Cohen Breakfast Meeting with Reporters in Washington, D.C.
Thursday, January 11, 2001
(Questions and answers at a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C., hosted by Godfrey Sperling of the Christian Science Monitor.)
Q: It's great to have you with us, Mr. Secretary. You've been with us so many times over the years. I didn't look it up, but I know you've been with us in one way or another, one job or another at least a dozen times, maybe more. They've always been great sessions.
As you know, we're on the record, and that's about the only rule we've got.
I understand you briefed the President-elect yesterday together with Rumsfeld and Cheney and maybe others. I was wondering, would you have known Bush before this...
Cohen: In fact I did. Let me say, to correct the record to Mark, I said this is the worst day of my life today. It's the busiest day! (Laughter) Looking at the schedule, it starts with the Sperling breakfast and goes on in a way that gives me about ten minutes between each meeting that I'm going to various places, so let me just correct the record, Mark. It's not the worst day, but the busiest day of my final two weeks.
Q: It's going to be easy here. It's a very relaxed session, you know. You can just take it easy and kind of rest for your next appointment.
Cohen: I've had that experience before.
Q: Talk about the briefing a little bit if you would, please.
Cohen: Yesterday we had about a two-hour and I'd say almost ten minute briefing.
Q: Excuse me, you'd known Rumsfeld going way back, and Cheney too. Back to the Nixon years, huh?
Cohen: I've known Rumsfeld in the past, I've worked with him on a number of commissions that he was involved with. He also has attended the so-called, the AEI Forum which is hosted by Gerald Ford that takes place once a year out in Colorado, and I've associated with him out there. I've spoken at the Empower America Group, and he has headed up a commission looking at the need for a national, the missile threat, and also out at the CIA. So I've known him for a long time. I have not been on real intimate terms in terms of socializing with him, but I've known him and I have a good deal of respect.
Cheney, of course, I worked with when I was in the Senate. He and I served on the Iran-Contra committee together. I have known him, I went to Texas, I think it was last year, to Dallas, and did a dinner in his honor. He and I are on pretty friendly terms.
Q: How about Bush? Has he been in for briefings before or...
Cohen: No, no. I met President-elect Bush once back in the '80s in the Tarratine Club in Bangor. He was out campaigning for his father, and I had a little fundraising or organizational meeting, and that was the first time I'd met with him, and I couldn't help but note the similarity in speech and of gestures between he and his dad.
Q: Did you see another future president when you met him?
Cohen: Well, I wasn't looking for that. He was eagerly involved, earnestly involved in his father's campaign.
The only other time that I've met him, my wife and I were invited this past year to go down to the Kentucky Derby for the first time, and his father was there and he was there, and I met him just casually. And those are the only two times I've had occasion to meet with him.
Q: I broke in on you on your, you were talking about the briefing.
Cohen: The briefing, again, a little over two hours. We started off up in my office giving an overview of our strategic systems and the nature of the threats, the global type of threats, and we moved down into the Tank, so-called, and there the chairman delegated to a couple of briefers looking across the map, pointing out some of the hot spots and places that we were focused on and need to continue to focus on. But I found him to be very quick to ask the right kind of questions.
If someone used an acronym which we may take for granted, he'd say well, what is that? The briefer would point it out quickly. And it was the right question to ask because there's such a tendency when you're in the Pentagon to start unloading a slew of acronyms which only a very few people know.
But he asked very pointed questions and what I would say very practical questions. As they were briefing him, he would immediately say well what about this, or what happens if. I found it to be very insightful on his part.
Q: Did he reveal his plans at all?
Cohen: No. It was really a chance for him to be in the receiving mode, of having the top people brief him. He was listening very intensely, and he asked good questions. I thought he had a pretty good grasp of what is required. I was frankly, very impressed with him.
Q: We've heard, or we understand that he has plans for some kind of a missile defense, and I know you've thought about that. Do you think that's a very practical idea? Even though you don't know the particulars.
Cohen: I don't know exactly what his program will entail. He's talked about having a more robust missile defense system. And he's talked also about going down to lower numbers. That's going to be a real challenge, at least in my judgment. If I'm the Russians or others and I see the United States wants to build a robust defense system beyond what we have contemplated, namely a limited type of system, then the easiest way to counter that is to overwhelm it with offensive systems. So there's -- You have to reconcile how do you persuade another country to lower their numbers if in fact you're going to be raising your defensive systems?
Most military planners would say it's much less expensive and easier to overwhelm a defense than to build a corresponding defensive system. As you're looking at a country such as Russia, do they have the resources available to build an expansive ballistic missile defense system as opposed to maintain what they've got now, even though that's a real hardship for them. There's no question that they are struggling to maintain the level of nuclear weapons that they have, and they want to come down much lower. If they're having trouble maintaining the offensive weapons, it seems to me it's going to be very difficult for them to consider building a very sophisticated defensive system.
So if I am a Russian military planner, I would say if the United States is going to go to this kind of a system, then I'll simply try to overwhelm it. That's just my judgment. There are others who would disagree with that.
So it's unclear at this point.
I think that President-elect Bush is going to have to do a number of things. He'll have to see what programs are currently under research and development that would give us a more expansive either sea-based or space-based system. He'll have to decide whether or not he's going to be able to "negotiate" with the Russians to allow the United States to go forward with such a system. At the same time, going to have to persuade our allies that it's in our national security interests and theirs for us to pursue this. That's what we have tried to do. We have been unsuccessful in doing that, but that's going to remain a challenge.
And of course his option at the end of all of that would be to say we can't negotiate with the Russians, we're not going to give them a veto, nor should we. So we're going to go forward and we'll just simply give the six notice and we'll be out of the treaty.
That has some fairly profound political consequences in dealing with our allies, and it also has some practical ones. Namely, we still have to have the support of key allies in order to have a forward deployed X-band radar system that would in fact be key to having any kind of a national missile defense system. You have to have forward deployed, sophisticated radars to be able to detect something when it's launched, to be able to focus in on it, to be able to start queuing up and not being able to target that system before it comes in.
