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DoD News Briefing on Operation DESERT FOX, December 17, 1998 at 1:00 p.m.

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
December 17, 1998 1:00 PM EDT

[Also participating in the briefing was Gen. Hugh Shelton, U.S. Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff]

Secretary Cohen: Good afternoon.

Our early assessment of the military action against Iraq shows that our forces are performing well. There have been no American casualties and we are achieving good coverage of our targets. As a result, we are advancing our goal of containing Saddam Hussein. We're diminishing his ability to attack his neighbors, either conventionally or with weapons of mass destruction. And since Iraq has now prevented the United Nations inspectors from doing their job, we have to resort to military action to continue to contain him.

Our targets include Iraq's air defense system, its command and control system, airfields and other military infrastructure and facilities.

One thing should be absolutely clear -- we are concentrating on military targets. We are not attacking the people of Iraq and we have no desire to increase the suffering that Saddam Hussein has imposed on his people.

Before General Shelton brings you up to date on the operations, I want to stress that our military is performing extremely well, and every American should be proud of the troops who are participating in DESERT FOX.

General Shelton: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Good afternoon.

I wanted to take a few minutes to give you a brief update today on our military operations thus far. I should warn you up front that there will not be the level of detail on either targets or the initial damage assessment that I know all of you would like to have. That kind of detailed assessment either simply isn't available, or in some cases would reveal too much about the ongoing operations.

That said, I can tell you that last night our operations were executed very well, very professionally, and we're thankful that all of our pilots and air crews returned safely.

As I said last night, we can all be extremely proud of the men and women of our armed forces on duty around the world, and particularly those in harm's way in the Persian Gulf. Last night's actions principally involved our naval forces in the Gulf with more than 70 Navy and Marine Corps and strike support aircraft from the USS ENTERPRISE; and well over 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from Navy ships.

While I will not discuss any specific targets at this time, I can say that last night U.S. forces struck more than 50 separate targets, including attacks against targets outlined by Secretary Cohen which included weapons of mass destruction sites and WMD security sites and security forces, Saddam's integrated air defense and airfields and the command and control infrastructure that supports Saddam's military and his regime.

I have a couple of examples of damage that I can share with you at this time.

The first example is of the Baghdad Director of Military Intelligence Headquarters in Iraq. The way this is broken down, we have an area, one which shows the pre-strike photo. This happens to be "the" building right here, along with one of the ancillary buildings shown over in this area that was also targeted.

Down in this photo up here where you don't see anything but rubble is what formerly was this building. And where you see in this case this building right here, you'll notice down here there's nothing left but rubble.

Also we'll take a look at Baghdad's barracks -- brigade and the Abu Ghurayb facilities which are part of the special guards, special security guards. Here are their barracks shown in this area, area one, before the strike; along with the headquarters area up in this area. You see over here that this headquarters is now rubble.

If you go from these barracks, the pre-strike to the post-strike, you'll see out of the five barracks, four of the five were destroyed.

We have a considerable amount of data coming back in. Much of it is as successful or more successful than this was. Some of it not quite as successful. But as you know, additional strike operations are underway even as we speak. While it would obviously not be appropriate to discuss ongoing operations, particularly in any detail, I can tell you that today's strikes will include land-based aircraft including the British Tornadoes, as well as additional Navy and Marine strike sorties from the deck of the USS ENTERPRISE.

To update you on the current status of our Crisis Response Force, the deployment of that, the USS CARL VINSON, the carrier battle group, will arrive in Central Command's area later today. Some of the ground and air forces based here in the United States will begin to arrive in the Gulf this weekend.

I know that you realize that the augmentation of our forces in the region would not be possible without the support of our Gulf partners, and we're grateful for their continued assistance and support in our efforts to reduce the threat that Saddam poses to the overall security of this vital region of the world.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to note the strong support from the British forces in the region. They are not only staunch allies, they are superb warriors.

Finally, I want to emphasize one point. It is inevitable that during conflict, that the focus will be on our weapons and their effectiveness. But we must not lose sight of the fact that it is our people that make the difference.

