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Media Availability with Cohen at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
September 07, 2000

(Media Availability at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine)

Mr. Hood: Good afternoon. My name is Scott Hood. I'm the Director of Communications here at the college.

This is a very big day for Bowdoin College. Secretary Cohen has been gracious to join us here today. He will receive the Bowdoin Prize this evening at a ceremony in Pickard Theater. The prize is the highest honor that the college gives, and I think you should each have a sheet of paper that describes the prize and who previous recipients are.

I should say that you're all invited to attend the ceremony if you can, and if you need to... If you haven't already talked to us about that and need to, Allyson Algeo or I will be happy assist you afterwards.

I just wanted to mention that Secretary Cohen is the third senator to receive the Bowdoin Prize, the first Cabinet member, and the first basketball star to receive the Bowdoin Prize.

It's a great pleasure to welcome number five from the Polar Bears basketball team back to campus. Secretary Cohen.

Cohen: Scott, thank you very much. You failed to mention I'm probably the first Latin major and co-captain of the basketball team to have received this prize. But I am really pleased to be in Brunswick, and especially to be here on this occasion.

Forty-two years ago nothing would have seemed more removed from my future than to be here this evening to receive this prize. I will perhaps talk about this evening, but how important Bowdoin has been in my life in terms of its spirit, its philosophy of forcing a young, immature man to open his mind to a liberal arts education. It was the most important four years certainly in my educational development. As a result of that education it has served me well over the years. So I hope to comment on some of my professors and certain of my classmates who might be in the audience this evening.

But I suspect that you are not here to hear me talk about the many benefits of a Bowdoin education, so I will cease and desist and yield to your tender questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, earlier today your predecessor Dick Cheney made some comments relating to lack of readiness of the military forces, and said that the military had fallen into a state of unpreparedness, although it was in good shape when President Clinton took office.

Do you have any comment on that?

Cohen: I think we should ask Saddam Hussein whether or not forces were ready to carry out Operation Desert Fox. I think we should ask Mr. Milosevic as to whether or not we were ready to carry out the Allied Force operation in Kosovo. I think that you will find we have the best forces in the world.

Can we do better? The answer is we can always stand to improve our forces, but we have made some rather significant improvements during the past three and a half years that I have been Secretary of Defense. When I took office we were spending roughly $42.3 or $42.4 billion a year on procurement. The goal had been to reach $60 billion. That was a pledge I made when I was confirmed by the United States Senate, that I would achieve that $60 billion goal by 2001. We have, in fact, achieved that. The procurement goal will go up to about $70 billion annually for the next four years.

So we have made significant improvement in procurement. We have increased the readiness in terms of our forces but our O&M costs have gone up rather significantly to pay for pay raises, for retirement benefits, for so-called pay table reform. We have made a number of investments in current readiness, but also in future readiness.

I've tried very much to keep the department out of the political campaign, as such. I've indicated I think it's certainly an appropriate subject for debate. I hope it is fully debated during the next couple of months. Where there is need for improvement, we should accept constructive criticism, but we should also make the record very clear, that allegations that we have two Army divisions that are not ready to report for duty are simply inaccurate and in error.

Questions about morale, I think you'll find out in the field morale has been increasing as a result of the largest pay raise in a generation, of moving the retirement benefits from 40 percent to 50 percent, of focusing now on housing and healthcare. Again, we can always do better, and we can spend more and need to spend more in the coming years, but I think it's a matter for debate, and I certainly support Dick Cheney's or Governor Bush's right to debate this issue along with Vice President Gore. I think it's a matter of importance to the national security of the country. And where they're right, certainly we should accept criticism, and where they're wrong, it should be pointed out.

Q: Mr. Secretary if the Bath Iron Works strike is to continue for a month, and it is expected to, what effect do you think that will have on the military?

Cohen: Any time you have a premier shipyard that is undergoing a strike that can have an impact on the production lines. It can have delays in the procurement if it goes on for any extended period of time. Hopefully the strike will be settled within the foreseeable future, but that's something only that BIW can decide for itself. But if it continues over a long period of time, then certainly it can impact the production schedule.

Q: If the strike went on for a long period of time could it have any impact on future contracts that might go to BIW?

Cohen: BIW has to be competitive. It has to be competitive in terms of the shipbuilding program.

One of the things I did when I was on the Senate Armed Services Committee when we took over the majority back in the early '80s, was to change the law, and change it in a way not to give preferential treatment to BIW, but simply to allow it to compete for the Aegis cruiser at that time. I changed one line in the existing line that required the Congress to allow a change in the sole source type of contract that was going then to Mississippi and we said we want this ship to be competed. As we went to competition, we saved tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars, with that being in competition with Mississippi.

So any time you have a situation where there's a long, extended strike, that can have an impact upon its competitive posture, but I think it's too premature. It really is premature at this point to speculate how long it will go on and what the impact will be upon its competitive position.

Q: Let me ask about a specific contract, Mr. Secretary. You have one going to the Coast Guard. They're replacing some of their deep water cutters at the present time now, and there's a rumor afoot that it's being delayed because the Pentagon doesn't want to go forward right now.

Cohen: I'm not aware of that, that there's any delay certainly orchestrated by the Pentagon. I'll check into it for you. And I'm taking your name not quite in vain, but I was discussing you and me back in 1973 at a hockey game, you may recall, when you worked your way up into the stands and said that Elliott Richardson had just resigned and Archibald Cox had been fired. I said no, your information must be incorrect. (Laughter) So I can't say that this is incorrect, I don't know. But I will check it out and get back to you.

Q: Mr. Secretary, the current sinking of the Russian submarine is kind of a wide open question. Has anything new come to your attention relating to causes? Any followup developments on that?

Cohen: No. Nothing in addition to what's already out there right now. The Russian authorities are continuing to investigate the cause of the sinking of the Kursk. All I can say is there is no substance to any question about running into a foreign object, that foreign object being U.S. ships. As to whether any other foreign objects, I can't comment on that. We'll have to await the outcome of the investigation. But there was no contact with any U.S. ships whatsoever.

So whether it was an internal misfiring, whether it was an act of sabotage or whatever, we simply don't know at this point. This is what we have to find out. The indications, at least preliminarily, were there were internal explosions taking place which caused it to sink. But again, I don't have the information beyond what has been available in the press.

Q: What are your plans, Mr. Secretary, after you step down?

Cohen: Well, to have a different pace of life, to take things a bit more leisurely. To spend some time perhaps doing a little more reading and perhaps a bit more writing. I'd like to get back to that if I can. I haven't really made any plans yet, I don't know exactly what I'll be doing, but I will be looking forward to becoming a private citizen after 31 years of public life.

Q: Sort of a two-part question. I was wondering if you're aware that a study of the P-3 [Orion] which is, the reliability of the P-3 Orion which has recently been funded. I was wondering, do you have any thoughts on what the future might be for funding a naval air station, depending on what's found in that study? Some of the newest planes over there are 26 years old.

Cohen: I really am not in a position to answer that question yet. We'll have to await the outcome of the study as far as the P-3 is concerned. But the P-3 continues to provide a very valuable service to our country. But I really can't comment until the study is completed.

Press: Thank you.

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