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DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
June 13, 1997 2:30 PM EDT

Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

Secretary Cohen: Some of you may know that I had an interest in NATO matters for quite a while, and I made it a point to attend the Wehrkunde conferences held each year in Munich since 1978. This will be my first visit as Secretary of Defense to a Defense Ministerial, however, and the first occasion I will have to meet many of my colleagues in this capacity. Obviously we are very encouraged by what has been taking place with the Partnership for Peace operations and hope to see them enhanced even further. Obviously there will be a discussion about NATO Enlargement. No decision has been made by the United States at this point and it is still being discussed in Washington. I believe there will be a meeting with the Senate Oversight Group [Senate NATO Observer Group] tomorrow, if I'm not mistaken, and a meeting with the President to get their recommendations as well. We may by the time we arrive tomorrow or the next day, get some indication of what the position of the United States is going to be. Generally speaking, smaller would be preferable but, it has been no indication whether that is going to be the position just yet. More on that tomorrow and Friday.

We hope, well I know, Andrie Kokoshin is going to be coming, he called me as a matter of fact. We spoke yesterday, and he is looking forward to coming over. He is someone I have known for many years, and he will be representing the Russians at this point, and we will have a number of issues to discuss with how we can build up on the NATO-Russia Charter or the Founding Act as it is now called.

So these are some of the issues that we will be taking up. I'm looking forward to making a contribution in terms of statements about the U.S. position. We are going to be called upon, believe it or not, to explain the QDR process -- please don't fall asleep while I do this - in the middle of it. It will be very brief. As I look at the schedule, the schedule is very compact. Allowing maybe 45 minutes to an hour for most of the meetings and they are very sequential. I'm told to expect long interventions, so I'm not sure exactly how thorough I will be with my presentations on the QDR. I suspect I'll do it in two or three minutes unless they have more questions. They will have briefing materials there and the outline of the QDR. But, that is what I hope to accomplish. To renew a lot of friendships, I know most of the people who are there -- many of them at least -- and have good relationships with Arrua, with Adriata, and several others. I first met the British Minister of Defense just this past last week, so it should be a very good experience for me and I'm looking forward to it.

Q: Mr. Secretary I didn't quite get what you were saying -- generally speaking smaller would be better? I guess on the first round of the accessions. Are you talking about the Senate sells or generally how the administration feels? How do you feel?

A: There is no administration position just yet. There is a question, as you know. This is not something that is uniformly accepted on Capitol Hill. Secretary Albright and I will visit with the Armed Services Committee. There was considerable division expressed during the course of that hearing. I believe that Senator Warner for example, a very good friend of mine and we have engaged in many battles on the same side together over the years, indicated that he had some strong reservations about whether or not NATO should be enlarged and he will keep an open mind but will have to be persuaded. And I think that he perhaps reflected a viewpoint that's more than simply minor in the Senate. And so this is by no means -- whatever takes place at Madrid. We may have a next step -- and that step is to persuade the Senate to ratify it. That is going to be -- not a tough job, but it will be spirited.

Q: By smaller would be better - you mean you are implying that just to leave it to the three leading candidates as they are? Do you see a major fight developing within NATO over three or five?

A: Well I think that there will be a discussion, I'm not sure about a major fight. Obviously there is support on the part of the Europeans for Romania, and Slovenia, depending on which country you are looking at, there is a division even in the European countries, so I think it has to be sorted out in terms of where the support is.

As we are moving to expand or enlarge NATO it's important that we do something that is consistent with the obligations that the NATO membership requires.

Q: By smaller is better -- do you mean that you are not so much inclined to go to five, that you would favor smaller numbers?

A: I think that there are two factors involved. Smaller is better initially from my perspective at least because -- number one: we want to make sure we hold the cohesiveness of NATO together and by expanding it larger, that may cause it to question, at least subject it to challenge by some, that perhaps the other nations can measure up to their obligations under Article 5. Secondly, we have a cost factor also, that the cost will play a major role in determining how much is going to be involved for the NATO members, on the new members coming in, whether they can meet up to the higher standards or the standards that are required, I should say and so cost ultimately will be a factor as well. We want to make sure , while we are there -- at the summit in Madrid -- that we signal very strongly that this is the first round. It is an open door. We want to make sure that we emphasize that very strongly with those members who don't come in. They should continue to do what they are doing, stay on the path that they are currently on, participate in the enhanced PFP and intensify dialogues and so forth -- all of the programs that we have to make sure that in the next round they could gain accession. So, there are a combination of factors involved. I think that it depends on where you look. If you have a larger group, that may send a signal that perhaps the group won't get much larger in the near future. If you have a smaller group, and you keep the other countries who are on the borderline (inaudible) from coming in on track, that opens it up and sends a very clear signal that it is an open door policy. That is my personal viewpoint, and it has not been decided yet and ultimately the President is going to make the decision, and he will take in to account the viewpoint of the Senate Service Group, he will take into account the feedback that he gets from the ministerials as well.

