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DoD News Briefing, October 22, 1996

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD(PA)
October 22, 1996 1:30 PM EDT

Tuesday, October 22, 1996 - 1:30 p.m.

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon. Welcome to our briefing.

First, I'd like to start by welcoming 24 journalism students from American University who are here with Professor Sean Kelly, a former Pentagon correspondent. He shows that you can move on to great feats of dedication and intellect after covering the Pentagon -- and he was with the Voice of America for many years.

Second, I would like to announce that today Task Force Eagle in Tuzla honored its fallen comrade, Staff Sergeant Charles A. Muserilli, who died in a truck accident yesterday in Slavonski Brod, Croatia. He was the seventh soldier to die during the deployment in Bosnia. He was a supply sergeant assigned to A Troop in the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry. The ceremony was attended by Lieutenant General Michael Walker, the commander of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, and Major General William Nash, and many of his colleagues.

Q: Where was he from, do you know?

A: He was stationed in Buedingen, Germany.

Q: Do you know a home town?

A: I'm afraid I don't have that, but we'll get that for you.

With that, I'll take your questions on these issues or anything else.

Q: Speaking of Bosnia, before we get to the strong protest about the background briefing you're planning on the Iraqi chemicals, the OSCE says it's going to postpone local elections in Bosnia until next spring. How is that going to affect the deployment, the withdrawal, the staying of the U.S. troops in Bosnia?

A: The redeployment of the troops will continue on schedule. As you know, we have basically two movements going on now. First, the IFOR troops are moving out. Their mission will be over on December 20th. Some have already started to move out. They'll continue to move out, and will be out as soon as possible after December 20th. They went there with a one-year mission, and they will leave at the end of one year.

Secondly, there is a covering force which, as you know, is being sent in now to provide security and other services as the IFOR is moving out. That force continues to move in. It will be a force of about 7,500 people, 5,000 of whom are in the process of moving from Germany to Bosnia; 2,500 of whom are already in Bosnia. That force is establishing itself now, and will have a limited mission in Bosnia and plans to leave in March. Those plans are currently unchanged.

Q: General Joulwan said, in fact, the plan all along as I understand it, said the bulk of the troops, of the IFOR troops, would remain until the local elections are held to provide a sense of security in the country. Now that they're not going to be held until spring, is not that withdrawal going to be speeded up at all prior to November?

A: That's a possibility, but no decision has been made on that, to speed up the withdrawal of the IFOR forces. But no decision has been made.

Q: You're saying that a large number of U.S. troops will not remain in Bosnia in order to create an atmosphere of stability for the local elections...

A: I'm saying that as of right now, approximately 30 minutes after Ambassador Frowich made his announcement, our plans are unchanged and the IFOR forces are coming out. I anticipate they will come out on schedule, possibly even ahead of schedule, and our plan is that the covering force will also come out on schedule when it completes its job.

Q: We learned that from the get-go there were NATO plans that the IFOR force could withdraw itself without any covering force. Also, we were told several times over the past nine months by a senior military official, U.S. official, that if a covering force was used it would be basically light infantry consisting of MPs and whatever else constituted light infantry. It is my understanding that this covering force of 7,500 uses M1- A1 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. It's anything but light infantry. It's a force that has sort of a built-in permanence to it. Can you comment on that, please?

A: It does not have a built-in permanence to it. We have, from the very beginning, used the philosophy that we should send a substantial force to Bosnia. The IFOR was a substantial force -- strong, well trained, prepared and ready for its job; and the covering force is also a substantial force. I think the fact that we have carried out an extremely complex mission in a very dangerous part of the world with poor weather, filled with mines, and sustained only seven fatalities over about nine months, shows that this philosophy was correct. The soldiers have been trained very well before they got there, and they've worked with extraordinary concentration and discipline and security while they've been there. I think General Joulwan's feeling is, why tinker with success? So the covering force is, as you point out, also a heavy, well prepared force that can provide its own security and the security for IFOR.

