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Secretary Cohen's as Prepared Remarks at the National Press Club

Presenter: Defense Secretary William S. Cohen
March 17, 1998
Threat Posed to America by WMD

Secretary Cohen: Doug, thank you very much. That was really a very generous and well-researched speech.

Ken, let me also thank you for inviting me to share a few moments with you.

With respect to Ohio State, let me say that I would far prefer to be hectored in Ohio State than hung in Baghdad.

And as far as your comments about my background, I think it was Sandy Berger who at one time thought he might send me as a sort of Ambassador of goodwill over to Israel; then finding out, discovering, I'm half Irish and half Jewish, he quickly concluded I'm the only person they could put on the Israeli border and get shot at from both sides.

Let me say what a pleasure it is for me to be here today and to again take note of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, Deborah Lee. I appreciate your being here; and your Deputy, Charlie Kregan, who also hails from Maine. And we do have Mark Woodward, the managing editor of the Bangor Daily News who has had both the benefit and the bane of writing about me for the last 30 years. So I appreciate your being here today, Mark. And Don Larrabee, wherever you are, I don't think I ever would have appreciated the fact that I'd be up here and you'd be out there today, but it's a pleasure to see you and your lovely wife again today.

I thought I might talk for a few moments, at least, about the subject of Iraq, where we stand in the crisis with Iraq, what Saddam Hussein's obligations are to the world and what he has to do to gain relief from the economic sanctions. Also the larger threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, what the United States is doing about it -- not only in Iraq, but here at home.

Last week I met with Secretary General Annan twice. He was your luncheon speaker. I had occasion to watch it on C-SPAN, but I had occasion to meet with him on two occasions last week -- two different occasions. We discussed in detail the Memorandum of Understanding that he reached and signed with Saddam Hussein. I think he is to be commended for his persistence and his patience in securing that agreement, and we're seeing some very positive results in the wake of it.

For the first time, UNSCOM inspectors are going to have unconditional, unfettered, unrestricted access to all suspected sites in Iraq. For the first time they will have access to so-called sensitive sites, and to the eight so-called presidential sites. These are sites which have previously been denied and declared to be off-limits as far as Saddam Hussein is concerned. Under this agreement, nothing is off limits. There are no deadlines and no bars against repeated visits to the same site. Last week, of course, the inspection team returned to Iraq and for the first time was granted admission to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.

This agreement also preserves the integrity and the independence of the inspection process. Chairman Butler remains in charge of UNSCOM. He continues to report to the Security Council through Secretary General Annan. The special inspection team for presidential sites is going to report to and remain under the control of Chairman Butler. The diplomats who are going to accompany the inspectors to these so-called special or sensitive presidential sites, are going to be there as observers and not as inspectors.

So if the agreement is fulfilled by Iraq it will give UNSCOM the access that they need to find and destroy Iraq's chemical, biological, and nuclear materials and munitions; to find and destroy the missiles that would deliver these particular weapons; and to institute a system for long-term monitoring to ensure that Iraq doesn't simply reconstitute and rebuild these systems in the future.

It's also important to remember that it was the American-led military muscle that allowed Secretary General Annan to reach this agreement. Secondly, that it was Saddam Hussein who precipitated the crisis in the first instance. Saddam tried to dictate when, where, how and for how long these inspections were going to occur. He threatened to shoot down the U-2 flights which are flown with the UN banner but by U.S. pilots. He threatened to attack U.S. forces in the region and those of our allies. And he kicked American inspectors out of the country itself.

His strategy for evasion and avoidance, however, failed. Saddam's... Economic sanctions imposed on Saddam -- he has forfeited some $110 billion over the last five or six years -- those economic sanctions remain in place. UNSCOM inspectors remain in Iraq and they have greater access than ever. The world agrees that Saddam must fully comply with these inspections and these obligations or else, as the UN Security Council indicated, it will face the severest of consequences.

There are many people in this country, certainly in this city but throughout the country and I suspect throughout the world, who breathed a great sigh of relief once this memorandum was initialed. I would like to point out that the crisis is not over. After seven years it is clear that Iraq is not to be trusted. It has displayed an historical pattern of deceit, deception and delay.

After the Gulf War Iraq gave a supposedly full, final and complete declaration that all of its weapons had been destroyed and no chemical weapons [were produced]. After the 1995 defection of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, however, Iraq confessed to having materials and munitions it had lied about for years. Today there is still a vast gap between what Iraq professes and what it's required to prove.