So all of these issues he will have to deal with. He's got a very strong national security team, and I think that will be one of the first things that he will focus on.
Q: I invited you here, Mr. Secretary, at the end of your years as defense secretary, and I asked you to give us a summation of your record. The least I can do now is give you that opportunity. The good things you feel you've done and perhaps anything you want to tell me are problems.
Cohen: Okay. How much time do we have to talk about the... (Laughter)
Q: That's a real good softball question, but I promise you that...
Cohen: Let me take a few moments because this is likely to be my last time here. As you know, I did not anticipate having this position. I was on my way out the door, having completed 24 years on the Hill, and had no idea that I'd be asked to serve in this capacity. When President Clinton asked me to do it, I was surprised and it required me to have a mind shift. I was already out the door, thinking about private life and how would I get organized and what would I do, and then suddenly to be invited to stay in public office but in this position.
But I said yes, and didn't reflect too much upon it. This is, I still maintain, the best position and the most demanding position in all of government, and the most rewarding.
I stepped into the Pentagon and immediately was confronted with the QDR, the Quadrennial Defense Review -- another one of those little acronyms that we throw around, but the QDR. It was about 60 percent complete at that point, if not further along the line.
Then the question came up well, you're new in the job now, we can delay filing the report to Congress. The one thing Congress doesn't like is delays. The first thing I don't want to be doing is notifying Congress that I can't meet their deadline. So I said we will meet the deadline and I will simply get more heavily involved in this. But recognizing that much of the work had already been done.
For example, the tactical aviation issue which President-elect Bush is going to review, as he should. At that particular point, the F-18E/F models were coming off the production line. As I recall, there were over 1,000 aircraft that were contemplated being purchased at that point. I looked at the F-22, which was the replacement for the F-15 and the F-117, a fighter bomber, becomes stealthy; and then the Joint Strike Fighter.
What I decided under the circumstances is that we have aging aircraft. That the F-18E/F model was a significant improvement over the existing models. It was not stealthy, it would not have the kind of avionics that either the F-22 or Joint Strike Fighter would have, but I felt since it was coming off the production line that it had certainly a good military use, but that I would use it to give some leverage to the next secretary of defense who would have to decide on the Joint Strike Fighter.
In other words, if we had no F-18E/F model and you just had the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, you'd have very little leverage in terms of the cost growth of that program. I recommended a cut, almost in half, of the F-18E/F model. Keep it in the production line, but use it as leverage against the Joint Strike Fighter. Then if the JSF came in under the projected costs we would have some leverage there.
So that was part of the strategy involved.
Also on the QDR, you may have heard me say this so many times that you know it better than I do, but on the shape, respond, prepare, it's interesting how this position of secretary of defense -- when you're in the Senate, if I make a speech on the Senate Floor Mark certainly would not cover it, but maybe my constituent back home might listen to it, but virtually no one else. When you're the secretary of defense, however, if you say something it is news; and if you fail to say something it can also be news.
But I was on a plane heading for Japan and I had the reporters who travel with me on the overseas flights. We were talking about the QDR. They said, "Mr. Secretary, you said everything is on the table for review in the QDR." I said, "That's true, but the 100,000 troops that we have currently committed to Asia Pacific, that's not on the table." And I thought it was important to send a signal to the Japanese people and the government that we were committed to maintaining the security in the Asia Pacific region.
I got off the plane, headline, "Cohen dashes hopes of Okinawans". (Laughter)
So I had to then go through to say I'm not dashing the hopes of the Okinawans, I'm trying to tell you we're here for the long, we're committed. We have a stable presence that we're going to maintain for the security of the region.
But I learned very quickly that how I say something and what I say can have some pretty profound implications because not only here in the United States but other countries internationally can pick up on the nuances.
Q: Newt Gingrich learned that on a plane, and also a guy named Butts told a joke on a plane. You've got to watch when you get on a plane.
Cohen: You've got to watch when you get on a plane. But you have to watch what you say and again, even what you fail to say. That was an eye opener for me because I thought it was a very strong statement that the Japanese government certainly would appreciate, and they did except in Okinawa they did not.
Anyway, the shape aspect of our strategy has I think been very beneficial. We have had a very stabilizing presence throughout the Asia Pacific region. We have had a very stabilizing presence throughout the European theater. We've had a stabilizing presence in the Gulf. Wherever we have been deployed, we have been able to shape the environment advantageously to us.
The respond part is also important, and I just touched upon this briefly yesterday during my speech to the National Press Club.
There is a notion some hold that the United States should simply be warriors, classic warriors, and not engage in any peacekeeping missions whatsoever. That that is the business of others. I don't think that can work. I think frankly, and the converse of that, it's even been suggested that perhaps we should train certain elements in our own military simply to be peacekeepers and have others be the warriors. That's not going to work, either.
What we have to have is the full spectrum of capability, which is what we have today. You've seen it, those of you who cover it. We can go all the way from being humanitarians who are conducting rescue missions and wildfires in the West, or dealing with the ravages of floods down in Central America, the hurricane damage, to holding babies in Bosnia and giving them comfort, being peacekeepers, peacemakers, being warriors, and being diplomats. We have to do everything. That's why we are admired, frankly, or envied as the best force in the world, because we do all of those things.
I think we have to still maintain that posture. And yes, our primary mission must also always be warfighting. But we also have to do these other things. I believe it will have an impact on our relationship with our allies if we say we do the heavy lifting, when it's time for warfare we'll do that. In the mean time, you're the only ones who can be peacekeepers.
I don't believe the new administration will take that position, nor has taken that position. I think they correctly say we've got to be much more discreet or discriminating in terms of how we deploy our troops and they're absolutely correct in that. Our troops are stretched very thing.
It was one of the reasons why, for example, when the Australians came to me and to this administration on East Timor they asked us to take a principal role in helping to be peacekeepers in East Timor and I said to my counterpart at that time that we're in Bosnia, we're in Kosovo, we're in Korea, we're in the Gulf. We can't undertake this mission. You've got to undertake it and you've got to be able to persuade the ASEAN countries to participate. We will provide lift, we will provide intelligence, we will provide support, but we cannot take a leading role here.