Q: What do you do with a country like Romania, if they are not allowed in on this first round. There is good potential there for nationalistic backlash. How do you help them out?

A: I suppose that is true of any of the countries that are seeking admission. It requires leadership on the part of the countries who don't gain admission the first round to say that we have to keep on the track. We made real progress, we are not quite there. If we continue to do what we are doing then the next round the chances of getting in are quite good. Slovenia this past week -- I lost track of time -- but I think it was this past week -- they had a very positive attitude about it. They believe that they have made tremendous strides and we agree. They have really come a very long way in a short period of time. Their energy is very positive, that they believe they have done enough to gain admission, but if we don't we will keep on this path. So it depends on the leadership of the countries, their attitude. I think what we have to do also after Madrid is to move very quickly to demonstrate to the countries who don't gain admissions in the first round that we're very serious about the open door policy, that we want to move very quickly on the PFP exercises, to enhance those, and to show some real forward leaning activity with them, to show that we are serious about it and the door is not closed, contrary to what they may feel at the time. So, it will take a lot of effort on our part. Certainly Secretary of State Albright and myself will be actively involved in trying to carry that message that the door is open.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I'd like to ask you a question about the Ralston episode, that is some six days later. I'm curious to know why you didn't personally make a stronger, more aggressive, public defense of the General, particularly during the critical period over the weekend when he was on his way back and you had communicated with him already. That perhaps you could have influenced opinion which he ultimately, himself assessed was the obstacle, not his behavior, but opinion. Why you didn't try to influence that?

A: He was not the only candidate, he was a candidate for the position. Secondly, I made it very clear that I drew a line, what I thought was a reasonable line, on how these cases should be handled. Third point was, he was out of the country and it was very difficult to communicate with him. I talked on one occasion with him at three o'clock in the morning, his time, when he was in Tajikistan, and told him I would wait until he returned. I went to the Hill the very next day . . . let me step back. That evening I called approximately 30 members of the Congress, alerted them that there would be stories that would run in tomorrow's papers, both the Times and the Washington Post. I wanted to give them a "heads up" on it, what was involved. They appreciated it. I went to Capitol Hill, I went over to the Senate, met with the Senate Armed Services Committee, and laid out the facts as I knew them at the time, and indicated that I would be calling on them for support. Most of them indicated they needed more facts, and I said that they would be forthcoming when the General had a chance to come back. On the one hand you had members saying, well we've heard certain things, and I said, well, I haven't heard those things, and I can't comment on those things so let's wait until the General gets back and we'll have an opportunity to clarify it. But, I laid out the facts as I knew them and said this is my judgment, in terms of what I know. That that would not be a disqualifying factor, and several members said -- I'm trying to think of the word that was used -- there were rumors, or some other types of scuttlebutt, and that they didn't have any facts on it, but they had just heard things. And they wanted to know what they were. I said I have no way of knowing, so when the General comes back, I'm sure we'll talk about them. I found out all that I know on this matter, right now. If there are other facts, involved we'll have to find out what they are. So, when the General returned, I met with him, had a good meeting with him. I told him what my assessment of the Senate was. I thought it was doable. It would be hard, but doable-- that we have to carry the case up there, and that there were questions that some might have, on other matters, that you would have to answer. He had no problem. He went up to talk to several members, I think about four or five, I'm not sure of the exact number, and came to the conclusion that he did not want to put himself through a public hearing, even though he was satisfied, he thought, and I believed, that he could have won, ultimately, confirmation. He didn't want to put his family through that or himself through that, or the military.

Q: Do you feel that there was a lost opportunity in those days before that he actually went up there that you could have changed the view of ....

A: There is no way that I could have changed public opinion if people kept saying that there were other factors involved, if I'm not aware of those factors. All I could do is what I did, made a judgment based upon the facts that I knew at that time. And I knew that. I think I indicated that there were going to be controversial decisions. I knew that at the time, but I felt that it was the right thing to do. Any other factors I'm not aware of. And to date I'm not aware of any other factors. I know from experience that once something like this hits, then all sort of faults and rumors start to float around and all kinds of allegations come in which have no substance what-so-ever. But members of the Senate, justifiably, say we have to check everything out. That is what has happened on many occasions of the past and I'm certainly not in a position to comment on that since I had no way of knowing it. The General fully understood that and in fact I saw him today and he was deeply grateful for what I did.