Iraq, for example, claims it has destroyed 25 SCUD warheads filled with biological agents such as botulinum toxin -- something that can kill you by paralyzing the lungs in a matter of about three days. Iraq also claims it destroyed 50 warheads filled with sarin -- that will kill within about 15 minutes.

The Iraqis have failed to produce any convincing evidence to this effect. Indeed while the UNSCOM inspectors, through their own efforts, have confirmed the destruction of only 30 warheads, so they have failed to provide the evidence that the remainder has been destroyed.

Iraq also claims it destroyed 157 bombs filled with biological agents such as anthrax -- a single spore of which can kill within a matter of four or five days. The Iraqis, again, offered no credible evidence of this destruction. Iraq claims it destroyed 130 tons of chemical agents and over 15,600 chemical munitions. The Iraqis have failed to demonstrate the destruction of any of this. Iraq claims it destroyed enough precursor chemicals to manufacture 200 tons of VX -- a mere drop of which can kill within a matter of a few minutes. Still they offer no convincing evidence.

So Iraq has made declaration after declaration, each one supposedly full, final, and complete, but each one false. Last month international evaluation teams called at the request of the Iraqis -- one such team headed by a Russian -- made an examination and they reported that deception and delay continued. The bottom line is that Iraq may be hiding munitions and operational missiles with warheads filled with deadly chemical and biological agents.

So judging the success of this Memorandum of Understanding is not a question of trust. It really is a question of verification. The international community must continue to test Saddam to see if he intends to fulfill or to flout his obligations. During this testing phase, Saddam is, I think, betting the world that we will see this initial access, [and] the world will say we can declare victory and bring all the inspectors home. He is hoping that the world will turn its attention elsewhere so he can turn his attention to lifting the sanctions and rebuilding his military machine.

But I would like to say here today that success is not measured by inspectors knocking on doors and walking through empty buildings, or finding empty drawers or files cleared by Iraqi search and destroy missions. It's not simply access granted by Iraq or discoveries made by the inspectors. The true test is what kind of evidence and proof Saddam is going to offer. They must make a full, final, complete declaration and they must reconcile those declarations with deeds.

Saddam Hussein has an affirmative duty to produce hard evidence -- records, names, dates, places -- describing what has been destroyed. How, when and where. The UN Security Council resolutions provide that it's not necessarily the inspectors' responsibility to prove that he is guilty of either having or hiding weapons. Their success cannot be measured by their ability to find biologically or chemically-tipped missiles or munitions in a number of haystacks that are spread over 170,000 square miles of territory. That cannot be the measure of success. It is Saddam Hussein's responsibility to provide proof that he has in fact destroyed these, which has so far been lacking.

Sanctions relief can only come when Saddam complies fully with all of the relevant UN resolutions. So he has many promises to keep, if I can paraphrase a New England poet, and inspectors have miles to go before Iraq can insist upon sanctions relief. That's why the international community has to remain vigilant, and that's why U.S. forces are going to remain in the region at the ready.

One of the great dangers in such times, if I can paraphrase T.S. Elliot, is it will have the sudden illumination that we had the experience but we missed the meaning. The larger meaning of this moment is that we are living in a world in which more powerful weapons are in the hands of more reckless people who are more likely to use them.

Iraq is one of at least 25 countries that already has or is in the process of developing nuclear, biological, chemical weapons, and the means to deliver them. Of these, many have ties to terrorists to religious zealots or organized crime groups who are also seeking to use these weapons. Chemical and biological weapons we know are the poor man's atomic bomb -- cheaper to buy, easier to build and extremely deadly.

Our American military superiority presents -- if I can use that word again -- a paradox. We have a super power paradox. Because our potential adversaries know they can't win in a conventional challenge to the United States forces, so they're more likely to try unconventional or asymmetrical methods such as biological or chemical weapons. But we can't afford to allow this vulnerability of ours to turn into an achilles heel.

That's the reason that back in November I announced the creation of a new threat reduction agency. This agency is going to serve as the Department's focal point for our technical work and our intellectual analysis that's required to confront this threat, recognizing that these weapons may be used and used early on future battlefields, and that's now a key element of our war planning. We also recognize there's no silver bullet, there's no single response to this threat. Instead we've got to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. We have to protect ourselves by deterring their use, and we have to prepare for the possibility that yes, they could be used right here in domestic America.

Prevention has to be the first and foremost line of defense in our Threat Reduction program, the so-called Nunn/Lugar program. We are helping to destroy and to dismantle nuclear and chemical weapons in the former Soviet Union. We are also actively participating in a range of arms control and non-proliferation regimes to reduce the chance that rogue regimes are going to acquire these weapons of mass destruction.

