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Press Briefing Tuesday June 30 1998

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
June 30, 1998 1:00 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.

In a minute, Secretary Cohen will make a statement about the Tomb of the Unknowns, and after that he'll take a few questions. We have a team of experts led by Rudy de Leon on the Tomb to go into considerable detail on that issue.

Q: Can the Secretary start off with an Iraqi statement for us? That's kind of a breaking story now...

Mr. Bacon: The Secretary will start out with a statement on the Tomb of the Unknowns, and if you have a question he'll answer the question.

Secretary Cohen: Less than seven weeks ago, with profound reluctance we disturbed the hallowed ground of the Tomb of the Unknowns in an effort to identify the Vietnam Unknown and to ease the lingering anguish of one American family. We took that somber step only because of our abiding commitment to the fullest possible accounting for every warrior who has fought and died for our nation.

After successful mitochondrial DNA comparison and forensic examination using the state of the art technology that was not available back in 1984, the United States Army Central Identification Laboratory has determined that the remains interred in 1984 as the Vietnam Unknown are those of U.S. Air Force First Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie. This morning I conveyed that information to his mother, Mrs. George C. Blassie of Missouri.

The report, which documents the work of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, and the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, and the resulting identification, is now being reviewed independently by three outside consultants with acknowledged expertise in forensic science. Those consultants are going to complete their work by tomorrow and the report will then be conveyed to Mrs. Blassie for her review. Then, afterwards, the report will be forwarded to the Armed Forces Identification Review Board for the final determination.

Since the end of the war in Vietnam, the Department of Defense has identified the remains of 496 Americans -- some 2,087 Americans who died in that conflict remain unaccounted for. As we share with the Blassie family the knowledge that the remains of their loved one have been identified, I want to renew the pledge to those whose loved ones are still missing that the United States Government and the Department of Defense are going to continue to search for each and every American warrior who has died in foreign lands defending our nation and whose remains have not yet been located and brought home.

On behalf of the Department of Defense, I also want to especially express my appreciation to the other families whose selfless cooperation made the identification of the former Vietnam Unknown possible.

Thank you. I'll now entertain your questions.

Q: Would you be kind enough to defer just for a moment and tell us what you can about the situation in Iraq today?

Secretary Cohen: The situation is that at approximately 1:30 this morning four British aircraft were continuing their no-fly zone operations in the southern part of Iraq, during which time they were tracked by Iraqi radar and as a result of that tracking, a HARM missile was fired by a U.S. F-16 aircraft at the site, at the site of the radiation. Beyond that, I don't have any information that would add to what you already know in terms of the consequences of the firing of that missile.

At this point we cannot determine with any certainty whether the missile hit any radar or whether it missed.

Q: Is this a rogue act, do you think, or is this...

Secretary Cohen: We don't know. It could be simply an isolated example. We have not seen any evidence on the part of the Iraqis altering their air defense system. We've not seen any examples of higher alert. We've not seen them moving their radars and tracking systems around in any sort of aggressive fashion, so it might be a situation of an isolated example.

Q: Mr. Secretary, the British fighters were the first to recognize that the radar was activated. Why was it up to the U.S. then to fire on them? Why didn't the British flyers or a British long range missile...

Secretary Cohen: The U.S. aircraft in the area was armed with the HARM missile which was deemed to be the most effective weapon to target that radar site at that time. It was a split second type of operation. We have a lock on of the radar for only seconds at a time so this decision was made on that kind of a split second decisionmaking status.

Q: Now that the U.S. has drawn down to nearly half the force that it had a month and a half ago, is this going to alter any of your plans on keeping it or are you going to just watch and wait and keep the force level...

Secretary Cohen: This will not alter our plans. I don't think we should draw any conclusions from this particular one incident. Obviously, if the situation changes, then we would change our plans, but right now we have more than adequate capability to deter any attack upon U.S. forces or allied forces and more than sufficient capability of inflicting substantial harm. So we see no need at this point to change anything.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what message should this send to Iraq's Saddam Hussein?

Secretary Cohen: The message is a very simple one, that our forces are going to protect themselves. This is an act of self defense. We believe very strongly that our aircraft and those of our friends are going to fly without being attacked or the threat of attack. Should that threat manifest itself, it will be responded to immediately. Beyond that, I think that's the single message we want to send.

Q: Iraq has denied targeting the U.S. planes and labeled this an act of aggression. Your reaction?

Secretary Cohen: You have four British aircraft that identified their aircraft as being illuminated, or the one aircraft being illuminated, but it was confirmed by three other British aircraft plus the U.S. F-16. There is no need for the United States or the British or the French, should that be the case in the future, to try to either create a situation of aggression or conflict. They are simply engaging in their own self-protection and they will continue to do that. We hope this will be seen as an isolated example and not see any escalation on the part of the Iraqis.

