Tuesday, June 25, 1996 - 2:30 p.m.
Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon. I'd like to start with a brief announcement. As you know, we deployed the national media pool on Monday to go to Latin America to cover an operation called Laser Strike which is a counter-narcotics operation that we are conducting with a number of other countries. There have been some misguided -- and I would say almost hysterical -- media reports out of Panama about this deployment, suggesting that it might have something to do with the domestic law enforcement operation now going on in Panama. It does not. These 13 journalists were deployed to Panama yesterday. They are still there and they will go on to another country, Peru, early tomorrow morning to follow counter-narcotics operations which are being assisted and supported by U.S. forces operating out of the Southern Command.
I just want to give you a sense of why we did this and what they'll be covering. We did this obviously because we want to exercise the national media pool at least once a year just to make sure that our systems and your systems are tuned and it's ready to go when it needs to be. This is a fairly interesting operation. Last fall, we had an operation called Green Clover in which we cooperated with Peru and Columbia to provide air surveillance, radar tracking, etc., to interdict narco- traffickers. And the operation worked very well; but what we learned was that by increasing air surveillance, we were just forcing the traffic down to the ground. So, this is a much broader operation that involves about half a dozen countries rather than two countries and it involves both -- it involves air, naval, riverine and ground operations.
People from SOUTHCOM are, as I said, assisting in supporting law enforcement operations from the Latin American countries who are actually working to capture narco-traffickers or interdict supplies. So, they are going down into Peru and they will spend their time on the ground in following riverine operations for the next couple of days and will report back through the standard pool mechanism which is now on the internet, and it will be available to you all. So, the important thing is that it has nothing to do with any domestic law enforcement operation currently going on in Panama. It focuses entirely on Operation Laser Strike and they will be located in Peru once they finish their briefings at Howard Air Force Base. Yes, Susanne.
Q: Can I ask why that wasn't made clear last night in the callout?
A: Well, I can't tell you why it wasn't made clear in the callout but there's certainly been no lack of clarity in our mind about this.
Q: We can't read your mind.
A: Well, I think that -- that every reporter but one seemed to understand what was going on and not make, as I said, somewhat hyperbolic and outrageous connections that were made in one report, and everybody else seemed to get it okay. So, I just want to be absolutely clear -- I just want to be --
Q: I didn't think so. There was no definition made of what countries they were going to and when detailed questions were asked, there were no answers given. So, if there were any hyperbolic or hysterical reports, it wasn't made clear by the Pentagon what the pool was doing.
A: I'm making it clear now. So, I apologize if there was confusion earlier on. Tammie?
Q: How many American personnel are participating in the operation and do you have breakdowns?
A: There are several hundred American personnel participating in it and I don't have a breakdown by service, no.
Q: Why specifically Peru vice say Columbia?
A: Well, there are a number of countries involved. They just -- these people just -- the media pool just happens to be going to watch an operation we're supporting in Peru as part of Operation Laser Strike. They -- at another time in the operation, they might have gone somewhere else but this just happens to be where they were directed this time.
Q: Do we know how long the pool will be activated?
A: They will be back in -- they will back at the end of the week, on Friday.
Q: Could you give us about the operation bigger background? How many countries, exactly what are doing about the operation totally?
A: Well, I'm not going to give you as much detail as you want. It's an on-going operation. There are about half a dozen countries and the U.S. role is to provide support and assistance. It's some training, some technical support. We're assisting law enforcement authorities in these half a dozen countries to help them track and follow and then on their own interdict narco- trafficking. As I said, the important change in this operation from one that we ran last fall was that this is not just in the air. It's multidimensional. It's on the ground, it's at sea and it's also on rivers. So, it's a much more comprehensive attempt to work with local countries than the earlier one.
Q: But did you move Army personnel to these countries to help them on the --
A: Well, people move in and out. That's the way SOUTHCOM operates. They have teams who will go down and help -- help people, train people, instruct them, provide technical assistance. I'm not -- I don't know enough about this to be able to tell how long they're stationed with these people. My sense is they move in and out in teams. And, it's what we would call in military terms, a multi-phased operation. So there's times when we would concentrate on maritime interdiction and other times we might be concentrating more on ground interdiction or air interdiction. But the idea is to sort of mesh all of these operations as often as possible so that we provide a fairly complete screen.
