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DoD News Briefing: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
December 21, 1999 1:45 PM EDT

MR. BACON: Good afternoon.

Let me bring you up to date on Defense Department support to the relief efforts in Venezuela. I talked with General Wilhelm about an hour ago. As you know, General Wilhelm, the commander in chief of our Southern Command, toured the disaster site yesterday, and he said that, to him, the loss of life appeared to be catastrophic. He noted that the estimates go between 7,000 and 20,000. He thinks it will be somewhere in between.

To put this into perspective, last year Hurricane Mitch struck four countries in Central America. That involved 70 inches of rain over a fairly wide area. There was massive disruption, destruction and loss of life, but the loss of life was in the range of about 10,000. In Venezuela we had 12 inches of rain, but it fell intensely in a very steep, heavily urbanized area, creating mudslides that have washed away houses and knocked them off their foundations and buried people in huge wells of mud. And we estimate that the loss of life could be as much as double the estimates from Hurricane Mitch. So even though it was a much milder storm, the results were, in a sense, more catastrophic, or could be more catastrophic. Of course, we don't know the full impact yet.

There are now 94 military people helping with the relief efforts. The first eight helicopters on the scene now, two fixed-wing aircraft called Casa (ph) -212s, they're rented aircraft that we're using to transport things around, and three C-130s are there for support. General Wilhelm told me that the first three helicopters to arrive from the United States were met personally by the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, who not only met the helicopters but greeted the crews as they came out. I think it's a sign of how glad he was that rapid help was provided, and significant help.

Today we have delivered one thing that's very important, which is a reverse osmosis water purification unit that can purify 300 gallons a minute[300 gallons per hour], I believe. I could be wrong about that rate, but I'll double check on that. And it's to meet one of the several fundamental needs there. One is pure water.

And the U.S. has met that so far in three ways: One, we have delivered a lot of bottled water. Two, we have delivered chlorine and iodine in order to purify water. And three, now we are delivering -- we have delivered this reverse-osmosis water purification unit. And we have other units ready to go; if necessary, they can be brought in from Puerto Rico.

Second, today the U.S. delivered what's called a forward air refueling package, known as a FARP, which will allow us to refuel our helicopters from the air and on the ground so they can keep operating as busily as necessary.

We have already performed hundreds of sorties. And these sorties have evacuated nearly 4,000 people so far, and also been delivering water and medical supplies.

As I said, water is a crucial element. And medical supplies, specifically medicines, are also crucial. And we have been delivering large amounts of medicines, as well.

QHave the Reserves doing this work?

MR. BACON: I don't think these are Reserves down there yet. I think they are active-duty.

But one of the things that General Wilhelm has done is left behind two teams. One is an Engineering Assessment Team, and the second is a Medical Assessment Team. And those teams are expected to report back to him, in about the next 36 hours, on sort of next steps.

Right now, the efforts are primarily on locating and excavating people: first, healthy people who are still living, getting them out, rescuing them; and second, trying to find and recover bodies of those who died.

The next step will be to begin to rebuild. And so the engineering team will look at road reconstruction, and other steps that might be necessary, in order to help get the flow of aid increased along the roadways so not everything has to be done by air.

QThese aid helicopters are all military, right?

MR. BACON: They are. They are all military helicopters.

QKen?

MR. BACON: Yes?

QWell, does it appear that the U.S. can play a role similar to the one played in Honduras after Mitch, insofar as the infrastructure repair, et cetera, is concerned?

MR. BACON: Well, I think that's exactly what the engineering teams are looking at. They will come back and recommend a list of options to General Wilhelm, and then he'll bring those options forward to the Pentagon and to the administration.

Obviously, we have responded very quickly to this crisis. We've been as helpful as we can with supplies, medical assistance, water, transportation, et cetera, and we will continue to play as significant a role as we can in helping Venezuela recover. Exactly what they need will be determined by the assessment teams that are there now.

Yes, Dale?

QI know some of the injured have been evacuated to Venezuelan ships offshore. Is there any plan for us to send any naval vessels to sit and provide hospital service?

MR. BACON: Not as far as I know. We did dispatch a naval patrol vessel, a coastal patrol vessel, which has been held up in Grenada. It's about 15 hours away, as I understand it, and could get to Caracas in that amount of time, if necessary. So far we don't believe that that ship is necessary. And it could be that the medical assessment team, when it completes its work in the next 36 hours, will recommend some sort of hospital ship support. But that recommendation hasn't come forward, and it may not come forward.

I do know that the Venezuelans report that they've got plenty of doctors. That's not a problem. What they do need, though, is medicine. And tragically, they've also asked for large numbers of body bags, and we are supplying body bags by the thousands.

Yes?

QKen, is there anything in the works on increasing the presence of military personnel there and also the assets -- more helicopters, possibly, and so forth?

