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Secretary Cohen media availability at John Glenn Institute

Presenters: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and former U.S. Senator John H. Glenn
October 31, 2000

(Media availability at the John Glenn Institute of Public Service and Public Policy, Columbus, Ohio)

Glenn: Thank you for coming here. I think we'll in the interest of time here go ahead and get started.

It's my real pleasure today to be here, to come to Ohio again today with my good friend, the Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen. Bill and I served in the Senate, we were there for I think something like 18 years together, I believe it was, and by luck of the draw there, or design, I don't know which it was, we both served on the same committees together. We were on the Senate Armed Services Committee together, we were on the Governmental Affairs Committee together, and the Special Senate Committee on Intelligence. And he went on from there, of course, to be the Secretary of Defense and has done an outstanding job.

I've told a lot of people I think it would be easy to be Secretary of Defense if you're expanding and in a building mode, because then it's just a matter of deciding who gets what as you build up here, and you keep everybody much happier, than in a time period where it's peaceful and where your forces are being reduced somewhat. And that's something that is very, very painful to do, and it's very, very difficult to do. Secretary Cohen has done an outstanding job in it, I think, and I'm glad he's agreed to make a little time available here this afternoon for you to ask whatever questions you want, and I don't think there are any restrictions on the questions. So with that --

Secretary Cohen: Only the answers.

Senator Glenn: So with that, my good friend, the Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen.

Secretary Cohen: John, thank you very much. It truly is a pleasure for me to be here.

There is one specific reason, or two specific reasons why I'm here. One is the name of John Glenn, the other is Annie. For these two people, I must say that my wife Janet, who has joined me this afternoon, when John and Annie said would you come and make an appearance at the institute, I said absolutely. He has been, as he indicated, a friend of mine. I've been a fan of his for two decades before I met him, but then to have the privilege of serving with him for nearly two decades, and as he indicated, on virtually all committees that we served on, we served on together. And we joined in legislation dealing with opening up our system more as far as the intelligence is concerned, making everybody more accountable, and John Glenn, when he spoke everyone listened in the Senate, so I was happy to join with him on virtually everything that he worked on.

So no formal presentation. I'm here to make a presentation this afternoon and try to summarize some of the things that we have done in the Defense Department and some of the things that we need to confront in the future. So let me just cease and desist and invite your questions.

Q: What is the Defense Department doing to prevent another attack like the one on the USS Cole?

Cohen: Well, as you know there is no 100 percent guarantee of safety in anything that we do, and the USS Cole, the attack on the USS Cole reminded everyone, I hope, of the dangers that the men and women who are serving us in uniform face every day.

We tend only be galvanized by something like this of tragic proportions when we see it occur, and tend to overlook what they face every day.

So we will take whatever measures we can that are reasonable and prudent and forward looking, understanding that when we're forward deployed in any part of the world, but especially in that part of the world, it's very, very dangerous. We are there in order to introduce and maintain stability. And if there is stability, the world will continue to prosper. If there is instability and conflict and interruption of supplies of energy coming from that region it will affect the economies of the entire world.

So we will have lessons learned from this incident. We now have an internal inquiry going on headed up by General Crouch, a four-star Army general retired; and Admiral Hal Gehman, again, a four-star admiral who has since retired. They will conduct an inquiry in terms of the nature of the precautions that were taken, the protective measures, the force protection measures that we adopted, then look at the standard and see what was done, and could it have been prevented. Then we will learn from this and see what we can do differently, if we can do things differently.

But I should point out, this is not Navy-specific as such. Because Air Force, Army, Marines, all face similar types of dangers throughout the world, so we will have lessons learned from this and also see what we need to do in other parts, in other services. We have had some very hard lessons from things that have occurred in Beirut, also Khobar Towers, and elsewhere.

So it's dangerous out there. It's dangerous globally. This is something that calls our attention to just how dangerous it is, and how brave our men and women are who serve us. And when you look at the details of what they were able to do after being hit, and how they really worked around the clock to save the ship while all of the smoke and the fumes and the twisted metal, and the people who were killed and those who were severely wounded, while the rescue attempts were going on, they were also bailing out that ship by hand at times because they lost energy. They were taking on as much as ten gallons a minute of water, which they were bailing out by buckets until they got the energy restored again. So all of that was going on.

That tells you how really capable those young men and women are who are serving in our military today, in the Navy, and how heroic they are and were.

Q: Mr. Secretary, obviously (inaudible) campaign. One of your predecessors, Mr. Cheney, has criticized your administration for its military readiness and on the other side, Vice President Gore's campaign has been very critical in recent days of Governor Bush's ability to lead, basically saying that he's not capable to be a leader.

Can you give me your take on both of those?

