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DOD News Briefing - Thursday, December 12, 1996 - 1:30 p.m.

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
December 12, 1996 1:30 PM EDT

Thursday, December 12, 1996 - 1:30 p.m.

[Also participating: Dr. Bernard Rostker, Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Gulf War Illnesses]

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.

First I'd like to begin the briefing by welcoming some guests. The first is Dr. Abdulraham Al-Shaia, the First Secretary and Deputy Director for Public Information of the Royal Saudi Arabian Embassy here in Washington. As you know, the Saudi Embassy has helped a number of you get into the Kingdom following the Khobar Towers bombing in June and since then.

Second, Catherine Mary McKenzie is here. She is serving as a liaison officer for the Constitutional Assembly of the South African Parliament. She's visiting the U.S. under the auspices of the United States Information Agency International Visitor Program.

Finally, we have six interns from the Atlantic Council, which is described as a think tank.

With that, I'll take your questions.

Q: Ken, could you respond to the LA Times article which said that there has been advance stages of planning going on in terms of military strikes against Iran, if a connection is made to the Khobar Towers bombing.

A: On that, just let me say that the Director of the FBI, Mr. Freeh, and his team are still analyzing and evaluating the information they have assembled on their own and the information they've received from Saudi Arabia. That analysis is not complete. I think it's premature to comment beyond that until the information is complete, until their analysis is complete.

Q: Without putting words in his mouth, there seems to have been a clear implication by the Secretary, on at least several occasions, that if another country was found to be behind the bombing that the United States would take action and/or retaliate. Is that still a viable, operable situation?

A: I don't want to fuel any war fever that seems to be growing in the press right now. The President has spoken about the response we'll take, and the Secretary has spoken about the response we'll take. Nothing has changed about that.

What I think you should keep in mind is that the FBI is evaluating information. It has not completed that evaluation. And it's premature to talk about future action until that analysis is complete.

Q: You wouldn't deny, Ken, that contingency plans for a potential strike against Iran are out there, just like there are contingency plans for other operations.

A: As you know, we don't talk about contingency plans. We don't talk about military plans, and I'm not going to start today.

Q: The Secretary has said in the past that the U.S. has no evidence linking Iran. Is that no longer operative? Is there now evidence linking Iran?

A: As I said, the FBI has not completed its investigation, and I think it's premature to talk about evidence until the FBI has decided what it has and what it doesn't have. That's what's going on now.

Q: The Secretary has talked about it in the past, using Iran's name specifically, and talking about, in general ways, whether there is evidence linking them.

A: Until the FBI has completed its investigation, it is premature to talk about the outcome of that investigation.

Q: Do you have any idea how long that investigation is going to take?

A: I don't. You should direct that question to the FBI, and I wish you would. (Laughter)

Q: What is the latest assessment by the U.S. intelligence people who are helping Louis Freeh on the cooperation from Saudi Arabia? Is Saudi Arabia giving us all it can do?

A: I think it's appropriate for the FBI to comment on its cooperation with Saudi Arabia.

Q: Would it be correct to say that a military response has not been ruled out and is on the table if a link is established?

A: It would be correct to say that I'm not going to address the idea of a military response in any way, shape or form today.

Q: Ken, do you have any idea when, can you give us a ballpark on when this investigation will be completed, when this analysis will be completed, and when we might be receiving a report?

A: I think that's a restatement of a question I just referred to the FBI earlier, so ... Showing you that I can remember ...

Q: . .. asked you when ...

A: . .. earlier answers. Please ask the FBI on that.

Q: . .. access to the people they're holding?

A: Again, we are not running this investigation. The FBI is running this investigation, and I think you should direct those questions to the FBI.

Q: Perhaps we should turn to another issue ... (Laughter) ..that you do not want to comment on, and that is the Air Force, General Record's reinvestigation of the General Downing report and his recommendation not to punish General Schwalier. It would come as a real surprise to me if you had anything to say on that, but I'll go ahead and ask it. (Laughter)

A: That investigation is not complete, as Deputy Secretary White said earlier today. And until it is complete, I don't think I should comment on it. The Air Force is continuing its review of General Records' report, and when they complete that review and decide that the report is in its final form, they will then apprise the Secretary of Defense of what they found and what they decided to do based on their report.

I would like to stress that the report that General Downing wrote on the Khobar Towers incident sparked a variety of responses, obviously. One response was that before he even read the report, Secretary Perry asked the Air Force to review the report and to consider any action, whether any action is necessary in response to the report. In his directive he said to "decide whether any action is necessary regarding how the Air Force organizes, trains, and equips to support forces deployed to a unified command." He pointed out that he had made no determination at that stage because he hadn't read the report.

