Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon to this small group of stalwarts here.
Let me bring you up to date. First, on Secretary Cohen's trip to visit troops in Italy, Macedonia and Bosnia. He left today carrying 5,760 bags of microwavable popcorn donated by Paul Newman -- Newman's Own Popcorn -- for the forces in Macedonia and Bosnia; two cases of school supplies from the press corps collected by Steve Komarow of USA Today -- these will be donated to Colonel Little's project to supply schools in Bosnia; and also 24 cases of clothing and school supplies collected by several Girl Scout troops including one that includes the daughters of Colonel Veiga. He'll [Secretary Cohen] be visiting troops tomorrow in Italy, Macedonia and Bosnia, and then leaving Bosnia on Christmas Day.
Unfortunately, Deputy Secretary Hamre who had planned to visit troops in Guantanamo Bay and Haiti has taken ill and had to cancel his Christmas Eve trip. He was to leave this afternoon, and hopes to get down there and visit the troops some other time, but it won't be now.
With that, I will take your questions.
Q: Are you assuming there are a lot of microwave ovens in...
A: I've been assured that where there are soldiers there are microwaves. This is not equipment that's issued to soldiers, but soldiers appear to have microwaves with them wherever there is power. Just as I think almost every soldier has a camera today, many soldiers have microwaves when they can find a place to hook them up.
Q: Has anyone tallied the number of "kernels" that are going over. (Laughter)
A: No, nor the number of colonels who will eat the kernels, either.
Q: Any comment on the Senate Budget Committee's report on readiness?
A: First, let me say that we believe our forces are highly ready, and I think that their deployments in Bosnia or Haiti or the Gulf show that.
The assumption of the report that peacekeeping operations have interfered with readiness, I think in the main is incorrect. Clearly there are a few problems around the edges. For instance, the forces in Bosnia do not have as great an opportunity to participate in division-size combat type maneuvers as they would if they were in Germany or if they were still at Fort Hood or Fort Riley, but we have made considerable efforts to make up for that. For instance, tank crews are sent up to a range in Hungary to practice their shooting skills on a fairly regular basis.
General Clark was quoted over the weekend as saying that while they may lack some division and operational maneuver training while they're in Bosnia, they have much training in communications, in mounting patrols, in maintaining day-to-day operations under sometimes stressful circumstances, that they couldn't get elsewhere. And this training is extremely valuable.
The specific points made by the internal Senate Budget Committee report, which I understand is now on the Internet, deal with forces going to the National Training Center or the Joint Training Center in the United States, and it does say that some of these Army units have been going with some reductions in manpower. That, in fact, is true, but it reflects what has been, until recently, a recruiting issue, not a peacekeeping issue.
In other words, the effort to tie this to peacekeeping is totally wrong.
There have been some recruiting shortfalls in the Army in specific specialties. One is infantry. The Army has met its recruiting goals in the main, globally, but there are specialties where there were shortfalls. One was infantry.
The Army believes that that's been resolved. There are 5,000 new infantrymen in training now -- an increase of 5,000 infantry people in training, who will be coming out of training in the spring and into the active duty Army and that should take care of this problem.
As you probably know, in 1994, Secretary Perry asked the Joint Staff to pay more attention to readiness and something called the SROC -- or Senior Readiness Oversight Council -- was established. This council holds monthly meetings and they're chaired by the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Ralston. Every month the Services bring up all their readiness concerns to the council. They're prioritized, and the readiness monitoring group tries to find ways to resolve these budding readiness problems as quickly as possible. Every monthly meeting is preceded by a video teleconference call with all the CINCs around the world, so the commanders in chief from the Southern Command or the Central Command or the European Command, are given an opportunity to talk about their view of the readiness of the force to do the forward-deployed tasks that they're expected to do on a day-to-day basis. We think this is working extremely well.
Q: Do you have a status report on Iraq before we go into this sort of blackout period as far as the U.S. is concerned, on any of its troop movements, any of its air defense activities, any aspect of its ground?
A: I guess I should break that question down into three topics. The first is, in Iraq itself we continue to see them organize their air defense systems in a way that apparently has three goals. The first is to protect strategic or key sites such as presidential palaces; weapons of mass destruction facilities; or other key military and operational facilities.
The second is they still appear to be organizing their SA-2 long-range missiles in a way that would position them to perhaps be able to shoot down a U-2 flying over Central Iraq for UNSCOM, but we have seen no attempt to do that, and indeed the threatening rhetoric that they used back in early November has ceased. And they are no longer making the threatening rhetoric about the U-2 flights.
Three, we continue to see them moving around other missile systems in their air defense system in a way that makes it appear as if they're trying to set up ambushes for the planes flying over Southern Iraq below the 33rd Parallel as part of Operation SOUTHERN WATCH. But there have been no threats or attempts to ambush any of these fighters recently, but we do see the movements of their air defense systems in ways that appear to position them to do that.
So that's the air defense situation.
Many of their ground forces continue to remain dispersed, which we think is for defensive reasons, and of course the dispersal makes it more difficult for them to operate in an offensive way if they are spread out with their equipment.
The second point deals with UNSCOM. UNSCOM is continuing with its inspections. There was an inspection of a semi-sensitive site, an agricultural facility, yesterday. They did get into the facility; they checked out computers and other things in the facility. There was some delay, but they did get into the facility.