But I also have to recognize that despite all of these efforts, proliferation is likely to occur. So the second line of defense must be to protect ourselves through deterrence and through defense. We've made it very clear to Iraq and to the rest of the world that if you should ever even contemplate using weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological, any other type -- against our forces, we will deliver a response that's overwhelming and devastating.

But we also deter adversaries by making sure that our forces are ready to fight and win on any battlefield, even one that's been contaminated. So in December, I directed that we add another billion dollars to our current budget for defense mechanisms and methods. We added a billion dollars over a five-year period to the about $3.4 or $3.5 that we already have in our budget for this purpose. The purpose of this is to improve the ability of our forces to find and destroy these weapons before they're used against our troops; to arm our forces with the most advanced detection and decontamination equipment; and to give them new, lighter weight protective suits.

Last week, of course, we started vaccinating our Persian Gulf forces against anthrax, and we will continue until all of our forces are immunized. We go to these lengths because defense itself is a deterrent. The more our forces are prepared, the less likely that we'll see an attack upon them and the more likely it is that these potential adversaries will be discouraged from even thinking about it.

But this is a season of anniversaries, and it reminds us the front lines are no longer just overseas, but they're also right here at home. Five years ago last month six were killed and thousands were injured in the World Trade Center blast. Three years ago this week, the sarin gas attack took place in the Tokyo subway that killed dozens of people and injured thousands. Some believe that this kind of a deadly chemical or biological attack or catastrophe is inevitable in this country. Nothing is inevitable until it happens, but we have to prepare for this potential.

So we're building a third line of defense that's grounded in domestic preparation. The Department of Defense is leading a federal effort to train the first responders in 120 American cities. The police, the firefighters, the medical technicians who are going to be first on the scene of an attack -- we are now in the process of helping to prepare these first responders.

Today I am announcing the creation of the military's first ever rapid assessment teams to ensure that the Department of Defense is even more prepared. We are going to establish ten separate and special National Guard teams that will be dedicated solely to assisting local civilian authorities in the event of a chemical or biological attack. These teams are going to arrive quickly, they're going to assess the scene, and then to help ensure that these affected areas get federal assistance in whatever form is necessary.

I'm also announcing that the Reserve units already trained to respond to such attacks abroad are going to be given more training and opportunities to assist here at home. In its first year, this plan will avail nearly 4,000 more personnel who are trained and ready to respond. In future years the Guard and Reserve are going to be even of greater assistance.

This new initiative is going to be the cornerstone of our strategy for preparing America's defense against a possible use of weapons of mass destruction.

Winston Churchill once made the observation -- I'm paraphrasing, but he said that we can return to the stone age on the gleaming wings of science just as quickly as we can glide into the 21st Century. But he said it's always been man's choice.

I think that clearly that quotation applies today as it did back during the '50s when it was first announced. We can choose to ignore or we can choose to confront directly the kind of challenge that these weapons pose to our security in the future. We can either confront them and thereby provide for greater security and protection for the 21st Century, or we can ignore them. So the choice is ours. That's a choice I think we have to make. I don't think there will be much debate about the need and the wisdom of making it now, and that's precisely why the Department is taking these initiatives.

I am going to look at my watch and say, if I can quote from Seamus Heaney, he said, "Let go, let fly, forget. You've listened long enough. Now strike your lot."

Thank you very much.

Q: Mr. Secretary, in your announcement today that you are now going to train the Reserves for the possibility of a biological attack, that's almost a Code Red. I wonder, how real is this threat? Is this really a growing threat to the United States citizenry?

A: It's a growing threat worldwide. The levels and volume of chemical and biological munitions is spreading rapidly. It's one of the reasons we have tried to work cooperatively with so many countries in terms of the Chemical Weapons Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, to try to persuade countries to open up their systems so that we can really have a serious reduction in these very deadly kinds of systems.

But I believe, based upon the report that we have filed, there are some 25 countries who now either have these weapons or are in the process of developing them, that it's a threat which will continue to spread by virtue of the spread of technology, by access to information over the Internet and other means of acquiring this information that we're likely to see groups -- they could be either state sponsored or transnational -- who will acquire them at very little expense and be able to develop the means of delivering them.

So we have to be prepared. This is not something that is a scare tactic, it's a reality. We're likely to see more and more of it in the future.

So if you look at where we are with our military, and I know that our military is watching today -- and you've heard me and others say this, we have the finest military in the world; we have the forces that are the best led, the best educated, the most disciplined, and the most capable that we've ever had -- so there are very few, if any, countries that could take us on in a direct confrontation. Therefore, even those students of SunTzu and the art of warfare, going back thousands of years, will understand that the easiest way to take on someone of our size and capability is to look for weakness. Asymmetrical warfare is something not only of the future, but the present.