To underscore what Secretary Cohen said earlier, it is our superb soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines that make America the super power that it is. We owe our men and women in uniform carrying out this operation a great deal.

Now Secretary Cohen and I will be very happy to take your questions.

Q: General, in these two examples that you cite here, what were the particular objectives in attacking these two sites? And can you give us any kind of casualty estimates? After all, we see five of these barracks here that were partially if not totally destroyed.

General Shelton: First of all, Jim, to talk about the casualties, we do not have any casualty data yet based on the results of the strike. In terms of the two targets, the first one, the barracks area that belongs to the special Republican Guards, these are the units that, in fact, guard the WMD to help transport it. They're the ones that basically help move it. They deny UNSCOM access on occasion. This is part of the apparatus that Saddam uses to maintain control of his WMD facilities.

When we look at the military intelligence headquarters, these are the ones that in fact provide the advanced intelligence to the force as to where the UNSCOM teams were going. They were also used to help try to deny access by deceiving UNSCOM and moving UNSCOM in ways that, or providing information or lack of information that allows UNSCOM to do its job.

Q: A follow-up question, please ...

Q: Mr. Secretary ...

Q:... occupied at the time?

General Shelton: We have no way of knowing whether or not the barracks were occupied at the time. We hit the barracks, these particular barracks were sometime between 1:00 and 4:30 in the morning, a.m., Baghdad time. You would assume that with the advanced notice they got probably some of the troops had left the barracks. There may have been others inside.

Q:...the Iraqi air force? Any movement by Iraqi aircraft against ours?

General Shelton: To this point we have not seen any movement by the Iraqi aircraft.

Q: Mr. Secretary, the Iraqi Foreign Minister said today that Saddam's sister's home had been hit by a missile. I was wondering if U.S. forces are targeting Saddam's personal palaces? And was the strike on his sister's home intentional?

Secretary Cohen: The last time I checked, Saddam had something like 80 palaces. I don't know that any one is his residence, and frankly, I wouldn't get into a discussion of targets at this point.

We are targeting military or militarily related targets, period.

Q:... the Republican Guards in general, in addition to these ...

Secretary Cohen: We are going to hit those forces that deal with weapons of mass destruction, and also put him in a position to threaten his neighbors.

Q: Mr. Secretary, after you have destroyed many of these facilities and after you've gone after different military targets in Iraq, if Saddam Hussein does not yield in some way, what is the bottom line for the United States? Where do you go?

Secretary Cohen: As I indicated, we're going to continue to contain him. Containment has worked to this point. He has been unable to seriously reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program and rebuild his military. He's been contained from going north, in the south as well. He has been in a box.

He's had two objectives for some time now. One objective is to get rid of the inspectors. The second objective is to get rid of the sanctions. He has felt all along that he could frustrate, deny, obstruct, in any way deprive the inspectors from carrying out their obligations, and also seek support in changing their effectiveness, either their professionalism or their leadership. Secondly, he is looking for "a comprehensive review that will lead to a lifting of the sanctions" so that he will have relief from both of the burdens that he currently is faced with.

We intend to keep the sanctions in place. We intend to keep our forces on the ready. In the event he seeks to reconstitute again or threaten his neighbors, we will be prepared to take military action once again. So we intend to continue the containment policy.

Q: To what extent are you targeting the ...

Q:... the alliance, Mr. Secretary? And to a degree he has been successful in that because many of our friends are now critical of what is taking place.

Secretary Cohen: And many of our friends are very supportive of what is taking place.

Q: Mr. Secretary, one of the problems that came to haunt the Pentagon in the wake of the Persian Gulf War was Khamisiyah. Have you had any evidence or any indication that in attempting to strike his WMD targets that there's been any release of any problematic chemicals or anything of that nature that might affect Iraq?

Secretary Cohen: The short answer is no. First of all ...

Q: How about a long answer?

Secretary Cohen: I'll give you a longer answer.