Q: Again, we're told that Laser Strike actually began in April?
A: That's right.
Q: Why was this particular moment picked to activate the pool and send them down? And, secondly, do you have any feeling for how long Laser Strike will be in operation?
A: I don't think it has -- I don't believe that it has a firm end date at this stage. You're absolutely right. It's, you know, it's been going on since April and it's been no secret. There have been a fairly major articles about Laser Strike in the Los Angeles Times. It's been mentioned from this briefing stand by Brian Sheridan and others, I believe. And it was certainly mentioned in connection with the trip the Secretary took to Latin American in the spring. So, why did we choose this particular time to deploy the pool? It just seemed to be a time that worked out well for the people in SOUTHCOM and for the planners here. I don't think there's any magic. So, this is just -- the plans came together at this time. These things take some -- the whole point of the media pool, of course, is to it's to be deployed immediately if there's a combat operation. In order to do that, it takes sort of constant planning and so we have been planning this for some number of weeks before we deployed the pool. Tammie?
Q: What's -- this has been going on, you said, since April. What has it accomplished so far? For example, are narcotics seized or drug labs destroyed, that sort of thing?
A: Well, I don't have a complete run down on that but I can give you sort of a flavor of what's happened. To give you an idea here, we think that -- that between 15 and 20 air shipments have been disrupted or stopped as a result of this since April. We don't have good figures yet for what's been going on on the ground but -- and I can't give you precise figures on destruction of labs -- but there have been some lab destructions and there have also -- local authorities have captured some people they believe to be involved in narco-trafficking but I don't have the complete run down on that.
Q: The aspect of -- the involvement of the units that SOUTHCOM forces -- have they engaged in any combat, any fire fights? Have they actually done any air interdiction, force downs? And who were they cooperating with militarily?
A: Well, welcome back, first of all. First of all, it's not our job to get involved in combat operations or interdictions. What we are doing is assisting indigenous countries in the area who actually have the narco-traffickers on their territory. We are assisting them by providing surveillance, training, etc., but we aren't making the force downs ourselves, they are doing it. So, the answer is no.
Q: Which militaries are cooperating?
A: Well, as I said, there are about a half a dozen countries -- Peru, Columbia, Bolivia, so, a range of countries.
Q: It's their militaries that are cooperating with SOUTHCOM or SOUTHCOM is assisting?
A: They are law enforcement operations and sometimes the militaries, yes.
Q: Is it a DoD operation or a Barry MacCaffery operation or a combination of both of them?
A: Well, it's -- this was set up when General MacCaffery was still the Commander-in-Chief at SOUTHCOM. Tomorrow, General Wesley Clark, newly frocked four-star, will take over as the Commander-in-Chief in SOUTHCOM. General Shalikashvili is going down for the change of command ceremony. This has been planned for some time, but it's a SOUTHCOM operation that's being run in connection with a number of U.S. agencies, including the Coast Guard. And the Department of Justice is involved, the Department of State is also involved. So, it's not just a Defense Department operation.
Q: Will Shali take part or rather observe any part of the exercise?
A: I don't believe so. I think he's just going down and coming back for the change of command but I don't know that for a fact. I -- from the schedule I've seen -- it doesn't have him taking, observing the operation in any way. And the press pool, as great as it would be to have them cover the change of command operations, was not deployed to do that. They will be in Peru when the change of command operation takes place in Panama. So, they won't have anything to do with that.
Q: Do you control this operation from Panama?
Q: Do you control the operation from Panama? Who controls the operation?
A: Well, it's mainly the people providing the support or primarily SOUTHCOM, but as I said, there are a number of other U.S. agencies involved and then a number of agencies and foreign governments, but basically it's a SOUTHCOM -- the U.S. coordination is being provided through SOUTHCOM.