Q: What weapons detection methods are being used to check travelers or goods entering the U.S. by air, land, or sea?

A: We have inadequate screening of people coming into the country and leaving the country. We do have methods of checking for explosives, but even these are not fully sufficient today. To my knowledge, neither commercially -- and this is the best method we have of checking, of course -- have means been developed to check people who are traveling commercially and going in and out of our country for the types of chemicals that might be used.

We had one incident in the past six months or so in which someone was apprehended for carrying a bottle that had a label on it that [it] was a biological substance. It turned out it was not the case. But I think that our inspectors and those who are responsible for providing for protection for commercial airliners are becoming more and more aware of the need to look for other types of indications that people may be carrying something that is harmful.

Q: Given recent history, a war and the continuing standoff with Iraq, what possible reason can Iraq have for developing chemical and biological weapons at this point?

A: I believe that Iraq is developing them because they have used them in the past. They used them against the Kurds in the North. The used them against Iranians in the long eight year war with Iran. And the acquisition of these types of weapons does make Saddam Hussein a major player in the region. He is concerned about power and the opportunity to have nuclear or biological or chemical weapons gives him the status and the ability to project that power, to intimidate the neighbors in the region.

So it's pretty obvious why he wants them. It's also pretty obvious why it's up to us to make sure, and the United Nations -- I mean by us, up to the United Nations -- to make sure that that doesn't take place.

Q: Why aren't the National Guard and Reserves being inoculated against the anthrax now? When will they, and why the delay?

A: We are in the process of inoculating everyone in the military. We are starting first with those who are in the region. We began by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hugh Shelton and myself, receiving the first shots. In fact I had my second vaccination yesterday. I don't recommend it to everybody here, but we feel it's important we send a signal this is something that all of our military men and women must have and should have in the coming months and years. So we have a policy of inoculating everyone in the military including the Guard and Reserve.

Q: Why do you believe the U.S. military will be protected against chemical and biological weapons in the Persian Gulf when the Pentagon doesn't even admit to the existence of the Persian Gulf syndrome? Isn't there a credibility gap there?

A: We have tried to make a very thorough analysis of exactly what constitutes the so-called Persian Gulf syndrome. There have been a lot of studies conducted and yet no conclusion has been reached yet.

I think that initially the Department did not handle this well. We now have Dr. Rostker who has, I think, made a heroic effort on his part to gather as much factual information, to reach out to the veterans community, to bring as much scientific evidence as possible to bear to find out exactly the cause of the various ailments some of our veterans have.

It's also one of the reasons -- you asked in the question before, why is it taking so long to get this vaccine out to our men and women in uniform. We wanted to make sure that number one, we had a vaccine that was safe, that was stable, that was potent. We wanted to make sure we had an outside medical expert review the process to make sure that he was satisfied that we had the right kind of mechanism in place. We also wanted to make sure we had time to educate all of the people in the military about the implications of anthrax and why it was important and imperative that they receive the shots. Finally, and perhaps the most difficult part, is to make sure we have a recordkeeping mechanism whereby we can track every individual in terms of when they got the shot, when they have to get the second and third and fourth and fifth, and when they have to have their annual booster. And to track 1.4, or in essence 2.4 million people throughout their careers in the military to make sure they have adequate medical records, and they're updated constantly, is a rather serious management problem. So we've tried to do all of that in terms of making sure that we don't run into the kind of problems we had during the Persian Gulf conflict where records were lost, destroyed, missing, no accountability for it. So we're trying to take advantage and make a great improvement over what we've done in the past to make sure we don't have a repetition in the future.

Q: Mr. Secretary, here's a question about your experience before the skeptical audience in Columbus, Ohio. Is the Clinton Administration prepared to intervene in Iraq without strong public support?

A: I think the President has indicated on a number of occasions that the United States was prepared to act, hopefully with our allies. And something that's been lost in this entire debate, it seemed as if to the American people it was only the United States and our friends in Great Britain who were with us. We had 25 nations who had signed up to be with the United States should military action become necessary. They ranged all the way from the Canadians to those in Australia, New Zealand and other countries who were willing to be with us should military action become necessary.

But as part of that, I think any President must go before the American people to persuade you that it's in our national interest to put our sons and daughters in harm's way, and that we have a national security interest in seeing this military action through.

