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DoD News Briefing, Tuesday, June 23, 1998

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD (PA)
June 23, 1998 1:30 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: Welcome. Good afternoon.

Let me just talk to you a little bit about the Defense Department's support for the firefighting effort in Florida. There are 120 Army Guardsmen and 10 Air Guardsmen and four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters assisting state and local authorities fighting the fires there. In addition, the Guard has provided bulldozers, fire engines, and fuel and maintenance trucks to support the firefighters. There's a six-man Defense Coordination Element providing liaison between the Department and federal and state agencies assisting the state of Florida, so if they need more equipment and more help they can go to the six-man Defense Coordination Element to request additional support.

That's it.

Q: Number one, can we assume that these are Florida National Guard people and not special firefighters pulled in from elsewhere?

A: I think we can assume that, but we'll double check on that to make sure they're not firefighting specialists.

Q: What about the report on the Army confirming that VX nerve gas was on missile parts found in March?

A: I think most of the details on this should come out of UNSCOM because, as you know, we do provide support to UNSCOM at their request, as do other countries as well -- France, Russia, a number of other countries provide support to UNSCOM which is a UN agency, the UN Special Commission. Mr. Butler's going to make a presentation to the Security Council tomorrow in which he'll lay out the findings. But based on what we know so far, it does appear to be a case where the Iraqis were not telling the truth about their capability. VX is an extremely dangerous substance, and they have maintained for a long while that they were unable to produce VX in large or stable quantities, and therefore had been unable to weaponize it. UNSCOM has been working very hard to get to the ground truth about the state of the Iraqi weapons program. This is one of the discoveries they've made in the course of their work.

The important thing here is that it shows the need for the UNSCOM inspection regime; it illustrates why the U.S. has strongly supported the UN inspections in Iraq; and it also illustrates why UNSCOM, particularly recently, but since it was founded in 1991, has been so aggressive at trying to get in and inspect and use scientific methods to test what it finds.

Q: ...based on what we know so far, I assume you're confirming that the Army tests confirmed that there were VX...

A: This is basically UNSCOM's report, and UNSCOM will deliver the report to the UN Security Council tomorrow. UNSCOM has told the Iraqis that it has reason to believe that Iraq had weaponized VX, that is put it into missile warheads.

Q: Could you just confirm that the Army has done this, without going into major detail on it? That, in fact, the Army at Aberdeen confirmed...

A: The Army was asked by UNSCOM to examine some fragments and it did so.

Q: And did it confirm that the fragments contained traces of VX?

A: It reported to UNSCOM that there were VX on the fragments, yes.

Q: What if these warheads had landed -- had been fired at U.S. troops and landed? Do you know what area -- the size of the are that would have been contaminated? And what defenses do U.S. troops now have against an attack with VX?

A: First of all it's important to lay out one fact, which is that although we know Iraq had chemical, and we believe biological, weapons at the time of its invasion of Kuwait and its subsequent fight against the allies, it did not use these weapons. We believe that one of the reasons it may not have used these weapons was because the U.S. -- President Bush -- made it very clear that they would suffer devastating and swift consequences if they used weapons of mass destruction against allied troops.

I can't answer the question of what the impact would be. VX is quite viscous. It's oily, the consistency of oil. It's used basically to... It's highly deadly, but it would be used to stop an attack by coating tanks or armor or people with this deadly compound. So, if somebody were to touch a tank that was coated with VX, the person could die from the contact.

Obviously, the best defense against VX or any chemical weapon is deterrence, and that's what worked back in 1991 and that continues to be part of our arsenal in convincing people not to use weapons of mass destruction. Beyond that, we have protective suits and we're in the process of deploying new, better protective suits to our forces. We have better detection devices that we're putting out into the field. So we have done a lot since 1991 to improve our ability first, to detect the use of deadly chemicals or biological agents; and two, to protect our people against them should they be used.