MR. BACON: Well, there -- as I've said, there are eight helicopters there now. There are two UH-60 medevac helicopters, three other UH-60s, one CH-47, and two MH-60s. I believe that we're prepared to provide other helicopters as necessary. Two more are expected to arrive in the next two days, for instance. That would be a CH-47 and a UH-60.

We have already flown over 200 sorties, and we'll continue to do that as necessary.

And the C-130s will be moving in and out, obviously, bringing in equipment as necessary.

QSo they're operating from Puerto Rico --

MR. BACON: They are operating from Puerto Rico; right. Any more questions on this?

Let me just run through a couple of other announcements here quickly. I want to bring you up to date on Secretary Cohen's holiday trip. There have been some schedule changes because of bad weather in the Balkans. There was 41 inches of snow in Bosnia recently. They were supposed to have gone to Bosnia today. They had to delay that. Instead, the visited the USS Bataan, which is docked in Naples, and then they went to Aviano Air Base on the other coast of Italy. Tomorrow they are scheduled to go to Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo and then to Bosnia the day after that. But those destinations could be scrambled or switched according to the weather, so things remain very flexible.

And I want to also bring you up to date on our briefing schedule here. Currently, I do plan to brief on Thursday, but if there's no news and no reporters, we can also be flexible and scrap the briefing depending on what your plans are. (Laughter.) That will be, if it takes place, the last regularly scheduled briefing until January 4th of 2000.

We have announced that there will be a series of briefings over the Y2K changeover period, and let me just bring you up to date on that. The director of Defense Information will be staffed beginning at 6:00 a.m. on Friday, December 31st, and they will remain manned there until late Saturday, January 1st. And beginning at about midday Friday to midday Saturday -- that is, midday the 31st until midday the 1st -- we will have periodic updates on the status of DOD's systems, installations and any assistance that we're providing around the world, if there are Y2K problems.

We will also attempt to do two other things as part of our full- service commitment to the Pentagon press corps. We will attempt to pipe in the briefings by John Koskinen, the chairman of the president's Y2K council, and we will also attempt to pipe in either by television or, more likely, by phone -- just audio for Steve and Jim -- the briefings from Cheyenne Mountain. We have not worked out the technological details of those yet, but that's what we're attempting to do, so this would be sort of one-stop shopping for you. Come here and get the Pentagon updates as well as updates from other places.

QPeriodic updates from the podium?

MR. BACON: Right now, that is our plan, to do periodic updates.

QWould that be you or somebody else?

MR. BACON: It will probably not be me, but it could be me. We have a variety of choices.

Q (Inaudible.)

MR. BACON: Well, I'd like to be here with you at midnight, drinking Diet Dr. Pepper and living it up. (Laughter.) And I may well be here drinking Diet Dr. Pepper and living it up with you.

In this regard, let me just say that the Russians who will be sitting with Americans at Cheyenne Mountain at the Center for Year 2000 Strategic Stability are expected to arrive tonight at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. About 20 officers will be arriving from Russia. And there will be a brief welcoming ceremony tomorrow at 3 p.m. Mountain Standard Time. It will be very brief; minutes.

QDo they want Diet Dr. Pepper?

MR. BACON: They might go for Diet Coke or diet ginger ale or one of the other wonderful diet drinks they could have here. (Laughter.)

The center at Cheyenne Mountain will begin 24-hour-a-day operations on December 30th. That's the Center for Y2K Strategic Stability, which will involve the Russians and the Americans monitoring events around the world together.

Now, this is the annual Santa tracking announcement. I hope you're all ready for this. I know many of you have been expecting this for a long while.

Children all across the country want to know if Santa is Y2K compliant and whether he'll be ready to perform his missions even a week before the changeover. And as you know, NORAD, the North American Air Defense -- Aerospace Defense Command, monitors Santa's progress and puts it on a website for you all to follow at www.noradsanta.org. And just so you know that we're very internationalist, that website is available in English, Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian and -- Brazilian Portuguese, it says. I suppose they mean real Portuguese, as spoken in Brazil and Portugal. There's also a number you can call to get a personal update by phone: 719-474-3980.

QHas he left the North Pole yet?

MR. BACON: Pardon?

QHas he left the North Pole yet?

MR. BACON: Well, I haven't been following this. I've been too busy preparing for the briefing. But I think that you should log on at NBC or MSNBC and find out if he's left the North Pole yet.

NASA, assisted by Sally Ride, the astronaut, is also participating in the tracking, along with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, which is maintaining a satellite watch of the North Pole to pick up all of Santa's movements. So there you are.

Yes, Charlie?

QKen, I think those stories -- I am not sure -- are saying that -- the Venezuelans are saying that perhaps as many as 30,000 people might have died. And I am wondering where you all came to the figure 20,000?

