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DoD News Briefing - October 24, 1996

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD (PA)
October 24, 1996 1:30 PM EDT

Thursday, October 24, 1996 - 1:30 p.m.

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.

Saturday, Secretary Perry will travel to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to visit with reserve troops and to watch operations by reservists in the Army, Navy, the Air Guard, and the Coast Guard. He'll be up there with senior enlisted advisers from the reserves. He will make a speech to reservists, and also hold a brief press conference up there.

Second, I'd like to welcome some guests here under our international visitors program. They're from a number of Middle Eastern countries -- Algeria, Egypt, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Syria, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. Welcome to our briefing.

With that, I'll take your questions.

Q: Could you shed some light on these two reports today, on the Khobar Towers bombing? The Washington Times today said the CIA has fresh evidence that Osama bin Laden is the prime suspect in financing that bombing. And also, Beirut newspapers saying that the Saudis have arrested 11 people in connection with the bombing.

A: I cannot shed light on either of those reports. The first report is an intelligence matter, and I'm not going to comment on it. I'll say about both reports that the FBI is working with Saudi officials on following up the Khobar Towers bombing and the OPM/SANG bombing in Saudi Arabia, and they're handling the investigation. I just have nothing to say.

Q: You all, of course, are extremely closely interested in this. Have you even been informed? Has the Pentagon been informed that the Saudis have arrested 11 people for questioning in connection with this bombing?

A: Charlie, the FBI is working on this and I'm just not going to comment on law enforcement operations -- even ones that involve attacks against the U.S. military -- at this time.

Q: Aside from details of the report on bin Laden could you at least tell us... The State Department has said in public briefings before that he is suspected strongly of financing terrorist activities. Can you tell us whether he has at all been implicated in this?

A: I'm not going to comment on who or who has not been implicated in this because, as I say, it's a law enforcement issue, and you should direct your questions to the FBI. There has been much written about Osama bin Laden, you're right. There have been lengthy stories in the New York Times and other newspapers about him. Much is known about his background and his activities, but I can't make any comment about his involvement in this or other activities involving U.S. troops at this time.

Q: Again, to flog a dead horse, you can't even confirm that... Have there been any arrests, to your knowledge, by the Saudis?

A: Charlie, that is a question you should appropriately take to the FBI.

Q: Can you give us an update on where the investigation stands with regard to the bombing?

A: That also is a question you should ask of the FBI.

Q: Can you take a question, non-FBI, as to a relative time frame, as how we're moving along? It seems to have been interminable, and we're fast approaching the second millennium. Do we have any idea when we're going to get an answer?

A: Our progress toward the second millennium is completely independent of this investigation. We will get to the second millennium whether or not this investigation is complete. So I'm not accepting any linkage to the second millennium here. Beyond that, that's an appropriate question for the FBI to answer.

Q: Are you satisfied with the level of cooperation you're getting?

A: You guys are extremely persistent. How many times do I have to say that all of these questions should be directed to the FBI. I'm not going to answer them.

Q: How about the threat of terrorism against U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia? Has that changed?

A: We regard the threat of terrorism as serious, and we have taken a large number of actions to reduce exposure of U.S. troops to possible attacks. The most dramatic action we've taken is to move our forces from Dhahran and from Riyadh into the Prince Sultan Air Base at Al Kharj which is a more remote facility and much easier to defend than other, more urban located facilities were.

Q: I think Secretary Perry said some weeks ago that he regarded the terrorist threat there as extremely serious. You're saying it's serious. Has anything changed from his earlier assessment?

A: Nothing has changed. We regard it as seriously as we can.

Q: U.S. forces remain on the highest state of alert then?

A: Yes, they do.

Q: Can you say that the troops who we understood were being housed in tents, is that going to be the status for some time? How can they be more protected? Moved into housing?

A: I think you have to separate protection from comfort. Your question seems more directed at comfort than protection. The protection comes from the remote location of the air base, the large security perimeter, and the defensive measures that have been put in place around the air base. Comfort is a different issue.

Q: I'm not asking about comfort. I'm asking about security in terms of being able to live behind some concrete walls is a little more secure than living in tents. So the question is, given that Secretary Perry has talked about the threat of even artillery being used against troops, can you say, versus their situation in Khobar Towers, that there are additional patrols, or it's more than just remoteness that is...