Q: Do you know if that Army unit was the only institution asked to check the items? Or when you mentioned other nations, they're also asked to support whether there was...

A: This is an issue between the UN Special Commission and Iraq and I think it's better for them to talk about what they've done. I have reason to believe they are relying on other laboratories to test the results, but they really should answer those questions.

Q: Are there other countries in the neighborhood of Iraq that are also doing this? I mean Iran, for example? Anybody else in the neighborhood that...

A: We know that there are other countries working on chemical weapons. We believe Iran is working on a chemical weapons program. I don't know specifically if they're working on VX.

Q: Is it a concern that some of Iraq's neighbors may be doing this as well?

A: Well, Iran is a neighbor of Iraq.

Q: You seem to be focusing primarily on Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction with the U.S. efforts and the UN. Understandably we fought a war with them and that makes them a special case. But the level of concern about some of the neighbors is also high?

A: Well, you all read our report, "Proliferation, Threat and Response." I should probably keep a copy up here so I could hold it up every time it comes up which is in almost every briefing.

We believe there are tens or twenty, maybe several dozen countries working -- who have the ability to produce chemical weapons. Of course there is now a Chemical Weapons Convention that's designed to stop the production and the use of chemical weapons, but we believe there are countries that are developing this capability.

It's worrisome, and I think this Administration, and particularly Secretary Cohen, have been very clear in discussing what the risks are and discussing the needs for better defenses and we're working on those better defenses.

Q: Do you have any evidence to suggest how many warheads Iraq might have filled with VX gas before the 1991...

A: I think this is the type of information that UNSCOM will be working up and presenting first to the UN and then, I'm sure, to the public. Ambassador Butler is going to make a presentation to the Security Council tomorrow, and then the Security Council will review the sanctions that have been placed on Iraq on Thursday, I believe.

I think as long as there is new evidence coming out that Iraq has not been honest or truthful about the extent of its weapons of mass destruction program, it's going to be impossible for the UN to lift sanctions.

Q: Obviously one of the implications of this is it bears on Iraq's voracity, but is there also concern here that by demonstrating that they could stabilize this gas and store it that they may be able to hide this stuff forever?

A: I think this is exactly the type of analysis that UNSCOM is making now that it has this new information, and when Ambassador Butler makes his presentation to the UN tomorrow, I would expect he would deal with some of these questions. But I think it's probably premature for me to discuss them until he's made his presentation to the UN.

Q: As a result of these findings, are American forces in the area taking any extra precautions?

A: We have addressed the possibility of chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East, and the most obvious way we've addressed it is by vaccinating our troops against anthrax. We've also deployed better detection capability and better protective clothing, masks, etc.

I think one of the things we've learned is that we have to keep monitoring what's going on and do our best to respond to it, and we've done that.

Q: Do you have any evidence that Iraq used any of these VX-tipped missiles during the war?

A: We don't have any evidence that they used deadly chemical or biological weapons during the war. I don't think we've ever had any evidence that they used them.

Q: I'm still confused about what precisely is new here? Your own reports in the past have said that they have achieved VX production, and you've given estimates, and there's tons of inventory of VX that you've thought they had. So is there an actual new finding here or does this simply confirm what the intelligence community...

A: The UN Special Commission has long suspected that they had the ability to produce VX and that they had produced VX. If this report turns out to be correct, this new information, it will confirm that they not only produced it but they actually put it into weapons. Iraq has denied that it was ever able to produce VX in significant quantities or in a stable state. So if this finding is born out, it will mean that the UN Special Commission has found evidence that they were not telling the truth and it confirms the long suspicions that the UN Special Commission has had. That's why it's significant.

Q: It seems that the U.S. Government has been running stings, not only drug stings in Mexico, but missile stings in Russia. And according to reports, Mr. Berger has told the Russian authorities that there are still missile components going from Russia into Iran 18 months after Yeltsin said it was stopped. Have you any comment on...

