Anti-terror measures faulted in Cole study

Panel criticizes `seam' in defense against such threats

January 10, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The deadly attack on the USS Cole revealed a "seam" in America's counter-terrorism efforts that demands more intensive training, aggressive intelligence support and greater security assistance to foreign governments, a Pentagon commission reported yesterday.

"The terrorist threat is extremely dangerous, and it's not going away," said retired Gen. William W. Crouch, who along with retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman headed the panel. "We have to deal with this."

The commission came up with 30 recommendations but stopped short of assigning blame for security lapses by individuals or government agencies that might have led to the attack on the Cole. The officers said Defense Secretary William S. Cohen asked them to avoid making such judgments. Cohen created the panel to review security procedures for ships and aircraft in the aftermath of the Cole tragedy.

Cohen has asked Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to determine whether officers should be held accountable because of the attack on the Norfolk-based destroyer. The ship was refueling in Aden harbor in Yemen on Oct. 12 when a small boat carrying explosives attacked it. Seventeen sailors died in the blast, and 39 others were injured.

Top Navy officials have concluded that neither the captain nor the crew should be disciplined, according to sources familiar with a separate Navy review, which is expected to be released within days.

While a Navy investigating officer faulted the Cole's captain for not taking all the prescribed precautions, he was overruled by more senior officers who determined that the ship's skipper performed at an acceptable standard, the sources said. Cohen said he would not comment on the Navy report until he had read it.

Cohen, at a joint Pentagon news conference with Crouch and Gehman, said that after the 1996 terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia, which left 19 U.S. service members dead, the military focused on protecting overseas bases and other "fixed facilities" from terrorist attack.

But he admitted that officials misjudged because they did not focus with "sufficient intensity" on protecting U.S. aircraft and ships overseas. "That's where the seam has existed," he said.

"We have to change the mindset so that we become more aggressive, that we become more proactive, that force protection must be equal to the mission itself," Cohen said. "And to the extent that has not been done, then it would certainly point to a deficiency in that regard."

A different situation

Cohen's comments were echoed yesterday by Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, who told reporters that, while the Navy has been "very aware" of terrorism, the "most intense area of focus" has been protecting ships at pierside or in the open ocean. But he noted that the Cole found itself in a different situation - refueling at a barge in the middle of Aden harbor.

Both Gehman and Crouch said there was a need for better anti-terrorist training for military personnel heading overseas. Gehman, former commander of the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, noted that the anti-terrorist training for the Cole's crew "exceeded" the Pentagon guidelines.

But the training did not deny "clever" terrorists an opportunity to take advantage of the Cole, said Gehman, adding that the increased effort would require more money and time. Such training to thwart a terrorist should be on par with a ship or plane's primary mission, he said. In the case of the Cole, the ship was heading toward the Persian Gulf to take part in allied patrols trying to stop oil smugglers.

Shifting focus to terrorists

The two officers also said that the intelligence community must devote more of its array of satellites, listening devices and human spies to terrorist activity and less to traditional Cold War targets. To date, such an effort has been done only "at the margins," said Gehman, adding that intelligence information should go beyond general information and be "tailored" to help a military commander traveling to a specific location.

Still, both officers said no specific intelligence had been received that would have indicated an attack on the Cole. There also was no intelligence that would have prompted Navy officials to increase the security on the ship or divert it from Aden, they said.

In comments similar to those of active duty and retired officers, Gehman and Crouch said that specialized security forces - such as Marine anti-terrorist teams - might be useful for ships and military aircraft heading to foreign locations. "We need full-time, force-protection experts," said Crouch.

At the same time, the two officers said U.S. military and government officials should work more closely with foreign governments, devising better security agreements and offering anti-terrorist assistance. Gehman noted that some countries need U.S. help in developing coastal patrol forces and other security units.

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