I think that's what President-elect Bush has looked at and said we've got to do more of that when most countries will turn to us as the country of first choice because of our strategic lift, because of our capability and the size of our military. But we are stretched very, very thin and I think that President-elect Bush is really focusing on that.
I don't believe he's saying that we're not going to be doing peacekeeping anywhere, any time, any more.
Q: But he has been saying that it's weakening, that our defense has weakened over the last few years and you have to repair that.
Cohen: I think what it does, I think -- a military commander will tell you that as far as large unit training, it does depreciate, you have to go back and train up again for the warfighting mission as opposed to peacekeeping. So it does degrade the capabilities as far as large unit training. That's why we have a program as soon as they come out of Bosnia, they go back up to large scale training again. So that aspect is correct. But I will tell you that the people, almost all of the units who ever deploy to Bosnia come back saying we've made a real difference here. This is important. You'll find, in fact I think the highest reenlistment rates are in Bosnia. And every time that I've gone to Bosnia or Kosovo you find a sense of we are doing something that's valuable, this is important. And they also come into contact with all of the other NATO allies and the partners. It's important for American soldiers to be standing side by side with Russians. That's an important symbol.
I'll never forget the first time I went to Bosnia I had a Russian soldier come up and embrace me and give me his beret. He was so happy to be there, to be part of that peacekeeping mission.
So there are benefits to it. Yes, it does put stresses, and we have a smaller force. So I think President-elect Bush is correct to say we've got to be more discriminating where we deploy our people on peacekeeping missions. But I think as a practical matter we still have to have some peacekeepers if we're going to maintain the relationship with our allies because they're not going to be in a position to be saying we don't do that work.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you inherited and you are bequeathing a military advantage, a national military advantage, over other nations and it has never been equaled in history. And history also teaches that that kind of technological supremacy and military supremacy cannot hold forever.
As you leave office, I wonder if you could give us your best assessment as to how long the United States has with this kind of air superiority and technological supremacy.
Cohen: I don't have that kind of a crystal ball to say how long. I do know that we have no peer competitor for the foreseeable future. It's clear that other countries are seeking to acquire levels of sophistication that will pose threats to the United States. I outlined some of those yesterday. I don't know that any country is going to be in a position to match us in terms of raw power, and that's the reason why I look forward to, we have to look forward to asymmetric threats.
Countries or groups will look for the Achilles heel in our society. That will come through cyber attacks, it will come through the use of biological agents or chemical weapons, things that are relatively low in cost but high in damage.
The most damaging, of course, can be the cyber attack. To the extent that you can shut down someone's air traffic control system, or threaten to do so, and for a country to know that that is, that they have a vulnerable system. That can cause catastrophic damage, and certainly invoke terror.
To the extent that they could shut down your energy distribution system -- think about what's going on just in the cost of energy today in this country, and the shortages that people have. Now imagine that they can't get it period, and that supplies have been interrupted. And you have no way of knowing which trucks are going where because the communication system has been interrupted.
I can multiply the potentialities of cyber terrorism. What I said yesterday was that we are absolutely sure that there are a number of nations who are now dedicating their professional military and scientific teams to target the United States to be able to shut down various systems. What if you could shut down Wall Street for a couple of days? Crash the financial... I won't get into that. Just crash the financial systems, or you start siphoning off. Suddenly someone looks at their account and it's zero and they made no transactions that day.
These are the kinds of things that I think we're likely to face in the future.
Do I see any country really challenging the ability of the United States in terms of its warfighting capabilities in the near future? The answer is no. But you will see China, for example, will continue to modernize its military by acquiring systems from the Russians. The Russians will continue to build certain types of systems which they think are important for their own security. But no country in the immediate future is going to be in a position to challenge us one to one in a conventional type of battle.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you've got a week left, a little more. I'm curious, at this stage of an administration what kinds of directions or guidelines or suggestions or exhortations did you get from the President about how, what he expected to have happen in the last 100 days or so of his administration? And what do you think are the most important things you've done in your department since the election in terms of substantive decisions.
Cohen: Well, I've had a lot of things to contend with. The USS Cole, for one, and getting the commission started, getting Admiral Gehman and General Crouch into the office, giving guidelines in terms of conducting the investigation, in terms of what needs to be done for the future to eliminate that seam, the vulnerability they found in terms of in transit ships.
Also there's something in the press today which I'm not going to comment on until 5:00 o'clock this afternoon, the No Gun Ri investigation dealing with the South Koreans. That has been a major focus for me. I've had a terrific team that I put together to conduct that inquiry, and I wanted to get it completed before I left office.
I wanted the SOFA agreement, the Stationing of Forces Agreement with South Korea to be completed before I left office, and it has been.
I wanted to slow down the QDR. The next QDR is under way and I didn't want my successor to find himself in the position that I found myself in, that it was virtually done. The minute you stepped in the office, here you are, Mr. Secretary, and you had very little flexibility to deal with it at that point. I wanted to slow it down, and frankly, it was starting to roll pretty fast by September or October, and I just said we've got to leave these decisions and slow the process as much as possible.
The budget. Looking at the budget we were able to make a request in the administration and receive its endorsement. This is one of the things, you asked me what are my successes. When I took over as secretary of defense I was told at that time that the president and the Congress had agreed that $250 billion was the top line and it was not going to increase for the foreseeable future, and I had to reconcile all of our resources, strategies and plans with that in mind.
Eighteen months later I was able to go to the President and say we can't do this. We need at least, at least $112 billion increase over what they call the FYDP, the future years defense planning. He said you've got it. Now that was only 18 months later.
Today, yesterday I announced that it's actually not $112 billion, it's $227 billion. So if you look where I started off just four years ago when we had only $43 billion allocated for procurement, and that was a dramatic reduction from where we were at Cold War levels. We were down to $43. The goal had been $60. We hit the $60, as I said we would, and we're on the road to $70, and we'll have to go higher.
