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DoD News Briefing - August 13, 1996

Presenters: Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD (PA)
August 13, 1996 1:30 PM EDT

Tuesday, August 13, 1996 - 1:30 p.m.

crowd here, those who aren't out in San Diego or any other place. Welcome. I'd like to begin by recognizing some visitors. First, Mike Lewinsky is here, he's been dragged by his sister. Welcome. Secondly, we have a group of visiting military officers and officials from the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland who are here under the Partnership for Peace program to learn about press operations, military press operations in a democracy. So, you have to ask your best democratic questions today to show them how it really works. They will also take the opportunity while here to watch Exercise COOPERATIVE OSPREY which starts tomorrow. General Sheehan briefed on that, I guess, a week or so ago. But it's a large Partnership for Peace exercise involving 1,100 troops from 16 Partnership for Peace nations and, as I said, that will get underway tomorrow. With that, I'll take your questions on the Partnership for Peace or any other topic. Jamie?

Q: Ken, U.S. troops in Bosnia are apparently under a heightened state of alert because of a possible threat against them, what can you tell us about the nature of this threat?

A: It's a threat we take seriously and we responded aggressively by boosting the alert status of an already very well protected force and we continue to monitor the threat very closely through intelligence and other channels and they will remain at this heightened state of alert until we believe the threat has passed.

Q: Can you tell us anything about what kind of threat it was or...?

A: Well, in some of the camps recently we've seen -- we've seen stepped up surveillance people trying to photograph U.S. installations, for instance, with video cameras. They didn't seem to be TV crews, they weren't registered press personnel. There have been other threats through intelligence channels and we, as I said, have decided that it's prudent in light of these threats and in light of what's happened in other parts of the world to take the threats very seriously.

Q: Well, can you tell us if there have been any direct threats?

A: I can tell you that there are threats we consider serious enough to respond to.

Q: For the -- are the threats from -- from the Serbs or --

A: I don't think I want to get into the general nature of the threats since they come through -- generally through intelligence sources.

Q: Ken, you can't identify them, who these people are? Are they in areas where Iranian or Muslim extremists or in what particular areas are these threats, I guess?

A: These are threats that we believe apply to a number of U.S. camps in the area and that's why there is the general -- generally heightened sense of alert.

Q: Ken?

A: Yes.

Q: Is that type of video surveillance unprecedented in Bosnia or is it suddenly you've become concerned about it only because of --

A: Well, it's something we noticed, we noticed recently. As you know there was some surveillance of Khobar Towers and there have been instances of surveillance of other installations in Saudi Arabia since Khobar Towers, so, we take surveillance seriously wherever we see it.

Q: Since you mentioned Saudi Arabia, that was a very powerful blast there and you said, you said that U.S. troops in Bosnia are already well-protected. Are they in positions where they would protected against if there was a similar attack launched in Bosnia? Are the precautions and protections adequate to protect against a blast of that scale?

A: Well, there are entirely different -- I can't answer that question specifically but I can tell you that the layout in Bosnia is entirely different than it was in Saudi Arabia. One, people are in tents, they're not in skyscrapers. Two, the tents are concentrated in the middle of -- they're concentrated in the middle of the camps. Three, the camps are extremely well- protected around the perimeter by patrols -- approximately one- third of the people assigned to a camp are performing security functions. There are extensive checkpoints around the camps. There is very extensive monitoring of all the traffic around the camps, particularly the traffic coming into the camps. So, I think it's a completely different situation and much less exposed situation in Bosnia than we faced in Saudi Arabia.

Remember, force protection has been the primary goal in Bosnia since we moved there. We made that very clear. All the briefings by General Joulwan, all the comments by Secretary Perry, all the comments by General Shalikashvili have highlighted the need for force protection.

Q: Well, I just mentioned that because in the wake of the Saudi bombing there was some criticism that the Pentagon should have anticipated that size of a bomb and your response to that was that there was no indication up to that point anything of that size would be used. So, I'm just wondering if that lesson learned in Saudi Arabia has been applied in Bosnia in the sense that you're prepared in case a terrorist weapon of that scale would be employed in Bosnia?

A: We're always learning lessons and we're always applying them to the future.

Q: I've got a couple of security questions. Do you have any comment on the House Report, Committee Report about Saudi bombing?

A: Well, from the -- what I know about the report, it attempts to make the case there was an intelligence failure and it attempts to make the case that -- that the rotation, the short tours, made security more difficult. It makes a number of other charges I gather or conclusions from its -- from what I've read about it.

