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DoD News Briefing: Secretary Cohen

Presenter: Secretary Cohen
November 25, 1997 10:00 AM EDT

Secretary Cohen: Ladies and gentlemen, for the past three weeks the world attention has focused on Iraq's program to produce deadly chemical and biological weapons. The reasons are quite clear. First, Iraq has used chemical weapons both against the Iranian people and against its own people. The picture to my left shows a Kurdish mother and her child who were gassed in Iraq by Saddam Hussein's troops.

Second, Iraq continues to evade and to deceive the United Nations inspectors who are working to destroy Iraq's program to build these weapons of mass destruction. If we can turn to a chart that many of you are now familiar with in terms of what Iraq originally stated it had in its possession, later determined to be outright lies, and there are suspicions on the part of the United Nations that there are much -- more volumes of these deadly nerve agents and chemicals than have previously been suspected.

As I point out on this chart, originally they indicated they had just a small quantity of VX. One drop on your finger will produce death in a matter of just a few moments. Now the UN believes that Saddam may have produced as much as 200 tons of VX, and this would, of course, be theoretically enough to kill every man, woman and child on the face of the earth.

But the question goes well beyond Iraq. Today I am releasing a report that is entitled "Proliferation: Threat and Response". The details in this report lay out the dangers that are posed by Iraq and other countries as well. It makes a very chilling point. More than 25 countries either have or may be developing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

On the Korean Peninsula, for example, 37,000 American military personnel and millions of South Koreans face an unpredictable and increasingly desperate regime armed with a very large chemical arsenal. Rogue states with ties to terrorists such as Iran and Libya also have chemical weapons and are working to acquire biological weapons.

Chemical and biological weapons have been called the poor man's atomic bomb. They are cheaper and easier to produce than nuclear weapons and they are, as we know, extremely deadly. They can also be used by terrorists, as the world learned to its horror in March of 1995 when a religious sect released sarin nerve gas in a Tokyo subway. Again, this chart to my left is a photo that was taken shortly after that attack occurred back in 1995.

The pictures of the chemical victims in Iraq and Tokyo demonstrate that the threat is neither far-fetched nor far off. We face a clear and present danger today, one that's only going to grow with time. I would also take note that the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in New York had in mind the destruction and deaths of some 250,000 people that they were determined to kill.

The Department of Defense has undertaken this comprehensive effort to address the threat, and I will now turn to the chart dealing with the response.

The Quadrennial Defense Review placed special emphasis to chemical, biological, nuclear, and other asymmetric threats. The QDR determined that chemical and biological weapons attacks were "a likely condition of future warfare" and as such, the attacks against our forces probably will occur early in a conflict.

So, in order to improve our ability to fight and win on the chemical or biological battlefield, I directed in the QDR that a billion dollars be added over the coming five years to enhance the defense of our forces.

To your right is a mannequin in a chemical protective suit. This is just one of the items that we're going to be spending money on. It's our new, lightweight JSLIST protective suit which provides increased protection against chemical and biological agents. And because it is significantly lighter than the suit that it replaces, our troops are going to be able to work in it longer, with less degradation in performance.

There's another notable achievement with this particular new suit compared to the older ones that we currently have. In the older models that we have, outfits that we have, a soldier actually has to remove his hood in order to replace the air filter. That no longer will be the case with this particular JSLIST protective suit.

In addition, and you will see this outside during the demonstration, the person inside this protective garment will be able to communicate directly with other soldiers on the battlefield. That will be another enhancement as far as our protective capability is concerned.

When we go outside in a few moments, we're going to see demonstrations of this protective equipment, as well as other types of devices that we are dedicating resources to protect our forces in the field.

But fighting and winning on a contaminated battlefield requires more than good equipment. It requires doctrine, war plans, and training to properly take into account the nature of the threat itself. Our counter-proliferation council is being chaired by the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Secretary Hamre. It's a mechanism that we're going to ensure that our forces are properly prepared for the battlefield for the future.

