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DoD News briefing, February 16, 1999

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
February 16, 1999 1:40 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.

Welcome to the briefing. We're glad to see you here on such a beautiful day outside.

Q: We could hold this outside.

A: I was thinking about that. Maybe we should. It would probably be a lot shorter and a lot more fun.

Let me start with two announcements. The first is that Secretary Cohen is leaving tomorrow for Seattle. Thursday he will meet with and address the employees of Microsoft to discuss national defense, national security issues with them. He'll also tour the F-22 facilities at Boeing. Then he'll move on to Alaska where he'll visit Elmendorf Air Force Base and have some speaking engagements in that area, in Anchorage. From there he'll go to Hawaii where he'll participate in the change of command ceremony at the Pacific Command. As you know, Admiral Prueher is retiring, and Admiral Blair is taking over as the new Commander in Chief of the Pacific, CINCPAC.

Also, I'd like to welcome some visitors. One, Senor Julio Lopez from Argentina is here today. Welcome, Senor Lopez. He's director of social communications in the press secretariat in the President's press office in Argentina, working directly, I guess, for Carlos Mena.

I'd also like to welcome 13 students from the National War College who are here to observe this briefing as part of a course called "Information, the Media, and National Security." So I know we have the media here: I hope we'll have some information; and I hope it will be about national security. So you're in the right place.

With that, I'll take your questions.

Q: Ken, given Iraq's threats towards its neighboring countries where we have facilities, can you give us an update on the Pentagon estimate of what Iraq possesses in terms of SCUD missiles, what our Patriot battery strength is in the region, if you're allowed to speak on that, and are there any plans on beefing up any Patriot batteries we have deployed?

A: Sure. First let me say that any attack by Iraq against one of our allies in the region would be a severe mistake and would be met with a very swift and sure response.

I think it's a sign of Saddam Hussein's desperation and isolation that Iraq is making such threats. He's tried diplomacy with his neighbors. He's tried to cajole them into supporting his position, and that's failed. His neighbors -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey -- have all made it very clear that they believe he should honor the U.N. Security Council resolutions. Failing to succeed with diplomacy or cajoling, he's now turning to threats. I think the threats will get him nowhere.

In terms of SCUDs, of course Iraq claims that it's destroyed all its SCUDs. This is one of the central reasons why we had arms inspectors working for years in Iraq trying to get to the bottom of whether or not they have destroyed all their SCUDs. Last year the government put out a report called "Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs." It says in this report that Iraq had purchased 819 SCUDs from the Soviet Union, and that U.N. inspectors had accounted for all but two of these 819 SCUDs. But there's also the possibility that Iraq was able to manufacture some SCUDs on its own out of parts that it had either manufactured or purchased over the years, and we don't have full visibility on that.

I saw Richard Butler quoted today, Ambassador Butler, who is of course the head of UNSCOM, from a speech he gave in Philadelphia saying that there is still a possibility that Iraq may have some SCUDs, although Iraq claims it does not.

Having said that, the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, from which U.S. and British planes fly, is at the very outer edge of the range of SCUD missiles. It is protected by now what we call a minimum engagement package of Patriots, called a MEP. They were moved there in the last month or so at the request of the Turks, and they will stay there as long as our Turkish allies feel that they're needed.

We also, of course, have Patriot missiles in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait protecting both our air bases and other air bases in the region -- air bases we use in those countries as well as other air bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. So we do have a number of Patriots deployed in the region. I'm not aware that we've been asked to increase our deployments. We've been very quick to respond to requests that we've gotten from countries in the region.

Q: Ken, can you be broader than just SCUDs? Are there other things that he has that he could use to carry out the threat? What are they, and how serious is the threat?

A: First of all, I want to point out that, whether or not he means the threat to be taken seriously, we have to take seriously a threat like this, and we do maintain not only Patriot missiles, but we maintain a very significant counterattack or deterrent capability in the region. That's why any use of missiles or any other way to attack allied bases in this area would be a huge mistake on Saddam Hussein's part.

