Colonel Bridges: I have a couple of announcements.
First of all I'd like to remind you that the Secretary is touring Strategic Command Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, and at 2 p.m. our time he will meet with the media at the Officer's Club there. The audio portion of that news media event will be on Channel 13.
He'll be going to Los Angeles, California tonight, and we'll have another media availability piped back on Channel 13 at 6:30 our time. I'll have the duty officer come around to check to see who's still here.
I'd also like to welcome five government spokespersons from the country of Haiti. They are here as part of the USIA International Visitors Program. I'll be meeting with you I think about 2:30. I'll be more than happy to talk to you. Welcome.
With that, I'll take your questions.
Q: ...whether U.S. forces will pull out of Bosnia as of the end of next June. State Department officials seem to be softening their stand on whether or not U.S. forces will, in fact, pull out.
A: First of all, I don't think there's any difference at all in our particular positions. We have committed to staying until June of '98, and I think what you're hearing from both State Department and the White House, and if you're listening, from DoD as well, is that we need to start concentrating on what it is we are doing now as opposed to looking at the end of a mission. We need to be spending the next 12 to 13 months trying to bring peace to Bosnia and working with the civilians so that peace does break out when we leave. I don't see any difference in opinion or policy within the government on that particular issue.
Q: The SecDef has said that repeatedly. In fact he said recently that the United States should be concentrating on what needs to be done now. But he's also made it very clear that it's his position that U.S. troops should be out by the end of next June. Is that still his position?
A: That is still his position.
Q: Is that still the position of the United States under the State Department and the White House?
A: I know of no change to that policy.
Q: What can you tell us about the situation in Sierra Leone? Has an evacuation begun, when will it begin, etc.?
A: The [USS] Kearsarge has arrived off the coast of Sierra Leone. We have sent a four person advance command element to the embassy. They are currently coordinating an evacuation that will begin tomorrow. There are 250 to 300 Americans that we anticipate we will want to come out, and we anticipate beginning the operation tomorrow and completing it tomorrow.
Q: Is the United States going to help other third country nationals in this lift, or will this be Americans only?
A: That will be a call that will be made on the ground by the chargé at the embassy, as well as on-scene commanders. We'll take into account whether there's danger to these people, agreements that we have with various countries and such things, or even a humanitarian basis. We're not going to put people in harm's way. If it's practical to remove them we will do so on a space-available basis, with priority being given to American citizens.
Q: Where are you going to take them?
A: They will be moved to the Kearsarge where they will remain for a day or two, and then moved on to a transfer point.
Q: Not designated yet, the transfer point?
A: The transfer point is Conakry, Guinea, which is about 100 miles west/northwest from Freetown.
Q: There's commercial air traffic in and out of there, or are you arranging for a special airlift to get them...
A: The State Department, as I understand it, is arranging for charter aircraft to take them from Conakry back to the United States or wherever else.
Q: What is the situation on the ground? Has it deteriorated significantly in the last day or so that is making this necessary?
A: The situation as it's been described to me is uncertain. It's not stable at all. There's sporadic gunfire. There's a good deal of doubt about who's in charge. When the State Department asked us to conduct this non-combatant evacuation order, we moved the Kearsarge up to the vicinity, and we're now prepared to execute that particular NEO.
Q: Can you describe the group of Americans? Are they diplomatic employees, children? Who's involved in that?
A: No, I can't. There's about 250 out of the roughly 400 that will allegedly want to leave. I'm assuming that the 150 are people who have other commitments who wish to remain. I don't know the exact makeup of the group.
Q: The ambassador from Sierra Leone has asked the United States to intervene militarily to bring an end to the coup there. Has that request reached this building? Is there any response to that request?
A: No such request has reached this building.
Q: Is that something the Pentagon would likely favor doing, intervening in this civil war?
A: The policy for that would have to come from the State Department. We execute policy, we don't set it.
Q: Will the Kearsarge be remaining in the area after these folks are evacuated for any possible contingency? Or will it be going off to...