Just two weeks ago we announced in our Defense Reform Initiative one important reform that we are pursuing to create a threat reduction agency to integrate and to improve our existing programs that are aimed at countering the proliferation threat itself.

To address the threat here at home, we're giving the National Guard significant new responsibilities in managing the consequences of chemical and biological terrorist attacks that might occur in the United States. The front lines are no longer overseas. It can just as well be in any American city, and we are turning to the National Guard to help lead in this emerging fight to protect our people.

The Department is also playing a key role in the coordinated federal effort to train police and firefighters and other state and local officials who would be the first to respond to a chemical or biological incident. We will, over time, train these, what we call first responders, in 120 American cities and greatly expand their ability to limit the damage if and when a terrorist incident should occur.

At this time I'd like to just take a moment to acknowledge some of the team members here who have worked these issues on a day by day basis and who prepared, did a great deal to prepare this report.

Frank Miller, who is here in the audience, and his counter-proliferation, CTR officers, led by Mitch Wallerstein and Susan Koch, had the lead role. They were supported by the Defense Intelligence Agency whose director is Lieutenant General Pat Hughes, who is also with us this morning. And I should note the critical role of a small group of military personnel called the Executive Secretariat who oversaw the writing, editing and publishing of the report at the same time they were planning for numerous overseas trips for me that unfortunately, had to be canceled. So I just wanted to take a moment to thank the entire team for the work that you've put into preparing this report, and to hopefully helping to educate not just the American people but the world population about the threat that is here now, today, and will only increase in the future.

With that, I'd be happy to take your questions, and then look for a few good men and women to follow me outside to really hear from the people who are going to be on the front lines in preparing our defense against these types of incidents in the future.

Q: If Iraq does, in fact, have these weapons of mass destruction in the amounts that you told us about, is the United States, since we can't apparently see all the sites that we'd like, is the United States getting closer to a military strike? And if so, would it be a slap on the wrist or will it be a full strike to try and destroy Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war?

A: First of all, there has not been a determination that the UN inspectors will not be allowed to examine all of the sites that they believe they have reason to suspect there might be illegal activity taking place therein. I think that is a decision that the United Nations has been very firm on, that the inspectors must be allowed unfettered opportunity to examine those sites and places which they believe and suspect may harbor some illegal activity.

I also want to point out that we should not simply focus on 63 sites that I have commented on, as well as others in the past week. The notion that somehow there are only 63 remaining sites, I think, would be misleading. The fact remains that throughout this six year period Saddam Hussein has worked to frustrate and obfuscate, conceal in every fashion possible in order to prevent the inspectors from gaining access to certain sites. So it's not only these 63. This is only what you see at this time. There have been many more.

What I want to indicate today is that this is a long term project. This is not something that's going to be over in a very short period of time as Saddam Hussein would like to believe. This is something that the UN has to make a very thorough examination of what has taken place since the three weeks where they have been excluded from conducting their investigation inspections and go back and redraw the baseline, and then carry out their work without hindrance. So I don't accept the proposition that they will not be allowed to conduct those inspections as suspected sites.

If that is the case, then the President obviously would consult with the Security Council and other allies to determine what further action might be appropriate. It might be a tightening up even of further sanctions. It might be sending the message to Saddam Hussein there will be no relief at any time in the future. There are a number of things that could be done on the part of our allies to, in fact, send the message to Saddam that he must comply fully without resorting to military force. Military force is always an option, but as I've indicated before, it's not a first option. It's something that we would reserve only as a last option and it's one that the President in consultation with our allies would have to make a determination on.

Q: Will it be a pinprick or a slap on the wrist? Or will it be a massive use of force if we use a military option?

A: If it is necessary to resort to force, I think you can be reasonably assured it will not be a pinprick.

Q: Mr. Secretary, you've indicated in this report that the threat of NBC proliferation has become transnational and that criminal groups and terrorist groups are trying to develop these weapons. Have you any evidence that specific groups are trying to do this other than the Japanese group you mentioned earlier in the Tokyo incident?

