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DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
June 03, 1997 2:00 PM EDT
[Joining Secretary Cohen at this joint press conference is Secretary of State for Defense George Robertson, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.]

Secretary Cohen: It gives me a great deal of pleasure to welcome George Robertson to the Pentagon on his first visit as Secretary of State for Defense. The United States and the United Kingdom have stood side by side for many years as strong allies, and Mr. Robertson's visit has been a very warm and cordial one. We discussed our agreement on a wide variety of issues. We compared notes on Bosnia where Mr. Robertson recently returned from. We talked about NATO enlargement and NATO's new relationship with Russia. We talked about yes, the Quadrennial Defense Review. Minister Robertson has just announced plans to conduct a Strategic Defense Review in the United Kingdom, and I thought it would be very important for him to look at the extensive work that we have done here in the Pentagon, and perhaps I can give him some insight into what might be accomplished in the United Kingdom as well.

It's an important time for Europe and for NATO and the world, and we're completing the work that George Marshall began some 50 years ago when he announced his plan to build a Europe of free people and free markets from the Atlantic to the Urals. The close relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States has been and remains the foundation for a Europe that is peaceful and prosperous.

Before I invite Minister Robertson to make his remarks, I'd like to bring you up to date on our mission to rescue Americans and others from Sierra Leone.

Today the Marines on the USS Kearsarge evacuated 1,261 people to safety. Today's total includes 21 Americans and 194 British citizens. Over the three day period, our Marines have evacuated a total of 2,516 people from Freetown including 430 Americans. The evacuation missions have been safe, fast, and efficient. The Marines and the sailors on the Kearsarge have done an outstanding job, and I wish to congratulate all of them.

With that, Mr. Minister, perhaps you could make a few remarks.

Minister Robertson: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. It's been a great pleasure to be here in the Pentagon as the United Kingdom's Defense Secretary, and to meet my opposite number here in such cordial circumstances.

It's a big and challenging job that I've taken on in these last few weeks and getting to grips with a lot of the issues has been a matter of some interest, and obviously some importance, too. As Secretary Cohen has said, we've ranged across quite a number of issues concerning both sides.

The strong message that I brought here from the new Labor Government in the United Kingdom, is that we are a party believing in the robust defense of our own country and also a new government recommitted to the alliances with our neighbors, and especially to that trans-Atlantic relationship that has been so important to our country.

It was our Labor Foreign Secretary who all these years ago, Amhurst Bevin, who put the final touches to the NATO alliance and the Labor Party is still proud of that achievement. Therefore, coming here, I'm making it clear that we will still be strong partners in the roles that we play in the various partnerships. We have already said that we're strong in Europe, that we will have a positive attitude to the European Union and to our alliances within Europe, but that makes us, if anything, better allies across the Atlantic as a result of that, and I believe that is generally welcome throughout.

We fought the election campaign that ended four weeks ago on a platform of strong defense, strong partnership, and on the Strategic Defense Review that will take into account what the British people want us to do or needs to be done by Britain and how best we can do it. Therefore I'm looking with great interest in the Quadrennial Defense Review that Secretary Cohen has just published to see what license we can take from it, and what similarities and differences might well be with it.

I think we're both agreed that as politicians here, doing defense reviews is not an easy matter. It involves taking tough decisions. But leadership is about taking tough decisions and the right decisions, as well.

I would just add to the points that were made by Secretary Cohen on Sierra Leone, that we are very grateful that the American battle fleet off coast did take British citizens out of Sierra Leone. Our very small mission in Sierra Leone with our High Commissioner there who clearly could not and should not have anticipated anything like this happen, has done much to marshal and to organize a variety of foreign nationals in that place. A British-organized 747 jet took a large number of people out before the fighting became intense. So a collaborative action has removed a lot of foreign nationals from the battleground there, and we're very grateful to the Americans in the last few days for taking out so many of the British nationals who at that point wanted to leave the country.

Q: Mr. Secretary, might I ask if you or this Administration, the State Department and the White House, have in any way softened your hardline vows repeatedly to have U.S. and NATO troops out of Bosnia by the end of next June? And would you, perhaps, like to see that stand softened a bit, to leave open the possibility of leaving the troops there?