A: The intent, once it was released from the coast off of the Republic of the Congo, as it's now called, was to send it into the Mediterranean. So it is sort of wending its way to the Mediterranean, en-route. It will remain in the area for at least one or two days, until the Americans that are taken on board can be transferred to Conakry.
Q: Then it would go on to the Med.
A: That was the original plan. Plans change.
Q: Are there any other forces en-route to the area? Have other forces been put on alert, given warning orders to go to the area?
A: Not that I'm aware of. I think the assets they have aboard the Kearsarge are quite sufficient to do this particular mission.
Q: There are hundreds of troops from Nigeria that have flowed into the country in the last two days. Is that a good sign in the view of the United States, or is that not necessarily a good sign?
A: The Nigerian force of about 1,500, we estimate, that are now in the country, and have gone in with the express stated purpose of securing government installations. At this point, that's exactly what they're doing. So any sort of stability that they can lend to the situation, we would look upon favorably.
Q: Can you describe what the Special Forces currently in Freetown are doing?
A: There is an 11 man Special Forces detachment from the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, that was in Sierra Leone at the time the coup went down. They were there with some British military instructors, conducting leadership skills training for the Sierra Leone military. When the coup broke out, they withdrew to the area of the embassy, and they are currently assisting, as they can, at the embassy there in Freetown.
Q: Providing security protection, communications...
A: I don't have precisely what they're doing, but a Special Forces group like that, an 11-man team, can do an awful lot of things. They can provide a lot of support, and it's not just security.
Q: Is there any intention to shut the embassy down? Or will they remain with a skeleton crew on?
A: That's a great question for the State Department.
Q: You're not evacuating everybody...
A: We have not received any requests for additional security for the embassy that I know of.
Q: Is the ship 20 miles offshore?
A: Typically in an operation of this nature the ship would be over the horizon, out of view from the shoreline, and that distance is about 20 miles.
Q: It's on station now in helicopter range?
A: That is correct. It is on station. They arrived on station this morning in the early hours.
Q: Is the gunfire that's been reported in the immediate vicinity of the embassy? Has any of it been? Or is it...
A: The sensing I have is sporadic gunfire in Freetown.
Q: [Ken] Bacon said the other day that U.S. citizens didn't appear to be in any danger or be the target of any hostility. Has that changed at all?
A: We're not aware that there's a direct threat to American citizens, other than the fact that the uncertain situation, the randomness of the gunfire, could put American citizens at risk. A top priority, one of our national interests, is the protection of American citizens overseas. That's precisely what we're there to do is to protect them and assist them in leaving the country.
Q: Have U.S. citizens been coming to the embassy, looking for shelter, protection, and a way out?
A: I don't have an answer to that question. That would be another question, perhaps, for the State Department. They will have to assemble in Freetown to be picked up by the helicopters, so there's communications being issued right now to American citizens in Sierra Leone.
Q: Any indications that any Americans that are out in the hinterlands anywhere that might not be able to get to Freetown?
A: I don't have an answer to that.
Q: How are you getting the word out to Americans who may want to leave?
A: That, again, is a State Department function. From what I understand, they are initiating a typical notification system, and I understand they may also be using Voice of America to try to get the word out. But again, please ask the State Department that question.
Q: Can you respond to the reports that General Ralston will become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and that the announcement will be sometime this week?
A: The Secretary of Defense has not made a final decision with regard to a recommendation to the President for the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He will not likely make any sort of recommendation to the President, and has not discussed it with the President, any time within the next, say one or two weeks, perhaps, would be the earliest that he would make any sort of recommendation to the President.
Q: So there will be no announcement until that is done?
A: That's correct.
Q: So this is an erroneous story, is that correct?
A: Erroneous is one way of putting it. [Laughter]
Q: What's another way? [Laughter]
A: Premature is another way to put it.
Q: What's the Department's response to Senator Grassley's charge that Comptroller Hamre has not been following the law the way he's been paying out disbursements to contractors?
A: Senator Grassley is concerned with a process that has been in place in the Defense Department with regard to paying contractors for about a decade, as I understand it. I think Senator Grassley and Dr. Hamre do have some common ground here. I think they both understand that there's a problem, and I think they both want to fix it. I think the true issue is probably the speed at which it's going to get fixed.
