(Media availability with Minister of National Defense Bronislaw Komorowski of the Republic of Poland)
Cohen: Good morning.
It gives me great pleasure to welcome Bronislaw Komorowski on his first visit to the Pentagon as Poland's new minister of defense. Since joining NATO last year, Poland has demonstrated its desire and ability to be a security leader in Europe. Poland is providing troops to NATO-led missions in both Bosnia and Kosovo. And Poland is working actively to prepare other countries for possible membership in NATO, while serving as an important link to both Russia and Ukraine.
And in line with NATO's Defense Capabilities Initiative, Poland is working hard to restruct, rebuild and modernize its military. And as the press has reported, our countries are discussing the details of a potential lease of U.S. F-16s to Poland. This arrangement would help Poland start to modernize its air force at very modest costs to Warsaw, while strengthening the already very strong relationship between our militaries. And it's important, as we discuss this issue, that our respective processes be open, transparent and completely synchronized.
The people of Poland and the United States share a strong commitment to freedom, to democracy and to peace and stability in Europe. Our common values make us very good friends and very strong allies.
Komorowski: My visit to the United States comes at a very unique moment, when this country held its elections. It gives me an excellent opportunity to underline that, for Poland, the relationship with the United States is of crucial importance, and that within NATO we hope to continue to have a very good developing allied relationship.
We appreciate and share the views expressed by the United States regarding ESDI, ESDP; the views that take into account concerns of those countries that are members of NATO but are not members of the European Union. We treat those views -- we consider those views as a tangible expression of the special partnership between Poland and the United States.
Despite its domestic problems, despite the fact that Poland is still a country undergoing transformation, Poland wants to be a reliable member of NATO, so this is why we actively participate in NATO missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and this is why we continue to develop our relationships with the countries that will apply or have applied for membership in NATO. Poland supports Lithuania and Slovakia, as well as other -- all other applicant countries applying for NATO membership. We continue to develop bilateral cooperation with those countries. At the present time now, a Polish-Ukrainian battalion is serving in Kosovo. That battalion has been prepared to serve in peace-keeping missions. There is another similar unit, Polish-Lithuanian battalion, and we see those two units as part of our tangible contribution to the process of bringing those countries closer to NATO and developing their cooperation with the alliance.
Credibility within NATO involves also money, financial resources. And Poland, despite the fact that it is still overcoming the results of functioning under Socialist central-controlled economy, Poland is a country enjoying tangible domestic economic growth.
Poland is making significant contributions into its own defense system.
We are fully aware that the resources we allocate for our defense spending are not sufficient from the point of view of modern NATO members and the requirements of NATO, so we are forced to go through a very radical reforms of Poland's defense system, and modernization of the Polish Air Force is part of that problem.
And it is with great satisfaction that I take note of a full agreement between Poland and the United States regarding the necessity of having a full synchronization and transparency of decisionmaking procedures leading to the upgrade of Polish Air Force.
Q: Mr. Secretary, what concerns do you have today, as the United States is in this unique political situation, that U.S. adversaries might try and take advantage of the situation; cause some mischief? And what message would you want to send their way?
Cohen: Well, I have no concerns in terms of our capability of deterring aggression or responding to any would-be aggressors. President Clinton remains commander-in-chief. We maintain our defense posture as aggressively as it has been maintained, and will continue to do so throughout this period of time until the next president is sworn in during the inaugural in January.
Any country who would seek to take advantage of what they perceive to be any exploitive opportunities would be making a very grave mistake. The United States remains fully prepared to respond to any challenge anywhere, and that is a message that everyone should clearly understand.
Bacon: (inaudible) -- a second question from a member of the Polish press, but we're going to count Miklaszewski as a part of -- (laughter).
Q: Well, in that case -- (off mike) (laughter.)
Q: Well, in that case, a follow-up. Is there any evidence whatsoever --
Bacon: No, you can come, Mik, after we take anybody from the Polish press.
Q: Oh, okay. (Laughter.)
Q: Mr. Secretary, do you think that this potential agreement between Poland the United States might lead to a closer cooperation between Polish and American defense companies and industries?
