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DoD News Briefing 0530

Presenters: Col. Douglas Kennett, Director of Defense Information, OASD(PA)
May 30, 1996 1:30 PM EDT

Thursday, May 30, 1996 - 1:30 p.m.

Col. Kennett: We have a full house today. I'd like to welcome some Army Public Affairs NCOs from the Fort Meade NCO Academy, and political science students from Wheaton College. I hope it's an illustrative process for you today.

I have one short piece of information that was just handed to me. Apparently there's been a boiler explosion on the USS MERRIMACK which is at sea in the Mediterranean. There are no reports at all of casualties, and there are other U.S. Navy ships in the area providing assistance. Further information as it becomes available will be available from the Navy Desk.

With that, I'll be happy to try to answer your questions.

Q: The Air Force has announced that three officers have been removed from command in Germany in connection with the Ron Brown crash. They give no details whatsoever except to say that the commanding officer had lost confidence in those three officers. Can you give us any further details at all on that? I mean, did these officers do anything or fail to do anything that might have resulted in the crash? Can you at least set us clear on that?

A: I can confirm for you that the commander of 17th Air Force at Sembach, Germany has relieved three senior officers from their positions in the 86th Wing at Ramstein because he lost confidence in their ability to carry out their duties. He lost that confidence as a result of facts uncovered during the accident investigation.

I would remind you that that investigation is not yet complete. It's in the review process. It's been reviewed at 17th Air Force. It's been reviewed at United States Air Forces in Europe. It has not reached the building, to the best of my knowledge. When it does and it's reviewed properly here, we are already on record as saying that we will provide a full and open briefing, a press briefing here, but we will not do that until we've had the opportunity to brief the families who lost their loved ones in the tragic accident.

Q: Again, did these three men do anything or fail to do anything that might have resulted in the accident? Or are we talking about general management procedures?

A: The action that was taken by General Heflebower does not infer any judgment regarding the cause of the accident or the involvement of these three individuals. It indicates simply that he's lost confidence in their ability to carry out their duties.

Q: He was briefed on it yesterday, I gather, and last evening decided to relieve these men. Something clearly jumped out at him enough that he went down and said, "bang, bang, bang." This has been almost two months since the accident. Why wait until now?

A: He was briefed on the accident investigation as part of the review process on Monday, and took this action yesterday, on Wednesday. We will have that investigation soon. When we have that investigation, I think it will be kind of evident to us why those actions took place. I think it serves no useful purpose for us to try to speculate at this juncture.

Q: What was the responsibility of General Stevens with regard to Dubrovnik, in particular? Was he required to do a survey of the airport?

A: The commander of any unit is ultimately responsible for the activities, all activities within his unit. That would be safety, welfare of the troops, whatever. His vice commander, obviously, carries out those responsibilities with him. And his operations group commander is ultimately responsible for all flying under him.

Q: It was a failure to carry out any of these particular responsibilities that led to the cashiering?

A: Cashiering is your word. We say they've been relieved of command. They have not been forced out of the service in any way, shape or form, and they're awaiting reassignment. As I said before, the action taken by General Heflebower does not infer any judgment at all regarding the cause of the accident or the involvement of these individuals.

Q: Any charges pending or expected?

A: I really wouldn't want to speculate on that. We don't know the facts. We should know them very soon, though.

Q: Are there likely to be other people who are relieved or changed or penalized because of this?

A: The Air Force has been very clear, and General Fogleman, as you know, has been very clear about accountability as being one of the most important things within the military service and in the Air Force. If anyone else needs to be held accountable, I'm sure they will. But we certainly don't know at this juncture, and I wouldn't want to speculate. We will very soon have an accident report and that should have all the facts for us.

Q: Does this loss of confidence come about because of actions taken before or since the accident?

A: I can only tell you what's been announced, and that is that he lost confidence as a result of facts that were uncovered during the investigation. We have nothing more than that at this juncture.

Q: Were these officials cooperative in the investigation? Was there any element of coverup or obstruction of the investigation? Did that figure into the decision at all?

A: They certainly were interviewed as part of the investigation, but there's absolutely no indication that there was any coverup or anything at this juncture.

I just want to reiterate. I see no reason to try to speculate right now. I think we owe it to the families who lost loved ones in this tragedy that they get briefed first by the Air Force before they read about it in the paper.

Q: When do you expect the final report and the families to be briefed?

A: The best I can tell you now is soon. We're into the final review process of the investigation. That is part of the investigation. As I said, we're committed to a very open disclosure once it's completed.

Q: Will the White House review it as well? This report.

A: If the White House wants to review it, they certainly will.

Q: Will they review it before it's released? Is that part of the process?

A: I'm sure the President will be briefed. He's had an obvious great interest in this whole tragedy.

Q: Is it unusual for the Air Force to reassign three officers on something that is not yet fact, or a report that hasn't been finalized yet?

A: I think it's safe to say that commanders are relieved for a number of reasons throughout all the military services -- not routinely, but quite regularly, when confidence is lost in their ability to carry out their duties. I'm not going to try to read anything special into what happened here.

Q: What changes have been made in the training procedures or any of the operating procedures of the wing in question since the accident in question?

A: I'm not aware of any ones that have been announced. There may well have been, and I'd refer you back to U.S. Air Forces in Europe on that. But again, very soon we will have an accident investigation that may delineate some of this for you.