First of all, Saddam Hussein has claimed for eight years that he has no chemical weapons, that he has no biological agents. Only when confronted with facts as he retreated and admitted that he had been lying. So we don't take him at his word that he has none. If we did, we'd have no concern about striking any of the facilities for fear of releasing any sort of poisonous gasses.

Since we don't take him at his word, we try to be very careful and scrutinizing in terms of which facilities we would target with the idea that there might be some sort of poisonous gas that could be released threatening the lives of innocent people. We've been very scrupulous in looking at those targets and trying to minimize any possibility of that.

Q: As a follow-up ...

Secretary Cohen: We've had no such information that any kind of release of anything has taken place.

Q: Have you actually avoided then certain targets because you do believe that weapons are there? Or are you using types of arms that are able to ...

Secretary Cohen: There are a number of facilities that could probably be characterized as dual use facilities. They may have civilian activities on certain floors and inappropriate activities on others. We have been careful in our targeting to try to limit it to military types of targets that would minimize the potential for harm to innocent civilians.

Q: Have you ...

Q:... military first ...

Q:... some targets off ...

Q: Mr. Secretary, a question. A lot of the organizations that are the center of the WMD program are essential to the security regime. If you attack them in the sustained way that you've described, you in fact destabilize the regime. Is that not the goal here?

Secretary Cohen: The goal is not to destabilize the regime. The goal, as I've indicated, is to decrease and diminish his capacity to threaten his neighbors and to either deliver weapons of mass destruction and hopefully be able to hit some of the facilities that would put him in a position to be making them.

We have no illusions of how difficult it is in terms of the biological certainly, or even indeed the chemical, but we intend to focus on the military aspects of his regime.

Q: Do you have any ...

Q: General Shelton, you indicated yesterday at the briefing that at the time that the last set of strikes were reported back in November, that you had anticipated then that mid-December was the likely time when there would be another crisis. Could you tell us in that case why you stopped so precipitously the buildup of aircraft at that time and brought them back home, including key aircraft like the F-117?

General Shelton: Well, as we've said all along, we have maintained a sufficient force in the Gulf to be able to respond on very short notice to many contingencies that Saddam might pose. As we started to flow back, just like we are this time now, having commenced the operation; once we realized that we were not going to go through with the operation we didn't need to build up the additional forces at the time because we had made the decision; the President had made the decision that we were not going to strike. So rather than build up we simply brought those back and have maintained the forces that we keep there all the time. All of the essence of which is they could strike within 24 hours as we've proven.

We then, of course, have a follow-on force that starts deployment almost immediately in order to provide General Zinni, the CINC, with additional flexibility in the region, and to be prepared to respond to any contingency that Saddam may pose.

Q: Even I understand that as a general proposition, but even critical assets like the F-117 which you always have held to be absolutely essential to taking out command and control and air defenses.

General Shelton: Based on the plans that we had available, we had sufficient and proper assets in the region to be able to launch the strike that we had in mind if we needed to do that.

To answer the question that was being asked back here in terms of how long have we known about, or how much time did we have to prepare, we basically, since the 15th of November, had been able to respond within 24 hours. We had about a 72 hour notice to make sure that all systems would be in place, and then the real requirement to be ready to respond was a 24 hour one since 15 November on.

Secretary Cohen: I'd like to answer just a part of the question that was asked about the F-117s and why the aircraft were left here.

You may recall, I have enormous respect for the Chairman and his ability to look into the future, but I don't think any of us can predict exactly which month or which day Saddam is going to put his finger in the eye of the UNSCOM inspectors or seek to bar them in such a brazen fashion that he did.

But nonetheless, the Chairman and I have also been concerned about an issue called readiness. We have been dealing for some time on how do we balance what we're doing, as far as our forces are concerned, the kind of pressure and stress that we're placing on them with so many deployments back and forth. We made a calculated decision that we would be in a position to move those forces quickly, if necessary, to reinforce whatever action would be taking place if the President made such a decision. So it was always a question of how to balance the composition of the force.