Q: Kosovo is looking pretty bleak at the present. Mr. Holbrooke concludes that it's only a few steps from full war. Mr. Berger says that NATO is ready to intervene. What is your assessment?

Secretary Cohen: NATO is in the process of examining a full range of military options, and those options that are being examined are quite significant in scope and size and capability. But there has been no decision, to my knowledge, in terms of any finality of any particular military option. In addition, of course, there's the question that remains as to whether or not the members of NATO feel it must secure U.N. Security Council authorization or mandate. The United States of course takes a different position, that we feel there's more than enough authority for NATO to act on its own to deal with the situation should it require any kind of a military operation.

Q: What's the next step now with the Tomb? What happens? Are there other unidentified remains that might go there, or are there no more missing soldiers from the Vietnam War?

Secretary Cohen: It's something that we're going to consult with members of Congress, the veterans organizations and other authorities to determine what takes place now. It may be that forensic science has reached the point where there will be no other unknowns in any war, so we have to look very carefully at where we go from here, but right now we're trying to bring this to completion. Again, I talked to Mrs. Blassie this morning, and she and her family members are hoping to see a conclusion of this with a burial sometime in the very near future.

Q: As a matter of procedure, you most likely will now go to all of the unidentified remains and try to do the same procedure on all of them, will you not?

Secretary Cohen: That remains to be determined. We are going to consult with, again, key members of Congress, with the various committees, also with the veterans organizations in terms of how we proceed from this point with other unknowns.

Q: Apparently one of the families was notified yesterday or the day before, before this morning. After all this time where the Blassie's perhaps felt they had been mistreated before, why did they have to hear about this on TV and read about it in the newspaper?

Secretary Cohen: I believe that the Blassie family, in fact, was notified yesterday by certain individuals. I waited until I returned to Washington to officially notify them, but I talked with the family today. They were quite happy, frankly, with the way in which it's been handled. They were very praiseworthy of Rudy de Leon who has really been deeply involved in helping to bring this to a conclusion and they seemed quite satisfied with the process.

Q: President Reagan awarded the Medal of Honor to the Unknown soldier. What happens to that? Does Michael Blassie get to keep that, or do you take it back, or what? Secretary Cohen: Mr. Blassie was awarded the Silver Star, posthumously, to reflect his bravery in the course of his duties. The medal itself was presented and awarded to the Unknowns of Vietnam as a symbol of those missing in action and unaccounted for. I believe this issue has to be examined for all of the legal implications of it, and that's something that the Air Force will undertake to do. But my understanding was the medal was awarded for the benefit of all of those who remained unknown, but that's an issue that has to be subjected to some legal analysis right now, and the Air Force is going to undertake that.

Q: The Tomb contains remains from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and no longer Vietnam. Will there be a replacement of remains...

Secretary Cohen: I don't know. That's something we have to examine now and find out what steps will take place. Mr. de Leon is here to try to give you a further examination on it.

Q: A question on Iraq again. If this wasn't a hostile action by Iraq, as you say it might not have been, what could it have been?

Secretary Cohen: I didn't say it wasn't a hostile action. The question was whether it was an isolated one, whether it was an effort to deliberately target this either on the part of the operator on his own, or whether or not it was something that was mandated and commanded to do, whether it was simply an isolated example. We don't know the answer to that. I think it would not behoove us to speculate what the motivation may have been. We will watch very carefully, we will continue to fly the no-fly zone, we will continue to engage in force protection, self-protection, and to do whatever is necessary to protect our pilots, but I don't know that we're in a position to speculate as to what the motivation may have been. I think we will see what the consequences are as far as the Iraqi reaction. Hopefully, we will return to the same bases that we have been engaged in for the past several months now. They have made no aggressive moves, that we have detected at least, toward any of our aircraft, so it may be an isolated case.

Q: As a result, are U.S. or allied pilots in Operation SOUTHERN WATCH on any higher state of alert? Have they changed their procedures at all as a result of this incident?

Secretary Cohen: They are always on a fairly high state of alert in terms of making sure that they are protected. They will perhaps be a little more acute in terms of their actions right now but we would maintain the same level of protection.

Q: Given that U.S. planes have control of the skies, what is the delay in the battle damage assessment?

Secretary Cohen: I can't answer that question in terms of whether the assessment has been completed yet, in terms of all of the imagery information coming down and being analyzed. I don't know that the target was hit. It seems that perhaps it was not hit, but I don't have the information that would confirm that.

Q: ...the fact that President Clinton wasn't notified of this incident until some eight hours after the fact.

Secretary Cohen: In view of the fact that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and other officials were notified, it was determined apparently that it was not necessary to interrupt the proceedings in China right now. If it had been more serious, obviously this information would have been communicated right away. But a determination was made that it was isolated in nature and it was left at that.

Q: You said there's a possibility the missile did not hit the radar, but do you have to hit each radar in order to effectively prevent Saddam Hussein from threatening U.S. planes?

Secretary Cohen: The answer is no. I think you can send a signal that we intend to engage very vigorously enforced protection, that if any of our aircraft or those of our allies are targeted, then they will be met with a very vigorous response. I think that that signal was sent and hopefully it will rest there. Hopefully it was simply an isolated example and not a concerted effort on the part of Saddam or any of his troops to put our forces in jeopardy. Should they be put in jeopardy, then obviously that would call for a very vigorous response on our part.

Q: Mr. Secretary, with regard to the North Korean sub that was captured by the South and the discovery of, I think, nine dead crewmen aboard, do you see that having any adverse impact on the North/South dialogue at this point?

Secretary Cohen: Not at this time. In fact I met with General Tilelli this morning, the CINCs are in Washington having their annual conference, and the military to military contacts are still ongoing so it has not interrupted that effort right now.

Q: You say the Blassies were pleased by the news when you talked to them this morning. Is there any concern that perhaps the Blassies or the other families involved were caused any unnecessary anguish by the length of time it took to make this identification, and what can you do to prevent this from happening again?

Secretary Cohen: I'm sure they suffered anguish from the day that Mrs. Blassie's son was lost. Obviously anyone who has lost a family member would go through a long period of anguish, and that anguish will probably never be extinguished. But this does bring a measure of completion to the search for their son. How can we prevent it in the future? I think by virtue of the advances in science, that we will no longer have to have that kind of a delay in the future. So I think that they are satisfied with the action that we have taken. They far would have preferred to have taken the action much sooner. Science was not at the state where it could have performed the kind of examination with the kind of certainty that is involved here prior to this time.

Q: Some of the POW/MIA groups have accused the Pentagon of rushing to identify remains with very little forensic evidence, that the whole operation at CILHI in Hawaii is flawed and needs to be investigated, and that this is just a perfect example of the problems there. Are you concerned about that lab? Is there going to be an investigation given the fact that you now know that this was not an unknown?

Secretary Cohen: I think I'll leave that question to Mr. de Leon in terms of the competence or capability of the lab.

I have been advised that the kind of examination that has been conducted -- I indicated it would take between 30 and 45 days -- we are at that precise time right now from the time that we began. There is a 99.9 percent degree of certainty that these remains are those of...

Q: I mean going back to the early '80s. The remains were believed to be Michael Blassie, and then they were made (inaudible) and up to the present with other remains.

Secretary Cohen: There was a Senior Working Group that has examined this particular case and found that there was no evidence to support any attempt on the part of the Pentagon or the Defense Department to in any way manipulate this. The evidence simply wasn't there to confirm that this was First Lieutenant Blassie's remains. Beyond that, I think perhaps Mr. de Leon can comment more extensively on the assessment of the process.

Q: The Inspector General has now handed your office a report on General Hale. Has your office found any malfeasance, any responsibility on the Chief of Staff of the Army for the way General Hale's retirement was handled?

Secretary Cohen: Since the investigation is still underway and that report has now been sent to the Army for its comment and reaction, I really can't comment on it at this point.

Q: It's your office that will determine whether or not the Chief of Staff of the Army has acted properly.

Secretary Cohen: Ultimately I will have, yes, a very major role to play on this, which is the reason I can't comment.

Q: Are you convinced that the analysis of the Iraqi warheads, the finding of VX is correct? Are you convinced that they had it, loaded it, and then disposed of it?

Secretary Cohen: I really don't have that kind of information that I could make a statement. I believe there has been a pattern of deception and lying on the part of the Iraqis from the very beginning. They originally indicated they had no VX, had no anthrax. All of that of course has been proven to be incorrect. They also stated categorically that they had not weaponized their missiles.

The evidence that has been presented by Mr. Butler and the UNSCOM inspectors would appear to contradict that. The judgment as to whether or not that evidence is persuasive remains with the United Nations for the moment, but I think you have to go back and look at the pattern of behavior on the part of the Iraqis and then make a calculation or a judgment in terms of whether or not this would appear to be very accurate information.

Q: Therefore no sanctions relief?

Secretary Cohen: I believe until such time -- I've stated this time and time again -- until such time as the Iraqis fully comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions, and that means not only is the burden upon the UNSCOM inspectors to search throughout Iraq, a country the size of the state of Wyoming, looking for evidence and fragments of chemical and biological agents or weapons, the burden is also fully upon Saddam Hussein to produce evidence that he has in fact done what he claims he has done, namely destroyed all of the VX and the anthrax and the missiles that have been banned by the Security Council Resolutions. So he has an affirmative obligation not to prove a negative, but to prove a positive. Until such time as that takes place, there should be no consideration of lifting the sanctions.

Q: Considering technology today, is it safe to say that we're not going to be burying any more unknown soldiers?

Secretary Cohen: I think that's safe to say that. I could be proven wrong, but it would seem to me that given the state of the art today, it's unlikely that we'll have future unknowns.

Press: Thank you.