The Downing report recommended 26 actions in terms of improving force protection, and the Defense Department, when it received the Downing report, analyzed those 26 proposals and broke them down into 78 separate actions. These are all actions designed to improve force protection. As of now, we've completed action on 60 of those 78 separate activities. Another 13 are expected to be completed by the end of January, a month and a half from now. The five other actions involve procurement or technology that will take longer to put into effect than January, so it will be a longer term project. But basically we've made a lot of progress on putting these force protection measures into place.

As you recall, one of the recommendations was that we try to put our forces in more secure locations. We did that by moving the Air Force from Dhahran to the Prince Sultan Air Base at Al Kharj, and we also consolidated a lot of our personnel in Eskan Village outside of Riyadh. It also recommended to set up a single focal point for force protection measures in the Department of Defense. The Chairman has taken that on and has set up a special office within the J3 or the operations branch of the Joint Staff, and that's been up and running since October. It has four divisions, which are current operations; plans and policies; requirements and programs; training, doctrine and assessments. That's to, as I say, pull together everything affecting our military forces around the world and improve force protection every way we can.

Q: Is there anything we can ask you today that you would comment on today?

A: Why don't you try?

Q: How about Aberdeen? Any update in the figures there?

A: I can give you the ...

Q: I was going to ask you more on the Air Force review.

A: Sure.

Q: Realizing that the Air Force review is not complete, when it is, would this be the final word on the punishment, if any, to any Air Force general?

A: The Secretary's letter to the Air Force asked the Air Force to advise him as appropriate on the results of the review. So I assume when the report is complete, the Secretary will be briefed on the findings of the report. In theory, the Secretary could make his own determination about the report. I can't forecast what the Secretary will do because he hasn't seen the report yet and hasn't even been briefed on it. So until the report's complete, it's premature.

Q: But in theory he could actually say yes or no to ...

A: In theory, but I don't think I want to forecast that that's going to happen. In fact, I think that the Secretary assigned this to the Air Force expecting a thorough investigation and a thorough report, and that's what the Air Force is attempting to present.

Q: Can you give us an update on ...

A: Oh, your question on Aberdeen, on the figures. Just let me give you a ... Let me tell you where we stand on the calls, the breakdown of the hotline calls as of yesterday -- 6,199 total, but it's important to make a distinction as to the types of calls. Of those, nearly 19 percent were from the media; and nearly 19 percent were from the general public, expressing their points of view; 7.3 percent are classified as "crank" calls; 22.5 percent are classified as "other," which I guess is a more favorable category than "crank." (Laughter) And nearly 14 percent, or 850 calls, warrant further investigation. So of the total calls we're getting, less than 14 percent of the calls turn up a need for further investigation, but 850 is still a large number. And remember, this is now a nationwide hotline. People aren't calling in just about Aberdeen. They can call in about charges of sexual harassment or reports of sexual harassment anywhere in the Army.

Q: Going back to the Spanish-American War or World War II or ...

A: Ivan, I didn't see you in that war.

Q: Does that mean there will be investigators on every single call? The IG will set up an investigation on ...

A: The IG will figure out some way to investigate the circumstances behind these 850 calls. That's what they're in the process of doing.

Q: The IG is involved in those?

A: The IG is involved, yes.

Q: Do you have count of how many are at Aberdeen and how many are elsewhere?

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

Q: Beyond the hotline, is there anything that advances the story about sexual harassment at Aberdeen or elsewhere in the military?

A: No. The Army's continuing to look at it aggressively. The numbers change from day to day. There was a report today in the [New York] Times that had some of the latest numbers that came out of the congressional visit there yesterday. Those numbers are correct. But the hotline is designed to attract calls from people who have charges to report, and it is serving that purpose. The calls are coming in and we're investigating those calls as quickly as possible.

Q: Can you update us on what we're doing in Central Africa? And also, December 20th is next week, the date to which IFOR troops are pulling out of Bosnia. Can you update us on that?

A: Central Africa. Tomorrow the Canadians will host a meeting of the Steering Group to look at the situation in Central Africa and decide whether a multinational force is necessary to carry out a humanitarian mission. We will, obviously, key our action to that decision. We have been, in the mean time, however, drawing down our force in Central Africa. We, from a peak of approximately 450 people in Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda, we're down to about probably 220, right now -- 220, 240, somewhere in that range.

We are continuing with the reconnaissance flights. The P-3 and the AC-130 flew today. But if the international community decides that a multinational force won't be necessary, then we will close down that operation, or at least shrink it down to a very small continuing sort of group that could expand quickly if necessary, but we would probably close it down to half a dozen people or less pretty quickly.

Q: Where are most of your 220 now?

A: Most of them are in Entebbe.

Q: Is the Steering Group at the UN ...

A: I think it is. It's at the UN tomorrow.

Q: Bosnia?

