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DoD News Briefing: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
December 23, 1999 1:35 PM EDT

MR. BACON: Good afternoon. This is last regularly scheduled briefing of this year, so I thought I'd use it to bring you up to date on a couple of issues.

First, Venezuela. The name of our operation to help the Venezuelans deal with the tragedy caused by the flooding is Fundamental Response, Operation Fundamental Response. And we are in the process of setting up a joint task force, which will be called Joint Task Force Fundamental Response, to manage our part of the emergency relief and rehabilitation efforts in Venezuela.

We currently have 107 people working as part of Operation Fundamental Response. That's up 13 from Tuesday. There are 10 helicopters -- that's up two from Tuesday -- and five C-130s -- that's up two from Tuesday -- and two other planes that, as I mentioned before, are contract planes that are working to supply goods. They're called Casa 212s fixed-wing aircraft.

So far, our planes have flown 449 sorties and transported more than 5,300 flood victims to safety or to medical facilities.

Today a C-5A Galaxy from the New York National Guard flew down two reverse osmosis water purification units. These actually were picked up in Puerto Rico, where they're run by the Puerto Rican National Guard and Army National Guard, and taken down to Venezuela. Each one of these units can purify 60,000 gallons of water a day. And they join a smaller unit that was there on Tuesday, that purifies 12,000 gallons of water a day.

We have two other large purification units in Puerto Rico ready to transport down to Venezuela to meet -- going to their primary needs right now, which is drinking water.

I am also informed by SOUTHCOM, and I haven't confirmed this any other way, but SOUTHCOM tells me that the local Pepsi bottler down there has stopped producing Pepsi and is using its facilities to purify water and distribute it free in jugs, plastic jugs. So this is another way that the demand for potable water is being met.

We will continue to survey the situation. General Wilhelm, as you know, was there on Monday. And he plans to go back, I believe next week, to look again at what's happening and our response to it. The Venezuelans have asked for of course, water, medicine and, as I said last week -- earlier this week, tragically, body bags.

They have also asked for some bridging equipment that could be used to help reconstruct roads, coastal roads, so that goods and services can get in along roads and people can get out along roads. So it would relieve some of the pressure on the airlift to repair the roads. And of course, we are looking at that, and we'll take appropriate action.

I should say that the Venezuelans do have in their military, an organization that's proven to be very capable at providing disaster relief and assistance and, we think also, will be capable of rebuilding some of these roads and bridges. But we will assist them in appropriate ways, as we get to the next stage of that operation.

The first stage, 30 days, we'll concentrate really on meeting emergency needs.

And the stage after that, we'll begin to look at rehabilitation.

So that's Venezuela. If you want, I can take questions on that now or just move on and finish the other announcements. What's the consensus here?

QGo ahead and keep going.

MR. BACON: All right.

Second, I want to bring you up to date on the latest development on the "don't ask, don't tell" front. Secretary Cohen believes that the description of the law passed by Congress in 1993 should be expanded from "don't ask, don't tell" to "don't ask, don't tell, don't harass." And the actions that the department is taking are designed to stress the third part, "don't harass."

As you know, in August Undersecretary de Leon reissued and strengthened a 1997 statement that deals with harassment. In 1997 Undersecretary Dorn focused on a complaint that has long been made by human rights groups interested in protecting homosexuals in the service, and that deals with complaints that have been made about people being homosexual. And many people have complained that if they come to a commander and say they're being charged with being homosexual for whatever reason, that the commander has then used this as evidence that they're making a statement of their homosexuality.

The 1997 Dorn memo says this is wrong. You cannot take a complaint from a soldier about harassment to be evidence of homosexuality.

In fact, what the commander should do is investigate the harasser, the person who is harassing the soldier or making the complaint. And the -- in August Secretary de Leon -- Undersecretary de Leon reissued that with stronger language. And we can -- Tom Begines can give you the copies of these, if you don't have them already.