Q: Between the IFOR American contingent and the covering force, there were going to be about 18,000 U.S. troops in Bosnia at the end of November when these municipal elections were originally scheduled to take place. Now if these elections are going to be held in the spring, and you're saying the covering force is going to be out by March, does that mean -- it was originally planned to have 18,000 U.S. troops present at the time of the municipal elections, and there are now going to be zero American troops present at the time of the municipal elections?

A: Let me just correct something that you said. There were not going to be 18,000 troops there at the time of the November elections. There were going to be about 15,000 troops. There were going to be about 18,000 troops in early November as the covering force was flowing in and the IFOR was beginning to move out more quickly.

We have said from the very beginning that we hoped the elections could take place this year, and our force posture was based on that. We'll have to see what happens in the future. We understand why Ambassador Frowich made this decision. We understand that he felt there were compelling political and administrative reasons to delay the elections. Right now our force redeployment plans are unchanged.

Q: But has this government made a decision that it is not going to have U.S. troops present in some fashion to police -- or whatever phrase you want to use -- for the conduct of the municipal elections whenever they occur?

A: The question of the timing of the municipal elections is one factor that will be considered when we look at the whole question of a follow-on force. That, as you know, is something NATO is looking at now. Once NATO makes the determination of whether there will be a follow-on force, and if so, what kind it will be, we will have to look at whether we think a follow-on force is appropriate and necessary. That is a decision that we will make as a nation, and every participant in the Bosnia/IFOR force will make as a nation. We don't have that information yet, because NATO hasn't completed its work. As I say, the timing of the elections will be one of the factors that we will consider in making that decision. That decision has not been made yet.

Q: You said that the 1st Armored Division might be out of Bosnia ahead of schedule. Could they be out as soon as December 6th or 7th?

A: I said that I don't believe a decision has been made on that. It's possible that there could be some acceleration in the redeployment, and I don't have any dates.

Q: Would that be unreasonable the 6th or 7th...

A: I think it's right now not profitable to speculate about dates.

Q: I know you're planning a backgrounder, but will you entertain a couple of questions on the Persian Gulf at the moment? There's a lot of reports that you intend to announce that the notifications are going out to 20,000 additional soldiers for possible exposure to sarin and related chemicals. Can you tell us what that is about?

A: We are in the process of notifying approximately 20,000 soldiers who either participated in the destruction of Iraqi munitions at Khamisiyah in March of 1991, or who were in the vicinity. That vicinity is a 50 mile radius around Khamisiyah....

Q: Miles or kilometers?

A: I'm sorry. Fifty kilometer radius, 31 miles. I can't adjust to metric. Fifty kilometers.

This is being done because, although we still have no reports that there was exposure to chemical weapons during this time in March of 1991, no reports at the time that there was contemporaneous exposure, we want to be absolutely sure that we're doing several things. First, we want to make sure that we have the best possible information from troops there at the time about where they were and what they did. We have had, frankly, a hard time gathering that information and we're hoping this will bring in more information. We're asking them to call a Persian Gulf incident hotline. That number is 1-800-472-6719.

We also wanted to make sure that anybody who may have health problems signs up with either the Pentagon's Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program, if they're active duty or reserves. There's an 800 number which has been in existence for some time for that. It's 1-800-796-9699. Or if they're veterans, that they register with the Department of Veterans Affairs by calling that hotline which is 1-800-PGW-VETS.

We've decided after looking at the facts, that it would be best to go out and aggressively reach out to these 20,000 people, the number of people we think were in a 50 kilometer radius of Khamisiyah, in order to ask them to come forward both with information, and also to register for health services and examinations if they feel the need to. We will explain this in great detail after I finish at a background briefing.

Q: Is that being done by a certified letter, telephone?

