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DoD News Briefing, March 5, 1998

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD (PA)
March 05, 1998 1:30 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.

I'd like to start by greeting a group of journalists and government officials from Iceland. Are you back there?

Here's a test. How many of you have read "Independent People"? About half, a third. I thought this was the great national epic of Iceland. Didn't the guy, Laxness, win a Nobel prize for that book? I read it a couple of months ago. It was riveting book. You should all read it -- even if you're not from Iceland.

With that, I'll take your questions on independent people and Icelandic Nobel laureates or anything else.

Q: Is the United States, or to your knowledge NATO, planning, preparing, making contingency plans to put troops into Kosovo?

A: Not to my knowledge, no. We are in active discussions with our allies about the Kosovo issue, and we are certainly in active discussions with President Milosevic urging restraint on his part, and we've also urged restraint on the part of the Kosovo forces as well, to reduce fighting and to look for peaceful ways to resolve their problems.

Q: When you're in active discussions with our allies about Kosovo, are any of these active discussions talking about anything more than diplomatic warnings to the government?

A: We've been focusing on diplomacy. Also one of the sticks we've had here is economic sanctions, as well. As you know, the outer wall of sanctions is still being maintained against Serbia, and those sanctions will continue. There may be other adjustments that can be made in the sanctions. As you know, we just liberalized some sanctions recently. I think we'll look at a whole range of options.

But we've made it very clear to President Milosevic that we take this seriously, and we want a peaceful resolution to the problems there.

Q: How many U.S. troops are currently in Macedonia? And is there any consideration of increasing the number of troops there?

A: There are currently 350 U.S. troops in Macedonia, and we are not considering an increase in that.

Q: Are they part of the international force?

A: They are.

Q: Do you know how large the whole force is?

A: About 700, 750.

Q: With the Nordic Battalion, right?

A: Yeah.

Q: The mandate for that group is expiring in a few months. Is there any talk about extending it?

A: It's certainly one of the things we'll look at. Any sort of disorder in the Kosovo region increases concerns about stability in Macedonia so we'll look at that. But as you know, the mandate for that has been renewed time after time for the last couple of years, and I'm sure that we'll consider another renewal. But I don't think that decision's been made yet.

Q: On Iraq, has any decision been made to rotate that AEF out of Bahrain?

A: No. Not that I'm aware of.

Q: No plans...

A: We're going to maintain our forces in the Gulf for the foreseeable future. The President will decide how long he wants to maintain the current force levels there. This refers to all forces -- Army, Air Force, and Navy forces, and also, as you know, we have a Marine Amphibious Ready Group there as well.

There's no decision yet made to reduce the forces, and I wouldn't anticipate that any decision will be made until we've had time to test Iraq's compliance with the UN Security Council agreement that was signed recently.

Q: What about replacing those forces with fresher...?

A: There is constant rotation going in and out of people, but in terms of the number of assets there -- planes, ships, soldiers to run tanks -- I don't foresee any diminution of that force for awhile.

Q: Was there ever a request or a suggestion from Bahrain that U.S. aircraft leave the country by mid-March? There was evidently a report to that nature.

A: Let me deal with that report. There was no request about that in any way. In fact, the day that that report ran -- and the report was denied by the White House, and it was denied by the Pentagon as well -- the day that report ran Secretary Cohen spoke with the Crown Prince of Bahrain and expressed his thanks for the support that Bahrain has given us over the last few months, and the Crown Prince said that that support would continue. So I'm mystified about where this report came from.

Q: You said from the podium that Emir had given the President personal assurances that strikes would be allowed from Bahrain.

A: We're talking about a different issue here. We're talking about the Air Expeditionary Force, but I did say that, yes. But this is a separate issue. This was about an NBC report that suggested that Bahrain was going to expel some or all of the Air Expeditionary Force and we have -- I think that report was just wrong.

Q: Could we go back to Kosovo for just a moment? Are you able to confirm any of the details in the press reports, there was discussion of armor, summary executions, helicopters, use of all kinds of hardware. Are you able to confirm any of that?

A: No. I've seen media reports on what's going on in Kosovo, but I can't confirm that beyond what I've read.