Cohen: The short answer is no. (Laughter)

I've tried to really keep the Pentagon out of this election. What I've tried to do during the four years that I've been there -- when President Clinton asked me as a Republican to serve in his administration it was a very bold and courageous move on his part, it hasn't been done before, to invite a political leader or at least an elected official from a different party into your administration was something that was fairly unprecedented. So what we've tried to do is to make sure that the Pentagon stays out of the politics, especially at this particular time.

I can address the issue of readiness. We have the most ready forces in the world today. We have the best led, the best equipped, the best trained, the best-educated forces in the world, bar none. And the forces that are forward deployed are as ready as they've ever been.

If you look back on the war in Kosovo, by way of example, I recall being here a couple of years ago discussing that. But if you look at the war in Kosovo, we had 38,000 sorties that were flown by NATO, and much of it in the early days by the United States because of our stealth, electronic jamming, and other types of equipment. Out of those 38,000 sorties flown, only two aircraft were lost and no pilots. That doesn't happen if you've got a force that's unready and not prepared and not capable and not professional.

Now can we do more in terms of being even more ready with other forces? Those that are back home and at our training facilities? The answer is of course. We need to and we will. But the forces that are out there today defending us are ready and capable.

I think what Mr. Cheney is saying is that we can do more. I would agree. I think Vice President Gore has said we need to more. I agree with that as well. So both men have indicated that more needs to be done to recapitalize in many cases our forces. We've got to replace some aging equipment. We've gone, for example, just in the last three and a half years when I first took over, almost four now, but we had a procurement budget of roughly $43 billion. The goal was always to get up to $60. I pledged when I was confirmed that we would hit the $60 billion mark by 2001 and that's exactly what we've done. Our budget projections, it will go to $70 billion annually. It will have to go even higher as we recapitalize and start to bring more modern ships, the F-22, Joint Strike Fighter, other types of modern equipment into the force. That's a reality.

I think both presidential candidates have stated that they need, they want and are prepared to increase the defense budget to reflect that.

That is the most I want to say about this election, because I've done my best to keep the Pentagon out of the politics of the season.

Q: One follow-up, are you worried when it comes to foreign policy and defense matters, for instance the Bush administration has made it very clear they would pull out of the Balkans. Are you worried that there's a politicization of defense and foreign policy when it comes to the campaign?

Cohen: I think during the course of any campaign there are bound to be differences that are highlighted and should be highlighted. I don't think that the Bush administration, or the would-be administration at this point at least, that Governor Bush has indicated categorically that he's going to pull our forces out of the Balkans. I think what he indicated is he would like to see a greater representation on the part of the Europeans, but of course the Europeans are currently carrying some 85 percent of the load right now.

So what we all hope in the future is that all of the people who are participating would like to see a reduction in forces, and we are looking forward to the day when that can take place. We've gone, by way of example, when we first went into Bosnia we had 20,000 American troops there. Today we're down to 4,300. I would hope in the months and years ahead that we'd see even greater stability in Bosnia so there could be further reductions. But I think we've seen a major shift now, that the Europeans are in fact carrying some 85 percent of the responsibility on the ground today. Can we see more in the future? We'll have to wait and see. But this is a shared obligation.

We are the leading NATO nation, and we're the ones who carried certainly the initiative both in Bosnia and Kosovo, and we want to remain the leader of NATO itself. And as we have said, it's one for all -- all of us are in this together. So it's not a situation where we can say to the Europeans that you're on your own. Hopefully they can continue to do what they've done and perhaps even more, but we have to maintain our role in NATO as well, and that may mean continued presence for some time, and no one at this point can predict exactly when that will be. We hope it can be a relatively short time. But we don't want to get in the business that we have in the past of fixing deadlines when we will be out of there.

But I think great progress has been made. The same, I hope, can be said of Kosovo, that we will see the same kind of progress made there that we've made in Bosnia. And there are a lot of positive signs.

We've seen Croatia become democratic. We've seen Milosevic booted out of office. And I think that NATO can take a good measure of the credit for maintaining the force that we had under very critical circumstances when people were starting to doubt the air campaign that was waged, and now Milosevic is out of office. We've got a democratically elected president there.

So great progress has been made and can be made, and we hope that that will bode well for the future.

Q: With the continuing violence in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and the very real threat of it spreading, do you see a direct military role for the United States if it continues to get worse?

Cohen: I do not see a direct military role for the United States unless the United States is attacked or if Saddam Hussein were to threaten his neighbors, as we've indicated before. If he were to move against those in the region militarily then we have indicated to Saddam Hussein that he'd be making a grave miscalculation and it would be met with a very strong response. But in terms of Israel itself, the Israelis have always depended upon their own resources and their own capabilities to defend their interests.

What we are hoping is that there can be a cooling down period. That's exactly why President Clinton went to Egypt, to meet with President Mubarak and King Abdullah and others, and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, to see if they could not cool the passions that are so hot right now, so that we don't see this erupt from a conflict in the streets of either on the West Bank or in Gaza suddenly erupt into a regional conflict. But I don't see a role for the United States, again, unless Saddam Hussein should move against his neighbors or his own people or attack the United States.

