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DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
June 27, 1997 10:30 PM EDT

[The following occurs during a press conference to announce the members of the Task Force on Gender Integrated Training and includes among the presenters Former Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker, task force chair, and Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD(PA)]

Mr. Bacon: Good morning.

Secretary Cohen and Senator Kassebaum Baker will start with brief statements and then take some questions. We have to end at 10:50.

Secretary Cohen: So we will begin, and I will try to keep the remarks as brief as possible.

Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker needs no introduction, but I wanted to bring her here so that she and I can discuss the important work that she's going to be doing as chair of the Advisory Committee on Gender Integrated Training and related issues in military services.

During her 18 years in the Senate, she and I together established a very close working relationship, and I learned that no one has a deeper commitment to making government work and to make the country work better than Nancy Kassebaum Baker. I think she's perfectly suited for the task. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee she learned firsthand that we can't have a strong foreign policy unless we have a military that's well trained, well led, well equipped, and ready to defend our national interests; and as chair of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, she demonstrated that she can resolve the most complex human and institutional problems.

America's all volunteer force is now 25 years old, and it's without a doubt the best military in the world. One reason is the role that women play in our military. Back in 1972, women comprised approximately two percent of that force and faced limited career opportunities. Today, women now account for about 13.5 percent, almost 14 percent of the military. They fly attack helicopters in the Army and Marines, they pilot fighters, they skipper ships, they command missile batteries. It should be clear to everyone that we cannot run our all volunteer military effectively without women.

We are not going to turn back the clock we don't intend to. We certainly don't want to. But the problems at Aberdeen and elsewhere have raised questions about the success of gender integrated training and about the treatment of women in the military. We have to make sure that training is as effective as possible, and that all soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are treated with fairness and with dignity. I will use the findings of the Kassebaum Baker committee to make sure that military training is as good as it can possibly be.

You have been handed a list of the other people on the committee. As you can see, the members bring a reservoir of experience and insight to this important task.

Nancy?

Senator Kassebaum Baker: Thank you, Secretary Cohen. I am looking forward to taking on this responsibility. I think it's a very important one. It's a good group that has been willing to serve -- both retired military and those that have not been in the military -- comprise a strong panel.

I have, of course, worked with Secretary Cohen for 18 years in the Senate; admired the work that he always did on the Armed Services Committee through those 18 years, and his strong commitment to security and to questions of equity. But I always looked to him, many times -- we didn't always agree on votes, but knew that his judgment was sound and strong and a commitment was there. So combined with the foreign relations involvement, always recognizing security is uppermost.

I think that the work today that we will look to as we complete this report as has been asked in six months, that we share a goal of a strong, effective, equitable armed forces. The training will be such that men and women can reach their fullest potential.

It's an interesting time. In many ways it's a time of transition. We will be calling upon many people seeking their advice as the committee does its work.

I'm looking forward to, hopefully, being able to hand back to the Secretary at the end of six months a report that will be of some value as he puts forward ideas here as Secretary of Defense.

Q: Mr. Secretary, in your opening statement you said "We are not going to turn back the clock." Should that be understood to mean that this panel will not consider the question of separating the genders in training? Is that part of the question?

Secretary Cohen: No, I think the panel will look at that. I think there are people, obviously, on the Hill and off the Hill who feel that any attempt to change the current process would be turning back the clock.

What I want to say is I believe we are not going to step back. We are not going to restrict the opportunities for women, and this should not be viewed as a first step. I think the committee, obviously, or the panel, has an obligation to look at the viability, desirability of integrated training, to make recommendations concerning that. But I also want to send a very strong signal that the role of women is not to be circumscribed. I have believed, certainly during my career on Capital Hill, that we must expand the opportunities for women and not restrict them. So any decision made relative to integrated training should not be viewed, whatever the outcome of that recommendation, as a step back, trying to restrict the opportunities and the positions for women in the military.

Q: A question for either one of you. Will the focus of this be simply on basic training? Or will you also look at the question of gender integration in advanced individual training which has been integrated for quite awhile now?

Secretary Cohen: I think the committee will look at both. Many time Aberdeen is cited as an example that needs to be addressed, what's taking place there. Of course that is not basic training. It is advanced training. So the panel should look at both.

Q: One of the criticisms from the services and on the Hill is strictly that in order to join women and men together in training they've had to lower the standards, particularly for physical conditioning, and that women are being put into some jobs for which they are physically not able to perform, and there have been suggestions that there be physical standards for admission to certain skill ratings, certain jobs in the military. Is that within the purview of this panel?

Secretary Cohen: It certainly is within the purview of the panel, yes.

Q: Ms. Kassebaum, did you come to this with any preconceived idea or any strong feeling about whether or not men and women should be separated in training, or whether they should train together?

Senator Kassebaum Baker: If I did, I wouldn't tell you. (Laughter) No. I don't. And I think it's important. Obviously, as one through the years looks at training and in the course of our work through various armed services issues on the Hill, training in other countries for men and women. You tend to develop some positions and thoughts at the time. But I think this is a very strong panel in many ways that is going to keep an open mind, and it's important to do so. We can't bring just our own points of view to it. We will also be working with and have the advantage of a report being done here that is being chaired by the Deputy Secretary. Also the House and Senate. So it will be important to keep in touch with both the House and Senate committees which have done and are doing some good work in their own review and suggestion of training procedures.

Q: Mr. Secretary, from the bases you've visited so far, do you favor integrated training?

Secretary Cohen: Based on the visits that I've paid to the various training centers, I found no compelling reason to change the current status. And in talking with the leadership at those facilities, they did not feel it should be changed. In talking with the troops who were involved, they strongly favor maintaining the current system. But obviously, it's something we still have to look at.