Q: Does it appear now that the nominee that you select for that post or that the White House select for that post will have to have a personal life that is absolutely blemish free?

A: I'm going to use the same standard in looking at General Ralston's character. I obviously will weigh the competence of the individual, the service that he, in this particular case, has demonstrated, and weigh the totality of the record. I don't know that anyone - there may be individuals that have led a life completely unblemished. That may be the case, and hopefully we will find someone that measures up to that standard. I think that we have to adopt the standard that I indicated, to use the rule of reason, that if someone has some minor blemish that occurred a long time ago, weigh that against the character that he has displayed over a long period of time. I would like to search for perfection, if I could find it, I would certainly nominate that individual. There may be a number of people who fit that bill. I will look for them, but I think that it would be unreasonable to insist upon absolute standards of no blemishes of any kind, of any nature. Everybody is human and they may have a different frailties but I say a very high standard will be exacted, I will look for the best possible individual, but I'm not going to insist that there be absolute perfection in every human being that comes up for consideration. That will be desirable if it is possible. I will look for that, but I don't want to raise any expectations that anyone who has a flaw in his character, whatever that might be, will be an automatic disqualification.

One of the reasons that I assembled this panel, and at least named Nancy Kassebaum Baker to head the panel up, is to deal with one of the issues --that of integrated training. I also wanted the Deputy Secretary of Defense to start collecting information and analyzing it to find out if there has been great disparity on similar cases. There has to be the perception, as well as the reality, that the rules are enforced with reasonable equity involved. I try to look at this case and say that we like to have as much uniformity as possible, but you also have to give decision makers and judges in these cases some discretion, some latitude. We have that it in our judicial system, we don't have uniform results in every case that goes to court, we have disparate results in hopes of averaging out that justice has prevailed and equity has been weighed and you come out with a responsible and reasonable inquisition of penalties. We don't have that in our judicial system. We would like to have as much as we can in our military.

What I want to do is go back and look at the history of the cases and see what has been done to see if we can formulate a way that we have for more equitable results in similar cases. And that brings you to another point, each case is different. There are some cases that might fall on all four points but most of the time you find that there are discrepancies and differences in what took place and who it took place with, in front of whom, how aggravated was it, how minor it was. And if you say that you can have no discretion for those who have to pass judgment on this then what you come up with are mandatory sentencing rules. Not just guidelines, but rules saying that in this violation, this will be the penalty. That may not be an equitable result. So what I'm hoping to do through this process is to try to see if we can at least raise the consciousness of all of those involved to look internally at what the rules are to clarify them -- that is the other part of having a General Counsel look at the articles and make sure that they are clearly understood. And to issue any guidelines that might need greater clarification -- not to change it, but to clarify it if clarification is needed. But I thought it was pretty clear with respect to the adultery charge -- that it has to be related to good order and discipline. But nonetheless, I think just the review, the explication, the clarification that will be helpful. But I think that a lot of good will come out of this public discussion, and to avoid the perception that double standards have been employed. That is something that is very much in the media right now. I don't believe it is the case with General Ralston, but that is the perception so we have to deal with the reality of that perception.

Q: How crazy is the situation where you can't have your leading candidate for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs because of an affair 13 years ago?

A: It comes at a time when, because of the controversy that preceded it, it is impossible under the circumstances to deal with the issue on its own merit. I think had the case been decided on its own, his candidacy had been judged on its own, you would have a different result, but that is the way life unfolds. You can't pick the timing of these cases. We have to pick a Chairman, the position is coming up, I have to review the candidates, and so I can't separate it out from what has preceded it

Q: When do you expect to present a nominee to the President and will you present him perhaps two or three people or will you go with one person and say this is my choice?

A: What I had planned to do initially was to present a recommendation to the President and say I have looked at the following candidates and say this will be my recommendation. But obviously the president has to agree and he may have a different choice. I would give him my rationale for why I think this person is more qualified at this time to serve in this capacity. I would go in, but he is the Commander-in-Chief, and I would say, here is who I recommend, but there are other candidates. Here are the reasons why I chose to recommend this candidate as the top choice. I would do the same thing when I go in again. I'll look at a total slate of people, I'll try to make the best assessment that I can in terms of who I think will do the best job at this time and then of course review the other candidates who also would be competitive, and discuss those with the President, and he might have a different opinion.

Q: Mr. Secretary, Ken Bacon said that the whole General Ralston affair was a public relations disaster. Looking back on it -- in retrospect, is there anything that you would have done differently?

