MR. BACON: The numbers are dwindling here. Mr. Cromley, we're always glad to have you here.
Q: (Off mike.)
MR. BACON: Okay. I've got a couple of announcements.
The first is a very important announcement for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and it has to do with the basic allowance for housing rates in 2001. They have been set for 2001, and they're available. We can give them to you.
Remember, Secretary Cohen announced about a year ago that he is going to eliminate the out-of-pocket costs for off-base housing for those who live in housing of average cost for their area. Right now the -- the law did say that if you live off base, you should pick up 15 percent of your housing, so the allowance was geared to cover 85 percent of the average cost. In fact the system had fallen a little behind, and the average service member paid 18 percent out-of-pocket cost. We have now brought that down to 15 percent, and by 2005, with the program underway, the out-of-pocket costs should be eliminated.
The new rates for 2001 -- I'll just give you an example. They vary by area, but in the District of Columbia, the basic allowance for housing for an E-5 with dependents would increase to $1,024 from $974, or $50 a month. In San Diego, a sailor, an E-5 there would see his or her allowance rise to $1,025 from $851, for an increase of $174. There are no decreases. Some rates could stay the same, but many of them are increasing.
That's the first announcement.
The second is my favorite announcement of the year because we're moving into the annual Santa-tracking season. And as you know, the North American Aerospace Defense Command -- NORAD -- in Colorado Springs aggressively tracks Santa Claus, and they have a web site where anybody can go on and see what they're doing. And the web site is www.noradsanta.org. Last year there were over 50 million hits on that web site. And they will start live tracking of Santa Claus beginning at 1900 Eastern Standard Time (sic) [7:00 a.m. EST] on December 24th. And that will go on until 5:00 in the morning on Christmas Day. So if any of you want to track Santa, that's the way to do it.
Finally, this will be the -- barring some extraordinary event, this will be the last briefing of the year. And our next briefing will be on January 4th.
With that I'll take your questions.
Q: Could you bring us up to day on transition activity?
MR. BACON: A transition coordinator has been appointed -- you probably saw that in the papers this morning. And several people have started discussions in the building. I think their first briefing was on ethics, ethical rules and procedures. That's about all I have to -- I mean, we have -- Secretary Cohen has set up a transition team on our side headed by his chief of staff Bob Tyrer and we're prepared to work hand in glove with the transition team as they arrive.
Q: So that -- the Tyrer team briefs the Bush team --
MR. BACON: No, I think they went to the general counsel's office and requested a briefing there, just to make sure that they were -- my understanding is they wanted to make sure that they were getting off on the right foot and not violating any rules they didn't know about. So they wanted to make sure that that was set.
Q: So they arrived in the building, and you marched them immediately into the lawyers?
MR. BACON: They marched themselves. (Laughter.) They marched themselves. We were responding to their requests.
Q: Is ethics specific to the transition? Is that right? Or is it for -- what ethics does their entire --
MR. BACON: My guess is -- and I don't know, because I didn't sit in on the briefing, but that they are looking for guidance during the transition.
Q: Can I change the subject?
MR. BACON: Sure.
Q: Can you just update us on the threat conditions out in the Middle East area, in Central Command?
MR. BACON: They have not changed. There were two countries at THREATCON Delta, and they are Qatar and part of Yemen; Aden. That's been true for several weeks. There has been no change.
Q: And has there been any problem, at least logistically, getting the ships refueled, being that they're still out in the middle --
MR. BACON: Actually, there have been some brief port visits where combatants as well as supply ships have visited ports to pick up supplies. They have not been what you would call liberty calls by any stretch of the imagination; they have been -- ships have just gone in and out. And so far, in December, 16 combatants and 14 supply ships, or support ships, have been into port to pick up supplies and then gone back out to sea.
Q: This month, you said?
MR. BACON: In December, yes. Last month there were 11 combatant visits and 11 support ship visits.
Q: And how is that different from what normally happens, if there hadn't been this attack?
MR. BACON: Normally, every couple of weeks or so a -- (to staff) -- is that right, every couple of weeks? -- a ship would, depending on their operational tempo, would go into a port for a couple of days and people would get off the ship and could have some liberty, maybe arrange a tour, some cultural events. That's not happening. The ships go in; if any sailors get off, they stay right in the immediate pier area or dock area and then when the ship finishes taking on its stores, they get back on and the ship leaves.