We have issued them many times, but if you don't have them, you can get other copies -- issued a stronger version of that in which he said that commanders have an obligation to make it clear that harassment is wrong and that the people who do harass are subject to action by the commander.

That memorandum asked all the services to incorporate in their training stronger language against harassment; in other words, to make it very clear in the training they provide troops, one, in basic training and then in refresher courses throughout their career, that harassment on the basis of sex is wrong, just as it's wrong on the basis of race or religion or whether a person is male or female. So the services are in -- have presented drafts of that. Undersecretary de Leon has reviewed those, has asked them to make some changes and to come in with final versions by January 17th.

In addition, in the course of -- in this memo, which you can also get from Tom Begines, was issued earlier this week -- Undersecretary de Leon and Douglas Dworkin, the acting general counsel said, "We also think it is important that the leadership of each of the services issue a strong statement to the field that harassment of service members for any reason, to include alleged or perceived homosexuality, will not be tolerated and that commanders are expected to take prompt, appropriate action against individuals involved in such behavior." It goes on to say, "In your January 17th submission, please provide us with a copy of the statements that are issued on this subject."

So once again, it's an effort to emphasize that the policy should be described as "don't ask, don't tell, don't harass," and to put some backbone in the "don't harass" part of the policy.

Third issue involves what many American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have called for years the "gateway to Europe," the Rhein-Main airport in Frankfurt.

Today, American and German officials signed an historic agreement that will turn over Rhein-Main Air Base to the Federal Republic of Germany over the next six years. And in exchange for that, Germany will invest the equivalent of $425 million into two other U.S. air bases in Germany, Ramstein and Spangdahlem, near Bitburg, to improve their facilities so they take over the traffic and the job that has been performed by Rhein-Main. So that will happen over the six-year period.

Rhein-Main, which of course is right next to the Frankfurt commercial airport, will become absorbed into the Frankfurt commercial airport, which I believe is one of the busiest airports in Europe and will become even busier as a commercial gateway.

So the U.S. gateway to Europe will shift from Rhein-Main to Ramstein over the next six years. Probably many of you have flown into Rhein-Main in the course of going to see our troops in Bosnia or Kosovo or elsewhere in Europe.

Finally, Secretary Cohen's trip to Europe is over. He visited troops at Able Sentry in Macedonia, and Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo today, presenting the USO-sponsored entertainment tour for troops. And that tour, that concert, show I guess you'd call it, involving comedians, former football stars, musicians, such as Mary Chapin Carpenter and others, will be cybercast next week over DefenseLINK. So you can log on after Christmas and watch the USO Christmas Show for our troops in Europe on a cybercast. And I hope you all will.

And with that, I'll take your questions on the cybercast or anything else. Bob?

QSpeaking of Kosovo, the secretary was quoted today in Kosovo as saying that extra force protection measures have been taken, or extra precautionary measures are being taken by U.S. forces abroad -- is in response to what he is quoted as calling some "general threats we've had and discovered."

Can you tell us anything about -- are these threats against military installations or people, or can you be any more expansive on that quote?

MR. BACON: I can't be any more specific. I think that everybody -- every American should be aware of the State Department notifications and alerts that have been put out. Everybody's aware of what's happened in Jordan and the arrests that have been made in the United States, people trying to get into the United States.

We've been saying for weeks that we are aware of general threats that have been made against Americans. These threats apply to military people as well as civilians. And I think we've been very clear that we've been taking appropriate action to improve force protection.

On Tuesday I noted that we've sent out two alerts. These have not been specific alerts. One was from the chairman, and one was from the Defense Intelligence Agency, just notifying commanders of some of the circumstances they may face over the next week or two, and urging them to take appropriate force protection measures. And we assume that commanders are doing that all around the world.

QSo the secretary's comments were not in reference to anything new or more recent than --

MR. BACON: Nothing new. Nothing new.


MR. BACON: No, he's just summarizing what's already been done.


QHow prepared is the U.S. military and the U.S. military forces to deal with the possible aftermath or consequences of a terrorist strike, both here in the U.S. and abroad, in terms of help and assistance, if something were to happen?