Cohen: We believe that whenever we have military equipment that is compatible, that certainly if it's American-made equipment that is used by NATO members, this helps to make our forces more effective, it builds stronger bonds between the countries, the militaries establish a greater connectivity as well, and it's a mutually reinforcing relationship.
And so it is our belief that the lease of F-16s, by way of example, once all the factors are taken into account, you have open, transparent competition, and that you have the political processes of both countries that are meshed or synchronized, that ultimately we believe that would be in the best interests of both the United States and the Polish militaries and our security relationship.
Q: Is there any evidence, Mr. Secretary, that any foreign nations or entities are attempting to take advantage of the current situation in the United States? One. And two, is there any evidence of any kind of irregularities or difficulties in having U.S. service members file absentee ballots in the presidential election?
Cohen: On the first question, Mik, there's no evidence that I'm aware of that anyone is planning to try to take advantage of any perceived deficiencies or weaknesses. There are always those out there who might miscalculate, and for that they would pay a tremendous price. But we have seen no evidence of any extraordinary movement that would lend itself to that conclusion.
Secondly, we have received no widespread supports of service men -- members having difficulties in receiving absentee ballots on time. There are sporadic reports that we have where some members, particularly in the Navy, may have had some difficulty in acquiring these -- their absentee ballots. It's due to a variety of factors, and that would be that they are deployed perhaps on shorter notice, that the area where they're deployed to may have requirements that -- at least 30 days of application time before they can get the absentee ballots.
So there may be those kinds of logistical complications, but there has been no widespread report that I'm aware of that service members have had difficulty voting by absentee ballot.
Q: Can we get just your general reaction to the election results? And can you offer any insight about whether you think the military absentee vote would be a crucial factor in the eventual outcome?
Cohen: Well, I think I'm as surprised as anyone, and probably as sleep-deprived as anyone here today in watching a remarkable period in our history, where I doubt if we've ever seen something like what is taking place today, with the projections and then the corrections of the projections taking place in a matter of a few hours, with the vote remaining in doubt for at least a day or more. I think that everyone is rather surprised by that.
I was surprised by the 50-50 split, which appears to be the situation now, in the United States Senate, and all that that implies for the next president of the United States and his vice president.
But in terms of the impact of the military, I think there obviously will be a role for the military personnel who have retired in Florida and who also are registered to vote there. I think it's too early for me to reach any judgment in terms of the proportionalities, how they are going to vote, but they certainly will have an impact in a race that close in that state.
Bacon: Another question from the Polish press?
Q: Has actually an agreement on the lease of these planes been made or not?
Cohen: No, we are only in the stages now of going through the process of analyzing what is required on the part of the Polish military, what terms would be acceptable to both the United Sates and to the Polish government, to try to determine how to synchronize, again, the various acquisition or political processes for acquiring military equipment on the part of the Polish government and the United States government, basically trying to make sure that it's completely open and transparent and so others will have the opportunity compete, and for the Polish government to make a determination of what is the best product for the Polish military and for the long-term security arrangement for the Polish military itself.
Q: Mr. Secretary, might I ask, are we talking about Poland's leasing new F-16s from the company or older F-16s from the U.S. military? And just briefly, can I ask you if there is anything new on the Cole? Are we drawing closer to finding out who did this?
Cohen: On the equipment side, it would be leasing some existing F-16s that would be upgraded in terms of capabilities.
Q: (Off mike.)
Cohen: I think from the military at this point. So.
Secondly, we've had no new information on the Cole itself. They continue to seek the cooperation of the Yemeni officials. My understanding is they're still getting good cooperation, but no new breakthroughs as of this moment.
Q: Does any of this point toward Osama bin Laden?
Cohen: Well, we haven't -- again, we can't say that at this point. That's a conclusion that hopefully the FBI would be able to reach in as soon a period of time as possible in terms of who is responsible and who we can hold accountable. Osama bin Laden is one that we will continue to look at, but it by no means is definitive at this point as to who is responsible for this.
Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
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