A: I think that what we have to be concerned about is the large volume of this material that is now available throughout many regions of the world. If you have as many as 25 countries who have produced it or are in the process or producing it; if you have groups who are in fact trying to acquire it, I believe that groups are trying to acquire it -- We know a number of countries are seeking to acquire the technology and the capability and the precursors, then I think you can follow it to a reasonable conclusion that yes, there are groups who will seek to either design their own systems, acquire the materials necessary to produce it, and use it at some future time.

Q: Have you any specific evidence of any individual groups...

A: I don't have any information that I could share at this time.

Q: If, as you said last Sunday, the Iraqis seem to have the ability to anticipate where the inspection teams are going, how then do you ever expect to find these stockpiles?

A: I might point out, notwithstanding the dedicated effort on the part of Saddam Hussein and his government to obstruct inspections, that they have been able to ferret out large volumes of materials that were undeclared in the past. That has come about in part as a result of defectors. We had Saddam Hussein's son-in-law who revealed that the Iraqis had lied about the volume of material they had. As a result of those revelations, the inspectors were able to go back and get more information, destroy more materials.

There was a piece on 60 Minutes just this past Sunday in which a high ranking general involved in intelligence defected and indicated, and I have some of the transcript here, where a conversation took place in a presidential palace, and Saddam said that "The Special Commission is a temporary measure. We will fool them, we will bribe them, and the matter will be over in a few months." He thinks that anything is possible with money. Secondly, "Were they hiding and moving these weapons while you were still in Iraq?" The answer was yes.

So I think it's clear that there has been a dedicated effort, but we do receive information, the United Nations receives information. They're able to at least act on that information in ways which have produced substantial reductions in the levels that we are aware of. That's why I'm suggesting this is not a short term problem. This is a long term problem. As long as Saddam Hussein adopts the attitude that he's going to try to inhibit or restrict or in any way stultify the inspectors, then he cannot expect any light at the end of the tunnel that he is seeking.

So open inspection can accelerate that, but there has to be full and unrestricted...

Q: Mr. Secretary, you've talked about U.S. officials over the last several years, though, have talked about proliferation of hardened underground facilities in various countries around the world including Iraq. I'm wondering whether or not there are any indications that Saddam Hussein has moved any of his programs underground into these hardened facilities, a; and b, Richard Butler talked this weekend about the broader issue here, the test case of Iraq in terms of the global concerns, the global action against weapons of mass destruction. I'm wondering if you could talk to that question, the implications of Iraq for the global scenario.

A: First of all, we don't know whether Saddam Hussein has moved these chemicals or biological agents and materials -- not only the agents themselves, but documentation. We know that they have kept meticulous records over the years and we need to have access to those records to make the determination as to whether or not they have been forthcoming. So we don't know whether they've moved them into hardened shelters or underground bunkers. That's something that will have to be determined in the future.

But Richard Butler is precisely correct. We're not only focusing on Iraq. Iraq happens to be the problem right now. But as I indicated over the weekend in a very ironic or even perverse way, Saddam has succeeded enlightening the world community of the dangers that these weapons pose for humankind. If he, in fact, has as much VX in storage as the UN suspects he might, to be able to kill every living human being on the face of the planet, then this is not simply Iraq against the United States, but Iraq against the United Nations -- Iraq against the international community at large. So it's a problem that he has managed to highlight, but it's much bigger than Saddam Hussein and that's the reason why this report, I think, is important -- to continue to point out that there are other nations who are, in fact, engaged in similar behavior.

What is the good news? The good news is that we have passed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. T hat has put into effect a means of stopping the production, the storage, the dissemination of chemical weapons and allows for verification. It sets up a regime to discourage those countries who are not signatories to the treaty or the convention, to be able to acquire certain precursor chemicals from the countries who have signed it. The Russian Duma has now ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. We have ratification by a number of countries, India, I believe, also, as a result of the pressure being generated by this. So there is some hope that if we continue to highlight the nature of the threat that is posed to the future of humankind, that we can at least reduce the nature of the threat if we cannot eliminate it. So it's something that we have a long term effort that has to be undertaken, and Iraq poses a prime example of why it's important.