A: First of all, I don't have any evidence that we've been conducting sting operations. It's very clear that we have been working very hard with the Russians to convince them to stop exporting missile, nuclear, and other dangerous technology to Iran and that work will continue.

Q: Does the Defense Department agree with Mr. Berger that after 18 months, if Yeltsin said it would stop, there are still missile components going to Iran from Russia, is that correct?

A: We agree that we still have to continue working with the Russians to stop components from going to Iran and other countries, and we are doing that. It's a complex issue. It does not appear that there is always central control over what's being shipped. We've been working very aggressively with the Russians, and we'll continue to do that.

Q: But you couldn't go so far as to say these things are still happening, that Mr. Berger has pointed out to the Russians?

A: I think by virtue of the fact that we keep sending officials over to Moscow to discuss exports of equipment, we're concerned about the problem.

Q: That confirms... Moscow confirms that there's a problem, still?

A: Bill, I'd like to move on to another topic.

Q: Okay.

Q: Jan Lodal last week in Hill testimony said there were three unmonitored U.S. satellite launches by China, and I was wondering if you could explain whether there were any safeguards in shipping those satellites over that would have prevented the Chinese from gaining access to embedded technologies with them.

A: I think that what Jan Lodal stressed in this testimony was that there was a period of uncertainty after the export rules were changed, and during that period three purely commercial communications satellites were launched without monitors. It turns out that that was, in fact, under the rules of the time, allowed. We do not believe, and Lodal so testified, that any significant technology was transferred to the Chinese as a result of these three launches.

Since that time, the last launch was in 1996, we have changed the monitoring procedures so that all satellite launches are monitored whether they involve purely commercial satellites or not.

Q: Do they have embedded military technologies?

A: All I can tell you is that we do not believe that anything that happened because of these launches did anything to improve China's missile or satellite capability.

Q: But if they weren't being monitored, how can you tell?

A: Because we know what was in the satellites, and that's one of the reasons they weren't monitored, because they were purely communication satellites. Now the Chinese have launched their own communication satellites. They know what this technology is. We know what is shipped over there, and we know how it compares with what they know. So we're in a position, in a situation like this, to go back and look at what's been shipped and make determinations as to whether it was possible to advance their knowledge or not. And what Mr. Lodal testified last week, and when he first made this announcement that apparently went undetected by the public, although he said it in public hearing, what he said was that he's not... We do not believe that these launches contributed in any way to advancing China's technology.

Q: But if it's a reason for monitoring all satellites, all satellite exports, it's because they have embedded in them sensitive military technology...

A: They do not all have embedded in them sensitive military technology. That's the point I made. China has been launching its own communication satellites for some time. Communication satellites come in many flavors, and they come with many different technological packages. Some are much more advanced than others. A simple communications satellite is something that many countries have the ability to build and to put into space.

All I can tell you is that after reviewing these three launches, that we determined that they did not in any way contribute to advancing China's technological base.

Why were they launched without monitors? The reason was that under the regulations at that time, a purely commercial communications satellite that did not contain any sensitive technology whatsoever, was allowed to be launched with a Commerce Department license and did not require any monitoring.

In 1996 the government decided to require monitors for all satellite launches just to be extra careful, but it was -- these satellites were licensed and launched with the understanding that they had no particular special technology in them.

Q: Can I go back for a moment to the question of the UN support for UNSCOM? A couple of Republican members of Congress including the Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House have written a letter accusing the United States of failing to fully support the UN Special Commission. And particularly, they say the United States has acquiesced in the suspension of challenge inspections and that the U.S. is no longer urging UNSCOM to present strong evidence of Iraqi violations to the Security Council. Can I just get your reaction to that?

A: I don't think that's a very fair statement at all. First of all, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said that the only reason he was able to reach his agreement with Iraq, earlier this year, was because diplomacy was backed by the credible threat of force, and that force was largely American; it was largely because of the buildup that we had put into the Gulf in response to Iraq's refusal to allow unfettered access by UN inspectors.