First of all, I'd like to say that -- that, in general, second guessing is probably the world's second oldest profession and it's always easier to see clearly what happened in retrospect than it was at the time. Second, in terms of intelligence, that is part of the charter of the Downing Commission and the Downing Commission has looked very extensively at the use of intelligence, the quality of intelligence, the responsiveness to intelligence in Saudi Arabia and will report, I think, in some detail on that when the report comes out next month.

As you know, General James Clapper, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency is a member of that commission and he has been heading up the intelligence part of it. Third, because of the intelligence we had, particularly following the November 13th bombing in Riyadh, we had made a large number of security enhancements at Khobar Towers, specifically, and throughout Saudi Arabia more generally. There were 130 specific security enhancements made at Khobar Towers and many of those were made in direct response to intelligence information that local commanders came up with an information that was reported through more general channels. So, I think that there was a clear effort to respond to intelligence we had as soon as we got it.

In terms of the troop rotations, we did, as a matter of fact lengthen the troop rotations for senior military officials at Dhahran and in other parts of Saudi Arabia shortly before the Khobar Towers bombing. So, we did see that there was some merit in lengthening the tours in order to receive -- to achieve a greater sense of continuity. As I say, that was done some time before the Khobar Towers bombing.

One of the -- one of the comments made in the report, as I understand it, is that there was sense of complacency about security by U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia. I think this is -- has been totally disproven by the actions that we took after the November 13th car bombing in Riyadh. Not only did we make the 130 specific improvements in Khobar Towers but as you know, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations went over and did a study in January of 1996. They recommended or I guess, the recommendations came out in January. The study was actually done at the end of '95. They recommended 39 specific security changes, 34 of which were made and the others were in the process of being made at Khobar Towers. So, I think complacency is the wrong word to describe our response to threats in Saudi Arabia.

Q: I realize the -- can I --

A: Yes, sure.

Q: May I change the subject for a second? I realize that the Department of Defense is not conducting the investigation into the bombings, but, have you heard anything new about how that investigation is going?

A: No, I haven't. Pat?

Q: I saw in one after-action analysis that Air Force on the ground had recommended mylar for the windows at Khobar Towers which looked like a pretty low expenditure item but it was delayed and not accomplished until flying glass had a big impact on casualties there. What's your understanding of the mylar issue? How much -- was it delayed for budget reasons? Was it part of the security review you just alluded to?

A: It was part of the Air Force Special Investigations, Office of Special Investigations recommendation. It was one of the 39 recommendations. Blast curtains had been installed in all the windows some time in 1995, so, we had recognized the -- the possibility of glass damage and had taken one response to it as I said, to install blast curtains.


The Air Force did recommend mylar be put in and mylar was included in a plan by the command for future installations. It was one of the steps they were planning to take but had not yet taken.

Q: Had that -- wouldn't that have been more effective though than the blast curtains?

A: Mylar is, I think, everybody admits would have helped reduce the damage and the injury from flying glass. The fact is it was a step that was in the process of being taken but that action had not been completed.

Q: Because of budget reasons?

A: Well, I can't tell you why it wasn't done. All I know is that it's usually not possible to complete every act instantly and usually there has to be a sequencing and this was sequenced. It was put into the budget and it was something that was going to be done.

Q: Was -- there was some indication it was delayed for lack of funding, is that not the case, is that inaccurate?

A: Every commander has to -- has to balance his funds with the demands for those funds and this commander apparently did, for whatever reason, decided to sequence this later than some of the other steps he was taking. Whether he did it for budgetary reasons, I don't know.

Q: Well, it wasn't because of a lack of funds at this building was it?

A: No, this, I believe, that this request never came to this building, but I don't know that for a fact.

Q: It was a pretty low amount of money, wasn't it?

A: I can't remember what the amount of money was but there -- some of that has come out in Congressional testimony. Money has been, as I believe, requested now but it's sort of academic because the windows are gone and the troops will be gone soon. But, that is the type of change that's being taken in Saudi Arabia and other places. Yes, Phil?

Q: Another subject?

A: Well, do we have more on this --

Q: Well, can you tell us how the move is going?

A: The move has started in one respect and that is that some people have been moved from installations in Riyadh to Eskan Village which is going to be the new home for officers and troops on the outskirts of Riyadh. The move has not begun from Dhahran to the Prince Sultan Air Base which is in Al Kharj. There are now 760 people there working away to get the base in shape. They are beginning to assemble these Harvest Falcon tents that are coming in. Most of the people there are the TALCE group which means a tanker airlift control element and there are about 250 of those people and there are about an equal number of Air Force engineers, Red Horse engineers building these tents. There are also security people. Yes?