Secretary Cohen: I believe the President made it clear during his trip to Europe that he fully expects that the mission for SFOR will end at the end of June of '98, but that we ought to be focusing all of our energies upon doing whatever we can to make the other half of Dayton successful. That means formulating an international police task force; that means helping with the resettlement of the refugees through the use of that task force; it means infusing the region with new capital to help build the infrastructure; it means bringing to justice war criminals, as well. All of those elements in the Dayton Accord should be pursued with as much vigor as possible, but that's the emphasis that we intend to put on Dayton in the remaining time that we have.

I think the President was absolutely correct to say let's put the focus on those activities which need to be done, and that's what we intend to do. So we are in the process of trying to re-energize the Dayton Accords -- that half which has yet to be fulfilled.

As I've stated time and time again, the military mission has been successful, and continues to be successful to this day. What needs to be done is the civilian part of that equation, and that needs to be completed as expeditiously as possible.

Q: Would you like to follow up on that, sir?

Minister Robertson: I strongly associate myself with Secretary Cohen's comments about the success of the military operation. Following what was a huge diplomatic achievement in the Dayton Accords, the military engagement there involving NATO and the troops of a large number of other countries, including Russia, has been hugely successful in producing a period of stability and an end to the fighting which surely the political leadership in that part of the world would want to exploit.

I was in Bosnia two weeks ago, and I made the point there very publicly that they should not take us for granted. We went into Bosnia together. We're staying in together, and we will leave together. That is a message they must not misunderstand. But there is a civilian side to Dayton which should be delivered as well. Not enough is being done, and it is up to the Bosnian leadership collectively to do much more about it. There is a level of criminality in that country which has to be addressed, and perhaps some international police effort, an increased police effort may be required in that direction.

The return of refugees is being frustrated, and that must be addressed, as well, and perhaps at the donors conference where the Bosnian Serbs have, for the first time, said that they will attempt the process of making sure that more refugees go back and more displaced people go back to the territory from which they were removed before.

There were, however, other signs of progress taking place. The inter-ethnic borders don't seem to be the same sort of battle in walls that they were at the beginning of SFOR's engagement. We hope there will be progress in our civil aviation authority that might allow airports like Banja Luka to open up again. It may well be that progress can be made on a single currency for Bosnia itself. And we must be much more energetic in the international community of putting pressure on for the civilian aspects to take place. That is what matters at the moment. The world community is looking for much more progress from the Bosnian political leadership than they're seeing at the moment.

Q: Can I follow up on your remarks on SFOR. Do either of you gentlemen rule out the possibility of an external fast response force, perhaps stationed outside of Bosnia proper, but targeted on Bosnia with the idea that if things started to fall apart that you'd have a military force on call, as opposed to one on the ground in Bosnia? Is that not a possibility in your minds?

Secretary Cohen: I don't think that we should indulge in speculation beyond June of '98. I think what we have to do is, again, keep the focus on what needs to be done now rather than trying to hypothesize what could occur or might possibly occur. I think that would be undercutting our ability to carry out the mission that we currently have.

From my perspective, the SFOR mission is supposed to end, will end at the end of June of '98, and we ought to do what we can to simply keep our focus on what needs to be done between now and then. I think it only undercuts our ability to carry out that mission now, to speculate what could take place by any number of nations in the future.

Minister Robertson: I think it's wrong to focus on June '98 when there is so much to be done at the present moment, building on the progress that's already been made, and on what we might all do to contribute to it, both in a positive and in a negative way.

Q: Does that mean you don't rule out a future force elsewhere?

Minister Robertson: Well, we're not concentrating on the end of the SFOR mandate, and I think Secretary Cohen is absolutely right. What we want to do is to act on the basis of the mandate that already exists, the progress that is already being made, and make an assessment as month follows month on what progress is being made.

Q: ...June of '98, does that mean you'd be willing to extend beyond June of '98 for the British commitment?

