Navy fleet commander against punishment for Cole's skipper

Report says crew failed to take security steps before blast in Yemen

January 06, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A top Navy officer has determined that the captain of the USS Cole should not face disciplinary action, although an investigating officer faulted the captain and crew for not following prescribed security procedures before a deadly terrorist attack last October, sources close to the investigation said yesterday.

Adm. Robert J. Natter, commander of the Atlantic fleet, reached the conclusion after reviewing the Navy's investigative report on how the Cole's skipper, Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, and his crew performed prior to the attack Oct. 12 on the Norfolk-based warship in Aden, Yemen, that killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others.

Natter's decision will be reviewed this weekend by Adm. Vernon Clark, chief of naval operations, and the final arbiter on the investigative report, who could reverse Natter's decision and impose some type of punishment, officials said. Lippold could face punishments from a letter of reprimand to a court-martial.

A spokesman for Natter, Capt. Mike Brady, declined to comment on the admiral's decision.

The conclusion of Natter, a well-respected officer, decorated Vietnam combat veteran and 1967 Naval Academy graduate, is certain to be controversial in the Navy, which abides by the age-old tradition of a captain's being ultimately responsible for his ship.

A Navy captain who investigated the incident determined that Lippold and the crew failed to carry out nearly half of the estimated 60 specific "force protection" measures to ensure the safety of the ship, according to those familiar with the report. A dozen of the measures not taken were crucial. They included failing to brief sailors on watch on security procedures and not having a plan to inspect and stop unauthorized boats approaching the ship.

The investigating officer, whose name has not been revealed, said such measures might have prevented or lessened the severity of the explosion, which occurred when a small boat laden with explosives pulled alongside the Cole during refueling and detonated, tearing a 40-foot hole in the hull.

But the commander of regional U.S. naval forces in the Middle East, Vice Adm. Charles W. Moore Jr., disagreed with that assessment, officials said. Even if Lippold had adhered to all the security measures, Moore said in a section of the report, it would not have prevented the attack, those officials said. Moore is said to have insisted that the Navy has yet to come to grips with how to deal with a water-borne terrorist.

Officials said two questions weighed on Natter's mind. Did the actions of the Cole's captain and crew fall within the "expected range" of performance for a Navy ship? And would any of the precautionary measures they failed to take have prevented the attack?

In addition, Natter and other senior Navy officials are not convinced that the Cole received the necessary intelligence information to decide upon the appropriate security posture. The Cole sailed into Aden harbor at Threat Condition Bravo, a security condition two rungs below the highest.

Shortly after the attack, Natter talked to reporters and said, "The natural reaction is, `Who can I blame here?' I'm all for that, but if the captain is doing everything the older guys told him to do, then the accountability ought to be directed at us."

Next week the Navy is expected to release the results of its investigation of the Cole's captain and crew, together with the findings of a special Pentagon commission appointed by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to address how to tighten security measures for U.S. forces overseas.

The commission, headed by retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman and retired Army Gen. William W. Crouch, is expected to report that U.S. military commanders around the world are not paying enough attention to security.

The commission is said to have found that there is little communication on security matters between U.S. embassies and military commanders and that there is confusion about who is responsible for security in ports like Aden.

Meanwhile, both Admiral Clark and Navy Secretary Richard Danzig are looking into how to beef up the Navy's anti-terrorism initiatives. Under consideration are increased training, shipborne sensors and non-lethal measures to deal with suspected terrorists.

Should Lippold escape punishment, it would not be unprecedented. In July 1988, for example, the USS Vincennes fired two missiles at an Iranian commercial airliner that it mistook for an attack aircraft, killing all 290 aboard. No disciplinary action was taken against the ship's captain or crew.

However, even if a ship's skipper escapes formal punishment for a mishap, his Navy career can stall or come to a quiet end with his premature retirement.

Lippold, a 1985 Naval Academy graduate and former aide to Navy Secretary Danzig and his predecessor, was considered a rising and hard-charging young officer before the attack.

"He's carrying on. He's worried about his ship and crew," said a friend and fellow officer. "There's a lot of fellows who feel, `There but for the grace of God go we.'"

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