Q: Ambassador Gelbart referred to using all tools available and not tolerating this kind of violence in Kosovo. Does that include any possible military options?

A: That's a very clever way of reasking the very first question. It was, really, trying to slip one right by there. Ambassador Gelbart made it clear that we're looking at a wide range of options, and we are.

Q: Does wide ranging -- are there any military options?

A: We are concentrating on diplomacy right now. We're concentrating on making it very clear to President Milosevic and to the Kosovo forces that we expect a peaceful resolution of their disputes and a diminution in the fighting.

Q: Different subject. On the topic of NATO expansion, there's a recent report and some critics in Congress have suggested that the cost of NATO expansion is actually going to be much greater than stated by the Administration, and that Pentagon subsidies for weapons acquisition for new members could end up costing the taxpayers a lot of money. Can you comment on that?

A: I don't anticipate that to be the case. We've made it very clear, actually, that the way new members of NATO should spend their money is not on new weapon systems right now; it's on the infrastructure of joining NATO and that is communications, command and control, the type of expenditures that will make their forces more compatible with the NATO forces. I don't anticipate that there will be, immediately at any rate, a huge rush to buy expensive new weapons. All the advice they've been getting has been to focus more on ways to integrate their operating systems, their command and control systems, etc.

Q: What is the estimated cost of expanding NATO? And are you confident that it's a realistic estimate?

A: Well, our current estimate is similar to the NATO estimate which is an increase of $1.5 billion over approximately 10 to 12 years after a accession. That is after the new countries come in. That would be mainly an increase in the NATO common budget.

Q: So in other words you're saying that, as such, that burden is not just on the United States.

A: No, absolutely not. We would only pay about 25 percent of that. And as I say, that money would be spread over more than ten years.

Q: Just to complete this cycle, I take it that you think that's a pretty good deal.

A: I think that the expansion of the European security network and the zone of stability in Europe is an extremely important advance, both for the United States and for NATO and, I think, all the countries of Europe. This is not an expansion against anybody, it's an enlargement of the zone of stability and security in Europe. I think NATO is showing today in Bosnia that it is a force for stability in Europe, and it's shown that over the last almost 50 years.

Q: Back on Iraq for one second. What have you seen in the disposition of Iraqi forces since the agreement was reached with the UN? Remembering that right before that agreement you had commented that we had seen a disposition into defensive positions. Are they back now? Have there been any shifts since the agreement was signed?

A: The air forces remain dispersed defensively. There's been some regrouping of ground forces. There is beginning to be a regrouping of their air defense missile forces as well.

I want to point out that during the last month or so, when they were rapidly moving around their missiles, they were doing that to increase their defensive posture, or to decrease our ability to target their missiles. While they were doing that, however, they degraded their air defense system. They are beginning now to put back together their air defense system in a more predictable way.

Q: I was going to ask you, maybe that's part of the next answer then to draw a conclusion about, what this regrouping of air defense and regrouping of ground forces actually means, what conclusions are we drawing from that?

A: I think that it's very difficult to psychoanalyze what's in the minds of Saddam Hussein and his military commanders, but if I had to guess, he sees the tensions as declining.

Q: Does regrouping of the air defenses somehow, are you saying it strengthens the integration...?

A: I'm saying that when the air defense systems are in a state of constant motion that they do not integrate as well and operate as well together. There is some diminution of his air defense capabilities when he's moving them around. To the extent that he stabilizes them and stops moving them as much as he did before, it would allow him to gain some ability of his air defense systems.

It is fairly standard operating procedure in Iraq for them to move their missiles around fairly regularly. The tempo of those missiles does change from time to time.

Q: If he regroups the ground forces, one would expect that that might make them more vulnerable to attack. Does this lead you to believe that he has no intention of violating this agreement and therefore is not worried an attack?

A: We certainly hope he has no intention of violating the agreement because the agreement is the best path to what he and what the international community wants. He wants inspections to stop and the sanctions to be lifted. The international community wants the inspections to continue so we can be assured that the weapons of mass destruction program is under control.

Q: Would the regrouping of his ground forces make them more susceptible to attack?

A: To the point they're concentrated, it would make them more susceptible to attack. That's why he disbursed them, in order to reduce the size of potential targets.