A: This is being done by letters, and these will be letters signed by Deputy Secretary White. This is, as you know, we realized this spring and announced in June that contrary to earlier evidence, that there was the possibility of chemical exposure by some American troops who exploded weapons at Khamisiyah after the war. It turns out, we learned this year, or concluded conclusively this year, that these weapons included chemicals -- sarin and mustard gas primarily.

Since that time, in line with the President's program to do everything we can to get to the bottom of illnesses suffered by some Persian Gulf War veterans, we have been looking for the appropriate way to reach out, and we've decided this is something we should do now in an effort to get in as many people as possible.

Q: What units?

A: We will announce all of this stuff I'd like to move on to other issues now. We will give you all this information at the background session following this.

Q: Can you just tell us the status, though, this is a slightly separate issue, but of the CIA/Pentagon computer model? Is that still a long time off and is that why you're taking this step now?

A: We don't have any assurance that we will have those results quickly, and we don't know, we obviously don't know what the results will show. So rather than wait, we decided to act on our own. We may, depending on what we learn from the CIA model, after it's been reviewed by experts in modeling and meteorology and others under a peer review process that's being set up, we may decide we have to notify more people. But we won't know that, and rather than wait, we decided to move ahead with this action.

Q: In the past two months from that podium, it went from a couple of hundred Army engineers to a couple of thousand, to five thousand, then 15,000, now we're at 20,000. You say there may even be more. What can we expect? How many more?

A: If I knew that, I'd tell you. One of the reasons we're doing this is we don't know what to expect. If we had known in June what the ultimate numbers would be, we would have told you in June. But we are adopting a policy that we think reaches out aggressively to as many people as we think could reasonably, in fact many more people than we think could reasonably expect to have realized any exposure to chemicals from these incidents. We think that conservatively we could have gotten by with a much smaller radius, maybe 25 kilometers, which we looked at last month when we announced that we were reaching out to 5,000 people. We decided to be safe, to go double that. That explains the bigger number.

As you know also, the numbers changed when we discovered that there was more than one incident. At first we had thought there was just one detonation which was on March 4th. We subsequently announced another one.

Q: When you were talking about the 5,000, I think it was around October 10th, we were told that about 500 people had been contacted from that 5,000 number. Since that time, has that number increased at all?

A: There's a certain amount of confusion here. What we announced in June was that we thought about 150 people actually took part in surveying bunkers at Khamisiyah. There were about 100 bunkers. And detonating them on March 4th. I believe on March 4th about 33 bunkers were detonated. Those 150 people came from a galaxy of units, several units, about half a dozen units, that included about 1,100 people in all. We set out to contact by telephone all 1,100 of those people. Actually, it was closer to 1,200 -- 1,180-something. We have so far contacted nearly 600 of those by telephone. Of those, about half have decided to register either with the Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program or with the Veterans Administration. That's how we got the 1,100 and that's the group we were calling. The balance of that group will get certified letters.

This is a larger group that covers a broader period of time than just March 4th.

Q: Would you explain how the Pentagon then told us in a Blue Top, a press release, that 5,000 Gulf War veterans were being notified.

A: Yes. That was when we were looking at a radius of 25 kilometers. Now we're looking at a broader radius of 50 kilometers.

Q: So following on Susanne's questions, the numbers are much smaller regarding that incident, that's what we're talking about, which covered 5,000. Now that number is down to...

A: The initial... We were looking at a small number of units that included 1,100 people. They were in, I would say, four or five miles of Khamisiyah at the time. We subsequently, after June, decided to look at a broader radius, and that's where we got to the 4,000 or 5,000 people.

Q: ...since you announced last month that you were expanding to 5,000, how many of those have been notified?

A: I'd like to just move on and leave all this in background. We'll go into considerable detail in...

Q: How many people have been notified so far?

Q: Why must we have background?

Q: Can you just tell us how many people have been notified so far?