Since that time, the UN has said that it's had much broader access than it has had before. But remember, the whole history of the inspections has been dealing with deceit, deception, obstructionism from Iraq. Iraq said that it had not had any biological weapons program, but when the sons-in-law of Saddam Hussein defected to Jordan, they revealed that it did have a biological weapons program. Then Iraq said, ah ha, yes, you're right, we did have a biological weapons program.

This whole inspection regime proves its worth every single month by forcing Iraq to come up with more disclosures, and it's done that since 1991. It's worked in fits and starts, but it has worked, I think, overall, very effectively because they've been aggressive, because they've been diligent, and because they've been strongly supported by the United States and other countries. I think that our support for the UN Special Commission has been clear from 1991. It's clear today. I'm sure it will be clear tomorrow, and it will be clear in 1999, and it will be clear until Iraq finally realizes that it must comply with the UN Security Council mandates if it wants to get the sanctions lifted.

Q: You said that additional money has been authorized by at least the Senate Committee for another large deck amphibious ship that the Department didn't request. Can the Department afford this?

A: I don't think the budget negotiations are complete at this stage, and I have not educated myself on this topic. So rather than ramble on I think I'll just educate myself and then respond.

Q: Any update on the sarin nerve gas that was used on defectors in Laos?

A: We are holding a whole series of meetings on two fronts. First, the 30 day review that Secretary Cohen ordered by the services and by the Joint Staff is now about halfway through. The people conducting that review have been meeting with people. There's a meeting this afternoon with a group of people who actually participated in Operation TAILWIND. In addition, we have given CNN an opportunity to present any information to us it thinks we should consider in the course of reviewing the facts, and CNN has met with Department officials and we're in the process of seeing what sort of information CNN might be able to provide to us.

We want to make sure that we've looked at all the information that CNN and Time had at their disposal when they did this report. Then we will build on that and other information we can find to figure out exactly what happened.

So far, we have not uncovered any information which suggests that sarin nerve gas was used during Operation TAILWIND in Laos in September of 1970, but we're only halfway through the review.

Q: What about documents that the Pentagon has so far refused to make public, under Freedom of Information...

A: First of all, we've made over 300 pages of documents public. And we have another 75 pages of documents that are going through the review process, and I believe there may be more beyond that. But what we have made public so far is an extremely detailed, official account, formerly classified Top Secret, of the operations, U.S. operations in Laos in 1970. And there are a number of pages, I think four or five pages, that deal specifically with TAILWIND. Then there are some other pages that talk about other relevant topics such as rules for using tear gas in that theater.

So we are working hard to release these documents and we will continue to release them as they become available.

Q: The North Korean submarine. Can you tell us whatever you have on it? And was it in international waters or in South Korean waters...

A: The North Korean submarine is now under water, I guess about 100 feet down. It sank. The South Koreans are trying to raise it. I understand it's about a mile from the shore. When they first -- when it first ran into fishermen's nets I think it was some 11 miles offshore, ten miles I guess, and that's about all we know about it. The South Koreans tried to tow it into port and they almost got it there when the thing sank. So the next chapter of this story will come out of South Korea when they bring the submarine up.

Q: Was there any request for U.S. assistance or...

A: I'm not aware that there was.

Q: U.S. officers were supposed to have been at Panmunjan when the South Koreans went to talk to the North Koreans today. Has that happened?

A: The first round of general officer talks did happen today. These are basically under the UN Command at the Peace Village. They're designed to set up better systems for managing crises.

The American general on that team, Major General Michael Hayden, did bring up with the North Koreans the submarine incident, and my understanding is they did not respond. But, he did raise the incident as a matter of concern with the North Korean side.

Q: And they did not comment on this?

A: My understanding is they did not.

Q: Any knowledge about the whereabouts of the crew?