MR. BACON: I base my reports solely on my conversation with General Wilhelm, who was there yesterday, the numbers he was hearing; 7,000 to 20,000, those are estimates.

Now, I have seen the larger figures since. I can tell you that, so far, the number of confirmed dead is under a thousand, or at least as of this morning it was under a thousand. It's of course changing all the time. But I think, based on the density of the population, the severity of the flooding and the weight of the mudslides, people estimate that the death toll will be much, much higher than what it is now.

Yes, Barbara?

QCan you bring us up to date on this suspicious package in DOD?

MR. BACON: The crisis is over.

QAnd what was it?

MR. BACON: The package was a box. But let me tell you what happened.

At approximately 11:45 today, somebody spotted a suspicious package -- that is, a box with wires sticking out of it -- in a ceiling in the "C" Ring. The alert person called the Defense Protective Service, the DPS, the fellows who guard the doors here, and asked them to investigate.

They brought in, first, some bomb-sniffing dogs, and then an EOD Team, explosive ordnance disposal team. They concluded that the box was something that had been left behind by an electrical contractor the day before. The contractor had been working on installing some new pass-reading machines for the Joint Staff area. As you know, they have controlled access to their National Military Command Center and other spaces in the Joint Staff area. And somebody was working on the pass-reading system.

The whole -- there was an area that was evacuated, including Chairman Shelton's office and the office of the J-3, the director of Operations for the Joint Staff. But everybody -- there was an "all clear" sounded at about 12:58, as I understand it.

So in a little more than an hour, everybody was back at work, and the area was declared safe.

I might --

QWas General Shelton among those moved, or is he not in the building today?

MR. BACON: General Shelton was in the building. He left briefly, as he evacuated his office. And I don't know whether he's back, but he's free to come back at any time -- (laughter) -- because his office is safe. And of course --

QJust a question -- I mean, just as a matter of procedure, why would he have to leave the building? Why couldn't he just go into the NMCC? Isn't that as secure?

MR. BACON: Well, I didn't say he had to leave the building. I said he had to leave his office.

QWell --

MR. BACON: Maybe he had some -- maybe he was going out to lunch -- I don't know -- or he was going out to run. I don't where he was going. But he did in fact leave his office and happened to leave the building at the same time. But he could well have -- this is a big building. He could have gone elsewhere. But whether he was going down to the athletic club or going for a walk or going to see somebody on Capitol Hill, I have no idea.

QWould you say that this building is a little jumpy during this period?

MR. BACON: No. I would say we're watchful, but we're always watchful.

There are five suspicious packages a month, on average, discovered in the building, and each one is investigated carefully. I know you're all aware of other times when corridors have been closed down and emptied out while the DPS and the EOD experts look at packages. So this is not an unusual event. It -- almost always we find that these packages are -- you know, somebody's mailed a friend a box of peanuts and failed to -- somehow nobody's figured out what it is, or somebody leaves behind a briefcase or a box of grapefruits that's not marked. And of these -- of all the suspicious packages, briefcases, boxes, et cetera, that have been investigated over the years -- as I say, an average of five a month, 60 a year -- no explosives or dangerous material have been found in any of the items left behind. But we do check them diligently.

QWas this a toolbox this guy left in the ceiling, or was this --

MR. BACON: No, I think it was a cardboard box, as I understand it, with some wires coming out of it.

QHm. That's a strange place to store it.

MR. BACON: Well, there's a lot of wiring in the ceiling. I'm sure there's wiring in this ceiling. The two places we run wires are under the floor and in the ceilings, and these wires were being run through the ceiling, and the electricians were operating up there.

Yes?

QHow can you --

MR. BACON: Just let me take this lady in back, and then I'll --

QLisa Burgess from UPI. Back to Venezuela. Has Air Mobility Command been given an tasking order to stand up a CAT in preparation for any CONUS movement to the area? Is that all going to be handled from PR so far?

MR. BACON: I'm not aware that they have set up a CAT at this time.

I'm sure that after General Wilhelm gets his assessment from the medical team and the engineering team and also further reports from the people on the ground he'll decide what to do next. He said, "I plan to consider" -- he told me he plans to consider a wide range of options and make appropriate recommendations up the chain of command and to do that as quickly as possible.

QSo we'll have more information on that in 24 hours?

MR. BACON: Well, he said that his assessment teams probably would report to him in the next 24 hours, but what I would anticipate -- I'm sorry, the next 36 hours. I would anticipate that the flow of humanitarian goods, some coming from OFDA, the office of disaster relief from the State Department -- office of foreign disaster relief, I guess it is. Foreign Disaster Assistance, OFDA -- they have pledged $3 million worth of blankets, medicines, body bags, et cetera, that is coming in through contract commercial planes; I think 727s out of Miami have been taking that material in.