Minister Robertson: I'm saying that what we need to do is not focus on exit strategies for '98, but concentrate not only our mind, but more importantly the mind of the Bosnian leadership on what needs to be done now. I think the world community should be looking at what needs to be done in the interim period, rather than looking at the end of that period. I made it clear, we always said that we were in together, we stay together, we get out together, and that is a message that those in Bosnia need to get on board as well.

Q: General Longhouser's resignation, does that hit another broadside to the Army? We've had a slew of misconduct cases, not just in the Army, but other divisions of the military. Would you consider it a blow? What do you make of him resigning, sir, at the last moment?

Secretary Cohen: He wasn't resigning at the last moment. This is something that has been under some consideration. He occupied a position that put him basically in charge of deciding when court martial cases should be brought, and it would be, in his own judgment -- that's why he decided to retire -- put him in a compromising position were he to continue to serve in that capacity. So it's something that didn't just happen. It's been under some consideration.

We have very high standards that we insist upon for the military, and when those standards are breached, then there are consequences that flow from it. So it's not a broadside, it's another example of someone who failed to measure up to those standards. He has an extraordinary career, and he should be very proud of that career. I think it's unfortunate that he has decided, for the good of the Army, to step down, but we insist upon maintaining the standards. If we start to tolerate a breach of standards or we start to lower the standards, then that will have a vast and pervasive impact on the military nationwide.

Q: I didn't mean at the last moment in the last moment, but he could have resigned before... He stepped in when the Aberdeen thing was swelling. Why didn't he resign then? Instead of waiting until, some are implying, he was found out? I just wanted to clarify that.

Secretary Cohen: I don't have an answer as to why it didn't take place sooner.

Q: Can you give us a reality check on what's happening? Every day something is surfacing. Not just with the Army, the Air Force. What's happening? Is there a witch hunt out there?

Secretary Cohen: There is no witch hunt out there. There obviously have been some infractions of the rules, and when the rules are broken, the people who break the rules have to be held accountable. What's happening out there? Reality check? The USS Kearsarge just rescued quite a few people. That is happening day in and day out throughout our military. We have the finest military in the world, and they are being called upon to serve this country and the interests of our allies day in and day out, and they perform admirably. Are there people who fail to measure up to the standard set by our military? The answer is yes. But they are in the vast minority, and the overwhelming majority of the people who are serving our military are carrying out their responsibilities and measuring up to the high standards.

Q: What do you propose to do about the war criminals who are still at large in Bosnia between now and June of 1998? There has been talk about an international special police force to go in and get them. Has that gone anywhere at all?

Secretary Cohen: It's still under discussion as we speak. It's a matter that's being taken up by the Administration and by other governments in terms of what can be done in the way of having an international police force to conduct the kind of arrests that will be necessary. Those plans or planning that would be preliminary in nature, really is being undertaken on a regular basis. There is, obviously, a need for greater intelligence, greater examination of exactly what is involved, feasibility and success of achieving the goal, but I think there is a commitment on the part of the governments who are currently engaged in Bosnia to see that justice is done.

Q: This also involves the British voters. A year ago the Pentagon confirmed the exposure of American troops to nerve gas during the Gulf War. There's still one study that's been hanging fire for a year that shows the fumes from Khamisiyah drifted all the way down to the Saudi border where British troops were, as well. Where is this report? Why don't we have this computer model of the detonation by American troops of Khamisiyah a year after you disclosed it?

Secretary Cohen: I am not familiar with that particular report. If it is ready and prepared to be released, I certainly could support it. As you know, I've asked Senator Rudman to serve as an overseer of the gathering of information dealing with Gulf War Illness, but that's only a tangential response to your question.

I have not seen the specific report that you have...

Q: Are you not familiar with it?

Secretary Cohen: I have not read it, so therefore, I don't think I can comment...

Q: It's been a year.

Secretary Cohen: Well I haven't been here a year. And I've had more than a few reports in addition to that one to be dealing with, but it's one that obviously is serious, and I will read it and see to it that I can comment...

Minister Robertson: We did discuss the whole question of Gulf War Illnesses today, because the new British government has taken a step to listen to the veterans involved in it, and we've also said that we would step up the research into what is being said. I hope that we can do that in conjunction with the American authorities, as well.