The U-2 flights have been continuing. There was one a day or two ago which spent about four hours over Central Iraq. It did what it was supposed to do and came back. It was unchallenged, as I said.
You should check this with UNSCOM, but I believe there will be an interruption in the inspections for awhile over the holidays.
The third action, the third part of this is, of course, the disposition of our forces in the Gulf. There are approximately 29,800 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on patrol in the Gulf as we speak -- two carrier battle groups. There's been no change in the disposition of those forces. I guess the Air Expeditionary Force came out several days ago, not the Air Expeditionary Force, the INTRINSIC ACTION force, the Army troops operating in Kuwait, but they've been replaced by some Marines who are doing some exercises in the area.
We should all think of these men and women in uniform over the holiday season. There are 106,000 American military personnel deployed today and through the holiday season. This is an unusual year in that it's one of the three times every century that Hanukkah, Christmas, and the beginning of Ramadan occur all in the same week. So it's the three major monotheistic religions celebrating some of their holiest days all pretty much at the same time. Ramadan, of course, begins December 30th or 31st and lasts for a month. So it's a time to think about these men and women serving our country away from home.
Q: Do you know if overflights or inspections will take place during Ramadan?
A: That's something you'd have to ask UNSCOM, but my belief is yes, that there will be some overflights, and presumably some inspections as well during Ramadan.
Q: The President laid out some goals for getting out of Bosnia. What are the goals for getting out of Haiti?
A: Well, we're pretty much out of Haiti. There is a small group of mainly engineering troops down there now, maybe 400 people. They are doing some construction projects and other work for the Haitian people. They've worked on schools, they've worked on roads. These forces rotate in and out. It's been good training for the forces, and it's also helped provide an element of stability in Haiti.
The number of forces there can go up or down, depending on the size of the exercises they're undertaking at the time, but I wouldn't anticipate that we'd get much above or below the current level for awhile.
Q: On Iran's weapons program, there were two published reports in the "Bird" this morning. One quotes Israeli intelligence sources as saying that Iran is closer than previously thought to having a workable bomb; and the other article, the thrust of it, was that they're making progress on ballistic missiles which might deliver such a weapon with help from the Russians. Can you enlighten us any more on that?
A: I can't comment on the specifics of those reports, because I don't comment on intelligence reports and certainly not on Israeli intelligence reports. But it is true that Iran is working on four programs that are worrisome to us and should be worrisome to all countries in the area. These programs are nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs, and also the development of longer range missiles.
These programs have been the concern of this government at the absolutely highest levels. President Clinton has discussed them with President Yeltsin; Vice President Gore has discussed them with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin; State Department Ambassador Frank Wisner, who's been visiting Russia on a semi-regular basis to discuss the missile program. As you know, President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin reached an agreement dealing with Chinese supply of materials to the Iranian nuclear program when President Jiang was here. So we are working very hard to contain these programs. We think they are menacing and potentially dangerous programs. We share the Israeli view in that respect. But I can't get into the specifics.
You probably...just to close up on this unless you have another question, but we did put out a report last month, the Proliferation, Threat and Response report, which provided considerable detail about the Iranian weapons of mass destruction programs.
Q: Is this a time of increased concern, or you've been concerned with it right along. Is this in recent days, recent weeks, is there increased concern?
A: No. I think there's been a consistent concern over a period of time, and it's something we continue to watch very closely, and something we continue to discourage through dealings with other countries such as China and Russia, and quite frankly, our European allies as well.
Q: Have you had success in trying to discourage the Russians, in particular, from dealing with Iran on ballistic missiles?
A: I can't comment on details on that one, because I haven't followed it closely enough. I think in general, we believe we have had success in two areas -- alerting other countries to the problem, and to what role their dealings with Iran can play in accentuating the problem; and two, getting them to cut back on certain types of exports. The Russians are members of the Missile Technology Control Regime. They have said they want to adhere to that regime. The government of Russia has said they are not in violation with that regime. One of the problems we have is whether there are freelance sales or shipments taking place by former government entities or by individuals in the government who may be engaged in trying to help Iran, and the government of Russia has said that they will do their best to try to stop that if that's taking place.
I think we feel that we are getting a good response from the countries with which we're dealing on this topic. Does that mean we've been able to shut off flows of technology? No. Not yet. That's a difficult thing to do, but we're working on it.
As I said, this is a matter of real concern and real focus at the highest level of this government and it's something that we continue to keep working on.
Q: The referendum about DoD off-shore base, was held in Nago City, Okinawa, Japan last Sunday. Do you have any comments on the results of the referendum?
A: No. I've seen the results. It's really an internal Japanese issue. We remain devoted to working with the government of Japan to implement the terms of the SACO agreement, and we will continue to do that. As you know, the goal of that agreement is to reduce the intrusiveness of some training and U.S. military presence in Okinawa. One of the issues, the issue of that referendum involved moving an airfield to an off-shore facility. We remain committed to find ways of working with the government of Japan to move forward with the details of that agreement.
Mr. Bacon: You're welcome. Have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, good holidays.
I will not brief on Christmas Day. In fact there will be no briefing until January 6th.