We had the biggest pay raise in a generation. We changed the retirement benefits from 40 to 50 percent. I looked at the housing situation and found a great inequity, that by legislation those who live off base are required to pay 15 percent out of their pocket. It actually was going up to 19 and 20 percent. So you had a real impact, an inequity saying if we don't have housing for you on the base go find it off the base, and by the way, pay at least 15 percent out of your pocket. I put $3 billion in the budget, allocated saying we need a change in the law, but here's $3 billion to make sure that anyone who lives off base does not have any out of pocket expenses. So that was addressing the housing issue.
So there have been a number of things, as well as helping to manage this transition from the 20th Century military to the 21st Century and that is getting involved in new technology.
So I think we have handed the new administration a foundation which they will have to build on. It will cost more money. They will have to find additional top line increases, and it can come from base closures, which I was not successful in persuading my former colleagues to embrace. There will have to be at least one, and I believe two more rounds of base closings unless they combine it all into one, in order to save an additional $20 billion and a $3.5 billion savings on an annual basis beyond that.
Q: Is there anything the President said to you in the last month or two months about what he would want...
Cohen: Well, he was certain...
Cohen: No. Basically, he said continue to do your job but pretty much I had free rein. He asked me to do what I thought was right.
We had those negotiations underway with the North Koreans in terms of whether or not we could, whether or not there would be a summit meeting between the United States and the North Koreans, whether or not there was going to be any kind of a missile deal as such, and there simply wasn't time to really work that out.
Q: No general instructions to the Cabinet about...
Cohen: No. No general instructions other than to finish up what I was doing.
As you know, I had the national missile defense decision, recommendation to him, and he had to make a decision back in I think it was early September or late August in terms of handing that over to his successor. But basically he was satisfied with the way I was handling it and didn't give me any additional directions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, up through 1998 the intelligence community assessed a missile threat based on what was most likely to happen. It involved the 48 contiguous states. Rumsfeld and the CIA since '98 have broadened it to the 50 and said what could happen, not what is most likely to happen.
From your perspective as secretary of defense, intelligence committee, armed services committee, what's the proper yardstick to be used in making this decision?
Cohen: In terms of capability, the capability is clearly either there today or will be there tomorrow. We have watched the testing programs, we have seen the range of the missiles, the sophistication of the missiles. So there's no doubt that a number of countries are in fact acquiring a capability, a longer range capability. The Iranians aren't there yet, but they have successfully tested the Shahab-3. Again, there will be modifications, it will extend the range.
The question then becomes what is the likelihood that Iran, Iraq, North Korea or any other country would ever launch an attack upon the United States. That really isn't the way that I have assessed that, in terms of why would they do that if they know we're going to respond? What's wrong with our deterrent?
Our deterrent will always be there. That's our first line of defense saying don't ever think of attacking us because you'll be destroyed in the process. That's not how this really plays out if you're looking at a strategic wargaming scenario.
For example, let's suppose, just hypothetically, that Saddam were to invade Kuwait once again and start rolling towards Saudi Arabia. We at that point say we've got to marshal our forces, we've got to put 500,000 troops again over in Kuwait, in Saudi Arabia, and pull him out of Kuwait and push him back.
So we are able, assuming we have six months to do that, again, as we had this last time.
He's on the way back to Baghdad and finally this son of President Bush or his successor -- whenever this may take place -- says this time we're going all the way to Baghdad. Saddam says don't even think about it. If you think you're coming this means the end of my regime, and I pride above all else my regime and I will take as many of your cities down as I can.
At that point if he has a dozen or two dozen nuclear tipped ICBMs, what is the, what choices do we give that President at that time? Is Saddam serious? Do we have any defense against it? Answer, no. Do we let him go back and continue to conduct his mission? So it's one in which someone who has that capability might restrict your options in carrying out your conventional responsibilities.
Suppose Iran has it and there's a conflict in the region and we decide we're going to put some troops in and Iran at least threaten the use of that saying yes, you might retaliate, but if you're going to do that we're going to act first.
So it at least causes the commander in chief to say can I take this risk? Can I lose New York or Washington or Los Angeles, etc. by people that I'm not too sure wouldn't do it?
So that is the hedge against it. Primarily you always depend upon your strategic systems as your first line of defense. That's deterrence. But if you had that little extra measure of protection, you preclude someone from saying they can try to intimidate you from carrying out your conventional responsibilities.
The same you could say with North Korea, going south, if they have that capability. And they say, don't think about sending more than the 37,000 that you have already there because if you do, we'll either launch them against Japan or we'll launch them against the United States, and are you prepared to defend against that?
So that's really where it is, where you have a conventional matter, conflict underway, and it's down toward a situation where you want to take action and it's a regime-threatening action, and they say if my regime goes down, you go down.
Q: And you see that despite the fact that if you do have a missile shield that works, they put in a bomb in unafraid.
Cohen: True. Absolutely. There are other types of threats. Those other threats may exist today. I mentioned the threat of biological weapons being released in suitcases or vials, but the argument that since you can't defend against everything you shouldn't defend against this I think is not valid.
I've always believed that we should have a limited capability against a limited type of an attack, a missile that's launched accidentally. What happens if they say whoops. Or Osama bin Laden somehow gets access to one of their SS-18s and we don't know where he is and where would you respond to and he launches it. This is not the Russian government. What do we do at that point? You call everybody and say you've got 29 minutes so kiss your family goodbye because it's over.
So under those circumstances I believe a limited type of capability makes sense.
But I've always had difficulties in terms of saying unless you have an agreement within an arms control framework, that the other sides are not going to cut their offensive weapons if you're building defensively. They'll simply try to overwhelm it.
If you get an agreement... I think you can make a case to the Russians saying look, you're going to be threatened at some point, and why don't we work together to find some kind of a system that can provide protection to you, to NATO, and to all the others.
Now Putin was very clever. When President Clinton first went over to meet with Putin, Putin did two things. He didn't do it publicly, but he did it with Tom Brokaw on a television interview. He said we have a better idea. Why don't we -- NATO and Russia -- develop a theater missile defense system to protect NATO and protect Russia. Well, that sounds great. That doesn't do anything for the United States, number one.