We in fact reconfigured it in a way that would allow us to take action very quickly, and then to be reinforced with these aircraft that are under heavy stress as far as their over-utilization. So ...

Q:... any attempt on Iraq's part to strike out at his neighbors? Have you seen any action taken towards Israel or Kuwait or anything of that sort?

Secretary Cohen: Not at this time.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what ...

Q:... American pilots ...

Q:... concerned about the increased threat of terrorism, and what precautions have you taken? And as a follow-up, could you answer Dana Priest's question when you're finished, because she can't shout over the crowd. (Laughter)

Secretary Cohen: That may be a new historic mark for CNN to yield to the Washington Post.

With respect to terrorism, the threat of terrorism has been with us for some time. It is increasing. As a result of Osama bin Laden and some of his associates, there have been plans that have been in the making on their part to attack U.S. facilities. We have been aware of these plans, we have tried to verify those plans, we have tried to assess their credibility, we follow it very, very closely.

It is our anticipation that attempts will be made, as attempts have been made in the past. We have been somewhat successful, quite successful, as a matter of fact, in frustrating several attempts during the course of this year to prevent bombings from taking place following those that occurred in East Africa.

But we understand the nature of the threat. We can take only so many precautions. Everyone is on alert. We are also prepared to deal with it in whatever fashion we can from a military point of view, but we should always be prepared that this could happen at any time. And the American people should understand this is not something that is related to what is going on in Iraq. This is something that has been in the planning for several years. It continues on a regular basis on their part, and we try to follow it as best we can.

Q: Can I have a follow-up on the Khamisiyah question? Are there sites that you know contain stockpiles of weapons, that you also know, if you hit them [they] can cause some plume problems and things like that, [and] that you have then taken [them] off your list of targets.

Secretary Cohen: Not to my knowledge. This would be something that UNSCOM would have more information about in terms of where they would look for certain types of either records or indeed any sort of substance. I am not personally aware of any such site that might contain this.

Q: General Shelton, the Pentagon said previously you had approximately 400, or slightly more than 400 naval cruise missiles in the region, and about 100 ALCMs. If that's true, you've used half of your naval cruise ... Are you moving more cruise missiles into the region? Or do you have an adequate stockpile?

General Shelton: We have a very adequate stockpile of cruise missiles in the Persian Gulf region. As you know in terms of the CALCMs, the CALCMs are very capable of being deployed from CONUS bases on very short order.

Q: General, when you considered how to respond to Saddam Hussein, which really amounts to using a lot of force to change one man's mind, did you look at any alternatives to the bombing that we've done so many times, and each time he defies us at a cost of several billion dollars?

For instance, would it make any sense to have a United Nations rifle company with stronger forces over the horizon escorting the inspectors? In other words, have you looked at any alternatives to this strategy which failed to change Churchill's mind; failed to change Ho Chi Minh's mind; and we keep doing it. Are there some options that you've explored other than this?

General Shelton: George, we have examined a number of options and continue to examine other options. But I think the truth is, what we have here is a Saddam Hussein who is intent on defying UNSCOM, intent on defying the international community, the United Nations, everyone, and continuing to develop and pursue his programs of weapons of mass destruction.

In looking at the other alternatives, there are very few that are really viable under the existing conditions other than the program that we've been pursuing for about eight years, and that is to have him come clean, get out from under the sanctions, and rejoin the international community, which would certainly be best for the Iraqi people.

Q: Hitting his Republican Guards, General, you are in fact reducing his power base. I would ask if there's any other plans you can tell us about that will continue to reduce the power base, destabilize Saddam Hussein? And isn't it our policy to get rid of Saddam Hussein? Isn't that at least our long range goal?

General Shelton: I will not discuss in any further detail the specific target set that we've got. It's an ongoing operation. We're only in day two right now. But what I would say is that we have a plan that we are pursuing right now. It is designed to accomplish the objectives that were outlined by Secretary Cohen to reduce his ability to threaten his neighbors, to degrade his WMD capability. Anything else that would influence, weaken his regime, would be value added.