The Secretary of Defense is quite happy with what Dr. Hamre is doing in this regard. Obviously, Senator Grassley is not as happy. But Dr. Hamre has done quite a number of things to try to rectify this problem and fix it. I believe we're moving along a path that will bring us to standard auditing practices within the Department of Defense that will match that of civilian industry.
Q: Just on that point, the true issue is the speed at which it gets fixed. Earlier this year the Pentagon proposed legislation to, in fact, authorize the practice. That legislation was withdrawn. Is there a thought to reintroduce that legislation, or is there another avenue? When you say fixing, how are you going to fix it?
A: I am not an expert in the Comptroller area, but what I understand is that the issue is giving Congress reports and audits that it asks for in a timely manner that match up with the same sort of standards and the same sort of clarity that civilian industry provides its shareholders. It's that type of thing that we're striving for. A matter of simplifying the process, updating it, automating it, and fixing it so that we can achieve that same sort of accountability. I don't know about the legislation, George.
Q: The Grassley charge isn't what you just described it. The Comptroller's been paying one contractor, and putting on the books that he actually paid another, and then making up the payments to match the actual recipient later on. That's the issue that Grassley raised -- not clarity of reports to Congress.
A: Yes. We are addressing that particular issue. It is not as if... We are doing a variety of things to try to fix that issue among other issues with regard to the efficiency of the finances, managing the finances within the Pentagon. I believe that's included in that. I'm not answering that well enough for you.
Q: Back on the Ralston issue for a second. Do you know, has General Shalikashvili made a recommendation to the Secretary of Defense yet?
A: General Shalikashvili as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the primary advisor to the Secretary of Defense as well as the President of the United States. However, what advice he has provided to either of those individuals, I was certainly not privy to.
Q: I wasn't asking what it was, I'm just asking whether he has made one.
A: I do not know.
Q: There's a report in Japan, I believe Kyoto, as saying that, quoting U.S. officials saying that the North Koreans have indicated that they are prepared to resume talks with the United States, possible four-way peace talks on the Korean Peninsula. Do you have anything on that? On whether or not the North Koreans have indicated that they're willing to resume these negotiations over four-way peace talks?
A: I have nothing on that. I can assure you that we would certainly welcome any movement towards a final settlement on the peninsula, so it would be welcome. But I am not aware of anything. I can take the question, but it may also be more appropriate for the State Department.
Q: Do you have anything on this biochem unit going to the New Orleans Airport to pick up a cylinder that's suspected of carrying noxious gas?
A: I understand they're going down there to pick it up. The Army has got more information on that than I bothered to read. [Laughter] So if you want to contact them and find out more about that particular unit and what they're doing and how they work and that sort of thing, I would refer you down there to get the accurate information. I'm aware that they're going down there to pick it up.
Q: Does the Department of Defense share a concern that many share that [Loren Kabila] is establishing a military dictatorship based on what he has done since he's taken over Kinshasa?
A: I'm sure the State Department would be more than happy to answer that question for you.
Q: But the military must have a concern if this guy's a military leader and he's not allowing any freedoms or dissent or the like. Is that not a concern, for the security of Africa?
A: It's a peripheral concern to the military, but we execute policy, we don't set it. I would suggest the State Department would be the appropriate place to go for an answer to that question.
Q: Going to yesterday's New York Times, two Members of the House Judiciary Committee have asked the Justice Department, the investigation of the '94 decision on the loosening of export controls of American technology to the Chinese. What is DoD's position on the '94 decision?
A: I'm going to have to see both you and George Wilson after this briefing. Other than telling you that our policy with China is a policy of engagement, I'm not sure I'm prepared to go beyond that. I think I know where you're talking, and I can tell you that if you'll check with Lieutenant Colonel Queenie Byars in my office, she might have something for you on that particular issue.
Q: It doesn't [inaudible] for the '94 decision?
A: I'm not really aware of what you're referring to.
Q: Do you have any information on the Joint Chiefs Chairmanship appointment? Will the Vice Chairman be appointed at the same time? Do you have any input on that?
A: No, George, I don't.
Press: Thank you.