Q: An Arabic newspaper in London has reported that six Arab-Afghans have been arrested in Saudi Arabia for the bombing, the Khobar Tower bombing, and that they contest it. Is there any truth to those?

A: I -- I can't comment on that. I -- I'm really leaving all those comments up to the Saudis and the FBI. Bill?

Q: On the subject of the deal the Turks made with the Iranians, for $23 million worth of natural gas purchase, can you comment with regard to how this deal will enhance the ability of Iran to purchase military equipment and to develop their nuclear and terroristic capabilities and have we, the U.S. military, talked to the Turks about how this endangers the Persian Gulf area especially?

A: Well, my friend Glyn Davies commented on this extensively yesterday at the State Department. I'm not sure I can go a lot beyond what he said. Basically, we have to look at this contract which had been initialed some time ago and, I guess, formally signed just recently. It clearly involves -- it's a long-term -- it calls for a long-term relationship. The Iranians and the Turks I'm not sure have told us all the details of how this contract is going to work. So, I would better -- I think I shouldn't speculate at this time just what it's going to mean for the funding profile of Iran's defense industries.

Q: Certainly, it will enhance their capability to purchase equipment, weapons, is that correct?

A: Well, without getting into the details, because I don't know them, I'm not an expert on Turkish or Iranian contracts. There's frequently a big difference between signing a contract and actually delivering goods and money, and I think we have to find out exactly what happens with this contract -- how far it goes, whether it takes effect, whether it's set up to operate the way it's been described. I just don't know that. It's in the early stages. And frequently, there's a long -- even when contracts do work as they're supposed to, a long time elapses before goods and money begin to flow because pipelines or other equipment have to be built. So, I think we just have to wait and see what happens here.

Q: Do you know if Turkey is planning to trade military hardware to Iran?

A: I do not. And, clearly we are very concerned about any type of commercial deal that one strengthens the military or the terrorist organizations in Iran. We've made that very clear. That's why the President has backed the legislation and that's why we're incurring the wrath of our allies in an effort to stop trade with Iran. We feel it's very important to do this as the President said, you can't trade with a company by day if it's launching terrorist attacks against you at night. We feel this is an important principle and one that we will continue to fight for. And, we will certainly evaluate the contract with Turkey in light of our concerns.

Q: Does this deal raise questions in any way about Turkey's reliability as a U.S. NATO ally?

A: Well, it's sort of a -- we are -- Turkey is a very strong ally and continues to be a very strong ally. We cooperate with them on a number of very important operations. One is PROVIDE COMFORT. They help anchor the southern flank of NATO and they have been a dedicated and loyal ally for a long time and we continue -- and we expect them to continue to be. Yes?

Q: New subject?

A: Sure.

Q: Do you have any reaction to the latest attack on the Pentagon's don't ask, don't tell policy?

A: The latest attack on the Pentagon's don't ask, don't tell policy as opposed to all the support it's been getting? What are you referring to?


Q: The trial that's taking place in the...?

A: No, I'm not going to comment on a trial that's ongoing. It's a court martial proceeding that's ongoing. The case is in the middle of that trial and it's our policy to withhold comment from ongoing litigation. Yes?

Q: Try again on the Bosnia alert. When you say that these are threats that we believe apply to a number of camps in Bosnia, are we talking about specific threats you know might come to those camps or are you talking about the same kind of thing you saw in Saudi Arabia? People taking pictures and other things that make you think that there could be a threat or they could actually be innocent activity?

A: One, we have seen people attempting to survey specific camps, obviously. Two, we have additional information that leads us to believe that there could be threats against American installations in Bosnia, so putting those two things together, we think it's important to keep our security at the highest possible level.

Q: What message do you have to the people you believe are doing this surveillance?

A: The message I have is watch out. We're watching you. That's -- that's to those people, not to you. But the --

Q: Well, how far is the Pentagon prepared to go?

A: Well, we're prepared to do what we have to do to protect our troops and we are taking all reasonable and acceptable precautions to do that.

Q: You said that the highest level, now, the alert in Bosnia. Is that as it is in Saudi Arabia where --

A: It's -- yes?

Q: The threat of an imminent attack?

A: We are prepared for possible attacks. Yes?

