SEC. COHEN: First, let me thank you for coming down here today. I'd like to take a few moments to share some of my thoughts with you on this accident involving the Kursk. I've been following this very closely, ever since the Russian authorities announced this tragic event over the weekend, and I'd like to take this opportunity to express my concern for the sailors on the Kursk.
There is an inherent sense of camaraderie that is felt by military people that transcends nationality and political differences, and I know from my conversations here in the Pentagon over the past few days that our military men and women are not looking at this accident as something that has happened to the Russians, but as something that has happened to fellow uniformed professionals. It's personal and it's very deep.
I want to express my concern for the sailors' families. It must be a very terrible time of fear and doubt for them right now, and we can only imagine the agony that they are suffering as they await the information on their loved ones. And so, on behalf of everyone in the department, I want to express our concern and hope during this most difficult time.
And finally, I'd like to make it clear that the Defense Department remains ready, willing and able to provide whatever assistance we can to the Russian authorities that they would find helpful. And I think most of you know that on Tuesday I wrote a letter to Minister of Defense Sergeyev offering our assistance, and then I received a response last evening. He expressed appreciation for our offer of assistance and he asked that we work through NATO channels to coordinate, and this we are glad to do.
We are hopeful that our British and Norwegian friends, working closely with their Russian counterparts, can be successful in effecting a rescue of the sailors of the Kursk, reuniting them with their families.
I'd be happy to take a few questions, but I should forewarn you that I have very little information beyond that which you already know.
Q: Mr. Secretary, how would you work through NATO channels? Does that mean you are, in fact, going to provide help? And are you disappointed that you didn't hear earlier? And could the United States have provided better help had it been requested earlier?
SEC. COHEN: Well, there are a lot of questions that certainly will have to be asked and answered in the coming days and weeks. I think right now the focus has to be on what assistance can be provided and how quickly it can be provided. We have offered to work through NATO channels. In fact, yesterday, last evening, we had a video- teleconference with Russians participating, laying out certain things that we would be in a position to do. There will be another VTC tomorrow morning. And we stand ready to provide whatever assistance would be required and called for.
There were basically three courses of action that have been laid out to the Russian authorities. We have proposed having teams of experts who have a so-called "reach-back" capability to provide well-organized, mission-specific expertise that will be made up of engineers, divers, medical support, to provide whatever technical assistance would be necessary.
There's a second course of action, which would be an international coordination cell so that we could provide a core of international coordination people to facilitate the international rescue efforts. And then we have a third course of action, which would be a so-called "fly-away" diving capability, to provide atmospheric suits and diving capability to support Russia in this.
So we're waiting to explore this further with them, and we will take, again, every measure that we can consistent with their request.
Q: By "we," are you talking about the United States or are you talking about allies?
SEC. COHEN: In the three courses of action, there would be allied participation, but we certainly have a team of experts here that we're prepared to send to work on site if requested.
Q: You're assembling that team now?
SEC. COHEN: The team is being assembled for potential use, yes.
Q: And are they being sent anywhere? Will they go to Brussels or --
SEC. COHEN: No. They will remain here until such time as there is a request made for their assistance. They'll be on the ready. They could be deployed within a period of 24 hours to the site itself if it's requested.
Q: Mr. Secretary, could you clarify a couple things on that? Now, this team that's being assembled, is it for all of the options you laid out or one particular course of action, such as the reach-back or --
SEC. COHEN: The reach-back capability, that's the team that's being assembled here that could, in fact, be deployed to the region. The second course of action would be an international coordination cell. And the third would be to prove the atmospheric suits.
That coordination cell would be assembled, we assume, in Brussels in the NATO organization.
Q: So the team that you have just said is being assembled is basically the engineers, divers, medical, that sort of thing?
SEC. COHEN: Right. Right.
Q: And the VTC that was held last night -- was that bilateral, U.S. and Russia?
SEC. COHEN: It was in NATO headquarters, and the VTC will be held similarly through NATO headquarters.
Q: Sir, the "fly-away" capability -- is that coming from North Island as well, and the deep submergence unit? Is that where we keep these suits?
SEC. COHEN: I'd yield to Admiral Quigley to give you the details in any of the "fly-away" capability.
Q: What reason have the Russians given you to believe that there are still people alive on the submarine?
SEC. COHEN: Well, I haven't had specific discussions with the Russian authorities. But to the extent that they are in fact agreeable and willing to have NATO assistance, should it be necessary, in their judgment, then that is some indication that they still feel that there are sailors alive. And so we are prepared to offer whatever we can to help them.
STAFF: And just one more, folks.
Q: Mr. Secretary, have you offered or provided any information that might help the Russians understand what happened to the submarine, the cause of the accident?
SEC. COHEN: No, at this point we will have to wait until all of the facts are in. But I can only assure you and the American people that there were no American ships involved in this matter.
Q: Mr. Secretary, this administration is taking a bit of a beating on the Republican campaign trail and at the Republican convention over military readiness. And George W. Bush and others have been saying that the military is not prepared to fight, there are divisions not ready to go, and morale is at an all-time low. How do you respond to that?
SEC. COHEN: I think the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Shelton, responded to that with great precision and professionalism. Our forces are ready to fight. Anyone who suggests that they are incapable of carrying out their responsibilities is seriously miscalculating.
I think also President Clinton made it very clear during his speech at his -- at the Democratic convention that anyone who would seize upon any statements made during this particular period of time would be making a gross miscalculation of our capabilities and would come to rue it.
So we are ready, we are prepared. As a matter of fact, I think morale is increasing. Hopefully in the next few weeks I'll be able to come to you and lay out exactly where we are on retention, recruitment, and what I see as an increase rather than a decrease in morale.
Q: So this is not a hollow force, and these are empty political statements?
SEC. COHEN: Well, I assume during the course of any campaign that defense and other capabilities will certainly come into -- to be challenged. That's the nature of our political system.
All I can say is we have the most capable force in the world. It's trained, it's ready and fully capable of carrying out its missions.
Q: One more on the submarine, sir. Did I just understand you also correctly, you are not ruling out the possibility of U.S. Navy personnel in the water in the Barents Sea helping on this mission?
SEC. COHEN: We've never ruled that out. As a matter of fact, what I indicated in my initial letter to Marshal Sergeyev, is that we are prepared to do whatever we can to help in this rescue effort, and we would be more than willing to contribute our resources to doing that, to help provide for that rescue.
Q: At what point does it become too late?
SEC. COHEN: I think that's a determination that the Russian authorities will have to make. They are the ones who are on the scene trying to organize the rescue effort. We hope that the British and Norwegian participation will be productive and produce a happy result. And there are great questions as to whether or not that will be the result, but we're hopeful.
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