Q: What about Bush and Cheney's accusation that our troops are over-deployed, understaffed, they don't have the equipment that they need to work with, and there have been some people in the services that (inaudible) make it work. Are we over-deployed? There are reports that you're understaffed. Some of that has to do with an economy that's (inaudible). Can you talk specifically about that?

Cohen: What we have seen -- at the end of the Cold War there was a tremendous demand on the part of the American people that we've got to have a "peace dividend." You may recall that refrain at that time. And indeed, the American people said the Soviet Union no longer exists, we're maintaining a very large infrastructure with large numbers of forces, it's time for the American people to have a peace dividend. So we reduced the size of our forces and we also cut back on our procurement.

Now we find ourselves in a situation where we cut at the level which we really can't go below and may have to change in the future depending upon the nature of the circumstances. It depends on what the threat levels would be in various parts of the globe. But we're at the base line now where we can't go below.

We have, as I indicated before, we've reached the point where we were getting too low in our procurement budgets and now we're coming back up. So we've gone from $43 billion up to $60 billion. It will be $70 billion within the next four years. So the procurement budget's going up, so the acquisition of new equipment, spare parts, is going up as well. So those deficiencies are in the process, and have been in the process for the last three years of being corrected.

Will more have to be done? The answer is yes. Do we have to be careful on where we deploy our forces and how many people we can deploy? Again, the answer is yes.

One of the things I tried to do as a matter of fact is when the Australians, our friends, who were with us in every single war in the 20th Century, when violence erupted in East Timor and there was an effort made to put a peacekeeping force on the ground in East Timor the Australians asked us to join them in leading the effort. I, working with President Clinton indicated that we couldn't join as a partner in that sense, a co-equal partner. We said the Australians would have to take the lead and those nations in the region would have to do the bulk of the peacekeeping work. And that meant calling upon the Thais, the Philippines, the Malaysians, Singaporeans and others. And that's precisely what we did.

We said we will provide some logistics, we'll help with intelligence, we'll help with some lift, but we can't do this because we are in Kosovo, Bosnia, Korea, the Gulf, and so we are stretched as thin as we can be right now and we can't put more of a burden on our forces. And we have worked with the Australians and it worked out precisely in that fashion.

And I might point out that Governor Bush, during the course of the debates as I recall, pointed to the situation in East Timor as to how we appropriately acted in being supportive but not leading the effort.

So we have to be selective, we have to make sure that we don't overdeploy our forces. And I believe that President Clinton in looking at East Timor has done precisely that.

Look at Africa as well. We have a program called the African Crisis Response Initiative. And what we are trying to do to engage more countries in Africa to join together in peacekeeping efforts, to help train their forces so that they can in fact work together and undertake peacekeeping missions in Africa.

So we are trying to use our resources in those areas where we believe that the burden should be borne by those who are closest to the potential trouble spots.

Q: Osama bin Laden. There have been many reports that he is behind the attack. I was wondering if you could confirm that and also tell us whether or not there has been a link that the FBI has found, the Defense Department, or the Yemen investigators have found, to bin Laden.

Cohen: The answer is there has been no link established at this time. We are looking very closely at Osama bin Laden to see whether or not he in fact or his organization or those organizations that he supports through his financial network are in some way connected to this incident. We don't reach any conclusive judgment at this point and are reluctant to do so until we have all the facts so that we don't raise either expectations about something that cannot be established. We want to be very careful, very responsible.

We have indicated that we are going to hold those who were responsible for this terrible crime against the USS Cole and the people on that ship, we're going to hold them accountable, and we're going to track them down, and we're going to see that justice is done.

But what we don't want to do is reach conclusions when we don't have the facts yet. So the FBI is working very assiduously on this. I met with Director Freeh last week and he brought me up to date on his investigation, he went over to Aden, and they continue to work very hard in gathering information, looking at the fragments that are being raised from the USS Cole, looking at the substance of the kind of explosives that were used so that we can then determine whether there was a link to the groups that use this type of technology to create the damage that they did.

So I think it's premature at this point. We will continue to investigate it and make sure that we get all the facts.

Q: Is your investigation being hindered by the Yemen (inaudible) who are not allowing full American disclosure there? Is that investigation being hindered at all?

Cohen: Well as of last week the Yemeni officials were being quite cooperative. Whether that continues to exist I think remains to be seen.

There always are situations when you're dealing with another country that they are protective of their own investigatory techniques and procedures. We have found that in dealing with other countries in the region. But we are working, we have a very strong ambassador who is there, and she has been working closely with the Yemeni authorities. Director Freeh as of last week said he was getting good cooperation. We hope that that will continue.

Thank you.

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