A: It is more than just remoteness, but remoteness is the primary factor. In Khobar Towers, as you know, they were in an urban environment, as they were in Riyadh. Now they're in a very remote place. I've visited Al Kharj Air Base with Secretary Perry. It is a facility impressive because of its remoteness. Therefore, given its security perimeters and the fact that it isn't around other buildings or population centers, it's very easy to patrol; it's very easy to spot people who are coming close to the air base. That's its primary security advantage. There are, of course, a number of other steps that have been taken in terms of fencing, guards, security procedures to make it safe.

To go back to your original question, initially the troops there will live in air conditioned tents. These aren't pup tents. They're much more substantial than that. They're the type of tents that troops lived in, Air Force people lived in, for instance, in Kuwait. And ultimately we hope to be able to replace those with other types of lodging, but that will take some time. We wanted to move urgently to the Prince Sultan Air Base at Al Kharj in order to reduce the exposure that the Air Force personnel were facing at Dhahran and Riyadh.

Q: Is the move totally finished?

A: The move is finished, yes.

Q: Without getting into matters that are more properly the purview of the FBI, can you just tell us generally whether this character, Osama bin Laden, is the kind of person, because of his background, that would logically be somebody on the list of suspects in this bombing incident?

A: I don't want to make the connection between this incident and Osama bin Laden. That's for the FBI to investigate and the FBI to discuss.

Q: But he is a known terrorist, isn't he?

A: He is a known supporter of Islamic extremist activities. As I say, much has been written about him publicly. You've all read it. We are concerned about him and about his activities. He's been criticized by the government of Saudi Arabia, by other governments, and by his own family, which is a wealthy Saudi family, as you know. He has lived outside of Saudi Arabia for some time. He moves, we believe, between Sudan and Afghanistan. Maybe he goes to other places as well. But any linkage between him and what happened in Saudi Arabia, the attacks against U.S. troops, will have to be made by the FBI at the end of their investigation.

Q: What about the report in the Washington Times about the large quantity of nuclear material that has turned up missing from this shipment that was brought into this country from Kazakhstan?

A: That material is under the control of the Department of Energy, so I would direct you to them to answer the question. Basically, as the story in the Washington Times itself pointed out, there's some question as to whether this is an accounting problem. Many officials believe that it is an accounting problem. That the uranium that was brought over was in various forms. Some of it was sort of loose. It was packaged, put into containers in Kazakhstan, shipped over to the United States in C- 5s, I believe they were C-5s. But shipped over to the United States in Air Force planes, and taken directly to a DOE facility. It went into the DOE facility. We have no evidence that any of this has been misplaced at the DOE facility. So the most logical conclusion is that it's an accounting problem, but DOE is looking into it, and they're the appropriate people to answer your question.

Q: What about on the other end, before it was ever shipped? Are you confident that there was no diversion between the time that the deal was struck and the time that material got on the plane?

A: We are quite confident there was adequate security, but we'll obviously look at all aspects of this, but we're quite certain that it was packaged competently and that it was well secured during all parts of its trip. As I say, though, this is a DOE issue. DOE is looking into it. They're the people to answer your questions.

Q: It was mentioned at the time of Operation Sapphire that one of the reasons for the urgency was there appeared to be Iranian interest in purchasing some of this material. Is there any indication that some of this material may have ended up in Iranian hands?

A: None that I know of. I think this will sort out to be an accounting problem. But as I say, and as the story in the Washington Times made clear, this is being looked at now.

Q: On Bosnia. Are any reserve units here in the States being notified that they will be having to do duty to support the covering force?

A: As you know, we cannot deploy in any complex operation today without reserve forces. We have a total force concept, and there are certain specialties such as civil affairs, some other areas, some medical areas, for instance, in which we, for which we depend on reserve support. We've had reservists in Bosnia from the beginning of our deployment. Reservists can be deployed for a maximum, I believe, of 270 days, so there's a constant replacement of reservists. As their period of time expires, new ones have to be put in. That process goes on regularly and it's still going on.

No formal call-up of new reserves has been announced, but the process of... That may happen some time soon. But the process of replacing reservists -- usually a few people here, a few people there, a unit here, a unit there -- has been going on from the beginning and will continue until the end of our mission in Bosnia.

Q: The other day you told us that the covering force would consist of about 7,500 U.S. troops, and that 2,500 of those were already in country. Can you give us a time table for the arrival of the other 5,000? And where will they stay? Will they stay around Tuzla or will they spread out?