MR. BACON: Well -- prepared, I think, is the answer now. If there's a domestic disaster, whether it's a natural disaster or something created by terrorists, we always work in support of domestic law enforcement and other domestic agencies. We could work in support of FEMA, for instance -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But we are not a domestic agency, and therefore we always work in support of or at the request of domestic disaster relief or law enforcement agencies.

In terms of operating abroad, if there were a problem abroad, we again, if it's something involving another agency, would operate in support of them.

If it's a problem at a military base, of course we'd be able to act on our own, but I think our military is well-trained, well-positioned, and well-led to respond to casualties or problems abroad and domestically, if asked.

QHave any units -- I guess I'm particularly thinking of airlift or transport -- been put on any sort of standby status over this period?

MR. BACON: Well, I don't think it's appropriate to talk about the status of our units. As I said on Tuesday, we've taken appropriate action and will continue to take actions that we believe are appropriate to meet any contingencies we're asked to address.


QThe Army issued a report today denying the published allegations that black soldiers were killed by their colleagues in World War II. Could you do two things; one, very, very briefly summarize that? And secondly, the head of the NAACP has asked Justice to examine the report. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR. BACON: I have not read the Army's report. It deals with an allegation in a book that came out last year alleging, on the basis of very little information, as I understand it, and information that has not been substantiated from any other source, that a number of black soldiers were killed in a base in Mississippi, Camp Van Dorn, in 1943. The Army did a very meticulous, thorough review of the circumstances surrounding that alleged event and found not only no evidence to substantiate it, no evidence whatsoever to substantiate it, but overwhelming evidence knocking down that charge.

And the overwhelming evidence -- and this is based on my reading of the executive summary and talking to people in the Army, is that they went back and traced the record of every soldier at Camp Van Dorn during that period -- their service records -- and, I believe, conclusively disproved the allegation by showing that the soldiers at Camp Van Dorn in 1943 went on to do other things in the service. And they followed the records all the way through.

I think they were able to trace all but 20 of the soldiers in the unit. And this involved a fairly -- Herculean techniques of strengthening very dim, washed-out photocopies so they could be read and viewed, and piecing together, over a period of I think 18 months, the records of these soldiers.

As I said, I have not read the report. I have read an executive summary and talked to people in the Army about it. It strikes me as a very meticulous, scholarly, thorough piece of work.

In terms of the NAACP request that the Justice Department review the case, I don't frankly know whether the NAACP had a chance itself to go through this lengthy report that the Army had produced. The Justice Department will have to make up its own mind on this.

But it seems to me, based on this Army report, that there is overwhelming evidence that this alleged massacre did not take place. It conclusively -- from everything I can tell -- conclusively disproves the charge.


QIn Okinawa, the Nago City Council voted to accept a partial relocation of Futenma as a heliport in Nago. What is the U.S. reaction to this? And is it what you expected? And what steps would you like to see taken next to see this action go forward?

MR. BACON: Well, I did not know that the Nago City Council has made that vote, and I don't know the terms of it. So I can't comment specifically on what they may or may not -- I accept your description of it -- but I can't comment specifically on something I don't know about -- I haven't heard about before now. Let me just tell you what our general policy has been.

We have made a commitment to the Japanese government to follow through with the SACO process, which involves a number of efforts to reduce the intrusiveness of our training in Okinawa, to reduce the footprint of our troops there.

That involves giving back land, it involves changing our training techniques. And it also moving the Futenma airport to someplace else. And this is something that has to be worked out with the government of Japan, and we are willing to take whatever moves: one, meet the needs of the -- that satisfy the government of Japan, and two, meet our training needs. And it's really up to the government of Japan to work out a solution with the people of Okinawa, the citizens of Japan in Okinawa, for a solution that works. And I believe this solution is potentially a workable solution. I'm not sure all the details have been worked out yet, and we are working with the government of Japan to try to get the details worked out as soon as possible.