Q: Can I ask you about the issue of Russia supplying missile technology to Iran? The report states that despite official statements, Russia and other former Soviet states are continuing to proliferate. What is the current status of missile technology transfers from Russia to Iran's medium range missile program?

A: The Administration has been very concerned about the transfer of this type of technology to Iran and to that region, and have voiced those concerns at the very highest levels. I know that Vice President Gore has raised the issue with Mr. Chernomyrdin, in the Gore/Chernomyrdin Commission it's been raised on several occasions. I know that the President has sent a personal envoy, as such, to meet with the Russians on this, seeking their cooperation. While I think there has been some great progress made on this, I think it's an effort we have to continue to make.

It may be that there are companies who are operating outside of the government control, and if we find there are companies doing that, we bring that to the attention of the Russians.

As you know, with respect to China also supplying technology to Iran, we have raised that and did raise that during Jiang Zemin's visit here in Washington, and did get an agreement that they would not supply a nuclear capability to Iran; that they pledge for the time being that they were not going to transfer anti-ship cruise missiles to the Iranians. So it's something that we have to continue to work on. It's a threat to the region and a threat to, obviously, our troops and our allies in the region, so we're going to continue to work on it.

Q: Are you still seeing things going from those two places, Russia and China, into Iran?

A: I really can't comment on what we're seeing on a regular basis. But we're conscious of activities. When we are aware of them and made aware of them, then we bring that to the attention of the Russian government and our counterparts.

Q: You mentioned in the report the Israeli nuclear programs. All the countries in the Middle East say that what drives their programs, chemical and biological, and also drives the nuclear, is the Israeli program. Why is that mentioned, and do you think -- can this report be taken, in the future, credibly without the mention of the Israeli program?

A: Israel doesn't pose a threat to United States interests, our troops, or that of our allies. If you'll turn to page 37 there is a reference made to Israel in terms of what Syria's view of the threat from Israel and their supposed or alleged possession of nuclear weapons, but Israel is not mentioned in this context because it doesn't pose a threat to us or to our allies.

Q: Is a biological or chemical attack on an American city inevitable?

A: I hate to repeat myself, but I've said from this podium before, nothing is inevitable until it happens. We need to, number one, educate the American people, the international community in terms of the nature of the threat posed by the development of these types of weapons, the potential for terrorists who acquire this technology or these materials and then pose a threat to the worldwide community. Is it possible? Anything is possible. Is it inevitable? The answer, nothing is inevitable until it actually occurs. What we need to do is to take measures to try to prevent the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction; that we need to take measures to deter such an attack. Here we're talking about our troops in the field. For example, we are developing theater missile defense systems and we have a variety of TMD programs underway that we're funding. We have a national missile defense program that is now being researched and developed for a potential, to deter any, defend against any attack from a terrorist or rogue regime against the United States. We also had to have domestic types of protection for our citizens. That's what we're doing at the domestic level.

So, we have to be prepared for the worst. So, it requires education on the one hand, and hopefully deterrence, and then protection. That's what we have to prepare ourselves for the future in.

Q: Mr. Secretary, on Iraq -- you say there's been no determination yet that inspectors will gain access to all those sites including what Iraq calls its presidential sites. Should Iraq be put on notice that there is a deadline for full access to all sites?

A: I think that at this point there's no need to put Iraq on any sort of a deadline. I think it will become clearer in the coming weeks as to whether or not Saddam Hussein is going to continue to deny access to the palaces. The proof we will find either in the palaces or in the pudding or in the poisons. We'll have to wait and see exactly what is in there. We don't know at this point whether it's simply a case of large, expansive monuments to Saddam Hussein in the form of marble and glass, or whether they in fact contain Republican Guard activities. We don't know at this point.

What I've tried to make very clear is we should not focus simply on the palaces. It's important for us to determine whether or not there might be activities taking place inside those palaces that would, in fact, contravene the assertions of the Iraqi government that they're not developing and do not possess any biological or chemical weapons. But we shouldn't confine ourselves simply to those palaces, of those 63 sites. There might be many more.

