Facts of USS Cole Bombing Are "Under the Microscope," General Says

Franks says review will lead to better force protection By Susan Ellis Washington File Staff Writer Washington - "We're determined to get to the bottom of this. We'll put the events that led up to (the attack on the USS) Cole under the microscope," General Tommy Franks, commander-in-chief (CINC) for the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), told the Senate Armed Services Committee October 25. The committee - continuing a series of hearings on the October 12 USS Cole attack that aims to forestall such acts of terrorism in the future - questioned several aspects of the event, including: -- Why the disparity existed between times given for the bombing in first and later accounts of the incident; -- Why the ship was being refueled in a region the State Department knew to be a "haven for terrorists," and whether diplomatic considerations overtook force protection; and -- The appropriateness of risk management procedures. General Franks, the successor to General Anthony Zinni in the post of CINC CENTCOM, said the military has already begun the fact-finding process, and "We will find the facts we need to find and we'll use the lessons that we provide the best possible force protection for our troops in one of the most dangerous regions of the world." The differences in times given for the bombing were attributed by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Walter Slocombe to the primacy of protecting the crew and saving the ship, and after that "finding out what happened." Navy officials said October 20 that the ship's records place the terrorist bomb blast at 11:18 a.m. Yemen time rather than 12:15 p.m., as the Navy initially reported. The officials said the Cole completed mooring operations at 9 a.m. Refueling started at 10:30 a.m. and was ongoing at the time of the attack. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Walker said there is "no higher priority for our diplomacy than the safety and security of our troops and personnel serving overseas. We do not put diplomatic relations above the lives of our people." He said that from the beginning of the crisis his department has worked "very closely with the Yemeni government and all concerned agencies to facilitate relief efforts," adding "We have all received the strongest assurance of Yemen's cooperation with the investigation and by all accounts to date, their assurances have become reality on the ground." Senator Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan) said the decision to refuel ships in Yemen was made by General Zinni who was "never overruled by anybody...relative to force protection and security considerations. While General Zinni favored building a closer relationship between the United States and Yemen, diplomatic considerations were never placed ahead of force protection in the security of our military personnel in deciding to refuel in Yemen or anywhere else." Franks said the decision on refueling in Yemen was based on "operational as well as geo-strategic factors and included an assessment of the terrorist and conventional threats in the region." Aden was far from alone in being judged a dangerous port, he said, adding that as of December 1998, "14 of the 20 countries in the USCENTCOM AOR (Area of Responsibility) were characterized as 'High Threat' countries." To a suggestion by Committee Chairman Senator John Warner (Republican, Virginia) that Djibouti might be safer, Franks responded in his statement, "Djibouti, which had been the Navy refueling stop in the Southern Red Sea for over a decade, began to deteriorate as a useful port because of the Eritrea-Ethiopia war. This war caused increased force protection concerns for our ships, as well as congestion in the port resulting in operational delays. The judgment at this time was that USCENTCOM needed to look for more refueling options, and Aden, Yemen was seen as a viable alternative." On the topic of risk management, Senator Levin asked Franks how long it took the Marine anti-terrorism security team to arrive in Aden and whether that "met the standard of response." Franks said that "Immediately following the attack on the 12th of October, our naval commander talked to me very early in the morning," saying that he would place medical and security personnel, Department of Defense personnel, a working dog team "and a variety of immediate responders in the air within a very short period of time, and, in fact, in a matter of hours, that security element was on the ground in Aden." Senators interjected some additional questions. One concerned a newspaper report, dated October 25, alleging that advanced warning of an attack existed, and that the Cole should have received notice of the warning from the National Security Agency, but did not. Slocombe termed the report "highly questionable." He responded to a question from Senator Jeff Sessions (Republican, Alabama) on whether he had "any sense of embarrassment" that major issues on the Cole attack were being released by the news media instead of the military, saying "I certainly find it appalling that someone has taken it upon themselves to release to the news media" (the report on advance warning), but I make no apologies that we came up here and gave the best information that we had at the time we had it, and said that what we said was subject to review as the information became available." Another question centered on whether "human intelligence" (HUMINT) -- information gathered through personal contact - was lacking that could have forewarned officials of the incident. General Zinni had pointed that out in his previous testimony, said Senator Jack Reed (Democrat, Rhode Island). Franks agreed that HUMINT was lacking and that the issue would be taken up in a session closed to the public to be held immediately afterward. However, asked what steps would have been taken had the ship received advanced warning of an attack, Franks said: "Our measures and our readiness conditions would have been increased." Slocombe added, "Information of that kind, if it had existed, which it didn't, would have been disseminated on the 'most urgent' basis to all the people who were potentially affected by it." Franks, in describing USCENTCOM's mission, reiterated that priority given to force protection is foremost. In addition to deterring aggression, ensuring "uninterrupted access to regional resources and markets," and countering "the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and other transnational threats," he said, "In carrying out all aspects of our mission, force protection is a high priority, recognizing that our mission, like that of all our military forces, is an inherently dangerous one." (The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: