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DOD News Briefing, Tuesday, 3 November 1998

Presenters: Capt. Mike Doubleday, USN, DASD (PA)
November 03, 1998 1:40 PM EDT

Captain Doubleday: Good afternoon.

Let me start by welcoming three Dag Hammarschold fellows from China, Ghana, and Iran to the briefing. They're here participating in a program that annually brings people to Washington and they're going to have a chance to visit not only the Pentagon, but also the State Department, Capitol Hill and the White House. This is a program sponsored by the U.N. Correspondents Association.

I also have a brief update for you on the subject of the hurricane relief. We have sent 17 rotary-wing and four fixed-wing aircraft to support the State Department and Central American government relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. Our support is being coordinated by the Southern Command through Joint Task Force Bravo which is located at Sodo Cano in Honduras.

There are approximately 500 U.S. military personnel involved in the operation. So far the U.S. helicopters have flown 17 relief missions and they've rescued about 500 people so far.

Two UH-60 helicopters and 13 personnel are currently operating near Managua, Nicaragua, and two more UH-60 helicopters are expected to arrive in Nicaragua by this evening.

With that brief update...

Q: Are those four part of the 17?

A: No, those are in addition to.

Q: On top of?

A: Those are in addition to, I believe... No, the overall number right now, we've sent 17 rotary-wing and four fixed-wing aircraft, so the total number is 17 plus four fixed-wing aircraft.

Q: The mission is rescue for the present time?

A: We're doing some surveillance and also some rescue work. But as you can see, we've picked up 500 people so far. But any of you who have seen pictures of this up to this point know that the situation down there is pretty dramatic, and there are a lot of people who are stranded, a lot of people have been killed, and a lot of people are still missing.

Q: Do you have any more detail? Are these Army, Reserves, Air Force...

A: These are Army helicopters, let me see if I've got anything more on units that they're assigned to.

I can give you a rundown of the units that they are from. Let me just go through this.

It looks like the UH-60s, six of them are permanently based at Task Force Bravo. There are helicopters, and then some of the UH-60s are Medevac helicopters from the 228th Aviation Unit. There are some MH-60L Special Operations helicopters, and some CH-47 Chinooks that are also involved in this.

The fixed wing aircraft are C-27s and C-130 aircraft, and we've also got some Zodiak inflatable boats that are involved.

The UH-60 helicopters that are going to be added to the equation are from Panama and they're expected to arrive in Managua tonight. So contrary to what I said before, the latest two are going to be added to the 17 that are there.

Q: Will the U.S. be involved in infrastructure repair?

A: I think at this point it's too early to say. That Task Force Bravo, by the way, is a unit that is frequently involved in engineering exercises, so it's conceivable that there will be some assistance in that regard, but I think at this point it's primarily some overhead surveillance of the situation and rescuing individuals is the primary thrust of what is going on.

Q: Other than just to discuss the issue, could you tell us why the SecDef is in Europe and the Middle East? There was an indication he was going to visit several European countries. He visited London and is now up to the Middle East. Is he going to go back to Europe? And could you, again, tell us exactly why he's there?

A: As you mentioned, he has already made a stop earlier today in London. He is presently in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He has just completed a series of meetings there. He met with King Fahd and he's also met with Crown Prince Abdullah. He will continue on with the trip over the next several days.

As I think most of you are aware, the President asked him to make this trip to consult with European and Gulf allies and friends about the situation involving Iraq and to get an assessment of their views and share with our allies and friends our views on the subject.

Q: Is it safe to say that he's drumming up possible support for any possible military action?

A: At this point all the options are still open, but no decisions have been made regarding exactly what steps we may be taking, and I'm not going to be in a position to forecast for you what those steps might be other than to say at this point that until the inspectors are back on their job -- these are the UNSCOM inspectors in Iraq -- no option is off the table.

Q: Is he going back to Europe?

A: I think it is likely that he will make additional stops in Europe before he returns to the United States.

Q: Where else is he going in the Gulf and when?

A: We are not going to give a complete itinerary of his travel schedule this time. We will be, at the conclusion of each one of the stops we'll be glad to share with you the fact that he's been there. But for right now I'm not going to go through, other than to let you know that the stops will be with friends and allies in the Middle East and also in Europe.

Q: Can you give us any details of the discussions with King Fahd including perhaps Saudi ideas on...

A: I think you've seen the read-out that the U.K. Ministry of Defense gave this morning. I think that the overall thrust of the meetings there in the U.K. is probably indicative of the thrust of meetings that he'll be having at other stops.

This morning in his meetings with British Minister of Defense George Robertson they agreed that Saddam Hussein's decision to halt U.N. weapons inspections poses a serious threat to the credibility of the U.N. and to stability in the region. They agreed that there was no alternative to full compliance with Security Council Resolutions requiring an end to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program.

They reviewed a range of options to enforce compliance, and as I said before, all options remain on the table. In the case of the United Kingdom, we're very strong allies and will continue to work together to curb Iraq's threats to its neighbors and to enforce the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

I can't give you a read-out of the meetings that have just been completed, but if we get a read-out, I'd be glad to share it with you.

Q: The last time I think the Secretary was there and he, was it in February, said he wasn't even going to be asking for any kind of basing rights or any kind of permission to launch offensive strikes during the last confrontation.

Is it fair to say that's the same standard that he's going by this time around? Is he going that far, to ask for permission to launch strikes if necessary? Does the United States need that?

A: Susanne, at this point I can't characterize exactly what the details of the conversations with the Saudis were. I'll just see if there's anything we can provide to you later on. I think that the thing that you should take away from everything I'm saying is that all options are still on the table.

Q: Can you tell, though, if the United States is taking the lead in this effort with the Secretary's visit there? Or would they prefer to see the U.N. take a more active role? Is that why the Secretary's there, because the U.N. hasn't been more

A: Well, I...

Q:...with Iraq?

A: I think that the United States has an obvious leadership role on this issue and a variety of others, but it's also true that we are looking to the United Nations which has taken action in the past on this, has already made some very strong statements, and I would anticipate that you will see further actions coming out of the U.N. Security Council on this issue.

Q: Can you give us a rundown on where U.S. aircraft are stationed in the region? What types, and which air bases?

A: I'm not going to be that specific. I'm going to be very general about what we've got in the region. But I think all of you are aware that we have a very robust force in the region that we have maintained for some time. That force includes both carrier-based air and land-based air. We have approximately 23,000 U.S. personnel who are in the region. That includes personnel of all branches of the service -- Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force. The aircraft carrier USS EISENHOWER is there right now. The Amphibious Ready Group is centered around the amphibious ship ESSEX. There are a number of Tomahawk-capable ships in the region that we maintain on a continuing basis.

Q: You mentioned the EISENHOWER is there. The ENTERPRISE is shortly to deploy. Is there any consideration being given to advancing its deployment or to going back to two carriers in the region?

A: I'm not aware of any changes to deployment schedules, but I would again state that all options are on the table.

Q: Is there a reason that the Defense Department doesn't like to say in public that the United States has aircraft based in Saudi Arabia? Is there a sensitivity about that?

A: I think you're aware that we don't always give a lot of detail to where our aircraft are based with any specificity, but it's also no secret that we do have a number of aircraft that are in Saudi Arabia. I'll just leave it at that.

Q: Any other countries in the region?

A: We have used other countries from time to time, and I'm not going to give you a list of where the aircraft are presently based, but I think most of you are aware of the locations that we've used in the past.

Q: Why is the Pentagon being so unusually secretive about the Defense Secretary's travel itinerary?

A: First of all, this trip was put together very quickly, and in fact some details of it are still in the works. I think in this particular instance it was a desire for the Secretary to consult with his counterparts and with our allies and friends both in Europe and in the region, and to do so in a way that was perhaps more low key than we have done in the past.

Q: Why wasn't this assignment given to Madeleine Albright who was here when Cohen had some very serious missions to accomplish? The second question is why is the press not with him?

A: I think I just answered the second question which was that we, on this particular trip decided that it would be a good thing to consult with allies and friends in a low key manner, and then to come back and report to the President before reporting to the news media.

With regard to the other part of your question, I can't answer why the decision was made to employ one official rather than another, other than to say that this is certainly an issue that Secretary Cohen is very familiar with. He came back over the weekend to participate in a variety of meetings on the subject, and there certainly is a very high ranking State Department Official who is a part of his party.

Q: Is the United States and this building concerned that Britain is perhaps the only country giving open support to possible military attacks against Iraq?

A: I'm not sure that I totally agree with you on that, Charlie. Certainly the very quick reaction you saw from the United Nations in response to the statements and actions that were taken by Iraq is indicative of the fact that the entire international community is condemning this action that Iraq has taken.

With regard to future steps, no one has specified exactly what those may be, but we have made it very clear and I think the Brits have made it very clear that at this point nothing is off the table.

Q: In August when Saddam Hussein first started limiting access, Ken Bacon stood up there and said we don't believe this is a crisis right now.

Does the Pentagon feel that the current situation is of crisis proportion?

A: We believe it's a very serious situation, and it is certainly one that is getting a lot of attention not only in Washington, but in capitals in many countries of the world. I think you're going to see actions taken by the United Nations Security Council on this, so I think there is general agreement that this is a very serious situation.

Q: What was the reaction to the sudden change of the Secretary's schedule, or how was the change of schedule received in the Asian countries? And do you have a new schedule for that trip?

A: I don't have a new schedule. I don't really have a reaction by the countries other than to say that the Secretary has made it very clear that he wants to reschedule those meetings that he had there as soon as possible. We will certainly do that. But I don't have a schedule yet on when that will be.

Q: Does he plan to conduct that trip at least prior to U.S. delegation goes to North Korea?

A: I can't give you a time table. As soon as we have some definitive answer I'd be glad to share it with you. I just don't have it now.

Q: Can you give us a better description of what happened over in Bosnia with these pilots who apparently got laser beamed...

Q: Wait.

Q:...Sorry.

Q: Can you say if there has been any warning orders, any deployment orders at all put out to alert forces for potential movement towards the Gulf?

A: I'm not aware of any orders that have been put out with regard to that.

Q: Would any such orders be needed, or...

A: That's a good question. As I said before, we have a very robust force there that includes a lot of combat aircraft, a lot of very skilled people who can operate those weapon systems, and a lot of Tomahawk-capable ships. But I go back again to what I've said before, all the options are still on the table.

Q: Bosnia?

A: Yeah.

Q: What happened? Do you think this guy got, these two I guess guys that were injured got hit with a weapon or a toy or...

A: At this point I think we still do not have a definitive answer as to what the source of the laser incident was. Let me give you a little background though, so that perhaps those who haven't gotten into this one can understand it more fully.

As I understand it, on the 24th of October there was a helicopter that was, the crew of the helicopter that was involved in this included a chief warrant officer who was the pilot and a sergeant who was an air crewman. They reported eye irritations as a result of an incident involving a laser that came from a residential area. This was near the town of Zeneca. They were treated and basically released.

According to the reports that I've received, there is a proliferation of these little laser pointers among school children in Bosnia. And I think that some of you here in the United States have seen these laser pointers which are actually, I think, designed for school age children because they project various symbols on the wall and they're used in the classroom. They're also potentially very dangerous if they're pointed at a person's eyes.

Q: It went to a helicopter.

A: That's correct. In this particular case our belief is that this was an incident involving a laser that was not a toy. But there was a search that was conducted immediately after this report, and that was done by local police as well as the IPTF, and the only laser that was found in the area was one of these toys.

So the investigation to determine exactly what caused this lasing incident is still going on. As I say, the injuries were not serious.

The command over there, because they had previously had other incidents where lasers had been pointed at individuals, both civilian and military people, they were embarking on kind of an information program for the local population to educate people as to the hazard of these devices -- the toys, particularly. And it was in the midst of all of that that this incident came up.

What we've done to deal with the situation is to provide helicopter crews with either special glasses or goggles that protect their eyes in these situations.

Q: The people whose eyes were injured, were they flying at night with night vision goggles on?

A: Do we know whether this was at night? Let me...

Voice: The answer I think is yes, but...

A: Let us verify the time of day that this occurred before we answer that question. We'll get back to you on that one.

Q: Is this considered some sort of weird new threat? There is a proliferation of lasers all over the place. Is this something the military is concerned about?

A: We have been for some time concerned about lasers. I think each one of the services has been very aware that lasers can be a factor in modern warfare. And I think you're aware that there are treaties that govern the use of lasers now also. But this particular case is unique in that although there have been other laser incidents over there, it is not at all clear that this was done with any kind of hostile intent. Although the source of the laser may have been something that was other than a toy.

Q: How badly were they injured? How many were injured? And are they okay now?

A: There were two individuals involved in this, as I say. There was a chief warrant officer who was the pilot, and a sergeant. They complained of eye irritations. I think that to put this in perspective, anybody who has been around welding when it's going on can get some sense of the situation. If you look at welding going on with unprotected eyes sometimes you can have eye irritation and it will not necessarily do permanent damage to your eyes, but certainly there is a sensitivity to light for some period of time.

I think the sergeant in this case is still wearing sunglasses, but we anticipate that he will shortly return to full duty. The warrant officer, indeed his eyes have been medically cleared at this point, although for other reasons he is not flying helicopters presently.

Q: There are various kinds of weapons, range finders, and laser sites, and things like that that use lasers. Is there any feeling that this could have been a weapon, a laser associated with a weapon?

A: There were during the war over there, we believe, weapons that used lasers. And it is conceivable that one of those, not necessarily weapons, but a range finder or some piece of military equipment actually was picked up by somebody afterwards, somebody who may not have a full appreciation for what the dangers of these things are.

But the other thing that I want to stress here is that these little toys which do interesting things in a classroom, project hearts and flowers and birds and bees on the wall, are actually not all that safe and I think people need to be aware of the fact that this is a concern. In Bosnia these toys, which don't cost much money, are readily available to kids, and they're running around using them.

Q: Did DoD provide any assistance to the French government in their decision to arrest...

A: Are we finished with lasers?

There's one last piece of information on that one. I am told that all of the incidents were at night and with night vision goggles.

Q: I have a laser-related question, which is Bill Gertz in the Washington Times cites a Pentagon report that concludes that China has weapons capable of, laser weapons capable of damaging or disabling sensors on U.S. satellites. Can you confirm that there is such a Pentagon report and provide clarification about what its conclusions are?

A: There was in legislation from fiscal year 1998 a requirement by the Congress for the Department to prepare a report on the pattern of military modernization of the People's Republic of China. So this report was prepared and we can provide you with a copy of the report.

As I understand it, what this report does is to assess both the intent and the capabilities of the Chinese through the year 2015. So it's for the next 16, 17 years.

What this does--this is of course is a speculative report since most of the advances that are outlined in the report have not actually come to pass yet, but this is a kind of an educated prediction of the directions that the Chinese may be going in.

The Chinese have made it very clear that their intention by the middle of the next century is to be the equal of any of the major countries of the world. So their approach to that involves not only economic development but also scientific and military development as well.

Q: But does China currently have lasers that are capable of disabling the sensors on U.S. satellites as this newspaper report said?

A: I am not aware that they currently have that capability, but I will look into it further and see if there is something that I am missing. This report was one that was projecting what was predicted would occur over the coming years.

Q: So you're saying that your understanding of that report, which you're going to provide us a copy of, does not support the conclusion that was in that newspaper?

A: That's correct.

Q: Just to clear up on the Bosnia incident, can you describe what kind of mission they were on when they were flying, and was it over, you said it was a residential area?

A: It was over a residential area. I think you're aware that we do a variety of flights there. It was a kind of a routine night flight that occurred. We frequently like to keep an eye on what is going on there and we do that with helicopters in some cases and with ground units in others.

Q: So there wasn't any incident going on at the time...

A: No, there was nothing that would have occasioned this. It was more a, first of all it was totally unexpected; but secondly, it came from a residential area.

Q: From the South China Morning Post I quote Mr. Tang, Foreign Minister. "China expresses its strong resentment and opposition to the (inaudible) move." That move being the providing of funds by the Congress for bringing Taiwan into the Asia Pacific missile defense umbrella. The Chinese are very upset with this. They've also said a couple of months ago that anybody that arms or defends Taiwan could face military action, I think they said war.

Mike, is the United States going to continue to provide the basis for missile defense for Taiwan?

A: Let me get for you an official response on that one.

Q: Did DoD provide any assistance to the French government in their apprehension of one of their military officers on charges of espionage for apparently supplying NATO strike plans to Serbia?

A: I'm not aware of any kind of assistance, but I'd refer you to both the French and to NATO for any details on that particular story.

Q: Do you have any assessment of the amount of damage that was done in that case?

A: No, I don't. You might want to check with NATO. They may be able to provide you that.

Q: Just continuing with my theme of published reports. The San Diego Union Tribune published a report over the weekend which they said was a six month study that concluded that the Pentagon covered up or suppressed medical evidence of a link between Agent Orange and birth defects in Vietnam veterans. Do you have any comment about that report?

A: All I can tell you is that this particular study has been going on for I think since 1979. The standard procedure on this study is that there is a review that is done by a committee put together by the Department of Health and Human Services. In addition to that, there is a biennial review by the National Academy of Sciences. And beyond that, this particular study is available to the public through a detailed report that is submitted annually to the Congress.

The people who are working on the study periodically report their findings in journals which are then peer reviewed.

So I think the Air Force certainly, which is the service that has responsibility for this report, stands behind the report and the review process that has been put together to oversee the review.

Q: Does the research to date indicate in fact that there's any higher incidents of birth defects among the children of Vietnam...

A: I would refer you to the people who have actually done the study to get down to details of what is in the study. I have not seen it, Jamie, but I can tell you that there is a very careful review that is conducted in connection with it.

Q: But you can't tell us whether or not the current state of scientific knowledge supports a link between Agent Orange and any sort of...

A: I cannot tell you any details of a report that I haven't seen.

Anything else?

Q: The San Diego Union Tribune piece essentially says that senior Air Force officials cooked the books and covered up this link. So you're saying that's not true?

A: I'm saying that the Air Force stands behind the report. This is a report that has been going on for some time, a study that's been going on since 1979. There are numerous occasions where it's been looked at by Health and Human Services, by a committee of individuals who are all outside the Department of Defense. It's been looked at by the National Academy of Sciences. And it is also available to the general public.

Q: So you're saying there's been no coverup.

A: As far as I can see there has been no coverup.

Q: Was anybody from the Pentagon or the Air Force contacted by the newspaper prior to the publication of this piece? And what, if anything, comments did you provide...

A: I can't say. I certainly wasn't, but it's conceivable that somebody else was.

Q:... in Okinawa. Relocation of Potenmwa Marine Corps stationed in Okinawa. The Secretary recently said in an interview that it's up to the Okinawan people and the Japanese government to resolve this issue and the United States will await the decision.

A: Right.

Q: Does this mean that the United States does not only aim at what they call sea-based facility option, they're open to a new option?

A: I think the Secretary has made it very clear, we believe it is up to the government of Japan to come up with a decision on what direction they're going in on this subject. Once they've come to a final conclusion, we will meet with them and decide whether it is adequate to support our requirements over there.

But at this point, this is something that people in Okinawa and the government of Japan need to make a decision on. It's not up to us to do this one.

Q: Has the position of the U.S. government changed?

A: As far as I know, it's not changed at all.

Q: The Japanese government has responded that (unintelligible) press conference following the Secretary's interview that he regards the Secretary's statement with great importance and will not stick only to the sea-based facility option either.

How do you see this development in the Japan side based on the assumption that the Secretary changed his position?

A: I'm not sure the Secretary did change his position. The Secretary has all along maintained that this is a decision for the government of Japan to make, not for us to make.

Q: One more published report. The New York Times reports that part of the problem with recruiting is that apparently some potential recruits feel there are things in life that are more fun than joining the military. Can this be true? (Laughter)

You can take that question if you want to.

A: Let me take that one.

Press: Thank you.