Q: So, you have a center in SOUTHCOM that controls the coordination of activities in the six countries?
A: For the monitoring activities in these countries, I wouldn't say that we control the activities. These are sovereign states and they -- they conduct their own operations the way they want to but many of these states are finding that narco- trafficking is a big problem for them, and they're interested in help and in controlling it. And we're able to provide that help, but these are sovereign states, and they make their decisions about how to deploy their law enforcement forces as well as their armed services.
Q: But, not to quibble, there needs to be an overall commander of Laser Strike, the operational link. Do you know who that commander is?
A: I do not know precisely who is sitting in the chair on a day to day basis, but ultimately, to the extent that SOUTHCOM is providing support, it's the commander-in-chief of SOUTHCOM.
Q: No, but you're almost contradicting --
A: Admiral Perkins has been the -- who was the DCINC or the Deputy Commander-in-Chief has been the Acting Commander-in- Chief. He's moving on to another assignment as I said. General Clark is taking over.
Q: And, just -- just in the verbiage it's almost contradictory that you say the U.S. is to supply a support role but then, if that's a support role, how then, in fact, can we be or a U.S. officer be in charge of an operation which is an overall support and operational role?
A: Well, an operation is support. That doesn't seem contradictory to me.
Q: Well, let me put it another way. In the other six countries is somebody leading and -- and --
A: Well, I'll find out. There's obviously a team and they're working together, just as NATO operates as a team when it does something and IFOR or something like that. And we will get you the names of the people on that team including the U.S. person who's most directly involved in supervising it.
A: What units?
A: I can't tell you that, we'll try to find out. I'm not sure we have a complete -- it switches from time to time -- there are naval forces involved and Coast Guard forces which aren't even part of the military. Coast Guard forces are part of the Department of Transportation. There are obviously people from the Drug Enforcement Agency involved and there are some American soldiers involved as well.
Q: Do you mean that you moved troops from the States to Panama to use in this --
A: No, no. We have -- we have troops --
Q: Stationed in Panama there --
A: We have troops stationed in Panama. As you know, they're moving out of Panama to Miami, but there are troops stationed there. In addition, troops rotate through Panama from the U.S. from time to time, but I think we're using pretty much indigenous troops who are involved in SOUTHCOM.
Q: Was the pool deployed in secrecy to your satisfaction and how has the handling of the pool been since it's been down there? Any problems?
A: The pool has been there less than 24 hours on the ground in Panama. It flew down on a C-130. I thought the deployment of the pool went excellently. I learn here that maybe we were too secretive, which is frequently not what we're accused of being in the Pentagon, but I thought it has deployed very smoothly and all accounts we've gotten are that it's going well.
Q: Do you have a readout on what the Secretary discussed with Secretary General Solana yesterday?
A: Well, it was a wide range of issues. First of all, Secretary General Solana is here primarily to meet with people on Capitol Hill and he's been spending time up there meeting Congressional leaders. He's been at NATO for less than a year and there's still many people he hasn't met on Capitol Hill, but they talked about how the IFOR mission is going. They talked about plans for NATO expansion. They talked about the importance of building on the decisions made at the last NATO meeting a week ago -- or nearly a week ago -- 10 days ago, I guess, now -- so- called 16+1 meeting where then Russian Defense Minister Grachev came. But one of the -- the NATO tasks that will transcend the outcome of the Soviet -- of the Russian elections, excuse me -- it will transcend the Russian elections is the need to build a strong relationship between NATO and Russia. And, that's one of the areas that interests the Secretary and also interests Secretary General Solana. And, they talked about that.
Q: Has the Secretary spoken with anyone in Russia --
A: I don't believe he has yet, no.
Q: Will any of the operations with respect to Laser Strike take place in Panama?
A: I'm not aware that they are taking place in Panama, but I'll check that.
Q: An issue of some concern in -- in Russia, last week, Alexander Lebed came out in a press conference and said there had been an attempted coup by five generals loyal to Grachev. Later he toned that down but this week it's reported, in fact today, there were seven generals, Russian generals fired by Yeltsin along with three of his close people last week who moved out. What -- how does the Defense Department read these events concerning the Russian military and some discontent with Yeltsin?