I think basically there are three ways that he could attack. One would be SCUDs. Another would be an air attack with planes. And I suppose a third would be some sort of a terrorist attack. I think all of these would be difficult given the circumstances that Iraq faces today. Their Air Force, as you know, has been engaged in these fairly minor no-fly zone violations, which I've characterized as cheat and retreat where the planes dart over into the no-fly zone for a few minutes, going a few miles in, and that's the typical violation. Sometimes the violations have been a little longer, but they typically do it when they know our planes aren't in the air, and if they see coalition aircraft coming toward them, they beat a hasty retreat back into Iraqi territory. Hence the name cheat and retreat.

I don't think they have significant air power to be able to launch a longer range attack against bases deep inside another country's territory, and it would be extremely unwise for them to try to do that given the air defenses that are in the area.

As I say, this has to be seen in the context of what's been happening over the last couple of months: Iraq's increasing isolation, Iraq's increasing desperation. There's an easy answer for Iraq to end the pressures it's under today, and that is to comply with the UN Security Council mandates, which Iraq steadfastly refuses to do. Should Iraq comply, it wouldn't find itself under the pressure that it's facing today.

Q: If Iraq were so desperate, one would think that it would stop provoking the United States. Perhaps it is a sign of strength that they are willing to continue to take the hits that the U.S. is dishing out.

A: I can't psychoanalyze why they're doing what they're doing. Iraq is sustaining some fairly heavy losses to its integrated air defense system by challenging the coalition aircraft, and I have no reason to believe that those damaging counterstrikes will end until Iraq stops challenging the coalition aircraft policing the no-fly zone.

Q: Do you have a summary of how many bombs have been dropped since the end of DESERT FOX, how many targets you have struck, how many sorties...

A: I do not have that summary with me, no.

Q: Apparently some Members of Congress are saying this is beginning to look like a war, a constant air war which is going on over Iraq, and some are wondering if the administration is going to ask Congress for war powers permission. Is that in the cards as far as you're concerned?

A: Since 1991 we have flown tens and tens of thousands of sorties over Iraq to police the no-fly zone. In the overwhelming number of cases they have not resisted or shown any signs of attacking coalition aircraft.

Since the end of DESERT FOX in late December they have aggressively attacked U.S. aircraft. They have violated the no-fly zone by flying into the no-fly zones. They have turned on their radars; they have fired anti-aircraft batteries and also fired missiles at our planes over the last month and a half. We have responded properly against these attacks, and we will continue to respond properly against these attacks. I call this an act of defense on the part of our pilots, and they are working as best they can to protect themselves and to carry out their missions.

As I said, there's an easy way for them to stop receiving attacks from the coalition aircraft, and that's to stop attacking the coalition planes policing the no-fly zone.

Q: Why did the Administration stop releasing gun camera footage? Is it an effort to... Some people suggest it is an effort to manage the public affairs aspect, the public perception of what is going on over there.

A: This is an ongoing operation, and some of the film we have not released for purely operational reasons. In fact I'd say that applies to the decision generally. We have released some gun camera footage early on. We haven't released any since. It's something we review from time to time. Right now we're comfortable with the way it's going, and we think that our way of handling this best protects the ability of our planes to operate safely.

Q: Would you say it is a tactical consideration, not a managing the news situation?

A: I'd say it's a tactical consideration, exactly right.

Q: Ken, there was a report yesterday in a London newspaper that the Iraqi government has signed contracts with the Russians to upgrade and modernize their air defenses. Do you have any information that would tend to verify that, or what do you make of that?

A: I have nothing to confirm that whatsoever. I will note that the Russians have steadfastly denied that report. I've seen nothing that suggests the report is true.

It would strike me as a particularly dangerous act on the part of any country to sell weapons to Iraq in violation of the U.N. arms embargo, particularly a country that is trying to operate through the Security Council to convince Iraq to live up to the U.N. Security Council mandates.


Q: Change the subject to Kosovo?

A: Sure.

Q: Could you tell us what your assessment of the situation is on the talks now? How many U.S. and other aircraft are prepared to strike the Serbs if they don't come across by weekend? And what ground forces have been put on alert for possible disposition to Iraq [sic] if a peace treaty isn't signed?

A: I guess it's really up to Jamie Rubin and others to comment on the pace of the negotiations. As you know, this isn't something that the Pentagon is involved in. It's something that's being handled out of the State Department. Secretary Albright was there on Sunday, and I think Jamie could give you the best summary of where things stand from her standpoint right now.

