Thursday, October 26, 2000

Senator: Intelligence expert
quit after warnings not heeded

By Sandra Jontz
Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — A top Pentagon terrorist intelligence expert who had warned of possible threats against U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf quit his job the day after the deadly attack on the USS Cole, a Senate Armed Services Committee lawmaker said Wednesday.

At a hearing that delved into the Oct. 12 attack on the Navy destroyer in the Yemeni port of Aden, which killed 17 sailors and wounded 39 others, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the official quit in protest because his superiors ignored warnings he had shared with them before the bombing.

During the hearing, lawmakers and military witnesses spoke cagily of the investigator’s letter detailing his warnings. The committee members sealed the letter and declined to identify him.

The investigator worked in the Defense Intelligence Agency’s office of counterterrorism analysis and reportedly testified recently for six hours before the Senate Intelligence Committee. That testimony was to be discussed Wednesday by the Senate Armed Services Committee in a closed session.

Roberts said the letter and additional reports, primarily from the State Department, seemed to provide "enough red flags to at least call into question the decision to stop in Aden to refuel."

But Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said the military had not received word of any specific threat before the attack.

Franks asserted the U.S. military’s commitment to remain in the Persian Gulf and said there would be no withdrawal of the more than 21,000 American troops serving there, despite additional reports of possible terrorist threats that have led the Pentagon to put some of its forces in the region on their highest state of alert.

"The U.S. Central Command will not back away from this mission," Franks said. "We will never reduce the risk to our people to zero, but we will reduce the risk to our people in every way we can."

The decision to put U.S. forces in Bahrain and Qatar on "Threatcon Delta" was made after intelligence officials gathered specific information about possible terrorist threats, though the credibility of that information was unknown, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said Tuesday.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., blasted Defense Department officials for first reporting that the Cole was attacked before it had been tethered to mooring buoys for refuleing, and then for failing to notify congress in a timely fashion of the error.

Shortly after the attack, the Pentagon said that the small boat packed with explosives that blew a hole in the ship’s hull was involved in the mooring process. But last Friday, officials revised that report and said the ship had already been docked for two hours and had been taking on fuel for 45 minutes, raising new questions about how the small boat was allowed to get so close without being challenged.

"Do you have any sense of the embarrassment felt by this committee?" Sessions demanded.

Walter Slocombe, undersecretary of defense for policy, took strong objection to Sessions’ attacks, saying officials relayed information as best they knew it, as soon as they knew it.

Investigators reviewed the Cole’s logs after crewmembers secured the vessel, helped recover the bodies of the dead and tended to the injured, he said.

"The business of finding out what happened properly waited until the situation was under control," Slocombe said.

He added that Pentagon officials did not learn until Friday of the error and reported the new information immediately.

The FBI, the Navy and the Defense Department are conducting three separate investigations the Cole attack, each with distinct goals, Slocombe said.

The FBI is working to find the perpetrators of the attack, while the Navy is reviewing the conduct of the crewmembers and leaders and ensuring that the chain of command worked properly. The Pentagon has formed an independent panel to undertake a broader "lessons learned" review of policies and procedures related to force protection and security issues for U.S. military forces.

Committee members wanted to know if the decision to use Aden as a refueling port was a political decision made to strengthen diplomatic ties with Yemen.

"The decision to use Aden was a solid military judgment, and I agree with that judgment," Franks said.

The decision was "strictly and solely a military decision," added Edward Walker Jr., assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. "We do not put diplomatic relations above the lives of our people."

Franks vowed to unearth all information possible.

"We’re determined to get to the bottom of this," he told Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va. "The events leading to the [attack on] the Cole are under a microscope."

The Cole, which still is in Yemeni waters, is in stable condition and "structurally sound," Franks said.

It will be loaded onto a Norwegian heavy-transport ship, the Blue Marlin, later this month and brought back to the United States for repairs. No dates or a final destination have been set.

The ship is operating on its own generators and communication has been fully restored, Franks said. Additional ships are in the area to provide security and support to the 216 sailors who remain on board.

The Navy has made 186 port stops in eight ports in the Middle East this year, although Franks acknowledged that less than 10 of the calls were made in countries with high threat levels.

Of the 25 counties in the region that fall under the Central Command’s jurisdiction, 19 of them have high threat levels, he said, and naval commanders review their force protection plans weekly.