A: I do not know how many people have been notified. But the fact of the matter is, that of the 5,000 we announced we were going to notify, we have not notified many yet, because we immediately decided to look, started very soon thereafter to look at a broader number, at a broader radius. We spent a lot of time looking and deciding what the appropriate radius would be. This was coming on at the time we thought we were going to have a CIA model that would give us more precise information. As that became more and more delayed, we decided to move on our own. We set the 50 kilometer radius. It's arbitrary, as any radius is. There are many questions that we don't have the answers to, and we're hoping that we will be able to get more answers by contacting people and asking them to give us information about where they were, what they were doing, what units they were in, etc., during a period in March of 1991.

Q: The 20,000 though is inclusive of the 5,000.

A: Yes, it is.

Q: What are the other dates besides March 4th?

A: March 10th.

Q: Are you confident those are the only two dates...

A: No, I'm not confident of that. That's one of the things we'll talk about later today.

Q: Change of topic?

A: Yes.

Q: How do you assess the possibility of a North Korean missile test?

A: Well, we think a North Korean missile test would be destabilizing in the area. We've made that very clear to the North Koreans. We hope the test won't take place. There will be a North Korean official in New York over the next few days, a high level North Korean official, and we will carry on conversations with him about the test, about the framework agreement and other topics.

Q: Just one final thing, as long as you're on the record, here. Are you certain there are going to be more troops identified beyond the 20,000?

A: No, I'm not.

Q: Is it likely that this is the end of it?

A: I don't know.

Q: Is it possible we're going to get a lot more, or a few more, or...

A: You've asked me this question many times. I don't know. I'm not going to speculate about numbers. I think we'll just have to wait and see what the CIA model shows, and we'll have to wait and see what our own investigations show. Obviously, we have been very aggressive about reaching out to broader numbers of people, and if the circumstances warrant, we will do so again. We will reach out, even to more people. But right now, this is our best guess of the people who could have come even close to very minimal exposure, if that, and we think this is conservative, but we are looking at the facts, and we'll do more if we have to.

Q: I notice that A. Ernest Fitzgerald, your "pork" expert in the Air Force, has been given the Paul Douglas Award for Ethics in Government following Mike Mansfield and some other very celebrated people in politics and government. In an article, I noticed Mary McGrory mentioned that his pay and grade had been cut to zero by Dr. Perry. Is that correct?

A: I know nothing about that. I will find out.

Q: Will you find out and see if his pay grade is down to zero?

A: I understand the question.

Q: On the current opposition by the tobacco lobby and members of the tobacco growing interests, in spite of it, does the Pentagon intend to go ahead with raising the prices of cigarettes and tobacco products as of November 1st?

A: Yes, we do.

Q: The Secretary has said, as one of the criterion, that prospective new members be producers and not just consumers of security. There's a wire story earlier today that senior administrative officials have complained to the Czech government about the declining levels of Czech defense spending. Have you got anything to say about that?

A: Security involves more than just defense spending. Almost all Eastern European countries now are grappling with budgetary problems. They know what the five criteria for NATO membership are. They've been outlined very clearly by Secretary Perry and by others, and one of those criteria is to be able to run a defense establishment that's compatible with NATO defense establishments. We assume that by the time decisions are made on NATO membership, the countries asked to, by the time countries are asked to come in they will comply with the five requirements.

Q: Can you comment on the Washington Times report in which they reprint parts of a top secret CIA report that suggests that controls of Russian nuclear weapons are not as tight as some U.S. officials have suggested?

A: I don't want to comment on a report that should not have been leaked to the press, a classified report. Just let me tell you that it's been said from this podium in the last few days, actually, before Secretary Perry went to Russia, that the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces are probably their most elite or among their most elite forces. We believe that they're well disciplined, and well commanded.

The Russians have recently completed a strategic nuclear exercise similar to ones that they've carried out over the last four years, each of the last four years, and their forces appeared to be in good shape. It's no secret that we're concerned about the custody of nuclear weapons everywhere in the world, including the United States. This is an issue of grave concern to us. The Russian forces are also concerned about the security of nuclear weapons in Russia. We think they've taken prudent steps to keep the forces safe and secure.