Q: To get back to Turkey for a minute. The Administrations been trying for some time to arrange the transfer of several ships to Turkey. Senator Sarbanes has blocked that, I think because of his concern about relations between Greece and Turkey. In light of what's happened now with Turkey and Iran, might the Administration be changing its position on that transfer?

A: I don't want to suggest there's any connection between the two things but I can't answer that question. This is a contract that was just signed and Turkey has a very legitimate need for energy, it's an energy poor country. Iran has a huge amount of natural gas. There's some -- we can understand how they came to this arrangement but the arrangement does obviously present problems and we're looking at the arrangement closely.

Q: Thank you.

A: Pat?

Q: The 37th Engineers, how many of them are sick from...?

A: Well, that's an interesting question. The New York Times as you know, did an extensive story on that over the weekend. We are in the process of checking ourselves and trying to find everybody who was in that group. So, far we have -- we have begun to review the clinical records of members of the 37th Engineering Battalion with those who participated in -- or take the -- there's something called the comprehensive clinical evaluation program with which members of the military who fought in DESERT STORM can register. And, we've begun checking the records of members of the 37th Engineer Battalion group who have enrolled in the clinical -- comprehensive clinical evaluation program. So far, specialists -- medical specialists, have reviewed records of the 43 people in that battalion who have enrolled in the CCEP and what they've found is that there are no substantial differences in either diagnostic or symptomatic categories between those who served in that battalion and those who did not.

So, in other words, there doesn't seem to be anything unusual about the health patterns based on a preliminary review. Now, we are making a second independent non-government review. Two civilian physicians are doing that and we don't have the results of that yet. That's an effort to try to second, to sort of back check the results of the first review. That's the first point.

The second is that the Persian Gulf investigation team which was set up to comply with President Clinton's order that we take every step we can to find out what's behind these -- what some people say is a pattern of illness on the part of people who fought in the Gulf and we have not been able to confirm that pattern but we're attempting to look into everything we can. This investigation team is trying to contact all members of the 37th Engineering Battalion and so far they've contacted 60 of approximately 150 and I don't have a report on the findings of those, except they're not only talking to them about their health, but they're talking to -- they're interviewing them about what they recall on the day in March when those bunkers at Khamisiyah were detonated in terms of what was done in -- what was done to detect whether chemicals were in the area before the bunkers were detonated. What was done in terms of detection after the detonation. Where the troops were. Where they were specifically, etc.

So, we're trying to assemble as much information as we can about the event at the same time that we're trying to talk to people about specific health symptoms.

Q: What were the symptoms of the 43 people that were on the register?

A: Well, I'm afraid I don't know that. We can try to get you some information on that. But, the fact that they're registered wouldn't necessarily mean that they have symptoms at all. Anybody could register.

Q: I thought it was -- I thought that was outreach for people who were having --

A: Yes. It's most likely that people who have problems would register and I don't happen to know. We could try to find out. If you talk to Jim Turner, we can try to find out.

Q: The -- where do the -- who hired these two civilian doctors?

A: I believe that they were -- that this is a contract with the Pentagon, but I will find out who they are.

Q: By PGIT or?

A: I'm sorry, I don't know that. I will try to find out the details.

Q: But they're specifically -- they're going to go and hunt down the 37 --

A: No, as I said the two -- these two civilian physicians are trying to -- will review what we already know from the CCEP program as I understand it. In other words, we have already -- some military specialists have already concluded that there aren't any difference in health patterns between people who were in the 37th Engineering Battalion and people who weren't. Now, we are asking for an independent review of the -- of the data on which that conclusion was based. Maybe they'll reach the same conclusion, maybe they won't but we've asked for an independent review.

Q: By health patterns, you mean their activities after -- since they got back from the Gulf?

A: Yes. I mean, basically, whether they're suffering from illnesses or not, what those illnesses might be. That -- that type of question. Are they showing unusual symptoms? Are they not? And, what the review showed was that there wasn't any difference. Now, we want to find out if that review was done adequately.

Q: When was the 43 completed?

A: I think this is basically -- I don't know when the 43 registered in the program but basically what we've done as I understand it is do a review of their records, that's my understanding of it but we'll try to get more information on this.

Q: Does Turner got more information on this?

A: He should. But we can certainly get it and he's the man.

Q: Back to Bosnia?

A: Yes.

Q: Can you say, Ken, if the United States military is prepared and willing to take preemptive action against possible terrorists in Bosnia and those bases in which they operate wherever they may be but especially in Bosnia?

A: Bill, you're always trying to get me to talk about future operations and I'm very reluctant to do so and I'm not going to do it today.

Press: Thank you.

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