A: They'll spread out to a smaller number of camps than the IFOR forces occupied, because the force is significantly smaller. As I said, there are two parts of the covering force. There are about 2,500 people already in Bosnia, and they consist primarily of MPs and engineers. In addition, members of the Big Red One are moving down, about 5,000 moving from Germany to Bosnia. Of those, 1,700 are already in Bosnia. There are another 1,650 at various staging areas in either Hungary or Croatia, and there are another 1,400 or so still scheduled to move down from Germany. They should all be in place by some time around December 20th. The entire 7,500 person covering force.

Q: On the questions earlier this week of how this would affect the withdrawal, whether or not it would be speeded up, you said it's only been 30 minutes since the announcement was made. Now that there's been some time to think about this, is there a better chance that there will be a speed-up in the withdrawal of U.S. troops there?

A: I said on Tuesday that there was a possibility there could be a speedier withdrawal, and that is still true. There's a possibility, but there are no final calculations on that now.

Q: When and where do the NATO planners meet to draw up these options that Secretary Perry and the other Defense Ministers asked for?

A: They meet where the NATO Military Committee meets, which I guess is in Brussels. I don't know whether it's Brussels or Mons, but they meet in Belgium.

Q: Do you know when?

A: The military committee is aiming to have its analysis done by around the end of the month.

Q: They're already meeting?

A: They're already considering the options, yeah. You know there are four options they discussed in Bergen. The Secretary has spoken in terms of three options that he thinks is a more realistic approach to the issue. They continue to look at these options, and they will come up, they're supposed to analyze the options and come up with the recommendations.

Q: I have a related question. When you look at a map of where the 1st AD is leaving and where the Big Red One is coming in, our forces are flanked by Russians on one side and the Nord/Poles on the other side. Why does America feel it's necessary to have a covering force if we have these allies who apparently intend to stay for awhile, right there, well armed and apparently cooperating quite well?

A: We are cooperating well with the Russians and all the other allies there, you're right. But as I explained on Tuesday, we have operated in Bosnia from the very beginning with a heavy, well trained, well qualified force. It was General Joulwan's determination that this was the safest way to bring out IFOR. Remember at the time we were expecting there would be elections in the course of this transition and, in fact, there was one stage of the elections held already, and that there would be, perhaps, some need to provide support of the election process. That's now disappeared, but I think he's found that his formula for force protection has worked extremely well, and it's important to stick with it.

Q: Are any of the Russians or Nord/Pole folks leaving at the same time the 1st AD is leaving?

A: Generally, and I can't speak uniformly about this, but almost all the other forces are using a different mechanism for replacing their forces. They've been replacing their forces on a rotational basis. We have tended to move units in and units out to the greatest extent possible because of the way we trained the forces for the mission.

Q: My question is at December 20, if there's no extension, have you heard from these folks, are they going to leave also? Will we protect them leaving, too?

A: Yes, I think we would protect each other leaving. But to answer your question, I don't know what the plans are of other forces. A number of them have said they want to stay.

Q: So is the United States the only country that's making a point of withdrawing one group of soldiers and replacing them with another in order to make the point that the mission has ended, and if there's another one, it will begin? And while the other countries are all leaving their soldiers there?

A: I think it's important to go back to the different methods I talked about earlier. We moved in units and we made a promise to these people at the time they moved in, that no soldier in IFOR would be in Bosnia for more than 365 days. That is one of the reasons we're using this covering force, is to make sure that none of the initial deploying soldiers stay there for more than 365 days. Other countries have handled it differently. Of course the French and the British, the Dutch, the Danes, other countries, had forces in Bosnia before we got there because they were part of UNPROFOR. Those forces stayed or the units stayed and became part of IFOR. We moved in de novo, starting last December, as you know, and we moved in as units -- we moved a division in and we're moving that division out. So it's a different method entirely.

Q: You place great stock in the training of our forces. Would it not be within the training say of the 15,000 to 20,000 U.S. forces in IFOR to train to withdraw on their own without any covering force?

A: Yeah. This was, however, the way General Joulwan decided to do it. As I said before, his method has succeeded so far, and I think we have to leave this judgment to him. He felt this was the best way to bring out IFOR. He wanted IFOR to concentrate on getting itself out, and let other people worry about the security.