Q: The Army admitted today that is senior review panel that's looking into attitudes in the military, pulled from a written survey that they were doing six questions that were asking soldiers about their attitudes toward things like prostitution, pornography, and that sort of thing. That's prompted some criticism that they may have pulled those questions because they didn't like the answers they were getting. Are you concerned about the elimination of those questions from...

Secretary Cohen: I am not familiar with the questionnaire itself. Based upon the reports that I saw this morning, in terms of the news reporting of it, it may be that they were pulled because those who were being surveyed objected strongly to the nature of the questions and perhaps it was a second opinion or a second look at the propriety of the questions themselves. That's a matter the Army has been handling. But I think any type of questionnaire, there should be great scrutiny given to the questions that are being asked as to whether or not they cross the line into areas of privacy that ought to remain private. But I think that's the rationale behind it in terms of, it wouldn't have been a reliable poll if many of those who were answering the questionnaire refused to answer the question and/or objected to the nature of the questions.

Q: Isn't it a legitimate area to question and wonder about the attitudes in units about things like prostitution and pornography? Whether this is widely accepted? Isn't that a legitimate thing to look at?

Secretary Cohen: I didn't formulate the questionnaire, I haven't looked at it. The Army is handling it. I think it's best asked to the Secretary of the Army and to Army officials. I think you have to approach these issues with some delicacy. I have found, for example, questions that are asked by, when certain investigations are underway, a number of questions that are asked by investigators I think cross the line in some cases in getting into areas of privacy. I think that that's a matter that perhaps the Secretary of the Army can address better than myself. I have not looked at the questionnaire. But I think you have to be careful in terms of trying to find out people's attitudes and asking questions that may be a bit too personal.

Q: Mr. Secretary when you, actually Ken Bacon on your behalf, announced the creation of this panel, I believe you said it was going to address issues related to mixed gender training -- in other words, it would go beyond. What other issues will you be addressing?

Senator Kassebaum Baker: I think the task was also to, with morale and discipline, which are aspects of training.

Q: How would you go about doing that?

Senator Kassebaum Baker: It becomes all a part of how you look at the training. Discipline certainly is one very strong part of it, and I think morale is related to how men and women are feeling about the standards and the effectiveness of the training. So in many ways it's all inter-related.

Secretary Cohen: There are other questions I might mention that have surfaced in terms of whether recruits are coming in who are not in good physical condition, whether or not the standards for getting them in condition have been lowered, whether there's criticism directed at being too (pause) I think generally speaking, from my own observations, that the younger people coming in today perhaps are not in as good condition as they should be, but that's part of the President's overall program to start stressing physical fitness. So that's something, as a computer age society when we're sitting more and more at tables or television sets, that is a wider problem in terms of society itself. Those are issues which also pertain to training, discipline, morale, are the standards high enough, are they being relaxed? All of that would be a part of the panel's inquiry, I think.

Q: Secretary Cohen, do you expect the findings of this advisory panel to be the final word on integration of training among the sexes and in a sense to get it off the table?

Secretary Cohen: I don't think there's ever a final word in this process. I think it's a recommendation which I will take very seriously because the people who serve on that panel are highly respected, and I would use that as a basis for making recommendations to the Congress. But ultimately, Congress has to play a role as well. Congress is also very curious and inquiring about the nature of the problems that are currently confronting the military and how they can be best addressed, and so it's a cooperative relationship that has to be established. So the panel will make recommendations to me. I believe, based on the competence and the outstanding leadership that Senator Kassebaum Baker will bring to that, that I would take that very seriously; present it to the Congress. I might agree or disagree with some of the recommendations, but the presumption would be that I would look upon it quite favorably and then present that to Congress during the course of testimony next year, and deal with the Congress, because the Congress may have a different opinion. And it's part of dealing to shape a consensus with the Congress and within the Administration.

Q: Will the panel be looking at the content of training that's provided on questions concerning adultery, on sexual harassment, some of the things that have bedeviled the services recently? Will the panel be looking at what trainees are told about those subjects and how effective that training is?

Senator Kassebaum Baker: I think it comes under the whole arena of morale and discipline and training. Again, I think that just good common sense and judgment will lead us into, hopefully, asking the right questions and being able to discern what are the best recommendations to make to clarify, perhaps, some of these more uncertain areas as changing, as our whole structure changes, to a certain extent. But those are things that we'll work through as it goes along. It seems to me there are some very important issues to be addressed that tangentially get into then the question of adultery and how one service or another deals with it. I think the services themselves are going to have a big role to play in helping clarify their own views on how it should be handled.

Q: Mr. Secretary, could you give us a quick reaction to the preliminary report from the House National Security Committee on Sexual Misconduct in the Military? Have you had a chance to look at any of that?

Secretary Cohen: It was just handed to me a moment ago so I haven't had a chance to review it, but I'm told it's a solid piece of work. But I haven't looked at it.

Q: Secretary Cohen, if I could ask you about your review of the Air Force's Khobar report? You met with some key players this week. What are your impressions and where are you in the process of reviewing it?

Secretary Cohen: I've tried to work very closely with Deputy Secretary White who will be returning to Washington, hopefully, this weekend. He has been handling basically the review of the investigation. Then he and I will meet next week to go over his analysis of the reports.

I have also been reading and reviewing the reports that have been filed to date -- the Downing Report, the Record Report, the Air Force IG investigation or report. It's a voluminous amount of material, and I am trying to go through and sift through all the information to try to determine a factual, what the facts were, and then to apply my own judgment in terms of what was done on that case. I had hoped to finish it by next Friday, before I depart for Madrid. That probably is a bit premature. I wouldn't want to try to rush it and then leave the country for Madrid and on to several other countries, so it will probably wait until I get back, but soon. It will be by mid-July, I would hope to complete it.

Press: Thank you very much.

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