the different interpretations of what's happened.

Q: But why has NATO been willing to, by not answering very many questions about this, leave the clear impression that NATO planes did in fact strike this convoy, if there's any evidence to suggest that wasn't the case?

Secretary Cohen: The purpose in having the investigation is in order to answer all the questions. If it's a question of a misunderstanding of the factual situation, of where we don't know, trying to sort out whether there are other aircraft in the region, whether other damage was done on the ground, I don't have the answers to that and I think it would be appropriate for me to wait until the investigation is complete and then make a statement to you.

Q: Mr. Secretary, may I too address a question to [Minister Scognamiglio].

Can we be a little more expansive on the Reservists? Give us a ballpark figure. Also the timeframe in which you would call them up once a decision is made.

And Minister, the NATO alliance we are told even by Secretary Cohen would not endorse the use of ground troops in Kosovo, and yet all the military experts many of us have talked to seem to say emphatically that you cannot solve this problem through air power alone. Would Italy be willing to commit ground troops if NATO endorsed that? And do you see any consensus within NATO to put ground troops in in Kosovo?

Secretary Cohen: On the first question, I really am not in a position to give you a ballpark figure yet. I've seen some that have been reported. None of that has come to me at this point, so I can't give you any clarification. I hope to deal with this today and by the first of the week, certainly, then I'll come down and be happy to explore it with you.

Minster of Defense Scognamiglio: I can only give you a partial answer because when we started this action the idea was that it was possible by an airstrike, airstrikes, to reach the political results we want to, we're aiming to, that is the condition of United Nations.

If we will see in the future that it is impossible to reach these results through the air actions, of course it will come out of the problem of what to do.

At that moment, the Italian government must be in the position to take a decision. But as far as ground operation will be concerned, no answer can be given without the consensus of the parliament.

Q: Can I ask that you answer this question in Italian, please?

Minster of Defense Scognamiglio: (Answer given in Italian)

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you discuss the difficulties that the collateral damage issue and the pictures of the bodies on the road and the accusations by the Serbs that NATO did do that damage, can you discuss the difficulty that that presents to the U.S. and NATO as it tries to make its case within the framework of public perception, number one.

Number two, why not release the gun camera footage from the incident the other day when NATO certainly was willing to release gun camera at a moment's notice on other strikes, even bad strikes. Why is this one being withheld?

Secretary Cohen: With respect to releasing information, I think the most important thing to do is to get our facts straight so there are not conflicting statements coming out of one source or another.

We have an obligation to be answerable to the American people and to our NATO allies, and indeed we will. There's no consideration given to trying to conceal anything. We want to make sure we don't get hammered by the press, as such, for putting out different, conflicting statements as to what happened. We're trying to avoid that because we think it's important that we be accountable, and that we be accountable based on the facts.

With respect to how difficult is this as far as collateral damage is concerned, it is quite interesting to see how Mr. Milosevic, who engages in dictatorial censorship of the press, not allowing his people to see the kind of horrific damage that he is causing to hundreds of thousands of people, and yet has the audacity to stand up and say that NATO has deliberately targeted innocent civilians. It is a calumny, it is an outrage, it is a grotesque indulgent practice of his in engaging in the kind of Orwellian twisting of language and logic that I referred to yesterday.

For anyone to accept the notion that allied forces would deliberately target the very people that we are trying to save, I think can only be a testament to the kind of manipulation of language and of logic that Milosevic as a dictator can engage in.

So I think that the American press is fully understanding of this. Certainly if not the press, the people are, that during the course of these kinds of operations that mistakes can occur, they will occur, they have occurred. During DESERT STORM under much different conditions, as a matter of fact, we had aircraft taking out our own personnel. So these things can happen from time to time. We do everything in our power to minimize the risk to innocent civilians and if this event came about through an error on the part of the pilot, then certainly we will be the first to indicate that. There will be no attempt to in any way suppress that fact. But as I pointed out yesterday, for anyone sitting back and second-guessing and judging a pilot who has to operate in a hostile environment at speeds that are either subsonic or supersonic, having to make split-second decisions, and then be held to a standard which says there can never be anything but 100 percent perfection, I think is not realistic and it's not fair.

We will do everything in our power to minimize the damage to innocent civilians, but they will occur in the future, they have occurred in the past. We'll do our best to see that they are at a minimum.

Q: Do you clearly feel you're being hammered by the press?

Secretary Cohen: I think any notion that Mr. Milosevic can be allowed with any kind of credibility to portray this as a deliberate act to attack innocent civilians is certainly irresponsible. It's not irresponsible on the part of the American press, but I would daresay, as I tried to point out, this is a stream of invective coming out of Milosevic that he's able to control in Serbia. Fortunately we have a free press here and the American people and the Western world is able to see exactly what the facts were.