Q: In this first round of strikes, did you hit the last known whereabouts of Saddam Hussein?

General Shelton: Jamie, we have not been tracking Saddam Hussein and Saddam Hussein was not an objective established for this operation.

Q: Mr. Secretary, yesterday in the briefing, when the question came up about Ramadan, the holy month in the Islamic calendar which is very close upon us now... this weekend, you were not quite emphatic about continuing the strikes during Ramadan. Is it based on your BDA? Have you seen the BDA... whether or not the strikes will continue? Or can you tell us unequivocally if you will stop before Ramadan, or continue on into Ramadan, if the strikes have not been successful the way you would like to have them?

Secretary Cohen: I thought I had engaged in Delphic ambiguity yesterday, and would perhaps like to do the same today. Namely, that we have begun this operation prior to Ramadan. Our goal is to complete it as soon as we can without restricting the military operation. We will take whatever time is necessary to carry out the operation. But we're sensitive to the Ramadan period, and that's all I care to say about it.

Q: Is UNSCOM dead, Mr. Secretary? And if it is, what's your long term strategy for keeping weapons of mass destruction out of Saddam Hussein's hands? Is it simply bomb and then wait and then bomb again?

Secretary Cohen: According to Mr. Butler, Saddam Hussein had effectively emasculated UNSCOM and that they were on the ground but not able to do their job.

It would be my hope, that following this operation, that Saddam Hussein would see the wisdom of finally complying by allowing UNSCOM to return and do its job. Failing that, we intend to maintain our forces as I've indicated. Failing that, we intend to continue the containment strategy. And should he either threaten his neighbors or try to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program, we are prepared to take action again.

Q: If he makes a promise to allow UNSCOM back in to do its job, isn't that just another promise? He's broken many in the past, has he not?

Secretary Cohen: One would hope that after this operation he and others would see the wisdom of fully complying. In the event he doesn't, he will continue to be contained. We have no intention of providing any relief from the sanctions until such time as full compliance ...

Q:... holiday season, and of course the families of the people involved in this are concerned about their safety. Could you outline some of the dangers that the people there might be facing? For instance, has Iraq made any threats against pilots? What are the dangers of the mobile air defense? Can you just outline some of the dangers that ...

Secretary Cohen: I'm going to let the Chairman do that, but let me just make one prior comment.

We have very brave men and women in all of our services and they risk their lives every single day in wartime or peacetime. They're out there practicing.

When I was there this past September, during the month of August the temperature on the ships was 160 degrees -- combined humidity and heat. They nonetheless had 2,000 launches during the month of August. They are out there under very adverse conditions, training, getting their readiness at the highest possible rate every single day, and we lose people every single week virtually. So their lives are in danger just by virtue of the fact that they are the best fighting force in the world.

In addition to the kind of danger that they face on a daily basis, there are additional ones. Those pilots who are flying over Baghdad run the risk of being hit by surface-to-air-missiles; they run the risk of being captured. The people who are in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, or wherever, run the risk that a SCUD missile might be fired, that they might be under that kind of attack. Those are the risks that they are under on a daily basis. And to the extent that there is an attack underway, that risk perhaps has been heightened.

We have taken every measure ...defensive measure that we can. They are prepared. And that's one of the risks of any operation. And when you make a determination that you're going to use force, you have to be prepared for any contingency.

General Shelton: I would only add one thing. I think Secretary Cohen gave a tremendous answer.

We also maintain 17,000 to 20,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in the region daily, and they in fact, and have for about 20 years now ...they in fact, are subject to the threats posed by Saddam's weapons of mass destruction when he has them on a daily basis, as long as they're within range of the systems he has.

Q: General, in this operation have any of these pilots come under any direct threat? Have their planes been painted by acquisition radar? Any of these anti-aircraft missiles fired at our aircraft?

General Shelton: Jim, I'd prefer not to discuss the operational details on that right now or anything that might assist Saddam in this operation.