We have been bringing in some additional equipment from Defense Supplies. For instance, when General Wilhelm landed yesterday he had 4,500 pounds of baby food, medicines, water and other relief goods with him in his plane that he delivered to the Venezuelan relief authority.

Q (Inaudible.) Puerto Rico?

MR. BACON: I don't know whether he was flying in a C-130 or the plane he uses is a CINC, which could be a 707 or a 737. I don't know what he flies. One of those planes from MacDill Air Force Base.

QKen?

MR. BACON: Yeah.

QThere was a meeting yesterday at the White House on the topic of terrorism. Was the Pentagon represented in that meeting?

MR. BACON: Yes.

QBy whom and what was discussed?

MR. BACON: Well, I don't -- I think General Shelton may have been there and possibly Deputy Secretary Hamre, but I'll check on that.

QOkay. And the topic and what can you -- outcome?

MR. BACON: Well, the topic was terrorism and, you know, we're meeting regularly to examine information that's coming our way. I really have nothing to report to you about that.

QDo you have a meeting today?

MR. BACON: I don't know that. That's up to the White House to report if there's a White House meeting.

QKen, can you say if there is any kind of heightened alert on U.S. military facilities within the United States boundaries that might be coming as a result of the two Algerians that have been picked up coming across the borders?

MR. BACON: Well, I don't want to get into specifics.

I can tell you that the Defense Department has sent out two advisories to military installations and commanders around the world. These are advisories that highlight, one, the State Department's warning, and two, other information that has been collected. And they are designed to give commanders the latest information so that they can use it in making their own threat assessments and devising their own force-protection plans.

As you know, force protection is handled at the installation, the local level. Every commander is extremely aware of the need to be aggressive in pursuing force-protection measures. And these advisories just alerted them to the fact that they should review all of their force protection plans and take appropriate action.

QWhen was that, Ken?

MR. BACON: They were both last week.

QWas it after that incident in Washington state?

MR. BACON: No. I think they were both before, actually.

QAnd it doesn't require any action then? It -- (inaudible) -- informational?

MR. BACON: I think that every American, because of your good work, is knowledgeable about what happened in Washington state and on the Vermont border. So military commanders are very aware of what's happening, and they'll take appropriate action.

QHave some commanders actually increased force-protection measures somewhat?

MR. BACON: Well, as I said, it happens pretty much on a local basis. I am sure some have, but they don't report back to the Pentagon on what they have done. Obviously, commanders have been well educated that, if they need additional assets to meet a force- protection need, they should ask for those assets. I am not aware that requests have come in. But commanders do know that they shouldn't be shy about asking for additional force-protection support, if they think they need it.

Yes, Tammy?

QSince the additional information has been gleaned about the possibility of terrorism, have additional assets been put on standby for the millennium by DOD or any additional precautions other than what was already planned?

MR. BACON: Just let me say that we are taking appropriate action.

Yes, Chris?

QFor this building itself, what is the threat condition? I don't think it's been posted in a while. Is it still the same as it was since the embassy bombings, threatcon alpha or something?

MR. BACON: I don't know the answer to that question. I'm not aware that it's changed. But we'll check.

QAre you reluctant to say that you have put additional assets on some sort of alert status, because that would tip off the bad guys as opposed to reassuring the public? I'm not quite sure what the thought process is.

MR. BACON: The thought process is that we take appropriate actions, and I think it's probably wise to assure Americans that its military all around the world is alert to what's happening, is following the information, public information and intelligence information, very closely, and responding appropriately. I don't think it helps anybody to go into detail about what those responses are.

QKen?

MR. BACON: Yes.

QIs there any comments on the bloody violence in Sri Lanka? Is anybody from this building in touch with the government of Sri Lanka?

MR. BACON: I'm not aware that we are. That would be much more of a State Department issue than a defense issue.

QAnd also, if Osama bin Laden is in Afghanistan. And over 200 people were arrested in Pakistan. Reports are confusing. According to Washington Times, they were connected with Osama bin Laden. Any comments on why people were under arrest in Pakistan?

MR. BACON: I'm not aware of those reports. I know that there have been some recent tensions in Pakistan, but I can't vouch for that number of 200 people.

QThank you.

MR. BACON: Could I just clarify one thing? The reverse osmosis water purification units, there are two types. One processes 300 gallons per hour, and another processes 600 gallons per hour. The one that we have now is the 300-gallon-per model, and we have prepositioned in Puerto Rico both a 600-gallon unit and, I think, several other 300-gallon units, and if necessary, we'll move those forward at the appropriate time.

QThank you.

MR. BACON: You're welcome.

QWould you prefer this be the last briefing of 1999?

MR. BACON: I'm ready to serve the Pentagon press.

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