Number two, he implied that they have a better system, a boost-phase intercept system. So we said okay, we're interested in finding out more about that. Let's talk. We sent a team over to Moscow and said tell us about boost phase technology and what you have. They sat like sphinxes. They had no such system.
Then if you look at it, of course, we have examined boost phase intercept technology. What you find is you've got to have very forward based interceptor missiles, you have to have a very sophisticated detection system, you have to be able to determine whether or not a blast is from an oil fire, whether it's a space launch, whether it's something other than a rocket being aimed at the United States, and you have to do so in between 180 and 300 seconds. And then you have to have a very fast interceptor to get it before it gets out.
Then there are countermeasures that can be in place by the adversaries. So there are problems associated with it. But we said we're willing to work with you. There's nothing behind that.
So it became clear to me this is pure tactical moves on the part of Putin to discourage our allies who were then seeing some of the arguments, the legitimacy of the arguments we were making at the NATO meetings that I was briefing all the NATO allies at. So it was a tactical move.
Q: I'm listening here trying to put this into my mind, which is probably trying to over-simplify it. But I think I'm going beyond that.
But would it be wrong to say that you're leaving your job now with a worry about our vulnerability?
Cohen: I think everyone should always worry about our vulnerabilities. That's the business of being secretary of defense, of being on the national security team, you try to anticipate what are the likely threats you're going to encounter.
Q: Let's turn it around. How worried should we be about our vulnerabilities as you leave office?
Cohen: Well I don't want you to go into hiding. (Laughter)
Q: No, I'm very serious.
Cohen: Here's the challenge for all of us. This is not just me.
How do we educate the American people without alarming them? If you get two bombastic and too apocalyptic you'll either scare people or you'll make them indifferent because they won't believe it. This is the one reason why we've had this program, going out and helping cities to organize and prepare for a weapons of mass destruction type of incident.
What happens, I pointed this out yesterday during my speech at the National Press Club, what happens if you have a religious cult group or a terrorist group who releases sarin gas in a Washington subway? Or releases anthrax or some other substance? What do you do? Who's prepared for this? How do you know what's been released? Is it a hoax? Is it flour? Is it somebody saying it's anthrax but it's a bag of flour? Or is it something highly contagious?
So we have to start preparing for that because that is the reality of what is coming. Does that mean we are paralyzed with fear? The answer is no. But you prepare for it. So we have been preparing, we haven't finished yet, the 120 cities have been identified, saying okay, who's in charge? Who are the first responders? Is there equipment and technology that will be available that will help you to identify what this substance is? Then if the following things occur, here's the kind of action you take.
It may be that there are... For example, and I'm not going to be, again, apocalyptic about this, but I would assume that if terrorist activities take place on American soil, which in my judgment will occur. In fact we've had the intercept of the man coming across from I think Vancouver, was it, into Seattle? We got lucky. He was nervous and the Customs official said this is a nervous guy, let's bring him over here and check him out. Had he not been nervous, he would have been in our country and possibly exploding some pre-positioned bombs during our celebration of our New Year. The same thing up in Vermont coming through from Canada.
So let's assume that there are people who are dedicated to setting off bombs in the United States. We have a trial going on today in New York for the bombing of the Trade Center. So this is not something that is totally inconceivable. It's happened.
So assuming it's going to happen more in the future, I would assume that you'll have multiple attacks nearly simultaneously. Does that sound too extreme? Consider the bombings in East Africa. They occurred almost simultaneously. So if you had nearly simultaneous terrorist actions here at home, who can, who's in the best position to respond to this?
This is going to start a debate which hasn't taken place yet, really, and that is what about a homeland defense CINC. A commander in chief for homeland defense. Now the minute you say that and the chiefs have examined this, by the way, the Americans for Civil Liberties is going to say wait a minute. The military is going to have a commander in chief for homeland defense? Our constitution is structured so that the military is not involved in domestic affairs.
But if you have a series of incidents that take place, and if you have mass casualties, which government department is in the best position to provide logistics, lift, medicines, vaccines, and coordinate it? It's going to be the military.
So what we have done down at Joint Forces Command, we have created a small group that's going to help the state governments should they ever be confronted with a situation like this, to be able to plug into this planning group, say here's how we can help. But this is something that's going to mature and materialize in the near future. So planning and preparation is the best way to say yeah, we don't have to be paralyzed with fear. We know or can reasonably anticipate this is going to happen, and here's how we contend with it. That's what we have to do.
Q: I want to talk about exactly what you've just been talking about. Two questions.
What in your judgment is the proper limit on the role of DoD homeland defense? Where do you run up against posse comitatus? When you look at that, given...
And specifically, what role do you see for DoD in things like principal infrastructure protection that you were talking about earlier?
Cohen: John Hamre did a tremendous job on the critical infrastructure questions, working with all of DoD's agencies, but also integrating that with the private sector.
We are all linked together. Most of our communications are tied in, except for the secure lines, tied in to our commercial system, so protecting that critical infrastructure becomes critically important.
We have devoted billions of dollars to that effort. But we also have to constantly stay in touch with our civilian and private counterparts as such, the civilian sector.
The first part of your question about...
Q: Where do you run up against posse comitatus?
Cohen: Well, you run up against it immediately. Immediately. So as it is, you start down, well who has jurisdiction here? The mayor? The state governor? The EPA? FEMA? The governor could call upon the National Guard. But if that's insufficient, what's the first call he's going to place saying, I've got several thousand people who are down here and I don't have the medicines, I need your help. He's going to call the president of the United States, saying declare this an emergency, or call out the reserves, others, we'll need you. We need the lift, we need the transport, we need all of this.
So we have to have at least some plan in place that would be consistent with our constitutional process whereby the president could then at the request of a governor say we need your help under these circumstances.
But I think we have to start talking about it and not immediately say this is a military takeover of a democratic system.
I've always been worried about this, in fact I used to write novels about this with Gary Hart, my first novel.
Q: Are you going to go back to that?