I think the President obviously would continue to address the country; he would seek to consult with Congress who are the country's representatives and represent them very well, and through that process of consultation and also presidential addresses, would then be in a position to, I think, persuade the American people that it would be in our interest if all else fails and diplomacy is not successful, to then exercise a military option. We would hope that that would not be the case, and we tried to point out time after time that the military option was the one that should be exercised last and not first, and we were duty bound to pursue every reasonable diplomatic initiative to make sure that we try to exhaust all of these initiatives before resorting to military power. But in the final analysis, if all of that failed, I believe he would have had the support of the American people, strong support.

Q: Why are Saddam's closest neighbors so unconcerned about the threat he poses that they are providing only limited support to U.S. containment efforts?

A: An excellent question and I would perhaps recite what former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil once said: "All politics is local." Every political figure in this country understands that. Those who hold high office have to be accountable and sensitive to the concerns of the local population. That is true in this country and it's true elsewhere as well.

The reason that these other countries were less visible in their expressed support for the United States is they have a domestic population they have to be very concerned about. That domestic population believes that the United States and others are exercising a double standard -- that we have been less than eager to insist upon this standard in dealing with our friend Israel, and eager to impose that standard when dealing with Saddam Hussein. We can draw distinctions and we can say there's quite a difference between somebody who has used chemicals and biological weapons against his neighbors in the past and what the State of Israel in fact has done and is doing -- but that argument is hard to make on the part of those leaders in those countries. So they've had that particular domestic element to deal with.

Secondly, they do not admire Saddam Hussein. There is no one in the region who admires Saddam Hussein. But they are scared of Saddam Hussein and what he represents. They've seen what he's done in the past. They know what he might be able to do in the future.

So their expressions of support, while they have not been as vocal or as visible, nonetheless are just as strong. There is no doubt in my mind, there is no doubt in the mind of General Zinni who's the commander of the Central Command forces, that we would have all the support necessary to carry out an effective military operation should the President ever decide to use it.

Q: Will Iraqi compliance with the weapons inspection regime be enough for sanctions to be lifted, or are there other UN resolutions with which it must also comply?

A: It must comply with all relevant UN resolutions, and that's something the UN itself, of course, will decide. But as I tried to indicate in my opening remarks, it's not enough to measure success, and I think this will be the effort that we make. If the inspectors are unsuccessful in finding anything in all of the buildings they need and want to examine and inspect, then suddenly the pressure will be on the inspectors to leave; that the international pressure will be for sanctions to be lifted; and people will be suffering from sanctions fatigue.

We saw some of this taking place prior to this signing of this Memorandum of Understanding. Virtually all of the press focused upon the suffering of the Iraqi people and there is suffering that's taking place there. But the question is, who's imposing the suffering? Here is Saddam Hussein who has forfeited $110 billion because he was not ready to fully comply with the UN resolutions. He would rather impose that suffering on his people rather than comply and give up his weapons. So he's imposed a $110 billion shortfall. People have gone without food, palaces have continued to be built -- and we have some 80-odd palaces that have been built in Iraq, almost half of them since the Persian Gulf War. So the question is, who imposed the hardship? He did.

The United States found itself in the position -- it's seen again, something of an irony. Here is the United States advocating that we have an oil for food program, that we were more concerned about helping to feed his people than he was. So we were the advocates of Section 986 that would allow the sale of oil for food and medicinal purposes, but the UN got to control that. That's why Saddam Hussein, for almost two years, refused to adopt that program or support it. He did not want the United Nations to control the flow of revenue so that they could decide it's going for food and humanitarian purposes and not to build up his military capability.

It's also interesting that the United States supported even doubling the amount of oil that could be sold for food, and he still resisted that. It's because he doesn't get to control the funding. The United Nations gets to control the revenue and devote it to humanitarian purposes. So it's something I think we have to watch very carefully, and also point out that we have been more concerned about the suffering of his people, and that's something that will be pointed to time and time again as to why the sanctions should be lifted.

What we're saying here is it's not up to the inspectors to ferret out in a country the size of Wyoming, to look at all those buildings and all the places these things could be hidden and say we haven't found anything, therefore it must be successful. He has to now demonstrate what happened to all of those systems. If he's able to do that, then I think there's an opportunity to provide sanctions relief. Absent that, the burden remains upon him.

Q: What is your assessment of the current state of the Soviet-made weapons in Iraq? How serious a threat do they pose to the region and to any new U.S.-led coalition?

A: The ability of Iraq to threaten its neighbors or our forces has been seriously diminished as a result of the Persian Gulf War. His capability has been cut back certainly by 40 or 50 percent. The systems that he currently has would pose some threat to our forces, obviously. He still has what they call SA-2, SA-3 missiles, surface-to-air missiles, they could pose a threat to our pilots. He certainly still has a large army. He does have, in my judgment at least, or is suspected of having a residual amount of chemical and biologicals. So we shouldn't minimize the kind of threat that he would pose.