A: Bosnia, you're absolutely right. The IFOR mission ends on December 20th, a week from tomorrow. The IFOR has done a fabulous job. Secretary Perry will be in Bad Kreuznach on Monday to honor the 1st Armored Division which was the spine of the U.S. participation in the IFOR. There are now slightly more than 9,000 soldiers in Bosnia. That will be down to about 8,500 on December 20th. That's really the day that the stabilization force will be ... The name of the force will change. The basic mission of maintaining security, a safe and secure environment in Bosnia, will continue. But the operations will be somewhat more modest. There will be smaller base camps. There will be a smaller number of base camps, about half the number of base camps in the American sector, for instance.

Q: These 8,500 are virtually all new troops, the others are...

A: They're the troops that have come in ...

Q: The IFOR folks are all out.

A: Yeah. The IFOR, the 1st Armored Division, as I announced last week, is all gone. They're going back to Germany. They did a fabulous job. Now they're being replaced by the 1st Infantry Division. They're there, but as I say, the drawdown is continuing until we get down to 8,500.

Q: How many support troops will be in Hungary, Croatia ...

A: I think the number's about 3,000, but I'll get that for you. For the first day in weeks I don't have it in my book, but it's about 3,000, I think. Under the Stabilization Force formula there will be, I believe, about 3,000 in Hungary.

Q: Does that count Italy?

A: I'll get that for you. Rick Scott will get that for you.

Q: Just to follow up on Africa, considering that we are drawing down the number of forces there, does that lead one to believe that there probably won't be an international mission there? Wouldn't it make sense to wait until the meeting tomorrow before you do that?

A: The momentum seems to be moving away from an international mission there. There's been massive repatriation of refugees, and these refugees seem to be in relatively good health. There still are vast movements of people in Eastern Zaire, but now the most dramatic movements seem to be largely westward into Zaire rather than eastward into Rwanda. Not only have about 600,000 people gone into Rwanda, but there have been fairly large movements into Burundi, Tanzania, and some into Uganda as well. Probably over 150,000 have moved into those countries.

As I say, we were poised to deal with a humanitarian crisis that could have developed very quickly, and developed in monumental and horrendous proportions. Fortunately, that didn't happen.

Q: An update on the CIA modeling that's supposed to be released Sunday, December 15th?

A: We're going to have a press conference here on Sunday at noon, and we hope you'll get here in time to release the CIA models ... No ... (Laughter) It's a joke.

I don't know where we stand on the CIA model, to tell you the truth. I'll check into that. But ...

Q: How about the gentleman that's sitting over here?

Dr. Rostker: I have no information right now.

Q: A Gulf War illness question?

A: Sure.

Q: This has to do with the story which appeared in the Seattle newspaper saying that a scientist has found a mycoplasma in the blood of half of the Gulf War veterans he has sampled, and it appears that it has a man-made genetic structure to it. Do you have a comment on that?

A: You're referring to research that's been done by Professor Nicholson, and I guess some of it's been done with his wife as well. A government task force, the Persian Gulf Veterans Research Working Group, met with Dr. Nicholson in August of 1995 to discuss his findings with him.

Q: These findings he had back in August of '95?

A: Yes. These findings actually are not new findings. They've been around for some time. He's been working on this project for some time. We have, as I said, met with him in '95 and actually we met with him before that as well. Because he was invited in 1993 ... I'm sorry, I'm not exactly certain of this date. He was invited before 1995 to submit a proposal for research which the government would fund, and a formal call for such a research proposal was issued in May of 1993. He has not yet proposed a research project that could be funded by the government. He's not responded to that proposal yet. So we have not been able to fund a study by him to follow up on his results. We have, however, launched our own study of mycoplasma infections in Gulf War veterans, and that study started in October of 1995 and it's scheduled to be completed by the end of August 1997. So that study is ongoing.

Q: Where is this being done?

A: It's being done at Walter Reed. It involves 200 Gulf veterans showing symptoms of Gulf War illness, and 200 healthy Gulf veterans as the control group, basically. As I say, that study is ongoing so I think it would be premature to talk about its results until it's completed. But this is something we are looking at.

Other scientists in the government have talked to Dr. Nicholson, including scientists from the Centers for Disease Control. They offered to collaborate with him in August of 1993, but that didn't take place. He said he was, the CDC said they were willing to cooperate, but to date he's declined the offer.

Q: I detect from the careful way that you're sort of laying out his lack of proposing, asking for government money or cooperating, that maybe Nicholson is regarded, his research may be somewhat suspect?

A: I don't want to say that at all. I want to say that we have met with Dr. Nicholson. We are interested enough in his research to fund our own study on mycoplasmal infections in Gulf War veterans. We have asked him to submit proposals for study. So far that hasn't happened. Not to say that it wouldn't happen, but it hasn't happened yet. We have, I believe, reached out to Dr. Nicholson and expressed an interest to work with him on these results, so it is something we're looking at.

I might just make another point here, which is that there's been a lot of focus on the possibility of exposure to chemicals during or after the Gulf War recently. This, of course, is a story about possible bacterial infection. I think what it shows is that there are a lot of places to look in trying to unravel the Gulf War mystery.

We now have about 80 studies either underway, completed, or on the drawing boards that look at a wide variety of possible toxins or possible reasons why people became ill during the Gulf War. Some do look at low level chemical exposure. Others look at bacterial toxins and other toxins. Some looked at medicines that were given to Gulf War participants, and others looked at the impact from oil well fires. So there's a wide variety of studies going on now, all part of our effort to unravel what happened to veterans there.

Q: Some of these government studies, some of them not.

A: Yeah. Well, these are all studies that have been funded by the government. Not all by the Defense Department. Some by the Department of Veterans Affairs, some by the CDC, some by other parts of HHS. I can't give you a breakdown as to which studies have been initiated by Department.

Q: Some of them are being done by universities ...

A: Yeah, they're not all being done by government researchers. A lot of them are contract studies. And as we announced earlier this week, we've put out a proposal for more studies on the impact of possible low level exposure to chemicals and we assume that universities will come in... There's nothing precluding a private company coming in, but we assume it will. Some university will come in and propose a study, subject to a peer review proceeding and decide which are the best proposals.

Q: You've made clear that there are no final conclusions here, but based on these studies in August of '95, are there any preliminary conclusions that these findings might be legitimate?

A: Whose findings?

Q: Professor Nicholson's, Dr. Nicholson's ...

A: I can't comment on that. This study is ongoing. It still has more than six months to go. At the appropriate time we'll get somebody in here. If you'd like we can get somebody probably to come in and give you a review of all the studies we've had so far and the studies underway and how we've structured these studies.

In all the brouhaha over the Gulf War illness, the clinical care procedures that we've set up and the research procedures have gotten basic approval from a variety of groups, including the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. This is looking at the clinical side, the care of veterans, the care by the Pentagon of people who fought in the war, and also the research side, the scientific research side. But it has not produced the answers that people want. We continue to look.

Q: To the great unwashed, it seems that this would be the best, concrete evidence that people suffer from the same thing.

A: It's hard to know ... My understanding is that Dr. Nicholson's results are based on his examination of 73 Persian Gulf veterans who have come to him. He is working in an area where we're also working, so we acknowledge that this is an important area. But I can't comment on his results right now, in part because we haven't been able to set up the scientific verification of those results that we would like to.

Q: Understanding that the study isn't yet completed, in the past, Department officials have said the Department has no evidence to suggest that troops might have been exposed to biological agents. In light of the fact that the Department is going to the effort of studying this issue, does that revise that statement?

A: Secretary Perry said last week that we have no evidence that soldiers were exposed to biological agents during the war, or after the war. But we continue to look at all the evidence. We don't believe that Iraq used biological agents during the war and we don't believe that our soldiers or other soldiers were exposed, but our mind is open. I think the lesson of Khamisiyah is that we have to leave our mind open. We have to keep working to look for every explanation of what's afflicting people who don't yet know why they're ill after the war.

Q: How much money has been spent on all these studies or programs?

A: I'm afraid I don't have a global figure. Do you, Bernie, have a global figure for research?

Dr. Rostker: This year we're talking about $27 million. I don't have last year's.

Q: Is that considered a low number or is that considered a high number in ...

A: The number was increased, actually, as part of Dr. White's efforts to strengthen our whole effort, to find out what happened in the Gulf, why people are suffering the illnesses they are. That was one of the reasons that Dr. Rostker was appointed and given a much bigger staff. At the same time, we also boosted our research efforts. And, as I said last week, when we learned in the Spring of this year that there had been the possibility of exposure to chemicals after Khamisiyah, we began to pour more money into the impact of possible low level chemical exposure. So that's one of the reasons it's been increased.

Q: The Seattle story suggests that there are at least some reports that Kuwaiti civilians are suffering from a variety of ailments similar to Gulf War illness. Are we talking to the Kuwaiti authorities about that and about the possibility that this is some organism that is naturally occurring in that part of the world?

A: We have sent teams over to Kuwait to meet with their medical officials and to review their records. The Army Surgeon General has been over there, for instance. We right now don't have any evidence that there is, on the military side. I don't know about civilians. We talk primarily on the military side. The Kuwaiti Minister of Health did not raise concerns about the widespread outbreak of illnesses after the war or any concerns about symptoms similar to those that some of our veterans are experiencing. That was in May of 1996 that we went over and talked to the Kuwaiti Minister of Health.

Press: Thank you.