Cohen: I am. (Laughter)
But I raised it in the context, and I don't want to delay all of this, but I raised it in the context -- I came back from a conference on terrorism back in 1980. I was over in, not Berlin, I was in Bonn, and I went to a conference on terrorism and I spoke there, Henry Kissinger was there, Helmut Schmidt was there, and as I came out of the hotel I saw the hotel was surrounded by APCs, armored personnel carriers. And all the soldiers or policemen had automatic weapons. I looked at that and I said, I wonder, would any American city allow VIPs to be protected by virtual tanks in the street? And it had been just after a guy named Schleier, a banker, had been assassinated, stuffed in his trunk of a Mercedes car, so there was real tension over there, and there was some real protection underway. I said no, it will never happen in the United States.
Then I said well wait a minute. What happens if the terrorists come to the United States and the bombs start going off, the killing starts here? Would we as the American people, say protect our liberties or protect our lives? We've never had to have that debate at this point. And so when you have an Oklahoma City bombing that's taken place, and you have others who may not be domestic but international, what will be the reaction of the American people? Will they say the government's responsibility is to protect us, and we say absolutely, but how do we do that? Do we do it through the local police? The National Guard? The Guard and Reserve? Or do we call upon the military in extremists to provide protection and to help with what they call consequence management?
Q: Twenty years ago the temptation to intervene in Central and Latin America was ideological. The last few years it seems to have shifted to the threat of narco-terrorism. Do you get any pressure, were you ever asked to draw up plans to intervene militarily in Colombia? Is that a possibility in the future?
Cohen: I've never been asked. The chiefs have never been asked. That was distinction not to be our mission. There's a very broad line which was drawn on this. We provide counter-drug training but no counterinsurgency. We are not going to be drawn into any conflicts in Colombia or anywhere else in Central or South America.
Q: It's interesting what's going on down there.
Cohen: I went down to address... I flew to the Amazon birthday in October, right after the Cole bombing. I had to go down to address the defense ministerial that was held in Brazil. It's interesting, I tried to point out to all the South American countries who were there, and virtually all of them were there -- Cuba was not there. The way in which they're looking at it is Plan Colombia. There was less than enthusiastic response to Plan Colombia. And I think because -- I'm making assumptions here -- but because they feel that if there's an effort made to contain the drug trafficking down there, it will be pushed into their states, and they're quite content to have it remain in Colombia. So there's less enthusiasm for it.
But I pointed out, this is a cancer. If you allow this to continue to grow and grow, it will not be confined to Colombia. It will spread north, it will spread south, and so it's time for you to understand this is not simply one country's problem. It is potentially everybody's problem.
At the same time we find less than enthusiastic support coming from the Europeans. The military component, coming for the purchase of helicopters by the Colombians and for the trainers is very small compared to the overall package. Most of it's economic. And the Europeans have yet to put up very much money, frankly, to support the plan. Although Colombia, here you have a democracy that's struggling against narco-trafficking and terrorism, and people other than the United States are simply looking the other way.
Q: I wanted to take you over to Congress. You mentioned the need for another BRAC. (inaudible) with President-elect Bush on that (inaudible) respond to (inaudible)?
Cohen: -- pointed out, I told him about the $227 billion and that more would be required including BRAC rounds. It was just a statement, it wasn't -- it was just at the very end. I said you're going to have to get more, you will need to get more to pay for the improvements that will be required. But it was just a passing comment.
Q: Did he have a response?
Cohen: No, he was, again, he was in a listening mode yesterday. I spent two hours with Don Rumsfeld last week. In fact my first phone call to Don, I congratulated him and I said I'm sitting at my desk and I'm making a list of the top ten things that you will have to focus on. By the time I got through writing the top ten, it had gone down to 48. And I briefed him on all 48 of the items I had on my pad at that time. We took about two hours last week to go over them.
Q: What were the top ten?
Q: Twenty years ago you were part of a (inaudible)... What happened?
Cohen: Well, in fact we have a smaller military today. We have invested into new technologies. The new technologies, however, are not necessarily cheaper. You may recall also 20 years ago that I used to engage in a debate with Gary Hart, who still remains a friend of mine. Gary wanted to build much smaller aircraft carriers, and I went through the analysis of it and said if you have a smaller aircraft carrier, number one, you have the same kind of mix you have now. If you look at an aircraft carrier that has roughly let's say 86, 88 aircraft, half of which are for defensive purposes, your actual offensive punch is not as significant as all those plane on board because they're all providing air defense (inaudible). So if you have a smaller ship and you're going to have a smaller capability then you still have to have all the other ships around it to protect it. So I did not see it from a cost-effective point of view being desirable in that sense.
But we are investing in very high technology items. DARPA has some exciting programs underway that will take advantage of the new technology. If you were to go out and look at Army 21 out at Fort Irwin and see what is taking place with UAVs, we are investing in these UAVs that have a link, can see the entire battlefield, that takes it right down into the humvees or the tanks, and so every single person on the ground knows exactly where everything is.
So we are in fact reforming the way in which we fight. We have a military that is transforming itself. The Army is not there yet, but they have laid the foundation to become much lighter, much more mobile, much more lethal than they are today in order to be able to respond more quickly.
If you look at the Air Force with its AEF, you look at the Marines with their urban warrior program, and you look at the Navy that's building a battalion of ships that require a third as many people to man it as they do today. So not all of it has been achieved, but we're on the road.
Q: I don't want to be rude to some of the people here, but Ken reminds me I've got five more minutes here. The secretary's on such a tight schedule. I know we'd love to examine all sorts of aspects of the hardware.
I think there's one question that we might not, that we shouldn't leave without getting into, and that is let's take one look at the president, from a defense perspective. There's going to be all kinds of assessments of this president, all sorts of directions. You look at him now. How's he been working with you on defense?
Cohen: I have absolutely nothing but commendations to the president for the way in which he has supported the military.
Q: ...cooperation. He...
Cohen: What I'm saying is every issue, every tough issue that we've had to contend with we have gone to him, he has listened, and he has backed the military almost in every case. We had, I'm trying to think if there's any disagreement we had. The issue of the antipersonnel landmines -- we had the ICC -- the International Criminal Court. We did not support that. The president signed it and said he would not submit it for ratification, it was recommended not be submitted for ratification until it was, it's deficiencies were removed. Our recommendation, my recommendation was don't sign it because I think under the circumstances we're going to see an independent criminal court that doesn't have any filters that will prevent these prosecutors from bringing charges, and I'll give you one example. I don't want to stop this yet.