Q: Now they're going back into garrison?

A: They're beginning to regroup, yes.

Q: That regrouping is going back to more normal operations?

A: They are going back to more normal operations, yes.

Q: In the testimony on the Hill the other day, General Zinni urged Senators to support a tightening of maritime interdiction efforts against Iraq. What measures are the Administration considering, military or otherwise, that would achieve that?

A: I'm afraid I can't answer that question. I'll get back to you on it.

Q: There's a report out that the Gulf deployment of the air assets is degrading or downgrading the Roving Sands exercise for later this year between the U.S. and NATO allies in Texas and New Mexico. Is that true? And to what extent is it dampening that exercise or curtailing it?

A: I saw that report and I don't have an answer. We'll get it for you.

Q: I think you said on Tuesday that the anthrax vaccinations were supposed to start this week in the Gulf. Do you know if they have or if you're still waiting for word on it?

A: They have not started yet. I anticipate they will start at the very end of this week or the beginning of next week. They may start -- each service will handle its own vaccination procedures for its personnel, but they'll be under the central command of CENTCOM.

Q: The acting Secretary of the Air Force said in a speech last week that if there wasn't congressional approval for another round of BRAC that there might be action taken in this building to close bases. Is that under active consideration? Is the Secretary looking at that option?

A: I don't believe it's under active consideration right now. I think it's very clear to everybody that a unilateral action to close bases is extremely difficult politically. It may be necessary financially if we can't get relief from Congress and I think that's the point Mr. Peters was making. It is possible for services to act on their own to close bases, but it is much easier and much cleaner to do it in a BRAC process. The point he was making is an extremely important point and needs to be reemphasized time and time again, which is that we are facing a crunch, and we cannot afford to pay for unnecessary infrastructure and maintain readiness at the same time.

In order to generate the funds we need in the future -- and we're talking about in the future because there would not, under Secretary Cohen's plan, be another round of BRAC until the next century -- but in order to generate funds for modernization and to maintain funds for readiness, we need to be able to cut expenses. A crucial way to cut expenses is to eliminate unneeded bases and other infrastructure.

So that's what the goal is of BRAC. We hope we can get Congress to understand that. If you want a strong, modern military prepared for the challenges of the 21st Century, we have to have a lean base structure and infrastructure for the 21st Century, not a 19th or 20th Century infrastructure.

Q: I realize it's early in the process, but is there any sign that you're making headway in persuading Congress?

A: We are certainly talking to a lot of people. I think it's too early in the process right now, but we're going to keep working on this. And I think that Congress is very concerned about readiness. Congress is very concerned about modernization. We're very concerned about readiness and modernization and the message is clear that we need to spend our money in the most efficient way possible, and excess infrastructure does not qualify as an efficient way to spend money.

Q: On Southeast Asia. Time Magazine reported recently that the Pentagon was drawing up plans for humanitarian evacuations in Indonesia if things went bad there. Is that true? And if so, do you see any current signs of instability there that might trigger some type of military evacuation?

A: My understanding is that it would be -- first of all, the problems in Indonesia flow from the economic crisis that it's facing. We have not seen the type of instability there that would make us think of an evacuation. Indonesia is a place that's well served by commercial airlines and other transportation and I think that should there be a problem, we don't anticipate problems of this magnitude at all, that people would be able to get out fairly efficiently. But we don't anticipate those problems.

We're working very hard with the government of Indonesia to deal with these problems. As you know, Vice President Mondale recently met with President Suharto on this very topic.

Q: On the subject of drugs in Mexico and the certification, a recent DEA report has said that the scope of Mexican trafficking has increased significantly and there has been no meaningful progress in drug law enforcement in Mexico. My question refers to what President Zadillo said about the very grave threat that drug trafficking and the corruption thereof is posing to Mexico. I would ask how does the Department of Defense look at that threat as it points toward the United States? Is there a growing threat? Should Mexico have been certified under a national security waiver? What is DOD's policy?

A: DOD's policy is to refer questions on drug control to the appropriate authorities, and that's General McCaffrey and the people who have actually done the certification here, the State Department. I think you'd be better off asking them.