But in terms of the capability of the weapons systems matched against the United States, there would be no contest.

Q: Mr. Secretary, when you appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee two weeks ago, Senators Stevens and Byrd objected to the lack of financial support from other governments for long-running U.S. military operations in the Persian Gulf. Up to that point had the Clinton Administration made any serious attempts to get countries like Japan that are not deploying forces in the region to at least contribute to the cost of U.S. operations? And why not?

A: Certainly we ask Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and others to help share the burden of our presence in the region. We have not, to my knowledge, at least, asked Japan at this point, given the fact that Japan has experienced its own difficulties. But I think that whenever the opportunity presents itself, we should ask for that support.

We found, for example, with our 25 countries who are supporting us, they were willing to contribute to the effort either in manpower or P-3 aircraft; frigates as far as the ships were concerned; so we need to do more as far as asking those who benefit from this to share more of the burden.

But I also want to point out there is some notion that we are in the Gulf in order to protect simply the Gulf states' interests. We are there to protect our interests. We are the ones who really benefit from having the stability remain intact in that area. It benefits a number of countries, and we can ask those countries to help share that burden. But we also have to recognize that it's really primarily in our interest as well. And to the extent that we can get the support of other countries to contribute to it, we should. We should get it from the Gulf states, and that effort will be undertaken.

Our principle effort was designed to get the support of the Gulf states to support us in the effort to launch a military option or exercise if it should become necessary. But I know from talking to Senator Stevens, that he is going to bring the entire appropriations committee on a trip to the Gulf region and to talk to each of the states and say that they will have to do more.

Q: Mr. Secretary, our first lunch this year was with General Butler who used to head the U.S. military arsenal. He made a very passionate and very credible argument, I thought, that there simply is no military need any more for nuclear weapons with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I wonder if you could respond to that.

A: I'm not sure his statement was there's no need for any nuclear weapons in view of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia still retains a vast amount of nuclear weaponry. We are in the process of trying to negotiate substantial reductions in the level of nuclear weapons that we have and they have. As a matter of fact, you've been reading the last few days that it appears that the Russian Duma may finally be willing to act in ratifying START II so that we can move on to START III. So we will come down from a level of 10,000 down to 6,500, down to START II levels which we are at 3,000 to 3,500, and we're talking about START III that will reduce it to between 2,000 and 2,500. Those are dramatic reductions, and there have been dramatic reductions from the levels of Cold War inventories. So we are coming down step by step in a process that does not create instability. So the lower numbers we can get, the better and the faster we can do it the better.

But I think as long as there are countries who still have nuclear weapons in their inventories, that the notion of eliminating them entirely from the U.S. inventory is not responsible. We ought to do it step by step and move as quickly as we can to make sure that there is balance and stability as we continue to move down.

Let me also say that we are always concerned about whether or not the Russians and others have adequate early warning capability, and if there's a deterioration in that we want to make sure that we can work together.

I spent some time in Moscow just about three or four weeks ago meeting with my counterpart, Minister Sergeyev. The one thing that we talked about, in addition to talking about the possibility of military action in Iraq, was really how can we work together to pursue the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, the so-called Nunn/Lugar program, how can we work together to reduce the levels of nuclear weapons in our inventory. And we are proceeding, I think, in a very responsible fashion.

Q: Congress is greatly concerned about readiness, especially in the Air Force and the Army. Are these forces hollow? Is more funding needed?

A: The forces are not hollow. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, were he here today, would stand here and tell you they are not hollow. The Chief of Staff of the Army would stand here and tell you today they are not hollow. Do we have some readiness problems? The answer is, yes. And we are seeking to deal with them.

But one of the problems that we have is that over the years, we have taken money that was supposed to be invested for procurement and used that for operation and maintenance to keep readiness at a very high level. So the complaint came, and a justifiable one since I used to raise it myself as a member of the Senate, saying why aren't we investing in the future? We have come down from such dramatic levels in procurement -- about 65, 68 percent of the procurement levels in 1985. We are now down at the lowest level we've been for quite a few decades.

John Shalikashvili, who was then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, used to hold a chart up. That chart would show that we are projecting to reach $60 billion by the year 2000. It used to be 1998, then it got to be 1999, then the year 2000. We never seemed to quite reach that goal.

So what I declared last year when I took over is, we were going to reverse the trend. We were going to start investing money into our procurement budget for future years. So by the year 2001, we will achieve that level of investment for procurement of $60 billion.