Q: I don't want to stop you at all.
Cohen: Bringing charges against the United States. If you think of what has taken place globally and how other countries have acted, Chechnya might be one example you can look at. But compare what we did in Kosovo. I sat down with the chairman, and we sat down with the president of the United States virtually every day, not quite, but virtually every day during that 78 day period. We looked over the recommended target list, we looked at where they were, we looked at the populations, we looked at what kind of plane would deliver the munition, we looked at what angle of attack we were going to come at, what the blast impact was going to be, how many people were likely to be there, how many were likely to be hurt or killed? I don't know of any other country that would go through that kind of analysis, and yet there were allegations that we engaged in war crimes, which we had to then provide responses to (inaudible).
Now she was satisfied that we acted responsibly and constitutionally and there was no such basis for the charge, but that's the shape of things to come. When you have the United States forces deployed and we're the first ones they call on to help come to an area, and someone wants to say the irony is that Saddam Hussein wants to engage in a policy of cleansing the Kurds from Iraq, he can't be charged under the ICC. If we were to try to go in and prevent him from doing that, he could bring a charge of war crimes for a bombing campaign that stopped him from doing that. I mean there are some real -- you say that's hypothetical and that's absurd, but I think not today, not tomorrow but down the line you're going to find countries who are going to want to say the United States cannot be above this court, we're going to hold them responsible like anyone else, and they're going to bring them to trial. I think until such time as that's eliminated, we should not be supportive of the ICC.
I would say to the president, I have always been amazed at the acuity, the intelligence that he demonstrates. When he comes into a meeting on a very challenging, complex issue he has always been well briefed, he goes right to the heart of the matter, and is intensely involved in it. He's been very impressive in that regard, and I haven't been involved in any other discussions other than national security.
Q: Ever since President Reagan came up with this nuclear shield concept there have been complaints that A, it won't work and there's nothing happened since then in a general way that's proved that it does work. It would be (inaudible) credit to the system and screw it all up communications wise. And finally, the major criticism that impresses me is that it's nothing more than a boondoggle to bail out Lockheed and Boeing and so on because the Cold War is over, it's a jobs program for the big manufacturers of military equipment.
What do you say to that?
Cohen: I'd say you haven't been listening to anything I've said today. (Laughter)
Q: I heard all of that.
Cohen: You just disagree with me, then.
Q: I understand the psychology of saying look, as (inaudible) Saddam Hussein's got this little thing that's going to come and hit Washington, New York, etc.
Cohen: ...kill too many of our soldiers. A SCUD missile which is a really unsophisticated thing we wouldn't have defense against, the Patriot didn't work against it.
Q: I've heard all of that. But what do you say to this argument, which I haven't heard you discuss.
Cohen: If you take the notion that every system that you develop can be counted by some child or teenager in his basement, being able to intercept the communication, then you would end up doing nothing. You would not be engaged in space probes, you would not be engaged in any of these sophisticated experiments that we have.
Every system has its flaws in development. When the tests were conducted, we had one successful test that was somewhat criticized by the press that it wasn't a real test, and then we had two failures. The failures were rather simple plumbing failures, for the most part, but not really central to the technology involved. But virtually every system that we've ever deployed has had failures. That's part of producing a system.
So I would say that we have 16 more tests to conduct before a decision to actually deploy the system is going to be made, and at any point along the way you can say hey, this is simply not going to work, let's cancel it now. But if you start out with the notion that it won't work and it can't work, then you shouldn't begin it in the first instance. But I think that technology today is exponentially going, it's escalating at such a rate that what seems impossible today will be the ordinary tomorrow.
Q: Two questions. One, what were the top ten on the list of 48, and also you gave a (inaudible) summary of what you saw in President Clinton, yet how do you compare that to your meeting with...
Cohen: First of all, I've hard four years of working almost on a daily basis with President Clinton and I've only had two meetings, three meetings with President-elect Bush.
I was very impressed with President-elect Bush. He has sort of a different style about him. He is very comfortable with who he is. And what I gather, I like the fact that if someone tosses out an acronym he says what is that? I really like that, rather than letting something slide by which he in no way could be expected to know, just assume that he knows it. He has enough confidence to say explain that. I've never heard that acronym before. And there are thousands of acronyms that we manufacture every day over there. I liked that.
I like the way he asked questions, very practical questions. He'd say okay, that's the theory, but how does this apply practically?
Q: Is the charge of boobery a bad rep? (Laughter)
Cohen: Charged of what?
Q: Being a boob. Not you. (Laughter)
Cohen: From my dealings with him, that's absolutely...
Q: I was thinking of (inaudible). Didn't he use the word boob?
Cohen: I found him yesterday to be, he had been I think well briefed, but he knew exactly the kind of questions to ask that needed to be asked. He was there, he listened. I think he absorbed everything very quickly. I was impressed with him. I've known him very superficially, but what I saw yesterday, I take away that he will do very, very well as...
Q: You give us hope.
Cohen: I do. And I think it's too quick to condemn him or criticize him until you see him. He's picked a pretty good team. That takes a man of I think some self confidence to say I'm going to surround myself with very strong people because he feels comfortable enough to say I want a strong secretary of state, I want a strong secretary of defense, I want a strong person on my economic... Everybody that you've looked at have been very strong personalities in that national security team. I think that's also a mark of somebody who feels comfortable with who he is.
I take great hope that he's going to be a very fine commander in chief.
Q: The top ten.
Cohen: I can't put them in priority, but dealing with Russia has to be among the top ten. How do we reconcile this relationship? Russia's sending conflicting signals, on the one hand, (inaudible) the West and be somewhat integrated into our institutions; at the same time they're taking moves that sort of seem to me to be a reversion backwards. So Russia's going to be a country we still have to contend with. And because the Europeans still have to contend with Russia on that continent, they also want us to have a positive relationship with Russia.
China will be also, how our relationship with China...