Q: Critics say that there is no difference between the status of the weapons inspections before the expulsion and now, assuming that these 63 locations and others cannot be accessed -- the Iraqis have said they're not going to let anybody in there. So hasn't Iraq gained, according to critics, by having the time to transport, hide, stash whatever they wanted to hide in the period the weapons inspectors were gone? And finally, doesn't this -- do the 25 nations that are into building these kind of weapons, aren't they watching very carefully to see, and isn't it very important that Saddam not win in this contest?

A: First of all, Saddam Hussein has not gained very much at all. He's lost. He gained a period of three weeks during which time the inspectors were not able to inspect facilities that they had reason to believe might contain illegal activity. But you have to go back, as I said before. That has been a pattern for six years. For six years he's engaged in precisely the same conduct over that six year period of time, which is why the Iraqi people have had so much suffering inflicted upon them by virtue of its own government refusing to comply with UN sanctions and inspection requirements. So he's gained nothing in terms of that three week period of time. Could he have done something by developing more anthrax? The answer is yes. But he could have been developing it during that period prior to the three weeks, in any event.

What he has lost is he has lost in terms of the public opinion globally. People now are aware of why it was so important that we said the UNSCOM, the UN inspectors, had to be in there. I think there was as sense of complacency about it. What's going on? It's been six years. What's the fuss about?

What the fuss is about now has been raised to a level where everyone understands now that VX is a deadly nerve agent. They now understand that anthrax, something smaller than a speck of dust, can kill you within five days. They now know about castor beans from which you can extract not only castor oil but ricin, a deadly poison for which there is no antidote, and for which the Iraqis have been developing hundreds if not thousands of acres of. They now are aware of the UNSCOM inspectors who were going to Baghdad University and found a professor coming out, and they asked to look at his papers -- and he said these papers are personal. Indeed, the top page was personal and the back page was personal. Everything else in between was about the documentation of how to extract ricin out of castor beans.

So now the public is aware of the danger that this individual, his government, pose not only to the region, but on a global basis. So he's lost. He hasn't gained. The United Nations has gained, I think, a great deal in this particular confrontation.

Q: We now have a massive force out there which you cannot keep there indefinitely. How long do you plan to keep it? What is the rationale for keeping such a massive force when it now seems quite unlikely that there is going to be military action in the near future?

A: First of all, the force is there to give the President of the United States whatever flexibility he feels he needs. The situation is still far from over. There has been no singing from any ladies at this point, including the Secretary of State. There has been no singing on the part of any of the UN -- This is something that the Secretary of State indicated she is not singing on yet because she has yet to be convinced that there has been compliance. I think she makes a very strong point on this, and she did over the weekend -- that we intend to remain firm and fixed in our goal. The United Nations should make no concessions whatsoever -- no carrots, no concessions to Saddam Hussein until this whole compliance. Secretary Albright has made that very clear, and we don't believe that has been the case to date.

If there is a change, we will know that in the next several months, several weeks. If there's not, then our forces are there to give the President whatever flexibility he needs, so they will remain until the President says they're no longer needed.

Q: You may have to keep a very large force, much larger than you have had there for a very extended period of time?

A: It could be. It could be an extended period of time, but it could be a short period of time. It depends on, really, the actions of Saddam Hussein. He really can determine whether or not there will be full compliance or whether there will be a return to confrontation with a threat to shoot down our U-2 aircraft flying under UN auspices, or whether he will simply say, "no inspections." That all, really, is up to him at this point.

Q: Saddam has gotten away with this for six years, you said. Are we going to be here four years from now talking about Saddam and writing more chapters in this saga?

A: I don't think anyone can predict how long Saddam Hussein will remain in office or how long this threat can be expected to continue to expand. What we have to do is raise the educational level of the world community. I think we're in the process of doing that, and I must say, as a result of Saddam Hussein's actions, virtually every national news magazine, international magazine, international coverage, I believe, has helped to explain the nature of the threat that not only he poses, but many other nations who are developing these systems also will pose, ultimately, to the world community.

Press: Thank you very much.

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