QOn Iraq, can you tell us when the last time there was an incident in either of the no-fly zones? Has there been --

MR. BACON: December 12th.

QDecember 12th? Was that in the North or the South?

MR. BACON: I believe it was in the South, but I'll have to double check that.

QIs there any evidence that Saddam Hussein is backing off or letting up in his public vow to try to shoot down an U.S. or British plane patrolling the zones?

MR. BACON: No, I don't think so. There has been a slow-down in -- well, two things: we've been through a period of poor weather, particularly in the North, and therefore we have been flying somewhat less often than normal. And that's really a function of poor weather, not of anything else. This is very weather-dependent, obviously. Two, Saddam Hussein, in the last few weeks, appears to have been somewhat less aggressive in challenging coalition aircraft policing the no-fly zones both in the North and the South.

I don't read a lot into this. I think there are two possible explanations, and I preface this -- these explanations by saying that I'm probably not the best person at figuring out why Saddam Hussein does what he does or why his forces do what they do. But I think the two explanations are:

One, it's Ramadan, and it would be reasonable to expect a slowdown in operations during Ramadan.

And two, obviously, Saddam Hussein has been following very closely the moves in the United Nations to restart the inspection regime. The Security Council has passed a resolution, 1284, to set up a new inspection regime in Iraq. So far Iraq has not -- has said it will not accept these new inspectors, but the U.N. is going ahead. The secretary general, operating with the Security Council, has to name a person to head that regime -- the inspection operation, which is called UNMOVIC I think -- and then the inspection team will have to be put together under the leadership, and an inspection routine will have to be worked out, and then they'll try to get back into Iraq.

There are some signs that in recent weeks Saddam Hussein has been concentrating more on defensive measures, rather than offensive measures; that he has pulled some of his surface-to-air missiles and other air-defense assets out of the no-fly zones closer to Baghdad and to Tikrit and other areas in central Iraq, in the so-called free-fly zone.

Why he's doing this is unclear at this time. It may be that he is preparing to provoke another confrontation with the U.N. These confrontations have been unsuccessful in the past and, I assume, would be unsuccessful in the future as well.

He has a choice now between cooperation and confrontation. Confrontation has not gotten him what he wanted. It might be time for him to try cooperation. But that will be a choice for Saddam Hussein and the government of Iraq to make in the coming weeks.

QCan we -- it was just --

MR. BACON: I'm sorry. I got this wrong.

The last incident in the North was on the 12th of December. The last incident in the South was on the 6th of December.

QI believe that after Operation Desert Fox last year, that the attempts -- the challenges to the no-fly zone enforcement, I think, began on the 28th of December, if I remember right, and so we're coming up on what will be a year of these efforts and the U.S. and British responses. Is it possible that we could get a year-end tally of, in this past year, or since December 28th of last year, how many strikes there have been in Iraq, in the North and South, over the last year? Some sort of breakdown in the North and South of perhaps how many no-fly zone incursions, violations, there were over that time?

MR. BACON: Well, I don't have all these figures at my fingertip --

Q (Inaudible.)

MR. BACON: -- but there have been over 400 assaults against coalition aircraft; 400 violations of the no-fly zones by the Iraqi troops. Over 400 in the last year. And it's precisely because of the more aggressive attacks against the coalition aircraft that the coalition has had to take defensive actions and to strike back against the Iraqi installations that are trying to shoot down coalition aircraft. There have been long periods of time when the aircraft have flown without challenge, and they have not, of course, attacked or responded to no challenge. But when they're challenged, they do respond to protect themselves.

QI was just wondering if you'd take the question to provide us some --

MR. BACON: I will. I will take it.

Q-- whatever precise figures we could get or however precise we can get them.

MR. BACON: Yup. I will do that.

QOver what period did you say that the Iraqis had consolidated an air defense into the central --

MR. BACON: Well, this is something that seems to have been going on. But I have to point out, there's been an ebb and flow of this since the Gulf War, and we see them alternately moving from offensive to more defensive postures. They never abandon offense entirely and they never abandon defense entirely, but it's a matter of emphasis. And sometimes we see greater emphasis on offense, and sometimes we see greater emphasis on defense.