In order to do that, we have to make reductions in other accounts. It's a constant balance of having sufficient funds for operation and maintenance, readiness, and investment into the future. When we find that we are short changed on readiness, then we have to make adjustments to it. So we're making those adjustments, but we don't have a hollow Army. We have problems as far as the Air Force is concerned because commercial airliners are hiring. Whenever they're hiring at the rates that they're paying a pilot, it becomes more difficult.

There are other factors involved. There may be some disenchantment on the part of some pilots that they're not flying missions which they see as being productive. There are other who may become disenchanted because some of the planes are being "cannibalized". We have to try to manage that in a better fashion. But I think that we're up to the challenge of fixing the readiness problems. If it takes more money, we'll try to allocate more money for it.

Q: Mr. Secretary, forgive me, but here's a question from today's headlines. How was it that Linda Tripp's personnel records were made public? Shouldn't this be a matter of investigation? She was, after all, employed at the Pentagon. Government workers are assured that their 201 files will remain private.

A: I don't know the answer as to how it was made public other than the New Yorker Magazine apparently had an investigative reporter who got the information. The records are supposed to be protected by the privacy rules, but I can't give you an answer how that reporter got his or her hands -- I don't know who the reporter was -- on the information going back into her past.

Frankly, it's a surprise to me. I was not aware of it. It's a surprise to a lot of people. It's now under administrative inquiry and we'll have to see what the facts hold up to.

Q: What are the implications of failure for the Lockheed/Northrop merger which is now being questioned by government regulators? And as a followup, what will the Pentagon do with future mergers of defense companies into mega defense companies?

A: I can't tell you what the consequences will be of a failure for the merger. That's something now that is really under negotiation between the Justice Department and also the manufacturers.

We have the same policies. We have, in the past, encouraged consolidation within the industries, the defense industries, because there's been a reduction in demand. So there has been a natural movement toward consolidations and that should continue. But as you get fewer and fewer manufacturers or contractors in the Department of Defense business, as such, then obviously the Justice Department is going to look with greater scrutiny upon proposed mergers, and that is precisely what has happened here, looking at the proposed merger between Northrop and Lockheed/Martin. They're looking to see whether, in fact, by such a merger, there will be reduced horizontal integration and also vertical integration. So, that even though it might be a more efficient operation from a manufacturer's point of view, it would not be in the interest of the country as far as its anti-competitive consequences. So it's something that we will continue to look at. We want to continue to encourage mergers and consolidations, but with the understanding that those mergers and consolidations also have to be competitive and that's precisely where we are today. As I said, Lockheed/Martin is also in negotiations with the Justice Department as we speak.

Q: The National Defense Panel recently said that the Pentagon needs to invest more money more rapidly in leap-ahead defense technologies. The services have resisted, saying their budgets are too tight or the technology doesn't exist. Your views, please.

A: How much time to you have? (Laughter)

This is something that we examined during the Quadrennial Defense Review. It's something that I became immersed in almost immediately upon being confirmed as Secretary of Defense.

We tried to make an analysis in terms of what's our strategy? What's the strategy for the future? It can be summed up in three words: it's shape, respond, prepare. We have to try to shape the environment in ways that are favorable to the United States. We do that by being forward deployed. We have 100,000 people roughly throughout the Asia-Pacific region, 100,000 throughout Europe as such. We have some 27, and it goes up to 30 or 35,000 in the Gulf itself. So we are out "shaping" the environment in ways that are favorable to us.

We also have to be able to respond to a whole variety of potential crises, all the way from humanitarian operations, what they call NEOs -- non-combatant evacuation operations. You have a failed state, you have our citizens who need to be rescued. We have to have that capability.

We also have to have the capability of responding to major regional types of conflicts, namely in Iraq, possibly in South Korea should that ever come about. And of course, still have enough to deter, which is also a primary obligation, to deter any attack upon the United States.

Now there are some people who feel that you could cut back substantially in the amount of money that we're currently spending and invest that in future technologies. That will raise the risk that we would face in the short term, but the argument is that you will produce long term benefits.

There is some merit to the logic of the argument, except the following: What are you willing to give up today? When you talk about not having a two major regional conflict capability, two MRCs, what does that mean? It means that you're prepared to give up our position and our forces in the Gulf region. That's one major regional area for conflict. Are you willing to give that up? The answer is probably not.

How about Korea? Are you willing to pull the 37,000 out of Korea? Probably not at this moment. One day that may be resolved. One day the Gulf situation may be resolved. But in the short term, these are real flash points that we face. So we have to maintain where we are today in the short term, and then try to make the investments that we're talking about, the long term as well, and it always requires a tradeoff in the sense that we're living in a balanced budget, constrained budgetary environment.