Three, and again, I hate to put them in any kind of priority order, but how do you resolve the ESDP, an acronym that only you know, but the European Security Defense Policy.
(Break in tape)
Cohen: ...So we have tried to do that. I have spoken on the floor of the Illinois legislature, (inaudible) the campus of Microsoft to go address their computer programmers, down to legislatures and chambers of commerce and wherever I could around the country that were truly not the traditional fora that one would attend, but to talk, to remind people that we've got something very valuable and we've got an incredibly strong economy which is making our challenge even stronger. But we've got to continue to support our military in pay and whatever benefits we can.
There are so many acts of heroism, let me give you an example. I was over in Singapore this summer. I called (inaudible) hospital to see a young man who was on one of our aircraft carriers. It was a terrible night, storming, high seas, and cloudy, terrible, one of those Perfect Storm nights. He fell off the aircraft carrier into the (inaudible) waters. His uniform (inaudible). He fell off the front of the aircraft carrier, so he'd fallen about 60 or 70 feet, ruptured his spleen in the fall because of the impact. The ship was pulling away at 30 knots, and it happened that someone on watch (inaudible) saw the light flashing in these (inaudible) waters and said man overboard. They get the helicopters out, the rescue team, and got him safely back to the hospital where he was on life support for several weeks. I was there with his family.
To think about the extraordinary process of being able in those kinds of conditions to have the calm, the (inaudible) we've got to get this guy floating out there, he's (inaudible) away, get the helicopters out, it's a rainy, stormy night, and (inaudible) is remarkable.
Q: That's a good chapter beginning right there. (inaudible) I like that.
Cohen: But that goes on all the time. To talk about the USS Cole, a terrible tragedy took place. They lost power several times during that. And the water was coming in three feet almost a minute. They had no lights, there was confusion, there was death all around them, there was total chaos. They had buckets, they were manning a bucket brigade to keep that ship from sinking. Extraordinary acts. They were not going to go down.
If you think about working in total darkness, with jagged edges of metal, people who were screaming, people who had been killed in all of that, and no electricity, no power, and water coming in, pouring through. To think how they fought, some of them for 22, 23, 24 hours without any rest to save that ship. How good they really were.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you've been very generous with your time this morning. I know you told us about your schedule and...
Cohen: I didn't talk about (inaudible). All the great things that the military does. We've got to reconnect that.
Janet has been instrumental in this with the USO. She started the first Family Forum. We brought families to Washington to meet with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, myself, Bill Ralston came back as the SACEUR, our EUCOM commander came back, to listen to families way here are our problems. No press was allowed in. We simply had a family forum saying here are the things that we have to contend with. We've had the USO tours, holiday tours. We had NFL Sunday go out and go on the Harry S. Truman, they were there three days. We got millions of dollars of advertising for the Navy. We have really focused on (inaudible), and we now have a USO Corridor in the Pentagon dedicated to showing how the USO has tried to build the morale of our troops when they're away from home, a very momentous time for them.
So we have really dedicated ourselves to (inaudible) that effort, and I think it's starting to show up in many ways.
Q: Can I ask one non-defense question? You were in the Senate for (inaudible).
Cohen: I sat through the confirmation hearings.
Q: (inaudible) (Laughter)
Cohen: I found myself going through the process, I was at a somewhat distinct advantage having been up there. But it started with Tower. John Tower. I was very much involved in that. And it started slowly.
It used to be, here I am talking about the good old days, but they used to have a rule that with a Senate nominee up for confirmation, if you had information that pertained to personal matters that went to character, those would be handled behind closed doors, that you would first receive the information, and if there was any basis to it you would call the nominee in and say this is something that has arisen, we'd like your response to it, and they would have to of course at that point say it's true or it's not true and I don't care if it's made public, let's go forward.
That changed during Tower. And for the first time we had witnesses that were called in a public forum to make allegations about character. That, unfortunately, has opened the doors. I think it's very hard now for nominees to go through this process in terms of there are no rules in terms of are there matters that go to character or integrity, and should they not at least be held and the individual confronted privately before it becomes a matter of public discussion. I don't think we can turn the clock back on this any more, but it's been very hard. If there are any imperfections in people, they are bound to be magnified by opponents.
I should give you a copy of this, my departing speech on the Senate floor. One of the reasons I decided to leave the Senate, you may recall, it was not too long ago that the only way you left the Senate was you either died in office or you were defeated. Very few people ever voluntarily left the United States Senate.
In my year there were 13 who left, all for different reasons. I had a variety of reasons of my own, but one that was very much in my mind was the loss of civility in our society, especially in our politics.
I remember when I first came to the Senate we had people like Scoop Jackson and Abe Ribicoff and Howard Baker and Ed Muskie, Jack Javitz, people who had real strong opinions who fought like hell during the day, but would go off to a room and have a drink together that night and be friends. Socialize.
That no longer is the atmosphere up there. It has become much more acrimonious, much more partisan. It should be partisan, you should have ideological debates, you should be able to do it in a way that is civil and respectful and without hate. And I just found that the more I saw the debates, they were not debates. That had changed. You didn't have true debates anymore, but rather pronouncements or statements. I felt that as time was running through the hour glass for me, and it's hard for me to accept this (inaudible), but I turned 60 in August, and I said this is not the way I want to spend the rest of my days. I had an 83 percent approval rating I think it was in the state of Maine, I had a million dollars in the bank, I had a (inaudible), and I decided that I didn't want to spend another six years of my life doing that.
So that's why I was prepared to move out into the private world, and then suddenly here I am. And I say this over and over again...
Q: You're glad you did.
Cohen: Absolutely. It's been the best experience of a lifetime. There is nothing to compare to this.
I thought that being a U.S. Senator was the best job in the world, but then being a Secretary of Defense of the best military in the world, and when you're around the people that I am with every day, it's (inaudible).
Q: Mr. Secretary, (inaudible). Thank you so much for this great breakfast. And let's find some way of doing it again.
Are you going to write a book?
Cohen: I have a novel I started back in 1995 which I'd like to get back to and continue.
Q: Thank you so much.