A: Well, we read the -- we're watching the events very closely, obviously, it's -- there are elections going on. It's part of the Russian democratic process. It's an historic time for Russia. I'm glad you noted in your question that General Lebed changed his characterization of what had happened and I think that the way it came out in the end, when all the dust had settled down, was that he was concerned that several generals and others in the Russian Defense Ministry were looking for a way to help General Grachev keep his job as Defense Minister. This is much different than a coup. It has to do more with protecting General Grachev's job and I don't know the details of what these people were discussing beyond what I read in the press, but that's what I've read.
Q: Does the Pentagon view this [inaudible] then not ever as a coup -- not ever to something to destabilize the Russian government or the system or to remove Yeltsin only --
A: Quite the opposite. What President Yeltsin has done, it seems to me, or what he said he has done publicly, is to remove people from his government whom he thought might be contemplating doing -- taking actions that would disrupt the elections. He has shown every determination to have the elections go forward on schedule and to be free and fair. And, our evidence is that the first round of the elections were in fact free and fair. And, we don't have anything to suggest that the second round on July 3rd won't be free and fair. So, we obviously applaud that.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Actually, I'm sorry. On the question of the chemical weapon --
A: Too late. [Laughter]
Q: -- at least one soldier who was there at the time claims that there was no chemical weapons detection equipment on- site. That the EOD teams made a quick and cursory search of the area and then the Bunker 73 was blown. Does the Defense Department dispute that and with what degree of certainty can you say, just in an effort to clarify what was said the other day, whether there were chemical weapons or do you believe that there were chemical weapons? What is the level or the degree of confidence that you have that there were or were not chemical weapons present there?
A: Well, to answer your first question, we have been in contact with members of the 37th Engineering Battalion who detonated the bunkers at Kamisiyah and they have told us in considerable detail about the checking that went on with detectors before the bunkers were blown up.
Now, I can not tell you for sure that they went in to Bunker 73 which is the bunker we believe contained rockets with chemical weapons in them but they certainly surveyed the area and they surveyed it before the bunkers were detonated, and then they also had detectors up while the bunkers were being detonated. So, I did see the statement that was made by a soldier who was there at the time and it disagrees fundamentally with the information we've collected from people who were actually -- other people who were in the unit. This fellow was a driver as I understand and he may have been in another area at the time the NBC teams were going through and making their survey.
Q: And, just in an effort to clarify what the degree of certainty is or the lack of certainty is as to whether chemical weapons were actually present in these shells with the polyethylene linings?
A: Well, we -- the United Nations inspectors believe that there were chemicals in the chemical weapons in the bunker and we have no reason to dispute them. We're not trying to be nitpicking about this. We're trying to be forward leaning and we're trying to look at all indications of what may have happened before, during, and after this war with chemical weapons. So, we have no reason not to believe their conclusions. But, as I said, they reviewed their evidence over the spring in response to questions and concerns raised by the U.S. They went back and looked at the evidence they had accumulated and they were able to recheck, to go back into the area as part of their continuing monitoring of Iraqi compliance and they did find these shell liners that are indicative of the presence of chemicals in rockets.
But, at no time -- at no time did the U.S. inspectors or the U.N. inspectors using detective devices, find traces of chemicals around this bunker. I want to be clear about that. What they found is circumstantial evidence -- pretty good circumstantial evidence that there were weapons containing chemicals in the bunker, but never a trace of chemicals at that particular bunker.
Q: Could you say how many bunkers there were in this area or how many were exploded by the Americans?
A: Well, there were about 100 bunkers and it was in about a 25 square kilometer area. And, we to the best of our information believe that there were chemical weapons in one of the bunkers. Now, there were chemical weapons nearby, as I stated the other day, in an open pit at another storage area. Some of them had been buried and were under sand, but in terms of the bunkers we think they were only in Bunker 73. Any other questions on this or other topics?
Press: Thank you.