We want the most open treatment of this issue. It affects all of the troops who were out there and I think we have an obligation to listen carefully to what is being said and see what we can discover on what is being said about it.

Q: Mr. Minister, on the Joint Strike Fighter program which involves your Ministry and this building, the primary contractor from Britain, British Aerospace, has not yet decided whether to join the Boeing team or the Lockheed team in the Pentagon's competition. Has your government urged them to join both teams? Has your government urged them to join one of them soon? Are you wanting them to wait until your strategic review is over? Where is that program in your government's perspective?

Minister Robertson: I know that saying we've only been in power four weeks sort of runs out of credibility after... (Laughter) Maybe five weeks, it was suggested this morning. But there are a number of big procurement projects in the pipeline. We have an intent to examine all of them. A number of them will have to be looked at in association with the Strategic Defense Review. That is, obviously, one of the big projects that will be on our desk and we'll certainly be looking at it, but we haven't formed any conclusion as it stands at the moment.

Q: So you've not been urging British Aerospace one way or the other?

Minister Robertson: We haven't got to that point yet. We've done quite a bit in four weeks, and I'm quit proud of what we've done in four weeks, but we can't do everything, even if the press expects you to.

Q: With the elections in France, Britain has privatized its industry very aggressively, and it looks like France is not going to be doing that. Is there any concern on the part of MOD on how that would affect teaming relationships? For example, MATRA BAe Dynamics, what have you, GEC and...

Minister Robertson: Well, we'll see where the new French government is going. It hasn't even been formed yet, so I think we'll hold judgment until we see both who's in that government and what their posture is going to be on a whole series of issues. It is quite possible that this new administration will be looking afresh at some of the positions that have been taken in the past, but it's still fluid at the present moment. We seem to be having elections every day. I hope it's not just Defense Ministers who are the casualties, but there seems to be a very high coaxial damage to Defense Ministers as these elections go on. But I think our mandate is probably strong enough to survive, and I think Secretary Cohen's...

Secretary Cohen: As I pointed out to the Secretary of State for Defense, the last Minister of Defense that I hosted returned to Moscow and was immediately fired. (Laughter) Hopefully, you will not be met with that result.

Minister Robertson: My two predecessors who actually held my seat lost their seats in the general election, but my majority's healthy, and so is the government's.

Q: About Eurofighter. Britain is committed to it, Germany's trying to work out a funding package. What's your view?

Minister Robertson: I'm going to Germany tomorrow afternoon to meet Defense Minister Ruehe to discuss precisely that. We're committed to it. We want it to start as quickly as it possibly can, and that's the message I'll be taking to Berlin.

Q: Do you think he'll give you a commitment tomorrow?

Minister Robertson: I hope that he will. I recognize that the Germany government has got a financial straight jacket just as the British government does, but there is a joint commitment to it, and I hope that we'll be able to move forward on it. It's an important project.

Q: Mr. Secretary, much closer to home, on our California border it's reported that our border patrol agents are under fire from narco assassins across the border. Are any of our troops there, or anyplace else on our border at risk presently? And then, I would ask you, Mr. Robertson, what about British cooperation against the narco traffickers, the cartels, that are sending so much cocaine to your part of the world?

Secretary Cohen: I'm not aware of the most recent reports. You're talking about today?

Q: Not only firing on our border patrol agents, but contracts being put out on those agents to be assassinated at home.

Secretary Cohen: I'm not aware of that information.

Q: Are any of our troops under fire anywhere on the border?

Secretary Cohen: Well, if I'm not aware of the situation, I can't give you an answer as to whether or not they were under fire.

Q: What about U.S./British cooperation with regard to drug terrorism, narco terrorism, in this hemisphere and in yours?

Minister Robertson: Nobody underestimates the danger that is posed by international criminality, especially in drug trafficking. There are some estimates being made recently that drug trafficking is now the second biggest industry in the world after oil and petroleum, so we have to take that seriously. As part of our Strategic Defense Review, we have to include some of the new threats and not just some of the old and traditional threats that have always been for military posture.

Press: Thank you.