A: That's a good question. Two people were seen on the deck of the submarine when it was ensnared in nets. They were trying to get the nets off the periscope and the propeller. When they saw South Korean military ships approaching, they disappeared inside. I guess we'd have to assume that if they're still there. They're not alive because the submarine appears to be filled with water and it may have run out of oxygen before that. But what we won't know until the submarine is brought up, is whether they were able to escape in some way.

Q: Can you tell us at what stage planning has reached by NATO in regards to military options [in] Kosovo, and secondly, has there been any increase in air assets at Aviano?

A: I don't believe there's been any increase in air assets at Aviano. No decision has been made to use military force in Kosovo. NATO looked at a list of nine options and it's in the process of narrowing that list down and once they narrow the list down to a smaller number of options they will present this list to the military committee. And then the military committee will present it to the North Atlantic Council, and then presumably after some period of review they'll get instructions to go back and to convert these options into what's called contingency plans which would be more detailed plans about what to do next.

That still would not constitute a decision by NATO to use force. It would just move the planning process another step down the line. There has to be a political decision by the members of NATO to use force, and that has not happened yet.

Q: You've made clear from the podium here that the United States does not consider it necessary for UN approval or any UN resolution, for any NATO military action in Kosovo, but apparently some NATO members do. Is it likely that NATO would take military action without UN action?

A: We believe that NATO does not need any UN approval. That's one of the issues that will have to be sorted out. Right now, we are doing all our planning in a multilateral context with our NATO allies. I believe that the whole question of UN Security Council approval at this stage has sort of been put to the side. Right now the focal point is on a new round of diplomatic efforts to resolve the problem in Kosovo. The first step in that diplomatic effort is -- Mr. Holbrooke is in Belgrade today, I think even now, talking with President Milosevic. He met earlier today with Mr. Rugova, the President of the Albanian Kosovars, and he also was in -- I think he met recently with Macedonian and Greek officials as well. He was in Athens yesterday to give a speech.

So he is to meet with Mr. Milosevic today and there will be a contact group meeting sometime soon, following up on Ambassador Holbrooke's meeting. So there is a round of diplomatic acts taking place. That is, right now, the main focal point of the effort to resolve this.

Q: Have you noticed any change in the disposition of Serbs' either security or military forces in Kosovo? Have there been any additions or subtractions in terms of people or equipment?

A: There have been some changes. Probably the most significant action so far is the VJ -- the Yugoslav Army, seems to be acting a little less aggressively than it was a week or ten days ago. The UCK, which is the Kosovar Albanian forces, are carrying out a series of raids and they tend to be trying to provoke both the Yugoslav police forces, the so-called MUP, and possibly even the Army, the VJ. It highlights the fact that any solution here is going to have to be a symmetrical solution that requires restraint on both sides -- both the Kosovar Albanian side and the Yugoslav side.

Q: Has there been any change in the number of VJ forces in Kosovo?

A: Not significantly, no.

Q: Have you seen any movement of either SAMs, AAA, mortars, any VJ equipment into Kosovo?

A: There is some strengthening of their air defenses in Kosovo, yes.

Q: SA-6s?

A: As I already said, they had SA-6s there already.

Q: And what's been added?

A: I don't think I'll go into details, but there has been some strengthening of their air defenses there.

Q: You made it quite clear the United States does not think UN approval is needed for NATO action. Can you point to any NATO ally that shares that belief?

A: Well, I haven't done a survey of our NATO allies so I guess I can't.

Q: Do you know who from the Pentagon will be accompanying the President to China?

A: There will be, as I understand it, two people. One will be Admiral Prueher, who is the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Command; and General Foglesong who I believe also would be traveling with the President or at least with the Secretary of State and will be over there during the meetings.

Q: Who is he?

A: He's the Chairman's Special Representative on the Joint Staff. Special Assistant for Outreach to the State Department.

Press: Thank you.