In terms of the possibility of airstrikes, you're absolutely right. The activation order is still in effect, and that order which was initially passed back in October and reemphasized recently is that if the Serbs block an agreement, that NATO would have the right to go ahead and strike Serb targets. This is a decision that would be made by the Secretary General of NATO, Mr. Solana. He can do this after consultation with the allies, but he doesn't have to go back for a full vote from the North Atlantic Council.

Back in October when NATO initially set up the limited air response plan and then followed by a phased air operation plan, we -- we being NATO, the NATO allies -- put together a force on paper of some 430 aircraft. These are both combat and support aircraft. Of that, the U.S. would provide somewhat more than 50 percent, about 260 of those planes. As I say, these are both combat and support aircraft such as fuelers and reconnaissance planes and combat search and rescue planes.

Most of those planes are in Europe today, and our planes are in Aviano and other places, but most of them are in Aviano. They are on 48-hour alert status. In other words, they have to be prepared to execute a mission within 48 hours of notification. That's the alert status they were put on some months ago, and they've remained on that alert status.

Q: Do you expect they'll be put on shorter alert status?

A: I think we will look at how the talks are going, and if it appears that the talks have stagnated and if it appears that the Serbs are responsible for stalling the talks and are refusing to, continue to refuse to allow the possibility of NATO forces to be deployed to enforce a peace agreement, then NATO will have to make a number of decisions in connection with the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

First of all, they will have to decide whether more planes should be moved into the area. That could involve moving some planes from the United States to Europe. Some of our planes that have been detailed to this can fly directly from the United States. Others would have to be prepositioned in Europe to take part in an air operation.

Another question that will have to be raised and answered is whether to pull out the Kosovo Verification Mission, about a thousand people in Kosovo who are operating under the auspices of the OSCE. Whether they should be pulled out prior to -- obviously they would be pulled out prior to any air action, but that's a question that would have to be asked by NATO and by the OSCE later in this week as we evaluate whether the talks will produce anything by their deadline.

Obviously, also, non-government organization workers, NGO people, would have to be notified and given an opportunity to get out of Kosovo as well. I don't know how large the NGO force is in Kosovo, but there's a fairly large number of non-government organization people working there.

So these are questions that, as I say, will have to be asked and answered later in the week as we get a clearer idea of whether the talks are making progress.

Q: When you say that some planes could be flown directly from the United States, I assume you meant to strike, are you talking about heavy B-52s or B-1 bombers?

A: B-1 bombers were never included in the plan. It would be B-52s and B-2s. They could fly directly from the United States and presumably would. Others such as F-117s would have to be prepositioned in Europe and they'd of course go over with refueling planes if they were called into action.

But these are all decisions that have not yet been made yet. They are decisions that will have to be looked at later in the week as we get closer to the deadline, depending on the progress of the talks.

Q: If it's positive, though, that the talks would succeed, what is your time line for moving the first Marines in? How long does that take from the time they sign until people move? How long...

A: All those are good questions, and I don't really have answers because there aren't clear answers at this stage yet. NATO is in the process of working out an operational plan. I don't think there has been, there has not been a final operational plan developed yet. That's something that should happen in the next couple of days.

There are basically a number of questions that NATO will have to ask and answer. The first is, how do you make the tradeoff between speed and force size in getting the first people on the ground? Obviously we could get a light force in much more quickly than we could get a heavy force in.

One of the questions that the SACEUR, General Wesley Clark, will have to answer is how do you make that tradeoff? He and his advisors will come to a decision on that relatively soon. Clearly the Marines are a leading option to go in quickly. They would go in from the Greek port of Thessaloniki, but a decision has not been finally made yet. It's something that will be made over the next couple of days, again, as we see the progress of the talks.

Q: How far advanced are the other European members of NATO on assembling forces for a possible peacekeeping action? Are we going to be out there alone for a number of days?

A: No, absolutely not. In fact the British have already put heavy equipment on ships. The ships either have just left or are about to leave and I think are supposed to arrive before the end of the month in the Greek port of Thessaloniki. And, of course, the French already have their personnel in Skopje, Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as part of the extraction force that is there to protect the Kosovo Verification Mission people should there be a problem. So that presumably would be the nucleus of their force.