Now, we seem to see the pendulum swinging toward the defensive side. I have no doubt that sometime it'll swing back toward the offensive side.


QLet me follow up a question that I posed to you on Tuesday.

Now with regard to U.S. military engineering battalions or engineering units, has Venezuela yet asked the United States for such assets? Has -- these are the U.S. Engineers -- been there to survey the situation? What can you tell us?

MR. BACON: There has been an engineering assessment team in Venezuela. It's returned. There was also a medical assessment there. It also has returned.

The Venezuelans have requested some Bailey bridge equipment, some bridging equipment, to help them rebuild, if only temporarily, bridges that have been washed out. We have not yet acted on that, but I think we're prepared to be forward-leaning and as helpful as possible.

What I tried to point out earlier is that the Venezuelan military seems to have significant capabilities in this area, and we think that they will be able to install bridging material, bridging, on their own. This is one of the things we'll be looking at and working with them over time. We may provide support, and we may provide some equipment.

But I don't think it's been determined yet that we would have to provide entire engineering units to go down and install bridges. This is the type of thing that will be worked out with the Venezuelans, as we get a clearer idea of what the rehabilitation needs are.

QSo as far as the Engineers are concerned, will there be no need for U.S. --

MR. BACON: I think that they are still working on that.

Q (Inaudible) -- on the ground?

MR. BACON: Right.


QNow that we are just over a week away from the new year and the Pentagon has been through the whole preparedness for Y2K and everything, can you tell us what do you think is going to happen on December 31st at midnight, regarding any of the DOD systems, anything?

MR. BACON: I think we should be fine.

We had a briefing on December 16th by Deputy Secretary John Hamre in which he ran through, with some of his top assistants, all of the measures we have taken. We have spent $3.6 billion on this. We have extensively checked and rechecked and exercised to make sure that our systems work, to make sure the fixes work. We have gone through over 2,000 mission-critical systems and brought them into line. I think all but two measure up, and those two are systems that we have worked around.

They have to do with reading maps, as I understand it. So I think we're in very good shape. And to the best of our knowledge, things should go very smoothly in the U.S. military on that changeover, which is now just eight days away -- nine days -- eight or nine days away, between December 31st and January 1st.

QSo you don't think anything unusual is going to happen?

MR. BACON: That is our hope and expectation -- that it will go smoothly. We've spent a lot of time on this.

I think the key to this happened about 18 months ago, when Secretary Cohen described this as a readiness and a war-fighting issue, not just a technology issue. And he said, in order to make sure that our services can do the job the nation expects of them, all these systems have to work. They have to be reliable, and we have to be able to make this changeover smoothly and flawlessly. And when it was put in those terms, the military went to work in dealing with this, as they deal with any readiness issue, trying to get everything up to the proper level of performance. So our hope and expectation is that things should be fine. If they're not, I expect you'll replay these words many times in January and February. (Laughter.) So I have a real stake in making sure that things go smoothly.


QAny -- on Vieques, any talks under way, planned, threatened, rumored in the near future?

MR. BACON: I'm not aware of -- obviously, the holidays are coming up. I'm not aware of any firm plans. I know there have been continuing communications between the White House and the government of Puerto Rico, but I'm -- it would be up to them to announce the next set of talks, because they're really happening at the White House level now.

QAnd how was it finally resolved -- I apologize if I missed this -- so that the U.S.S. Eisenhower -- has it received all the training it requires for the battle group to be combat-ready?

MR. BACON: There is one more part of the training that I can talk about, and that is, there will be some naval gunfire training, live fire, taking place off Scotland, as the battle group heads into the Mediterranean.

Three ships -- I believe, surface combatants -- will do some live-fire training. And there could be other training as the deployment continues, but that's the one thing that the chief of Naval Operations talked about when he described the training package several weeks ago.

QThank you.

MR. BACON: You're welcome.


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