Q: Would you call those steps adequate as opposed to prudent?

A: We think that they generally have good security for their forces. We have helped a lot through the Nunn/Lugar program to help them do things like buy special railroad transport cars for the movement of nuclear weapons as part of their force reductions under START I, the same type of force reductions we're going through. They've reduced already their nuclear warheads from about 10,000 to 7,000. They'll move down to 6,000 under START I. That in itself is a major step toward nuclear safety, reducing the number of warheads. As you know also, President Clinton and President Gorbachev have agreed to stop targeting each country's missiles at each other. Although they can be retargeted quickly, they are not targeted, which makes the chance of a devastating nuclear accident much reduced from what it was before. We think that the combination of disarmament, retargeting and the steps taken under the Nunn/Lugar program on top of the Russian caution about protecting their own nuclear force argues that the force is safe and secure.

Q: You mentioned that this document should not have been leaked to the press, and about two months ago Secretary Perry asked for an investigation of how some of these top secret and classified documents were making their way to reporters. Can you tell us at all what's been the result of that investigation?

A: Yes, I can. That action that Secretary Perry took, of course, pointed out that the release of certain intelligence information can damage our ability to operate with allies and can damage our ability to receive intelligence information from our allies. He said that that could ultimately endanger the lives of U.S. forces by making our intelligence services less capable than they should be.

So the fact that intelligence information is sometimes improperly made public can have damaging affects on the safety of U.S. forces.

Because of that, he asked the services and the Office of the Secretary of Defense to look at ways to tighten its control over classified information. There is currently a draft proposal that asks for changes in four areas. One is reporting and dissemination procedures for classified documents. The second is heightened leadership emphasis on security procedures. The third is security awareness and training. The fourth is more officials to police the security of documents and intelligence information generally. As I say, this is a draft proposal that's being considered at the Department. We will act on these recommendations at the appropriate time.

Q: So was the source of that leak ever identified in the study?

A: The Defense Investigative Service investigated this leak and several other leaks and turned this information over to the Justice Department, and Justice has jurisdiction. In cases like this the FBI has taken over the cases, and you should direct your questions to the FBI.

Q: Back in February, Secretary Perry, when he was asked about a report from a gay rights group about alleged witch hunts in the military and the expulsion rate of homosexuals, said that he would look very carefully at this question. Since then we haven't heard any results of that. Can you tell us whether this question was in fact looked at very carefully and what the results were?

A: Yes, I can tell you that he did ask his General Counsel to look into a number of the allegations that were made at that time, in February. Basically, the investigations have taken three paths. We looked broadly at a whole series of charges that were made about the Pentagon's treatment or mistreatment of homosexual service members and concluded that many of the alleged policy violations reflected a misunderstanding of the policy rather than actual violations of the policy. Beyond that, though, we did look at two specific incidents -- one involving some allegations of irregularities at Hickam Air Force Base; and the second involving some allegations of irregularities on a Navy ship called the USS SIMON LAKE.

In the first case, the Air Force has asked its Inspector General to look into the charges at Hickam. That IG report is now under legal review. The results will be forthcoming in the near future, although I can't give you a specific date. So that was one specific instance we looked into.

We also looked into allegations by a Navy sailor, Amy Barnes, of an alleged witch hunt on the USS SIMON LAKE, allegations that there was a search for homosexuals on the USS SIMON LAKE. She had actually... she was separated from the Navy and had sued the Navy to enjoin her separation. That case has been dismissed and she has dropped the lawsuit and it has essentially been settled.

So in those three cases there were actions taken, and as I say, we haven't completed the work on the Hickam Air Force Base case.

Q: When you say misunderstandings about the policy accounts for many, do you mean the people alleging the witch hunts misunderstood what the policy was, or that there were actions taken by commanders based on...