Q: To follow up then, if I understand you correctly, the U.S. forces as part of IFOR, do have the capability to protect themselves as they withdraw?

A: Yes. They're heavy forces, they're armored forces. They can do that. But remember, the goal that General Joulwan has expressed here, I believe he last spoke to you here on September 18th, was to maintain a fully capable force in place until the end of the IFOR mission, which is December 20th. He felt that in order to do that, you couldn't have a force that was concentrating on doing its mission and getting out at the same time. That it would be cleaner and basically safer to have another force come in and let IFOR concentrate in getting itself out and not doing any associated missions.

Q: What are the Secretary's three options? Which one dropped off?

A: He dropped off the option of basically continuing the current IFOR mission. So in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said he basically saw three options. One is complete withdrawal. The second is a deterrent force which would not involve forces on the ground. And the third would involve what he calls a sustainment force, or what NATO has also called the sustainment force, which would perform some missions in terms of providing security, enforcing zones of separation, et cetera, but not the full complement of missions that IFOR is performing today. Therefore, it would be a much smaller force, or a considerably smaller force than the current IFOR.

Q: On another Bosnian topic, today the surplus U.S. military equipment arrived in Ploce, and the original plan there was going to be a big dog and pony show tomorrow with a press conference by Pardew, allowing crews into the port to shoot the offloading of the ship. That, we're now told, has all been canceled. Do you know why that is?

A: As you know, Ambassador Pardew works for the State Department and this is a program that's being run out of the State Department, and I think you should ask them.

Q: Do you know why it's been canceled?

A: I direct you to the State Department.

Q: On Jamie's question, perhaps you did answer it and I just didn't catch it. Is the United States the only country that's putting covering, protective forces into Bosnia to protect the withdrawal of IFOR or any other country?

A: We are, I believe, the only country that is withdrawing a division, and we have chosen to do that by moving in part of another division to enable that to happen. Yes. I believe that's the case. I can't speak with total uniformity, but as I explained twice before, most countries have handled their replacements in a rotational way. We have chosen to do it differently. In other words, they move in some soldiers and they move out some soldiers and move in new ones. They either do individual replacements, or they might do company or battalion replacements. We have chosen to take our whole force that we moved in starting late last year and bring it out and you know that we've set up a covering force to help us do that.

Q: Are the European countries moving in additional troops to your knowledge?

A: I didn't say that. I said they had a different way of replacing their forces. They did it on a rotational basis, unlike swapping, taking out a whole unit that had moved in. I don't know the mechanics of how they're doing it, but they have been doing these transfers for several years -- the British, the French, the Danes, the Dutch and others have been doing this for several years. We moved in under different circumstances, we've moving out under different circumstances.

Q: Will they, too, have troops remaining in there until mid-March?

A: European countries, a number of European countries, have made it clear that they believe there should be a follow-on mission after IFOR, and they are prepared to support it. We have not made such a decision, nor have we made such a statement. So our situation right now is different from theirs.

Q: That means, as Secretary Perry said two weeks ago, that as of March 15th there will be zero American troops in Bosnia?

A: Our plans right now are that the covering force will be out in mid-March, yes. And the American troops will be out...

Q: ...force to go in and cover the covering force as the covering force leaves?

A: We're actually sending in a force of journalists to cover the exit of the covering force.

Q: By March, how many troops will still be in Bosnia, overall? Americans and IFOR troops?

A: I'm afraid I don't have the answer to that question because I don't know what the plans are of the allies. But we will be down to, I don't have a graph of the withdrawal trajectory here, but I think we'll be down to about 2,000 or 2,500 troops by the beginning of March and they'll all be out by the middle of March, I think is the current plan.

Q: So some of the IFOR troops -- not the American troops, but some of the IFOR troops -- could be part of a follow-on force?

A: Well, you'll have to talk to our allies about what their plans are for a follow-on force. I can't speak for them.

Q: I believe the Air Force safety chief was quoted as saying that pilot error was the cause of that accident of the C- 130 at Jackson Hole, I think it was back in August. For those of us who didn't talk to the Air Force safety chief, can you confirm that there's been a preliminary conclusion that pilot error was the cause of that accident?

A: I can't confirm that. I just don't know. It could well be, but I don't know. I'll ask the Air Force to get in touch with you about that.

Press: Thank you.