So there have been preparations made by our allies. They have, the Italians and the Germans have said that they're prepared to commit forces of a certain size and I'm sure they've begun their own internal preparations for moving the forces and equipment to the place at the right time.

Q: How about the role of Russia? One of the wire services was quoting a NATO source saying that Russia is willing to go along with NATO deployments and is expected to, that it will eventually participate. Do you have anything on that?

A: I don't have anything assertive on that and I think that's really up for the Russians to answer, but I can tell you, of course, that they're working side by side with our soldiers in Bosnia. It's been a very successful relationship. We've gotten along very, very well together. They certainly would be an addition to any peacekeeping force in Kosovo. As you know, the Foreign Minister was recently at the talks, and they have quite an interest in achieving a successful resolution to these talks. But I think it's up for the Russians to talk about whether or not they'd participate.

Q: Ken? Secretary Albright has said, however, that she does not think it should have a deadline for this force. That a force that would go in should have, they have learned that there should be no deadline, and this would have an open-ended. What's the Pentagon's view on this?

A: Well, I think that there is widespread agreement that we shouldn't lock ourselves into a short deadline as we did in Bosnia only to have to break that promise. The diplomatic agreement, as I understand it, as written now, lasts for three years. So if there were agreement to a peace accord, it would be a three year peace accord.

Secretary Cohen said on the Hill a couple of weeks ago that he would assume that our forces could be there as long as the length of the agreement for three years.

But the peace agreement also has a number of triggers in it, and it is designed to lead to an autonomous state for Kosovo, and this involves having local elections, setting up a self-governance structure, setting up a judicial system. Most of this work is supposed to be done within the first year.

One of the most important things that's called for in the agreement is the establishment of a local police force. This would be a force that could gradually take over much of the work, some of the work that soldiers would be doing. So to the extent that these steps are done and completed on time, it would raise the possibility that the military forces could be reduced or come out -- could be reduced over time and maybe come out entirely before three years is up. There is a real desire to have a set of benchmarks that would mark the transition from military to civil control in this area over a period of time.

Q: Is that going to be the argument to Congress, that look, we hope we can get at least some out in the first year, something like that?

A: I don't think we've made a specific argument or promise like that, and we're trying to... Government can learn from the past. We've tried to take a lesson from Bosnia not to lock ourselves into a firm commitment to be out in a set period of time. Obviously, if you look at all the comments that have been coming out of this building, concerns about readiness, concerns about our forces being stretched thin, we would like to complete this as quickly as possible. I know all the other allies would as well.

Q: Ken, who would set those benchmarks you referred to? Would that be the U.S. government or NATO or...

A: It would be part of the agreement. I mean they've been written into the agreement that is being presented to the sides now.

Q: On the Air Force award of the contract Friday for the last of the depot work that's kind of a hangover from BRAC '95, it seems to have pacified some of the Members of Congress, your adamant BRAC opponents.

Do you have any feeling for whether the ending of the controversy over the '95 round gives you any encouragement that Congress will go along for authorization for the new rounds in 2001?

A: I certainly hope they'll go along with the authorization of two new BRAC rounds. I guess I can't comment directly on that. I was sort of hung over from lack of sleep after coming back from South Africa on Friday, so I didn't pay attention to this particular contract but I'll look into it.

The reason for BRAC is very clear. We can't afford to pay for overhead we don't need. I think that many people in Congress realize that that's the case, and they're looking for ways to deal with the political problems that they see from BRAC. We're prepared to help them do that.

One of the important things that the Defense Department has learned through four rounds of BRAC is how to work more effectively with communities to help them replace closed bases. You all know, because you've sat through briefings here in the past, that many communities have emerged much stronger after a BRAC proceeding than before. For one thing, it diversifies the economic base in the town by bringing in all sorts of other companies and businesses to work in the former military facility, and therefore, they're less subject to comings and goings of military people and have a richer, more robust economic base.

So we hope that we can make these arguments to Congress and that they'll see the wisdom of going ahead with two more BRAC rounds.

Q: There's a DoD delegation heading to Russia this week. Could you outline what they are going to do when they're there and what they hope to accomplish on the Y2K front?