Mexico is a sovereign country. We work with them to help them improve their drug enforcement and control efforts. We talked about that here a couple of weeks ago. We provide training at their request. We help them train in areas that are important to them and areas that they select and we do this all within the bounds of their sovereignty. They're working hard on this problem and we are providing the appropriate help when they request it.

Q: You couldn't say then if there is a growing threat from drugs coming out of Mexico into this country, to the national security?

A: Drugs are primarily a transnational threat, and I think that one thing that's very clear about looking into the drug trade, as you have very closely -- much more closely than I -- is that there are a whole number of countries involved in this, as transshipping points, and involved in the growth, the production, the financing, the distribution, etc. So I think it's not appropriate to focus on any one country.

Q: The Washington Times reported this week that a lieutenant colonel on the Joint Staff in an e-mail note made some disparaging remarks about Congressman Curt Weldon, a senior member of the House National Security Committee, and the memo also said that he suggested withholding information from Congressman Weldon about missile defense, a controversial issue.

Is this the case, and does the Defense Department condone those kinds of remarks and the idea that information would be withheld from a senior member of Congress?

A: First of all, we take the topic of missile defense very seriously. We're spending billions of dollars a year, I think $4 billion this year on theater missile defense, and we're working also aggressively on a national missile defense program. These are dauntingly complex technical challenges. We are moving forward. We believe that theater missile defense is one of our top priorities in protecting our troops around the world, in places like the Gulf. We've done a lot of work with our existing system, the Patriot system, but we're developing a range of new systems as well.

Secondly, we try to cooperate fully with all members of Congress in this area, including, and, particularly, Congressman Weldon. I think we have gone up there and testified many times. We will do it in the future. We've tried to explain what our programs are, and we've tried to work with Congress to make sure that the programs are adequately funded and kept on an appropriate schedule.

Q: Does the Pentagon consider Lieutenant Colonel Trimmer's remarks appropriate?

A: I read in your newspaper that in his own e-mail, which was actually sent almost a year ago -- this isn't a recent story, the e-mail was sent in April of 1997 -- that in his own e-mail he said, "I probably should not say this," and I suspect he wishes he hadn't.

Q: Is he still part of the delegation going to Geneva on the demarcation...

A: Yes, he is. I am informed that he is still on the delegation.

Q: Just before the briefing I became aware, and I'm not sure if you know much about this or not, but apparently I heard there was a report that there had been some arrests involving -- in Virginia -- involving attempts to sell F-14 spare parts to Iran. Are you aware of this story in particular? And if not, in general, does the United States believe that Iran is attempting to acquire spare parts for its F-14s?

A: Well, the short answer to that question is yes, we are aware of efforts by Iran to purchase not only spare parts for existing weapons, but also to expand its current arsenal with more modern weapons. I can't comment on this report. It's a law enforcement matter, not for me to comment on, but I think you can deduce from the report that we take these efforts seriously. We're working hard as a government to enforce sanctions we have against Iran, and we're working very hard to prevent proliferation in the Gulf by Iran.

Q: Do you have any assessment of the current state of readiness of Iran's F-14s? Are those planes capable of flying still?

A: Some of them do fly, I believe, but I'd have to do some research before I could give you a detailed assessment.

Q: Can we get a number for how many F-14s we think they have?

A: Possibly. I guess you want to know how many are operating, not just how many they have.

Q: That too.

A: Okay.

Q: The FBI apparently is investigating allegations that a Saudi translating company sold manuals for the Abrams tank to a French tank manufacturer. I was wondering if that company which was contracted by the Army, whether it also had access to classified materials for translating purposes? And also, is there any law against selling unclassified manuals to a third country?

A: On the investigation itself, the FBI has told us that they can neither confirm nor deny that an investigation is taking place. There are regulations called the International Traffic in Arms Regulations that limit how information and material, etc. that we sell to one country can be transferred to another country, and it's conceivable that a situation like this could constitute a violation of the so-called ITAR or the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

Q: What penalties for that?

A: I'm afraid I don't know what the penalties are.

Q: Did that company, was it also translating classified materials?

A: My understanding is that they were unclassified manuals.

Q: But would it have had access to any classified...

A: I don't know the answer to that question.

Press: Thank you.