Saturday, November 4, 2000

Cole panel to focus on
force protection issues

By Chuck Vinch
Washington bureau chief

WASHINGTON — A top-level commission appointed in the wake of the Oct. 12 terrorist attack on the USS Cole will focus solely on broad force protection issues and will not "sit in judgment" of anyone aboard the ship or in its chain of command, the panel’s leaders said Thursday.

The review, ordered by Defense Secretary William Cohen, is designed to look for improvements for current policies to protect U.S. forces — including ships, aircraft and small, independent units — while they are traveling within the Central Command area of responsibility in the Middle East.

"The USS Cole was out there doing its mission," retired Adm. Harold Gehman, one of the panel’s co-chairmen, said at a Pentagon briefing. "We are going to look for ways that we can improve the performance of the rest of the Department of Defense to assist them."

"Our intent is to ensure in-transit forces have a protection system that is effective," said retired Army Gen. William Crouch, the panel’s other co-chairman. "We have not reached any conclusions on anything thus far."

Gehman and Crouch began pulling together their staff last week and have had briefings with a number of 5th Fleet and Central Command officials. They deflected specific questions about the attack on the Cole, which killed 17 sailors, wounded 39 others and blew a 40-foot hole in the destroyer’s hull.

"We will be aggressive in following any direction our review takes us, but we’re not out here to find fault with anybody, we’re not out to prove culpability," Gehman said. "If we find a procedural problem, we’ll report it. But we will not sit in judgment over that."

Gehman said the panel will look at intelligence support, logistics and contracting procedures, training preparations, and force protection practices, "and the policies, procedures, manpower, resources and practices in all these areas."

Questions about actions or lapses of the Cole’s captain, crew and chain of command prior to the attack will be left to a separate Navy inquiry, known as a Judge Advocate General Manual investigation. The FBI is pursuing a separate inquiry into the crime itself and who might have been responsible.

Crouch did say that he and Gehman came away from their orientation visits in the Middle East "impressed" with the attention the Central Command was giving to force protection before the attack on the Cole.

"They were aware of the threat and dealing very professionally with the challenge of balancing the requirements of our national military strategy with force protection," Crouch said.

Both retired four-stars had the chance to spend some time aboard the Cole last week. They said they also were impressed with the crew’s ability to keep the ship afloat in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, as well as during a severe, shipwide systems failure 48 hours later that included the total loss of electrical power.

"The actions of the captain and crew following the attack saved that ship," Crouch said. "That’s a tough crew. As far as I’m concerned, they responded absolutely superbly to one of the greatest challenges a sailor can confront."

The Cole incident is the worst terrorist attack on U.S. forces since a truck bomb blew up a U.S. Air Force housing complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in June 1996, killing 19 troops.

The Cole is being secured aboard the Norwegian heavy transport ship Blue Marlin, a sort of floating dry dock, and has not begun its trip back to the United States. The destroyer USS Donald Cook will escort the Blue Marlin and the Cole on the journey.

Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, would not disclose the Cole’s precise route to the States.

Earlier in the week, several news reports quoted anonymous senior defense officials as saying the ships probably would go around the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa, rather than traveling the 101-mile Suez Canal that links the Red and Mediterranean seas.

But Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said Tuesday that no firm decision had been made to not use the Suez Canal, although he acknowledged that no U.S. vessels have used that waterway since the attack on the Cole.