So given those realities, how do we allocate these resources? So we decided upon a more moderate approach. That we would, in fact, cut back somewhat on the size of our forces. We would cut back somewhat on the procurement of the aircraft that the air forces would like to have, both the Navy and the Air Force itself and the Marines. And we will try to manage this in a way in which we take advantage of the new technologies and bring them into the force as quickly as we can, but still maintain our current posture in the world. I think that's the right course.

Q: You traveled abroad extensively during your years in the Senate and now as Defense Secretary. Are you alarmed at the attitude of many newer members of Congress, particularly new House Republicans, who disparage the view of foreign travel, some of whom go so far as to note that they don't have a passport. Who's more responsible for the spread of this attitude? Xenophobic politicians or superficial journalists? (Laughter) And...

A: ...my case. (Laughter)

One of the problems -- one thing I tried to do when I was in the Senate was to encourage more of my colleagues in the Senate to travel. I believe that you can only be effective if you have responsibilities which involve disposing of resources for foreign affairs, to be on committees that are engaged in foreign affairs. You have an obligation to find out what's going on in those countries. I think the more exchanges we can have, the better.

When I was in Moscow, just recently, I found six or eight members of the Russian Duma and the first thing they said to me is, why is it your congressmen and women don't come here any more? Why won't you sit down across the table and talk to us? They felt that we were simply giving them the back of our hand, that we were treating them as a country that was no longer a super power, and they felt insulted by it. I had to explain that there is a dynamic that takes place here in this country. Namely, we do have a situation in which every time there is congressional travel, it is immediately dubbed to be a junket, it gets reported back home. Those individuals who are on that trip then have to explain that they're going there to do the country's good will, and it is usually criticized by a potential opponent.

Frankly, I think what we've got to do is we have got to encourage more members to do more traveling, to have greater exchanges with people all across this globe.

There is one thing that has always stayed in my memory from a trip I took back in 1984 to Russia. I went there with Senator Biden. I asked him to come with me at that time. I had, at that point, along with Senator Nunn, had authored a concept called the Guaranteed Nuclear Build-Down. Again, using a phrase which was completely oxymoronic at that time, but to try to talk about how we could reduce the size of our forces and make them more stable by having newer systems. We reduced two existing systems for every new one we put into place.

I went to Russia with the notion of talking to the Soviet Academy of Sciences at that point. Then following that, I met with a famous Russian poet by the name of [Yvteshanko]. We had an afternoon together in which we had a lot of conversation about what was taking place in his country. When I left, he said something that stayed with me all of these years. He said, "You and I must stay in contact with each other. Otherwise, we will forget each other's faces." I thought it was a very graphic way of describing exactly what he meant. If we don't stay in contact, if we don't recognize each other's faces, in times of crisis it becomes very easy to engage in a lot of demagoguery, to point to the other side to either demonize them or degrade them. But if you have these lines of communication and you meet people and you talk to them on a global basis where we have interests, then in times of crisis it's easier, and I think more successful to negotiate our way through them without resorting to the kind of conflict that might otherwise occur.

So I think it's important. I think the press also has an obligation to promote these, and to make sure that they're not abused.

In the past there have been too many instances in which some of these travel trips have turned into a lot of luxury and abused of the privilege of going to foreign countries to have these kinds of exchanges. But I can't think of anything that's more important as far as the members' concern. It's to understand the people that they're dealing with in other countries, understand their viewpoint, and sit down and be willing to try to reconcile it.

Q: Mr. Secretary, before I ask our last question I have some gifts for you here today. First is our certificate of appreciation for speaking today at the National Press Club; a copy of our history. This is our 90th Anniversary year. This is a copy of the history of the National Press Club. It's not "Leaves of Grass" but it's good reading and I hope you'll enjoy it. (Laughter) And sir, the National Press Club mug.

Our last question today is, who are you rooting for in the NCAA basketball tournament? And are you still in shape to play some basketball yourself?

A: Let me just answer the second part of that question. The answer is I'm getting back into shape. General Jones, who is sitting over here, who used to play for Georgetown, he and I have taken up the challenge of playing some younger military types who occupy the front office over in my office. We have been paying a penalty ever since taking them on, but the two of us are trying to call upon 30 or 40 years of experience to really play with these youngsters who are faster, stronger, and better than we are, and were. So the answer is, yes, I'm still playing basketball. I still look forward to it, but time is not on my side. (Laughter)