Q: Can any of those ships dock into Aden, and if not, where are they refueling?
MR. BACON: They're almost exclusively going to Bahrain.
Q: Didn't you and Admiral Quigley say that there had been no visits in --
MR. BACON: We did say that, and we were in error, because the Navy had not informed us of its policy. They -- and we only learned of it, actually, on Tuesday, that there had been a change. That's when I learned of it, at any rate.
Q: You said almost exclusively Bahrain. Does that mean that Yemen has not been visited?
MR. BACON: That does mean Yemen has not been visited.
Q: When you said there were 11 in November -- so that means probably mid-November you were starting to send ships back in. So it's been roughly a month that ships have been coming in and out of port. Is that a fair assessment?
MR. BACON: There were three combatant visits in October, but I don't know whether this happened -- presumably these happened before the Cole attack, and there were several supply-ship visits in October. But supply ships have to go in and refuel. I mean, to the extent that they are picking up fuel or other supplies and taking them out to ships at sea, they've always been going in.
Q: Are these combatants?
MR. BACON: Yeah, I don't know the date of when this started. You should ask the Navy on that.
Q: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. (Laughter.) Do you have any sort of readout on the Osprey flight data recorder and any of the information that might shed light on --
MR. BACON: I have two things to say about the Osprey. And the first is that Secretary Cohen has added a fourth member to his review panel and he is a professor of aeronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His name is Eugene Covert, professor emeritus of aeronautics at MIT. And you can get his biography from Bryan Whitman in DDI.
Second, my understanding is that the Marines will have an announcement about where its investigation stands in the next hour or so -- sometime this afternoon. I would expect in the next hour or so.
Q: Written announcement or --
MR. BACON: Written announcement.
Q: Do you have any comments on the president's statement on India and Pakistan that -- they're talking peace or cease-fire, and during this holy month of -- for the Muslims? And if anybody from this building or the secretary's taking an interest, really, the (flashpoint ?) to get to in India and Pakistan on that border?
MR. BACON: Well, I find it best not to comment on what the secretary -- what the president has said about other areas of the world, so I'll let that stand. Obviously, the unilateral cease-fire announced by India is welcome. And we hope it can be something that leads to greater stability in the area. And your second point?
Q: Is Secretary -- whatever -- really involved or in touch with either parties in India or Pakistan on this issue or any other security issues on the border conflict?
MR. BACON: We follow this primarily through our military command side, the commanders in chief. And Pakistan is in the Central Command, so that would be General Franks, and India is in the Pacific Command, so that would come under the watchful eye of Admiral Dennis Blair. So I think that's the primary way we've been following what's going on.
Q: Do you have any further details on the continuing saga in Kosovo of American forces interceding and finding weapons?
MR. BACON: No. I mean, the issue there was that U.S. and British forces found a cache of weapons, including some rocket- propelled grenades, some grenades, ammo, AK-47s and others. And they detained 13 people who were swarming around this store of arms, and they were interrogating the people there. They are Albanians. This comes in the context of a stepped-up border security operation by KFOR troops along the border between Kosovo, the southern border between Kosovo and Serbia. And we have been working to prevent Albanians from supporting dissident or rebel Albanian militia units in the ground security zone in Kosovo.
Q: These Albanians were Kosovar Albanians or Albanian Albanians?
MR. BACON: Kosovar Albanians. Sorry. Kosovar Albanians.
Q: And where was, exactly, the cache?
MR. BACON: It was near --
Q: In the Presevo Valley?
MR. BACON: Well, it was close to the boundary line, and it was in a -- near a town of Surlane, S-u-r-l-a-n-e. And this actually happened yesterday, on December 20th.
Q: Change of subject?
MR. BACON: Sure.
Q: Where is the secretary and his wife spending Christmas and New Year's, and what about the assistant secretary of defense for Public Affairs?
MR. BACON: (Laughs.) Well, those are very personal questions. I actually don't -- I have not asked the secretary. I assume he'll be in town, and I will be out of town. So --.
And with that, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, happy holidays.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Happy holidays.
MR. BACON: Thanks.
THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS PREPARED BY THE FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE, INC., WASHINGTON, DC. FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE IS A PRIVATE COMPANY. FOR OTHER DEFENSE RELATED TRANSCRIPTS NOT AVAILABLE THROUGH THIS SITE, CONTACT FEDERAL NEWS SERVICE AT (202) 347-1400.