A: There were a series of allegations made, a broad series of allegations. I think that frequently the don't ask/don't tell policy has been misinterpreted for more than it is. I think some of the allegations reflected the belief that the policy may have gone further than it actually did when it was implemented.

Q: I just wanted to ask you for the record, why is it that any briefings on Gulf War Illness in which there's a high degree of suspicion among some members of the public, members of Congress, some of the Gulf War veterans themselves, why would a briefing like that have to be done on background? There's no classified information. This is at the time when the Pentagon is supposedly trying to make the case that it's being forthcoming, and yet we're going to be briefed by an official who we can only quote so long as we keep him anonymous. Why is that?

A: Let me say three things about that, first. I know there's a lot of suspicion about our policy, but I want to point out that much of this suspicion has been generated over the last few months after we have taken a more aggressive stance in releasing information about Persian Gulf Illness and after we've started doing more to reach out to people who fought in the Gulf War and who may have been exposed to low level chemicals.

The reason for that is, of course, that we had no evidence that there had been chemical exposure until this spring. When we found there was evidence we announced it. It was a watershed event, as has been explained here, and as Dr. White will explain in a news release you'll get after the background briefing. It was an event that changed the way we have to think about this and gave us much greater responsibility to look more aggressively into what may have happened in terms of chemical exposure during the Gulf War.

We've done that. There has been suspicion all along that we're holding back the facts. I find that we are coming up here almost every week, or certainly every several weeks revealing new facts. Most of the facts have been written about in almost every newspaper in the country on this issue since June, has come either from announcements we have made or from documents that have been put on the Internet. And there's a huge volume of information on the Internet now about Gulf War Illness, about medical treatment, about what happened in Iraq, about what happened at Khamisiyah. This has been generated from a variety of sources, but it's information that we are making available to the public and we're letting the chips fall where they may in the hopes that people will come forward and either register with us for clinical evaluation or give us information about what's going on. That's the first point.

The second point is that the reason we're doing this on background is that there are still many, many unanswered questions. I think that given the lack of answers, given our efforts to get the answers, it probably makes it easier to have a conversation, to have a dialogue, to answer your questions directly if we do this on background without the glare of lights and cameras. Because we admit that there are many answers we don't know. One of the reasons we're making this expanded notification is an effort to get more answers. But it is part of the cruelty of television that if you stand up in front of lights and say I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, it interferes with trying to get to the bottom of the problem, and that's what we're trying to do.

The third reason is that we would like right now to focus on the policy and not on the personality, and that's why we're doing the second phase of this on background.

I thank you for asking me the question.

Q: But credibility is a key question here, and I think you said there are two dozen American University journalism students here, and I'm sure they were taught, as you and I were taught in journalism school, that to attach the most credibility to statements which people are willing to be identified as saying. And if credibility is a key question here, why should any Defense Department officials request the cloak of anonymity in order to provide information on this vital subject?

A: Jamie, I think your question just proved the point of my comment about television. With that, we'll turn it over to the background briefing.

Q: Can I make one comment please, Mr. Bacon? However, you said here that a lot of the suspicion has been aroused by the information that you have made available. Yet there were a lot of questions that came from information that was put on the Internet and then removed. That really has been the source of a lot of questions, and that information is not being made available by the Pentagon.

A: Actually, that's not entirely true. We're in the process of making more of those documents available and I hope that we will be able to make almost all of them available. But there were, you're absolutely right... First of all, all the information was put on the Internet and some people downloaded all the information, so it is available. Secondly, there was a mistake made. We declassified too aggressively. So some of the information was taken off. Most of that information has been put back on in terms of documents. We hope that virtually all of it will be put back on soon. There's been a special review set up to go over that. There's a lot of information, and we're doing our best to get it back on. It's a good point. We shot ourselves in the foot, I agree with that. The fact is there is much more information coming onto the Internet every day. In fact so much information that people in the press have complained that we're not issuing press releases pointing out what's on the Internet.

Press: Thank you.

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