A: Yeah. It's a fairly large delegation headed by Assistant Secretary Warner who is the Assistant Secretary for Strategy and [Threat Reduction]. It basically has two purposes.

The first is to continue the defense consultations that we carry out with Russia about exchange programs, meetings, etc., and so the first part will be the defense-to-defense consultations.

The second part is a meeting of a strategic stability group that's headed by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot. I believe that when you put these meetings back to back, they will be there for about two weeks.

One of the topics that will probably run through both meetings -- the consultations and the strategic stability group, is Y2K. This is something that we have been discussing with the Russians. The Russians recently set up, I think, a national committee to deal with Y2K issues, and we've offered to help them, particularly in the area of shared early warning, which is an initiative, of course, that President Clinton and President Yeltsin launched last year.

So there will be discussion about cooperating on Y2K problems. I can't predict how they'll come out, but I can tell you that Assistant Secretary Warner has agreed to come and brief you on the outcome of these talks once they're over. That might be the best way to deal with the meetings.

Q: Will there be any opportunity to see him in Moscow?

A: Possibly. When I talked to him this morning he was not certain what would come out of these talks. He was very hopeful that there would be a good discussion on a variety of issues, but he has agreed to talk when he gets back and we can try to work something out if there's anything to say while he's there.

Q: Has there been any outreach to the other nuclear powers or those in possession of nuclear weapons about Y2K?

A: Well, certainly we've expressed our concern about the issue domestically and the impact that it could have abroad. We've had discussions with our NATO allies about this. And, of course, France and the United Kingdom are two of the declared nuclear powers. China is the fifth of the five declared nuclear powers, Russia and the U.S. being the other two. I don't know what sort of discussions we've had with China on this, but I can try to find out.

Q: There's been some reporting recently on how the Pentagon has revamped its WorldWide Web sites to restrict the kinds and the amounts of information available to the public. Some critics have said that you've gone overboard on that, gone too far. How do you respond to that criticism?

A: Well, we're trying not to go too far. The point of the directive was to try to avoid putting out information that could be particularly useful to people who might have nefarious plans for the military. Some commands, for instance, put fairly detailed building plans of headquarters buildings on the Web, and security people felt this might invite thieves or terrorists to look at these buildings. So we've made an effort for fairly common sense security reasons to strip out certain types of information.

I'll give you another example that's very simple. Using information on the Web, it's frequently possible to trace down where people live or to trace down certain financial information about people, and it turns out that if you make relatively small changes in the type of information that's put into biographies, you can make this much more difficult -- if you take out specific birth dates, for instance, and just put in the birth year rather than the specific birth date.

Some information carries either whole social security numbers or parts of social security numbers that got onto the Web, and obviously social security numbers can be the key to unraveling personal finances for people. So we've made an effort to try to clean up some of those.

I'm sure that the directive has been implemented with varying degrees of zeal by commands around the country. The idea was to try to get the proper balance between using the Web in ways that are helpful to everybody on the one hand, and not giving away information that can compromise personal or unit security on the other hand. It may take us a little bit of time to achieve that balance, but that's what we're trying to do.

Q: Can you give us an update on Linda Tripp, now that that situation appears to be changing. She was in the building apparently. Is she still employed by the Defense Department?

A: I actually cannot give you an update on Linda Tripp because I've recused myself from dealing with Linda Tripp and there's nothing I can say.

Q: Is there someone who could speak for the Defense Department on this issue that could provide us with an update on what her employment status is?

A: We will try to get you something on that.

Q: Does she...

Q:...couple of questions on that subject?

A: I don't think that Mike is prepared to answer questions. We'll get you written answers.

Q: Is she not working for you any more? You recused yourself. Is she not working in your office at all anymore?

A: Look, I'm not going to answer questions on Linda Tripp.

Q: Last night on Larry King she said she's not sure what her job is here anymore or whether she's employed here anymore. You can't respond to any of this?

A: No.

Q: Can we get responses to that?

A: Yes, I just said I'll try to get you responses.

Q: Another question is, she also contends that while she would like to return to work here at the Pentagon, the Pentagon is preventing her from returning to her job here. Is that true? Is that...

A: We will respond to these questions.

Press: Thank you.