Q: Do you expect the VINSON to get into the battle when it arrives tomorrow or today, and do you expect the follow-on forces to join in the strike?

General Shelton: The Crisis Response Force that is en route, and as I said, the VINSON will arrive later today, are there to provide the CINC with additional flexibility. Whether or not we actually integrate those into the battle will depend on how the operation goes.

Q:... comment on how you feel about Senator Lott's statement that he couldn't support the military operation?

Secretary Cohen: I'm going up to see Senator Lott -- the Chairman and I are going to give a briefing to the members of the Senate, and certainly we'll have an opportunity to discuss it at that time.

Senator Lott, like any other member, has to make a judgment based on his assessment of the situation. No one should try to second guess that.

What I indicated is, that I believe it's important for our troops that we have bipartisan support for the operation. I believe, following the meeting that the Chairman and I had for almost two hours last evening before a nearly full House, that at the end of that briefing, I would say the overwhelming majority of the members came to the conclusion that this mission was made on the merits. It was the right thing to do at the right time, and the President made the right decision. I think the overwhelming majority felt that following our briefing yesterday.

Q: Did you feel that by moving in quickly as you did, that you actually did catch some part of their operation by surprise, and therefore the strike was more effective?

Secretary Cohen: All of the intelligence that we had for this past several days ... all last week, would indicate that Saddam Hussein felt that notwithstanding the fact that he was frustrating and obfuscating and denying the UNSCOM inspectors their opportunity to conduct their business, that he felt that there was no chance that the United States would take any action, under the circumstances of the Ramadan period coming up, and the fact that he didn't think the United States would be in a position to take action. That's precisely one of the reasons why, since November 15th, we have put our forces in place in a way that would allow us to exercise maximum effectiveness with a minimum amount of notice should it become necessary to take action.

Q: General Shelton, are you ...

Q:... planning for this on Sunday?

Q:... ongoing right now?

General Shelton: Tony, I'd prefer not to discuss any additional operational details, to include the types of aircraft that are participating in the operation today. It's still ongoing.

Q: You said the British Tornadoes. You said land-based aircraft.

General Shelton: There will be land-based aircraft today. There will be Tornadoes. There will be sea-based aircraft. There will be all kinds of aircraft that will be in today's operations.

Q:... military planning started on Sunday?

Secretary Cohen: Our military planning started on November 15th in terms of being prepared to carry out an operation should it become necessary.

Q: How about the immediate preparations, though? It suggests that you were ready to go with this attack before the UNSCOM report was presented to the UN.

Secretary Cohen: We have always been prepared to go during the month of December, to take action. We were not going to take any action until such time as the report was filed, we knew what was said, and the President actually called for a strike. So there was no ...

Q:... put on notice that DESERT FOX was forthcoming?

Secretary Cohen: We did not have any final word on the Security Council report until it was either Monday or Tuesday, the very last moment.

Q: Is Saddam Hussein still alive...

Q: Mr. Secretary ...

Q:... Is he communicating with his troops?

Q:... f I understood General Shelton right, he said that they'd been on a 72 hour warning.

Secretary Cohen: That's right.

Q: Seventy-two hours, if my arithmetic holds up, gets us back to Sunday night for the warning. When did the warning order ...

General Shelton: We've had a 72 hour warning on our forces in the Gulf, prepared to execute, since back in the spring time frame. It's been a long time.

Q: So was there a warning ...

General Shelton: Effective 15 November, we upgraded where we could respond within 24 hours, if asked to do that.

Q: But was there another warning order given in the context of the last three or four days? If so, when was that warning order given? Not the execute order, but the warning order. In the context of that, if you could say when.

General Shelton: The 24 hour warning order? It's really not a warning order per se, but an execute order. Be prepared to execute within 24 hours was given 1700 hours, day before yesterday, which was 24 hours out from the time that the first missile would be down range, or on target.

Q: Is Saddam Hussein still alive? Is he able to communicate with his troops?

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