Q: Do you know if these commanders were involved in the controversy with a pilot who was relieved due to a... If you remember, this a few weeks before the accident. Were these commanders involved in that?

A: Brigadier General Stevens, who is the Wing Commander of the 86th Wing, did remove a Lieutenant Colonel Albright from command of the particular squadron. That was done prior to the accident. If you'll remember the reporting at the time, that safety was not a consideration in the removal at all. There were other reasons that were delineated at that time, but safety was not one of the reasons.

Q: Is it routine to brief families before you release an accident report? And if so, why?

A: I think they certainly should know the facts privately and prior to the rest of America or the world knowing them. We did this in the Black Hawk tragedy, and we're committed to do it in this tragedy as well.

Q: Putting in this a historical context, how unusual, or is it even unusual for them to clean house in one unit, to remove all three top people in one fell swoop as a result of one accident? Has that ever happened before?

A: I'm sure it may have. I don't have any historical delineation. You can go to each of the services and ask them to review that, but I imagine it would take some research to know.

Q: I'd like to change the subject. What kind of guidance can you give us on what's caused the delay in the announcement for any on the replacement on Admiral Boorda?

A: I don't know that there's a delay at all, Joe. I would say, obviously, clearly this is an issue of concern to the President; it's an issue of concern to the Secretary of Defense. I can tell you that they've clearly had discussions on this. The President's had a great deal of interest. He's visited the building, talked to Navy leaders. I'm not about to try to characterize their discussions or whether or not any formal recommendations have been made, but clearly, when the President is ready to announce his decision, he will.

Q: Has Secretary Perry given him a name or names?

A: I just said I was not going to try to characterize discussions between the Secretary of Defense and the President.

Q: Is there any action in Bosnia today? Any confrontation?

A: Not that's been reported to me. I'm sorry.

Q: Has the Secretary made any decision on the IG's recommendation that General Joulwan reimburse the government for his unofficial travel?

A: I'll look into that for you. I do not have any guidance on that subject.

Q: In Libya. An Egyptian weapon expert toured the Tarhunah facility in Libya recently and found no evidence to support claims of chemical weapons factory. Are you satisfied by the Egyptian finding, and have you seen any other evidence that can be brought up to confirm?

A: We've seen the same reports that you have, of interviews with President Mubarak. If the reports are true, we're pleased that Libya may be reconsidering its plans to develop the world's largest chemical weapons plant there at Tarhunah. We're pleased that President Mubarak has taken the matter seriously, and look forward to his continued work with the international community to address this issue.

They have passed a report to us that we're studying. We think, if in fact there is no further work or efforts on this chemical weapons plant, that some preventive diplomacy has indeed been successful.

Q: Do you know if the MERRIMACK has taken on water at all?

A: I've got no reports that it did. The fact that there were no injuries would indicate to me that it's not a really serious problem, but it was just handed to me before I came out here, and that's really all I know on the subject. The Navy may have some more already.

Q: To follow up on the Tarhunah question, maybe you can clarify a little bit this formulation, if the reports are true... It was previously reported that U.S. intelligence had been provided to Mr. Mubarak that was definitive as to Libyan intentions and activities there. This now appears to be maybe not so definitive, or were the previous reports and briefings that were provided to him involved with the industrial technology as opposed to the site itself? Could you perhaps clarify what's been leading up to it?

A: My understanding was that we had intelligence reports that they were attempting to build the world's largest chemical plant there. He has since told us there are assurances by people who are there that we have a lot of empty caves but no actual activity inside. If, in fact, Mr. Ghadafi is indicating that he is no longer going to build such a plant, then we believe that diplomacy has been successful.

Q: Do you have any intelligence to substantiate that?

A: I'm not going to characterize our intelligence on this issue.

Q: I want to close the loop on your Bosnia reform as far as landing aircraft. If an aircraft were up there today in the same weather conditions at the same time, would any of these reforms that the Pentagon has been promising be in place as we speak? In other words, Secretary Perry said we're going to have better landing equipment. Have there been new restrictions on weather, as to whether you can or cannot attempt a landing? In other words, what's different since the crash as far as a pilot taking an airplane with passengers into that same airport?

A: I'm not an expert on that. I can take your question on that one, George. I really don't know the answer.

Q: On Tarhunah, further followup. There's some reports now that they're saying it's going to be an ammunition storage facility, I believe. That's one report. Do you find that an acceptable use of the facility?

A: Actually, it's sort of interesting to note that that's what's being reported, that it's going to be to store ammunition or something. In April Ghadafi insisted that this facility was a water irrigation system, and prior to that it was reported that it was going to be an underground commercial pharmaceutical factory. We have to remain skeptical as to what his actual plans were or what actually will be done, and we'll watch it closely.

Q: Is an ammunition storage depot an acceptable use to the United States?

A: It depends on what sort of ammunition you're talking about, I would think. That's a question I think we have to continue to watch before I'd make a judgment.

Q: Are these three commanders basically bearing responsibility for the decision for that plane to make the flight when it did?

A: I really can't say. They're obviously ultimately responsible for everything that occurs in their wing. But as to that question, let's wait until we have a formal and complete report which should be very soon.

Q: Have the families been briefed on the reasons why these people were relieved?

A: I don't know. I would think that... There have been, I believe, discussions with people as we've gone along as there was in the Blackhawk incident, but I can't tell you that for sure. I know that they will get a full briefing when the accident report is completed, again, which should be very soon.

Press: Thank you.

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