So I believe that's an attempt on his part to try to certainly influence Serbian public attitude whereby they're not being allowed to see what terrific, horrific damage is being done, and the brutality that's being carried out in Kosovo by the Serb forces; and then to allow him -- the Serb press has no choice, but hopefully we will not participate in promoting this kind of scurrilous interpretation of the facts as it would only benefit the Serb forces.

I think it's scandalous, I think it's grotesque, and he's allowed to get away with it in Serbia. He's not getting away with it in the United States or in the Western world.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can we go back to the Cavalese accident...

Mr. Bacon: He's got a question right there.

Q: I have a question for Minster Scognamiglio. It will be in Italian. (Question in Italian)

How do you respond to people in Italy who say Italy is left alone in the humanitarian crisis? Not alone, but doing most of the work?

Minster of Defense Scognamiglio: Do you want the answer in Italian or in English?

Q: Both.

Minster of Defense Scognamiglio: (Answer given in Italian)

Q: Mr. Secretary, there was testimony in the court martial of Captain Ashby, the captain of the Prowler, that the American maps of Italy omit hundreds of obstacles that are present on Italian maps because the Pentagon copied the wrong Italian map as its source for low level obstacles. Yet American crews are forbidden to use Italian maps. Will this commission report, will you be addressing that problem?

Secretary Cohen: I'll let Admiral Prueher -- who is nodding in the affirmative that we indeed intend to address that issue. He is going to stay behind the Minister and myself and give you a further briefing if you'd like.

Q: Can I ask a question about your testimony yesterday on the Hill?

Secretary Cohen: Sure.

Q: Did you get the sense that the public is moving in the direction of a consensus that there ought to eventually be use of ground forces in Kosovo, or at least an option or some planning being done now?

Secretary Cohen: I think that those who feel strongly about the need to do contingency planning feel strongly about it. There are others who are equally strong in their opposition to any notion of a land force. So I don't know that any minds were changed. I don't think there was any development of a consensus, as such. That may be true, it may unfold in the future. But right now I think there are the initial discussions and debates which, as I indicated yesterday, are very healthy for our democracy in trying to arrive at a collective decision and a consensus, and build a consensus as to what should be the appropriate course of action.

Q: Mr. Secretary, following up briefly on Jakovica, and stipulating that the Serbs are using this convoy incident for their own propaganda. If the NATO investigation in fact finds that the involvement of NATO warplanes is more extensive than the one plane, the one bomb, I think Jack's original question was would this undermine the support among NATO allies for the continued bombing campaign? Do you think it has had that effect?

Secretary Cohen: Are you suggesting you're now trying to interpret what Jack McWethy meant by his question?

Q: I apologize to Jack. I pose that as my own question then.

Secretary Cohen: No. It will not undermine the continuation of this air campaign. Whatever the facts reveal, we will disclose. As soon as we arrive at a factual determination there will be a full disclosure. And that is precisely the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship. There will be no effort to conceal any facts. We will discuss, disclose whatever took place because we are as interested in communicating that to the American people and to the Western world, or to the entire world, as possible. But the point I want to make is that we will be the first to discuss our errors if errors were made, and to bring them to the public attention. There's no attempt to cover that up.

In the event of discussing collateral damage, I take the occasion each and every time to point out when we look at targets, when we select those that need to be destroyed, we go to extraordinary lengths to minimize harm to innocent people. I don't think any other nation or collection of nations in this particular case go to the extremes that we do in order to minimize the risk to innocent people. But we understand, no matter how careful we are, no matter how professional we are, no matter how much training our pilots and others go through, errors happen. There are mistakes that are made during the course of combat. The fog of war is well known to all of you and to the many participants.

So we will do our best. To the extent that there are errors that occur from time to time we will be the first to admit them. But that will not in any way deter us from carrying out this mission. If anything, we are more solidly determined to continue the air campaign and to start inflicting more and more damage upon Mr. Milosevic's forces -- those in the field as well as other strategic sites -- in the coming weeks and months if necessary.

Q: Are you aware of any evidence that Yugoslav aircraft or perhaps mortars were in any way responsible for any of the civilian deaths on that road?

Secretary Cohen: I don't have any information that could verify that. We're getting a number of reports coming from refugees about low flying aircraft that are green in color that are doing some strafing and attacks, but we don't have any way to verify that. So I think the best thing I could do is wait until we get all of the information and then present it to you so we can feel satisfied that we have the real story.

Press: Thank you.