House report calls Cole attack the result of `many mistakes'

`Peacetime mind-set,' lack of information made ship vulnerable

May 30, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The deadly attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October was the result of "many mistakes," according to a congressional report, which asserts that a U.S. policy of improving relations with terrorist-plagued Yemen outweighed possible dangers to U.S. personnel there.

The report, by the House Armed Services Committee and based on three months of investigation, also points to a Navy "Achilles' heel": its lack of readiness for the kind of suicide attack from a small boat that killed 17 sailors on board the Cole and wounded 39.

"The USS Cole tragedy was not the fault of any one decision, policy or practice," said Rep. Bob Stump, an Arizona Republican who is chairman of the committee. "Rather, many mistakes, oversights, errors in judgment and missteps - each of which may have been insignificant on an individual basis - combined to leave the USS Cole and its crew vulnerable to a terrorist attack."

The Norfolk, Va.-based destroyer was attacked by a small harbor skiff that pulled alongside it in the Yemeni port of Aden. Sailors said they believed the boat was part of a harbor refueling and supply flotilla until it detonated, leaving a gash, 40 feet by 45 feet, in the side of the Cole.

The House report concurs with the Navy's senior leaders, who earlier determined that while the Cole's captain failed to follow about half the 62 required security steps, none of those procedures would have prevented the attack.

There was no "smoking gun" in those failures that would have averted the suicide bombing, according to the report, scheduled to be released today. A copy was obtained by The Sun.

But the House report differed with a basic contention of a Pentagon commission that studied the bombing. That commission, appointed by then-Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and led by two retired four-star officers, echoed U.S. policy when it said in January that the deployment of U.S. ships and aircraft throughout the world is "in the nation's best interests."

Such a policy makes no distinction between safe ports and ports where terrorists might operate.

The House report concluded that such a policy "must be pursued cautiously in areas where the potential for terrorism is high."

"U.S. national security strategy called for engagement with Yemen," the House report noted, and its port of Aden provided an ideal refueling stop. "However, the desire for engagement with Yemen outpaced an understanding of the terrorist threat in that country, increasing the threat to U.S. military personnel."

The report will be sent to the Pentagon today, with an accompanying letter for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. It is unclear whether the House report, also endorsed by the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, will have any effect on policy.

The Bush administration has undertaken a widespread review of its national security strategy, and the Navy hopes to use Aden once again as a refueling stop.

Stump, the committee chairman, said the report could serve as the basis for legislation. Among its findings and recommendations:

Top U.S. commanders in the Persian Gulf region had a "peacetime mind-set" that might have led to a lax attitude "inappropriate to the actual threat in the region." All operations in the gulf region should now be conducted as if they are "combat operations."

There should be a heavier reliance on human intelligence - spies - to supply information on the gulf region. There was "clearly a shortage of intelligence information" regarding any specific attack on the USS Cole.

More personnel are needed to collect and analyze raw intelligence reports. And there must be a better process to convey intelligence to ship commanders.

Regular assessments should analyze the "vulnerability" of U.S. ships and aircraft in a region.

While it is safer to refuel at sea, the Navy lacks enough refueling vessels to support ships traveling alone, like the Cole. With reductions in naval forces and the need to maintain U.S. ships in the gulf, such single-ship trips will become more common. The Navy should thus develop alternative ways to refuel at sea.

The report found that the Navy's anti-terrorism efforts have focused on possible attacks aimed at onshore installations or ships at a pier. "In the case of the USS Cole, waterborne threats proved to be the Achilles' heel of the Navy's counterterrorism program," the report said.

Navy officials have already embarked on a greater effort to combat waterborne threats. An official said yesterday that $100 million has been set aside this year to buy "picket boats" and other defenses against possible attacks by small boats. In addition, agreements with some other nations will increasingly require the presence of similar patrol craft during visits by U.S. ships.

The Navy is also looking into other measures, such as barriers that can rim a ship, or high-tech sensors designed to detect a possible threat. Such equipment is likely to cost "hundreds of millions of dollars," the Navy official said.

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