A: No. This is not . . . I don't consider this to be a public relations disaster. I consider it to be a problem. It has been described as a disaster by some in the press, but it was a decision that had to be made, and frankly I think it would have stirred controversy no matter what I did. If I were to have excluded him -- say I'm sorry but I can't consider you for this position -- that too would have had consequences. And so I knew intuitively, I was on the Hill for a long time, I know what kind of controversy can erupt. I know the emotions that will prevail, but I really had to make a decision based upon what I thought was the right thing to do and I'm comfortable with that. I don't have any regrets about it. I regret that General Ralston was out the country at the time and we didn't have the chance to discuss the details to discuss the issues in greater detail, so that when someone says that well there are rumblings in the corridors, then I could say what are they . . . or tell us what you know, what type of thing, and have the General there to say that is nonsense, but other than that, if I had a regret it is that the timing was not of my choosing. I wish that I could have changed the timing, that we didn't have the Kelly Flinn case that had preceded it, so that it created this impression of a double standard. If you analyze the cases, there is no comparison.

Q: Did you think that in the beginning that his candidacy was finished when you heard this?

A: This came up on a moment's notice, in terms of coming to me. I had no prior knowledge of this. Frankly, when the press inquired I did my best to find out what the facts were and then tried to report those facts as I knew them to the press who was inquiring. It is a rather unusual situation when you have a potential candidate who has not been submitted and you are called and told, well we know this and we think this is true about this potential candidate. Then they call upon me for a judgment. I really had to make a choice, make a decision, so I said very clearly looking at the factual matter behind this case, I did not feel that it would exclude him, per se, on an absolute basis . . . be precluded from this just by virtue of this incident. I had wanted to apply a rule of reason to this. I think I did the right thing. I don't get to choose timing. I don't get to choose which case goes first. In fact I am not given advance knowledge of any cases that are going up to the services. I don't get to see them until they are in the press, so I'm not aware of the Longhauser case or the other cases until a decision has been made by an authority or a decision to retire has been made and the media reports it. That is when I'm aware of it. I don't sit behind my desk and review the hundreds of cases that are pending in all of the services -- and frankly there is another issue involved.

To the extent that I would inquire about those cases or express an opinion about those cases, I would be accused of command influence. And so it is one of those very unique situations where I have to refrain from intervening in cases for fear of being charged by counsel for an individual who is going through the process of exercising command influences. It is a new concept, I must tell you. I was, prior to assuming this position, unaware of the degree to which command influence is implied. I'm not even permitted to express private opinions about matters to anyone else for fear that will be construed as command influence. When cases come up I have to step back and not intervene or be charged with intervening. They have a very strict interpretation of that. And so it is something that I think is unique to the position where the Secretary of Defense does not get to, as reported by some, exercise judgment in one, two, three and four. . . well, that's not the case. I don't get to decide those cases.

This was a case in which I'm reviewing a candidate for a position for which I have a responsibility of making a recommendation and members of the press come to me and say we've heard the following; then I have to make a decision after talking with the individual. But, in terms of cases that are going through the process, through the military code, those are not cases in which I intervene, unless I'm prepared to be accused of exercising command influence. So, I have been charged by various accounts of saying I was uneven or that I was using a double standard, but that is not the case. But, on the other hand, I don't complain about how it is characterized. The facts are that I don't intervene in those cases until they reach completion, and there is a whole appellate process, and finally, it might come to my desk. But, I can assure you that I wouldn't spend another moment of my time doing anything but reviewing cases that are out there pending and not have time to do my job. I am trying to find a way, a mechanism whereby, perhaps, I can be alerted to high-profile cases, at least so I'll know about them, before they become a matter of press reporting. At this point I don't have that mechanism.

Q: We understand that AFSOUTH will not be coming up in this meeting. But it also appears that under the new socialist government, France probably will not be rejoining the military structure of NATO. When you meet with the French Defense Minister, tomorrow, will you be trying to persuade him to keep France on track to join, or what's your.....

A: I would hope that the French would consider integrating fully with NATO. I think it's important for them, I think it's important for NATO itself, but I don't know what their position is going to be in view the election. It's hard to say what the political ramifications of that are. But, I think I can say with confidence that all of us in the administration would like very much for France to join into a fully integrated basis.

Q: Have you seen any indications for the French?

A: No.

Q: How about AFSOUTH? Is it still up in the air? Are you any closer to settling it or is it where it has been all along?

A: We haven't discussed it recently.

Q: So you don't seem to be any closer to settling it?

A: Well, it's settled, I think from my perspective (laughter). AFSOUTH is under US command.

Q: To your knowledge they haven't moved any closer to your perspective?

A: I'm not aware of any. I think that as a result of the elections, much of that discussion has simply been deferred. I'm not aware of any discussions recently.

Press: Thank you.